As the seconds tick down to the launch of The Sky at Night, Patrick Moore remembers the rather rocky road to transmission…
The simplest version of this review is: listen to this wonderful play now. It’s not science fiction, but it does deal with at least two famous authors in the field – Moore himself, and Arthur C. Clarke – and it covers a very important period in British TV. (There’s also a fantastical element to the storytelling, which I won’t spoil but which also justifies its inclusion on this site!)
While it’s very definitely a tribute to Moore, it’s not a hagiography: Moore is presented in all his eccentric glory, and the tone of the piece is set by a caution that Tom Hollander gives in character as the astronomer at the start of the play. You can see how he got up the noses of some of his peers (Anton Lesser’s Dr Henry King being the most vocal, but I’m sure not the only one), and his tendency to self-pity isn’t hidden – although that does lead to one of the many laugh-aloud lines in the play, when he thinks he may need to be shot twice. The opposition to an “amateur” fronting a science programme at the BBC is well-dramatized, and producer Paul Johnstone comes out of this a hero for having the foresight to understand how Moore could be a conduit between the scientists and their jargon and the public – although even he couldn’t have guessed on the serendipity of two astronomical events occurring at precisely the right time, one natural, one man-made.
Tom Hollander is simply excellent as Moore – if director Dirk Maggs has slipped any of the real footage from The Sky at Night into the programme, then it’s impossible to tell the difference – and he’s supported by a strong cast. The period details feel authentic and there’s even some of Moore’s own music incorporated into the soundtrack.
Verdict: One of my favourite pieces of drama to date this year: a wonderful combination of comedy, history and personal tragedy. 10/10