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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 July, 2004, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
The Sky At Night's space generation
By Darryl Chamberlain
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Sir Patrick Moore in 1961
Sir Patrick Moore launched The Sky at Night in 1957
It is one of the world's longest-running TV shows, yet rarely manages to garner more than a glimmer of publicity. But Sir Patrick Moore's recent illness has thrust BBC One's monthly The Sky At Night into the spotlight.

Sir Patrick, 81, missed the programme he has presented continuously for the last 47 years on Sunday after being struck down with suspected food poisoning.

It is the first programme he has missed since the series began - although the highly-respected presenter is expected to be back for August's edition.

The BBC first commissioned the series in 1957, with senior producer Paul Johnstone choosing Moore, a well-known author of astronomy books, as his presenter.

Moore had been fascinated by astronomy from the age of six after picking up a book on the subject belonging to his mother.

Illness meant the young Patrick was taught at home for most of his childhood - and it was there he built up his knowledge of the skies.

By the age of 11, Moore was elected to the British Astronomical Association - 50 years later, he would become its president.

The series began before the "space age" - but the launch of the world's first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, saw interest in astronomy grow.

Since then, Moore has been on hand for events such as the first pictures of the dark side of the Moon in 1959, the Apollo Moon landings of 1969 and the UK's total solar eclipse in 1999.


Sputnik 1
Sputnik 1's launch helped give amateur astronomy a boost
Royal Astronomical Society spokesman Peter Bond told BBC News Online that The Sky at Night - together with its presenter - had inspired a generation of astronomers.

"Just about everybody who's involved with astronomy started out thanks to Patrick - he's a kind of figurehead for astronomy in this country," he said.

"I bought my first astronomy book in the 1950s and it was written by Patrick - I think The Sky At Night had just started at that time."

Currently, The Sky At Night attracts an average audience of just under half a million people - but has to contend with unpredictable scheduling, with some recent episodes banished to after 2am.

But, as Mr Bond explained, it was not always such a hidden part of the schedule.

"In the early days The Sky At Night was on a lot earlier - and drew a big audience. He became Mr Astronomy in the UK," says Mr Bond of Sir Patrick's growing fame.

Over the years - and as the space race got under way - Sir Patrick became a fixture of TV space coverage, as The Sky At Night covered the events which would lead to the Moon landings.

"If anybody wanted to find out more, he was the one to ask," he said.


For Mr Bond, one of the reasons for the programme's success is the range of topics featured - from headline-grabbing events like eclipses, to more specialised news, giving the show a high standing with scientists and astronomers.

"Patrick's also an excellent interviewer, he just asks the right questions," he said.

Sir Patrick Moore
Sir Patrick will return to The Sky at Night in September
Dr Robert Massey, senior astronomer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, grew up watching The Sky At Night himself.

"It has a very serious approach, but presents the topic in a way the viewer can understand," said Dr Massey.

Sir Patrick's engaging personality is also part of the show's appeal, he added.

"His eccentricities and humour are also very much what the show's about."

Three years ago, Sir Patrick was knighted. He also received two professional honours - Bafta recognised him for his services to television, and he was also made a member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Those who know him say Sir Patrick will be upset at missing an episode of the programme which made him a household name, and from which he has no plans to retire.

Producers are expecting him to be ready for August's programme after his expected release from hospital on Thursday.

But he can be certain that when the time does come for him to bow out, his successor will have a huge amount to thank him for - and a giant act to follow.

Sir Patrick hit by food poisoning
06 Jul 04 |  Entertainment


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