Monday, 16 September 2019

Game Over, by Dan Whitehead (a review and reminisce)

I picked this book up on the off-chance from HMV recently, taking advantage of a price reduction because I was buying some more vinyl.  I've never been that big a gamer but, as long-time readers of the blog will know, I'm quite nostalgic for the 80s and loved the home computer revolution that began in that decade.
Remember the days of bad graphics, glitchy software and seemingly pointless games? What were we thinking? How did we cope? 

This humorous yet fond look at gaming of old is sure to have gamers shaking their heads in wonder and chuckling at the craziness of what we had to put up with. And yet there is no denying that many of the games we played back in that golden era have helped to shape the world of gaming and brought us to where we are now.

Starting with the announcement 2018 was the 40th anniversary of “Space Invaders”, this charts computer/video gaming from its infancy in the 50s and 60s through to today, though it spends a lot of time in the boom of the 70s and 80s, which worked perfectly for me.

The format is simple, each double-page spread commenting either on a particular game, system or historic incident, with Whitehead making for a good host.  He gets across plenty of facts with a good sense of humour, so this reads almost as though you’re sitting down with a more knowledgeable mate and having a nostalgic chat about the computers of your teens.  The games are discussed broadly - though the programmers are almost always named - and the systems are put into context of what they led to, while the artwork is a mixture of screengrabs, cassette covers and production art.

Funny, occasionally enlightening (I didn’t know there were Spectrum games built around James Herbert’s The Rats or The A-Team) and always readable, for someone who came into gaming in the 80s (I had a ZX81), this was an excellent read and I would highly recommend it.

* * *
When Dude was a lot smaller, I introduced him to the joys of Donkey Kong and Frogger via simulators on the laptop and he thoroughly enjoyed them (he wasn't quite a dab hand with his Nintendo DS then), though some of that may have been down to me saying I'd played them when I was a teenager.

Back then, you see, we did think this stuff was cool because - at the time - it was cutting edge.  I remember going to Wicksteeds Park and finding they had the original Atari Star Wars game cabinet where you sat to pilot your (never seen) X-Wing down the wire-frame Death Star canyons (can you imagine that now with photo-real games?).  I loved it and, probably, contributed a significant chunk to the Wicksteeds profits for that summer.

What follows is some idea of what we had to look forward to in the early 80s.  Talking to Dude now, who has a PS4 in his bedroom and spends a lot of time watching other people play on YouTube, he can't believe life was ever this primitive.

"Oh yes," I tell him, "but back then, this was all unbelievably exciting!"

1981 advert for the ZX81 - 16k RAM pack add-on!  Thermal printer!  It was all mod-cons!
from the 1982 Argos catalogue, a good range of electronic games.  I had Demon Driver and loved it - I really wanted Tin Can Alley but, to this day, I've never had a go on one
My friend David Roberts still has his C64, though I don't think he's used it in a while. 
Taken from the Argos catalogues of 1983 (right) and 1984 (left)
The ZX Spectrum, from the 1985 Argos catalogue.  £119.95 was a hefty sum then.
All those games (ad from 1984), all those brand names!

February 1983 - me, my much loved ZX81 and the portable TV you had to tune to the stations.
In 1983 I was part of the Rothwell Parish Church Youth club quiz team that competed in a grand Quiz Championship at the YMCA centre in Northampton with loads of other teams from the Midlands and East Anglia.  We reached the final and the last round, with everything to play for, was on films.  It was one of my specialist rounds and as the question-master cleared his throat, my team mates looked at me.  I looked at them and tried not to appear worried.  All I remember now is that the last three questions were based on E.T. and I was the only kid in the room who'd seen it.  We won the cup and I was absolutely thrilled.
David with the BBC Micro
I took Computer Studies as a class at school and the room had a handful of BBC Micro's for us to use and I remember them as being relatively easy to program (I passed my exam that year, having written a learning game for infants school pupils).  In 2018, David & I went to the National Video Games Museum in Nottingham with Dude (he was lured in by the Space Invaders cabinet and we didn't see him for ages) and found a machine, all hooked up and ready to program.  We spent a wonderful 15 minutes or more, typing in variations of 10 PRINT "WE WERE HERE" 20 GOTO 10.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Poster Magazines

Back in the 1970s and 80s, a publication I really enjoyed was the “poster magazine”.  The format was always the same, an A4 glossy colour magazine which folded out into a (large) A1-sized sheet.  One side would be the magazine itself, the covers and articles with plenty of photographs.  The reverse side would be a giant poster and, depending on what you’d bought, the image might be a person, an action scene or the film poster.  They were really popular and most kids I knew had at least one huge poster on their wall.

