Horizon is the most successful and most enduring science television series ever, anywhere in the world. It has been running on BBC2 since the early 1960s, and still produces 18 films a year. I cut 16 films for the strand between 1992 and 2008.
How Mad are You? The trauma and taboo of mental illness is examined in a very unusual – for Horizon – reality format. Ten volunteers are brought to Hever Castle in Kent and subjected to tests and activities. Five of these volunteers have had a diagnosed mental condition. Three eminent mental health professionals have to decide who is who based on how the volunteers perform in the tests. Directed and produced by Rob Liddell. Executive Producer: Andrew Cohen.
Memory Not a ‘How can I remember things better’ film, but a look at how our memory shapes us and makes us who we are. ‘Memory’ features an extraordinary Canadian experiment showing how memories can be altered, shows the importance of the Hippocampus through sequences with XXX who was born without one and a touching interview with a man suffering from Altzheimer’s disease. Shortlisted for the 2008 Grierson Awards.
Directed and produced by Annabel Gillings. Executive Producer: Andrew Cohen.
How to Live to 100 Without Appearing to Try This film – self-shot by Naomi Austin – was a trip round the globe asking the question: why do some communities produce so many centenarians? And why are there others where people just die young? The film reveals some of the obvious reasons why. But it also shows that its not all down to diet and genes. One memorable sequence reveals that the cause of low life expectancy in Glasgow is nothing to do with booze, fags and fried Mars Bars, but the body’s own immune system. Directed and produced by Naomi Austin. Executive Producer: Andrew Cohen.
The Lost City of New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans over 1000 people died and vast tracts of the city were destroyed. But the reason why this occurred wasn’t just down to storm force winds and flooding. The relentless destruction of the environment and a naive belief in Man’s ability to control nature also played a part. Producer Milla Harrison went out to The Big Easy a week after the hurricane hit and captured amazing footage of the engineers and inhabitants coming to terms with what had happened to their city. Directed and Produced by Milla Harrison. Executive Producer: Andrew Cohen.
Dr. Huang. Dr. xxx Huang is a Chinese doctor who claims to be able to cure patients of degenerative illnesses such as Motor Neurone Disease. He does this by taking stem cells from [CHECK] and injecting them into the patient’s brain. This observational film follows the journey of one sufferer, former fireman XXX, and his family as they travel to Bejiing in the hope of being able to prolong his life. At the Xishan Hospital, near Beijing, a remarkable medical pilgrimage is taking place. The sick and the dying are travelling here for a treatment pioneered by Dr Huang Hongyun. He claims he can restore functions that Western doctors said were lost forever.
He uses a technique that would be banned in the West, by taking cells from aborted foetuses and injecting them into the brains and spines of patients with spinal injuries and disease. Despite there being no clear clinical evidence that his methods work, hundreds of patients from all over the Western world are travelling to Dr Huang’s clinic in search of a miracle.
In the last four years he has treated over 700 patients and his waiting list now stretches to the end of 2006. His treatment is based on groundbreaking research pioneered in the UK but some claim Dr Huang is racing ahead too quickly. Scientists and neurosurgeons point to a large gap in the provision of any clinical evidence or empirical data to back up his claims. They believe that Dr Huang is forging ahead without fully calculating the potential risks to his patients.
For Vic Washby and his wife Katrina, Dr Huang is their only chance. Vic was diagnosed with motor neuron disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2002. ALS is a progressive muscle wasting disease which attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. There is no cure or effective treatment and half of all people diagnosed with ALS die within 14 months. His journey to the Xishan Hospital could be his only chance of getting out of his wheelchair and walking again.
Vic is pinning his hopes on a dream that Dr Huang has been chasing for the last 20 years. Like many scientists around the world he has been searching for a way to repair the brain and spinal cord after injury and disease. The brutal truth is that once damaged the human nervous system cannot repair itself.
But one discovery has offered a glimmer of hope. Professor Geoffrey Raisman at the Institute of Neurology has spent the last 30 years investigating a single cell which has a remarkable property. The olfactory ensheathing cell has a unique ability to re-grow. Because of this extraordinary property, Prof Raisman believes that these cells can be used to repair spinal cord injuries.
Over the last few years, Dr Huang has applied this research by implanting olfactory ensheathing cells taken from aborted foetuses into patients with spinal cord injuries and with conditions such as MS, Parkinson’s, strokes and ALS. While Prof Raisman recognises the scientific basis of Dr Huang’s work and the potential of the cell, he believes that Dr Huang has not provided enough scientific evidence to prove his treatment is working.
While Western doctors and scientists argue about the efficacy of Dr Huang’s procedure, Vic Washby and patients like him are taking the decision to travel to China for surgery into their own hands. This extraordinary international community of patients all share the bond of being medical pioneers, some even call themselves human guinea pigs. For many this is their only hope to staying alive.
Producer-Directors: Laura Fairie & Milla Harrison. Executive Producer: Andrew Cohen. Guardian Films for BBC2
Designer Babies. Another perennial Horizon favourite, this film looks at how science is helping prospective parents to choose and determine various aspects of their progeny’s make-up.
Directed and produced by: Nicola Smith. Executive Producer: Matthew Barrett
Dr. Money and the Boy with No Penis. The tragic tale of David Reimer whose life was turned on its head following a circumcision that went wrong when he was a baby. On the advice of an eminent psychologist Dr. John Money, his parents then raised him as a girl, with strict instructions that he must never be told. This film features dramatized sequences illustrating stages in David’s life, and an incredibly powerful interview with David himself, filmed before his tragic suicide.
