TV scientist Adam Hart-Davis on art, life and how nuclear power is key to keeping the lights on in Plymouth
TAKE a deep breath: there's lots to say about Adam Hart-Davis. He's a scientist, author, photographer, historian, broadcaster, amateur actor, budding painter and all-round champion of human creativity and innovation.
You will know his face from a string of television credits. They include the BBC's Local Heroes on the lives of scientists and What the Romans (and Victorians, Tudors, Stuarts and Ancients) Did for Us, five further series mixing history, technology and science.
But right now he is fascinated by... spoons. Wooden ones.
Woodworking is another talent to add to his long list of achievements.
He turns out bowls and pieces of furniture and lots of spoons – the kitchen of his South Hams home practically overflows with them.
"Spoons are wonderful things," he says, stirring up interest. "Quite tricky to make but hugely satisfying."
Having made a career out of focusing on scientific and technological breakthroughs, it is strange to see him in thrall to an ancient craft that has been unchanged for many centuries.
But Adam is a full of surprises.
The low-key hobby is a sign of his great patience (although he insists he is impatient), and that he has more time on his hands now. "The phone has stopped ringing," he says of his BBC work, which has dried up.
Projects that he has put to the corporation in the last few years have been turned down.
There was a falling out. Adam, a man of principle, told the bosses what he thought when an idea he believed came from an independent producer was put to him as one of the Beeb's own.
Quite how much time he has to himself is relative. Adam is busier at the age of 69 then most are in the middle of their working lives. He is a prolific author who has written 18 books, three in the last couple of years, and collaborated on a further dozen.
The Book Of Time is among his more recent output and did what many of the others have done before: brilliantly made a mind-bendingly complicated subject accessible to all.
Most are flush with humour. Previous works have included histories of the toilet and wee.
Another project now occupying him is the presidency of Tavistock Music and Arts Festival.
"I know nothing about the music or the arts," he smiles. "So as long as I don't have to do anything it will be great."
His duties will include opening the tenth festival next month, and, as he has done previously, giving one of the leading talks.
The connection came through Plymouth classical music stalwart Jeanie Moore.
She was matron at St Andrew's prep school, Berkshire – "the alumni include Kate Middleton and (late hell-raising actor) Oliver Reed", says Adam, always eager to spice up a subject – which he attended before Eton. Oxford University was next.
Given his background there was an inevitability about that route through education.
He was born and grew up in Henley-on-Thames, the youngest child of the publisher Sir Rupert Hart-Davis.
Adam is a direct descendant of King William IV and so a fifth cousin once removed of the present Queen and a second cousin once removed of Prime Minister David Cameron.
He studied chemistry at Merton College, Oxford, then did a PhD in organometallic chemistry at the University of York and spent three years as a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Alberta in Canada.
Adam then followed the example set by his father by moving into publishing. He settled into a quiet life at Oxford University Press, editing science texts and chess manuals. That suited his academic achievements and learning, but was an unlikely choice for a man who would become known for his eccentric and occasionally flamboyant television appearances.
"I could have had a job for life there and for five years it was fun. But it is a very large, slow animal and I got bored."
So he switched careers and got a job as a researcher in the science department at Yorkshire Television (YTV).
When he joined in 1977, the ITV company was a big player with a large output of original programming. He was a researcher for six years and a producer for 11.
"It was huge fun," he recalls. "It wasn't like today with Google when you could do research at a click. You would phone up world-renowned people and they were prepared to talk to you because TV was still relatively novel.
"And you could travel. Through television I visited 45 of the US states and went to Japan three times."
The move in front of the camera came about "by accident" he says, crediting a long-dead pioneering chemist for the move.
By 1990 Adam had acquired a prop that would become one of his trademarks on screen, a bike.
On his daily nine-mile, two-wheel commute into the YTV studios in Leeds from his home in Heckmondwike he spotted a blue plaque at a farm marking the birthplace of Joseph Priestley.
He then found out that the scientist spent his teenage years with his aunt at the Old Hall in Heckmondwicke (later a pub which happened to be Adam's local) and that Priestley discovered oxygen as a result of watching beer being made in a brewery in Leeds.
"All this had happened within a few miles of where I lived," says Adam. "It was a story which hadn't been told. I put an idea to Yorkshire TV and that was the beginning of Local Heroes. It was the best thing I had ever done."
Adam became a familiar sight cycling around the North of England in his fluorescent pink and yellow cycling clothes, seeking out places linked to the greatest scientists and technologists.
This series later switched to BBC2 and went national. Big Questions, a five-part Channel 4 science series for young people that he presented, received a BAFTA nomination in 2002.
