The Red Lines Page

December 5, 2016

A few comments on recognition

Filed under: Articles,IBM,ISTC,writing — Peter A @ 11:59 pm

istcThis year I was honoured by the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC), which is the industry body for information development. They awarded me their Horace Hockley Award for 2016. And then they elected me as an Honorary Fellow, in recognition of outstanding service to the profession.

I was pleased to accept both, make an acceptance speech at this year’s conference, and write an article for their journal Communicator.

Here’s what I said in the article.


A few comments on recognition

Horace Hockley Award 2016 honoree Peter Anghelides says “thanks for the feedback”

How splendid to receive this year’s Horace Hockley Award. Major Hockley established standards for the technical communication profession, and was himself recognised with an OBE in the 1968 New Year Honours list.

We should welcome feedback about our work that’s timely, evidence-based, constructive. It’s a culture shift in our industry: to seek professional feedback instead of mere evaluation.

That’s important to us at IBM, where our mission is to deliver the right content, to the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

The feedback firehose

Communicator.jpgFeedback can be overwhelming. It may be from our peers, our editors, our engineers, our clients. And the explosion of feedback is a consequence of how we’ve slashed hardcopy entitlement, increased softcopy, integrated online information, and incorporated documentation in development environments and platforms like Eclipse or IBM Bluemix.

We get comments from IBM support, in the IBM Knowledge Center, in forums and collaborative environments like Stack Overflow, or repositories like GitHub. Not to mention the freeform firehose of Twitter and YouTube.

More than half of visitors to go there for technical information, and a third of them use IBM Knowledge Center (millions of unique visitors, every week). IDC research (Technology Marketing Blog, October 19, 2012) revealed that vendor information is the second biggest pre-sales influence for technology buyers.

Delighted clients are advocates for our company. And our technical content reveals our company to our clients. That’s why we welcome feedback. We crave it.

Take a page out of my book

But when I first joined IBM in 1988, feedback came via the Reader’s Comment Form (RCF). This was back in the days when you might get your IBM machine delivered on one pallet and your documentation on the next two. Each of those big hardcopy manuals might have hundreds of pages, with one RCF at the back of it. We invited our clients to fill these in, with a request for assessment on Clarity, Accuracy, Completeness, Organization, Retrieval, and Readability.

What optimism! Our hope was our reader would tear this page from the back of the manual, complete it in detail, fold it neatly, and return it by pre-paid post to IBM in Mechanicsburg, PA where our product documentation was printed. IBM Mechanicsburg would then bundle up the RCFs and post them to the appropriate development lab – in my case, IBM Warwick Lab.

For years in Warwick, one client kept sending us RCFs that were completely blank. Nothing on Clarity. No insights into Accuracy or Organisation. We knew they came from one person, because each had the same postmark.

Was our mystery correspondent shy? Using invisible ink? Or a really furious client trying to bankrupt a multibillion dollar corporation one pre-paid envelope at a time?

Then the blank RCFs stopped. For months, we wondered what had happened, until they suddenly began arriving once more.

“What a relief,” said my manager, Roger Amis, “I was beginning to worry that something had happened to him.”

Roles and responsibilities

Roger is the man who hired me into IBM. Over the following three decades, I’ve been a technical author, project lead, talent manager, globalisation expert, and accessibility advisor. I’ve line managed information developers, human factors engineers, designers.

At one point, I even acted as IBM’s Translation Service Centre Manager for UK English (we never had a busy week).

I completed two worldwide assignments for the three IBM Corporate Directors of Documentation, Globalization, and Design. Those were wonderful opportunities to support strategy, process, and tooling for the biggest tech comms population in the world, through times of great transformation in IBM’s core businesses, and therefore great change in how we delivered product  documentation in dozens of languages.

I’ve helped my company change from IBM-specific tools and technology, like BookMaster, to establishing and sharing open standards, such as DITA. I’ve seen a company-wide renaissance in design thinking that puts user outcomes at the heart of what we do.

Technical communication is now an institutional competency within IBM. As an upline manager, the latest transformation I led was to integrate information development into the engineering squads, instead of being a separate organisation.

Multi-disciplinary teams mean that design and technical writing are no longer “add-ons,” but integrated with engineering from the outset – essential ingredients in a mix of skills for successful software development.

Staying the course

HoraceHockleyAward.pngThere have been many colleagues, managers, and mentors in the UK and around the world. But I reflect it was the IBM manager who hired me in the first place who made this all possible.

You sometimes hear it said that “people join companies, but leave managers.” Well, Roger Amis is a big reason why I stayed the course.

By happy coincidence, he also introduced me to my wife.

I’d like to recognise Roger as a role model for what it means to be a technical communicator, a manager, a collaborative colleague, and a mentor. He made it possible for me to set off on this path.

And I thank the ISTC for this much-appreciated recognition of my subsequent journey over the years.

Peter Anghelides is Outreach and Publicity Officer, IBM UK Lab Campus

E:  W:  T: @anghelides 

This article was originally published in ISTC Communicator, Winter 2016.

June 12, 2016

Coming out as an LGBT ally 2016

Filed under: Articles — Peter A @ 5:09 pm

I wrote last year about this, and said: 

I expect I’ll need to come out again in the future when I meet new colleagues, clients, suppliers, and stakeholders.

It was my intention to reblog that this year, during Pride month. The horrific events at Pulse in Orlando this morning mean this cannot be the celebratory piece I hoped it would be.

But it emphasises, more than ever, the importance for each of us to be visible allies.

