Ian McNaught-Davis 1929-2014

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by David Allen
Editor, BBC Computer Literacy Project, 1979-1987

Picture caption: Ian McNaught Davis, far left, preparing for BBC Micro Live from BT Research Labs at Martlesham Heath with Sir John Alvey.

I was first aware of Ian McNaught-Davis when I watched him climb and present The Old Man of Hoy with Chris Bonnington live on BBC television in an extraordinary windswept outside broadcast in 1967. That was two years before I joined the BBC and began to discover that TV didn’t just happen and that live TV was especially tricky to do.

MAC, as he was affectionately known, resurfaced for me when we used him in The Computer Programme in 1982. I was Series Editor but Paul Kriwaczek, the producer, chose to put him alongside the professional presenter but computer tyro Chris Searle. MAC was ‘the man who knew about computers’. From then on he became the main presenter in the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project, fronting more than 60 programmes including 47 MicroLives.

Born in 1929, MAC went to Manchester University around the time when Alan Turing was working there. Immersed in computer technology during its early years, by the time we met MAC he was managing director of the UK arm of Comshare, a computer bureau company providing business services using mainframe computers. So he described himself as a ‘mainframer’. But he liked doing TV as it got him out of the office and he particularly liked the BBC canteen where he could get Spotted Dick and Roly Poly pudding - something his business lunches rarely offered. However, when he treated producers to lunch (usually at one of his favourite haunts The Tate Gallery Restaurant) his taste in wine led me, at any rate, astray as we always drank Montrachet.

Although pictured as the face of the BBC Micro, MAC was a man for whom ‘the micro’ was slightly beneath him - he treated it as a new boy on the block. In Making the Most of the Micro he became the main presenter (who knew about computers) but with John Coll who knew about micros.

The first genuinely live programme I produced with him was the two hour MicroLive special taking over BBC 1 for two hours on a Sunday morning with a live audience, phone-in questions, demonstrations and a ministerial interview with Kenneth Baker, Minister for Information Technology. MAC dealt with all of this with his typical good humour and intelligence.

Half way through the show was the notorious ‘hackers’ incident when a demonstration of the then novel electronic mail system was broken into by hackers who had somehow cracked the log-in password used by Mac’s interviewee John Coll. MAC gleefully read out the ‘hackers’ song’ as we desperately scanned it for obscenity or worse in the gallery. Here’s a verse:

Try his first wife's maiden name,
This is more than just a game,
It's real fun, but just the same,
It's Hacking, Hacking, Hacking.

MAC was President of the British Mountaineering Society. Not surprisingly he was a great man for beer. After a shoot he was always first at the bar to buy a round of drinks. On location he was enormous fun. In one classic scene where we were filming a massive industrial robot he had the wonderful idea of showing how accurate it was by making it delicately make a hole in an egg with a pin, whirl around and put the pin back through the same hole. His payoff was typical: “You may well be asking why anyone would want to use a £50,000 robot to put a hole in an egg. The answer’s simple: it’s to stop the egg from cracking when you boil it”.

I last met MAC in December 2012 when we took him to The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park for the Domesday Project reunion. By then he was suffering from memory loss but was seemingly still his old cheery self. But more recently his health deteriorated and he developed liver cancer. He died on Feb 10th 2014.

We will not see his like again. Larger than life, funny, a hilarious raconteur and a genuinely nice man, those who knew with him will miss him.

As a post script, after I emailed old colleagues and friends to tell them of his death, one wrote to tell me something I didn’t know. It sums MAC up beautifully: “Anyone who could use the word ‘Bollocks’ as his PC password on a live TV programme deserves my respect”.

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