Science writer and ‘Blue Peter’ editor honoured

Posted by pt91 at Jan 16, 2012 12:35 PM |
Biddy Baxter and Nigel Henbest to receive Honorary Degrees from the University of Leicester

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 16 January 2012

Photographs of honorands available from pt91@le.ac.uk

The producer of BBC Television’s ‘Blue Peter’ for many years and an internationally acclaimed writer on astronomy and space and are to receive Honorary Degrees from the University of Leicester on Friday 27th January 2012 at De Montfort Hall.

Joan Maureen (Biddy) Baxter MBE, the producer and editor who turned the BBC children’s programme ‘Blue Peter’ into the success it has been for the past five decades, was born in Leicester and educated at what was then the Wyggeston Girls’ Grammar School.

Following a degree at St Mary’s College, Durham, Biddy Baxter began her BBC career in 1955 as a radio trainee studio manager.   In 1962 she became producer of ‘Blue Peter’ and, with Director Edward Barnes, she began the process that was to transform the programme into a national institution.  In 1965 she became Programme Editor and was honoured with an MBE in 1981.

Nigel Henbest is well-known worldwide for his books, articles and award-winning television productions popularising astronomy and space.  

A graduate of the University of Leicester, where he studied astrophysics, he went on to research radio astronomy at Cambridge.

Nigel Henbest was co-founder of the television production company Pioneer Productions, with screen credits on BBC Television, Channel 4, the Learning and Discovery Channels, as well as in the US and Australia.

With Heather Couper – a fellow University of Leicester graduate and Honorary Graduate - he writes a regular column for The Independent and also writes for the science magazine, BBC Focus.   He has been Astronomy Consultant for New Scientist, Editor of the Journal of British Astronomical Association, and Media Consultant to the Royal Greenwich Observatory.

Biddy Baxter MBE will receive the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws at 1pm on Friday 27th January at De Montfort Hall, Leicester.

She said, “Nothing could thrill me more than to be honoured by the University of Leicester!

“The degree ceremony in the De Montfort Hall will bring back vivid memories of the Wyggeston Grammar School for Girls’ annual Dancing Demonstrations.  The last time I walked the length of the hall and climbed up the rostra on to the platform, I was dressed as Britannia complete with trident, plumed helmet and metal breastplate and wearing a very tight long skirt made from a Union flag.  I felt and probably looked absolutely ridiculous! 

“As a junior member of the Little Theatre I adored the build up to our performances, the read throughs, costume fittings and the hope of photographs and a review in the Leicester Mercury or the Mail.  One of my fellow actors was a very quiet boy called Joe Orton – no indication then that he would become the most famous playwright of his generation!

“Leicester was my life until I left for university and I have very fond memories of all my Leicester years.”

Nigel Henbest will receive the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science at 4pm on Friday 27th January at De Montfort Hall, Leicester.

He said, “I am absolutely delighted to accept the Honorary Doctorate from my alma mater, the University of Leicester, which helped launch me on my career as a science populariser – twice over!

“The University of Leicester’s innovative, flexible and forward-looking curriculum for undergraduates attracted me as an A-level student (even though the Head of Science at my school recommended I should apply to Cambridge “where, Henbest, you will rub shoulders with your peers!”)

“In fact, I found my peers at Leicester, both in the vibrant student life – where I ended up running the Astronomical Society with my life-long friend from Leicester days, Heather Couper – and in the inspiration from the Departments of Astronomy and Physics (which in those days were distinct). In fact, my first published article – on a visit to the sixteenth century Danish observatory on the island of Hven – appeared in the magazine of the student Physics Society!

“But no previous visit to Leicester has given me anything like the joy and excitement of this invitation to return to the University which first directed my feet on the path to astronomy, to public outreach – and to the stars.”

Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Robert Burgess said: “We chose Biddy Baxter and Nigel Henbest because they are excellent communicators in their chosen fields.  Biddy Baxter is a household name, courtesy of producing the ‘Blue Peter’ TV programme, while Nigel Henbest is well known worldwide for communicating complex ideas in astrophysics to a very wide audience.  They have both won many awards for their work in television and are both people associated with Leicester in the case of Biddy Baxter and the University of Leicester in the case of Nigel Henbest.”

