Thursday 11 August 2022

Erasmus Microman

Ah, Erasmus Microman! Now there's a television programme I've been meaning to watch for years and years and years! Somehow, despite my love of time travel based sci-fi programmes, I completely missed it when it aired on ITV at the tail end of the 1980s. But what's life without a few mistakes, eh? Anyway, I've been determined to cover it for several years, and it was destined to appear in one of my books on children's TV, but this never quite happened. Redemption, though, is finally here, and it's time to tell you all about Erasmus Microman.

First off, I must address a common misconception regarding the series. The title character, played by the late, great Ken Campbell, goes by the name of Erasmus Microman and his surname is, in fact, pronounced as it looks and not "Meecroman". I suspect this confusion has arisen from the theme tune which, due to its strangled vocal delivery, pronounces it "Meecroman". However, the character (and the rest of the cast) all say "Microman" so, if this article achieves anything, then at least we have this fact in place. Along with the bonus fact that I'm a pedant of the highest order. Anyway, the actual programme...

Erasmus Microman
is a tale of two series, being both similar and yet markedly different at the same time. The first series begins with Ben (Nicholas Pickard) and his sister Jane (Thea Redmond) bored rigid in front of the television, watched over by their parents - an actual pair of mannequins. However, life is about to get more exciting for Ben and Jane. For, from out of nowhere, Erasmus Microman suddenly pops up in their television set, and changing the channel won't get rid of him. The good news is that he's there to wake them up and take the pair on an adventure.

After climbing into the television, thanks to some form of physics-defying magic, Ben and Jane slide down into Microman's spaceship, where this enigmatic 1005-year-old tells them that he studies science all day - at the moment, he's working on a round of toast. Bread-based culinary delights aside, Microman has much more to offer Ben and Jane: he wants to show them that boring, old science can be fun.

And, thanks to the magic of time travel, he's going to take them to meet some of history's finest minds. Along the way, they'll discuss displacement theory with Archimedes, seek advice from Isaac Newton on Gravity and, for dessert, get to the bottom of relativity with Albert Einstein.

Microman has to bid farewell to Ben and Jane at the end of series one, a reluctant goodbye brought on by his new job: inspecting black holes in the outer reaches of the universe. He tells Ben and Jane that he hopes to see them again one day, but for now must he must go. Before he leaves, though, he has a gift for them: a pair on mindstones - representing beauty and knowledge - which he found on Venus. Ben and Jane are then transported back home where, for now, they must remain with theiir mannequin parents.

At the start of series two, it's revealed that Microman's new position also includes carrying out security checks at asteroid detention centres, a duty which Microman has failed to fulfil. And this means the megalomaniac Dr Dark (Ken Campbell) has escaped to Earth, where he intends to rid the planet of technology and knowledge - a move he claims will rid the world of fear. Coupled to this, Dr Dark is also busy distorting history by kidnapping Charles Dickens, robbing Socrates of his ability to speak and erasing the existence of hieroglyphics. Thankfully, Microman isn't alone as he's now joined by Spike (Tobias Best), Millie (Naomie Harris) and Tosh (Simone Kennedy).

Erasmus Microman was the first independently-made production for Granada, coming courtesty of Mirageland, a production company set up by former World in Action producer John Slater. Speaking at the time of the series' debut, commissioning executive David Liddiment told the press that the aim of the programme was to "entertain and inform a young audience on the subject of great scientific thinking through the ages". The first series was written by Stephen Trombley with Gary Hopkins taking over script duties for the followup. Before the first series aired, however, there was time for some controversy to gather around the production.

Nabil Shaban - best known as Sil from Colin Baker's Doctor Who tenure - revealed, in early 1988, that he had been approached to take on the role of Erasmus Microman. However, this was offer was allegedly withdrawn at the behest of Mirageland, on the grounds that Shaban's visual appearance would be too frightening for younger viewers. This accusation, according to theatre boss Alistair Ramsay (who was negotiating Shaban's release for recording Erasmus Microman), was refuted by Granada and John Slater with the official line being that Shaban's performance simply wasn't strong enough. Equity become involved in the row, but quite what the resolution was appears to be lost to history.

Controversy covered, it's now time to move onto the programme. Footage of Erasmus Microman online is non-existent, the best evidence of it at present is a slice of Children's ITV continuity which mentions it's on later that afternoon. I have seen some mentions that an episode, or at least the intro, was on YouTube at some point, but this clearly disappeared years ago. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to get a private viewing of an episode last year (hence the screenshots in this article) and, earlier this week, I headed down to the BFI to watch some more episodes. So, what did I think?

The first series is, on the face of it, an educational programme, but it's less a defined learning tool - such as an ITV Schools programme - and more of a, to coin a modern phrase, a product of the edutainment genre - see also Eureka. I suspect the emphasis on learning would have put a few viewers off, although this was the age of four channels and they likely had little choice to watch if they didn't fancy what Children's BBC had to offer. But, you know, it's far from a borefest and I even learned a thing or two - who knew that Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel?

The learning, therefore, is digestible enough and it's joined by some interesting flourishes. Microman's spaceship is the epitome of late 80s sci-fi design, all grills, black surfaces and bright, white lights - it wouldn't have looked out of place in an episode of Red Dwarf, if you want to measure its aesthetics. And there are also some nicely absurd touches, most notably the mannequin parents and the trippy time travel sequences.