Photo by Joshua C. Cruey, Orlando Sentinel

May 22, 2016

Frontier Worlds: Cover

Filed under: Articles,drwho,Frontier Worlds,Novels,writing — Peter A @ 4:21 pm

A big hand for this bookThis page is one of several on this site about my novel Frontier Worlds. They are all linked from this main blog post here.

You can download a PDF of this article here:Frontier_Worlds_cover_story

I was impressed with the cover that the design house Black Sheep had produced for the BBC to use for my first novel, Kursaal. But I had some particular ideas about the cover for Frontier Worlds. Here’s how things evolved…

The Natural Graces of Rene Magritte

I had liked the idea of spoofing a Rene Magritte painting, image005especially those in which plants and animals blended one into the other. Magritte is perhaps better known for Ceci n’est pas un pipe or bowler-hatted men with a face full of apple, or even a man staring into a mirror and seeing the reflection of the back of his own head.

However, I particularly admired The Natural Graces, in which a green crop evolved into a flight of birds (see detail on the right), which seemed appropriate for the novel’s theme of unnatural genetic manipulation.

Vienna Paint’s Cabbage Head

image006But I’d also seen a series of amazing monochrome illustrations in Creative Review magazine. I’d spotted a copy of this in my office, and had been drawn to it by a particularly striking image of a man turning into a tree. (Not to be confused with a scene by Pip and Jane Baker.) I investigated further, and found these images were originated by a chap called Albert Winkler for an Austrian company called Vienna Paint. In these gruesome photomontages, people mutate before your eyes into plant life—a man reaches up at the clouds, his arms twisting and distorting into branches which clutch at a lowering sky; a woman’s spine is revealed to be a row of peas in a pod; a man’s knee is snapped like a piece of celery.

Best of all, though, was “Cabbage Head” (see detail on the right: originated by Vienna Paint’s Albert Winkler, and photographed by Jorit Aust). It is a woman staring into the lens as her head morphs into a cabbage, her lip curled (in disdain? resentment? just by the mutation?).

McGabbage rears his ugly head

image008You may have noticed that there are very few Doctor Who books with eighth Doctor Paul McGann on the cover. This is largely because, with only one film in character, he hasn’t been photographed in costume all that often, and so there are few suitable portrait shots available. Perhaps you’ve also seen the cunning way in which Doctor Who Magazine and Big Finish audio covers have to reuse this diminishing supply of original material.

I’d been impressed (and envious) of Justin Richards’ cover for Demontage, and asked BBC Worldwide if they could do a “mutation” of McGann into a cabbage. The result wasn’t felt to be a complete success – being more reminiscent of Little Weed than the Creature from the Black Lagoon (see detail on the right).

L’Estate we’re in, courtesy of Guiseppe Arcimboldo

image010Meanwhile, I did some research into Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the 16th Century painter who wittily drew attention to the ephemeral nature of human existence by creating faces from even more short-lived flowers and fruit. He was the inspiration for, among other things, the Peter Gabriel “Sledgehammer” video. After considering what McGann would look like with bananas for lips, the BBC vetoed this idea (probably very wisely). But to see the kind of thing I was thinking about, I’ve included an example of Arcimboldo’s work on this page (entitled L’Estate, on the right).

We toyed briefly with the idea of the Doctor’s face picked out in a field of wheat like a crop circle effect (too difficult, and also perhaps too similar to the cover of the Kate Orman novel for Virgin called Return of the Living Dad). Then we considered a butterfly with barcodes for wings (the brilliant Vienna Paint people again).

The Tomorrow People

openhandAnd then I remembered an image from the opening sequence of ITV’s original series The Tomorrow People: a hand opening up, and a fast zoom into an open palm—see detail on the right.

Incidentally, I cannot remember who sent me this image, but if anyone reminds me then I will happily credit them.

A big hand for Jon Tuttle

In the end, an enthusiastic graphics student at my workplace volunteered to design, in his spare time, a hand “growing” out of the ground like a tree. I also suggested he could use DNA spirals as part of the design.

image014This bright young man, Jon Tuttle, produced a draft (see detail on the right) which I sent to Black Sheep, and from this they designed the final version.

The result is, I think, one of their best covers for the BBC’s Doctor Who range. 

© Peter Anghelides, 2001, 2016

March 8, 2014

A handle on good design

Filed under: Articles,Grumbling,IBM — Peter A @ 7:51 pm

I recently reposted a photo on Twitter that I thought neatly encapsulated poor design.

Within a few days, this was retweeted hundreds of times. With the various modified and quoted versions of it, Terry Odell’s original photo has now been retweeted over a thousand times. It seems to have caught the imagination of many, and not just technical authors.


Credit: Reuters

Subsequently, Alexis Hale politely pointed out that the sign was “literally a joke from the Wayside School series.” Nevertheless, I still claim it as an example (deliberate or otherwise) of when documentation makes things worse — and when better design could avoid the need for documentation in the first place. Because obviously technical writers are like those staff in Tesco wearing a badge saying…

“Here to help”

I was walking through the airport, and noticed a man carrying two heavy suitcases through the arrivals terminal after passport control. I could tell they were heavy from the way he was struggling, and they’d got those orange warning labels on them (an example of simple, effective design).


Credit: Philipp Bock (youMayCallMeSheep)

As I watched him grip the handles to drag his baggage towards the taxi rank, I saw he had this fabulous-looking watch on his wrist. “Oh yeah,” he said, “it’s very clever. It tells the time in all the countries that I do business. It gives me access to my e-mail, shows me my calendar, warns me about forthcoming meetings. It’s got a built-in stills camera and a phone with a little video screen. It’s got functions for recharging via kinetic energy and solar power. It checks my pulse and skin temperature and warns me when I might be ill. It plays music from all the albums I’ve stored on my home server. So it’s OK, I suppose.”