Notes to Editors: Further details are available from the University of Leicester Press Office, contact 0116 252 2415 or pressoffice@le.ac.uk.

Full biographies and comments for the honorands follow:

Biddy BaxterBiddy Baxter joined the BBC as a radio studio manager after graduating from Durham University in 1955.  She became the producer of Listen With Mother and BBC Schools Radio Junior English programmes and in 1961 joined BBC TV Children’s Programmes, editing Blue Peter from 1962 to 1988.  During that period the programme won 22 awards.  Together with Edward Barnes she instigated the annual Blue Peter Appeals that raised millions of pounds for charities at home and abroad.  In 1971 she produced Blue Peter Royal Safari, the documentary of Princess Anne’s first solo foreign visit which was filmed in Kenya.

The author of 38 books, Biddy Baxter was appointed MBE in 1981 and in 1988 was awarded a D.Litt by the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  In 1996 she was elected Fellow of the Royal Television Society and was made Honorary Fellow of St. Mary’s College, Durham University in 1999.  In 2000 she became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.  From 1983 to 1988 she was a member of the Royal Television Society’s Awards Committee and founded the RTS’s Children’s Programmes Award, chairing the Committee from 1985 to 1988.

From 1989 until 2000 was a consultant to the Director-General of the BBC.

Biddy Baxter is Chairman of The John Hosier Music Trust and Honorary President of SMIRA (Selective Mutism Information and Research Association).  She is a former Board member of the Conservation Foundation, the Advisory Board of Victim Support and British Board of Film Classification’s Video Appeals Committee.  During her production career she won 12 British Academy of Film and Television Arts nominations and two BAFTA Awards plus the Pye Award for Distinguished Services to Television. 

Her book Dear Blue Peter – a record of 50 years of viewers’ letters and emails to the programme was published in September 2008 and has raised over £20,000 for The John Hosier Music Trust.  She is currently working as a writer, lecturer, broadcaster and media consultant.

Press comment: “The degree ceremony in the De Montfort Hall will bring back vivid memories of the Wyggeston Grammar School for Girls’ annual Dancing Demonstrations.  The last time I walked the length of the hall and climbed up the rostra on to the platform, I was dressed as Britannia complete with trident, plumed helmet and metal breastplate and wearing a very tight long skirt made from a Union flag.  I felt and probably looked absolutely ridiculous! 

“A child’s life in wartime Leicester was eventful.  Mercifully the bomb damage was slight compared with what Coventry suffered and it was exciting to hear the air raid sirens in the middle of the night and stumble outside in the dark to our home made air raid shelter – always waterlogged.  My friends and I held Bring and Buy sales for the Spitfund fund and put on plays and concerts for the British Red Cross and Aid to France.  I still treasure a note of thanks from the Red Cross for a donation of £1 – a huge sum of money in the 1940s.

“As a junior member of the Little Theatre I adored the build up to our performances, the read throughs, costume fittings and the hope of photographs and a review in the Leicester Mercury or the Mail.  One of my fellow actors was a very quiet boy called Joe Orton – no indication then that he would become the most famous playwright of his generation!

“Another huge bonus was the sensational Leicestershire countryside – Bradgate Park with Lady Jane Gray and Old John and the deer and the glorious Leicester/Rutland borderlands – all of which I explored on foot and on my bike with Josephine, my best friend from school.  We would set off for whole days at a time and no one at home worried about us.  An idyllic childhood!

“Leicester was my life until I left for university and I have very fond memories of all my Leicester years.”

Nigel HenbestNigel Henbest is an award-winning science populariser, specialising in astronomy and space. His 38 books and over 1000 articles have been translated into 27 languages, and he has produced over a dozen television documentaries and series. Nigel is a columnist for The Independent newspaper and BBC Focus magazine, and was formerly astronomy consultant on New Scientist magazine.