A slight drawback, with this series, is that Ben and Jane have little to do aside from tossing a few questions towards Microman and the scientists - a move which limits their depth, but one which is unavoidable given the format of the programme at this point. The actor playing Ben, Nicholas Pickard, went on to become the perennial Hollyoaks fixture Tony Hutchinson, but Thea Redmond appears to have done little since, aside from some episodes of Jackanory. There's also a lack of Microman at the heart of the episodes, with Campbell having to take a seat for the bulk of the episodes whilst the scientist orates - somewhat of a waste given his talents.

On to the second series, and this is where Erasmus Microman really kicks into gear. The introduction of the Dr Dark narrative produces a more engrossing pull and, although the educational aspect remains, it feels the show has made a deliberate move to bring in more viewers.

And it does this with aplomb. Campbell's acting talents get the chance to shine with a pensive and dramatic performance as Microman, one which demonstrates Campbell was more than just a funnyman. His turn as Dr Dark, too, deserves kudos for its chilling villainy and underlines the difference between the two series in bold. It's also important to point out the boost the series receives with the introduction of Spike, Millie and Tosh, a trio of talented young performers who bring plenty of sass and character.

There's also a moral and ethical message at the heart of this series. The first series did cover such matters, an example being when Einstein explains how his early work inadvertently led to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the second series brings the influence of technology squarely into focus. Dr Dark's mission, although mostly aimed at him taking control of the planet, does highlight the dangers of technology. Dangers which Microman has to acknowledge, but is also able to provide a counter-argument which extols the benefits provided by technology and communication. 

I had a slight issue with the end of series two, in as much as it being anti-climatic and perfunctory rather than being fiendishly plotted. This is far from a spoiler, but the manner in which Dr Dark is defeated fails to amaze. Denouement aside, though, the second series of Erasmus Microman demonstrates what the programme is capable of. Indeed, I feel that a series dedicated entirely to Microman's character, without the educational aspect, could have achieved even more. After all, a mysterious, centuries old individual travelling through time with young companions surely has some mileage in it, right? And perhaps its time to look at this particular elephant in the room.

Much has been made of Ken Campbell's audition for the seventh iteration of Doctor Who and his subsequent appearance in Erasmus Microman. And there are undeniable parallels between the two characters. It's also intriguing that, when the second series of Erasmus Microman aired, the Microman character had evolved into a darker, more introspective character, mirroring Sylvester McCoy's transformation in his final season of Doctor Who. Taking this intrigue a little further, it's interesting to note McCoy had earlier appeared as part of the Ken Campbell Roadshow, so the connections between the two are more than evident. However, I wouldn't swap McCoy out for anyone and the two characters stand on their own two feet.

Erasmus Microman is unlikely to receive a commercial release, as it doesn't have the requisite nostalgia value to make it viable. But it's a quirky programme, one which is shot through with rewarding idiosyncrasies and some fine performances. It also needs applauding for taking on the challenge of making education fun, two opposing terms of the highest order. Trawling through the archives of British television isn't always fun, but programmes like Erasmus Microman have enough curiosity value to keep me digging.

If you happen to have some episodes of Erasmus Microman, then please get in touch as it would be great to get some up onto YouTube.


  1. Wow!

    On an idle whim I decided to plum one of my earliest memories, a program I watched in the late eighties when I must have been all of about four or five.
    I don't remember much about it, accept a manic guy called Microman, and a villain called Doctor Dark bent on destroying knowledge, and them having quite a final argument about the value of knolege itself.
    I didn't even know it was the second series, or remember the names of Microman's younger companions.

    The really crazy coincidences though!

    Not only have I been a life time whovian longer than I can remember, but I am also now actually a doctor, having received my phd in Ethics from Durham university in 2019.

    What is my online handle, the name that I've been using around the internet ever since I was in my late teens? "Dark"

    Yes! I have inadvertently become Doctor dark!

    Was the name floating around my subconscious? Who knows!

    Still, I can assure you I don't want to destroy all knolege, and appreciate being able to clarrify one of my earliest memories!

  2. Awesome. I so much want to see this again, but I'm confused: how did you come to see it? And why can't you upload it to youtube yourself?

    1. Did you not read the article? It states how I got to see it. And I don't have direct access to digital copies to upload.

  3. I still remember a few things from this show and have already been meaning to see it again. I remember him having a wife he named Mrs Microman who was never seen, but once telephoned him. He also picked up a newspaper and then noticed the pages were blank when he opened it. Then there was one scene he asked one of the kids to write their name on a piece of paper, only to reply they cannot write, which lead to Erasmus saying "You've been brainwashed!".

    Then there was one scene in which they meet a clone of Erasmus, the real Erasmus asks one of the kids to ask him a question, and she comes out with "How long is a piece of string?". I don't remember the fake Erasmus Microman's reply, but he said it in a deep slow voice only for the kid to reply "The real Erasmus Microman would never say that!".

  4. Having just stumbled across this article, it's brought a great grin and warming sense of nostalgia with it. Having little to no detail for years online and now a recent recollection from your viewing logged online is fantastic. The influence it had on me has stayed with me for decades and one I'd have liked to share. It's a shame that there is no content or ability to purchase this. Many, many thanks.

    1. Yes, it's a shame it's never emerged online. My only hope is that this article acts as a beacon to someone who recorded the whole series. And then I can upload it.