Friday, 29 December 2017

I’M JUST SECOND HAND NEWS


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, 18th 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 orchestra, sports results, church service, and an evening concert of Wagner’s “Parsifal,” conducted by Sir Henry Wood, who began the Proms. Regional services had their own concerts, but all had an interval at 8.45pm, for the single news bulletin of the day. All services closed down for the night by 10.15pm.


When regular radio broadcasts began in 1922, news bulletins on the BBC were only broadcast after 7pm, to protect the newspaper industry. By 1930, the embargo had moved forward to 6pm but, as before, the BBC was required to take its stories, unedited, from newspapers and their wire services, for which their paper tape machines had only just been installed. The BBC also had to broadcast numerous government announcements, even down to the banality of “post early for Christmas,” eventually forming their own section of each bulletin.

On this Good Friday, the system was nowhere to be found. The Chittagong uprising, in what is now Bangladesh, had just started, but news would not reach the UK in time. Even then, newspapers in the UK did not routinely publish on Good Friday until 1987, and their wire services were not running either. The BBC were expecting a denial to come from the Home Office over the reporting, in a newspaper, of an interview with the Home Secretary, because no newspaper would be available to report the denial – eventually, nothing came, as it was no longer news. With no news available, piano music became the more appropriate interval between the concerts.

In 1934, the BBC finally moved news out of its “Talks” department and into its own division, its reputation as a respected and impartial news provider formed in the heat of the Second World War. In contrast, newspaper circulation peaked has steadily declined since the 1930s, hastened by the advent of television and online news. Now, the cacophony of news stories leads us not to ask if what we are given is news-worthy, but whether it is even true – far better it be insignificant than absolute rubbish.

Friday, 22 December 2017

JUMP INTO A DUSTBIN AND DANCE




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 the father of modern comedy. Milligan begat “The Goon Show,” which inspired “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again,” which inspired “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” which inspired a number of comedy specials on Canadian, which led its producer, Lorne Michaels, to create “Saturday Night Live,” which produced or inspired every American comedy film, so-called or actually funny, ever since. Milligan is also the father of subversive comedy – “The Goon Show” featured impressions and parodies of the Prime Minister, then Winston Churchill, at a time when that was just not done, and numerous satires of British institutions, both military and civilian, filled the show every week. The sheer effort to write twenty-six half hours per week cost Milligan his sanity at times, making him one of the first to talk openly about depression, for which the national conversation is still playing catch-up.


Just as I had been introduced to “The Goon Show” by my father, I was introduced to Spike Milligan through his poetry, particularly “In the Ning Nang Nong,” by one of my primary school teachers, Mrs Mason. We would learn double, or joined-up, writing by copying out Milligan’s poems: “Pussy-cat / What are vices? / Catching rats / And eating mices!” That practice has given way to something faster and clearer for me to write, but my expectations for poetry to be both symbolic and economic were set by copying up some of the best examples until it stayed in your head: “There are holes in the sky / Where the rain gets in / But they’re ever so small / That’s why the rain is thin.”

Milligan also has a sense of bravery in light of those who defend their nationality as part of their identity, for he was willing to lose his own when it became indefensible - as a British Indian, born in Ahmednagar, he refused to take the Oath of Allegiance necessary for him to get a British passport, and was rendered stateless, until he gained an Irish passport – even marrying a British woman later, and a subsequent letter writing campaign to the Foreign Office, made no difference.

I have written previously about Milligan’s post-apocalyptic play and film “The Bed-Sitting Room” [link], and I know I am likely to return to the man and his work again, for how it has helped shape my view of the world since childhood, and I will continue to be thankful for knowing how much of a difference his work will continue to make.

Friday, 15 December 2017

ONE SHAFT OF LIGHT THAT SHOWS THE WAY


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, in comparison, are left to POKE their sound chips until they made a noise.

In a time when we expect our mobile phones, let alone our computers, to be capable of more than everything, the BBC Micro, and other 8-bit computers like the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the Apple II, and the Amstrad CPC464, all appear to be as capable as the micro-controller chips you might find in your alarm clock or hi-fi system. That is sort of correct: Acorn’s first computer, the System I, looked like a calculator, was programmed directly to the processor using hexadecimal machine code, and was developed from a cow feeding system.


