Sunday, March 31, 2019


Ever had a computer blow up in your lap?
Over a year ago, I bought a BBC Micro computer, my existing one having stopped working. Connecting it up, a milky white picture slowly appeared on screen, with a “Ready” prompt. Before I could write 10 PRINT “HELLO”, there was the sound of firecrackers, as the capacitors in the power supply let go: instead of temporarily storing electricity, the electrolytic material in the capacitors burned up, unleashing an awful smell that was only cleared by opening up all the doors and windows in the house.
I have not tried to buy another BBC Micro since, as the price of the remaining working examples increase over time - the time and effort to replace failing parts is beyond both my resources and patience. You can emulate this computer, and many older 8-bit and 16-bit computers, through software, which somewhat reproduces the original experience – this is also what runs the current spate of mini game consoles, replicating the Nintendo NES and SNES, the Sony PlayStation and Neo Geo. However, opening my copy of the BeebEM software, as a window on my PC, does not have the desired effect – what you see and hear is essentially an approximation of the original, the rest of Windows 10 continues around it, and my keyboard is far better than what you could buy over thirty years ago. Is it possible to recreate an 8-bit computer that is reliable as we expect our tablets and phones to be today?
Enter the Commodore 64, the Ford Model T of computers, introduced in 1982. Over seventeen million of these were made between 1982 and 1994, production only ending when Commodore, outpaced by the latest PCs and games consoles, went out of business. It had many business and home applications, but is mainly remembered today as a games machine – The 64 Mini, in the same class as the NES Classic, is sold as a games console, emulated through software, with the ability to write BASIC programmes as an extra. I wouldn’t mind one of these, because its sound chip is highly prized, and is used in current music productions.

However, just as you expect with classic cars, you can buy new parts for old computers: you can buy SD card drives for a Commodore 64, new games cartridges, new power supplies, and even replacement chips, all serviced by a hardcore band of enthusiasts. Access to the original chip designs and specifications is made possible by Cloanto, and e-business and e-commerce company that bought the intellectual property to them, and sells their own software emulation for the 16-bit Amiga line of computers.

From this, and through the ability to have chips and circuit boards made to small order sizes and lower costs, products like the Ultimate 64 motherboard have appeared, recreating the original machine using new components, while adding USB and SD card inputs. The mouldings for the computer cases have been bought, and replacement cases are available in many colours. New keyboards are also available, using better, clickier switches. In fact, once someone finds a way of effectively reproducing the keys, screen-printing all the specific graphical symbols onto them, it will be possible to produce a new Commodore 64 using entirely new parts.
I have always assumed you could produce an entirely new Morris Minor from new parts, but the level of support for the Commodore 64, twenty-five years since it ended production, has resulted in the ability to create a new version that is works as well as the original, while being more reliable and longer-lasting, and using fewer parts. This is made possible by, instead of approximating an experience using software, programming a type of chip named a Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA), which is made with transistors that can be assigned uses after they have been made. While these type of chips have been around as long as the Commodore 64, the millions of transistors that each chip can now provide, at lisle cost, enough space to recreate a simpler system in its entirety – another company, Analogue, produces new versions of classic games consoles, such as the Mega SG (which plays Sega Mega Drive / Genesis games), that look, sound and work exactly as originally intended, because no guesswork was required. My hope for a new BBC Micro is for someone to use a FPGA chip there too – there will certainly be fewer capacitors to blow up.

Sunday, March 24, 2019


I realise I could have written about the demise of British record and video store HMV at any time: when it fell into administration last Christmas, or in 2013, when the rise of online film and music streaming threatened its business model, when record label EMI floated it on the stock market in 2002, and when shops like HMV collapsed – Virgin Megastore, Tower Records, MVC and Woolworths. I love to visit these places to discover something that could spark your thoughts, or change the way you think, and take your own personal copy of it home to own forever - to know this experience is now too expensive to support is, well, rather crushing.
The nearest branch of HMV to me is closing next weekend: from next month, if I want to look in a music shop of any type, I will need to catch a train, not just a bus, to a shopping centre three or four towns away, where the cost of renting a store must be cheaper. Cutting rent costs have already closed a dozen stores, leaving around a hundred – the famous London Oxford Street store, where HMV first opened in 1921, was not one of these. Rescuing HMV itself from administration, in February 2019, was relatively cheap: the “Financial Times” reported that Canadian record store owner Doug Putman had bought the biggest store chain of its type in the UK, selling more DVDs and Blu-rays than Amazon, for the price of a large house: £883,000.

