Good old madcap Johnny Ball. I can’t think of another childrens TV presenter who could manage to get kids so enthused about school work as he could. He would bound on to the screen with limitless energy, dashing about demonstrating scientific principals and relating historical tales all with a massive grin fixed firmly to his face. He was like a child in a sweet shop, who’d just be told they could eat anything they wanted.
Given the factual nature of his TV shows, you might expect Johnny Ball started his career as a teacher, but surprisingly enough he didn’t. Born in 1938 he became a Butlin’s Redcoat entertainer after spending his national service in the Royal Air Force. After leaving Butlin’s he became a comedian working the clubs in the North of England. His first break into television was on classic kids show Play School, but he also wrote material for shows such as Crackerjack.
However, it will always be for his highly entertaining (and, whisper it, educational) TV shows that he is best remembered. Starting in 1977 with Think of a Number on BBC1, Mr. Ball took various mathematical subjects and relayed them to and audience of teenagers via fun experiments, funny observations and dressing up as historical figures such as Isaac Newton, although all these famous people were imbibed with Johnny’s rattling delivery, but perhaps with an appropriate funny accent.
One of the most memorable things about Think of a Number was the set. Predominantly a mixture of brown and orange rectangles, it was actually a number of different sized doors which Johnny would open to reveal something to illustrate the topic he was covering.
Think of a Number ran until 1984, but running alongside it from 1981 Johnny also brought us Think Again. This series explored various concepts of everyday life, and was a little more serious in tone, although Johnny still had plenty of jokes in there. The set was like a little office and there was no studio audience, but it was still a very interesting programme.
Think! Backwards and Think! This Way were two further series, each consisting of five shows shown over the course of a week in 1981 and 1983 respectively. The first was also about numbers, but the second was about the points of the compass.
When the various Think series came sadly to an end, Johnny moved to a new show called Knowhow which had three series shown from 1988. Here, Johnny shared the screen with a number of other presenters, but the show failed to stimulate young minds in the same way, so after the second series he jumped channels to ITV for what would turn out to be his last series, Johnny Ball Reveals All. This ran from 1989 to 1994 and was much more like Johnny’s earlier work.
Of course, Johnny has not just written for TV. Â He also has a long string of books to his name, including one that I remember having as a kid, Johnny Ball’s Think Box, which was full of cool little mathematical tricks and games and things to make. Â I remember the plans for making a pop up octahedron using cardboard and an elastic band to this day.
Johnny is now rarely on our screens, which is a great pity, but these days TV executives believe that kids will only respond to young, fresh faced presenters, which is a great shame. Just look at how young the presenters on Blue Peter seem these days compared to when we were kids if you need evidence of this.
Fear not though, as Mr. Ball is still out there beavering away. He can be booked as a speaker at corporate events, and he also creates speeches for famous historical characters still, which are then performed by actors (not by the man himself, sadly) at functions. Check out the Johnny Ball Productions website for more information on this, and look below at the opening credits to Think of a Number, because there is a brief glimpse of the set right at the end.