End of a great British institution: A fond farewell to 'Televarsity'

Tomorrow before dawn, The Open University will broadcast its very last television programme. Students will now rely on DVDs and the internet. DJ Taylor bids a sad adieu
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I have three enduring memories of Seventies television. One is of a Rada-voiced exquisite named "Miss Rosalind", helmswoman of an Anglia children's programme called Romperoom, primly announcing that if she looked in the square window she could see Marjorie and Timothy and, in a final Orwellian flourish: "I can see you."

The second is of sitting, with increasingly exasperated indifference, through the early evening preliminaries of Tomorrow's World so that Top of the Pops, the real business of any teenage boy's Thursday night, could get under way.

The third, from later on in adolescence, is of switching on BBC2 in search of some small-hours art-house extravaganza, and instead of chancing upon - say - Marianne Faithfull in Girl on a Motorcycle, being stopped in one's tracks by the presence of a man with a beard, pointer in hand, earnestly intoning over a sepia representation of Monet's Waterlilies. Late night comedy? A trade test transmission from the Eastern Bloc? No, the Open University broadcasts in all their low-budget glory and one of the queerest spectacles in recent media history.

Of the three, it was Professor X, reader in particle physics at the University of Keele who, oddly enough, proved the most durable.

Miss Rosalind faded gently into the grey Norfolk twilight, Top of the Pops succumbed feebly to the pressure of downloads and collapsing audiences, but the OU frontmen, with their fixed smiles, their glassy eyes fixed manically on the autocue, lasted for more than three-and-a-half decades.

Tomorrow morning, at the unearthly hour of 5.30am, will see their final performance, and the end of a tradition that - as with many a rare native survival - seems somehow greater than the sum of its parts, not merely the sight of a Renaissance art historian grimly intoning to his unseen audience, but something integral to the way in which one kind of old-style national life used to be conducted.

The Open University, whose public farewell this is, has some claims to the title of most fruitful 1960s innovation: nothing else from that doubtful era has lasted so long or made such a consistent impact on the national consciousness.

Although frequently hailed - not least by himself - as the exclusive brainchild of the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, its roots lie deep in the early decade excitement over the ripe promise of newfangled technology.

As far back as 1961 The Economist was canvassing the advantages of something called "Televarsity" which, it was proposed, would revolutionise Britain's standing in the world.

Not everyone was enthusiastic: in some quarters subsidised, non-hierarchical, off-campus learning was seen as a dangerous Lefty Trojan Horse, primed to subvert traditional academic authority.

"Just the sort of cosy scheme that shows the Socialists at their most endearing but impractical worst," sniffed the Times Educational Supplement at around the time of the 1966 World Cup.

But Wilson was keen - much keener than his languid secretary of state, Tony Crosland. The student demographic colonised areas not usually associated with higher education and, rather to everyone's surprise, it worked. The verdict of the historian Dominic Sandbrook in his recent study White Heat is that: "It was not merely Wilson's proudest achievement; it was one of the most popular and successful legacies of the Sixties."

The supporting TV programmes, on the other hand, were rudimentary in the extreme - sometimes nothing more than a presenter, a blackboard and an autocue - but somehow fitting in with the early Seventies BBC2 image of late-night austerity and shoe-string funding (for purposes of comparison, The Old Grey Whistle Test was filmed in conditions of spartan simplicity, without even the benefit of a live audience.) The budget hovered at £600 a programme. Given the prohibitive cost of studio time, long takes were encouraged and mistakes sardonically deplored.

Frequently, apprentice broadcasters, chalk-stubs nervously to hand, movements sternly circumscribed by the positioning marks daubed on the floor, would talk for 10 minutes at a time.

There were occasional forays into the mainstream - 1996's showcase The Chemistry of Almost Everything went out at prime-time - but in general the result was not only extremely odd, but also - and even if you had no knowledge of the subject under discussion - curiously beguiling: a quaint, sequestered little world, some way beyond the margins of ordinary life with its own protocols, ordinances and hugely specialised etiquette.

And now that world is disappearing: not vanished entirely - the talk is of DVDs and podcasts, which students can download on to their computers - but gone underground, far away from even the most vestigial public gaze.

As generally happens, when superior technology makes its presence felt, something more or less communal has been replaced by something narrowly individual.

Dr Sally Crompton, the head of the OU's Open Broadcasting Unit, sounded practically mournful in her analysis of the community that all this had nudged into being: former students, bug-eyed insomniacs, jobless night-hawks, returning clubbers, all responding in different ways: "They either took notes, stared at the eerie glow, mocked the presenters, or were strangely drawn into a world of literature, art, physics, maths or science."

Naturally, in a world gone hi-tech, with a host of more convenient routes to bring teaching materials to students, this kind of thing could not be indefinitely sustained. All the same, there is a dreadful symbolism in the thought of Professor X, with his defiantly unfashionable tie and his unruly facial hair, now confined to the twilight world of the podcast and the bespoke DVD.

