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Showing posts from 2017

I’M JUST SECOND HAND NEWS

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It is very well-known that, one day in 1930, a BBC radio announcer proclaimed, “there is no news,” with piano music played to fill the gap. This is often read as the BBC deciding no news was worth broadcasting that evening which, in our age of instant reports and reaction to the merest flinch of an event, sounds either completely authoritarian or completely hilarious. However, the very specific set of circumstances that led to this decision would never be repeated, as our appetite for information was already increasing. The day was Good Friday, 18 th April 1930. Usually, the BBC’s National Programme would broadcast, after the mid-morning Daily Service and Shipping Forecast, a continuous diet of concerts and talks from noon to midnight, with two news bulletins at 6.15pm and 9pm – regional services dipped and out of the national feed, re-reading “The Second News” at 10.15pm. However, Easter meant Good Friday’s main programmes started at 3.30pm, with a military band, string orches

JUMP INTO A DUSTBIN AND DANCE

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After another year blighted by terrorism and ideology – OK, name a year when that wasn’t the case – Christmas becomes a time for remembering the lights in our world, those things for which we give thanks, for which the world becomes that bit better or, in the very least, a little more bearable. This was demonstrated by my finding a radio show, recently played out on BBC Radio 4 Extra, titled “The Naughty Navy Show,” from 1965, starring Spike Milligan, with John Bird and Barry Humphries, in a story not unlike those found in “The Goon Show,” but without the orchestra and sound effects. The difference here was how the show was recorded in front of a group of students at Greenwich Royal Naval College, on Christmas Day. While not the best show Milligan ever did, it is nice to hear everyone giving up their time on Christmas Day to perform a professional show. Similar shows were done for Army and Royal Mail workers, but at other times of year. For me, Spike Milligan is

ONE SHAFT OF LIGHT THAT SHOWS THE WAY

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Last weekend, I took delivery of a piece of my childhood: an Acorn BBC Micro computer. For an entire generation of British schoolchildren, the BBC Micro, introduced in 1981 as part of a Government-backed computer literacy campaign, cemented Acorn as a British technology success story for nearly twenty years, culminating in the creation of the ARM chip, now found in billions of devices. Why did I buy a second-hand one on eBay, described as being “in working condition, needs a clean”? Apart from having already bought another BBC Micro eight years ago, sadly no longer working, I wanted to make some music with it – the four-channel Texas Instruments sound chip installed in it is also found in other 8-bit machines, but also many Sega arcade machines, the Master System and the Mega Drive / Genesis. In addition, BBC BASIC, created by Acorn engineer Sophie Wilson, is still the most versatile version of basic, with easy SOUND and ENVELOPE commands to build sounds – Commodore 64 owners,

HAIR RING MOLASSIS ABOUNDING

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"Solar Prestige a Gammon” is a song from side A of Elton John’s 1974 album “Caribou.” The album was made under a contract that required John to release two albums per year – “Caribou” came only eight months after his masterpiece, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and was recorded in only nine days before embarking of a tour of Japan, leaving his producer, Gus Dudgeon, to finish the arrangements and mixing. Despite the rush, the album reached number one in the UK and US, and spawned two singles, “The Bitch is Back,” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Dudgeon’s own assessment was: “’Caribou’ is a piece of crap… The sound is the worst, the songs are nowhere, the lyrics weren’t that good, the singing wasn’t all there, the playing wasn’t that great, the production was just plain lousy” – seeing as Dudgeon was in charge of the production, I can only guess this was a case of the creative process not being what you wanted, even if the result was. “Solar Prestige a Gammon” begins in

LOVELY SPAM, WONDERFUL SPAM

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Before you even get to eating it, there is much to be said about Spam. What began with the surprise of my winning a tin of Spam, after correctly answering all the questions in a 1940s-inspired charity quiz at work, has become an odyssey of changing uses, changing meanings, and changing diets. The most likely meaning of the word “Spam” is “Shoulder of Pork and Ham,” as the tinned meat itself, made by Hormel since 1937, was introduced as a way of using a surplus of pork shoulder, an unpopular cut, built up by the company. Even though the name was coined in a competition, with Ken Daigneau, the brother of a Hormel executive, winning $100, Hormel insist that the true meaning of SPAM, which they always refer with full capitals, is only known by a select group of executives, as if it were Colonel Sanders’ secret blend of herbs and spices. Monty Python changed the meaning of the word “spam” in two ways, although Hormel only subscribe to one of these. In the United States, Sir Can-a-

NO THOUGHT FOR ME REMAINS HERE

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Waiting in the queue in TK Maxx to buy a purse, I looked at the various gifts and confectionery stacked before the checkout. On a shelf, at my eye level, was a die-cast model of a car – not one for playing with, as it had been screwed to a plinth. It looked like a Smart car, but with the grille of another company attached to it. I did not know a model was made of a car that appeared to have disappeared as soon as it, well, appeared – perhaps it was part of the marketing. Therefore, my initial thought upon seeing it was not, “oh, that’s interesting,” but, “they really made that?” There actually was a method to the madness that was the Aston Martin Cygnet. When Aston Martin announced, in October 2010, that a concept car exhibited earlier in the year would enter production, they intended to provide a luxury version of the “city car,” like the Smart Fortwo, or the Ford Ka. Indeed, it was feasible that many owners of their sports cars may want a Cygnet as their weekday vehicle, so th