For many people, the physical act of going to a shop to buy a film or album is an act of nostalgia: there are simply cheaper, more convenient and more immediate ways of accessing that sort of material, and in a way that does not force you to become a collector, buying a shelf for the DVDs you’ll watch once, then perhaps another time. It is the collector’s market that HMV is being geared towards from now: Putman’s Canadian store, Sunrise Records, which bought HMV Canada when that collapsed in 2017, puts a focus on vinyl, which has become a more premium (and expensive) product in a collector’s market, just as the Criterion Collection, found across from them, promotes the same curated range for films, presenting films as they were meant to be seen, at a premium price. So, if you like to collect things, consider yourself in a niche category, that is currently only being catered to through the goodwill of labels that still want to go to the expense of producing a physical product.

There really isn’t much point to being nostalgic where I had the choice of going to an HMV, Virgin Megastore or Our Price in the same street, if what I was looking for wasn’t found in Woolworths, for this won’t be a situation again, along with the distribution networks that supplied these stores. HMV was once a large group that encompassed bookshops and concert venues, all sold off over time because the safety net of being owned by a record label had gone. The industry is a shadow of what it once was.
I should say I have absolutely no point to make here about what can be done to remedy the situation – I needed time to vent, and take stock of what is happening. I used to pick up a copy of the magazine “NME” from HMV, and even that has migrated online. Retail shopping is changing, habits are changing, and my options for something to do on a weekend has changed. We could be talking about HMV collapsing in another five years from now, once the last person stops looking for their nearest store.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019


“Look — (Stop Me If You've Heard This One) — But There Were These Two Fellers...”
Turning on my television, one Sunday morning, I found an unfeasibly young-looking John Cleese, wearing a bow tie, trying to prevent a woman from entering a room containing shelves filled with eggs, on which were painted clown faces, as a mark of copyright. (There is a real Clown Egg Register, but they moved to using ceramic eggs in the 1980s.) Later, I saw a group of henchmen taking orders from Punch & Judy puppets, before killing their targets using slapstick, and also a comedy writer, played by Bernard Cribbins, wildly spouting one-liners before he is killed, in a room filled with scrunched-up pieces of paper, filled with aborted attempts at writing a joke.

Yes, I also thought “The Avengers” – the “actual” “Avengers,” not the Marvel Comics one - was supposed to be about espionage, but this episode, using the long title above, came during the show’s sixth and last season in 1968-69, by which point it had become a parody of espionage shows, of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, and of itself. In the United States, “The Avengers” was shown on ABC, the same network as the Adam West “Batman” series, and even if the punches and gunshots were real here, the overall tone was much the same. In fact, the story of the show shares some similarities with a later ABC show – “Happy Days.”
When it began in 1961, “The Avengers” was the story of a police surgeon, Dr David Keel (Ian Hendry), who is contacted by John Steed (Patrick Macnee) to solve cases, with stories that played the idealism of the former against the professionalism of the other. Hendry was the star, and Macnee did not spear in every episode. A few episodes of this first series still exist, and they are very engaging, with quite a bit of grit and grime you do not expect if you have only seen the later episodes. In the early 1960s, UK television dramas were filmed as if they were live broadcasts of a stage play, with multiple cameras, sets and a few film inserts, with as much tension coming from this set-up as from the stories themselves – a couple of fluffed lines will make their way through, but it doesn’t matter.

Ian Hendry would leave “The Avengers” for a film career, and the show was changed – Steed’s character became more defined as working for a branch of British intelligence, and his trenchcoated look was swapped for Saville Row suits. A couple of different helpers were tried, but the impact of Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, a tough, leather-suited anthropologist with skills in hand-to-hand combat, defined a new sexual tension that became integral to the show - Macnee and Blackman would later record the novelty song “Kinky Boots” together.

