Saturday, June 3, 2023


I thought I knew what let myself in for by watching “The Beales of Grey Gardens.”

The film is a sequel to “Grey Gardens,” Albert & David Maysles’ 1975 documentary that followed “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, cousins to Jackie Kennedy, living in poverty within a crumbling mansion in East Hampton, New York. The faded grandeur of the house, and the defiant beauty of the characters, has bewitched audiences ever since. 

For me, it came across as a cross between Bean Wheatley’s film of J.G. Ballard’s novel “High Rise”, with a tower block and its residents decaying into chaos while indifferent to the outside world, and “Steptoe and Son,” with the child bound to the parent and the house, but yearning to leave. Little Edie did eventually leave, and moved around a lot since, but only after her mother’s death, and after she could guarantee that any buyer of Grey Gardens would not demolish it. When the 2002 Academy Awards had its memorial montage of film industry people that died over the year, Little Edie was included, such was the cultural impact “Grey Gardens” has made.

“The Beales of Grey Gardens” was released in 2006, utilising more of the conversation that would not have been given time to breathe in the original film. The Maysles were proponents of “Direct Cinema,” which aimed to show life as it really is, achieved through developments in lighter and more portable cameras and sound equipment, and through using it to present the objective truth, without outside opinion or narration. However, in both this film and the original, the Maysles are a passive audience for both Big Edie and Little Edie - if the characters are inviting you into their lives, it makes it hard to stay detached for too long.

One sequence that I could not believe was left out of the original film is where you see the Maysles become active participants. They turn up for filming as usual, and Little Edie yells that the house is on fire. Sure enough, on the landing upstairs, a fire has broken out in a corner, an inevitability of tinder-dry wooden houses in that part of the US. Bowls of wood, and a blanket that was a gift from Jackie Kennedy, is used to put out the fire. Later, we see the hole caused by the fire has grown, from the wall into the floor, and a raccoon has made home in it. The answer? Lay down some bread for it, and allow the wildlife to continue taking over the house.

Anything I try to write here will not do justice to what you see in the films themselves, or to the people whose lives were followed. All I know is, the Beales live the way they wanted, Grey Gardens itself was restored, having been bought in 1979 for $220,000 and sold in 2017 for $15 million, by married “Washington Post” journalists Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee, the latter portrayed by Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s film “The Post”. The hole was replaced by a door.

Saturday, May 27, 2023


Watching television coverage of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, I thought to myself, “is crypto like tulips?” The 1634-37 speculator bubble surrounding tulip bulbs is considered the first recorded example of the value of one type of product far outstripping its usual price, relative to similar types – I don’t think sunflowers have experienced a similar boom. Likewise, as the innovation and novelty of NFTs caused their explosion in value from 2021 [link], this has largely reversed for reasons including their loss of that novelty value.

I then remembered I previously benefitted from the bust that had followed the end of a speculative boom, one that happened over a decade earlier. 

I think it was in the late 2000s, surely before 2010, that I saw piles of American comic books appearing in branches of the discount bookstore The Works. I had only been reading American comic books for a few years, but I already knew enough to know what I was looking at: the first issue of the “X-Men” (volume 2) from 1991, written by Chris Claremont, and illustrated by Jim Lee and Scott Williams. The pile contained the four different covers that made this first issue into a collector’s item at the time, and the fifth that turned them into a gatefold tetraptych. This last version sold for £2.50 in 1991, but here it was three or four copies for £1 – I got the gatefold issue and one of the others, for the story told inside was the same.

Like the value of first edition novels, the values of particular comic books had boomed by 1991, most notably the first appearances of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk. This was translated special “collectors’ edition” first issues of further new series, featuring higher-quality paper stock, card covers, foil covers, glow-in-the-dark covers, die-cut covers, and so on, all at a premium price compared with a standard book, and seen as an investment by those not necessarily there to read the story inside.

“X-Men” #1 is recognised as the biggest-selling comic of all time, but the 8.1 million copies sold were pre-orders made by comic book stores and newsagents – only half of these were actually sold to customers in 1991, and what I saw must have been the remaining stock being emptied from a warehouse. This continued for some time: I bought two copies of “Superman” #75 from 1992, “The Death of Superman”, one where I opened the black and red bag containing the black armband, trading card and stickers, leaving the other unopened; many issues from the beginning of Image Comics, like “Youngblood”, “Chapel” and “Shadowhawk”, with lots of cross-hatched art and gaudy colours; and various issues of “Spider-Man 2099”, “Punisher 2099”, “Ravage 2099” and so on, more new series and more ways to grab your attention. 