HIT IT, PAUSE IT, RECORD AND PLAY

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Modern-day ingenuity means that popular forms of old technology can have their useful lives extended far longer than ever intended. For example, I have a 1983 BBC Micro computer, sadly no longer working, which could connect to my TV via a SCART lead, and could save BASIC programs to an SD card. Likewise, improvements in sound recording and playback mean we can play new vinyl records that sound as good as CDs, through heavier records, cutting the groove at a slower speed, and direct-drive turntables. Even CDs sound better through 24-bit mastering not available when they were introduced, meaning my 2015 copy of David Bowie’s album “Never Let Me Down” sounds louder, more dynamic and clearer than my 1987, which I only bought because Bowie hated his song “Too Dizzy” enough to delete it from all future reissues. However, with retailers now offering more cassette players and blank tapes for sale than seen in the last ten or fifteen years, including various devices to copy cassett

YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’VE GOT TIL IT’S GONE

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Little bites of information like this appear to be either seldom preserved, or incredibly hard to find, but I finally found what I needed to help prove the argument I am going to make here. In the early 1960s, television programmes were recorded on giant reels of industry standard videotape, measuring two inches wide, and costing £200 per half hour. Meanwhile, the biggest star on British TV at the time, Tony Hancock, was to be paid £4000 per episode for his new ITV series, although he would be paying for the scripts out of this – the highest paid writer was given no more than £500. Put another way, that £200 video tape is the equivalent of nearly FOUR THOUSAND POUNDS today. This massive expense is the root cause of the problem that “Doctor Who” fans know all too much about. From the original series that began in 1963, ninety-seven episodes were destroyed after their broadcast – the video tapes were transferred to cheaper film stock, to be repeated sold to stations in other co

BUT WHAT A FOOL BELIEVES, HE SEES

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I had already decided it was time to talk about “fake news” when dictionary publishers Collins yesterday proclaimed the term as their word of the year, just as Oxford Dictionaries had done with “post-truth” last year. The use of “fake news” had, according to Collins, increased by 365 per cent in comparison to last year, confirming not only an increased awareness among the general public awareness of what it I, and how to identify it, but of an increasing boldness in using the term – we all know who is responsible for that, but I will return to that later. I am pretty sure anyone encounters a website named “Leigh Spence Is Dancing with the Gatekeepers” knows what they are to expect. Each article be presented from the point of view of a particular person, i.e. me, and that person may have a particular axe to grind. At the same time, I expect that you know that without me telling you because, from Wikipedia to Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat, anyone can say whatever they want onlin

DANCE YOUR CARES AWAY, WORRY’S FOR ANOTHER DAY

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The future of television once lived on my doorstep. In the pre-internet, pre-digital days of the 1980s, Television South (TVS), the local ITV company for the south and south east of England, based in Southampton, the next city along from me, made programmes that were shown across the UK and the world, owned two TV studios in the UK - with a third in Hollywood owned with CBS - and owned MTM Enterprises, makers of “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” and “Newhart.” Note the past tense – TVS had the kind of ambition that created its own obstacles to overcome, but before they tripped themselves up, they were captivating to watch. Franchises to run ITV companies in the UK were once run like a beauty contest – with each review, your company could take over a licence if you could prove you could provide a better service. In 1980, a group of TV producers thought they had better ideas for programmes than the existing Southern Television, which had a track record in children’s programmes

I’LL PICK A ROSE FOR MY ROSE

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A weekend trip to a home furnishing shop led to my gazing at a display of artificial flowers – yes, you can now find fake horse chestnut branches, free of bleeding cankers, with spiky capsules and all. However, looking at the limited selection of roses, I thought to myself, “if you can’t make real blue roses, how come you can’t buy a fake one?” Blue roses, something never found in nature, are desirable precisely because they are unattainable: in Chinese folklore, the idea of them are used to signify unrequited love, while in the western world, mystery, the impossible, and quests for the impossible are often highlighted by the flower. These ideas were formed at a time when the colour blue itself was very expensive, formed using cobalt or lapis lazuli, and featuring rarely until synthetic dyes were introduced in the 19 th century. Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Blue Roses” depicts a man’s “idle quest” across the world to find the roses his love truly wants, despite being able to freely

FEEL THE POWER OF THE RAIN KEEPING ME COOL

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There are more than enough reasons to have a sense of burning injustice, and while there are bigger reasons than this one to feel something extremely unfair has happened, I am surprised I had not come across this one until now. With the recent fiftieth anniversary of the start of BBC Radio 1, there are few people left who don’t know that The Move’s “Flowers in the Rain” was the first song played on the station, after a jingle, the theme for Tony Blackburn’s breakfast show (“Beefeaters” by John Dankworth), and the sound effect of Arnold the dog. As told in the radio documentary “The Story of Flowers in the Rain,” which I heard last week – Tony Blackburn narrates the programme sounding completely unlike his DJ persona - the thunderclaps at the start of the song led Blackburn to choose it as the first record to play, while the lush musical arrangements, adding a pastoral setting to the song, were made by co-producer and violinist Tony Visconti, most famous for his run of albu

JUST A DREAM AND THE WIND TO CARRY ME

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On 18 th January 1994, the ocean liner SS American Star ran aground at Playa De Garcey, a remote, rocky beach at Fuerteventura, in the Canary Islands. The ship, and the tug boat towing it, were caught in a hurricane, breaking the tow-lines, the crew on the ship later rescued by helicopter. It was hoped that the ship could be re-floated until, a48 hours later, the strong current broke the hull in half – six months later, the ship was declared a total loss. Becoming a popular spectacle for both sightseers and looters, the wreck of the American Star finally collapsed beneath the waves in 2013 – you can still see parts of it at low tide, but not on Google Maps. The golden age of transatlantic travel between Europe and America spanned fifty years to the early 1960s – with planes reducing commuter trips from days to hours, cruising became the market for the remaining ships, and for the passengers that did not worry about time. Now, Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 is the only liner built to wit