“OK?” I told him. “It sounds fantastic! But if you don’t mind me saying, you don’t seem very happy with it.”

“Well,” he said, hefting the two heavy suitcases, “look at all this documentation you need to carry round for it.”

When I first told that gag, the iPhone and Galaxy Gear were still Star Trek technology of the future. But those of us who remember early digital watches can still recall thinking, “There are only a couple of buttons, so how difficult can it be?” And then struggling to set the alarm. And subsequently struggling to deactivate the alarm when it went off.

Minimal interface isn’t a guarantee of simplicity. But designing a product to be easy to use, rather than creating a lot of documentation, is what will succeed in the marketplace. Good design makes use obvious, and behaves the way you expect, and so you avoid providing documentation that’s not absolutely necessary.

The smarter you are about avoiding the need for documentation, the smarter the documentation is that you end up producing.

And yet, when my mum got a new watch from a famous, very reputable brand not so long ago, the instructions for setting the date told her this:

Do not set day/date between 8:30pm and 5:00 am as day/date change cycle is in progress.

It’s an admission of design failure if one of the functions of your product can’t be used properly for 8½ hours of the day.

Walk up and confuse

All too often, an interface you expect to be “walk up and use” ends up just confusing. When I talk to technical authors, it may seem heretical to assert that no-one really wants to read product documentation. Not even technical authors.  Who honestly wakes up and says, “You know what, today I really fancy reading an instruction manual. I’d like nothing better than to study how to install and configure some database software.” 

You pick up an instruction manual because you’ve got stuck attempting to do something, or don’t know where to start when trying to achieve some task. You want to find that out as quickly as possible, and go back to what you were doing. It’s all about the task and not the product, and it definitely isn’t about the manual. I don’t think “I’d like to use the iPhone interface this afternoon,” I think “I want to listen to that track by The Doors, and maybe buy it.” (Yes, I am that old.)


My first iPhone

The iPhone is an aspiration for all consumer products: it’s almost literally walk-up-and-use. Like Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver – a multitude of uses, but the Doctor never has to fumble around for the instruction manual. On my iPhone, I can rapidly work out how scroll, open, close, cut, copy, paste etc. all work. And it’s only got a few buttons, and they do pretty basic things that can be simply explained.

Even more interesting, my experience is that most of the documentation for the “difficult” stuff is searchable online and not written by Apple.


Doors to manual

Doors don’t do documentation (credit: wikimedia)

The simplest things can be overcomplicated by documentation. You wouldn’t expect to get all this specification information about how to use a door. As Don Norman pointed out in his excellent book The Design of Everyday Things, a  well-designed door is literally walk-up-and-use:

  • It will have appropriate affordances – plates that invite you to push, and handles that look like they need you to pull, which tell you all you need to know.
  • Just one word of documentation is too much, especially when those two words are look as similar as PUSH and PULL.
  • If you disagree with that, then ask yourself how much you want to read and work out if you’re trying to operate a fire door in an emergency.

And yet we still encounter poorly designed doors. What hope do we have for easy-to-use software if we can’t do doors?

Hursley doors

IBM has a renewed focus on Design Thinking that is transforming the way software and solutions are created. And although office doors aren’t something IBM designs and builds, I like to use the example of doors at IBM Hursley (installed in the 1980s) as how not to design simple things things simply.

These doors are one of the first things our visiting clients encounter when they arrive, and one of the last things they use before they leave. In comparison with them, the self-flushing cisterns and soap dispensers in our on-site toilets are a miracle of modern technology.

All IBM buildings are badge-controlled for security. There are two ways to enter IBM Hursley from our Main Reception. The first question is: which set of doors to choose?


There is a pair of doors to either side of the welcome desk. The receptionist or your IBM host can tell you which pair to choose, I suppose – though some visitors are from other IBM sites, and they do not need to “sign in” or speak to the receptionists. (You should do, even if just to say hello – they’re lovely. Not everyone does, but people are strange.)

Perhaps you decide to try and to work it out for yourself.

Reception doors

   More doors

When you approach your chosen set of doors, you’ll find there is some documentation:

  • Policy rules about having to wear a badge, and having to use your ID card in the door’s badge reader.
  • An image on the badge reader showing you how to orient your magstripe.
  • A red PUSH printed into the upper part of a long metal handle that looks like it’s designed to pull.
  • But there are also two metal plates (which stop the door swinging beyond the frame) that look like push plates.
  • And finally, because the latch tends to stick and you therefore need to “rattle” the door a bit to disengage it, there’s a further sign in a different font that tells you to “PULL and then PUSH door” with a sad little coda that says “thank you.”


Now you’ve decided which order to read these signs in, and chosen which of the two doors to use. You may have a confusing moment if someone comes through one of the doors, because they’re designed as unique “in” and “out” doors, like those for a restaurant kitchen. And depending whether you choose the left pair or the right pair, the “in” door is different. 

Once you get through the door, you’ll find yourself in a through corridor – and realise that it didn’t matter which pair of doors you chose, because both sets lead in here.


On your way out, you will probably remember that it doesn’t matter which doors you choose for leaving the building. Unless you forget, or you came into the building via a different route. There’s no clear indication that these doors lead to Reception and the exit. Perhaps you’ll recognise the distinctive furniture through the non-opaque parts of the door.

