Sunday, December 30, 2007


It does seem rather worrying to have anything approaching nostalgic yearnings about a machine designed to blow things up, but I suspect I am not alone.

My degree is in Aeronautical Engineering, and part of my training in the mid 60s was as an Apprentice with a newly created company called British Aircraft Corporation. As a still wet-behind-the-ears Graduate, I returned to the company in Weybridge after University, to work as what is probably best described as a trainee dogsbody (a puppybody perhaps?) on odds and ends in the Drawing Office. The place was then in the throes of designing two of the most exciting aeroplanes ever built in this country - Concorde, and a very advanced tactical bomber called TSR2.

Now, to a 20 odd year old, these things were serious Big Boy’s Toys. One was going to blast the Americans into the dark ages by blasting people around the world at such a speed that they got to their destination before they had taken off. The other was a huge leap into the military aviation future, allowing Great Britain to attack anyone in the world with relative impunity, using an aeroplane which could fly higher, lower, faster and further than anything an enemy could throw at it. And we were there making it all happen.

You can do all the moralising you like about such a project, but it was immensely exciting.

With a pencil (and quite often a rubber) in your hand, you didn’t think much about the politics behind these things, you just got on and did it. But, of course the politics did get in the way, and, with Harold Wilson’s accession to power, rather ironically calling on the country to follow him into the “White Heat of Technology”, on April 5th 1965, Denis Healey stood up in Parliament, and immediately cancelled it. At the time, I, along with most of the employees of BAC could cheerfully have fed Mr Healey head-first into one of the large engine intakes, with the reheat power fully on. Some 15-20,000 people had been working on the project around the country, and it was starting to prove that it actually did what it was supposed to do.

Looking back, 40 years on, in a rather more balanced frame of mind, the whole project now looks far more “on the one hand, on the other hand”, and having pondered a bit about it all over the last week, it wasn't as simple as an Aircraft Project. Britain’s Position in the World played against the hugely increasing cost of developing such a massive project fought against each other. The Military and some of the Body Politic in this country were at daggers drawn over it, all of which set the scene for one of the most important technological/political confrontations in many decades. And there was the aeroplane itself.

Britain’s Position in the World

Following the Second World War, Britain was broke. It had mortgaged itself to the USA, via the Marshall Lend-Lease Plan, and was struggling for survival. But, in spite of that, when the aircraft was conceived in 1955, Britain still ran half of Africa, was the dominating force in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, and was “peace overlord” of the British bit of Africa, the Indian Ocean and great chunks of South and South East Asia. We tend to forget this these days.
The decline of British imperialism took place literally alongside the development of this aeroplane, and in some ways, TSR2 came to represent, in the eyes of part of the British Political spectrum, a symbol of times past an attempt to maintain a control over the world which was n ow only an illusion. You can still argue that military power is regarded as an index of World power and status, and in order to support this position, which Britain clearly had, there was a need for a strong and sophisticated capability in development and production of weaponry. We were then not in the Common Market, and there was another argument that the likes of Germany and France would look on the UK as a potentially stronger ally if its technology industries were seen to be thriving.

This period between 1955 and 1965 was one of remarkable change in the thinking about weapon systems in this country. There was an “infamous” White Paper produced by Duncan Sandys in 1957, which dramatically recorded a fundamental change in Govenment thinking. He announced that the UK now had stocks of Atomic Bombs, and that the hydrogen bomb development in this country was almost complete. He recognised the existence and potentially enormous consequences of the long range ballistic missile, and concluded that the days of the manned long range bomber were over. He decided that guided weapons and nuclear bombs were to become the means on which UK’s strategic defence would, in future, be based.
TSR2 survived this broadside only because it was seen as, or at least presented by the Military as, a Tactical rather than a Strategic weapon. But in spite of its continuation, you could hear a continuous sound of knives being sharpened in the political arena.

As can easily be imagined, the RAF were not too happy about this turn of events. Most people accepted that there was still a need for a flexible Tactical Support and Reconnaissance capability which could only be provided by a manned aircraft – hence the acronym. The “2” in the aircraft’s title was driven by its planned maximum speed – Mach 2. So, off the development went, and it was not until sometime later that some bright spark measured the bomb bay of the new aircraft, and then looked up the dimensions of the newest nuclear bombs which were being developed, and realised that the bombs could be fitted in the aircraft. At this point, the “S for Support” changed to “S for Strike” and the RAF was back in the manned nuclear bomber arena, by the back door.

The inexorable slide of the UK from a Great Power to a Medium Power continued, and it was possible to see the planned areas of operation throughout the World for such an advanced Weapons System operated by the UK decreasing year by year. With the aircraft almost symbolising the incongruity of Past Desires being corroded by Current and Future Strategic realities, it became a major battleground for Britain’s political defence arguments with the Tories and the Labour Party, who were also turning themselves inside out over Nuclear disarmament, clashing continuously over the years. The “East of Suez” discussions raged for more than a couple of decades.

But meanwhile the aircraft development continued, with its first flight in September 1964, although its complexity had meant that the development costs were increasing in an alarming way, and the timescales were stretching out beyond the original planned introduction dates. On the political front, around the same time, the nation voted the Labour Party, under Harold Wilson, into power, and in their first budget in April 1965, they cancelled it.

This did not mean that they believed we had no need for such a weapon, and the Government immediately, and quite possibly with a lot of help from the Americans, ordered a replacement system from the USA called the F111 – a swing wing aircraft aimed at a very similar design specification. It gives pleasure to some, and presumably not to others that this aircraft in turn ran into significant development problems, with resulting cost increases, and it, in turn, was cancelled.

The RAF, in the normal inter-service infighting way, had for many years fought long and hard not to accept a similar (lesser, in their eyes) UK Naval aeroplane called the Buccaneer to do the Tactical Strike Role, then had to eat humble pie, and take this aeroplane onto their books, where it served them well for many years. Ho Hum.

The Structure and Control of the Aircraft’s Development

In many ways, the specification drawn up for the aircraft was a major seed in its undoing. It was probably the most ambitious and difficult to achieve set of requirements ever produced. If ever there was a “Cost” accident waiting to happen, this was it.

And it was going to be produced by an industry which was still very fragmented, with little known ability to collaborate with each other. The way of military systems at this time was such that the costs and complexities were increasing in a dizzying way. Most of the systems for the Engines, the Electronics, the Control systems were “Pie in the Sky” when General Operation Requirement 339 the detailed specification given out by the Military to Industry was published, and the aim of the project was to get all these new systems developed under the TSR2 banner, so they came together for the first time in the new Aircraft. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is the recipe for a few problems, and so it was. Another Grenade with the Pin out.

The Government decided that they would force the Industry to merge by only giving the contract to a company who had done precisely that. Thus it was that English Electric and Vickers got together and formed British Aircraft Corporation, who were granted the contract in 1959. The Government, at that time, ran such projects in a very old fashioned way, with little scope given to BAC for decision making in many areas of the Project. The Ministry controlled major parts of the project like the Engine development and much of the Electronics and Avionics, with the result that some 70% of the Cost base was under the responsibility of the Ministry of Aviation. There is no doubt that this in itself led to major cost, timing and control issues – it took until March 1962 for the first Cost estimate to be published. Indeed, not only were they trying to build the most complex aircraft this country had ever produced, but the whole project was also being used as a form of testing “guinea pig” to set against the American “Weapons System” procedure, where the whole programme is totally under the control of a prime Contractor.