Directed and produced by: Sanjida O’Connell. Executive Producer: Matthew Barrett
The Demonic Ape. This film looks at the life of Frodo, a Chimpanzee who grew up in Jane Goodall’s wildlife reserve in Tanzania. Against every expectation, Frodo attacked and killed a woman walking through the forest. This cast into doubt everything we thought we knew about Chimpanzee behaviour. Featuring an interview with Jane Goodall herself, and unique archive footage, the film asks if apes can offer a window into the human soul.
Directed and produced by: Sanjida O’Connell. Executive Producer: Matthew Barrett
Earthquake Storms. In 1999, a terrible earthquake destroyed the city of Izmit in Turkey. 25,000 people were killed and many more injured and left homeless. A team of scientists think that they have found a way of predicting where an earthquake might strike next. Unfortunately, as the film reveals, they believe that it will be Istanbul, home to over 12 million people.
Producer-Directorss: Nick Green and Sue Learoyd. Executive Producer: Matthew Barrett
The England Patient. In October 2000, England lost 1-0 to Germany in the last football match to be played at the old Wembley Stadium. The defeat was so overwhelming that the manager, Kevin Keegan, resigned. In his place, the FA hired the Swede, Sven-Goran Ericsson, who brought with him a whole new approach to football management. This film looked at how these new techniques worked, and featured an interview with psychologist Willi Reillo, Erricson’s long term collaborator, and Ericcson himself.
Director: Johanna Gibbon. Producer: Adam Bullmore. Executive Producer: Matthew Barrett. October Films for BBC2
Snowball Earth. In trying to explain a mysterious layer of calcium carbonate in rocks in Namibia, two US geologists came to a rather dramatic conclusion; that the earth was once frozen from pole to pole. The film explains their theories and suggests that if true, it could explain the so-called Cambrian Explosion, where life on Earth suddenly started to diversify. There is a controversial theory that for millions of years the Earth was entirely smothered in ice, up to one kilometre thick. The temperature hovers around -40ºC everywhere, even in the tropics and the equator. If it did, then virtually nothing could survive this ferocious climate. There are some tantalising geological clues that show this theory may be true but the problem is, the clues and the Snowball Earth theory defy the laws of nature.
For over fifty years a group of scientists has been trying to prove this incredible period of Earth history. Struggling against scepticism and disbelief, now finally the many mysteries have been solved and the scientific community is slowly coming around to the extraordinary idea not just of the dramatic freeze, but of an equally dramatic thaw. Scientists across the world are starting to believe that in the past the Earth froze over completely for ten million years… then warmed up rapidly about 600 million years ago. Almost all life was wiped out. But out of the freeze emerged the first complex creatures on Earth. Scientists now believe that the so-called Snowball Earth theory could hold the key to the evolution of complex life on this planet.
The discovery of this theory is a classic scientific detective story. For decades there had been a growing ‘X-File’ of geological anomalies haunting the scientific community. Tell-tale signs of past glaciation have been found in places that should have been much too hot – very near the equator. Even during the most severe ice age, scientists believed that the ice only reached as far down as Northern Europe and the middle of the USA. So what could these tropical deposits mean?
Back in the 1960s one of the first climate modellers, Mikhail Budyko, stumbled on an ingenious answer. Through some simple mathematical formulae, he calculated that if the polar ice caps had spread past a crucial point, a runaway freezing process would have followed, eventually freezing over the whole of the planet. The idea fascinated scientists, but no one thought his runaway glaciation was anything more than a theoretical result. Surely it had never actually happened on planet Earth?
The idea foundered because according to the model, once the Earth was frozen there was no way out – the Earth would remain frozen forever. The big freeze would wipe out all life; we would not exist today. It seemed patently absurd. But then came a series of insights and inspirations from a geologist in California, Joe Kirschvink, who came up with a brilliant solution – that volcanoes, protruding above the frozen landscape, would have carried on pumping out carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas, even though the world had entered the deep freeze. On Snowball Earth there was no rain to wash this carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Instead it would have built up to higher and higher concentrations – until eventually it sparked off not just global warming but global meltdown.
From the baking landscape of Africa to ice-covered Antarctica, Horizon follows the tale of a theory which, if true, would have huge implications. Because scientists now believe this cycle of freezing and frying may have created the unique conditions needed for the evolution of complex life, including our own.
Directed and produced by: Chris Durlacher. Executive Producer: Bettina Lerner.
The Planet Hunters. In a popular topic for Horizon, the film follows the hunt for extra-solar planets round distant stars. Against stiff competition, a small team from Edinburgh University leads the field against the big players in the US.
Director-Producers: Nick Green & Jacqueline Smith. Executive Producer: Bettina Lerner
Dinosaurs in your Garden. In the 1960s, an American scientist, John Osman [CHECK] came to the radical conclusion that birds might be descended from Dinosaurs. The film illustrates and explain his theories – now popularized in Jurassic Park – and includes a memorable sequence showing how scientists can trigger the growth of teeth in chicken embryos. Literally hen’s teeth!
Directed and produced by: Andrew Thompson. Executive Producer: John Lynch.
Gulf War Jigsaw. The claims and cover-ups of Gulf-War syndrome.
Directed and produced by: Debbie Cadbury. Executive Producer: John Lynch
Out of Asia 50 minutes on the origins of modern Australians
Directed and produced by: Chris Hale / Prod: John Lynch
The Terracotta Time Machine. A look at The Natural History Museum.
Directed by: Chris Hale. Producer: Patrick Uden. Executive Producer: Jana Bennet. Uden Associates for BBC2