But even if you do remember, the way you get out through the same pair of doors is different from the way you get in. That’s because you don’t need badge access to get into Reception, and so the sequence is:

  • Press a button, and wait for the light to go green
  • Choose the correct door, rattle the handle, and then push.

The way out

It will reassure you to know that this design was not the handiwork of the IBM documentation teams responsible for products, nor were the doors designed by IBM. Now that they are installed, it’s admittedly a bit harder to redesign and replace the doors. And perhaps those of us who have worked at IBM Hursley for a while have simply got used to them.

But then perhaps we’d assume that people would get used to knowing how to use stairs. Which is where this blog post started. And that’s even before we take into account that not everyone finds it easy to use stairs. 


Source: Global Street Art Blog

December 21, 2013

Gauda Prime day

Filed under: Articles,Blake's 7 — Peter A @ 7:27 pm

Today is Gauda Prime Day 2013. It’s the anniversary of the first broadcast of “Blake,” the finale to season D of Blake’s 7 over three decades ago. I wrote in a previous blog post about how I got to see that episode being recorded at BBC Television Centre in 1981. This new post follows on from that — as my pals Peter, Tony and I left the studio floor and were shown by producer Vere Lorrimer up a flight of metal steps, not unlike a fire escape outside a building, and to the production gallery.

The production gallery

Title caption for BlakeEn route, we saw a small room where images from the studio cameras were monitored to check the quality of all the images being recorded, and where adjustments could be made if necessary. Beyond this was the main production gallery where the director, vision mixer, and director’s assistant behind a further row of TV monitors and control panels that would put the Scorpio to shame. A large glass window in front of that overlooked the studio, though the lighting rig and the backs of various sets made it impossible to see the whole of the studio. They relied on monitor images, from the TV cameras on the studio floor, to see what was happening. Once the recording started, it was disorienting to see the erratic, abrupt images on the smaller monochrome monitors relayed the feeds as the cameras moved into position between shots. The principal image, the one that would be recorded “as live,” was larger and in colour.

The final rooms we were shown through were the sound mixing area and a smaller space where the computer graphics were generated for the in-studio display screens.

For the recording, we were allowed to sit in the Producer’s both. This contained a TV screen that displayed the image being recorded, and also an audio feed that combined the sound from on-set and from the director in the production gallery. This meant we could chat to each other as things went on, while not disturbing the production team who were the other side of the glass window from us, only four feet away. Vere Lorrimer left us to watch the rest of the studio session, while he returned to the production gallery and his seat behind director Mary Ridge.

Occasionally, the production associate Frank Pendlebury would drop in to use the phone on the desk in front of us. He seemed to be quite concerned about some missing videos. Every time he came in, he was polite and apologetic about disturbing us. This was characteristic of the courtesy we were shown by everyone at the BBC during our visit.

As we watched the continuous output on our TV monitor, we saw the first scene of the session being recorded. This was the one in the forest hut, where Vila, Dayna and Soolin take refuge for the night.

Vere Lorrimer had warned us that the necessity to try scenes over and over again might seem boring. But with so much to see as the programme progressed, whether scenes actually being played or the director correcting and adjusting little items, there never seemed to be a dull moment. We could see and hear everything that director Mary Ridge could see and hear, even between scenes as lights were altered and cameras focused and refocused on the actors.

The forest hut

Soolin, Dayna, and Vila break into the abandoned forest hutAn effects shot explodes in the wall next to Avon (Paul Darrow)Vila, Dayna and Soolin burst into the hut, but something is not quite right with their entry, and Mary Ridge has the scene done twice again. each time, the planks have to be put back over the door, and then crashed down as the trio smash their way in. Before this, however, there is a slow circular look by one camera around the stove so that we can see the hut and appreciate the quietness of the scene before their arrival. Then, when finally in at the door, Glynis Barber (Soolin) is not visible because the “shafts” created by the lighting people to give the impression of a broken roof do not illuminate her face.  She is realigned, and the scene is done again.

Michael Keating (Vila) moves into the room as he complains, and the camera follows him around the stove. Josette Simon (Dayna) is picked up

he sounds of the flyer was added in post-production) there is a zoom to the doorway where the lights are dancing around. by another camera, and moves towards Vila and delivers her lines. The camera stops with Soolin as Dayna passes, then cuts to Vila. There’s a series of cuts between speakers as Dayna goes to the doorway, and back to Vila as he hears a noise. The women are seen at the dorway, and then as lights start to illuminate the broken hut (t

The women take one side of the door each, and Vila retreats to the back of the hut. When the lights have gone, the focus is on Dayna and Solin — who find that Vila is hidden beneath the covers.

Then it’s back to the less hurried direction of a conversation as Dayna and Vila argue, and Soolin speaks her penultimate line (“you have to assume everyone is out to get you). We cut to Vila grinning (“I always assume that, wherever I go”), then Soolin’s final line (“The difference is, on gauda Prime, you’ll be right”) and finally back to an unhappy Vila.

The advantage of being able to see the continuous output and all the other monitors is that we could see the various other shots being set up, in the knowledge that we’d be able to see the final version on TV and were thus “missing” nothing.

There was a subsequent scene in the hut. This was set up by “lighting” the prop stove with a red lamp inside it, and bringing Michael Keating a blanket for Vila to wrap himself in. All the while, production manager Henry Foster on the studio floor with the actors relayed the instructions from Mary Ridge. He was very recognisable in his navy blue jumper with HENRY in colourful capitals on the front.