me, in 1978, with a poster of my hero
Dez Skinn (who later created Starburst magazine) produced Monster Mag from 1973 to 1977 which featured gory movie stills from the likes of Hammer Films and Amicus.  TV series offered one or two editions (though some, like Star Trek, ran to series) and you could pick up issues devoted to The Six Million Dollar Man, Doctor Who, Space: 1999The ProfessionalsThe Hulk, Battlestar Galactica and Planet of the Apes.  Music got in on the act too but even more popular were the film tie-in’s, featuring the likes of Star Wars, Superman, James Bond, Jaws, Alien and Buck Rogers - if it was a blockbuster, there’d be a poster magazine on the newsagents shelves sooner rather than later.

I haven’t seen one for sale in years (spacemonstersmag reckons they died out in the 1990s) but still have a few in my collection (though not on the walls of my study) and think they’re great fun, another nostalgic item for film and TV fans of a certain age.

Which ones did you have on your wall?
 As I may have mentioned before, I was a huge fan of The Six Million Dollar Man (as the picture from 1978 duly proves, showing the poster from this magazine on my wall...)
Star Wars was a natural fit for the poster magazine, hugely popular and full of fantastic imagery.  This continued through The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi (one of the issues for that featured a 50-facts breakdown of the special effects which I loved).
 Then and now, I'm a huge fan of The Professionals
I like Moonraker (and wrote about it here)
 One of my favourite films, I wrote about Raiders here

with thanks to spacemonstersmag

Monday, 2 September 2019

The Six Million Dollar Man, at 45

The Six Million Dollar Man was an American TV series that ran (in the US) from March 1973 through to March 1978 over five series and 99 episodes (plus six TV movies) and was shown in over 70 countries.
Steve Austin first appeared in Martin Caidin’s 1972 novel Cyborg, which was quickly followed by three sequels, Operation Nuke, High Crystal and Cyborg IV.  The first TV movie, based on Cyborg, aired in 1973.  Written by Howard Rodman (it was nominated for a Hugo Award), it made several changes to the novel - plot modifications and Austin was now a Colonel in the US Air Force - and proved very successful, leading to two more ‘Movie Of The Week’ presentations, Wine, Women And War (in October 73) and The Solid Gold Kidnapping (in November 1973).  The weekly hour-long series began in January 1974 (it began 5th September 1974 here in the UK) and was very well received, introducing several pop culture references of the 1970s such as the opening catchphrase (“We can rebuild him...we have the technology”), the slow-motion action sequences and the related bionic sound-effects.  It also made an icon of Lee Majors, who played Colonel Steve Austin.
The crash shown in the opening sequence was real, an M2-F2 grounded on 10th May 1967 (test pilot Bruce Peterson survived) and the dialogue spoken by Lee Majors is based on Peterson’s communications.  The later narration, by initial series producer Harve Bennett, serves to identify our hero - “Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive” - before Richard Anderson, as Oscar Goldman (Steve’s boss), says, “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him.  We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better... stronger... faster.”  This is heard over images of the bionics being fitted, before we see Austin running to the rousing theme music, composed by Oliver Nelson.
The Six Million Dollar man’s bionics had limits set by producer Kenneth Johnson to maintain plausibility in the show.  He said, in interview, “When you’re dealing with the area of fantasy, if you say, ‘Well, they’re bionic so they can do whatever they want,’ then it gets out of hand, so you’ve got to have really, really tight rules. They can jump up two storeys but not three. They can jump down three but not four.”  Steve was fitted with a bionic left eye, bionic legs (allowing him to run at 60mph and make huge leaps) and a bionic right arm (left in the Cyborg novel), though the implants are shown to fail in extreme cold.  To indicate when Austin was using his bionics, sequences were presented in slow-motion and accompanied by electronic sound effects - to the delight of kids (such as myself at the time).  When the bionic eye is used, the camera zooms in on his face, followed by an extreme close-up of his eye and his point-of-view includes a crosshair.  For his running and jumping, in slow-motion, the sound effects were originally used by the clone of Major Fred Sloan (John Saxon) in Day Of The Robot.  Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) was introduced as “The Bionic Woman” in 1975 and given her own series in 1976.