When Honor Blackman would leave for her own film career, starting with “Goldfinger,” “The Avengers” stopped production for six months, in order to work out how to proceed. This is where the “Happy Days” analogy comes in, as “jumping the shark” comes from the moment Arthur Fonzarelli jumped over a shark tank on a motorcycle, and the show stopped being about Richie Cunningham. With “The Avengers” handed over to a team that dealt more with film than TV, the show was consciously turned into the most expensive advertising campaign for British tourism, with stately homes and countryside on view. This attracted ABC, who began commissioning episodes of “The Avengers” for the US, with the UK seeing them later – this change of affairs turned the studio-bound show into a Technicolor action spectacle shot entirely on film, and shot like a feature film, with the equivalent of a million-pound budget for every episode.

The characters changed again. John Steed was the epitome of a gentleman spy, with the origin of his orders no longer explained, apart from saying that he, and his sidekick, “were needed.” Plots could now incorporate science fiction, comedy, or whatever the writers wanted, anything as an excuse to show off the style of the show. A need for Blackman’s replacement to be someone also with “man appeal” – “m. appeal” - created Emma Peel, with Diana Rigg’s character holding their own as much as Cathy Gale, with superior skills, including in chemistry (both scientific and sexual – Macnee thought Steed and Peel did go to bed together away from the camera).

The last series of “The Avengers”, with Linda Thorson’s more innocent Tara King replacing Rigg’s Peel, was supposed to be a return to a grittier type of story, but this swung wildly with stories in the older style, which led to the episode featuring John Cleese and Bernard Cribbins. When ABC cancelled the show, no-one in the UK recommissioned it, and the show died - until French and Canadian investment led to “The New Avengers” in 1976.

By the end of the 1960s, the influence of “The Avengers” was very much in evidence – we would not have the ATV/ITC string of more outlandish shows like “The Persuaders!”, “The Champions,” “Jason King” and “Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased)” - although they can also claim their lineage from “The Saint,” starring Roger Moore, which itself became more frivolous over time. The superficial gloss of “The Avengers” is fascinating to watch back, reflecting its time perfectly, but now I know what the show was like when it started, that has also become a good watch, even if it is entirely unrelated to what it would become.

Sunday, March 17, 2019


One Florin: One Tenth of a Pound (1849)

The main reason most people still require mathematics is when they deal with money, and hearing people express dismay about what were, at the time, massive changes to how they needed their minds to work, is rather odd indeed.
I have now listened twice to a radio documentary titled “Decimal Day - What’s That in Old Money?” Broadcast by the BBC as part of the “Archive on 4” strand, it takes a brisk walk through the process that replaced the old Pound Sterling – the one counted in shillings and pence – with a new decimal currency, climaxing on 15th February 1971. Amongst all the talk of what the new money should be called, and how attached people were to the old sixpence coin, I took from it the concern that people were having to change the way they counted.

Used in Britain since the 8th century, one pound was divided a very large number of ways: twenty shillings made a pound, and twelve pence (still using the Roman “d” for denarii) made a shilling, meaning 240 pennies made a pound. Forty sixpences, or “tanners,” made a pound, as did eighty threepenny bits. Eight half-crown coins, valued at two shillings and sixpence (written 2/6), made a pound. There hadn’t been a guinea coin for well over a century, but the term was still used to denote one pound and one shilling. There had been one sop to progress in 1849 with the florin, with “one tenth of a pound” written across it, but this later became just “two shillings.”

However, decimalised currency, was used in most of Europe for over a hundred years by 1971, and for nearly two hundred years in France. Instead of changing from counting in mathematical base 12 in pennies, to base 20 for shillings, along with all the various jumps needed for other coins, it would be far easier to count in just one base, from one to ten, especially for anyone outside the UK. Indeed, one way to replicate how old money was counted is to count through the list of prime numbers – finding a number only divisible by itself and 1 requires full use of your times tables.

As the documentary points out, the opposition to decimalisation shifted from practical to emotional as Decimal Day was reached – the sixpence was given a reprieve, having been referenced in so much popular culture, and was revalued at 2 1/2 new pence until 1980, when it was finally withdrawn. One- and two-shilling pieces continued to be used until 1990 and 1993 respectively, only because the replacement five and ten pence coins were made the same size, and were only withdrawn when they were made smaller – the current five pence piece is closest we have to the old sixpence.