The comics speculator bubble had largely burst by the mid-1990s, leaving readers to carry on as before. Even though Marvel Comics came out of this period worst, having entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1996, this also came after a stock market flotation and buying a distributor, but the bubble affected the whole industry. Of course, this was all before the true value was found, by Hollywood, in comic book characters and their stories, over the paper they were printed on.

Saturday, May 20, 2023


The perception of the Commodore Plus/4 computer is of an aberration that was dead upon arrival in 1984, putting off software developers by being incompatible with the more capable and cheaper Commodore 64, being saddled with built-in productivity programs that were not useful enough, and having graphics capabilities that were not fully utilised by games developers for decades. It became our family’s first computer, but was swiftly replaced by the more widely-supported Acorn Electron [link].


The Plus/4 had been conceived as part of an effort to fill two gaps in Commodore’s product range: low-cost computers mainly used for gaming, like Sinclair’s ZX81 and ZX Spectrum, and business-oriented machines. Commodore did have the VIC-20 to represent the former category, but used more integrated circuit chips than the Sinclair computers, and the more seriously-minded PET had already been withdrawn in 1982. To that end, one chip would be designed to reduce costs by handling video, sound and keyboard input, along with memory refresh and interval timing. 


The MOS Technology 7360/8360 was known as the “Text Editing Device”, shortened to TED, and while its it could produce multiple graphic modes and up to 121 colours, outstripping most 8-bit machines, hardware sprite capability was left out as it was not required for running forty-column text-based business programs, and only two channels of square-wave sound were provided for the same reason – this was still one channel more than the initial ZX Spectrum, and two more than the ZX81, and sprites could still be generated for games using software.


To that end, the Commodore 116 would be the entry-level model with 16K RAM and a $49 price, followed by the business-oriented 264, with 64K RAM and a $100 price, and a larger 364 that would have an extra numeric keypad and a voice synthesiser. The 264 and 364 had ROM sockets that would be filled by chips containing programs you specified at purchase, which gave me the impression that, with the low cost of the machine, you could retain a number of them for different purposes, like one containing an advanced word processor, or another as a software development kit, swapping them out as needed.


Having a separate ecosystem was almost commonplace in 1984 – Commodore’s PET, VIC-20 and 64 were incompatible with each other, and Tandy’s various TRS-80 ranges, including the Colour Computers and Model 100 pocket-sized machines, were all distinct. However, they all had the support of the manufacturers behind them, but the TED-based machines did not have this. With Commodore’s founder Jack Tramiel leaving the company ahead of its going on sale, the computers were left to the company’s marketing department to package and sell the machines. At the same time, the business computer market was to be taken over by the growing number of IBM-compatible PCs, built using off-the-shelf parts and operating systems, mostly compatible with each other through competing with one system.


The 364 never appeared, and the 116 was produced in small numbers, and sold mostly in Europe, its place taken by the Commodore 16, using a Commodore 64 case and keyboard and selling at twice the price. The 264 was renamed the “Plus/4” to indicate the filling of its two vacant chip sockets with a built-in, cut-down word processor, spreadsheet, database and paint program – while a cassette data recorder was made for it and the Commodore 16, the Plus/4 could only save work from its built-in programs to a disc drive. The Plus/4 sold for $299, more than the Commodore 64, and was gone after a couple of years.


I wish we kept hold of our Plus/4, but we did not know the new games that would be made for it in the decades since by its dedicated following, but it wasn’t there when it was needed. Commodore experienced the same issue with the Amiga 1000 the following year, but the potential for that 16-bit computer was, thankfully, realised far more quickly.

Saturday, May 13, 2023


Mae Muller performing "I Wrote a Song" for the UK

May 2023 has been a good time for politically charged camp spectacles held in the United Kingdom, the Coronation of King Charles III having been followed by a week of events for the Eurovision Song Contest, held in Liverpool on behalf of Ukraine after Russia’s war left them unable to host after winning last year. If the Prime Minister calls a General Election next week, I am going to explode.