Avon has rescued Vila... and Orac

In this scene, the bounty hunters surprise Vila, and Avon bounds in to the rescue. It was a chance for us to admire Mary Ridge’s direction, as the number of different shots and “follow-ons” were set in motion. In the gallery, to her left, sat the director’s assistant Winifred Hopkins, calling e shot numbers as the director said “cut” to cue each camera change for the vision mixer.

The guns used in most of the scenes we saw could only fire one shot without having to be reset by the special effects team. So when rehearsing a scene ahead of a recording, the actors said “bang” rather than use up the prop charge. And if a second shot was required from the same gun, the actor said “bang” for the second or subsequent one. The feeble fizz of a prop discharging was replaced in post production with an effects sound. Avon (Paul Darrow) needed to kill two bounty hunters in this scene, fore example. A further effects requirement was for a charge in the set itself, when one of the bounty hunters shots at Avon but only hits the wall.

In the scene, Vila is surprised by the hunters, who prepare (rather unconvincingly, we thought) to bash Soolin and Dayna who were still sleeping. Avon comes in and disposes of one hunter, who falls down quietly. The other is more belligerent, shoots back, and is then shot. At this point, the extras had to “die” again, as their death cries had been disappointingly muted. On cue, they groaned melodramatically and (although not being recorded in vision) clutched at their stomachs. “They do try hard,” observed Mary Ridge as an aside, before telling Henry Foster to ask one for another groan. The extra dutifully provided a expiring groan. “Tell him he died beautifully,” said Mary.

The rest of the scene was then recorded, into which Avon’s recovery of Orac (on film) would subsequently be inserted.

While they set up the next sequence, we were wondering (like Vila) whether Tarrant was dead. Tony Murray was never a great Tarrant fan — despite having being on a previous set visit to see “Death-Watch” recorded, and thus having twice the Tarrant for his troubles on that occasion. So Tony was not-so-secretly relishing the thought that Tarrant had already been killed.

Blake on film

Blake on filmAs the set for the s the tracking gallery was readied for use, we were able to glimpse some of the film work on a monitor. The images consisted of Blake (Gareth Thomas) chatting with a small, young woman. He held her at gunpoint, killed some men… It was an odd sequence to see, because it was edited together in a final form but we had to guess at what was happening because the film sequence was silent. And it slowly dawned on us that Blake had a remarkable scar across his left eye.

Not a good idea

At this point, Vere Lorrimer dropped in again to suggest that we grab something to eat. So we went down to a snack bar and bought coffee and biscuits (the student idea of a nourishing meal). I phoned the Marvel office, in the hope of reaching Stewart Wales (the editor of Blake’7 Monthly who we had failed to meet earlier in the day). This was in the days before mobile phones, so it meant feeding ten pence pieces into a pay phone half-concealed with a plastic sound-muffling cowl. Alas, Stewart was still in his conference meeting, and so we returned to the Producer’s booth.

Our whole trip had been set up by Vere Lorrimer as a courtesy to Blake’s 7 Monthly, for whom we were hoping to provide the same kind of writing services that our friend Jeremy Bentham had been doing so admirably for the longer-established Doctor Who Monthly. When he heard that we’d been unable to reach Stewart by phone, Vere Lorrimer thoughtfully arranged for us to meet Ken Armstrong, a photographer working for Marvel who was in the studio that day taking photographs of the episode.

We had a chat with Ken about the ideas we had prepared for Stewart Wales. We thought we might write detailed synopses of the episodes. “Not a good idea,” said Ken. We suggested we could review stories. “Not a good idea,” said Ken. Write comic strips? “Not a good idea,” said Ken. All our finely wrought creative ideas seemed to appeal to him as much as if we had presented him with a cup of cold vomit. Everything was “Not a good idea.” He may as well have had a card printed with those four words on it.

Nevertheless, Ken did have some ideas about what we might do. We could provide news on fan activities and fanzines. And we should try to make sure that the door didn’t whack us on the arse as we left. He didn’t say that last bit, but that was the impression we got. (I’m sure he’s a really lovely chap, and obviously to suggest otherwise is not a good idea.)

Writing for "Blake's 7 Monthly" - not a good idea, apparently.Thus we saw  before us, in Ken, an insurmountable obstacle to contributing anything interesting or meaningful to Blake’s 7 Monthly. It wasn’t at all the way we thought we had already been able to excite the editor’s attention — and earned a trip to the BBC Television Centre in preparation for that. I suppose, to be fair to Ken, he did write for the magazine, and may even have been deputy editor. So he probably saw before him, in us, three spotty oiks who wanted to pinch all his work on the publication.

Or maybe he’d already seen the writing on the wall, because of the events in this episode, “Blake.” Because while making our phone call and eating our biscuits in the coffee area, we had seen a group of extras dressed in Federation Trooper costumes. But not yet made the connection.

More about that in my next blog about this studio visit.

May 20, 2013

Film versus video

Filed under: Articles,drwho,writing — Peter A @ 11:14 pm

I wrote this article for the CMS Publishing partwork “An Adventure in Space & Time.” I wrote it in 1986 about a story I’d watched on TV in 1972 when I was at primary school. That was a 14 year difference, by which time I was at university. So I am republishing it here on my blog after a gap almost twice as long as that.

This was the first thing that publisher Jeremy Bentham ever commissioned from me. Subsequently, I learned that he’d used it as a sort of “audition piece” for the work I later did on the CMS partwork “In-Vision” which I edited with Justin Richards from 1988.