Something I hadn’t known about was there had been discussion on what one hundred pennies would have equalled. In some former British colonies that used the old currency, like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the decision was taken for one hundred new cents to equal ten old shillings, so one old pound equalled two new dollars or rand. The new British pound could have gone the same way, but the eventual decision was for it to equal one hundred pence instead. Half-pennies, originally removed in 1969, were reintroduced to sub-divide a pound into two hundred units, not unlike the other countries, and not far from the old total of 240. 

A sixpence could have equalled 5p, but because it now equalled 2 1/2p, it was just that little bit more to calculate, a tiny amount of hesitancy. No wonder it was easy for some unscrupulous people to take the “d” in the price and make it “p”, from 5 d to 5p, more than doubling the actual price. Decimalisation is sometimes blamed for the high inflation experienced in the decade that followed, peaking at 25% in 1975, but increasing the supply of money had more to do with that.
This all feels a bit quaint now. Sooner or later, as more and more transactions take place by card or online, and with the price of a bar of chocolate approaching £1, we won’t be talking about pounds and pence – what comes after the decimal point doesn’t matter as much as it once did.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019


The three VHS cassettes most prominent among my childhood were of the films “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, “Laputa: Castle in the Sky”, and “Animalympics” – our family really had some taste. "Animalympics" re-entered my mind after the 2012 Olympic Games, after coming across sections of it on YouTube, and its images ingrained themselves further in my mind than I realised. Released in 1980, it is seldom seen today – it only saw a DVD release in the United States in 2018 - but the story behind the film makes me lucky to have seen it all.

“Animalympics” began as a satire of the Olympic Games using exaggerated cartoon characters, in the tradition of the parodies made in Warner Bros. cartoons of old, but also in line with big sports shows like ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and the BBC’s “Grandstand”. Stephen Lisberger, the director who conceived the idea, and whose studio was busy making TV advertisements and short children’s films, secured a grant from the American Film Institute to create a short segment of his idea. NBC, the TV network that would be showing the 1980 Olympic Games, bought it up straight away: Lisberger proposed they could have little cartoon films for each sport, which could be collated into an hour-long Summer Olympics special, and a half-hour Winter version, before the whole was released as a feature film. Not only did Lisberger ger the go-ahead to make the cartoons, his studio would also produce the on-screen branding for NBC’s coverage of each sport – these also feature in the final film, adding to the sophistication and effectiveness of the parody.

However, note the timing. The Winter special was shown, but the 1980 Olympic Games was taking place in Moscow, and with Russia entering Afghanistan, the United States boycotted the Summer Games. NBC cancelled their coverage, and Lisberger’s studio, having finished most of the film, and in pre-production on their next film, ran out of money. However, with Disney showing interest in that next project, "Animalympics" was completed and premiered, as a feature film, at the Miami Film Festival in 1980. It never had a theatrical release in the US, making its way to cable channels like HBO and The Disney Channel, but made its mark in Europe: to that end, my DVD copy of the film comes from Germany, titled “Dschungel-Olympiade”.

Despite its origins, there are a couple of stories that run through the film: for the Winter games, you have skier Kurt Wuffner, who passes out in a snowstorm and discovers Shangri-La, while the Summer games focusses on the growing rivalry, then relationship, between the marathon runners Rene Fromage, a goat, and Kit Mambo, a lioness. Also featuring are Japanese karate penguin Bruce Kawakamoto, sprinting crocodile Bolt Jenkins, and ice-skating flamingo Donnie Turnell, who literally dances her feathers off. For a film full of athletic, anthropomorphic animals, this is a furry’s paradise, and must have inspired more than a few imaginations.

Each story was written using storyboards first, with dialogue coming later, giving each animator the chance to create exactly what they wanted. Each animator has produced famous work: Roger Allers, who animated Kit Mambo, became co-director of Disney's "The Lion King" (1994), while Bill Kroyer, who animated an ice hockey game that became a war film, directed "FernGully: The Last Rainforest" (1993). And then, there was Brad Bird, who directed the flamingo ice skating: "The Simpsons," "The Iron Giant" (1999), "The Incredibles" (2004), "Ratatouille" (2007), "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" (2011).