The simple facts are that the Government did not keep anything like a tight enough control of its own costs and did not specify anywhere clearly enough what they wanted from its major contractors, with the predictable result that project control ran away from them. The remarkable thing, given all this is that the aircraft actually flew within 4½ years of “Go-Ahead”.

In a bizarre way, the fluidity of the cost position came to help Denis Healey, when he came to cancel it in 1965. No-one actually knew what it was going to cost, so when he stood up in the Commons, and announced that the final bill would be £750 million (an enormous figure 40 years ago), no-one could argue against him. In the event, no-one ever found out how that number had been calculated, and the more cynical among us might suffer a passing thought that the “back of a fag packet” had been used to generate a huge number which would frighten everyone to death – Healey was a very shrewd and wily Political operator.

Looking back, starting with a hugely ambitious programme, an Industry ill-equipped at the beginning to move the technology changes along quickly enough, a Government revue and control programme which dragged its heels and made the myriad of decisions needed very difficult, it is surprising that they got a design which actually worked, and an aircraft which looked, at the time of its cancellation, that it would end up being able to do the job it had been designed for.

The Aircraft Itself

Well, here’s the rub. If we’d been talking about some boring old transport aircraft, no-one would even have cared, and I wouldn’t be writing this now. But, when you saw it for the first time, and here’s the first picture released of the original prototype in 1963, it simply took your breath away.


Remember, the project was started only 10 years after the Spitfires and Lancasters had been doing their bit in the Second World War, and to come face to face with something like this was a major shock. Readers of the Eagle, and Dan Dare would have felt at home, but the rest of us, me included, gasped in amazement.

It was however, the logical result of the Operational Requirement which the RAF had demanded. They wanted it to carry a decent sized bomb load whilst having the ability to do three things –

- Fly very high and very fast (Mach 2+) for a long distance
- Fly very low (200 feet), at transonic speeds, hugging the ground to avoid radar and guided missiles, and
- To take off from semi prepared runways in forward positions, in not more than a few Football pitch lengths

Trust me, each one of these requirements is quite challenging, particularly the low flying one, but put them all together, and for the designers, you immediately add Orders of Magnitude into the Degree of Difficulty figures. Flying fast, both high and low, demands a small, thin, swept back wing like a dart, to give a decent “gust response” and low drag characteristics – exactly the opposite of the requirements for taking off heavily laden in a short distance, where you need a wing more like a glider.

The clever souls who designed it came up with a really elegant solution. For take-off, they bled copious quantities of air from the engines and blew it out in a thin sheet across the aircraft wings and control surfaces, thereby hugely increasing the lift at low speed and getting it airborne much earlier.

They filled every mortal space in the airframe which wasn’t used for people, engines, systems or undercarriage with fuel, so it could fly prodigious distances. Wherever you looked in the fuselage was fuel.


They designed an undercarriage with huge baggy tyres which could absorb the undulations of the rough ground, and gave the supporting mechanism for the front wheel the capability to rise up enormously on take-off to lift the nose up into the optimum position for maximum lift.

And lastly, they gave it two huge Olympus engines of the sort which would also power Concorde. In the past, the only thing which had got Bombers off the ground was the curvature of the earth, but this beast was from a totally different planet. Lightly laden, it had more power than it weighed, so in theory, it could fly vertically upwards and accelerate into who knows where. Even early on in its testing, when it was accompanied by a Lightning Chase Plane, the RAF’s fastest fighter, the TSR2 Test Pilot, Roland Beamont, lit the blue touch paper and left the Lightning for dead. I bet you could have seen his smile at the end of that flight from Outer Space.


That is not to say the aircraft was without its technical problems when it first flew. The undercarriage, on landing, vibrated at just the resonant frequency of the pilot’s eyeballs, which made landing the thing very unpleasant. Bristol Siddeley had encountered considerable difficulties in developing the engines, and the original ones fitted to the first prototype were only certified by the manufacturers for 5 hours running at Maximum power. After that, you were on your own –not a terribly comforting feeling for the pilots as they shoved the throttles wide open on take-off.

The complexities of the undercarriage were such that, to start with, the retraction mechanism could not be relied upon. On test, one leg would work, and the other not, again not something to make the pilot sleep easily, so for the first few flights, they left it down.

But these things are to be expected, for that is what a flight test programme is there for. On the positive side, the flying characteristics were excellent, and the beast flew supersonically very early on. But politics is no respecter of engineering excellence, when it goes against its own agenda. In fact, it spurs them on to take urgent action to nip things in the bud, before it’s too late.

One the one side, the engineers at British Aircraft Corporation were pushing as hard as they could to get the second prototype in a position where it was ready to fly, which they did just before Budget Day 1965. The company requested permission from the new Labour Government to let it go, but this was refused. Come April 6, Healey cancelled it, and the Government set about ensuring that there was no way any further development on the project took place.

They went into Weybridge where the airframes were being assembled and insisted that all the manufacturing jigs (which they owned) were destroyed immediately. Within a couple of days, the Assembly Hall production line was decimated, with the whole line being attacked with Welding Cutters, destroying it irrecoverably. At Warton, near Preston, the full size wooden mock-up used to ensure all the components fitted together properly, was taken out and burned in front of all those employees who had spent the last few years of their working lives living and breathing the project. And the prototypes nearing completion on the Production Line were unceremoniously hauled off to Shoeburyness where they were used as Gunnery targets for the Army.

If you thought political ruthlessness only existed on the other side of the Iron Curtain, you could think again. Someone very high up in the Labour Government was going to ensure that there was no chance of the project ever being resuscitated.

The first two prototypes still survive, albeit in a completely non-flying condition – one at Duxford and the other at Cosford.

Almost 50 years on, it’s still a remarkably modern looking plane. Although it’s hard to keep the Rose coloured spectacles in your pocket, it’s difficult to think of one aircraft even today which can do what TSR2 was looking as if it could achieve when it was cancelled. Yes, it’s become a bit of a cult, but only because there was such enormous potential there. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know how much pressure the Americans put on Healey to cancel it, allowing their own equivalent aircraft a clear run at the market.

It’s an almost perfect example of your head taking you in one direction, and your heart taking you in completely the other. All I can say is I was proud to have played even a small walk-on part in it.

Such is life.



Saturday, December 29, 2007


Rummaging through a few things this Christmas, I came across a picture I thought I’d lost. A few years ago I had a visitor at work who was a Motor Racing fanatic, and we rabbited on for a while about a mutual hero – Jim Hall of Chaparral fame. He gave me a picture of Jim Hall taken in the early Sixties, and here it is. Most of the images you see of the great man were taken from his 1964-70 Can-Am era, but this one, which is signed by Mr Hall, is of his earlier racing life when he put his toe into Formula 1 in 1963 and raced a BRP Lotus 24 machine around Europe for a season or so.


