Autumn watched

UKMA has received a message from a viewer of BBC’s ‘Autumn Watch’. This article includes the message and the response.

This is the message recently left on UKMA’s web site:


I started watching my most beloved Autumn Watch last night which was going great until Chris Packham started giving distances in kilometres instead of miles. The infection spread to other presenter so can I ask why the rush to change our way of life to metricfication? (I made that word up!)

I would like to know if anyone from your organisation put the idea in my much beloved BBC to force its presenters down the Euro-metric route?

In the current Brexit climate I’d go quiet on forcing anyone to do anything metric if I were you.

Best regards,

This is UKMA’s response:

“Thank you for your message passed on using the contact form on UKMA’s web site.

I can assure you that our organisation has not put the idea to our beloved BBC that it should force presenters to use metric measures.

Some years ago we approached the BBC to ask about its policy on measurement units, and we were informed it does not have one. The decision on which measurement units to use is left to the producer of the programme. Often commercial considerations may apply. If the BBC is targeting the production at an American audience, as recently occurred with an Attenborough series, then it might use feet and miles but not yards, pounds and tons but not stones, but if it hopes to sell a programme to Commonwealth countries or worldwide then metric measures are likely to be used.

Nature programmes raise a different issue. The BBC’s purpose is to educate, inform and entertain. Nature programmes may do all three. And educating and informing may involve science. Science in Britain has used metric units since the start of the twentieth century.ย  I remember being taught in metric units at school in the 1950s.

The BBC also needs to take account of its likely audience in the UK. Around 60% of the UK population has been taught only metric units at school. My three sons, who were born in the 1970s, are familiar with metric and regard imperial measures as an annoying and confusing anachronism, even on road traffic signs. Some older people may prefer imperial measures and may be the target audience for some programmes, but they are a declining proportion of the population and we can expect to see fewer programmes made with them in mind.

You mention Brexit. As you may be aware, Britain began the changeover to metric long before 1973 when it joined the Common Market, the EU’s predecessor. For example:

  • The use of the metric system for all purposes in the UK became legal in 1897.
  • The military adopted the metric system for mapping in 1919.
  • The BBC began broadcasting in 1922 using a range of stations calibrated in wavelengths in metres.
  • In 1936 the Ordnance survey began the re-triangulation of Britain using metric measures and in 1940 adopted a national metric grid. Maps were then gradually converted to metric scales.
  • The Meteorological Office switched from F to C in 1961, and began adding C to broadcasts a year later.
  • The UK construction industry began the metric changeover in 1967. I can remember in 1969, when I was working in a design office, the boss came round handing out metric design tables and metric scales. I still have both.
  • The dispensing of prescriptions also went metric in 1969.

It seems to me, however, that there may actually be a similarity between the metric changeover and Brexit. In each case some of the older generation are allowing their fondness for the past and their reluctance to move forward to harm the future prosperity of younger generations. We live in a metric world:

  • All but a few of the countries of the world have adopted metric as their primary system of measurement.
  • 95% of the world’s population live in metric countries.
  • The economy of China, a metric country, is likely to exceed in size that of the USA within a few years.
  • India, another metric country, will shortly overtake China, as the most populous country in the world.

But it may just be that ‘Autumn Watch’ prefers metric measures not only because they are universal but also because they are simpler, more logical and more widely understood than their imperial counterparts.

The past may be an interesting place to visit, but it is no place to live.

Best wishes,

Secretary UKMA”

15 thoughts on “Autumn watched”

  1. A very good Autumn watch.
    At last I was able to view a BBC programme without the need for a medieval to metric conversion table, my children were able to understand it as well.
    Looks like the BBC maybe moving with the times, the BBC weather app even has a km/h wind speed option.


  2. I have not watched the Spring/Summer/Autumn watch series for the last 18 months but I must say whoever claimed to watch their ‘beloved’ Autumn Watch has not taken much notice in the years this series has been broadcast, a little suspect I would say.
    Chris Packham and his team have always used metric, kilometres included. I have commented as such on this and other sites.
    It is not just my perception either, Chris Packham gets slated on the anti metric sites (we know who thumbs downers are) so he is a thorn in the side for these people.
    It is interesting to note the remarkable response this series gets with their live interaction segments, I have never heard anyone even mention the metric.


  3. This gives an interesting lead into a subject on the news the last couple of days, the impending assault on the land speed record by the Bloodhound car piloted by Andy Noble.
    Supposedly world class technology and an inspiration to the next generation of engineers.
    I must say what a nice traditional circular speedometer, white numerals on matt black background and in those nice miles per hour, all so reminiscent of the 1960’s (except it goes up to 11 x 100 mph). All those nice traditional horses (550 of them) beavering away in that nice traditional Jaguar V8 engine straight from the last millennium.
    I wonder what they will say to their South African hosts when someone asks ‘mister, what are miles?’
    Chris Packham, eat your heart out!


  4. Wow! What a beautifully written response from UKMA. Kudos, y’all! ๐Ÿ™‚


  5. The old proverb ‘There are none so blind as those who will not see’ rings true. It doesn’t matter how many times some people are told that the metric system is not a Euro-plot to undermine ‘the British way of life’, they will just keep believing that it is because that’s what they’ve been brainwashed into thinking by the right-wing media. Media moguls like Murdoch and Dacre will spread as much misinformation as they can to frighten the public into an inward-looking Fortress Britain mindset. They tell the public that ‘Europe’ is out to control their lives and the public continue to believe it. To the brainwashed the metric system is European, therefore foreign, unpatriotic and even evil because that’s what they’ve been told by the Daily Mail and The Sun. It doesn’t matter that the metric system is infinitely superior or that 95% of the world uses it to those that have been told and believe that the British Empire is about to make a big comeback. That glitch will be rectified when Britannia rules the waves once more and we can all go back to measuring things with our fingers and feet.
    A well-educated population that questions what it is told by its rulers is definitely something the media moguls don’t want. They want a compliant, complacent public who believes whatever is fed to them. Governments like that situation too and are frightened of upsetting the press Barons who prop them up. A journalist supposedly once asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union. ‘Thatโ€™s easy,’ he said. ‘When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.
    That’s what you’re up against. Frightening.