"Animalympics" may have been lucky with having talent at the start of brilliant careers, it also had actors from “Saturday Night Live” voicing the characters, a result of the deal with NBC: among all  the animal roles, Gilda Radner utilises her best Barbara Walters impression, Billy Crystal improvises as much as possible, and Harry Shearer provides the avuncular sports anchor personae he had already perfected by then.

This is even before I even mention the music - good, strong songs, "We've Made It to the Top," "You and I Can Run Together," "Love's Not for Me," all things that Stephen Lisberger said to songwriter and performer Graham Gouldman when he was trying to describe the context of the sketches, only to have them made into lyrics. Gouldman, of the band 10cc, which produced "I'm Not in Love," "The Wall Street Shuffle," "Dreadlock Holiday," and "Life is a Minestrone," is the first person to be credited after the title appears on screen, and before Billy Crystal, and this is over a decade before Elton John and Tim Rice won Academy Awards for their work on "The Lion King", and is one of the first cases of pop and rock songs being written for an animated feature film. There was a soundtrack album, and of course I have it as well.

I would just recommend people watch “Animalympics” for the sheer work that was put into it – for a small studio to go to the expense of properly inking their cels, when even Disney was photocopying instead, is worth witnessing. Talking of Disney, what was Stephen Lisberger’s next project, the one that interested Disney to produce it with him?


Sunday, March 10, 2019


You can discover historical landmarks in London, but you can trip over them just as easily. I have travelled to London many times, and have eaten lunch there just as many times.
By chance, I have discovered that some of the restaurant I visited, with the single-minded purpose of satisfying my hunger, held much more significance than their current use suggested at the time. Here is a list of those whose history I know, so far.

1. 84 Charing Cross Road, West End WC2H 0BA
This location is found between Soho and Covent Garden, but is just as easily found in a book, on a stage, or on a screen. Charing Cross Road area used to be the main base for antiquarian booksellers, including the Marks & Co bookshop. Its chief buyer, Frank Doel, received an enquiry from Helene Hanff, unable to find some obscure books and British literature in her home city of New York. A long-distance friendship developed through their correspondence, later collected by Hanff into the book “84 Charing Cross Road” – in the film version, Hanff and Doel would be played by Anne Bancroft and Antony Hopkins. Marks & Co closed in 1970, and while a plaque marks its history, its space has been absorbed into number 82, which has been three different restaurants in ten years – Léon de Bruxelles, Med Kitchen, and now McDonald’s. Perhaps the location needed a predictable business, just like “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” playing at the Palace Theatre across the road.

2. 49 King's Rd, Chelsea SW3 4ND
The rounded window frames on this McDonald’s location are the only indication that this building used to be far more radical in both design and use – the Chelsea Drugstore, opened in the late 1960s, had a façade of tavertine limestone, brushed steel, and round windows, and was a kind of counterculture retail centre, housing a record shop, chemist, cafés and other concessions, inspired by a similar centre in Paris. It also had a home delivery service, operated by women in purple catsuits on motorcycles. We have documentary evidence of how the centre looked, because it was used in the film “A Clockwork Orange,” when Alex meets two women in the record shop. Closing towards the end of the 1980s, it has now been open as a McDonald’s longer than as the Chelsea Drugstore, which is also referenced in a Rolling Stones song – however, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is now more likely because the milkshake machine is broken again.