I’ve written eulogistically about him before (see Beep-Beep The Man’s a Genius posted on 10th April 2007). In my humble view, Jim Hall was responsible for some of the greatest racing car designs ever created. He was a pivotal and a major player in a marvellous period, when the Motor Racing scene saw the creation of a formula where almost anything went. The rules were simple - you had to have four wheels, you had to have the body covering the wheels, you had to have some rudimentary (for the era) safety equipment on the car, and well, that was about it. Anything, literally anything went and you could almost do whatever you liked, and as a result of that never to be repeated design freedom, we saw some of the most awesome (absolutely the right word here), frightening, innovative and utterly fantastic racing cars the world has ever seen.

Even today, when you go to the mid summer Goodwood meeting, and these monsters blast past you, all the youngsters’ jaws drop. Last June, Hall brought the 2J “Sucker Car” over from America, and for most people this was the first time they had laid eyes on it. It was driven by Vic Elford (a very intelligent, very under-rated driver – not nicknamed Quick Vic for nothing!), who was one of only two men who raced the thing for real – the other was a young up and coming guy named Jackie Stewart. It was an immense pleasure to see it roaring its way up the hill. One young guy standing near me who clearly hadn’t seen it before, stared at it almost unbelievingly as it went past, and simply said “What the f*** was that?”


There’s never been a car which looks remotely like it, some wag once quipping that it looked as if it was still in the box it came in. But, by the Lord Harry, could it go. Hall (and General Motors, his secret backers) got the idea to enclose most of the bodywork onto the ground with moveable plastic screens and to use an auxiliary Snowmobile engine to suck the car onto the ground, like a massive Vacuum cleaner. So simple, so brilliant, so ahead of its time, and so good the only way the other teams could compete with it was to get it banned. They only built one in 1970, and with it now sitting in the Chaparral Museum in Texas, most people over here never imagined they would ever see the beast in the flesh. Many, many personal thanks therefore to those people who got it over here.

The Chaparral people apparently thought for quite a while that it wouldn’t run again properly because they had some major problems with the Snowmobile engine. But, talking to Vic Elford at Goodwood last June, he told me that the team had bizarrely found a replacement engine on E-Bay (still in its original packaging!) a few weeks before, and lo-and-behold, it now runs as originally planned. It’s quite amazing to watch it start up and suck itself a couple of inches down onto the ground – very spooky. A bit like the All Blacks’ Haka at the beginning of a Rugby match, the psychological effect of seeing this car squashing itself onto the ground to get ready for business, must have been quite demoralising to anyone else on the grid. You just knew “they” had got something you hadn’t, and if it held together, you and the rest of the grid were then racing for second place.

A truly remarkable piece of motor racing machinery, built by a remarkable man.

Pictures taken by yours truly at Goodwood 2007 of the Chaparral 2J in action




Thursday, December 27, 2007


You've possibly seen this before, but if you haven't, it's one of those clips that make YouTube worthwhile. Utterly stupid, quite mad, completely pointless and brilliant to watch.

If anyone says we're basically all the same the world over, can you remotely imagine anyone from Harrogate or Croydon doing anything like this?





One of the real pleasures of owning a Sky Box is to watch top class cricket all the year round. Recently, the rains have transformed my garden into a bit of a quagmire, and the damp, freezing weather has occasionally turned the usual pleasure of walking the dogs into a bit of a duty. Switching on to watch a game in the Southern hemisphere has been like flinging the central heating on and getting the sun to shine, on demand. The only frustrating bit of sand in the oyster, it has to be said, is that one of the teams playing was England.

Sri Lanka are a really good side, especially on their home ground, but then again, so are England supposed to be. Starting out rated second in the World, England were expected to give the Sri Lankans a good run for their money. The three match Test Series will go down in the history books as a 1-0 win for the home side. But the reality was, it was nowhere near as close as that. Apart from the first morning of the First Test, where England had Sri Lanka on their knees at 40 for 5, they were pretty comprehensively outplayed by the opposition for almost the rest of the series.

In all departments of the game, bowling, fielding, wicket keeping and batting, we deserved to go down 3-0, and only a series of timely interventions from the weather helped us keep the difference to one match.

You can trawl through the details but the simple facts are we do not have a truly world class batsman in the line-up. Cook was the best with a disastrous start in the First Test slowly being turned into a match saving hundred -the only one scored by anyone in the England side on the tour. Interestingly, only Tendulkar, Miandad, and a certain D Bradman, have scored more or as many Test Hundreds by the time they were 23 as Alistair Cook has. Just think how many good players are NOT on that very short list. He may not be the most attractive player to watch, but England really, really needs someone like him.

The rest of them dillied and dallied with Petersen being as dreadful as I can remember. Bell flattered to deceive, suffering from the new contagious English disease of not being able to turn a 50 into a 100 (once again, look at Cook’s record here – it’s in a completely different league). Bopara and Collingwood seemed to suffer a massive crisis of confidence, although Prior stepped up to the mark on occasions. Apart from Cook, the only English player whose batting you could say allowed him to hold his head up was Sidebottom, who played some terrifically gutsy and intelligent innings at No 7. The whole middle order seemed to be totally unsettled by Peterson’s continual failures, showing that building a batting side around one person, who then singularly fails to deliver the goods, can destroy a side’s confidence very quickly.

The fielding, in recent times a real England strong point, was simply average at best, and unacceptably poor for much of the time. Prior’s wicket keeping was shambolic and he let through far too many chances which should have been taken. It would be an interesting exercise to work out how many runs Sri Lankan batsmen went on to score, following a dropped catch by Prior. My guess is in the many hundreds – simply not good enough, and possibly match losing on occasions. If he’s the best we’ve got, we’ve got a real problem.

The bowlers toiled doggedly, with Hoggard in the First Test being outstanding. Quite how we managed to lose a match when we had them 40 for 5 before lunch on day 1 is quite beyond me, and them as well, I suspect. Anderson was very disappointing. Sidebottom bowled better than his figures show, and Broad had a baptism of fire. Harmison struggled to dominate, and where Malinga got some real bit on occasions, Harmison should have but didn’t. Panesar was far too expensive, but at least had three matches to see, at close quarters, just how Muralitharan does it all.

But none of all this takes away the pleasure of watching the Sri Lankans play. To my untutored mind, they play some of the most exciting cricket in the World today. Players like Sangakarra, Jayawardena, Jayasuriya, Vaas and Murali are all men who can turn matches on their own, as well as being an utter delight to watch. Just at the moment, England has none of these – at least I hope it’s only “just at the moment”.

On a completely different level, one small nugget of pleasure in the series was watching Bob Willis who did the summing-up role for Sky. Now Willis was a tremendous bowler in his time, but, as a TV Pundit, until recently he qualified as the honorary Scotsman in PG Wodehouse’s comment "It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.”