I find it interesting to read something I wrote half a lifetime ago. I’ve not changed the wording, so it still contains some inelegant phrasing that I’d now avoid. I wish I’d provided detailed references to my source material – for example, where my research revealed the mechanics of early videotape edits, or even the book in which I read the essay from which I quote David Hare. However, that wasn’t the house style for CMS at the time.

And of course the world of TV production – funding, scheduling, transmission, technology and so on – has utterly changed since 1986, let along since “Carnival of Monsters” was made over forty years ago. This is therefore a period piece, and perhaps that’s appropriate for the 50th anniversary year for Doctor Who.

Film versus video

“Stale overlit shells in a great circle” is how the BBC Television Centre’s studios were once described by writer and director David hare. “Film is free,” he observed in 1982, declaring video to be “the hopeless hybrid between theatre and film.”

Doctor Who has from the beginning been made in electronic television studios, which is the traditional production methos for BBC drama programmes. The “ground rules” for drama production – as for all other types of television production – were established at the Alexandra Palace studios in the 1930s. Subsequent moves to the Lime Grove and Riverdale studios, and then to the Television Centre at White City in the 1960s, improved the facilities available but had little bearing on the way in which programmes were actually made.

The advantages of studio production are bound up in the cost-effectiveness of heavy investment in permanent resources. Large multi-camera studios are worked for six and a half days a week, with half a day for maintenance. In 1972, when “Carnival of Monsters” was made, it was possible to produce thirty minutes of programme per day, the same as had been achieved in the early black-and-white years of television. This is more than twice the amount of film produced on an average say’s film shoot.

Shaun Sutton was the BBC's longest-serving Head of Drama (late 1960s until 1981)However, location recording for drama was required fairly early on in television’s history, led particularly by children’s drama productions. As Shaun Sutton observed in The Largest Theatre in the World [BBC, 1982] youthful adventure scripts required fights, chases and outdoor movement. With early outside broadcast television cameras limited by the length of cable from Alexandra palace, it was logical to make use of established film technology to provide short sequences for insertion into drama programmes being broadcast live. The use of such film inserts not only gave greater flexibility and realism than false perspective sets or filmic back projection, it also allowed the next scene to be set up in the studio while the insert was running (a production breather, in effect).

Even when technological advances made it possible to pre-record sequences or whole programmes on videotape, film still had the advantage of being much easier to edit. At first, the only way videotape could be edited was by physically cutting the tape with a razor blade then splicing it together again, the whole operation carried out by an experienced editor peering through a magnifying glass. Each edit took approximately ten minutes to perform and rendered the tape unsuitable for later reuse.

By the mid-Sixties, when electronic videotape editing became available, film was already well-established as the preference for exteriors in drama; indeed, the “realistic” drama of BBC programmes such as The Wednesday Play (later Play for Today) was celebrated for tackling issues in the film medium, achieving not only a more natural performance but also a greater freedom for programme makers from in-production observation by potentially censorious executive personnel. Television OB had been demonstrated as popular for live current affairs and sports programmes, but early attempts at drama OB were hampered by the OB units’ “house style” for covering live events, which depended to a greater extent on the initiative of the cameraman and less on the scripting of a writer and director.

Film and video were thus being used together in television drama fairly extensively by the time “Carnival of Monsters” was made. However, the two media look very different on screen, as can be seen when the Doctor and Jo move from the deck of the SS Bernice (film) into the cabins (studio) or from the Drashig’s domain (film) into the cave (studio). This can be accounted for by the fundamental differences between film and video and the different ways in which they are used during production.

Film is the recording of images on a one-off basis by chemical and mechanical means; video is the electronic registration of images onto magnetic tape. Film sound is recorded separately from the pictorial image and dubbed on later; studio sound is recorded on the videotape along with the image. Film has traditionally been single-camera, with each framed shot being lit separately according to what that image has to say when edited into the complete sequence; video, most obviously in the studio, is multi-camera, and a set is lit so as to allow the recording of a sequence of shots from several cameras whose pictures are selected and edited as live by the vision-mixer (and during this process there is the continual need to avoid shooting off the edge of the set or allowing in sound booms or their shadows). Location filming is traditionally completed before the studio work (following the Hollywood precedent), and to an extent defines the later performances. Studio performances are more continuous, and time is at more of a premium when it comes to the consideration of second takes, particularly if there is an effects sequence to be achieved live. Film has problems which cannot be so readily spotted as video, inflexibilities, which are part of the filmic process: print “sparkle,” black lines and obstructions in the film gate can be discovered only when the “rushes” have been developed. Studio tape, however, can be replayed at once, even to check continuity. Furthermore, tape accepts degrees of light that film will not, and a studio is a far more controllable environment than a location: Britain, after al, does not have a climate, it only has weather.

The Hand of Fear - courtesy The particular differences in 1972 were also bound up with the growth of colour television. Whereas film had been working in colour since before television’s birth, the BBC had been making colour programmes on a regular basis only since 1969. One consequence of the introduction of colour to Doctor Who was that black-and-white Overlay effects could be dropped in favour of three-colour CSO – a technique much in evidence in “Carnival of Monsters.” This meant that there was no longer any need for sharp brightness contrasts in video effects shots; instead, sharp colour contrasts were required.

