Saturday, March 25, 2023


On the afternoon of Saturday 8th August 2015, I sent nine rubbish bags to my local recycling centre in what was, at the time, a very lucid and easy decision.

The bags contained over two hundred and fifty Video Home System (VHS) cassettes of off-air TV recordings I had amassed from 1997, none of which were able to be recycled at the time due to the black plastic used in their composition. I had intended to digitise their contents for future use, but after realising the size of the task, and that all I had recorded on them, from obscure films that helped with my degree studies to whole series of the BBC comedy quiz "Never Mind the Buzzcocks", will continue to be available online or from archives.

My habits with recording programmes to VHS also meant you were unlikely to find anything special. I recorded in Long Play mode, reducing the maximum 240 lines of picture quality to 230, something that made very little difference when recording episodes of “The Simpsons”. I also eliminated continuity announcements and advert breaks as much as I could, their comparatively ephemeral nature now making recordings of them more highly prized. Safe in the knowledge that nothing was going to be lost from the loss of my collection, it was easy to let it go.

The big regret I still have was getting rid of the VHS recorder as well, perceiving there to be no more use for it. The random analogue glitches of an authentic VHS recording are more acceptable than the hazy VHS-like filter that can be applied to a digital video file to produce a degraded or nostalgic effect, and because making videos was not a consideration I had at the time, I saw no reason to hold the recorder back. Not readily having the ability to recreate that prized look with authentic equipment was an oversight on my part.

Changing rituals from “time-shifting” by recording programmes to watch later, to streaming everything at any time, makes it easy to forget that VHS was once the only way most people owned moving pictures, other video tape and disc formats notwithstanding. This was mainly the result of the Japanese government attempting to force manufacturers to adopt a single consumer tape format, and by JVC providing their VHS format as an open standard others could use without licence, something Sony was not willing to do with their technically superior Betamax format, its smaller cassette size also limiting their available recording time.

While we have not lost the right to make home video recordings for personal use, the ability to do so has mostly been lost. There is no open ability to download and keep programmes from streaming websites, and neither would they accept that, and while my television can record off-air video to a USB stick, it will only play back on that one television. Very occasionally, a TV station may also show a programme that has been out of circulation for decades – I am still waiting for the BBC to show John Berger’s original 1972 series “Ways of Seeing”, never issued on home video to my knowledge, instead of relying on the tie-in book.

Attaching some sort of video capture device to my television is starting to sound like good proposition, especially now the bulk of VHS cassette storage can be avoided.

Saturday, March 18, 2023


I should have realised that, when “The Shape of Water” won in 2018, a truly original genre-based film like “Everything Everywhere All at Once” would eventually win the Academy Award for Best Picture. This year, I was worried that either the remake of “All Quiet on the Western Front” or “The Fabelmans” would win because they fit the stereotypes of films that perform well at award ceremonies: important dramas about the human condition, and/or a paean to the art of filmmaking. 

Centred on an unconventional romance, inspired by “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, “The Shape of Water” was the first fantasy film to have won the Best Picture Oscar since “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” in 2004, but if you classify it as science fiction, then “The Shape of Water” is the first sci-fi winner of the award. 

For me, “Everything Everywhere All at once” winning Best Picture felt like if “The Matrix” had won in 2000, or “Back to the Future” in 1986, but neither film was even nominated – the films that won in these years were “Gladiator” and “Platoon”, with nominations including “Children of a Lesser God”, “The Mission”, “Chocolat”, “Erin Brockovich” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, when foreign language nominations for Best Picture were still very rare.

I have never been convinced by those that said “The Matrix” was too complicated to follow for a mainstream blockbuster film, especially when “Inception” received a Best Picture nomination a decade later, and the success of productions by the Wachowski sisters and Christopher Nolan proves there is a wide audience for blockbuster films that make you sit forward, rather than sit back, released by their genres rather than trapped by them. 

Sci-fi, horror, fantasy or other genre-based films have rarely won Best Picture, to the extent that I said to myself this year that, wow, a comedy has won, albeit one that has inhaled most other film genres in its representation of alternate universes. It is like “drama” has become the default in fictional film, instead of a genre in itself.

When I saw “Everything Everywhere All at Once” in May 2022, I wrote in my diary that it “was absolutely brilliant, perhaps the most imaginative science fiction film since ‘The Matrix’, and the kind of film I am not likely to see made again in a long time.” I like that I managed to successfully summarise the plot: “Michelle Yeoh [stars] as a laundrette owner who must save the world by accessing the ‘multiverse’ to harness the powers of alternate versions of herself.” It’s like baldly describing “Back to the Future” as someone trying to unite their parents before they cease to exist.

I also wrote “it has stayed with me too”. The resonance among its audiences over the choices we make, and lives not led, must have turbocharged the word of mouth that carried this film through the rest of 2022. Then again, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is far more my sort of film than franchises like “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water”.

Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis deserve their Oscars based solely on the acting range they had to display across different roles and genres, while the film’s triumph for Asian representation in Hollywood means Stephanie Hsu will have her chance again soon. I am sure I didn’t think of this aspect at the time due to being caught up in the story, and my tastes in cinema not being centred in Hollywood.

What I like the most about “Everything Everywhere All at Once” winning the Academy Award for Best Picture is that it now shows there is an appetite for breaking the boundaries of what a mainstream film is, and those that break it will now be rewarded for it. This also guarantees that the next film to cause this much excitement may be just as original. Whatever that may be, I will have more of it please.

Sunday, March 12, 2023


I had wanted to buy a copy of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” for a while. I now have the Eureka Entertainment "Masters of Cinema" series edition, making it part of an excellently-produced series that includes the definitive versions of silent films like "Metropolis," "Nosferatu," and "The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari," along with later films like "Nashville" and "Grey Gardens" - although, if you are a serious film collector and scholar, you will be already aware of this.


My reason for buying this film is, like "Citizen Kane," it is considered one of the greatest films of all time. Both films also suffered the fate of the original camera negative being destroyed in fires. However, with the reputation of "Citizen Kane" only being firmly established after the critic Pauline Kael wrote about it in the 1970s, "The Passion of Joan of Arc" was seriously studied from the start, even if everyone was watching the wrong version of it.


As befits a religious-themed, pre-"Life of Brian" film, and one not made by a French person, "Joan of Arc" was subjected to cuts mandated by French film censors and the Archbishop of Paris. The fire happened after that, and in a time when copies of films were easily discarded after use, and when those copies were routinely made from the original negative, the original film was as good as lost.


What do you do from here? Carl Dreyer was able to stitch together a second version of the film, using alternate takes, and other shots not originally used.


That version was also destroyed by a fire in 1929. "Safety film" was not introduced until the 1940s, meaning an entire art form had to rely on nitrate film stock, combustible when stored or even moved wrongly.


Until 1951, the only widely-available version of the film was a cut-down version with a commentary from an American radio personality. The rediscovery of a print of the second version consigned the bastardisation to the bin, but this version had a Baroque-style film score and subtitles added by the person who found it. All the while, the director had to look on and object to what happened to what was left of his work.


This is where it gets weird, if it didn't feel so already. In 1981, a copy of the original version was discovered, in its original wrapping from the Danish film censor, in a janitor's cupboard in a mental hospital in Oslo - in 1928, the director of the hospital asked for a copy, as they had written about French history. The Norwegian Film Institute was contacted to see if they wanted it. They took it, then stored it for three years without watching it. When they finally did, it was found to be perfect.


This sort of miraculous discovery is not new - two episodes of "Dad's Army" were rescued from a skip, some Patrick Troughton "Doctor Who" episodes were recently found in Nigeria, and the now complete version of "Metropolis" used elements found in Argentina and New Zealand. The simple thing is never to throw anything away, as you may not be the one who realises how much it is worth.

Saturday, March 4, 2023


On Monday 3rd April 2023, the BBC will launch “BBC News”, a new 24-hour TV news channel replacing both BBC World News and the domestic BBC News Channel, known on-screen as simply “BBC News”, which launched as BBC News 24 in September 1997. With both channels merged into one service a month ahead of the relaunch, the final UK-only hour of the BBC News Channel was broadcast from 5pm on Friday 3rd March, which I watched on my phone while on the way home from work... and there lies the problem.


There was a time when I had BBC News 24 constantly on in the background at home, turning my room into a hotel foyer. It was my major source of the latest news, along with the BBC’s teletext service Ceefax (which I talked about here). But around the time it renamed as the BBC News Channel in 2008, I gained access to broadband internet, starting my shift towards getting most of my news online, even if still led by BBC News, live streaming and reports now even more immediate than television can provide.


Sharing programmes between the BBC’s two news channels has happened since the launch of BBC News 24, and if the bulletins weren’t shared, the stories often were. The UK feed of the new “BBC News” channel will be able to break in with, well, UK-based breaking news, just like live news pages appear on the BBC News website. If I don’t catch one, I will catch the other.


With the new channel broadcasting worldwide, opting out at various points for UK news, this relaunch could be seen as the death of the domestic news channel through cost cutting. With BBC World News being a commercial enterprise, and not funded by the UK’s TV licence fee, there is an argument for the BBC preserving that which makes money to make more programmes, but BBC World News also reaches nearly a hundred million people every week, a major example of British cultural soft power emulated by English-language channels from broadcasters like NHK of Japan, TRT from Turkey, and Al-Jazeera in Qatar. 