You never saw Willis smile. Someone in the Sky hierarchy however, has clearly noticed this and sent him on a Smiling Course recently, with devastating results. As he is introduced to the viewers now, he stares at you with this amazing face on, which one suspects is his early unfinished version of a genial smile. He looks as if he has unintentionally just sat down, quite hard, on the handle end of a cricket bat. Having got the smile out of the way, his face reverts to the grumpy, tetchy man we have grown to know and love. Come the end of his bit, the rictus smile is switched back on – talk about Jekyll and Hyde.

Somebody should tell him to wait until he’s finished the course.

If you don't believe me, the camera can't lie - pictures below.


...... AND AGAIN!

....... AND YET AGAIN!




Thursday, November 29, 2007


Conventional wisdom states that TV advertising is there so you can pop out to make a cup of tea, without missing any of the important bits of the programme. In spite of this, the Company Marketing Wallahs shell out amazing amounts of money to get their 30 seconds on the screen, when, by the logic of the first sentence, you are actually rummaging around in the larder for a new packet of Choccy Digestives, when they are being shown.

The whole world of TV advertising started in this country in 1958, and given the amount of intellect, thought, creative genius and Money that has been expended in this area, it is not surprising that, in the intervening 5 decades, some of the snippets which have been interleaved with the programmes have actually been something approaching mini-Works of Art. You don’t realise just how good some of these creations are until you see them without the inconvenience of the programmes we have to sit through interrupting them, and diluting their genius.

So, it was, with considerable interest that, the other night, I watched one of the highly addictive “100 Greatest …” Programmes which Channel 4 have been producing over the last few years, this one covering the 100 Best TV Ads Ever.

The reality, of course, is that the list is only what a few Channel 4 viewers, “industry experts” and “critical opinion”, whatever that lot means. The real reason I suspect these programmes are made is to get you arguing with the TV set about a particular Ad being in there at all, or its position in a totally subjective Top 100. The truth of course, is that most of the Adverts are not even aimed at you, and you could probably get a good psychological profile of yourself by getting a shrink to review the ones which strike a chord with you individually.

You’ve no real idea if the Ads which you think are good, actually worked. The only way I can judge them, as an interested bystander, is if the company running them kept them going on TV for a decent length of time. In spite of Lord Leverhulme’s obligatory dictum that "Half of my advertising is wasted, but the trouble is, I don't know which half.", I bet that someone in these companies, especially those like Coca Cola knew precisely that the half that was on TV actually worked. The money being sprayed around was so huge that if it didn't work, they'd have canned the airtime and done something else pretty damned quick, or the Adman would have been finding another job.

So the conclusion you come to is that most of the ones which drill their insidious ways into our brains actually made people get off their backsides and go into the showroom, or buy a bar of chocolate, or shake some adulterated talcum powder on their carpet and then immediately Hoover it up. Or even try a can of Coke, and realise immediately that Pepsi still tasted better.

The ones I never understood were the ones like the BT Ads, which always seemed to me to be advertising a monopoly, and apart from a few additional calls between Maureen Lipman's friends congratulating her on a terrific performance playing herself, seemed to be heading nowhere.

Some of the 100 “Best” ones, you'd actually very much like to forget, but they are, by their very horribleness and the high degree of Cringe inducing feelings they generate, actually very memorable. My personal selection of these includes -

· Henry Cooper, splashing Brut around in a shower room full of semi naked men (one of whom was Kevin Keegan – I always worried about him) in a vaguely disturbing way, which today would have the Police round demanding to look at his Laptop.
· Charlie Girl perfume, with that girl in a gold Boiler suit, built like a Racing Snake, grinning like an idiot and twirling around in a Bar. I always felt as if a good slap would have been the order of the day there.
· Leslie Crowther getting supermarket buyers to taste bits of anaemic looking margarine on little bits of biscuit, without you thinking how much money they’d been paid to pick the one with Stork on. Can you imagine what the one they rejected must have tasted like, or even what it was?
· Victor Kiam selling Remington shavers – proving for ever that CEOs are no good whatsoever fronting a TV Ad
· Fairy Liquid with Nanette Newman and that ghastly, fawning child
· The Sugar Puffs Honey Monster
· The Milky Bar Kid
· The PG Tips Monkeys - where were Health and Safety, and the RSPCA when we really needed them? And finally
· The Shake n Vac Woman – the truly appalling thing was that every time they showed the Ad, their sales went into the Stratosphere, which says something about something – I just don’t know what it is.

But what about the good ones? The one thing you can guarantee is that the winner in the Channel 4 selection will not be your favourite, and your “Best One by a Mile” will come in somewhere like Number 37 – which indicates the real point of the programme. It’s four hours of inexpensive television designed to get you shouting at the set, calling them morons but talking about it all in the pub/at work the next day.

So yours won’t be mine, but seeing as I write this thing, I get to choose my eight favourites, perhaps not for a Desert Island, although I wouldn’t mind taking a couple of them with me! So, in no particular order -

Boddingtons - Well yes. It works on so many levels. The first one absolutely stopped you (or at least it did me!) in your tracks. The girl, in black stockings, and a very fitting Little Black dress walking very purposefully across the polished floor of a very expensive penthouse, sitting down at a dressing table, then cutting to her rubbing her moisturising cream seductively into her face a couple of times to finish her makeup. Then “The Sting” as she dips her hand a third time in the creamy head (!) of a pint of beer before applying it again.

Then we have the Swan (What was that all about?), the girl’s knowingly cocked eye, the posh guy appearing, and the genius bit (and it was genius) – his “Out of the Blue” Northern accent - “By 'ekk, yer smell gorgeous tonight Petal”.

And the simple strapline - The Cream of Manchester. The Cream of Manchester indeed. If that wasn't a perfect Ad, I don't know what was.

By the way, it was a young Anna Chancellor, aka Duckface in “Four Weddings” for those who want to join the lust-fest.

R Whites - It's a little company standing up and fighting the big boys. And didn't they do it well. An utterly infectious riff, I bet you’re starting to sing it now – “I'm a secret-a lemonade drinker, R Whites, R Whites......”. Brilliant.

Everyone in their time has been infected by it, and you get so irritated with yourself because you can’t stop singing it, and you feel such an idiot. Sung (for the anoraks) by Elvis Costello's dad. And who on earth was R White anyway, and what did the R stand for?

Cadburys Flake - Yes well, we've all got our favourite, and I suspect that you can tell a man's age by asking him which his was. Mine’s the languorous girl sitting on the open chateau window seat, if anyone’s interested. It's the way she licks it to start with. There's a slightly louche feeling running through them all - Botoxy lips before Botox had been invented, soft focus lenswork, somewhat surreal locations (no Luton Airport here), an obligatory lizard (don't even ask), the flake must crumble, and the girl eating it has to lick the crumbly bits. It’s probably my age but I swear the Flakes have got longer over the years.

I've no idea how these ads are seen through female eyes, but I can't imagine they'd have the same effect on them - which is odd because I can’t recall ever seeing a man eating one, so I assume they’re aimed at the females among us. Curious.

VW - in my view the best "Series" of Ads ever. They've had a wholly unique house style for something like 30 years now, and continue to be fresh, funny and effective. Even today, when you first see a new one being shown, you have to stop and watch it. I suspect they've been a very major factor in positioning VW's brand in this country - probably not that cheap to make, but they've earned their keep a hundred fold. We’ve got three in the family, so they must work!