  6. If people saw metric speed and distances signs on the roads in the UK, they would quickly adjust to them and to the ‘new numbers’ on them. That is the missing link at the moment in the use of metric in the UK. There would be some initial conversion back to imperial, as there was conversion back to shillings and pence when the currency went decimal in the early 1970s, but familiarity with the metric units would quickly come about with everyday usage. Soon people would wonder what all the fuss over the changeover was about. The outdated imperial units on road signs – which are literally everywhere throughout the UK – tell the native population and visitors alike that Britain is basically stuck in the past.


  7. I would for sure be interested in his/her response. I’m sure it will strike a nerve, especially if it is an older person who clings to Ludditism. It can’t feel good to know that the younger generation has no clue about imperial, nor has a desire to learn it and as the older population passes on, the demand for things imperial will quickly fade.

    I’m sure this older generation wants the generations younger than them to be able to pass the imperial torch on to and want to go to their grave feeling the things that they cherished will be cherished by the future generations. But it will for sure not happen as they wish and these people will have to take imperial to the grave with them.

    These older generations who are no longer in the work force obviously don’t care about the livelihood of the future generations of they would not resist the metrication. Maybe they know and don’t care or maybe they don’t know how important the metric system is to most businesses and industries.

    Which makes me wonder, since metrication has been a part of industry since the ’70s, a period of 45 to 50 years ago, those people now in their 80s would have been young and in their 30s and using metric on the job. Any normal person would have adjusted to the change in a few weeks. If these people never adjusted, it is only out of nastiness and spite and as long as they are still breathing they will continue to be nasty and spiteful. If this be the case it is best to ignore them and continue to push for full metrication no matter what form it takes and to fight against any backsliding. Time is on the side of metrication.


  8. Before I start a car journey in the UK, I often check the route on Wikipedia and make a mental note of the driver location signs (See for more info) associated with each junction that is of concern to me – for example, when going to Stansted, I will leave the M25 at location 159.7, picking up the M11 at location 23.6 and leaving the M11 at location 46.5. I can check my progress at any point on the motorway by looking at the next driver location sign. Of course, the locations are really the distances in kilometres from the nominal start of the motorway concerned. Thus I will drive on the M11 for 22.9 km. Consequently I find the distances in miles (which are signposted far less frequently than the kilometres on the driver location signs) of little help.


  9. @Jake:

    You are so right about the “knock on” effect of road sign conversion.

    The best examples of this (as I cite in previous posts) are Ireland and Canada. Ireland is now metric with no thought of “miles” thanks to road sign conversion. Same in Canada since the 1970’s even though poor Canada is besieged by “Imperial” from the USA day in and day out. The outcomes in both countries show indisputably how powerful the effect road signs are on everyday thinking and usage.


  10. The logic of using km other that on UK roads is really quite simple.
    In the context of Autumn watch, if someone sees a flock of migrating birds overhead then just look at an OS map and count off the km grid squares from current location to a number of the birds likely destinations and you have their flying distance. Why complicate matters by trying to convert to miles?


  11. It would be a goood idea to go to Pat Naughtin’s website
    where you can find more about the bishop John Wilkins, who made up the blueprint of the metric system in 1668, that fact should have blown all these myths of the ‘European’ metric system out of the water. The British and US contributions to the development of the metric system should be highlighted when answering such letters. The person who wrote that letter about the BBC’s Autumn Watch would learn something astonishing indeed.


  12. I missed the first episode of Planet Earth 2 but watched the second. Attenborough’s voice-over included a mix of USC/Imperial and metric. Greater depths and distances were in miles, shorter in metres. The changeover seemed to be around 1000 metres or 2/3 mile. Thus we heard “a mile thick”, “3 1/2 miles deep”, “5 miles down” and “2/3 mile from the surface”, but “15 metres deep”, “30 metres tall”, “60 metre towers” and “a 1000 metre dive”. We were also informed that “one cubic metre of ice weighs 1 tonne”. Yards were conspicuous by their absence.
    The final credits may provide a clue to this choice of units – the series has been funded by organisations in several countries including both the US and France.
    But “-1.8 degrees centigrade” – what was that about?


  13. The good news about the latest nature show I watched from BBC Earth narrated by David Attenborough is that the entire program without exception was exclusively metric (including “Celsius” instead of the dreaded “centigrade” and “kilometers” pronounced KILL-oh-mee-ters). Bl**dy fantastic! ๐Ÿ™‚


  14. Ezra,

    You do realise that a moderator like David Attenborough reads off of a script or a teleprompter. It is basically down to the writers and editors as to what units are used. This is why there is a mess. One writer may be pro-imperial and changes all the units to imperial. Another may be pro-metric and decides to keep the the original metric in place. Another yet may not care and uses the units presented to him or her.

    If the media has no set rules on units, then expect one time to hear metric, another imperial and yet another a mix. With the Brexit fiasco being a virtual 50-50 split it isn’t surprising that other facets of life in England are pretty much divided down the middle this way, including metrication. A house divided against itself is destined to collapse.


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