Britain’s Got Talent

Friday, 03 February, 2012

I appeared on Britain's Got Talent recently, with a fellow science communicator called Terry Harvey-Chadwick. As Terry is new to the world of science communication, I offered to help him when he was invited to forgo the auditions and appear in the first round. 

Plenty of ‘bangs and mess’ was the brief from FremantleMedia, when they contacted scientist Terry Harvey-Chadwick to appear on Britain’s Got Talent. Terry, whose alter ego is ‘Professor Boffin’ agreed to develop a two-minute science show, with an emphasis on the word ‘show’. With only two minutes (or less if the buzzer sounded) there would be little opportunity for much communication, but probably enough time for hydrogen peroxide foam and some flames. With just a single day between getting the phone call and the auditions being held, Terry rose to the challenge, took some demonstrations from his fire-science presentation, and in only a few hours a fast-paced two-minute show was born. There was only one condition he was must include a Stick Bomb (lolly sticks under tension).

Over the 11-hour audition period Terry stood waiting, sometimes for hours, was moved from room to room to room, was interviewed by ITV, ITV2, Ant & Dec, Stephen Mulhern and of course the judges. Terry didn’t falter once, speaking passionately about science; what it is and how it affects us all. It was a shame that the one demo Terry had been told was mandatory (the Stick Bomb) didn’t travel well, having had to have been made the day before and didn’t explode as planned. But hey, that’s live science demos for you – and with a setup time of about 5 minutes, the luxury of quality preparation time that so many science communicators take for granted was absent.

Curiously, once Simon had delivered his devastating verdict for the camera, he softened. He said he liked the hydrogen peroxide demo and commented that children should be able to try experiments like that at home. David said he really liked Terry’s ‘look’.

Alesha’s response of “I don't particularly like science and I didn't like my science teacher in school” can probably be excused as rhetoric for the camera (remember, BGT is an entertainment show) but it still goes some way to reveal attitudes to science and scientists that are often prevalent, albeit on the decline.

With on-screen scientists like Professor Brian Cox successfully popularising science, perhaps this performance was the final nail-in-the-coffin for the white-coated stereotype Terry and I were asked to provide, and that many professional Science Communicators dislike. Although I doubt it. When Ant and Dec met Terry coming off stage, they too were dressed in white coats and with the addition frizzy hair wigs – life imitating scientists...or the other way around?

It is important to understand that science communication is a dialogue between the communicator and the audience. With a live audience, this is easy as you can discuss, interact and share the science. For television, the viewers at home usually have someone on screen they can relate to – maybe they are interviewed by the host (e.g. The Alan Titchmarsh Show) or maybe there's a crowd nearby (e.g. Stargazing Live) that can act as ‘audience by proxy’, giving the viewers at home a flavour of what it must be like to be there.
When science is used solely for entertainment, the rules are different.

When professional science communicators are invited to deliver presentations and workshops in schools or at engagement events, they will most likely be talking to a public with an interest in science and all it offers. This is an environment that entertains respectful debate and a fair exchange of views. You might get the odd challenging group of teenagers sometimes, but the professional scicommer can usually adapt their delivery, or be flexible in their running order to accommodate an audience.

When you are given only two minutes to perform in front of Simon Cowell, one of the country’s most influential people, you must be willing to leave your comfort zone. Terry did, and having only ever delivered a handful of presentations previously, he bravely took science into a new arena: mainstream entertainment.

Terry, what you did took guts, and I applaud you...

...but in future when they ring, I think you should insist on leaving the white coat behind.


Terry's site can be found here - he had some thoughts too -