Maxell Tapes - a very witty take on Bob Dylan, singing Subterranean Homesick Blues but given an exquisite twist (actually My Ears are Alight!) to make the point that Maxell tapes were the bees knees for clarity and hi-fi reproduction. Excellent.

The “Guardian” - actually quite a serious Ad, brilliantly made. It told the whole issue of putting a slant on a piece of news, the “It all depends on how you see something” approach quite amazingly brought to life in 20 seconds - the most intelligent Ad I've ever seen. I even bought the “Guardian” for a few days as a result, but I couldn’t get used to the unshaven armpits.

Lego Mouse - Just so clever, it showed exactly what the product could do in a way that appealed to kids, and grown ups - the Tommy Cooper impression was an absolute flash of genius.

Smash - for a product which has no sex appeal (well, at least not to me!), it was very silly and hugely watchable for umpteen years, and got the whole idea of instant mashed pototoes, a subject that didn't even show on my Million most interesting things list, onto that list. We even tried it once, but not as I recall, twice!

Yes, I do have a favourite, and if I had enough Techno-Nous, I'd put a copy of it in this piece. But I haven’t yet, so I can’t. It's not even on YouTube (as far as I can tell) so I can’t even point you there. So, to plagiarise Kenneth Williams, I've set myself a bijou project, to work out how to do it, because it’s 50 seconds of pretty flawless genius - almost a work of televisual Art, and it needs to be available to the World.

I will be back.

** A quote by Michael Maynard.



Saturday, November 24, 2007


A small item from today’s “Times” newspaper, found lurking in the “This Week on the Web” column put together by Rhys Blakely.

Pause for a slight smile, but then the whole sorry episode is a perfect definition of “Schadenfreude”, and that in itself always leaves you with a slight smile, even though it may be tinged with a touch of guilt. The unalloyed pleasure at watching that nice Mr Darling squirming as he tries to explain what’s gone on, is only surpassed by the joy at watching the excruciating contortions formed by Gordon Brown’s mouth as he vainly attempts the word “Sorry” for the first time in his life. Do we all realise who had the responsibility for HMRC for 10 years before he became Prime Minister? Just checking.

If, however, you want to put a real grin on your face, you should read a comment on a blog by a friend of mine, who for security reasons and avoidance of harassment from the Provisional Wing of the Government Audit Office, can only be identified by the codename X. If you look at his blog, which can be found on (Don’t tell him, Pike), trawl back to 21st November – “Seen on e-bay, and a Government Warning”, and Enjoy.

He gets it in one.



Friday, November 23, 2007


I like to think of myself as a reasonable human being. I love my family and my dogs. I have a (very) few friends whom I also love. If I had to create a list of people who actively hated me, I don’t think it would be very long. So, reasonable it is.

One thing has occurred to me today, though. I am, in no way, a great fan of Capital Punishment, but I have concluded that there is a good case for its reinstatement in one certain, specific case – for those individuals who knowingly, intentionally and consistently leave the wrappers of “After Eight” Mints in the box having devoured their contents.

The utter rage following the opening of a box, apparently filled with a raft of the slim, little envelopes, when the only thing you want at that moment, above almost everything else in life, is a simple, flat, square, almost two dimensional dark chocolate Mint, only to find that some “person” has pigged the lot, leaving hundreds of empty black packets in the box, mocking you as you rummage through them, hoping against hope that they have missed just one. But they never have.

It seems perfectly reasonable to me that someone who commits such an action deserves no mercy, and the ultimate price for someone found guilty, is the only appropriate solution.

Just in case I might be over-reacting here, I have discussed this with a couple of like minded people, who unsurprisingly, are in total agreement with me. One actually felt that the proposed punishment was not adequate, and that, in addition, a £10 fine was also needed to balance completely the enormity of the offence.

I have no idea how to get such a proposal onto the Statute Books, so am now going to ring my local Parish Councillor to start the process.
It’s about time we felt the smack of Firm Government again.



Thursday, November 08, 2007


The last in this sporadic Pick of the Pics series, a few days ago, showed a picture of Ironbridge Power Station, seen from my house, pushing Goodness knows how many tons of Carbon Emissions into the atmosphere - but doing it very beautifully. Hence the picture.

Like buses coming in twos, today's picture is another one taken this afternoon from the same place, but in very different conditions. Having seen Man's puny attempt last week, this is the Almighty's version of the scene.


Cue Rain, Cue Wind, Cue Yellow Brick Road, Cue a very different colour pallette.



One of the headlines in “The Times” Business Section today claims that “Wealthier pensioners ‘may subsidise the poor’”. The drift of their argument is that because people in the North die sooner than their Southern counterparts, they should receive a higher annual annuity payment from life insurance companies to compensate. Legal and General are proposing to add up to 3% to annuities paid to customers living in deprived areas of the UK – hence the “subsidy” headline.

Unless my brain has faded earlier and further than I had imagined, this suggestion of subsidy is grabbing totally the wrong end of a very large stick. The scary facts are that the average man in Glasgow City dies at 69.9 years, and his equivalent in Kensington and Chelsea lives until he’s 82.2, 12.3 years longer. If both of them had taken out an annuity when they reached 65, the Scotsman would have benefited for 4.9 years, and the Londoner for 17.2 years – some 250% longer. If their annual payment was £10,000, the Scotsman would be paid £49,000, and the Londoner £172,000.

Yet, until now, it would seem that their annuity payments, presumably for the same level of capital input, would be the same. Now I know, being a long-lapsed member of the Accounting Underclass, that the sums you see above have not been done with the same intellectual rigour as used by our actuarial friends, but if you look at them through the eyes of a man on, at least, the lower deck of a Clapham Omnibus, it is difficult to prevent the word “scandalous” from coming into your head.

This 3% is not the case of wealthier pensioners subsidising the poor, but the start of a recognition that the poorer members of our nation, by dying early are, and have been for many years, subsidising the wealthier members of the land, and to an enormous extent. It would be interesting, to get somebody with a more comforting grasp than mine of the “smoke and mirrors” of Actuarial maths to work out what the real annuity rates for our Scottish friend, and his SW3 equivalent should be. I think we’d get a real shock!

Perhaps it goes some way to explain why the Scottish Insurance companies, with their preponderance of home based customers, seem to produce consistently better financial results than their English counterparts on their Life insurance business.

The name “Scottish Widows” is starting to seem more appropriate to me now.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007


I wonder how many people of my generation, and probably the next one along as well, on reading the title of this piece, don’t immediately see, in their mind’s eye, a glass prism on a square, black background, refracting a light beam into the colours of the rainbow. Not that many I’d guess.


I’ve lost track of the number of copies of “Dark Side of the Moon” that I’ve owned. I bought my first Vinyl 12” LP version early in the Seventies, and then because it kept getting scratched, that was replaced a few times. Then the CD version, which somehow disappeared (main suspects, although to this day unproven, still remain daughters). That was replaced, and a few months ago, that replacement “disappeared”. For most of 2007, I have been without a copy – until last night. For reasons I can’t explain even so soon after the event, I found myself in the CD Section of Tescos at approaching Midnight, and there facing me was a securitised copy of the famous prism at the princely price of £8. So, I have now rejoined as a fully paid up member of the Human race, with a copy of the CD in my car.

