Charlie Higson and Harry Hill: 'Let children experiment with explosives'

Writer and star of upcoming BBC1 show Professor Brainstawm speak out

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The Independent Online

Children should be encouraged to conduct explosive science experiments, free health and safety, the Young Bond novels writer and Fast Show creator Charlie Higson has argued.

A “neurotic” attitude towards children’s safety is restricting their natural curiosity, said Higson, who has adapted the Professor Brainstawm stories, about an eccentric inventor whose explosive experiments leave chaos in their wake, for a new BBC1 Christmas family drama.

Higson said: “We as parents are very neurotic about our kids and there’s a danger that creates in kids the idea that if you let them out of the house they’ll be kidnapped or harmed in some way. Whereas kids in this country today are safer than they have ever been.”

Harry Hill, who trained as a neurosurgeon and plays the Professor, said he hoped the drama, in which he defies an officious health and safety officer to demonstrate the excitement of madcap experiments to a young girl, will help boost interest in science among young people.

Hill, who revealed that he attempted to make his own explosives as a child, said: “When I was a child we had scientists like Dr Magnus Pyke and Prof Heinz Wolff and Patrick Moore. They were professional lunatics but they made science glamorous.

“The great thing about Professor Branestawm is he has the recklessness and carelessness of kids. Children know better than adults how to enjoy themselves.”

Referring to Dr Matt Taylor, the Rosetta mission space scientist who was forced to apologise for wearing an “offensive” shirt, Higson said: “For most people, science is so hard to understand these days so we fixate on the shirt instead.”

Higson said he sought to recreate the sense of “adventure and freedom” children enjoyed in a previous era in his Young Bond novels but added: “The professor is anarchic. I love that world where Harry was making his own explosives growing up but at the same time we don’t want to be setting fire to our children.”

A House of Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into school science lessons heard from teachers that “health and safety issues linked with the blame culture” were providing “a disincentive to do anything that might have a risk”.

But the committee found that teachers who lacked science qualifications often cited health and safety as a reason for caution, to cover a lack of confidence in their own ability to conduct experiments.

The Health and Safety Executive has condemned the “myth” that it is responsible for an effective ban on experiments in some school science classes. School bureaucrats, fearing lawsuits for any mishaps, are more often the cause, the executive insists.

Hill described how he masterminded his own gunpowder plot during his schooldays. “I formed Staplehurst Chemical Industries – that’s SCI – with two friends and we wanted to make gunpowder,” the comic actor said. “We could get charcoal and sulphur from a chemist but we couldn’t find potassium nitrate."

“Fortunately the auntie of one our members was a school teacher and she sent us a bottle through the post. We wanted to make smokebombs and little fireworks we could sell to the other kids in school. We made one commercially available firework called Venetian Spray, which we set in a catbox and lit the fuse,” said Hill.

Hill said his portrayal of Professor Branestawm was inspired by a blood pressure specialist he trained under. “He was completely obsessed with calcium channel blockers. He didn’t understand people outside of his own science world.”