IN 1968, while researching a question for University Challenge, a

brief entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica caught Bamber Gascoigne's

eye. The entry was ''the great Moghuls'', the term used by awestruck

seventeenth-century Europeans to describe the ruling family of the

Indian sub-continent.

The wealth, culture, and power of the descendants of Tamburlaine and

Genghis Khan left visitors speechless. Louis XIV's Versailles faded into

tasteless insignificance by comparison. Two hundred years later the

Moghuls' architectural and artistic achievements continue to silence

even the most blase of travellers.

Bamber Gascoigne's curiosity was frustrated by a lack of cohesive,

published information on the Moghuls. But frustrate his curiosity at

your own risk. Undaunted, he climbed into his Peugeot 404 with his wife

Christina and drove to India. The heritage of a dynasty whose Persian

links are unmistakable (the fabled Koh-i-Noor diamond, now in the Tower

of London, was once a bauble traded between emperors from Tehran to

Delhi) was a natural vehicle for Christina's skills as a fluent Persian

speaker and professional photographer.

Seven months and 30,000 miles later they returned to London armed with

enough information to write The Great Moghuls, published in 1971.

Gascoigne, a true Renaissance man, had added expertise on the Moghuls to

his capful of opera, drama, art, print and classical music feathers.

Twenty years later, the greatest story never told on television had

reached production stage for a series which begins next week on Channel

Four. The exotic mystery of the Moghuls' monuments, such as the Taj

Mahal and the Red Fort at Agra, and the drama of their history, has an

irresistible appeal for television producers: sexy stories and bright

colour pictures.

The glorious Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan for his beloved wife

Mumtaz Mahal, who bore him 14 children and to whom he was devoted. Years

later, imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in Agra's Red Fort, he was left

to stare from the battlements around the bend of the river Jumna, where

the Taj and his beloved Mumtaz lay visible but unapproachable through

the river's mists.

So for 10 weeks last winter the Gascoignes and film crew rushed about

the sub-continent in a bus, covering 10,000 miles from the desert

emptiness of the Deccan to the battle-scarred heights of the Khyber

Pass. The touring company, with its battery of camera equipment,

attracted crowds wherever they went. Convinced that a major feature film

was in the offing, hundreds queued at dawn for a chance as an extra on

the silver screen. Boredom on the shoot was offset by games of ''bus

cricket'' organised by Gascoigne. A wicket to the first to spot a

one-legged camel.

Ecosse Films, the production company, has its roots in Edinburgh,

director Douglas Rae's home town. So the crew's touch of January

homesickness in Hyderabad was dispelled by a Burns night supper,

complete with haggis flown in from Harrod's by Christina and Indian

tartan improvised from the local market.

The filming was trouble free, until the crew reached the Khyber Pass.

Hidden behind inaccessible crags, Afghan tribesmen make it a habit of

taking pot-shots at intruders. Western television presenters are

particularly popular. With the bus engine revving in the background,

Bamber and crew rushed out, did their piece double time

''HerewhereonceAlexandertrod . . .'', and hot-footed it back to the bus.

Sadly, the future looks bleak for this sort of expensive,

culture-based documentary. The Government's new Broadcasting Bill hopes

to inject a strong dose of market forces, of American-style populist

television, into the previously privileged and protected world of

British broadcasting.

Presenters such as Bamber Gascoigne, who have devoted themselves to

conveying serious historical information in a style approachable by all,

are nervous. ''The Broadcasting Bill augurs very badly for serious

documentaries. Mrs Thatcher has argued that specialised programmes can

find a specialised audience. But these programmes are so expensive to

make that you need to keep the element of a chance viewer stumbling upon

the show,'' he says.

Yet if all the producer can offer to potential financial backers is a

specialised, and therefore numerically limited audience, a costly

programme, however worthwhile, will lose out to cheap Australian soaps.

Gascoigne hopes The Great Moghuls will encourage people to visit India

and discover for themselves ''the visual delights of civilisation with

the story lines of dynasties. The stories are so strong and the delights

are so great.''

If the popularity of today's travel programmes, and the predicted

prime-time audience of 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 is anything to go by, he

should be successful. ''Today's travelling world has more money and is

interested in far away places that are now easily accesible. Art and

architecture are now increasingly considered interesting for their own

sake. People now know more than ever before, thanks in large part to the

immediacy of television, about distant countries.''

If all else fails, Bamber Gascoigne perched on a camel should be good

for a laugh.

* The Great Moghuls begins tonight at 8pm on Channel 4. The

accompanying pamphlet, Journey Through Moghul India, by Louise

Nicholson, is available from Channel 4 Books.