I’ve played it twice again in the last day, and am absolutely riveted by it. A few months off from hearing it has sharpened up my feelings about it, and I sat in the car, outside the gate of my house tonight, listening to the last couple of tracks and waiting for the closing heartbeat to fade into silence before rejoining the world.

Having pondered about it over my home made Pizza and obligatory glass of Sauvignon this evening, I’ve concluded that it’s simply the best Popular Album I’ve ever heard. No caveats. No Ifs and Buts.

Released in 1973, this was a record which, at a stroke, changed the face of modern pop music. This record was not about the specific story of an Eleanor Rigby, a Lady Jane or a Jumpin’ Jack Flash. It wasn’t about fancying the girl next door, Dreaming about California, being overconcerned about a Hound Dog, or being stuck Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa.

It was about the machinery of living today, the madness of everyday life and the pressures, worries and forces which mould it. It was about money, corporatism, greed, materialism and homelessness and the post juvenile disenchantment of facing these issues in the Seventies. It chewed over the place of the individual, both standing up for itself, standing out from other individuals, and also facing up to “them” – governments, and the myriad forces of the State. Over-riding the whole thing however, and stitching it all together is the idea of Lunacy and Madness.

In a nutshell, it was about the things which worry and concern all of us – when we look in a mirror, really look in a mirror, it’s about what we are. Not, you’d have thought, the most obvious and inviting subject matter for a Pop Music Album. This one however, has sold continuously for the last 35 years. After its release, it stayed, without a break, in the US Top 100 Album charts for a slightly insane 741 weeks (almost 15 years) and, since 1972, has featured there in total for more than 1500 weeks. I don’t think I actually know anyone who hasn’t had a copy at some time.

So why is that?

It’s both very complex, and exceedingly simple. The whole thing was the brainchild of one man, Roger Waters, who realised that, approaching 30, life was passing him by, and he needed to set down his thoughts about the facets of life which increasingly kept him awake at night.



The words he came up with to do this are in no way fanciful – they are almost snippets, simple soundbites even. But the imagery the words conjure up are hugely potent, sharp and straight to the point. Try this for size – reflecting on madness, and the slide of one of the Floyd’s original members, Syd Barrett into its dark world, Waters writes –

... You raise the blade,
You make the change,
You re-arrange me till I’m sane

You lock the door
And throw away the key
There’s someone in my head but it’s not me.

Each set of four words tells a bit of the story, moving the idea on. But, in my humble opinion, at the same time, very chilling and very effective.

I am not an anorak about these things, but I don’t recall any album before “Dark Side of the Moon” having anything like a similar structure. Prior to its release, albums were a collection of songs – (Yes, even Sergeant Pepper). The whole thing here is created as an almost seamless, homogenous whole.


It starts with a simple heartbeat slowly increasing in volume – on first hearing you thought “What the hell is this about?” - and ends with the total reverse, the heartbeat fading away into nothing. Between these endpieces, there are nine sections, segued together quite brilliantly. Only in the middle of the work, where the original Vinyl LP ended Side 1, is there a hiccup. But, apart from that, one section slides effortlessly into the next – you can’t see the join, except when you realise that the ideas have moved on to another subject!

A new idea Roger Waters had was to use recordings of people around him reacting to a disarmingly simple but very leading set of questions he asked. He wanted to tease out their inner thoughts and prejudices, their opinions on things like violence and madness. He then overlayed these comments throughout the record. This gives a really dark and edgy side to the whole production, as the snippets do not always appear when you might expect them to - rather like the way our minds work, when we are suddenly hit by changes of subject in a random way we can’t control or understand.

All of that sounds a bit bleak, and, to be fair, it is a record which does not contain much optimism. You certainly don’t get DJs putting it on when they want to fill the dance floor at the wedding reception. It’s a very intimate and introspective thing actually, best listened to on one’s own, in a darkened room, with the sound up very high.

I suspect I’ve played this record more than any other I’ve ever owned. And, apart from all I’ve said above, the thing which keeps me coming back to it time and again, is that it’s an absolutely first rate collection of brilliant, memorable songs with great tunes. With David Gilmour’s soaring, and sometimes searing guitar, through the extraordinary wordless solo by Clare Torry on “The Great Gig in the Sky”, through Rick Wright’s hauntingly beautiful and introspective piano playing, there isn’t a weak link anywhere. In spite of Roger Water’s trying to “rubbish” it a bit now, calling it ”a bit Lower Sixth”, I think his overall vision was quite remarkable.





This bit will sound as if Melvyn Bragg has suddenly leant over my shoulder and started whispering in my ear, but I’ve been trying to think of a piece of art, created in my lifetime, which is more important, more significant and has had more effect on people in the Western World than “Dark Side of the Moon”, and actually I’m struggling.

I think it is an absolute masterpiece.




An extract from our local Village magazine, and the first for this site – a Quiz.

Not for us the soft underbelly of the Million Dollar question on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”. Neither do we steep so abjectly low as the demeaning obviousness of “Round Britain Quiz”. And the straightforward, child-like simplicity of the Times “Ximenes” crossword has no place here.

This one’s really fiendish – but, at the same time, very simple. All you have to do is guess the 5 letter word which has been blanked out with asterisks in the excerpt which follows.

“A very successful ***** night was held last Saturday. We were entertained by our friends from the (place name withheld for security reasons) area: pictured from the left (Tecwyn Jones, Glyn Jones, Dilys Hughes (nee Jones), newcomer and rising talent, Rhys Jones and lastly, Evan Jones, who hosted the evening.” ……..

If, as I can easily imagine, this devilish problem completely defeats you, please e-mail the author, and, depending upon the amount of obsequious grovelling you indulge in, I may, repeat, may, offer a small clue.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


Grandparent, arriving at school, to pick up 6 year old Grandson: “Did you have a good day at school today?”

Grandson to Grandparent: “Yes thanks, Grandma.”

Grandparent to Grandson:
“What did you do in class today?”

Grandson to Grandparent: “I don’t know – I’ve just deleted those files.”


Sunday, October 28, 2007


It’s that one day of the year. The bright sparks in Westminster, 91 years ago, decreed that they would introduce the concept of British Summer Time.

The clocks go forward, or they go back. I’m getting to the age where I have to work out which is which, with the obvious result that one year, I got it wrong, and turned up to meet someone two hours before we had actually agreed to see each other. Instead of a perfectly reasonable 9.30am, his house was awoken by my push on the doorbell at 7.30am on a Sunday morning.

I don't think they were terribly impressed.

Each year, about now, we see a flurry of articles in the Press pointing out that, if we were really serious about minimising injury and loss of life among the population, we would change the way we do it, and keep British Summer Time going all year round. But, because a few shouty people in Scotland, who, if I’m not mistaken, now have their own Parliament, whinge on, as only Scots and Scousers can manage, we English withdraw from the argument, and keep the status quo. And a few more of our children, on the way home from school, are apparently sent for a terminal early bath, or at least suffer some unnecessary body modifications because we can’t be bothered.

