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BBC documentary marks 50 years of OU

The BBC marks a half century of The Open University with a new, hour-long documentary capturing the journey of our institution over the last 50 years.

Happy Birthday OU: 50 Years of the Open University is the title of the documentary, narrated by comedian, actor and OU alumni Sir Lenny Henry.

OU degree ceremony
Chancellor Martha Lane Fox at Brighton degree ceremony

Sir Lenny gained a BA in English Literature with the OU and in the documentary he notes how his study gave him confidence to branch out more as an actor and presenter and tackle more serious topics.

Without the OU I would never have dreamt of making all the documentaries I have done in the last 10 years …. because of the OU I have been able to engage with these texts in a critical fashion with some academic polish. Thanks OU, you’ve given me another string to my bow.

His warmth towards the OU is obvious throughout the one-hour long programme, which profiles some remarkable people from the past and the present who taught and studied at the OU.

Contributors include Sir David Attenborough, who was controller of BBC Two when the OU launched; Anna Ford, an early lecturer and presenter; and archive footage illustrating the origins of the OU with former Prime Minister Sir Harold Wilson and his Minister for the Arts and the lead driver of the OU, Baroness Jennie Lee.

The documentary concludes with showing how our students celebrate in style when they graduate and there are interviews with some of those who crossed the stage at the Brighton Degree Ceremony in October 2018. 

OU Vice-Chancellor Professor Mary Kellett

The programme reflects the changes in the past 10 years and explores how the OU has pioneered technology and harnessed new developments to improve distance education. The OU’s OpenSTEM labs, space science research and advances in virtual reality are also profiled and there’s familiar faces such as Prof Monica Grady and Prof Shailey Minocha as well as our Vice-Chancellor Mary Kellett.

Speaking about documentary, Prof Kellett said:

This documentary celebrates the life-changing impact of our pioneering institution. Since 1969, the Open University has enabled hundreds of thousands of people to achieve their ambitions; changing society and the world around them. Fifty years ago we were a disruptor in the sector and this enlightening programme shows just how far we have come.

We were the first university to harness the power of television and radio, thanks to our partnership with the BBC, and that relationship is still central to our work today. Whilst the early morning black and white broadcasts may have gone, we are continuing to reach out to the widest possible audiences with prime-time programmes like Blue Planet II, Coast and Civilisations. The OU’s founding mission remains as strong and as relevant as ever; to be open to all and to inspire learning.

Early OU programme being filmed by BBC

The OU has had a unique educational partnership with the BBC since 1971, collaborating on a range of content across TV, radio and digital channels/platforms.  Each year the OU co-produces approximately 35 prime-time TV and radio series including, for TV, Blue Planet II, The Big Life Fix, Inside the Foreign Office, Hugh’s Wild West, The Prosecutors, School and Flatpack Empire.  And for Radio, commissions include, Economics with Subtitles, BBC Inside Science and The Bottom Line.  We achieved more than 351m viewing and listening events last year which prompted more than 1.2 million visits to our 17/18 broadcast related content on the OU’s free learning website, OpenLearn

In an inspiring address, Tony Hall, director general of the BBC, spoke of the special place the OU has in the hearts of those who believe in its social mission. He spoke of the similarities between the two national institutions:


We share the same ambitions. We are universal – we’re here for everyone. The Open University – and the BBC – are two institutions that this country should be very proud of.  I say that without a hint of complacency, but they are both phenomenally important to the fabric of the UK. Together, we believe that each one of us should have the same opportunities to learn. Together, we believe that we should all be able to wander through knowledge.

Happy Birthday OU: 50 Years of the Open University will be broadcast on BBC4 at 9pm on Thursday April 25.

About Author

Christine works in the Media Relations team within the Communications Unit at The Open University. She is an experienced BBC journalist, sub-editor and news editor and has a background in regional newspapers. After moving to PR she worked as a press officer for the Zoological Society of London. She has a BSc in Social Sciences with Politics from The Open University and focuses on stories from the Faculty of Social Science and widening access in HE. Chris swims regularly and has a pet Tortoise called Lightning.

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