Sunday, September 26, 2021


My parents still listen to BBC Radio 1. They always have done – they have been listening to it since they were children, in fact since the station began in 1967. They still listen because they have never had a reason to change the channel - they want to hear new music, they don’t want to hear the same songs played all the time, and it’s one way to keep up with the grandchildren.  

However, for a radio station formatted to play the most modern pop music, and current pop hits, their target listener age of between 15 and 29 means my parents should have moved elsewhere even before its dramatic realignment towards a younger audience not fully served by BBC radio, from 1993, away from catering to practically everyone. But just because a station needs to move with the times, it doesn’t necessarily mean its listeners’ habits change.


There was a time in British music history when the top 40 chart was king, and its main outlets were “Top of the Pops” and Radio 1, which had been introduced as a legitimate outlet for all-day pop music, after the closing of a legal loophole outlawed offshore pirate stations. Before then, pop music was only heard in snatches on the BBC Light Programme, for which any music only formed part of its schedule, while Radio Luxembourg was only heard in the evening. Commercial radio of any type only began in the UK in 1973 and, even then, obligations to provide non-music programmes were only dropped in the 1980s. 


For a very long time, Radio 1 was the only game in town, from playing the most popular songs by day, to breaking new artists through live and recorded tracks in the evening and at the weekend. But the shows that were attracting audiences of up to 20 million into the 1990s were those playing music that now could be found elsewhere, including on MTV. Furthermore, through old Radio 1 DJs remaining with the station like Alan Freeman, Simon Bates, and Dave Lee Travis, people listening to the station as teenagers continued through their thirties.


The station’s current focus on current music is what has helped to distinguish it from commercial radio, for which most stations have no commercial impetus to play anything over than proven hits, often classic tracks first championed in previous decades by Radio 1. The BBC committed in its most recent Annual Report to measuring the overlap in its hundred most played tracks with commercial radio stations, and the breadth and depth of artists and genres it plays. 


The moment at which it was proved that pop music had essentially moved on was when the band Status Quo issued two writs against the BBC – one was for damages, following their decision not to play their latest song on Radio 1, and the other was to instigate a judicial review over the song not being played on a radio station that still claimed to play songs in the top 40. The song was a cover of the Beach Boys’ “Fun Fun Fun,” performed with the Beach Boys, a song that wouldn’t have been played by Dave Pearce even if his job depended on it. 


This happened in February 1996, following the Britpop boom, and one year after the chart battle between Blur’s “Country House” and Oasis’s “Roll With It” – I swore it happened in about 1993 or so. “Fun Fun Fun” entered the chart at number 24, when another Oasis song, “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” entered at number 1 – the rest of the top 10 included “Children” by Robert Miles, “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz, “Spaceman” by Babylon Zoo, and the Lighthouse Family’s “Lifted”. “Fun Fun Fun” left the Top 40 chart the following week, meaning it no longer qualified for “Top of the Pops” either. The writs were settled privately and confidentially, but I don’t think it was in Status Quo’s favour.


I stopped listening to Radio 1 in 2012, when Chris Moyles left the breakfast show – my musical tastes had developed away from the pop chart, which even the BBC played elsewhere, on Radios 2, 3 and 6 Music, the latter of which began in 2002 to provide a space for rebroadcasting the archive sessions recorded for Radio 1. Usually, if I do hear Radio 1, it is because my parents have the radio tuned to it.

Saturday, September 18, 2021


It takes inspiration and vision to turn an error into a moment of serendipity, but instances of an error supplanting that which didn’t need replacing are rarer still. It was harder than I expected to compile a list of cases where a fix occurred where there wasn’t a problem, but I found more examples than I expected.


The following is a list of items, and people, that received their names by accident. In all cases, they were already known under a different name when the accident occurred. A decision will have been made to keep the mistake made, or no subsequent attempt was made to correct the mistake.


1) Cilla Black: Best known as presenter of ITV entertainment shows “Blind Date” and “Surprise Surprise,” and for her initial career as a singer – the best-selling song by a female artist in the 1960s in the UK was her version of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” – Cilla Black was born Priscilla White, first performing under the name “Swinging Cilla” at the Zodiac Club in Liverpool, following a few unplanned performances at the Cavern Club, where she worked in the cloakroom. Her surname was flipped into negative in 1961 by the local music newspaper “Mersey Beat,” a name that turned a scene into a genre. Its publisher, Bill Harry, made the mistake. Cilla Black signed with manager Brian Epstein in 1963, having seen her perform with The Beatles, and then on her own.