If you look at the history of it all, it’s not quite as boring as you might imagine. Until the arrival of the railways in the early Nineteenth Century, each area of the country kept their own local time. It didn’t really matter that Nuneaton time was a few minutes different from Scunthorpe time. It took a day or so to get from one to the other, so what did a couple of minutes matter. The Railway timetables, over a period of 20 or so years put paid to that, although the more cynical among us might suspect that Virgin Rail has re-introduced it recently without telling us.

It wasn’t until 1880 though, that Parliament actually legislated to make UK time consistent with GMT throughout the country. Even at this date, Irish time, known as Dublin Mean Time (25 minutes behind GMT – Don’t even ask!) remained different. It took until 1916 for the Irish to come in line with the rest of the UK.

At the same time British Summer Time was introduced, and you’d have thought that that would have been it, until such things as Atomic Time was introduced. But No. The Government has fiddled about with this like a fiddly about thing. We even had double BST during the years of the Second World War. Intriguingly, the Government insisted that the reasons that it was removed after the war, were so sensitive that the papers were not to be released for 100 years. Intriguing.

Since 1916, in excess of 70 separate pieces of legislation tampering with our clocks have been passed, repealed, changed and reinstated since that time.
I had completely forgotten this, but we had a period from 1968 to 1972, when BST was kept on as an experiment all year. Apparently the forecast overall reduction of accidents did occur, but something (unknown) happened to make us revert to the previous BST/GMT arrangement at the end of that period.

And so it goes on. Scotland and Northern Ireland claim that a change to GMT+1 hour all year round would result in Sunrise in the most northerly parts of their countries not occurring until 10am or so. And this seem to have been the reason why successive attempts to change the system have failed.

Now I may be wrong, but I thought there were only about 25 people who lived north of Glasgow, so the whole of the UK is being disadvantaged by these guys. And now Scotland has its own Legislative Assembly, why not let them decide for themselves? What’s so difficult about a different timezone for Scotland if that’s what they want?

The whole thing seems to be very simple to me. Keep GMT in place all year round. It means the accident issue in England would be improved, it means I don’t face the possibility of arriving on a friend’s doorstep while his wife’s hair is still in curlers, and she’s only got the undercoat of her make-up on. It also has the passing benefit of getting up the noses of those north of the Border, who are getting a bit big for their boots. Remember Culloden, I say.

And most of all, this evening, when I was looking at the clock on this one particular day of the year, waiting at 5.45pm for the Sun to pass over the 6pm Yard-Arm, to break out the Gin, I wouldn’t have had to wait for a further miserable 15 minutes to demonstrate to myself, as a point of personal pride, that I am in control of my Alcohol Intake.


Thursday, October 18, 2007


I don't seem to have put up one of my own pictures onto this site for quite a while.

We live in the country, and have a distant, easterly view of Ironbridge. It has a power station there, and this evening, just as the sun was setting, I turned away from the sunset, and the scene which faced me was the one below.


Sometimes the results of Man's efforts in the landscape can look rather impressive.



Wednesday, October 17, 2007


80% of the front page of my newspaper yesterday, Tuesday, was dominated by a lurid report sparked by Dawn Primarolo, the well known anagram and part time Public Health Ministress, that, as part of the most highly oppressed section of the population, I am now being targeted as a potentially “hazardous” consumer of alcohol – the Middle-Class Vice.

Someone has worked out that the worst areas in the country for consuming “hazardous” quantities of alcohol are Runnymede and Harrogate, where apparently 26.4% of the adults living there are potential abusers. Don’t ask how they work out the last decimal place here, ‘cos I’ve no idea. But this is such an important revelation that four fifths of the complete Front Page is given over to it.

However, skulking away, at the top right hand corner of the front page is a pithy little comment, occupying 3.04% of the remaining 20% of the page’s area, and totalling 46 words, noting that Sir Menzies Campbell had resigned as leader of the Lib-Dems.

Hang on a minute. This guy is (or was, as of 6.30pm on Monday) the leader of the party that polled 5,981,874 votes out of a total of 27,110,727 votes cast in the 2005 Election in the whole of this country – that’s 22.1% of the electorate. Call me old fashioned but I think that’s a bit newsworthy.

Yes, the Lib-Dems seem to have got themselves in an almighty tangle in the manner of his going. We seem to have Simon Hughes and Vince Cable appearing on the doorstep of the Cowley Street Party Headquarters, apparently doing a pretty good impression of a couple of Division 2 undertakers, announcing, in solemn terms, Ming’s departure, with no Ming to be seen. Which gem of a PR person planned that one?

But none of that is any reason for the Times to pop a 46 word “obituaryette” on the Front page, and carry on as usual. They’d clearly had the time to do the in depth three page spread because it’s all there on Pages 2-4. So it wasn’t one of those stories which blew just at the wrong time of day. They presumably thought that unruly, Chianti slurping Runnymede housewives were more newsworthy than the sudden demise of third most important Party leader in the land.

Perhaps that’s the reason why he’s been pushed out.

He always struck me as a man with more than his fair share of integrity and honesty - commodities which seem to be in rather short supply in Parliament these days.


PS – As far as Lib-Dem future is concerned, is there anyone out there, apart from their respective Mums, who could honestly put hand on heart and either name or identify from a “Usual Suspects” line-up (and without a Chizz sheet), any of the potential Lib-Dem Leader replacements?

No, me neither.



Graph A below is copied from the front page of the “Daily Telegraph” today. In the fight for “Broadsheet Supremacy”, this is the Telegraph’s poke in the eye to “The Times”, and the graph shows a massive lead for the Telegraph over the Times. It says “Over the past two years, The Daily Telegraph has increased its lead over the Times from 198,175 copies in October 2005 to 236,491 copies in September this year.”


Well, that seems quite clear.

Graph B below is copied from the front page of the “The Times” yesterday, and the graph shows a (not quite so) massive lead for the Times over the Telegraph. In the fight for “Broadsheet Supremacy”, this is the Times’ poke in the eye to the Telegraph. It says “Full rate sales of the Times were ahead of the Daily Telegraph for the 35th consecutive month …”.


Well, that also seems quite clear.

I feel like writing to, say, "The Guardian", as the current, Independent (!) third place highest seller in the Broadsheet circulation battle, to ask them, as an interested and also hopefully a disinterested bystander, if they can help throw any light on all this, and possibly explain it to me.

Something tells me though, that it would all be a waste of time, because they’d have another graph which proved that the Guardian was the best seller of all.


Saturday, October 13, 2007


For anyone wondering where the most effective form of political opposition in this country has resided over the past decade, the answer is George Parr. He is the “Government Spokesman”, the Defence Minister, the Chief Executive of a thrusting NHS Healthcare Trust or a high profile businessman (in this case Sir George Parr), doing a “One to One” with a wide-eyed and incredulous, ever so slightly confused and disbelieving TV interviewer.