Much like trying to follow the overnight results of a General Election, I have fallen asleep before the end of the last five Eurovision finals. Starting at the usual 8pm UK time, this year’s contest was scheduled to finish at midnight, which was 2am in Ukraine, or an hour past my natural power-down time. This has been a result of the gradual change in both the presentation and significance of the contest, and my sleeping habits not having changed in that time.

How did I do in 2023? It turns out that deciding to write an article about the programme you are watching requires you to remain alert, although I began flagging during the reading out of the scores, which will always be slower paced than everything that came before it. With the UK’s brilliant entry, Mae Muller’s “I Wrote a Song”, finishing second from last on the night, or 25th out of 37 overall, I finally called it a night at 12.05am, ten minutes before the end of the contest, and before Sweden’s entrant, Loreen, could reprise her winning song “Tattoo”. Whatever time it is planned to end, the Eurovision final is always destined to overrun by about fifteen minutes.

But that is hardly the point. With the theme of the contest being “United by Music”, with Ukrainian music and culture emphasised from the start, and culminating in the most effective performance of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” there has probably been, every part of the contest that has grown bigger since the UK last held it in 1998, from the opening flag-waving procession of entrants, through the use of video walls in the staging of each song, to the scale and length of the interval acts, and the ultimate gruelling wait to find out the public vote only gave the UK nine points (even if that was still four more than Spain), everything had a reason to be there.

The scale of the coverage given this year by the BBC, as host broadcaster, made the Eurovision Song Contest into a week-long event this time, from the opening ceremony in Liverpool the previous Sunday, the two semi-finals on the Tuesday and Thursday, and various programmes celebrating the music and history of the contest. The semi-final had been introduced in 2004, with a second added five years later, as broadcasters from more countries joined the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) during the 1990s. Australia’s love of the contest made them honorary Europeans to compete themselves from 2011, but Australia has been represented in the EBU since it was formed in 1950, alongside Canada and New Zealand. (“Active” and “Associate” membership of the EBU is determined using the “European Broadcasting Area” as defined by the International Telecommunications Union, for those who still ask why Israel competes each year.) 

Held in Birmingham, the 1998 contest still closely resembled how it began in 1956, a one-night event linking countries both through friendship, music and technology, with all twenty-five entrants singing in their home languages with the backing of an orchestra. Lower-scoring countries were still required to skip the following year to allow other countries the chance to compete at least every other year, a scheme introduced in 1993 to replace an off-air qualifying round. Pop music, very much mainstream in 1998, remained disseminated by TV, radio and physical sales of music, and “Top of the Pops” aired on BBC One the night before the contest, like it did every Friday night. It was primarily a song contest, and one the UK was always destined to take very seriously.

But changes were already underway: 1998 was the last year for both the language rule and the orchestra, and the first year where a public vote by telephone replaced scoring from professional juries, where the phone network of competing countries allowed – years of chopping and changing the scoring system has now arrived at the jury and phone/online votes being treated separately and weighted the same as each other. Furthermore, the choice of the National Indoor Arena cemented the contest’s move away from theatres to larger venues, from stalls to standing crowds.

I did start by saying Eurovision was a camp spectacle, the subtext of outrageousness and gaudiness in both the songs and their staging having now become both outright text and a major selling point of the contest. It is no surprise that the growing inclusivity of other countries and cultures would lead to the contest being adopted as a symbol of inclusivity. The backlashes and death threats against Israel’s transgender competitor in 1998, Dana International, and Austria’s drag queen entrant Conchita Wurst in 2014, are mostly forgotten because their songs went on to win the contest. Dana International’s song “Diva” becoming the first to win when (almost) all the people of Europe were given the chance to vote may prove to be the most poignant moment in the history of the contest.

Saturday, May 6, 2023



I have previously talked about Marshall McLuhan’s description of television as a “cool” medium, requiring more participation and effort from the viewer to determine the meaning of its low-resolution output. Televisions were limited at the time of the publishing of McLuhan’s book “Understanding Media” in 1964: small screens, low-definition picture, mostly black and white, mono sound, and competing with any sound and movement happening outside of it. Have technological advances helped to “warm” television as a medium in the following sixty years, making it easier to simply sit back and watch?