2) Ovaltine: To my knowledge, I have never drunk Ovaltine, but only because it sounds like I would still prefer hot chocolate. A flavouring product made of malt extract, whey and sugar, with cocoa for taste, Ovaltine is added to milk to make what is traditionally a bedtime drink in the UK, alongside the similar Horlicks. The drink originally also contained eggs, and is still known in its birthplace of Switzerland and elsewhere under the name Ovomaltine. However, the name change for the UK was made long before eggs were removed from the recipe – it was a spelling mistake on the trademark application, contracting the name down.


3) Lew Grade: A talent agent and TV executive whose companies, ATV and ITC, were associated with everything from “Crossroads” and “Thunderbirds” to “The Muppet Show” and “Jesus of Nazareth”, Lew, Baron Grade of Elstree entered showbusiness as a professional dancer. Born in Russia as Lev Winogradsky in 1906, moving with his family to the UK at the age of five, “Louis Grad” was the name he danced under, until a typing error in a Paris newspaper report added a vowel. The name “Grade” was also used by his brother Leslie, also a talent agent, and passed to his nephew Michael, who later ran BBC One and Channel 4. However, Lew’s other brother, Bernard Delfont, originally also a dancer, continued to use his own stage name to distinguish himself from his brothers.


4) “Ye Olde…”: This is a case of a term being used for effect, when everyone knows it is wrong. The English language as written in the years until the post-Tudor period continued to use the letter “thorn” where we would use the two letters “th”, making “the” into “þe”.  The first printing presses often substituted the thorn for “y”, which more closely resembled how most people wrote it, especially when Gothic type made it resemble a closed þ. Now, the y sound of “ye” is deliberately, and incorrectly, used and pronounced retroactively to evoke an old-time period where it was never used.


5) The Hindu-Arabic Number System: The Persian mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī wrote a treatise in around 825 AD titled, in modern English, “On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals”. Three centuries later, it was translated into Latin as “Algoritmi de numero Indorum” – “Algorismus on the Indian Numbers” – giving the author a Latinised name. Alongside the work of the Italian mathematician Fibonacci, the treatise served as the introduction of “Arabic numerals” to the West, e.g. 0 and 1-9, but it became known as “algorism” or “algorithm”, using the “originator’s” name to describe a type of arithmetic, instead of just using a word like “arithmetic.” As this number system became dominant, to the point of no longer needing a distinguishing name, the word “algorithm” would later be applied to definitions relating to computer instructions.

Sunday, September 12, 2021


Warner Bros. 2020 logo redesign by Pentagram

Watching Warner Bros’ latest film “Space Jam: A New Legacy” at the cinema was an interesting experience. With a story based within the company’s computer servers, I needed the cinema-sized screen to catch all the references to the company’s characters from their films and “properties” in the crowd watching the climactic basketball match between LeBron James and the program running the show, “Al-G Rhythm”. 

The film has received negative reviews for the general product placement of, well, Warner Bros. itself: it is strange to see a family film sprayed with characters and locations from far more adult productions, like “Mad Max: Fury Road”, “A Clockwork Orange,” “Game of Thrones,” Pennywise from “It”, and Vanessa Redgrave’s Sister Jeanne des Anges from Ken Russell’s “The Devils” – I sincerely doubt the latter would get as worked up over basketball than what goes on in their own film (really, look it up).


As a film fan and student, I believe Warner Bros. is the Hollywood studio, shaping the art form, staying on top of it for a hundred years, and preserving its past, even if through mergers and acquisitions: the new “Space Jam” film features MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz” and Tom & Jerry alongside Hanna-Barbera characters, including The Flintstones, and RKO Radio Pictures’ original King Kong. The breadth and scale of Warner Bros. today is belied by only just mentioning Looney Tunes now, followed by DC Comics, HBO, CNN, and “Friends”. 


It is meant to be distasteful to bring business into art, but the history of Warner Bros. is the exception that proves the rule: “The Jazz Singer” is not known as “Warner Bros’ Supreme Triumph” for nothing, not least because the studio proclaimed the film as such upon its release in 1927. Far more than making “talking pictures” viable commercially, through Al Jolson’s effortless use of his established catchphrase “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” the notion of what a ALL FILMS made before or since “The Jazz Singer”, and the idea of film itself as a medium, will feature a soundtrack of some kind, whether one is added to a “silent” film, or even when a conscious decision is made to be “silent” for any length of time, for Warner Bros. and Western Electric developed the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system to provide musical accompaniment and sound effects in all cinemas, even those that could not afford its own band or orchestra.