Played interchangeably by John Fortune or John Bird, (Sir) George Parr points up the utter absurdities, the rank prejudices, the craven scandals and the simply unbelievable happenings which those in high places involve themselves in, seemingly without the individuals involved feeling the slightest hint of personal embarrassment.

Last night, I pulled a book off one of my shelves – the original 1996 issue of “The Long Johns”. This is a set of verbatim scripts by Bird and Fortune from a great TV programme which in the 90s was called “Rory Bremner – Who Else”. They struck me at the time as utter gems, lasting no more than 5 minutes or so, as inserts into Rory Bremner’s show. I religiously recorded them all onto video, and when someone had the sense to publish the best of the scripts on Audio cassette, and lastly in Book form, I felt that my Entertainment Cup ranneth over.

Spookily coincidentally, I noticed today, that His Nasalness Sir Melvyn Bragg is devoting tomorrow night’s South Bank Show to Bird and Fortune. At last someone I’ve heard of - so that’s a must to watch and record.

The pair of them have been on the scene for so long now that you almost forget what modern TV satire was before them. Actually you can’t forget it, it wasn’t there until they put it in place. John Bird was the Cambridge Director of the original Footlights reviews, which shot Peter Cook into the public’s awareness. A couple of years later, John Fortune followed in Bird’s footsteps. They have been tweaking the tail of the Country’s establishment ever since, and it comes as a rather worrying surprise to realise that John Bird is now 70. Many of his “fellow travellers” have gone to the great TV studio in the sky – Ned Sherrin only a week or so ago, Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore.

Between them, they’ve got the pompous, the frighteningly intense and humourless politician or the scurrilous businessman, well and truly taped. And they do so in a simple way – all they do is to get the infinitely flexible George Parr to tell the truth – about Youth Crime, Prisons, the NHS, Asylum and immigration, Old People’s Homes, The Armed forces, Defence Procurement. Apart from one glorious sketch on Prison reform where they got a complete fit of the giggles, they play it dead straight. No laughs from them – that’s your job.

The really scary thing is that, in their hands, the truth is horrifyingly funny. You really can’t believe that we elect or allow the movers and shakers in the world to do all these things, but we do. Paul Hoggart’s “Times” note today sums their view on one aspect of it all - British Defence - “With British defence policy, you don’t have to make up jokes. You just say it.”

Their disarmingly simple conversation slashes like a rapier, leaving its marks, Zorro-like, over the subject, and, by making no judgements themselves, they leave you with an inescapable and logical conclusion, after, that is, you’ve wiped the tears of hysterical laughter from your eyes.

I’m not going to put lots of examples here – just watch the "Bremner, Bird and Fortune" Shows, watch the South Bank Show, buy one of their compilation cassettes, or read one of their books.

As bursters of political and business Egos, there are none finer. Absolute National Treasures.



Friday, October 12, 2007


I believe Sebastião Salgado is the most important photographer in the world today.

He is a Brazilian who studied Law and Economics, becoming an Economist in the late 60s in the Finance Ministry in São Paulo. Clearly a man with a dead centre socialist view of the world, he travelled to Africa for the World Bank and, presumably as a result of what he saw, decided to change careers and become a photographer. He worked for a couple of photographic Agencies during the 70s, finally joining the World famous Magnum group in 1979.

He set out to document the lives of people, particularly workers, in the Third World and show to those in the Western World, who probably don’t want to know, just how wide the divide between Us and Them actually is. Since the early 80s he has travelled the world, relentlessly recording the unremitting life that is the working lot of a huge proportion of the world today – the struggle for survival.

His pictures range over the Kuwaiti Oil field workers just after the first Gulf War, African tea Pickers, people building dams in India with their bare hands, Indonesians working in fuming Sulphur Mines, Mediterranean Fishermen, Bangladeshi men cutting up derelict ships by hand with hacksaws and, most famously, Brazilian miners manually digging Gold out in an enormous man-made pit, and photographed like something out from the mind of Hieronymus Bosch.

Although he sees fit almost to make light of his photographic abilities, the factor which catapults him above all others is the amazing power and drama he gets into his pictures, with the individual worker taking centre stage in the action. He works exclusively in Black and white, and seems to have the ability to get right in with the subjects, but in a way where they seem to treat him as part of them rather than as an outsider.

In almost every image, you are looking at back-breaking toil, merciless effort and (to these Western eyes) appalling poverty. And yet he brings a remarkable sense of dignity and even nobility to his images, which is uniquely uplifting. He uses light in an almost religious way, and similarly, his compositions often invoke religious overtones – the Cross, the Virgin Mary, even the 12 disciples appear frequently in his pictures.

He also possesses the “decisive moment” touch identified by Henri Cartier-Bresson. All the images he shows, you feel he’s hit the shutter at JUST the right millisecond. An instant earlier, or later, and the shot would not be as good.

And yet he describes his work as “militant photography”. Now there’s an interesting discussion.

It is this dichotomy of Subject vs Beauty which makes his pictures so important. The terrific quality of his work is what makes it stand out and makes Western eyes look at it, and by looking, get the Third World issues onto people’s tongues and into their minds.

His unique power to do this is the reason I’m writing this today.

In a strange way, I find it quite disquieting to go to an exhibition of his or turn the pages of one of his books, and feel the contrast between the beautifully constructed images staring out at me, and the harsh, unrelenting pressures on the people who are the subjects of the pictures. I can almost feel ashamed of myself for enjoying what I see, but the simple fact is they are quite remarkable pieces of work, and I rationalise it to myself by concluding that’s what he actually wants to achieve.

Salgado himself recognises this - a couple of quotes of his recently –

“I don’t want anyone to appreciate the light or the palette of tones. I want my pictures to inform, to provoke discussion – and to raise money.”

“If you take a picture of a human that does not make him noble, there is no reason to take this picture. That is my way of seeing things.”

Those two sentences give you a strong clue as to where he is coming from. He wants to use his skills to get a massive message across, and because he’s so good, he can make it work. But, as a means to get an unwelcome message across, his work, created by a single person, just taking and publishing pictures, punches way, way above its weight.

I don’t think it’s either fair or even possible to compare the ability of say, a Franco Fontana taking beautifully simple Landscape images, or an Elliott Erwitt taking humorous, quirky urban shots, with Salgado’s exquisite and hugely thought provoking output. What they do is so different – yes, they all take photographs, and very good ones, but there it ends. So, I’m not sure it’s meaningful to say “This Man is the Best photographer on the Planet”. However, if a straw poll was to be taken among photographers throughout the World, I’ll bet that Salgado, out of them all, would come out top.

I think, it is much easier to say however, because of what he is doing, and because of how well he has done it, and in the final analysis, because of the real change in human perception he, personally as one man documenting some quite unpalatable facts, has made throughout the Western World, that he is without doubt the Most Important.

I’ve borrowed a few of his images from one of the books of his I’ve bought, to give a flavour of just how good he is. His books are real works of art, although he probably wouldn’t call them that. You handle them lovingly, but always consciously thinking about the subject matter.

I hope that is what he wants to achieve.