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. 

Sunday, February 5, 2023


Andy Warhol, by turns a renowned artist, counter-cultural figurehead and inventor of our modern notion of celebrity, has to my surprise only appeared three times on this website so far: regarding the endless reproduction of Arnold Machin’s image of Queen Elizabeth II on British postage stamps [link]; as an associate of the iconic artist Keith Haring [link]; and as a man whose career changed when he painted his lunch [link]. Having now belatedly watched “The Andy Warhol Diaries”, a Netflix series I should have known about much earlier, I feel I need to review that latter article, written back in September 2016, because I am not entirely sure of the point I wanted to make.

In the article, I explained that Warhol ate the same lunch of Campbell’s Condensed Soup and Coca-Cola for twenty years, presumably saving thinking time. In an act of “method writing”, I ate the same lunch, finding it not to sustain through to dinner time. I think I was trying to say the whole move could be counterproductive, if that indeed was what Warhol was doing.

Rather than painting what surrounded him, Warhol was responding to a friend’s suggestion to paint objects already familiar to people. In the event, the reaction to the first Coca-Cola and Campbell’s paintings was either bemusement or outrage – I tried to point out that making the individual objects by hand, from mixing the drink and cooking the soup, through to blowing the glass bottle and printing the labels, would be extremely difficult. This may be the kernel of my article, having a point to make, and building a case surrounding it, using names well-known to people, particularly that of Warhol.

I then quoted from “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol”, where he stated that what made the United States great was how it “started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest… the more equal something is, the more equal it is”. This feeds into Pop Art being based in the use of imagery from popular culture, and in the democracy of art as the levelling of a playing field – anything can become art. It’s a good point worth making, but only because we have seen how this is developed into works like Damien Hirst’s embalmed shark, and Tracey Emin’s unmade bed.

I would try not to write the last sentence of the article today: “For Andy Warhol, having had his first successful art show, he could concentrate on pictures of what he enjoyed the most – soup, Coca-Cola, money and celebrity.” The parodic, postmodern incarnation of celebrity of classical Hollywood celebrity pioneered by Warhol’s Factory of paintings, films and actors, and continued in one sense by video content creators from their home studios, makes the process transparent – interviews with Warhol always looked for profound replies, only to be met by a banal reply that could be misinterpreted as superficial. We know enough about Warhol, especially from his Diaries, to now there was a three-dimensional person behind the image he created, and the business his art was produced. The human drive to create, and to remain vital, loom large in Warhol’s career, the celebrity and money being the reward.

I'll have a better article about Warhol in due course, once I think of a better idea.

Saturday, January 28, 2023


Produced since 1895 by J. Hudson & Co. of Birmingham, trading as Acme Whistles, the Acme Siren Whistle (model number 147) has been the source of nothing but joy since mine arrived, direct from the manufacturer. Having the ability to create its surprising, whimsical whoopee of a sound at a moment’s whim was something I would have to keep quiet about for a while, but I gave it to someone else to use first, and they laughed as much as I did when I placed the order, anticipating its eventual arrival.

The siren sound is created by blowing into a cylinder casing containing a fan blade – the harder you blow, the faster it spins, and the higher (and louder) the sound created, the acceleration of your breath creating a silent sound. The mouthpiece and casing has changed from metal to plastic over the years, but the fan’s metal axle is still held in place by brass pins. The main body of the whistle, amplifying the sound, remains made of nickel.

Found in the “Orchestral and Musical Section” section of Acme’s website, I have experimented with what sounds you can set out of the Siren Whistle. Unless you can train your breathing to speed up and slow down at a constant pace, creating a type of police siren, you will be blowing straight into it to produce a sharp glissando to a high note, creating the “whoops” sound when a cartoon character slips on a banana skin, for this is the whistle that makes it. You can blow short bursts of air into the whistle to continue hitting a top note, as if the character is about to fall over. Sucking the air out of the whistle will not produce the opposite sound, but the sound produced could be described as the switching off of a turbine-powered vacuum cleaner.