Meanwhile, audiences to UK news channels are usually measured in the tens of thousands. The commercial Sky News, arguing in 1999 that a publicly funded news channel was unfair and illegal under EU law, a complaint rejected by the European Commission, has not made money since it launched in 1989. The audiences of the right-leaning GB News and Talk TV, both having launched relatively recently, remain small.


Changes in newsgathering have also accelerated in recent years. Appearing on the BBC News Channel once involved travelling to its studio in London, or one of several regional centres across the UK, or being interviewed by reporters whose cameras were connected to satellite trucks, or whose footage would later be compiled in an edit suite. Now, particularly following the pandemic, contributors mostly appear from their homes, or anywhere at all, using their own computers and phones, the inevitable decline in picture and quality accepted and tolerated by both audiences and the BBC in pursuit of the news. Live reports to TV can use mobile internet to provide the link, just as reports can similarly be completed at the scene and uploaded to the channel’s production team.


The news eats through media, from newspapers to radio, through to television and online. This has just been the latest part of that process.

Sunday, February 26, 2023


I write to learn, so I remain perplexed about the growth, and more recently the explosion, of the use of artificial intelligence in the construction of essays and articles – I hesitate to describe it as “writing”. Having set myself the challenge in 2023 of writing at least one A4 page of diary every day, running to approximately three hundred words, then the mere act of writing one word after another really isn’t hard at all, even if you must go back on yourself to edit redundant words. Writing an article won’t take much effort if you know your subject, unless you are also relying on your AI program to gather the necessary information on that subject.

I promise the above paragraph was typed by hand. I have thought of engaging the use of an AI chatbot to see what it would come out with, but it is very hard to find one that could produce a satisfactorily entertaining result, or not require me to create a login or pay to use it – if you want help, or you simply want to cheat time and process, then you have now created a marketplace, and the producers want paying. Not only is it more rewarding to write that essay yourself, but it is also cheaper.

ChatGPT has been the AI chatbot causing the most ructions right now, for its delivery of prose, and even poetry, in a both a naturalistic style and in imitation of other writers. As a “Generative Pre-trained Transformer” with as many available samples of the written word stacked behind it, ChatGPT has been fine-tuned to sample a number of desired outputs from the question posed to it, rank those outputs in order, and uses an evaluator protocol that optimises and produces the most rewarding answer, both for the end user and in the future machine learning involved in “training” the chatbot to continue producing the correct answer. However, the overall aim is to take a word, and decide what the next word should be. Basic rules of grammar will get you half the way, until you must make a decision.

One limitation to ChatGPT is it can sometimes produce a nonsensical answer due to having no source of truth to draw upon in its sample writing, or that previous training caused it to be too cautious in selecting the correct answer, or even select the incorrect answer altogether. This is described in artificial intelligence terms as a “hallucination”, despite a person’s hallucination appearing to be real without having any external stimulus. What I would be worried about is proofreading: no-one should take anything they read entirely as read without proper evaluation, or trust in the evaluation another person has done.

With OpenAI, the research team behind ChatGPT, looking into “watermarking” its answers to avoid plagiarism, the turning point will not be when AI can produce infallible answers – the machines will only take over when their hallucinations are eliminated.

Saturday, February 18, 2023


“Lilt matters. Show me someone who hasn’t had a hangover turned around after drinking a Lilt and I’ll show you a liar”, wrote Esther Watson on the website of news magazine “The Spectator” on Valentine’s Day. “No, this is a disaster for people of good taste, never mind the woke-or-not debates.”


Earlier the same day, The Coca-Cola Company announced that the drink they introduced in 1975 (which I mentioned when talking about Tizer) will be rebranded as “Fanta Pineapple & Grapefruit”, after a few months of using altered the fruit-flavoured soda range’s branding, being labelled as “by Fanta”, and switching to use Fanta’s moulded bottles. 


The drink itself remains untouched, but Watson was not reassured: “How can these people expect us loyal Lilt drinkers to trust them when they didn’t even have the decency to give us advanced warning of their plans and time to come to terms with this shock – and, more importantly, stockpile?” I don’t know if Watson’s touch was in her cheek as she wrote, later saying that Fanta – “a silly brand and mediocre at best” - didn’t taste of pineapple or grapefruit, as if the point of the announcement had been missed accidentally, or for effect. I don’t expect Fanta Lemon to taste of pineapple.


Elsewhere, Nels Abbey wrote in “The Guardian” that Lilt “could not have been less authentic as a ‘taste of the tropics’ if it wore fake dreadlocks and called itself Bob Marley Brew”, while cheese maker and Blur bassist Alex James wrote in “The Sun” – in an article that erroneously claimed Coca-Cola had bought the brand – talked about other brands that should be brought back, like Spangles and Panda Pops. This is on top of various people on social media saying their life had been ruined, and further misunderstanding that it is the drink that is being discontinued, not the brand.