On one level it takes away from us a kind of murmur from the margins of the world, a bizarre foreign language, almost, whispering along in the background to life, always there if you wanted it, readily ignorable if you did not, and an instant conduit to the hugely enticing landscapes of the mind. On another, it severs at a stroke the last remaining formal connection between mainstream television and the world of "learning".

Like Tony Blair's Government, television isn't in the least interested in the idea of education for its own sake, in the thought that "study" might have any value beyond an employment option or the lure of the up-market lifestyle choice.

One can see this in the terrific degeneration of television's historico-cultural offerings over the past three-and-a-half decades (incidentally the life-span of the OU Broadcasting Unit). Thirty-five years ago we had A J P Taylor delivering precisely timed noteless 28-minute lecturettes direct to camera about the origins of the Second World War; now we have David Starkey preening himself under the arc lights. It is the difference between Kenneth Clark's Civilisation and Alan Yentob dashing around the art capitals of Europe.

But the end of the OU television broadcasts also advertises another symbolic retreat: what might be called the end of the working-class autodidact.

The tradition of ordinary people taking steps to inform and educate themselves beyond the hierarchies of formal education is a very ancient one. Late-Victorian novels, for example, are full of working men who, by way of access to free library cards or sheer tenacity of spirit, have contrived to widen their mental horizons.

Think of Jude in Hardy's Jude The Obscure, forcing himself through the Greek Testament in his aunt's back bedroom; and Gilbert Grail, the self-taught labourer in Gissing's slum novel Thyrza. The literary tourists who journeyed north in the 1930s to write "condition of England" travelogues went expecting degradation and ignorance. These they duly found, but alongside them came coal-miners who could quote Marx and mill-hands who read Dickens at the rate of a volume a week - a great submerged community, quite beyond the reach of conventional authority, but built on the life of the mind and the thought that human existence reaches its highest peak out beyond the troughs of bread and circuses.

"People must be entertained" Mr Sleary famously remarks in Hard Times, but people must be educated too, and occasionally they want to do the educating themselves. No doubt about it, Jude Fawley's spiritual heir, home from the late shift at the tie factory and sitting in the front room of his grandmother's Callaghan-era council house, would have been a regular OU watcher.

But there are no more Jude Fawleys. They all got jobs for software firms and discovered that "learning" didn't pay.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us, the end of the OU transmissions marks another little jerk upon the thread of that lost Seventies life, another of those fixed and irrevocable landmarks from the past suddenly shown to be all too susceptible to hastening time.

Nostalgia for the television browsing of one's youth is a fatal habit, of course, but somehow the end of Professor X of the University of Keele finds all kinds of other ghosts clamouring at the door to be admitted - everything from pudding basin haircuts to my grandparents' faces seen across the dinner table and the tiered stacks of Norwich Central Library before the fire burned it down, a whole lost world just waiting to be reclaimed.

'The lecturers were bearded and wore small tweed jackets'

Alan Geary, 61, of Nottingham, studied at the OU from 1974-77. He was a secondary school teacher for 26 years and for the past 11 years has worked as a freelance theatre critic for the Nottingham Evening Post.

"The premise behind the OU was that it would enable working class people to better themselves. But actually it was mainly professional people who had signed on. Very few people went to university then. They would get their professional qualifications and go straight to work.

"If a genuine working class person signed up, they'd end up on the front cover of the OU magazine, they were that rare. There were these stories about bored housewives who were studying and were on the prowl, so to speak, but we could never find any when we went to summer schools.

"I started studying at the OU in 1974 and finished my degree in 1978. About two thirds of OU students were teachers in those days. A teaching certificate would get you a job, but a degree would give you a better chance of promotion. That was the main reason for doing it, but of course it was also about broadening one's mind.

"There were no videos then, so you had to get up at 4am to watch the programmes. They looked slightly dated even then - the lecturers were usually bearded and always seemed to be wearing a small tweed jacket. And there was that distinctive signature tune. They didn't update them but went on using the same programmes until the course was changed."

'He had this trail of goslings following him around'

Dr Iris Keating, 53, has recently retired from her post as Principal Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. She studied at the OU for her BA in the late 1970s, achieved her PhD in 2005 and was awarded an honorary MA in June. She teaches one of the Open University's MA programmes.

"It's the end of the shirts with the rounded collars and the flared trousers, isn't it? It just won't be the same. You'd drag yourself out of bed and you'd be trying to take in these esoteric discussions thinking, 'I just want another coffee!' But they were superb and were watched by a lot of people who weren't even doing the courses. I remember one where the lecturer was trying to demonstrate how newly hatched birds would attach themselves to the first living thing they saw. He had this trail of goslings following him around an airfield - I think it was the most watched OU programme of the decade. I do feel nostalgic for them, but when you see the technology available now it's inevitable really. I had a teaching certificate and was working in a nursery school. I remember looking around one day and thinking - everyone has got a degree except me. I need one of those. The OU changed people's lives - it's not the university of the last chance, it's the university of the only chance for a lot of people. Yes, there were a lot of professionals, but by the 1980s things changed and the student population became much more disparate, catering for the people for whom it was set up for in the first place."