Weekend’s TV – Happy Birthday OU: 40 Years of the Open University

Lenny Henry

Lenny Henry, looking rather sexy with a goatee, presented this light hearted and irreverent look back at the Open University which brought education to the great unwashed. It didn’t matter who you were, if you had the drive and commitment to study for a degree, the OU made it possible, and still does…

From prisoners to pensioners, the OU revolutionised learning, and did so via men and women who may or may not have just smoked a joint before recording their lectures which were aired in the bowels of the night. I recall well watching men with dreadful comb-overs and women with tight polo necks and checked skirts delivering knowledge late at night, aided/hampered by uncooperative props and appalling lighting.

So in this show, Lenny – a graduate of the OU himself – guided us through its history, right from its inception to present day, and it’s an interesting story that’s full of anecdotes and fond reminiscences. One of my favourites of those was when David Attenborough – who was controller of BBC2 donkey’s years ago – told Lenny how he met Jennie Lee, the Labour minister who doggedly pushed forward the idea of the OU…

“I think I only met Jennie Lee once, and then, really, I was there to be indoctrinated. I mean, she just sort of, sprayed herself over me, as it were.”

Perhaps after his many years of narrating the actions and behaviours of animals, Sir David’s store of adjectives is now limited, but it was amusing, as is the man himself.

Another very interesting story came from a man who’d previously been an armed robber and, while serving his sentence at her Majesty’s pleasure – which isn’t Madonna’s vibrator – he took an OU degree and now has a job advising the government on prison policy. He told Lenny how he’d been given extra momentum to complete his degree when he received high marks for his first piece of work…

“It was such a buzz! It was better than robbing banks.” Again, still not talking about Madonna’s vibrator…

Many similarly inspiring stories were heard and many famous faces made a contribution to the show, such as Anna Ford who’d been an OU lecturer before moving into the realms of TV when everyone was awake. But for years after her departure, she was still to be seen in OU programmes because funding for the lectures was tight, so the OU was forced to continue to re-broadcast the original lectures, right up until DVDs and the internet took over.

We heard how the OU’s summer schools were an integral part of life as an OU student and how boppers would quiz lecturers during discos, just to squeeze as much as they could out of having a real life tutor right there in front of them. We also heard how 7,000 sheep’s brains were posted out to students for conducting their own experiments. I wouldn’t have liked to have been that postman…

The whole show, though done with tongue in cheek, demonstrated how the OU has gone from being an institution that was the butt of a zillion jokes and whose graduates were not taken very seriously to being a major force in the world of accessible education. And, unlike the kipper tie wearing lecturers of yesteryear, it wasn’t at all boring to watch.

If you missed it, you can catch it here, on BBC iPlayer.

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.