Me, in 1978, with a poster of my hero
I’m sure it wasn’t designed to be but the series had great appeal to children and the show was far less violent than the source novels.  Lee Majors, who’d already made a name for himself in The Big Valley, among other series, became hugely popular, helped by his movie-star looks and charm (he was also married to the world’s number one pin-up, actress Farrah Fawcett-Majors, which didn’t hurt) - he also became my hero.  The show sparked a merchandising extravaganza and here in the UK Denys Fisher produced a twelve-inch-tall action figure, dressed in a red tracksuit and trainers, which had a bionic eye you looked through (though it made your own eye ache to do so) and a bionic right arm (covered with an elastic, skin-like material that hid a removable bionic module).  The figure also came with an engine block to lift (there was a ratchet motion on the bionic arm) and there were other accessories, including a ‘bionic transport and repair station’ that I really wanted but never got.  There were also two board games, produced by Parker Brothers (I got them for Christmas though they weren’t as exciting to play as the box cover suggested) and snap-together models.
Sound effects provided by child!

Look-In magazine (which I blogged about here) featured a weekly comic strip version written by Angus P. Allan and drawn by Martin Asbury, full of action and excitement and there were four annuals produced too (I have all but the last one).  In addition to the Caidin novels, several episodes were novelised with most writers choosing to base their character on the literary Steve Austin, rather than the TV hero.  Mike Jahn wrote four (Wine, Women and WarThe Rescue of Athena One, The Secret of Bigfoot and International Incidents), while Evan Richards and Jay Barbree contributed one each (Solid Gold Kidnapping and Pilot Error respectively).
Ah, the joy of the Christmas annual...
Posters from Look-In
Both The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman were cancelled in 1978 though the characters returned in three TV movie re-unions, The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman (1987), Bionic Showdown (1989) and Bionic Ever After? (1994) in which Austin and Sommers married.
Steve Austin and his boss, Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson)

* * *
Lee Majors was born Harvey Lee Yeary in Wyandotte, Michigan on 23rd April 1939.  His parents, Carl and Alice Yeary, died in separate accidents (before his birth and when he was one, respectively) and he was adopted, aged two, by an uncle and aunt in Middlesboro, Kentucky.  Earning a scholarship to Indiana University, he transferred to Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond in 1959 where a severe back injury left him paralysed for two weeks and ended his college athletics career.  He turned to acting before he graduated, in 1962, with a degree in History and Physical Education.  Moving to LA, he worked at the Los Angeles Park and Recreation Department while studying acting and picked his stage name as a tribute to his childhood hero Johnny Majors.  After some television guest appearances he was cast in The Big Valley in 1965, making films in the downtime and when the show was cancelled in 1969 signed a long-term contract with Universal Studios.  He won the role of Colonel Steve Austin in 1973, making his directorial debut in 1975 with the sports-themed episode One Of Our Running Backs Is Missing.  Following the cancellation of the series he made several films (including the wonderful Killer Fish in 1979) before moving back to television with The Fall Guy in 1981 (I also wrote about the series here), another huge success.  That series finished in 1986 but Majors has worked steadily, on television and in film, ever since.  Married four times (Farrah Fawcett was his second wife, married in 1973, they divorced in 1982) and has four children.

Martin Caidin was born in New York City on 14th September 1927 and began writing in 1957, publishing more than fifty fiction and non-fiction books as well as more than one thousand magazine articles.  Cyborg (1972) was his most famous novel and he wrote three sequels Operation Nuke, High Crystal and Cyborg IV.  He died in Tallahassee, Florida on 24th March 1997.

Kenneth Culver Johnson was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas on October 26, 1942 and graduated from the Carnegie Institute of Technology.  Working almost exclusively in television, he produced The Six Million Dollar Man and created The Bionic Woman (1976), The Incredible Hulk series (1977), V (1983, the TV movie as opposed to the series) and the TV adaptation (1989) of Alien Nation, among others.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Walking With The Black Hand Gang...

Regular readers will know I'm a big fan of The Adventures Of The Black Hand Gang, a childhood favourite I first read in 1978.  Written by H. J. Press, the stories were a combination of text and illustration, originally published in weekly chapters with the solution to the week’s riddle given in the next edition of Sternchen, the children's supplement of German magazine Stern.
1978 Methuen edition, cover scan of my much-loved and much-read copy
The illustrations are fantastic and superbly crafted, with a deceptively simple style that's so thoroughly detailed it invites repeat viewing.  Press was one of the inventors and a key proponent (along with Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel, he’s regarded as a father of the ‘overcrowded’ style) of the "Wimmelbild", a genre of illustration deliberately overcrowded with detail, to please children as they search for items.