Modern micro-controller systems, like the open-source Arduino or the Raspberry Pi, take computing back to the same nuts-and-bolts principle of writing your own programs, and building your own devices. Using the BBC Micro at school was Eben Upton’s inspiration for creating the Raspberry Pi, and eventually led the BBC to produce the Micro:Bit micro-controller board, returning to a computer literacy program when programming skills are needed more than ever. The Arduino system was easy enough for me, an enthusiastic bystander when it comes to computing, to consider building a type of electronic typewriter, where you could enter text without the distraction of the internet, and upload it to your computer later -  however, the Alphasmart series of keyboards already did this, so I have since bought one of them.


Likewise, the BBC Micro has been used as widely as the on-screen ident generator for Children’s BBC, the steering controller for a radio telescope at the Jodrell Bank observatory, and as a music sequencer on the Queen song “A Kind of Magic.” My older non-working Micro could also save programs to SD card, through the successful fusion of old technology with the new.

What did I make of my “new” BBC Micro? Erm… It turns out there is a known issue where the capacitors in the internal power supply will eventually fail, because thirty seconds after turning on the thirty-plus year-old machine, the sound of firecrackers, made without any programming from me, was followed by quite a bit of smoke. It would have been nice to make retro computer music using period equipment, instead of resorting to attaching a music keyboard to my iPad, but soldering capacitors is more than a bit beyond my capabilities – at least, I did get my money back.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

HAIR RING MOLASSIS ABOUNDING


"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 the manner of a lament, but all is not as it seems: “Oh ma cameo molesting / Kee pa a poorer for tea…” The lyrics, by John’s songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, are sung in a cod-Italian fashion, but are comprised of seemingly random English words. “Cod” is the operative word: “turbert,” “salmon,” “hair ring,” “sardin,” “floundin,” and even “cod” are words used by Taupin, along with “molassis” and “gammon” for those made hungry by the references to fish. The chorus is a shift to a jauntier tome, the lament left behind, because life carries on: “Solar prestige a gammon / Kool kar kyrie kay salmon…” Que sera, sera…


Clearly, the lyrics in this song are supposed to be nonsense, but it is inspired nonsense. John has previously said the initial idea for “Solar Prestige a Gammon” came from the Long Medley on side B of The Beatles’ album “Abbey Road,” most notably John Lennon’s “Sun King”: “Mundo paparazzi mi amore cicce verdi parasol” - in turn, “Sun King” was inspired by Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross.” The quote from John reads, “I thought it could be great to write a song with English words that didn’t mean a thing, but that sounded fantastic when put together.” It has also been said that the deliberate avoidance of meaning was due to people having read things in Taupin’s previous lyrics that may not have been intentional, like “Madman Across the Water” being about Richard Nixon, religious references in “Border Song” and “Take Me to the Pilot,” and “Grey Seal” being about nothing in particular.

Everything I thought I did hear in “Solar Prestige a Gammon” is an example of the pareidolia I have examined previously [link] – just like you look for faces in inanimate objects, you hear for patterns in music and speech, which have created the system of scales and chords found in Western music, and where the joke surrounding rock bands like Status Quo is there are only three chords, and you know when they are going to appear. Does this mean that any attempt that writing something that is deliberately nonsense is doomed to be made sense of by the next person to come into contact with it? Possibly, so long as there was a reason to do it.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

LOVELY SPAM, WONDERFUL SPAM


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-Lot has graced Spam packaging since 2012, in a reference to “Spamalot,” the musical version of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” – “Spamalot” was one of a number of titles tested by Eric Idle, coming from the “Holy Grail” lyric, “we eat ham and jam and Spam a lot,” and audiences identified with it the most.

However, Sir Can-a-Lot’s phrase, “Glorious SPAM,” is in reference to the “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” café sketch from the show’s second series, where Mr & Mrs Bun, for that is their names, are given menu options that contain an increasingly psychotic amount of Spam. The reason there are Vikings in the café, as shown in the later part of the sketch normally cut for compilations, is they have invaded the Green Midget café in Bromley specifically for the Spam… before the historian succumbs to repeating “Spam” over and over again, which is continued into the closing credits, with “Spam” inserted into cast and crew names, possibly inspiring the later Halloween episodes of “The Simpsons.”