John Logie Baird had first demonstrated large-screen colour television in low definition in 1928, and the post-war BBC experimental television group had made use of the defunct Studio A in Alexandra palace for experimental transmissions after closedown in 1955. America’s CBS had adopted the 525-line NTSC colour system in 1953, and this was to form the basis of Britain’s 625-ine PAL system of 1966. the constraint in Britain was that the Television Advisory Committee had required any colour system to be available also in black and white on existing monochrome sets. And when colour drama was first transmitted, the “stale overlit shells” were flooded with the light required for PAL recording, such that the mostly-overhead studio lights produced a comparatively “flat” image, albeit in a variety of garish colours (especially in historical costume drama). Location film was able to draw upon a longer tradition of colour lighting and shot composition, and the contrast between studio and film images was understandably more stark than it had been before. This is most apparent in “Carnival of Monsters” where there is a simultaneous image comparison: Vorg’s hand on video) swatting the Drashig’s (on film) is a good example of this, as is the film plesiosaurus viewed from the studio cabin.

As colour television techniques developed and video recording equipment became more refined, the difference in discernible picture quality between the sharp accuracy and “presence” of video and the subtler, “atmospheric” potential of film would become smaller. It is the starkness of video lighting which reveals the greay bald-wigs of the Inter Minorians so obviously in “Carnival of Monsters,” while the detail on the Doctor’s jacket or the character Claire’s dress is less noticeable on film than in the studio. However, Doctor Who would continue in the Pertwee years to make use of film mainly for traditional purposes: effects shots and exteriors which were too difficult or to expensive to achieve in a controlled studio environment.

April 14, 2013

Hursley history

Filed under: Articles,IBM — Peter A @ 2:00 pm

Hursley A BlockI’ve been sorting out an old office in Hursley House. The current house is getting on for 300 years old. IBM bought it 50 years ago, and has added to the site ever since, as you can see here (on

The newest significant extension was A Block, shown here (from Wikimedia) opened two decades ago. During my clearance, I uncovered a large fold-out brochure that explained to IBMers what was happening on-site during the construction.

It was created and published by the in-house for employees by the Communications and External Programmes group based at the IBM site. Literally “in-house” if I remember correctly, because the team were located in Hursley House.

I’ve sent the original to the IBM Hursley Museum, which is also now in the basement of Hursley House. But here are some photos of the brochure.

April 1, 2013

Filling the gap

Filed under: April Fool,Articles,Audios,Blake's 7,writing — Peter A @ 12:03 am

Singing headache eyepatchI’m delighted to confirm that my audio Blake’s 7: Warship was so successful that Big Finish has invited me to write three new scripts. Like my original one, they will be full-cast audios starring the original characters, and fill in the secret history of the first half of the programme’s history. The series will be called: “Blake’s 7: Filling the Gap.”

  • “They must come to us.” But just how did the Decimas reach their final destination? Find out in The Web Planet, featuring Deep Roy as all the Decimas.
  • What was the aftermath of “Breakdown”? You’ll be amazed by the answer in No Limit, with Alistair Lock playing Gan.
  • And most excitingly of all, what happened that caused such a change in our favourite Space Commander? Discover the truth as Stephen Grief and Brian Croucher star in The Two Travises.

Furthermore, there is perceived to be another, significant gap in audio publishing – a gender gap. So, in the light of recent publicity about the disparity in girl writers, I have graciously convinced Big Finish to publish my scripts under the pseudonym “Stephanie Ledger.”

It’s the right thing to do, even if it’s a shame to lose my surname – because that would continue to suggest there are more foreigners writing for the company, in a publishing house hitherto best known for English surnames like Morris, Richards, Cole, Lyons, Briggs, Russell, Barnes, Morris, Wright, Robson, Briggs, and Morris.

Nevertheless, it’s an exciting time to demonstrate this new commitment to gender diversity. New adventures for our favourite characters. More work for me. And a wider range of women’s names on the merchandise that adorns the shelves of fandom.

The first audio should be available for pre-order later this year, with a proposed publication date of a year from today.

April 25, 2011

Elisabeth Sladen

Filed under: Articles,Audios,Mirror Signal Manoeuvre,The Time Capsule,writing — Peter A @ 8:00 pm

I don’t think any Doctor Who actor’s death has affected me as much as that of Elisabeth Sladen, who died last Tuesday at the age of 65. I heard the news late at night as I returned home from an otherwise-fabulous day at the “Doctor Who Experience” in London, where (among many other things) I’d seen one of Sarah Jane Smith’s suits in the costume display, and met one of Lis Sladen’s friends and colleagues in the cafeteria.

I didn’t know Lis as well as some of my pals who worked with her in TV and audios. For them, this was a particularly unexpected and devastating loss. My main association with her over the years was as a fan of her appearances as Sarah Jane Smith, my favourite Doctor Who companion. And when I had the good fortune to meet her in person, she was personally and professionally a delight.

I’ve watched Doctor Who for as long as I can remember – I am slightly older than the programme, but cannot remember a time before it existed. Nevertheless, it was during Jon Pertwee’s time that I really got hooked, investing the non-Saturday time and energy that marks you out as a fan rather than just a regular viewer. So it had been a big disappointment for me when Jo Grant left at the end of The Green Death.

I was therefore intrigued by the hitherto unheard-of previews for Season 11 in the 1973 Radio Times Doctor Who Special. This was long before the likes of Doctor Who Magazine was a regular in WH Smith. When I spotted a solitary copy of it in the local newsagents, I didn’t have the necessary 30p in my pocket, and there was a tense 24-hour period before I could get back to the shop, throughout which I wondered if I was going to be able to buy it at all.

The Special published a huge photo of Jo’s replacement attempting to hide from a brand new alien meance in some castle grounds. “I must admit,” said the new actress in her first interview, “that I’ve never watched Doctor Who regularly.” She subsequently became one of the most popular and well-known actors on the TV show, in a contribution that spanned almost 40 years.