I will not lament about progress. This happened in September 2022 when BBC Radio 5 Live dropped the Saturday classified football results [link], a moment to deplore change, followed by everyone moving on. The same will happen here – no-one dashed their brains out when Marathon chocolate bars were renamed to Snickers, and people still bought Opal Fruits when they became Starburst.  


My comedy song “Nostalgia’s Gonna Get You” [link] features the line “Quatro soda, still alive” for all the reasons shown above. Quatro was on sale during the 1980s, and was a carbonated soft drink made of pineapple, grapefruit, orange and passion fruit. Many similar drinks are available under brands like Rubicon and Rio. Even people who think Lilt has been discontinued can buy Caribbean Crush, with pineapple, grapefruit and mango, by Levi Roots, he of the Reggae Reggae Sauce, and with a greater claim to the tropical imagery previously used to advertise Lilt.


Because it is only the name that is changing, talking about Lilt in the sense that is going away almost feels like it has been anthropomorphised, imbuing it with a soul to then be taken away. Products change their names all the time, either out of necessity – Uncle Ben’s rice becoming Ben’s Original, or Aunt Jemima becoming the Pearl Milling Company – or when a product is improved, like Sibbs SR toothpaste eventually becoming Mentadent P.


The only way I can reconcile this thought is people placing the product or brand into their own history, with its demise amounting to a rewriting of history. Again, Lilt has not been “cancelled” in this regard. Coca-Cola’s press release about the name change mentioned that Lilt was the number 2 carbonated tropical drink in the UK, so not enough people were buying it to make it number 1. If those nostalgic enough for Lilt still bought it, would it have stayed?

I am not a fan of grapefruit, so I have rarely tried Lilt. Coca-Cola sell a Piña Colada-flavoured Fanta in the United States – can I have that instead? 

Sunday, February 12, 2023


One thing I learned from my visit to the SeaCity Museum in Southampton is that I love looking at model ships in glass cases. With the museum comprising of three major sections, telling the story of the RMS Titanic and its fateful maiden voyage from Southampton in 1912, the story of Southampton as a major seafaring port, and a rotating display of items from the city council’s archives, at every point no opportunity is lost to display a model of a ship in a glass case. From the 1:25 scale model of RMS Queen Mary, reproduced to a terrifying level of detail by the same shipyard that built the full-size ship, to the latest of the Lego “Titanic” models, this is the closest I can get to experiencing the glamour and opulence of transatlantic travel.

It's odd wanting to travel on something that no longer exists – I sincerely doubt the Queen Mary could move from its spot in Long Beach, California after fifty years, and the SS United States, gutted of its insides and facing an uncertain future in Philadelphia has been out of service for just as long. No-one has reason to build ocean liners of their type, with only Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 maintaining a transatlantic route for only part of the year, its status as a Royal Mail Steamer (RMS) being a ceremonial gesture to the old days of “steam packet” routes across the world. Passenger jets rendered obsolete the ships built to withstand the punishment of the Atlantic Ocean, and ill-equipped to be adapted for cruising, where the ship itself became the destination – only the bottom half of the Queen Mary 2 is built like an ocean liner of old, its superstructure being a modern cruise ship.

I personally find the SS Normandie to be the best-looking ocean liner ever made, from the sweeping lines of its streamlined exterior to the interior presided over by Pierre Patout, a founder of the Art Deco style, with no two first-class cabin designed the same way. However, it entered service in 1935, and many countries’ liners were built with government subsidies that predicated on their being converted for military use if required – Cunard’s original RMS Mauretania, launched in 1906, was also built to be an armed merchant cruiser, with added cannons, but the cost of running such an enormous ship led to ocean liners fulfilling wartime duties as troop carriers and hospital ships. (The Normandie would be requisitioned by the United States when the Nazis took over France in World War II, but it caught fire and capsized in 1942 during its conversion to troop transport, spending the rest of the war laying on its side.)

Cruise ships have changed the expectations of ocean-going passengers – my parents have visited the Queen Mary in California, and were amazed by how small it felt, particularly the cabins. The ships I would have liked the opportunity to travel on, an idea of “wouldn’t it be nice” tempered by thoughts of “it won’t sell these days”, were Cunard’s RMS Media and RMS Parthia. Half the length of the Queen Mary, they operated from Liverpool to New York, transporting a maximum of 250 passengers, all in first class, plus freight. They were Katharine Hepburn’s favourite transatlantic ships, and their more contained and relaxed nature makes it easy to see why. Apart from two decks of cabins, the common rooms were contained on one deck featuring a lounge, drawing room, smoking room, cocktail bar, a long gallery and promenade, library, dining room and barber shop. No swimming pool, no rollercoaster, no climbing wall, only opportunities to relax, sit and chat. Both jet travel and cargo ships would curtail the Media and Parthia’s careers with Cunard in 1961, sold to be refitted as cruise liners carrying substantially more passengers.