Nigel was born in Manchester, and brought up in Belfast. At the University of Leicester, he obtained a First in astrophysics. He researched in radio astronomy at Cambridge, under the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Ryle, before returning to Leicester to spearhead a project on predicting the eruptions of Mount Etna.

His lifelong passion for science communication then led Nigel into a career promoting astronomy and space in the media. His acclaimed books include Exploding Universe, The New Astronomy and The Planets. With Heather Couper he has written Guide to the Galaxy, Space Encyclopedia, The History of Astronomy and the annual Philip’s Stargazing (Philip’s) which recently featured in the amazon.co.uk Top Ten bestsellers.

For over a decade Nigel was Astronomy Consultant to New Scientist magazine: he has also published in the Sunday Times, the Guardian and the UNESCO Courier; and he has contributed to Longman’s New Universal Dictionary and Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Nigel has been Media Consultant to the Royal Greenwich Observatory, Editor of the Journal of the British Astronomical Association, Chairman of National Astronomy Week and External Assessor on Astronomy to the Open University. He devised and co-wrote the play It’s All in the Stars (promoting astronomy to children in a pantomime style), which toured nationally after opening in the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. On BBC Radio, Nigel has co-hosted Seeing Stars and chaired the iconic science quiz The Litmus Test.

Nigel’s TV career began with the BBC Horizon programme IRAS: The Infrared Eye. With Heather Couper and Stuart Carter he founded the leading international TV production company Pioneer Productions. As a television producer and scriptwriter, Nigel’s major credits include Universe (winner of the Glaxo-Wellcome Science Writer’s Award), On Jupiter (which took the Grand Award at the New York Festivals), Black Holes, The Day the Earth was Born, Journey to the Edge of the Universe, and the recent eight-part series How the Universe Works.

Nigel is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. He has published research papers in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Journal of Physics and – on archaeoastronomy – in British Archaeological Reports. Asteroid 3795 is named “Nigel” in his honour. As well as lecturing internationally – from New Zealand to Colombia – and leading expeditions to view total eclipses of the Sun, Nigel has been signed up as an astronaut by Virgin Galactic, to fly into space in 2014.

Press comment: “I am absolutely delighted to accept the Honorary Doctorate from my alma mater, University of Leicester, which helped launch me on my career as a science populariser – twice over!

“The University of Leicester’s innovative, flexible and forward-looking curriculum for undergraduates attracted me as an A-level student (even though the Head of Science at my school recommended I should apply to Cambridge “where, Henbest, you will rub shoulders with your peers!”)

“In fact, I found my peers at Leicester, both in the vibrant student life – where I ended up running the Astronomical Society with my life-long friend from Leicester days, Heather Couper – and in the inspiration from the Departments of Astronomy and Physics (which in those days were distinct). In fact, my first published article – on a visit to the sixteenth century Danish observatory on the island of Hven – appeared in the magazine of the student Physics Society!

“On the Physics staff, Prof. Ken Pounds was establishing the X-ray Astronomy group which has propelled Leicester to the forefront of space research worldwide: I was privileged to work as a junior member of the space team over one summer vacation. And, down in the Astronomy corridor, Prof. Jack Meadows had a vision that stretched beyond the material universe – from Victorian Studies to Primary Communication – that helped me to imagine a career beyond the doors of academia.

“After experiencing Cambridge at first hand, I returned to Leicester at the request of Dr Allan Mills, to build and install equipment to monitor eruptions of Mount Etna. It involved driving to Sicily in a basic Land Rover (navigating by the World Atlas of Wine!). While living in a wonderful Regency flat in New Walk, and exploring the glorious countryside of East Leicestershire, I was inspired to pen my first book. It launched a freelance career that – on my move to London – gave me five consultancies a week, including the prestigious position as Astronomy Consultant to New Scientist magazine.

“Since then, while I’ve been busy with books, articles, radio programmes and producing television series (see the Biographical Note), I’ve always kept up contact with Leicester, and have usually contrived to return here every couple of years or so.

“But no previous visit to Leicester has given me anything like the joy and excitement of this invitation to return to the University which first directed my feet on the path to astronomy, to public outreach – and to the stars.”

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