Adam says that his experience as a producer helped smooth the switch to presenter.
"I knew how a shot needed to be framed, what the cameraman and the producer wanted," he says, "the simple things.
"I still see presenters today saying, 'look at this' and then moving the object as the cameraman zooms in and it disappears out of shot."
The current scientist of choice for the BBC, Professor Brian Cox, makes "quite basic errors" on camera, says Adam.
If you are wondering that there is a little jealousy involved in watching a younger, less experienced, in TV terms, model dominating the screens, forget it.
"He is a lovely man and very, very good at what he does," says Adam.
"He told me once, 'I grew up watching your shows', which I thought was lovely.
"I don't think age has anything to do with it. Look at David Attenborough: he is still presenting and he is 86."
As well as the What The Romans Did and all the rest, his other TV work included co-hosting the popular science and technology programme Tomorrow's World, and presenting Science Shack on the BBC plus How London Was Built and Just Another Day on History UK.
Ah, history: he failed the O Level at school.
"I hated history at school," he says. The key to making the subject interesting is stories, he adds.
"In looking at science and technology from the past I actually earned some history. We decided to do dead programmes on scientists because they don't answer back!
"The BBC asked me to present history programmes but I am no historian."
He continues to make short films and presentations. Recent clients have included the Science Museum and oil giant BP.
Adam still also takes scientific photos. From close-ups of water drops to exploding balloons, they have appeared in many magazines and national newspapers, and formed the basis for his book, Why Does A Ball Bounce: And 100 Other Questions From The Worlds Of Science.
The reduced volume of TV work made easier the switch to a quieter life in the country, farther away from the main production centres. Home was formerly Bristol.
Adam and his wife, Sue Blackmore, a visiting professor of psychology at Plymouth University, moved to Devon five years ago.
His was married for nearly 30 years to Adrienne Alpin, with whom he had two sons, Damon and Jason.
Adam and Sue first met through TV work in the 1980s – he filmed her work as a parapsychologist.
They met again in the mid-1990s when both were single. He again asked her to take part in a programme, on the Loch Ness Monster (he's a non-believer, romantics will be sad to learn), and they got together.
Sue had family connections in up-market Salcombe, their original choice for a move.
"But for £1.5 million there what we could get was really only a large maisonette.
"This," he says, indicating the home they settled for between Ivybridge and Ermington, "has three walled gardens, seven acres and 400 metres of salmon fishing on the Erme."
The spot is so idyllic that they chose it for their wedding in 2010.
"We got it licensed and have had other ceremonies here since: four weddings and a funeral.
"The funeral was for my wife's ex-husband, a lovely man."
I'm sure the feeling was mutual. It's difficult to imagine anybody falling out with Adam. He is great company and just how he appears on TV, down to the "busy" shirts and the plastic clogs – he is wearing odd shoes today.
He is a mine of information, always informative without showing off or trying to be "clever". Adam is chatty, funny and interested as well as interesting.
He is not as fit as he used to be, partly because he no longer cycles as much. The busy South Hams roads with high banks obscuring the view on bends do not make for safe cycling, he says.
Sue is into her adventure sports and is a keen skier, but Adam prefers quieter pursuits.
He does lots of talks, to local groups and larger audiences. And there is the woodwork – he attends a summer school each year to improve his skills.
"I am not very patient," he insists, "but it is quite wonderful to start with a log and make something emerge.
"There are still a thousand things to learn. It is not something that you can perfect but you can get better.
"The pieces make wonderful Christmas presents."
He paints, too, and proudly shows off some accomplished watercolours, including a quite expert portrayal of a snowy scene.
He and Sue performed with Ivybridge Theatre Company, but have stepped back because of time demands.
There is plenty to do around the home, too.
The spot proved a little too close to the Erme during last summer's exceptional deluges: the fields flooded and Adam and Sue's converted cider barn home was inundated on the ground floor. Building work, which includes some measures to make the home "greener", are still going on.
Whether the recent wetter summers are due to global warming is a matter of debate.
But Adam can see no logical reason why we are not using science and technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fill a looming shortfall in energy production.
"We need new nuclear power stations.
"We cannot go on filling the atmosphere with CO2 and we can't rely on Russia and the Middle East for our gas and oil supplies. We are risking the lights going out in a few years' time.
"The opposition to nuclear power is totally irrational. It is not dangerous.
"Two people died at the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster but 20,000 drowned in the tsunami that caused it.
"Do you know how many people have been killed in nuclear power station accidents? 60, 56 of them at Chernobyl, although more may die there in future.
"Many times that figure die in coal mining accidents each year."
He has, he says, great faith in technology.
"We would not be human beings without it."