The overtaking of normal speech by the same word, repeated over and over again, has directly led to “spamming” being the word for targeted junk e-mails and the like. This use came from the user groups and chat rooms, like Usenet and CompuServe, that populated the early internet, where if someone posted something you didn’t like, you had to type something to scroll it off the screen, so typing the same word, like “spam,” became a noted practice – it almost sounds like “spam” was used the way people say “fake news” today, drowning out what they consider to be disagreeable. However, the same practice also led to others realising they could post obstructive chain letters, like 1988’s MAKE.MONEY.FAST, leading to the spam e-mails of today.

Hormel have disparaged “spamming,” as it twists the meaning of their trademark, but “spam” has been used as a synonym for tinned meat, similar to how “hoover” is used for all vacuum cleaners in the UK. Spam is ingrained in the wartime rationing history of the UK: in 1945, when twenty points per person per week were given for meat, a pound tin of Spam was lowered from 16 to 8 points to get more people to try it, after rejecting unrationed meat like whale and snoek, but the more popular pound tin of salmon was increased from 16 to 24 points to force this further, although you were allowed to save up your points.

The UK did come around to Spam, with fritters being a national favourite, but Hawaii have absorbed it into their culture as much as Britain cannot be separated from baked beans - a popular lunch and snack dish is the sushi-derived Spam musubi, and Spam is sold in breakfast platters by both McDonalds and Burger King. I like the idea of the musubi, which is sticky rice, topped with grilled Spam, and wrapped with seaweed, but will I cook it myself? Perhaps.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

NO THOUGHT FOR ME REMAINS HERE


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 they can enjoy the same level of luxury as in their DB9 – the press release stated, “luxury is not constrained by scale,” and, “it is a car without compromise, just like every other Aston Martin.” That said, for a four-seater car slightly shorter (117.5 inches) than the original Mini, the only real boot space was achieved by removing the rear seats. However, for a city car as luxuriously upholstered as a DB9, and painted with the same paint, £30,000 could have been a bargain.


This is where the Cygnet starts to fall down. It’s main reason for existing were European Union guidelines concerning the carbon dioxide produced by a car company’s range of vehicles. Even though the emissions of their diesel models proved less than desired, the Volkswagen Group can balance out the CO2 produced by their Bentley and Bugatti models with their smaller models from VW, Seat and Skoda. Meanwhile Aston Martin, not owned by a larger group, needed to introduce a car to cancel out the effects of their Vantages and Vanquishes although, producing 110 grams of CO2 per kilometre, the Cygnet only reduced the company’s average from 304 to 290 g/km.


Even worse, the biggest problem for the Cygnet was that it was simply a tarted-up Toyota iQ, which had been introduced in 2009. “Badge engineering” is a common practice in the car industry – a previous family car of ours, the VW Sharan MPV-minivan, was also sold as the Ford Galaxy and the Seat Alhambra, while the latest-model Toyota Aygo, which replaced the iQ in 2014, is also known as the Citroën C1 and the Peugeot 108. What Aston Martin did in customising the iQ into the Cygnet went beyond changing the badges, but the 150 hours they spent on each car – a regular Aston Martin took 200 hours to build from scratch – only extended to how the car looked, and its interior. Just like iQ drivers, every Cygnet was stuck with a 1.3 litre engine, capable of 97 bhp, producing a 0-60 mph time of 11.5 seconds, and a top speed of 106 mph – I can only guess Aston Martin hoped prospective buyers would look past those figures.

The Cygnet lasted only two years in production, from 2011 to 2013, with the media and public simply unable to look past the Aston Martin badge and grille without seeing the Toyota iQ behind it. I have only ever seen one in the window of Aston Martin’s dealership in London’s Park Lane, and have never seen one driven on the road. Aston Martin hoped for four thousand sales per year: in the end, around four hundred were ordered upon its release, with only 150 in the UK, and that was it – you are more likely to see a DB5 or DB6 on the road. For all I know, they probably sold more of those die-cast models. In June 2017, Aston Martin announced an all-electric version of its four-door Rapide S luxury saloon, the RapidE, will enter production in 2019 – that’s a bit more like it.

Friday, 17 November 2017

HIT IT, PAUSE IT, RECORD AND PLAY


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 cassettes to MP3 format, I must point out the new players and tapes will sound WORSE than what you threw away, or gave away, all those years ago, because the improvements made to cassettes when they were popular are no longer made.

