Obituary: Magnus Pyke
Thursday 22 October 1992
IN THE MID-1970s a well-known children's comic depicted an underwater scene. Amidst the usual rusty tin-cans, broken bedsteads and boots with gaping toes, swam a rather eccentric fish. It sported spectacles and a moustache and its fins were flapping vigorously. 'What's your name?' asked a passing minnow. 'Magnus Pike of course,' came the reply.
As a joke it recovered in topicality what it lacked in subtlety, for at the time Magnus Pyke was at the height of his fame as a television scientist. Indeed, in September 1975, when New Scientist asked its readers to name the best-known and most characteristic scientist of all time, Pyke emerged top of the list of the living, trailing only Newton and Einstein.
Magnus Pyke came to public notice late in life, at the time, as he was fond of saying, 'when most men reach for their pipe and carpet-slippers'. After a career largely spent running an industrial research station in Scotland, he had retired to London in 1973 to become Secretary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
Until then, his broadcasting experience had been limited to radio talks on the Third Programme. These reflected his professional interest in food science and technology. The first, about entomophagy (eating insects), bore many of the hallmarks of the style which later endeared him to ITV viewers: a passionate love of the fundamental principles of science, a belief that no subject was so obscure that it could not be explained, and a wish to share with the world the enjoyment of weird names, theories and arcane historical facts. In this broadcast, as in almost all his others, Pyke really did have a mission to explain and he carried it out with a cunning deployment of erudition and humour: 'To think of Queen Ranavalona II keeping a band of women whose sole function was to collect insects so that the royal table at Tananariva should never run short seemed to me so bizarre a sidelight on nutrition that the British public should be informed on the matter.' In another talk, he launched a learned attack on the belief that chlorophyll could suppress smells with a doggerel couplet:
The goat that reeks on yonder hill
Has browsed all day on chlorophyll.
But it was on television that Magnus Pyke really came into his own. His first appearance, in a Yorkshire Television documentary about artificial substitutes for meat, so captivated the producers that his ebullient contribution became the centrepiece of the programme. It was hastily renamed Magnus and the Beansteak. The intellectual qualities which had distinguished his radio talks were there in full measure, but they were put in the shade by the way he presented his thoughts. Tall, stooping, white-haired, arms flailing as he punched home a point or searched for the clearest explanation, his eyes screwed up in concentration, here was the perfect television scientist.
Soon afterwards, when Yorkshire was looking for presenters for a peak-time science programme, Pyke was an obvious choice and, with Miriam Stoppard and David Bellamy, he made Don't Ask Me the most popular science series in the history of British television. Viewers took to him at once. They loved his eccentricity and imitated his gestures, but they respected his learning. Indeed, judging from the letters that poured into Yorkshire's Science Office, many of them seemed to believe that he was the fountain of all knowledge.
Yet there was no artifice in Pyke's performances. He seemed eccentric because, as he said himself, he was too old to feel self-conscious. He screwed up his eyes because he was too shortsighted to read an autocue and often found it difficult to remember his lines. From an early age, his windmilling arms had been propelled by his zeal to explain his ideas. Despite the weekly mayhem of the Don't Ask Me studio, where wild animals regularly misbehaved and huge pieces of scientific apparatus went awry, like all the best television performers Magnus Pyke succeeded by being himself. The on-screen Magnus was exactly the same as the man who, for the rest of the week, 'stirred the great pot' of the British Association at its imposing headquarters in the West End of London, received Honorary Degrees (from Stirling, Lancaster and McGill Universities) and presided over the deliberations of the Institute of Food Science and Technology of the United Kingdom.
He never ceased to marvel at the fame that Don't Ask Me and its successor Don't Just Sit There brought him between 1974 and 1980. He was awarded the Pye Colour Television Award as the most promising male newcomer to television in 1975, lectured throughout the world, became a panellist on Any Questions and a castaway on Desert Island Discs, where he was persuaded, with difficulty, to accept pens, ink and paper as his luxury instead of his first choice of soft crepe lavatory paper. Advertisers besieged him with requests to explain the virtues of their products, but, always conscious of the need for a communicator of science to preserve his dignity, he resisted their blandishments, as he did an invitation to appear in a pantomime.
Magnus Pyke always called this period of celebrity his 'Sixth life'.
The First began in prosperous circumstances in west London. The Second saw him at St Paul's School, which 'induced no special love of science in my bosom'. He then, briefly, took a job with an insurance company. Tiring of this, he embarked upon his Third life by emigrating to Canada aboard 'the good ship Montcalm', spending the summer working as a farm labourer and the winter studying at McGill University. A book based on his experiences sold only 306 copies before the publisher went out of business, but the farmwork had awakened his interest in agriculture and food production and he became a research scientist after graduating in 1933.
The proudest achievement of his Fourth life was the publication, in 1945, of The Manual of Nutrition, a standard work which grew out of his wartime researches at the Ministry of Food. Later, he was wont to remind busy television production staff to eat properly. 'A sandwich,' he always said, 'does not constitute a meal. But if you add an apple it does.' His Fifth life was spent working for the Distillers Company in Scotland and bringing up a family with his wife Dorothea, who was a successful accountant.
For any other retired manager of a Clackmannanshire research station, Don't Ask Me might have come as a shock, but Magnus plunged into the chaos of the recording days with enthusiasm. The format was a simple one but its translation into a television programme was nerveracking to performers and producers alike. A studio audience asked questions about physics, medicine, zoology and botany. Pyke and his colleagues gave their answers through elaborate demonstrations. Thus, when he was asked why the water always swirled out of the bath in a particular direction, Pyke found himself unplugging a perspex bath in the studio, introducing a film shot in a bathroom on the Equator and telephoning experts in Australia and Watertown, New York, about the Coriolis forces which govern the phenomenon.
In one experiment, he persuaded viewers of Don't Just Sit There to rush out into the rain to monitor the progress of a storm by collecting drops on absorbent lavatory paper. This led to the publication of a treatise in the scientific journal Weather. His main concern, however, was to convey the fundamental principles of physics, and he saw no harm in doing so in an entertaining way.
For this, he was prepared to endure rigorous recording days, rising at six o'clock in the morning for the journey from London. On arrival at Yorkshire Television in Leeds, he would go at once to the canteen, where, after a lively interrogation of researchers and producer, he would map out his demonstrations in microscopic handwriting on tiny scraps of paper. Afternoon rehearsals were spent wrestling with words and apparatus and the time between his appearances during the recording in the evening sleeping on a chair he made sure was always ready for him behind the set. He also took refuge there on a notable occasion when a huge python called Monty ran amok. The reaction of both audience and viewers always astonished him. 'I'm just a mediocre scientist,' he used to say, but he had a genius for communication.
Magnus began his Seventh Life when Don't Just Sit There ended in 1980. This time he did retire: he had left the British Association three years earlier and in 1978 was appointed OBE. At home in Hammersmith he nursed his wife during her last illness and survived a savage attack from a thief who broke into his house.
I last worked with him in 1986 on a programme to mark the return of Halley's Comet. The old sparkle was still there, although he was frail. During filming, we stopped at a pub in Blackheath for lunch. As we walked in, the busy bar fell silent. Then, from all sides, the questions came. 'Quite astonishing,' said Magnus. 'They still seem to want to know about science.' And once again his glass of restorative whisky had to wait while, to an enthralled audience, he expounded the mysteries of the science he loved.
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