On a family holiday to Yorkshire, we decided to call into Robin Hood's Bay, a small fishing village and bay in the North York Moors National Park, five miles south of Whitby and fifteen miles north of Scarborough.  Bay Town, its local name, is built in a fissure between two steep cliffs with a maze of narrow streets and lots of steps and had a reputation (in the 1700s) for smuggling - there's a reputed network of subterranean passageways linking the houses.
Dude & I, overlooking the beach
According to the University Of York Outdoor Society, the origin of the name is uncertain but it’s doubtful “Robin Hood was ever in the vicinity”.  An English ballad said he was on a fishing trip and “encountered pirates who came to pillage the fisherman's boat. He got the French pirates to surrender and returned the goods that the pirates had robbed during the plundering of the northeast coast of England to the poor people…of the village of the bay that is now called Robin Hood's Bay.”

It's a lovely place and well worth a visit but imagine my surprise at seeing the narrow streets and steep hills, which were like stepping into one of Press' beautiful images.  While we didn't find any skulduggery afoot, Dude & I enjoyed a good walk and a delicious ice cream plus I found an excellent secondhand bookshop too.

The images all come from A Theft At The Zoo (the story which also supplies the cover of the book) - just look at the detail!

Looking over Cleveland Way, coming up from the beach
A close-up of above, with King Street leading off to the left
New Road, heading away from the beach
New Road, on the way back up to the car park.  Note the wonderful old Kodak sign on the shop

You can also check out my 'bit of nostalgia' blog about The Black Hand Gang here

Monday, 19 August 2019

Ten Favourite Covers: Alfred Hitchcock

In the second entry of my occasional series highlighting ten of my favourite covers (you can read the Childhood Terrors one here), I thought I'd mark the 120th birthday of Sir Alfred Hitchcock by looking at some of his fantastic anthologies.

As before (and perhaps to explain the eclectic choice), the only rule is that the bulk of the covers must come from my own library.
Edited, as a lot of his anthologies were, by Robert Arthur who went on to create my beloved the Three Investigators series (also using the Hitchcock name).  His credit appears in the acknowledgements - "the editor gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of Robert Arthur".
This is the 1977 Mayflower edition and I wish I could remember now where I bought it from.
Part One (which I don't own) includes Daphne Du Maurier's novelette The Birds.
Edited by Peter Haining, who also compiled one of my favourite childhood books The Restless Bones.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born in Leytonstone, England on August 13, 1899, to William and Emma, the youngest of their three children.  After attending technical school at 15, Hitchcock worked as a draftsman, advertising designer and writer until his interest in photography led to him to London’s nascent film industry.  He started as title card designer and began directing with Number 13 (1922) which was unfinished and is now a lost film.  After making some films in Germany, he came back to London for his first thriller, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927).

He quickly gained a reputation as a craftsman skilled in delivering suspense (often laced with dark humour) and though he made films in a variety of genres, he specialised in the thriller.  After moving to Hollywood in 1939, he produced his most recognised works and also became a household name with his penchant for self-promotion and a nice line in gallows humour.  He introduced two television anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955 to 1965) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962 to 1965), directing seventeen episodes of the former and one of the latter and also ‘edited’ a series of popular horror and suspense anthologies.

During his sixty year career, he directed 54 features and pioneered a lot of cinematic techniques that are still applied to film today.  Among these ‘Hitchcockian’ (as they came to be known) touches was the use of the camera to mimic a person’s gaze (making viewers into voyeurs) while critic Murray Pomerance wrote his shots displayed “the full expression of a character's attitude, feeling, knowledge, position, history, and understanding ... in a single brilliant coup”.  By 1960 he’d directed four films often ranked among the greatest of all time: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) (which I wrote about here), and Psycho (1960), while in  2012 Vertigo replaced Citizen Kane (1941) as the British Film Institute's best film.

In recognition of his body of work, he won the BAFTA Fellowship Award, the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, the Directors Guild of America's Lifetime Achievement Award and the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award.  He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and, in December 1979, received his knighthood.

Sir Alfred Hitchcock, who married his assistant director and close collaborator Alma Reville in 1926 (they had one daughter, Patricia), died of renal failure on 29th April 1980.

me, with the Madame Tussauds model of Hitchcock, London 2003

The Hitchcock Zone
The Dark Side of Genius, by Donald Spoto