When Philips introduced the Compact Cassette in 1962, the virtue of its compactness – the earlier RCA tape cartridge, as well as Sony’s later Elcaset, were the size of a VHS cassette – was outweighed by its lack of actual sound fidelity. Running at a quarter of a speed of then-conventional reel-to-reel tape, and on tape about half as wide, the iron oxide-coated “ferric” tape rendered only enough to use in dictation, and little else. The introduction, in 1972, of tape using a chromium dioxide coating, known as “chrome” or “Type II,” began the slow replacement of pre-recorded 8-track cartridges with tapes that could would be wound backwards as well as forwards, while 1979’s “Type IV” or “metal” tapes, using iron or chromium instead of their oxides, meant you could start approaching CD quality – “Type III” was a combination of the first two types by Sony, which did not last beyond the mid-1970s.


Meanwhile, the ubiquitous hiss of tapes could be reduced if your recorder incorporated Dolby Noise Reduction, with Dolby B being the first consumer standard introduced in 1968, followed by Dolby C in 1980, and Dolby S in 1989, just as CD sales began impacting cassettes. Unlike the industry standard Dolby A and SR, Dolby B and C were directed at the higher and lower frequencies at which the hiss would be heard, but Dolby S improved the whole dynamic range.

For anyone in the market for a new cassette player, I can now tell you that just about EVERYTHING I have just told you will be unavailable. Unless you can find someone selling unopened old stock, you will only find the base level Type I tapes available, for only these are still made. Even worse, Dolby stopped licensing their noise reduction systems a number of years ago, concentrating their efforts on digital and home cinema systems instead. Even worse, because modern hi-fi systems are not concerned with including cassette players, you can expect the overall quality of the players themselves to be less than before, although making sure the playback heads are clean and aligned always help. Playing back a Dolby-encoded tape will still work, but you just won’t get the benefit.

If you are prepared for the expense of matching the cassette experience you remember having, you may well have to buy your old system back from eBay – you may find me there, trying to buy a replacement BBC Micro.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

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


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 countries, and the expensive tapes were reused for other shows. Quite often, the BBC did not keep hold of their film copy, or they would also destroy that later.


This has led to bizarre situations where copies of episodes have resurfaced, like nine Patrick Troughton-starring episodes being discovered at a station in Nigeria in 2016 - other episodes have also been animated, using soundtracks of episodes that someone watching at home had recorded on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Only a few seconds of the first transformation from one Doctor to another still exist, because it was shown in an episode of “Blue Peter” the BBC still have.

Evidently, there has been a point where the makers of a TV programme still had to decide whether to swallow the cost of a video tape, bizarre as that may seem today, or whether the ephemeral nature of TV at the time, with no home video market in existence, meant that erasing the product of hard work became a possibility, especially when more expensive colour broadcasting began.

The results of these decisions can seem baffling today – three episodes of “Dad’s Army” are still missing, and BBC Four could only start showing “Top of the Pops” every week from 1977 because only from then was every episode kept. On the other hand, over fifty episodes of the notorious “Black and White Minstrel Show,” deemed racist even at the time, still exist, but the first male-to-male kiss on TV, in a 1960 production of Jean Anouilh’s play “Colombe,” was lost until 2011 – the context here even more ironic because no-one had known that the kisser, Sean Connery, would become a star later.


Home video, home streaming, and the insatiable desire for content, has made the decision on what to keep more democratic than it could otherwise be – you have to keep everything, because you don’t know what people may want to re-discover later. The legal loophole that allows members of the public to keep copyrighted material for their own personal use, without profiting or gaining from it, was closed in 1979, as a result of bringing the comedian Bob Monkhouse to court, after lending a copy of a film he had to one of Terry Wogan’s sons. When Monkhouse died in 2003, his archive of 36,000 video tapes and countless other films and radio recordings, including multiple missing episodes of “Hancock’s Half Hour,” and even Sir Lenny Henry’s first appearance on TV from 1975, in an episode of “New Faces,” something Henry had been trying to find for forty years. Obviously, Monkhouse saw something there that was worth keeping.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

BUT WHAT A FOOL BELIEVES, HE SEES


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 online, and the more respectable you appear, the more seriously you will be taken. Your CV may be watertight, but the interview is what gets you the job – plus, using your own .com address, and pink and white text on an International Klein Blue background also helps. I know I am writing in a more anecdotal style than an academic one, and sources are not listed like an essay, but if I know that someone wants to look something up, either because they are interested, or want to check it is correct, my work is done.