Outside of its use for sound effects, the Acme Siren Whistle substitutes for Bob Dylan’s harmonica in his song “Highway 61 Revisited”, having purportedly been brought in to police drug use during the sessions. Its sound is very pervasive, cutting through to the forefront, especially if you are not expecting it, belying its 1880s origin as the “Cylcists’ Road Clearer”, appearing around the same time as the advent of the non-Penny Farthing “safety bicycle”, for those who felt that bells and yells would not be enough to warn of their approach. While cycling whistles have given way to bells, I have heard enough cyclists using machines to generate white noise and chirping while on the way to work – certainly enough to know they were cycling too fast on the shared path.

Its immediate use as a pick-me-up is giving me time to work out to what use I can use the Acme Siren Whistle. It could well work as an absurdist solo instrument, instead of the more obvious choice of a swannee whistle. Then, performing live, you can switch to Acme’s Siren Horn, with a seven-inch bell horn attached to the existing whistle...

Saturday, January 21, 2023


IBM System/360 mainframe computer

International Business Machines (IBM) is one of those companies whose name is well-known, but what they currently do is less clear. I say this because my idea of IBM seems to be stuck between the mid-1960s and 2005, covering the use of their mainframe computers by large businesses to run databases, through the introduction of personal computers and the emergence of the “IBM-compatible” PC standard, followed by their from the PC market, hastened by competition, the internet and the emergence of cloud computing.

To my knowledge, IBM has not had made a consumer item for decades, with their typewriters, printers and keyboards continuing under the separate Lexmark company until even they divested themselves of everything but laser printers. IBM acknowledge their past, but their history as an innovating business means they cannot afford to be nostalgic about it.

IBM’s website describes their activities almost like a mission statement: “We bring together all the necessary technology and services, regardless of where those solutions come from, to help clients solve the most pressing business problems.” This currently focuses on providing a “hybrid cloud”, ringfencing access to cloud computing power and resources for individual organisations, alongside the more public access available over the Internet, the sort we use for ordering items and saving files. This sounds like they continue to lease the mainframe computers that used to fill entire rooms in offices, but this time IBM are selling the extension lead to the computers held at their, with support included via software, consulting and facilitating partnerships with other businesses.

This is a million miles away from a company that once invented the floppy disc, made electric typewriters and built the Atari Jaguar games console, and that would be the point they would make as well. IBM are in the business of business, and they have to innovate to stay ahead. Innovations and standards like barcodes, magnetic strip cards and the PC will be challenged as soon as they become commonplace, and IBM have been ruthless in jettisoning anything that no longer supports the business: ThinkPad and ThinkCentre computers have now been made by Lenovo for longer than by IBM did, but their users have almost inevitably accessed a service with IBM technology built into the back of it, whether they knew or not.

Businesses pivoting from one product, service or purpose to another has been done endlessly. Just as IBM sold its PC business to Lenovo in 2005, the typewriter manufacturer Smith Corona, having endured two recent bankruptcies, turned itself entirely over to making thermal labels, leveraging its experience in typewriter ribbons. The car company Peugeot’s lion logo was originally introduced to indicate the strength of their saw blades. Western Union’s declining telegram service allowed them to refocus its network into money wire transfers in 1980s. The advent of vinyl-based, washable wallpaper meant there was less need for Kutol putty to be used to clean coal dust from wallpaper, so it was reinvented as the children’s toy Play-Doh. It is always a case of innovate or die.

Sunday, January 15, 2023


You never question what you are watching on television when you are only five or six years old, and I saw absolutely nothing wrong with watching a children’s drama series set in a 1920s New York-like city about a fleet of anthropomorphic tugboats.

“Tugs” was created by Robert D. Cardona and David Mitton, the former an American TV scriptwriter and producer working in the UK on shows like “Crimes of Passion” and “Emmerdale”, and the latter a special effects technician for Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation series turned director of TV advertisements. Their production company, Clearwater Features, developed the TV version of “Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends”, producing the first two series – one thirteen-episode series of “Tugs” followed, using the periscope camera system developed for “Thomas” that could film at the models’ eye level.

I remember being enraptured by “Tugs”, watching it every week on its run from April to June 1989, because I like ships anyway – I think it might be the crossing of the eternal sense of adventure, elegant design, and a massive scale of engineering. I have always lived in the Solent area of the UK, with the Royal Navy and car ferries of Portsmouth Harbour on one side, and the ocean and cruise liners in Southampton on the other side. Tugs are naturally found in both harbours moving the larger ships around, and here they were on TV, doing exactly what I saw in real life.

