Oration for Maggie Philbin

Written and delivered by Dr Paul Jenkins, 25 January 2018

Maggie Philbin was born in Manchester but grew up in Leicester where the family relocated when her father got a new job here.  She attended Evington Hall Convent School on Spencefield Lane.  Her early memories are of an English teacher who believed in her ability, a French teacher who took her to one side and said she might surprise herself if she put a bit of effort into actually learning the vocabulary before exams and a Physics teacher who cried when she did not take A level in Physics (mainly Maggie says, because she’d already bought the textbooks)

Maggie took A levels in English, History, French and German .

Maggie took a year out before going to University working first of all in the Admissions office of the University of Leicester, and she apologisises to any parents in the audience who applied for admission in 1974 who were casualities of her erratic filing.   Next she worked in the Haymarket theatre first as an usherette and then as part of the lighting team. Lastly she spent time as a researcher at Radio Leicester working with Susie Hillman and Ron Coles. She was inspired by these experiences and she applied to Manchester University to do a 4 year course in English and Drama.  Her fellow students on the course included Ben Elton and Rick Mayal as well as a host of others who went on to be famous in broadcasting and the theatre.

Well graduation loomed, and like you today Maggie had to face the question, ‘What do I do now.’  In the middle of her finals a newspaper advertisement caught her eye. ‘Do you want to be a top TV personality.’    Maggie lost no time in writing a tongue in cheek piece on why she was clearly well suited to becoming a top TV personality.  The faith that her English teacher had in her was clearly well justified and she got the job presenting the 3 hour long live TV programme ‘The Multicoloured Swap Shop.’  This was a family show which introduced children to new experiences in an entertaining way.  Maggie learnt a huge amount from the team which included Noel Edmonds, then at the top of his game, Keith Chegwin and John Craven.  Rosemary Gill was the editor who had developed the ground breaking concept of Saturday Morning TV and who inspired Maggie with the breadth of her knowledge of all sorts of subjects. Maggie’s daughter is named after her.

At this time Maggie and the team formed a band called ‘Brown Sauce’ as a ‘send –up ‘of ‘Top of the Pops.’ Much to their surprise, their record climbed the charts, and in 1981 they appeared on Top of the Pops with a No 15 hit called, “I Wanna be a Winner.”

After 4 years at Swap Shop, Maggie was head hunted by the team at Tomorrow’s World, a prime time TV programme which showcased new inventions in science and technology.  At first Maggie was apprehensive about a move to a tightly scripted programme after four years of complete freedom on Saturday mornings.  As the job offer came the day before  her wedding she bought herself time by asking if she could have 3 weeks to think about it while she was on honey moon!  Well Maggie accepted the Tomorrow’s World job and the rest is history as it were.

Maggie’s first job on Swap Shop was mainly ad lib directed at parents and children.  Tomorrow’s World was totally different.  Weeks of research and days of scripting and re-scripting were needed to perfect a 3 minute item for the programme.   Maggie’s concerns about not having a scientific degree evaporated as she realised that her natural curiosity led her to ask questions others didn’t,  helping her get to the heart of complex new inventions.  In fact when the programme producers were faced with an over-complicated explanation they would say that the item needed to be ‘Maggified’ to make it meaningful  to the viewers who regularly watched Tomorrows World.

Live demonstrations of new inventions were a major feature of the programme, however they often failed to follow the script!  Maggie said she learnt to dread anything with voice activated technology.  The first demonstration of a voice activated mobile phone came to a complete standstill, when the pitch level of her voice changed due to the excitement of the live show. Maggie handled a broad range of technology, from wrangling with hovercrafts in the BBC car park to demonstrating the very first digital camera – which she somehow managed to do despite the fact that the camera itself had been confiscated by Tokyo customs! In fact the viewers liked it when things went wrong and Maggie and her colleagues had to ad lib their way out of trouble in front of ten million viewers!

After 8 years on Tomorrow’s World, Maggie moved on to a wide range of other TV shows including ‘Bang Goes the Theory.’  She has in fact, demonstrated that she is indeed a ‘Top TV Personality,’ as the advertisement for her first job had suggested.

At present Maggie leads ‘Teen Tech’ a company she co-founded to promote widening participation in science and engineering especially encouraging girls to take up technical subjects.  In 2014 Maggie’s work was recognised when she was elected president of the Institution

of Engineering Designers and patron of the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing.   In 2016 ‘Computer Weekly,’ named her the most influential women of the year in UK Information Technology and she was also awarded Digital Leader of the Year.  She has honorary degrees from several Universities and in 2017 Maggie was awarded an OBE for services promoting careers in the STEM and creative industries.

Mr Chancellor on the recommendation of the Senate and Council I present Margaret Elizabeth Philbin, so that you may confer upon her the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science.

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