However, the Collins dictionary definition of the noun “fake news” will be: “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.” Interestingly, when you go to collinsdictionary.com, and enter the word “false,” the first example of the adjective “false” is: “It was quite clear the President was being given false information by those around him.” Oh well – there is no mention about separate objective and subjective uses of the word “false,” or of “fake news,” because to do so would be to fall down the proverbial rabbit hole.

It is no surprise that Donald Trump could take credit for popularising the term “fake news” – in an interview with Mike Huckabee, he said, “the media is really, the word, one of the greatest of all [the] terms I’ve come up with, is ‘fake’ … I guess other people have used it perhaps over the years, but I’ve never noticed it.” For someone who is also quoted as saying, “I am more humble than you could ever understand,” claiming to have invented words that have existed for decades is about as hubristic as you can get.


The accumulated use of “fake news,” already used to describe “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Onion,” has grown because of Trump, but his use of it – “the Fake News is at it again” – is different from the Collins definition, because it is the same as his abbreviation “MSM” (mainstream media), in that it is anything he personally doesn’t like. Donald Trump uses “fake news” like the main character of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” Holden Caulfield, calls everyone “goddam phoneys.” That we can now argue the meanings of words is par for the course these days, and that we can do it with “fake news” is even worse.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

DANCE YOUR CARES AWAY, WORRY’S FOR ANOTHER DAY


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, opera and local news, but were otherwise safe and conservative, and owned by companies based elsewhere, in London and Scotland. TVS expected a “shotgun marriage” with Southern (as had happened with Thames Television in London), but won an outright victory - Southern felt they did not need to provide enough detail on their re-application, until they were asked to do it again.


What could have been an independent company became a fully-fledged TV station, buying and building its own studios, selling ad space, and making deals. When there was no space at the same decision-making table as the major ITV companies – Thames, Yorkshire, Granada (north-west England, Central, and London Weekend Television (LWT) – TVS signed a deal with LWT to gain access to their space, putting game shows like “Catch Phrase” (from 1986, and still going) onto screens. Drama series like “C.A.T.S. Eyes” and “The Ruth Rendell Mysteries” were also shown, but they also had form with children’s programmes like “Number 73,” “Art Attack” and “How 2.”


TVS had some firsts – an episode of the 1982 science series “The Real World” became the first TV programme to be shown in 3D, using glasses given away with the “TV Times,” and Hayao Miyazaki’s “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” became the first Japanese animated feature film to be shown on British television, and in the south of England only. TVS also owned the UK’s first TV news helicopter, and made the wraparound live-action scenes for The Jim Henson Company’s “Fraggle Rock,” using a converted cinema in Gillingham, Kent.


However, with so much money coming in from advertising – the south of England was more likely to watch the BBC, so TVS instead pioneered selling UK TV ad space based on the types of people watching - and fewer opportunities to make bigger programmes in the UK, TVS started to look around. We nearly had a situation where a Southampton-based TV company owned either the film division of Thorn EMI, or even the biggest TV station in France, TF1. Instead, MTM Enterprises and other American companies were bought, in anticipation of the revenue from selling programmes worldwide, and TVS became a conglomerate named TVS Entertainment. On screen, they were TVS Television – “Television South Television” – underlining that it was no longer just about the south.

This growth happened just after the “Black Monday” stock market crash of 1987, and ahead of the global recession of the early 1990s. Not making enough money from selling programmes as they had hoped, Job losses followed, and the companies they bought were being sized up for sale again.

In 1991, it was the turn of TVS to defend its own ITV franchise. This time, instead of only relying on your track record, or future plans, the Government had introduced a blind bidding process. TVS won the programming round, but they bid £59 million – an amount they would have to pay each year. They won this round too, but they lost their franchise, their business plan having been judged to be unsustainable - they bid more than they could realistically pay. The company that won, Meridian, bid £36 million – now, with the internet and digital TV turning the system upside down, each ITV region pays a token £10,000 each per year.

What remains of TVS is hazy memories, and hazy video recordings posted to YouTube. TVS was bought by IFE, a company owned by the fundamentalist Christian preacher Pat Robertson, launching The Family Channel using the TVS library – this later became the game show channel Challenge, helped out by the repeat showings of “Catch Phrase.” As IFE was bought, TVS was passed through 20th Century Fox, Saban International (the “Power Rangers” people), and its library is now owned by The Walt Disney Company. Reportedly, the paperwork for the programmes has been mislaid, meaning it is impossible to show them, meaning a whole period of UK TV history is out of reach, for now. The situation may change one day but, for now, I’ll keep with what I have.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

I’LL PICK A ROSE FOR MY ROSE


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 19th 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 pick red and white ones – when he finally returns, she has died: “It may be beyond the grave / She shall find what she would have.”