I saw the premise as what I now know is a Hitchcockian “MacGuffin”, the driver of the plot that is not important in itself. The Star Fleet, owned by the human Captain Star and comprised of main character tugs Ten Cents, Sunshine, Warrior, Top Hat and More, are competing for contracts with the villainous Zero Fleet, comprising of Zorran, Zug, Zip and so on. Captain Star, also the narrator of the series, is represented only by a megaphone talking to Star Fleet from a harbour building – no humans are seen on screen in “Tugs” perhaps to distance itself from the set-up of “Thomas the Tank Engine”. The stories took place in and around the Bigg City (spelt with two g’s) port, and essentially was a workplace comedy.

I don’t remember seeing any merchandise at the time, although figurines, annuals and VHS cassettes did appear, and while a second series of “Tugs” never materialised, I had two Lego ships to be getting on with, and real tugboats a matter of minutes away. Every so often, a mention of the show would appear, or a picture would come up, and my love of the show as a child became a running family joke. 

Then the YouTube videos appear asking the same questions they did of “Thomas the Tank Engine”, questions I never thought about: because the ships have faces, are they alive? Do they procreate? Does Captain Star use the tugs as slave labour? Isn’t Captain Star’s voice the same used for the “Protect and Survive” videos and “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood? (Yes, the last one is Patrick Allen.) The faces never bothered me, as I was already used to trains with faces by then, and the tugs were painted in the correct colours – you may as well ask why they were all wearing hats.

Fortunately, I still think of “Tugs” as being a great show, with high production values and breezy storylines, so long as you don’t think about it any harder than that.

Sunday, January 8, 2023


Presenting "Lunch Box"

Noele Gordon had a big role to play as a producer and executive in the formative years of British commercial television, but her name is normally mentioned only when talking about her later starring role in “Crossroads”, a soap opera itself most remarked upon for its inferior production quality. This isn’t going to change straight away: in February 2023 the network that showed “Crossroads”, ITV, will broadcast “Nolly” a three-part drama written by Russell T Davies and starring Helena Bonham Carter, about Gordon’s firing from the show she made famous.

Back when ITV, originally a network of regional stations, started in 1955, few people in the UK could have had experience in the television industry – the only channel on air by then was run by the BBC, from London, the only regional outpost opened by then was based in Birmingham, and broadcasts only lasted for five hours a day. The path taken by Associated Television (ATV), initially contracted to provide television in London at the weekend and in the Midlands during the week, was to send their recruits for training in the United States, where its TV industry was growing at a far faster pace.

To that end Noele Gordon, a RADA-trained actress who had been starring in a touring production of the musical “Call Me Madam”, and who had joined ATV both as a presenter and as Head of Lifestyle Programmes, would study at New York University, work as a continuity announcer for WCBS-TV, and remarkably became one of the few British people to appear on the ill-fated DuMont Network, guest starring as a fitness instructor in the 31/08/1954 episode of the famous early sitcom “The Goldbergs”. The episode was broadcast live.

Back in the UK, Gordon would present the opening programme on ATV’s London service in 1955, moving to Birmingham in 1956 when the Midlands service opened. At a time when everything could be thrown at a TV screen to see what stuck, Gordon filed feature reports for news and sports programmes, acted as content producer on the women’s magazine show “Week End”, presented chat shows “Tea with Noele Gordon” and “Midland Profile”, produced the documentary series “Weekend Farming” and “Midland Scene”, while also presenting fishing series “A New Angle on Noele Gordon” and, in 1957, “Noele Gordon Takes The Air”, a six-part series where she learned to fly, qualifying as a pilot in the last episode. Amongst these programmes, Gordon became the first woman to interview a Prime Minister on television, namely Harold MacMillan.

with Gertrude Berg in "The Goldbergs"

Gordon’s signature series before “Crossroads” was “Lunch Box”, broadcast live for forty-five minutes each day, presenting dedications to viewers and music performances from the house band, Jerry Allen and His TV Trio. I found one episode on YouTube, and the relaxed atmosphere, the backchat between Gordon and the band, and lack of audience, felt a little like a radio breakfast show.