Sarah Jane helped the Doctor – and viewers – transition between his third and fourth incarnations. When the time came for her own heart-breaking departure at the end of The Hand of Fear, she’d become the benchmark by which all future companions would be judged.

It was no surprise that Lis was chosen as the lead for the first attempt at a Doctor Who spinoff (K-9 & Company), nor that producer John Nathan-Turner supposedly tried to persuade her to return at the end of Tom Baker’s era as another transition to a new Doctor.

The popularity of her character was so strong with the public, rather than just fans, that she was the obvious choice to return in the revamped TV series episode School Reunion. And having secured the affection of a whole new generation of young Doctor Who fans, the character returned in the marvellous CBBC series The Sarah Jane Adventures. Russell T Davies had a vision of Sarah Jane continuing to defend the Earth from whatever the universe could throw at it when the Doctor wasn’t around to help.

My own thoughts about the character’s life after she’d left the Doctor were less imaginative, more modest. Editors Justin Richards and Andy Lane offered me an initial chance for professionally published Doctor Who fiction in 1996, the year of the Paul McGann TV movie. And Sarah Jane was the first character I wanted to write for. I devised a story for the collection Decalog 3: Consequences  called “Moving On”, about how she was adjusting to life back  on Earth, struggling to re-establish herself as a journalist, and recognising that she and K-9 were getting older. I even included a joke about the dog at the end of The Hand of Fear.

By the end of my story,  Sarah Jane demonstrated she could fight off an alien attack quite ably on her own. My “future” Sarah Jane was a self-confident writer of imaginative fiction – based on her experiences with the Doctor, and now on her own. The concluding scene showed an older Sarah Jane (with “salt-and-pepper hair”) being interviewed about her writing.

Well, how wrong I was! Sarah Jane Smith isn’t the type to retire to a life of writing. What’s more, Lis Sladen wasn’t remotely the type to age gracefully – she didn’t seem to age at all! And while 65 is no time at all these days for a life well-lived, and certainly far too soon to lose her, it was impossible to believe she could be as old as that. I’m sure it only added to our shock and disbelief last week.

As a result of that short story, I first met Lis in 2001. I’d been invited to “Dimensions on Tyne”, a convention in Newcastle, as part of a BBC Books Writers panel. Lis was one of the headline guests, and I was introduced to her because she’d heard about my previous Doctor Who work and wanted me to consider writing a script for Big Finish Productions’ forthcoming Sarah Jane Smith audio series. She was charming and enthusiastic. I took all of about three seconds to agree.

Lis was very protective of Sarah Jane – constructively so, and quite right, too. After the convention, she sent me a copy of an interview [linked at the foot of this post] that she’d recently done for MJTV, in which she talked about how she thought the character would have changed over the years, what her attitudes would now be, the sort of person she’d have become.  When I submitted the script, Lis had thoughtful and helpful suggestions, too. We spoke on the phone in advance of the production.

Best of all, I got to meet her in person again at the recording day for Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre  in February 2002. I arrived just in time to hear her perform the speech from the opening play where Sarah speaks movingly of her late Aunt Lavinia. That was in Terrance Dicks’s opening story, wonderfully script-edited and directed by Gary Russell. The other scripts were by Rupert Laight, Barry Letts, and David Bishop (whose own memories of Lis you can read on his blog).

Lis’s daughter Sadie was cast in the plays, too, though her scenes were recorded on a different day to the one I attended. Nevertheless, I had a most enjoyable lunch with the cast members, at which Lis and I discussed our children and our hopes for them. Sometimes when you meet people that you have admired for a long time, you are disappointed when they do not live up to your hopes or expectations. I can candidly say that this was not the case with Lis, who charmed and encouraged and entertained all of us there.

My other contact with Lis was in 2008 when BBC Audio commissioned me to write “The Time Capsule”, a story for The Sarah Jane Adventures. By this stage, the series was a great success, and I was able to tell Lis how much my children had enjoyed seeing her back on TV as Sarah Jane. She wrote me a charming handwritten letter, thanking me and my family.

Last Saturday, I sat with dozens of  fans in The One Tun pub in London for a screening of  The Impossible Astronaut, the launch episode of the new Doctor Who series. It was a day of excitement but also great sadness, as we recalled our memories of Lis while also looking to the future. The dedication of the episode, and the CBBC tribute programme afterwards, moved many in the room to tears.

Lis Sladen was an important part of my life since childhood, and latterly in my professional life. Most recently, she became part of my own children’s lives. Sarah Jane will live on in the TV stories and audios that she recorded over a remarkable four decades, and in the stories that we have yet to write. And that’s therefore how I will continue to remember Lis, with admiration and affection.

Updated April 30th: Mark from MJTV pointed out that my link for “The Actor Speaks” is for the old,  out of date website. The correct link is here: And it also contains a clip for people to hear the interview with Lis, as well as where they can obtain a copy.

Updated May 1st: Now includes a link to information about my short story “Moving On“.

December 4, 2010

Snowy Hursley

Filed under: Articles,IBM — Peter A @ 7:45 pm

I am very lucky to work in a wonderful location at IBM Hursley.  And even luckier that my current job means that I have an office on the top floor of the splendid Queen Anne House that forms the centrepiece of this magnificent Hampshire location. You can take a virtual tour of the location. But that shows it in the summer sun. So this week, I’ve taken some photos of Hursley in the snow.

The full set is here in Flickr.

PS: One of these is actually my back garden. Not quite as grand as Hursley Park, but I love it anyway.

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