So, if you have bought a blue rose, it will have been a white rose dyed blue, unless you have come across “Applause,” a rose cultivated after twenty years of research between the Australian company Florigene, and Suntory, its Japanese parent company, more of which later. It appears to be as “blue” as a blue greyhound – it is actually more lilac in appearance, and the research on producing a bluer rose is ongoing. In the meantime, “Applause” is on general sale as a luxury item, particularly geared towards a Japan, where “Ikebana,” its tradition of flower arranging, is taught in schools.

The strangest aspect of this rose is the presence of Suntory, as its company in the UK is known as Lucozade Ribena Suntory – in January 2014, it bought the drinks division of GlaxoSmithKline, minus Horlicks, which the British pharmaceutical company opted to keep. Suntory began as the name of a whisky, but now own brands such as Jim Beam, Teacher’s whisky, Courvoisier brandy, and Orangina. Suntory owns the vineyard Château Lagrange, in Bordeaux, where a high percentage of the grapes planet are cabernet sauvignon – delphinidin, the blue pigment in this type of grape, was transferred to “Applause.” Meanwhile, Suntory’s business as the exclusive Japanese bottler and distributor for Pepsi has made its way into the anime version of the manga series “Tiger & Bunny,” where its superhero characters receive on-screen sponsorship by real-life companies –  the character sponsored by Pepsi is named “Blue Rose,” which I have concluded is a happy accident.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

FEEL THE POWER OF THE RAIN KEEPING ME COOL


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 albums he produced with David Bowie.

However, only two weeks after Blackburn’s first playing of the song, which had reached number 2 in the charts, The Move were in court, convicted of libelling the Prime Minister, and having all royalties for the song removed from them in perpetuity, never to see a penny from it.

I was shocked. Importantly, this wasn’t the fault of The Move itself, but rather that of Tony Secunda, their manager at the time. Secunda was fond of publicity stunts, including an event at Birmingham Fire Station to promote the band’s later single “Fire Brigade,” while sending out blackberry pie and champagne for “Blackberry Way.” For “Flowers in the Rain,” five hundred promotional postcards were printed, which decided to make use of the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, “in flagrante delicto” with his secretary at the time, in order to make a point of comparison…


Wilson sued The Move for libel or, to be more accurate, he sued the band, Secunda, the record label, the illustrator of the postcard, the third party that arranged the printing of the postcards, and the printer. The Labour PM was represented in court by the Conservative MP and barrister Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham, who successfully argued that Wilson had been subjected to a “violent and malicious personal attack.”



Finding in favour of Wilson, the postcard had a perpetual injunction placed on it – technically, this is still in place, so I can’t really show or describe it properly, although it is not beyond the ability of anyone to find an example of it – and all royalties for “Flowers in the Rain” and the B side, “Lemon Tree,” would be distributed to charities of Wilson’s choosing. These initially included Stoke Mandeville Hospital, birthplace of the Paralympics, and The Spastics Society, now renamed Scope – the latter charity had recently lost out on thousands of pounds due to a government tax change affecting a football pools it had been running. In later years, the British Film Institute, art galleries, the Variety Club, Bolton Lads Club and the St. Mary’s Ladies’ Lifeboat Guild have been among the beneficiaries.
Roy Wood with Nancy Sinatra, who
recorded a cover of "Flowers in the Rain"


I still couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. Later, I found the documentary to which I had been listening had actually been for the fortieth anniversary of Radio 1, in 2007, but if the BBC were happy to have played it again, it must have meant the situation had not changed – in 1995, The Move’s lead singer, Roy Wood, took the Harold Wilson Charitable trust to court to reroute the still incoming royalties to Birmingham Children’s Hospital, but was told the original agreement could not be altered. It is unsurprising that Wood considered The Move to have received “a longer sentence than the Great Train Robbers.”