For British viewers, this is an easy comparison to make. Only three Coronations of British monarchs have occurred in the near ninety years a regular television service has run, the first happening only six months after broadcasting began, with each occasion demonstrating the power and potential of the medium in a different way each time.

Television cameras were not allowed in Westminster Abbey for the Coronation service of King George VI and Queen Mary on Wednesday 12th May 1937 (not a bank holiday), although the BBC, who did carry a live radio commentary, later broadcast the newsreels filmed there. However, the procession following the service was televised for an hour from 2pm, from cameras placed at Apsley Gate at Hyde Park Corner, both at crowd level and above them on scaffolding, with Frederick Grisewood commentating on the pictures. This was the BBC’s first TV outside broadcast, using a unit delivered two days earlier.

You could argue this effort was pointless. With only a few hundred prohibitively expensive television sets in use, and with coverage limited to Greater London, anyone able to view were likely either in the crowd, or in the Abbey, but the precedence was set. Film cameras may have allowed people to witness events at a distance, and radio may let you hear them, but television now demonstrated the potential to eclipse them both.

British television was already broadcasting using the 405-line standard that remained in use until 1985, and the use of commentators for lower-definition, lower-contrast black and white pictures was almost a necessity – this was the same “cool” medium McLuhan described in the 1960s. When Queen Elizabeth was crowned on Tuesday 2nd June 1953 (this time a bank holiday), on one of the first occasions that British television was broadcast through the day, commentators were used at every point to interpret and contextualise the pictures, most notably Richard Dimbleby at Westminster Abbey.  

In 1953, the Queen overturned arguments from Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and his government about it being fit or proper to admit TV cameras, and asserting the right of subjects to participate in the ceremony – remember that Prince Philip remarked that he and the Queen watched the BBC’s 1954 adaptation of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, immediately snuffing out a row in Parliament over the broadcasting of violent content. This Coronation coverage, doubled the number of televisions in British homes to three million in the year preceding it in preparation - with an audience estimated at 28 million, averaging at seventeen people per television, you did well to see any picture at all.

Which brings us to Saturday 6th May 2023 (finally a weekend). In my experience of watching the Coronation of King Charles III, television remained a “cool” medium, the coverage on BBC One having to compete for my attention with ITV’s coverage from another room – the first time it has had to compete for Coronation coverage - and the sound of a tumble dryer. 

Despite that, the picture was bigger, playing on a thirty-two inch screen; the picture quality was in 1080-line high definition with vivid colour; more cameras, and mobile cameras, made for a more cinematic presentation; and the commentary was correspondingly minimal, with Huw Edwards in Westminster Abbey interjecting on fewer occasions than James Mates on ITV. The BBC alone provided four different ways to watch the same pictures, with another commentary providing further information for accessibility purposes, with signing for the deaf, and with no commentary at all.

In much the same way that films are broadcast on television, with the viewer at home changing their setting to suit, television remains a “cool” medium through its setting, no matter how much television itself tries to bridge the gap. There is no need for a separate feature film of the Coronation of King Charles III, like Pathé News did with the high-definition colour film for his mother’s ceremony in 1953, for this Coronation was shown live in cinemas, which would have been interesting to experience.

Saturday, April 29, 2023


Marking its 125th anniversary in 2023, despite having first gone on sale as “Brad’s Drink” in 1893, Pepsi unveiled its latest rebrand in North America on 28th March, rolling out to the rest of the world in 2024. Currently a red and blue circle bisected by a white line with “pepsi” placed under it, the new logo returns the name in bold capitals to the newly wavy line, termed by them as a “pulse”, in what is essentially a refresh of the branding used from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Pepsi’s Chief Marketing Officer, Todd Kaplan, said in PepsiCo’s press release that “This new visual system brings out the best of the Pepsi brand's rich heritage, while taking a giant leap forward to set it up for success in an increasingly digital world.” Not unlike the BBC’s brand refresh from 2021 [which I discussed here], the press release accepts their brand needs to work beyond the static logo featured on the products themselves: “the revitalized and distinct design introduces movement and animation into the visual system, unlocking more flexibility for Pepsi to move between physical and digital spaces, from retail shelves to the metaverse.”