3. 9 Gracechurch Street, City of London EC3V 0DR
“The Crosse Keys” is part of the Wetherspoon chain of pub-restaurants, which specialises in converting buildings from other uses, and seemingly, the more ornate the better – being in the City of London, the Crosse Keys was originally a highly-appointed company headquarters, built in 1913, full of stained glass and marble. It uses the name of an inn that once stood nearby, which dated from before the Great Fire of London (although it was rebuilt following it). Tim Martin, Wetherspoon’s founder, is a fervent advocate of a no-deal Brexit, which makes the building’s original occupants rather ironic. The Hongkong Shanghai Banking Corporation, now known as HSBC Holdings plc, is a bank founded following the First Opium War, after which the UK colonised Hong Kong. The London building was originally an outpost, but after years of change, and growth, including their buying the old Midland Bank, their headquarters are now found in Canary Wharf, and their latest set of advertisements, titled “We are Not an Island”, were criticised for being anti-Brexit, instead of noticing how international Britain really is.
4. 105–107 Charing Cross Road, West End WC2H 0BP
This one turned out to be less impressive than I expected. “The Montagu Pyke” is another Wetherspoon pub, this time taking its name from the man that first owned the building, which opened as a cinema in 1911. However, it is more well-known as the location of the Marquee Club, which was open from 1958 to 1996, and hosted performances from David Bowie, Roxy Music, Pink Floyd, the Sex Pistols, Jimi Hendrix, The Clash, The Jam, Genesis and Prince. However, the Marquee Club first opened at 165 Oxford Street (demolished, now a bank, but not HSBC), and moved in 1964 to 90 Wardour Street (now apartments). It only moved to Charing Cross Road in 1988, by which point is featured more heavy metal-based acts like Metallica, Kiss and Dream Theater. Perhaps it is better to focus on the new theatre being built further up the road. 

Sunday, March 3, 2019


My perfect watch is the one I wear right now: a Casio G-Shock, an all-black version of the original 1983 design, with no decals that can scratch off, as much of a reason for buying it as its ability to survive a multi-storey drop. I could never wear a Rolex or Patek Philippe watch for fear of breaking it, although if I could actually afford one, I might be more relaxed about it. Even then, my Casio has a distinct advantage over the most expensive of watches: it will always give me the right time, because it does not rely on me to set it.
The question I asked myself is why I would insist on having a radio-controlled watch, and my first answer was itself a question: if you can have one, why would you not? For all the precious metals, delicate mechanisms, or ability to act as a status symbol, a watch that does not tell the right time is not an effective watch. Having to set the time yourself introduces the possibility that the time will always be wrong, no matter how accurately the watch counts each additional second. My watch tries to remove human error from its operation through its daily reading of the radio signal taking place overnight, although it relies on my remembering to put it close to a window – if I forget that, I can ask it to take it again the following morning.
The time signal is as old as radio. In the UK, the Post Office set up a transmitter in Rugby in 1926, initially broadcasting the time only twice a day – it only became an uninterrupted 24-hour operation in 1953, and stopped identifying itself via Morse code in 1988. Today’s signal, run by the National Physical Laboratory and broadcast from Anthorn, Cumbria since 2007, is entirely digital, broadcasting a second marker for the first 100 milliseconds of every second (500 for the first second in the minute, or “second 00”), with further bits transmitted through the minute to indicate how precise the time is to GMT, followed the year, date, hour, minute, and whether we have entered British Summer Time or not.
However, home devices that took this signal arrived relatively late: the first home clocks appeared in 1983, but the German watchmaker Junghans, producers of the first solar-powered radio-controlled clock in 1986, was the first to miniaturise the technology into a watch with 1990’s “Mega 1” model. It looks like it has a bulge on the side to accommodate the aerial, as many early watches like this did, but it is actually contained in the strap. Frog Design, the British company that designed the Apple IIc computer and the 2006 Sky HD box, encased the watch in an attractive and futuristic case for the time, making it appear close to other digital watches, although it would take a decade for the price to match them.
Asking myself again, why do I need to know the exact time? I do regard having access to it as having a level of control – I like being both in time, and on time. However, the exact time is something everyone, and everything, now requires: computers, mobile phones and TVs need the correct time to transfer data to them correctly. Having the ability to alter clocks on these devices, may actually prevent them from working. Choosing to give up that ability on a watch, to achieve the same level of accuracy, is when that process becomes conscious – whether that time means anything to you is another question entirely.
Even with everything I have said, I have to bear in mind that the time received from a time signal is set to Coordinated Universal Time, abbreviated as “UTC”, a worldwide system used to regulate world time – it is not based on Greenwich Mean Time, which is based on the rotation of the Earth, but is within one second of it. The time is not the same, but I think I can live with that, until the price of real atomic clocks come down.