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The history man

Two thousand years of the world's greatest civil engineering achievements are the subject of a major new celebratory documentary series starting on satellite and cable television next month. Fronted by civil engineer and Gibb director Scott Steedman, theSuper Structures series on the Discovery Channel will take viewers on a grand tour of some of Europe's greatest civil engineering achievements.

The 13 programmes will cover structures old and new, ranging from Calatrava's stunning Alamillo Bridge in Seville to the Forth Railway Bridge, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the giant Troll oil platform.

Production company Ideal World found former geotechnical engineering lecturer Steedman on the advice of the ICE. He has pitched his programmes to a layman's style to produce a series of fun and visually stunning programmes for the viewing masses.

'We need the general public to look at buildings in a slightly different way in order to raise the profile of civil engineering,' says Steedman. 'The viewer will share my journey and see the social and historical context the engineers worked in. I will explain how each structure was built, how it worked and who was behind it. It's a celebration of engineering.'

A month of 12 hour a day filming has yet to dim Steedman's enthusiasm, despite the constant changes to his script and caustic remarks on his delivery from director Jamie Goold. Dressed in comfortable tweeds, Steedman clutches his typed script, splattered with red pen scribble responding to Goold's commands with an enigmatic smile, unfazed by the demands of television.

'To my knowledge it's the first time a civil engineer has been able to script and present a series about buildings and structures. It is a real opportunity to convey the breadth of our work, by showing the importance of design for example, and how we are very capable of making objects look attractive as well as functional. It's something I've wanted to do for a very long time,' he said.

The 'celebration' is divided into themes - defence, sky scrapers, high towers, domes, arches and concrete, picking up on structures across Europe. The Iron and Steel episode was filmed in France. There he took in Gustav Eiffel's most famous railway bridge - the Garabit viaduct in the Massif Central, plus Eiffel's world-famous tower and the Peter Rice-designed steel and glass Grande Serre at the Science Museum in Paris.

'Iron and Steel will make an interesting historical comparison of the engineer,' said Steedman. 'Eiffel was a celebrated public figure and Rice is not known outside civil engineering circles. Historically, civil engineers were often the entrepreneurs as well. The money came out of Eiffel's pocket to build his tower. It paid off for him and he became rich.'

The programme on defence will explain how the term civil engineer came into being. Steedman scales the ramparts of the medieval Tantallon Castle in East Lothian and an early 18th century fortress of earthworks and masonry in Bordeaux which was designed by Louis XIV's military engineer Vaubin.

When the scene shifts to the Delta Sea Protection system of dykes and barrages of the south west Netherlands coast, Steedman will show how this historic profession evolved to protect a different enemy. Says Steedman: 'Civil engineers used to be known as military engineers to protect kings. About the time of the industrial revolution, private buildings began to go up and military engineers became civil engineers with a number one priority to protect people to make their environment secure and clean.'

When NCE caught up with Steedman at Liverpool's Liver Building, Steedman had begun a day's filming for a segment about Britain's first skyscraper with a typically demanding script meeting. The question 'how can we liven this up?' is constantly asked.

'Television can be an extremely cruel medium and scripting is very different to writing. Every word must have the right intonation and only very few simple words can be used to explain technical principles,' says Steedman.

'It's so easy for the engineer to slip into jargon. That's why it's vital to have the director next to me saying 'Hang on, we don't understand what reinforced concrete is'. It's very easy to fall into a lecturer type style,' says Steedman, a former lecturer at Cambridge University.

After lunch, Steedman refers to a packed folder of notes, flicking speedily through his dossier on the Liver Building, with material from the ICE library. He refers to the Architects & Builders Journal of 1910 to look up some detailed drawings of the building. 'It's all there for me,' he beams. 'This is the value of documenting projects today. Too often we don't document projects.'

Ideal World has developed a niche in educational documentaries, having produced series like (Robbie) Coltrane's Planes and Automobiles, about the impact of the combustion engine. Producer Paul Murray feels the time has come for a series about civil engineering. 'For some time I've wanted to make a series about how buildings stand up. Viewers now have more appetite to learn things from TV, but not in an Open University type format.'

Murray and executive producer Zad Rogers hope that Channel 4 - after showing interest - will be able to fit it into next year's schedules. Discovery Channel US is also considering an international version of the programme with Steedman a candidate to present.

Scott Steedman is speaking at NCE's Construction 98 conference on 21 October. For details contact Anna Gosnell on 0171 505 6662.

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