For a company only properly incorporated in 1923, and having only built their studios in Sunset Boulevard in 1918, Warner Bros. had enough cash from the box office of “The Jazz Singer” to buy up a brace of music publishers, suddenly a necessary part of film production, and the Stanley theatre chain, which came with a one-third ownership of a far bigger film producer and distributor: the current Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, California was built by First National, whose name continued to be used for some time. These investments helped to pioneer both the musical film genre and the initial use of Technicolor, and to allow a switch to comedy, horror and gangster films when audiences’ tastes changed.

However, the content-rich current state of Warner Bros. is precisely down to the corporate upheavals in Hollywood that took place following the anti-trust lawsuits that separated cinema chains from film producers, the rise of television, and sheer bad luck. Its massive purchase of the Turner Broadcasting System in 1996 reunited Warner Bros. with the pre-1950 films and cartoons it sold in 1956 to support itself at an uncertain time, but this also came with the pre-1986 MGM film library, RKO’s library from “King Jong” to “Citizen Kane”, and all of Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon series too. Ted Turner built up this collection to provide content to his TV networks, from Cartoon Network to TBS and TNT, but he sold on the MGM film company because he overextended himself, despite keeping the rights to their films. Similar divestments by Warner Bros. in previous years included Nickelodeon, MTV and VH1, along with their cable TV network that built these channels, and the computer game company Atari.


Watching “Space Jam: A New Legacy” made me think I was watching a film studio writing a love letter to itself, albeit one I’ll happily act as a co-signatory. What I think the scriptwriters could have done, considering the film is mainly set in a virtual reality run by a computer algorithm, is they could have made more of the connection with “The Matrix”, especially with Warner Bros. releasing the fourth film in the series this Christmas.

Sunday, September 5, 2021


This is how I unintentionally used “The Simpsons” to increase my brain power.

It is January 1998, and the Video Home System (VHS) is still at large, the first DVD player having only gone on sale in the UK six months earlier. I am a great fan of “The Simpsons,” then in only its ninth season, which is airing twice a week on BBC Two. We didn’t yet pay to have Sky One, but blank VHS cassettes were still widely available and absurdly cheap. I could just record the show when it aired, and watch it whenever I like. People streaming “The Simpsons” on Disney+ take note: this is how things used to be.

Much has already been made about how “The Simpsons” was one of the first TV shows for which recording the episodes was the only way you could take in all of the jokes, with background signs and sights gags often worked on as much as the main plot by the show’s writing staff. Its thick animated lines would not lose detail when recording onto a VHS cassette, which only achieved pictures of 230 lines of resolution in Long Play mode, as I worked to stretch six hours of recording, and sixteen “Simpsons” episodes, onto an E-180 tape.

However, being a British “Simpsons” fan also means there are jokes I am not likely to get. The 1990 episode “Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment” – the one where Homer steals cable television, and Lisa refuses to watch – the sound of a TV show is heard: “We would get there quicker if I borrowed Dad’s car.” “I don’t know, Davey…” If the Christian animated series “Davey and Goliath” had ever aired on British television by that point, I would never know, and it must have been on some satellite station we could not see.

This was where online resources, such as they were at the time, proved valuable. Before the World Wide Web made the internet more accessible, message boards allowed people to communicate in text form. One such Usenet newsgroup,, formed just after regular “Simpsons” episodes began in 1990, began compiling crowd-sourced reference and episode guides into HTML format at The Simpsons Archive (, running since 1994).  With far fewer competing web pages than now, and with Google not being founded later in 1998 – the search engine of choice, Yahoo!, was a curated guide with a search engine attached - you really needed a website that could prove it was authoritative and comprehensive

“The Simpsons” eventually became abasis for making web searches. Anything I didn’t “get” could be looked up, meaning I might laugh if I saw the reference again, like the reference to the 1986 charity event Hands Across America in “Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes,” or the real-life existence of all the baseball players in “Homer at the Bat”. Naturally, if something in the next article proved interesting, you may want to find out more or, when films like “Psycho,” “Citizen Kane” or “A Clockwork Orange” are quoted often, you find the original films to watch on their own.

This established the pattern I use for recalling facts – one piece of information will remind me of a reference made to a similar fact, or word, or number, picked up elsewhere, building into a web. Mnemonics and learning by rote don’t really work with me, although remembering having tried to learn something may make it easier to remember what I was trying to recall. If all else fails, I can look it up again, because I know where to look.

Now, practically everything is available at once, including every episode of “The Simpsons,” a show I made more of an effort to watch when it was more scarce than twenty years ago, both in appearances on TV and in number of episodes, and which has now referenced so much that people think it is predicting the future when history repeats itself. Perhaps it will end when there is nothing left that isn’t worth knowing.