However, the sentence that made me react irrationally was: “The logo and visual identity thoughtfully borrows equity from its 125-year history and incorporates modern elements to create a look that is unapologetically current and undeniably Pepsi.” My initial thought was, “Borrows equity”? Surely it would have been easier to admit “our older logo is more recognisable, and our customers are more nostalgic for it, so we are introducing a new version of it”? And doesn’t “equity” mean the value of something minus its liabilities, so Pepsi are removing elements of their branding that aren’t working? Does this explain why the Pepsi brand isn’t as timeless as that of Coca-Cola, despite how many “Coke” wordmarks they have used over time?

I now know that “brand equity” is a more specific term, relating to the social value of a brand-name, measuring its worth as a financial asset, as a product among other similar items, and public awareness. Reinforcing brand awareness not only involves removing elements that no longer work, but questioning whether what does still works as effectively as it did upon introduction, introducing new elements while maintaining consistency. The BBC logo was changed because it was required to be more flexible on screen; the cultural goodwill towards Volkswagen engendered by their Type 2 camper van helped it pass the “Dieselgate” scandal with the new, nostalgic ID. Buzz electric vehicle; the Co-Op Group reintroducing the original version of their “cloverleaf” logo in 2016, a much stronger brand than had been used in the previous twenty years [which I also talked about here].

In the knowledge of the “cola wars” of the 1980s, the chief objective is to delay changing the product for as long as possible. Coca-Cola famously blinked in 1985, using the “New Coke” controversy to reintroduce the original recipe under the new brand “Coca-Cola Classic”. Likewise, Pepsi was reformulated in the 1920s, after it had been bought out of bankruptcy. For me, Pepsi will remain the cola sold when the restaurant doesn’t serve Coke, but I am well aware of it. 

Sunday, April 23, 2023


Despite having seen many episodes of the game show “Catchphrase”, I had not realised it began with a rule that contestants could not buzz to “catch the phrase” in a computer-generated image until a bell sounded, as confirmed by an incident in the first episode of its second series: the first image appeared, the words “HOT TIN ROOF” shown in tall, blue letters, and the image of a cat is then rendered in ovals and lines that takes the computer two seconds to generate. The first contestant, Dot, buzzes in to guess, just before the bell sounds. The host, comedian Roy Walker, tells Dot that she was slightly too early, offering the other contestant, Andrew, the chance to answer, correctly guessing “cat on a hot tin roof”. Dot went on to win a holiday and £430.

While the second series introduced a second-half, fastest-finger-first “Ready Money Round” that did not use the bell, its use in the initial rounds was not dropped until 2000, fourteen years after the show began on ITV, and just as Walker was replaced with Nick Weir, who is now in charge of entertainment for Royal Caribbean cruise line. But the unwritten reason for the rule made itself clear upon watching “cat on a hot tin roof” back a couple more times: the bell signals when enough of the computer-generated image had been rendered to give the contestants a reasonable chance of getting the answer right.

“Catchphrase” is one of those game shows that, like “Call My Bluff” and “Every Second Counts”, is in fact an American game show that was cancelled after only months on air, only to then have a lengthy run when transplanted to the UK. The original US two-word-titled “Catch Phrase” was among the first game shows to use computer graphics, initially by Limicon Inc. of Toronto, Canada, albeit rudimentary images that often relied upon contextualising words placed on screen, and not far away from the quality of the first screensavers for PCs. These were recycled for the UK version before slowly being replaced by more colours and movement, less reliance on text, zooming in and out of images, and now full 3D animation.

The distributor supplying the US “Catch Phrase” promised TV stations a replacement game show by the distributor if ratings didn’t work out, which happened after just three months. Just as Roy Walker introduced the second series of the UK version by thanking its audience for making it the biggest new game show of 1986, the US producer was trying to shoehorn the “catch phrases” into a “Wheel of Fortune”-style roulette wheel game of chance, a pilot show of which failed to sell in 1987, and again two years later when retried with married couples. 

What was missing was the glue that held the UK “Catchphrase” together: the catchphrases. “Say what you see”, “keep pressing, keep guessing”, and “it’s good, but it’s not right” were all originated by Roy Walker and used by subsequent hosts, and as iconic as show mascot Mr. Chips - the US version had the originally-named Herbie, but had no equivalent of encouraging the contestants if they gave a wrong answer, or buzzed in too early.