The problem with discussing Noele Gordon’s career before “Crossroads” is that little of it exists, or was kept – the episode of “Lunch Box” I saw began with Gordon remarking that the episode was being recorded this time around. Television was still ephemeral in the 1950s and 1960s, and shows being made to be broadcast at novel times of day like lunchtime were almost boarding on the experimental. When “Crossroads” began in 1964, produced by Reg Watson, future creator of “Neighbours” and director of “Lunch Box”, “Lunch Box” was not replaced, and restrictions on broadcasting hours that meant ATV closed earlier at night on days when “Lunch Box” was broadcast were not lifted until 1972.

The role of Meg Richardson, owner of the Crossroads Motel, was written for Gordon, and with “Crossroads” becoming successful quickly, her appearances in other shows reduced, her executive position having already been vacated for more on-screen roles. As I understand it, the basis of the new drama “Nolly” was that Gordon was fired from the show because her status as a national treasure with the British public was preventing Central Independent Television, a reconstitution of ATV to continue providing ITV in the Midlands from 1982, from replacing the show with better ones. “Crossroads” had always been recorded as if it was broadcast live, causing shaky sets and flubbed line readings to remain in each show, but storylines and performances still shined through, and Gordon’s departure in 1981 did not stop the show, which eventually ended in 1988. “Acorn Antiques”, Victoria Wood’s sketches that satirised the quality of “Crossroads”, would later see Julie Walters’ Mrs Overall being let go in similar circumstances

After “Crossroads”, Noele Gordon went back on stage, most notably in a revival of “Call Me Madam”. She died in 1985, before a planned return to “Crossroads”. Knowing now of her career before that show, perhaps that could form a greater discussion of her life and career in future.

Sunday, January 1, 2023


I have made no new year’s resolutions for 2023, having realised that creating a slogan to encapsulate your hopes could be far more effective. Unsurprisingly, this comes from listening to “My Brother, My Brother and Me” [talked about in loving detail here: link], whose first episode of each year has become an hour-plus record of brainstorming. Previous highlights include “Twenty Grift-Teen, The Con is On”, “Frankenstein-Teen: Become the Monster” and 2013’s “Twenty-Dirt: Dig It up, Get It Out”. Each slogan has come to inform the tone of that year’s episodes and live shows, and is a perfect way to focus your mind on what kind of year you want.

“Twenty Twenty Free: You Have Arrived at Your Destination” is a slogan I arrived at very quickly, though a long time passed before accepting that my first idea was the best one. The only acceptable goals are achievable ones, otherwise you are constantly setting yourself up to fail, so if you really need to resolve anything in 2023, make it something you will give yourself a chance to achieve.

The age-old adage in advertising that “you don’t sell the sausage, you sell the sizzle” is what you are looking for – you are effectively selling your own possibilities to yourself. Thomas Watson coined “Think” in 1911 as the slogan for what would become IBM as he wanted his salesman to take everything into consideration, not just do what is expected in their role. Their eventual computer competitor, Apple, effectively replied with “Think different”, tying it to images of people who did just that, like Thomas Edison, Amelia Earhart and Alfred Hitchcock. Instead of the closed question posed by resolutions – you either achieve them, or you do not – the possibilities posed to yourself could inspire bigger achievements, or at least that should be the hope.

For obvious reasons, New Year’s resolutions were far harder to follow and achieve in 2020 and 2021, and 2022 has its own set of concerns. In the UK, the economic forecast is turbulent, with both inflation and energy bills to remain high, productivity weak, and consumer spending and business investment falling – no growth in the UK economy is expected until 2024. This is partially coming from Russia’s war in Ukraine, but also inflation that has led to strikes over pay taking place across the NHS, train companies and Royal Mail among others. No General Election is expected in the US or UK until 2024, unless the current British Prime Minister decides to hold it earlier, which is, depending on your political leaning, either a welcome relief or a missed opportunity.

Reading this gave me the impression that 2023 will effectively be overlooked in the grand scheme of things, a fallow year that will have to be worked past somehow. This isn’t really good enough, especially when I have previously talked about how the “Roaring Twenties” still haven’t really got started [link]. The year 2023 will really be what you make of it, and what better way to add charge to that journey by applying a slogan to it? Happy new year, everyone.