Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Sky at Night, The (1957-)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Sky at Night, The (1957-)
BBC/BBC1, 24/4/1957 -
Around 700 editions, black & white/colour
Producers includePaul Johnstone
 Patricia Owtram
 Patricia Wood
 Tony Broughton
 Pieter Morpurgo
 Ian Russell
 Jane Fletcher

Presenter: Patrick Moore

Show full cast and credits

A look at developments in the field of astronomy, from the latest research to what we can observe from our tiny part of the cosmos.

Show full synopsis

When not engaged in presenting adaptations of classical drama for the edification of their viewers, the BBC in the 1950s also felt it had an obligation to demystify the popular sciences. Frontiers of Science (1956-60) explored, among other subjects, the possibilities of space travel. Your Life in Their Hands (1958-64) examined the techniques of modern medicine (the inner space of hospital surgery). An unlikely though not entirely unexpected arrival into this formidable body of knowledge was a series about the science of celestial objects.

Star Map was the working title of an experimental astronomy programme conceived in April 1957 by BBC producer Paul Johnstone and amateur astronomer Patrick Moore, before it was renamed The Sky at Night. Fortuitously, it appeared some six months before the 'space age' was officially under way with the launch of the Soviet Union's first earth satellite, Sputnik 1 (in October 1957). Intended originally as a short-term filler, tucked away in the outer rim of the broadcast schedules (often going out around or after midnight), the programme has run once a month for over half a century without a break.

Despite its minority appeal, it remains a model of sober factual presentation, charting all manner of astronomical landmarks and technological breakthroughs, and represents a fine example of popular science at its best. While the series has amassed a loyal following over the decades, from schoolboys to professional astronomers, and regardless of its irregularity and lateness of hour, it is generally held that its greatest attraction has been its long-standing presenter.

Fronting the programme's simple presentation style is one of British television's most amiable eccentrics, Patrick Moore, an often-monocled, unkempt figure with a high-pitched, high-speed delivery. Stubbornly remaining an amateur, though one highly regarded in professional circles, he has done more than any other to popularise and explain the wonders of the universe to ordinary people.

Whether discussing spectroscopic binaries or deflecting cosmological speculation (will it crash into the earth? will there be little green men? was there a Big Bang?), Moore's breathless pace and infectious enthusiasm generated its own romance of the subject. His speciality was balancing knowledgeable talk with schoolboy eagerness when observing eclipses and comets or when interviewing celebrated figures like Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin or NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong. Befittingly, perhaps, he has become one of the longest-running personalities on British television.

Tise Vahimagi

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. The other side of the moon (1:00)
2. First televised total eclipse of the sun (3:40)
3. Unfortunate conditions (1:38)
Complete edition: 'Ten Years of Astronomy' (1967) (17:09)