Wood was not interviewed directly for the documentary, but fellow Move band members Bev Bevan and Trevor Burwood were, and it felt that they had chalked up the whole affair as a bad experience, and moved on. Wood, as the songwriter, would understandably be less sanguine about it. Yes, most of the band had barely entered their twenties in 1967, but it was an action of their manager that caused the court case, leading to Tony Secunda’s firing by the band, which itself broke up soon after.

Wood and Bevan founded the Electric Light Orchestra, with Roy Wood later leaving to set up Wizzard, then become a solo act, while Secunda later managed T-Rex, Motörhead and The Pretenders, among others. English defamation laws were reformed in 2013, but only applies to cases from the start of 2014.

I still don’t know what to make of this, apart from feeling that this shouldn’t ever have happened – I have seen the postcard, and while it is attempting satire, its purpose as an advertisement for a record is almost in the background. Knowing none of The Move receive anything for any time I hear “Flowers in the Rain” make me want to avoid ever hearing it again, but Van Morrison still performs “Brown Eyed Girl” despite a similar situation existing for him, although his relates to the contract he signed at the time. I can only guess that, if everyone has found their way of dealing with it, and have moved on, then there is nothing more I can say.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

JUST A DREAM AND THE WIND TO CARRY ME


On 18th 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 withstand Atlantic crossings, but is still a cruiser for the majority of the year. Its cabins are much larger than the box-rooms that even first-class passengers had on the original Queen Mary but, when that liner was in service, it was not a destination in itself, at least in the way cruise liners are today. When the city of Long Beach, California, bought the Queen Mary in 1967, turning it into a tourist attraction and hotel itself, and many other plans that have been and gone, it has become an ongoing race to repair the ship - estimates produced by the city in 2017 put the cost at $300 million.


Capitalising on the nostalgia for liners like the Queen Mary, the American Star, launched in 1939 by Eleanor Roosevelt as SS America, was being towed to Thailand where, as one of the few liners of its vintage left, it was to have become a five-star floating hotel. As the flag-carrying official liner for the United States, it wore the flag, its name and stated country of origin across its sides once the Second World War began, warning prospective bombers that it was not involved in the war – once Pearl Harbor was hit, it was refitted as the troop carrier USS West Point, returning to civil life in 1947.


By 1964, SS America was out of time as a transatlantic liner. Holding only a thousand passengers and, at 723 feet, a hundred feet shorter than RMS Titanic, and three hundred less than the Queen Mary, its bigger sister ship, SS United States, took over its routes. Bought by the Greek shipping company Chandris Line, it was refitted as the Australis, a very popular cruise ship able to take over two thousand emigrating “Ten Pound Poms,” and occasionally other cruising tourists, on a two-week voyage between Southampton and Australia, via Rotterdam and Cape Town, before stopping off in Panama and Miami on the trip back to the UK. The two funnels of the Australis, in blue with the Chandris X emblazoned across it, are still seen on the ships of Chandris’ spin-off successor company Celebrity Cruises, although the front funnel of Australis, a dummy funnel used as both storage and to enchance the look of the ship, was found by one trespassing passenger, so the story goes, to have been storing potatoes.



Sold back to the United States in 1978 for an ill-fated voyage under its old “America” name – the new owners had done such a bad job refitting the ship, the US Public Health Service had given it a score of 6 out of 100 after it was impounded – Chandris bought it back for half the cost they sold it for, and ran it as the Italis for a few more cruises, cutting away the front funnel ahead of a refit that never happened. It later was left in port in Greece under new owners, renamed Noga, then Alferdoss, waiting to be rescued or broken up – the listing caused by a burst bilge pipe in 1986 was solved by cutting the left anchor, and dropping the right one. Finally, in 1994, the ship set sail for its final destination, although its final use was slightly different than intended.

If the American Star had arrived at Thailand, it is quite possible that its owners could be in the same costly predicament as Long Beach is with the Queen Mary. The Queen Elizabeth 2 arrived in Dubai in 2008, and has remained laid up ever since, although its owners have no plans to scrap it. There were calls for the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious to be bought and preserved in Portsmouth Harbour, alongside the unique ships Mary Rose, HMS Victory and HMS Warrior, but its sad trip to the scrapyard was quickly replaced by celebration when its replacement, HMS Queen Elizabeth, arrived in port. Nostalgia can be an expensive business, and if new uses can be found, while being able to pay for itself, that is fine. Ironically, the most glamorous of the American liners is now most famous as a wreck, making nostalgia for it far more vibrant than it could have ever been as a floating hotel.