The label ‘a British Institution’ is too readily applied to our national cultural icons; from the sublime to the ridiculous – from cups of tea or fish and chips to Katie Price’s cleavage. Forty-five years ago, in 1967, a man named Ian Messiter devised a format for a radio based panel game that was so simple and succinct that it has survived, virtually unaltered, since its inception, and on its anniversary is as popular as ever. The premise was this: that its contestants must speak on a given subject for sixty seconds, without hesitation, repetition or deviation. Points were awarded by the chairman, Nicholas Parsons (himself a fully paid up member of the Institution,) for reaching the end of the time period, and for successful interruptions by rival panelists on the grounds mentioned. Unless you’ve been living up a tree and the preset buttons are broken on your digital radio (back at the show’s beginnings, I would have said tuning dial), most people would be able to put name to that program – Just a Minute.
The charm of the show is in its simple rules, which allow the right kind of player almost infinite scope for improvisation. To play well, as well as being attentive to an opponent’s errors, it is necessary to be educated, eloquent, imaginative, confident and, most importantly, witty, as bonus points are available at the host’s behest when the audience enjoy an interjection.
The ultimate achievement in the game is the ‘perfect minute,’ where a speaker continues for the entire time period avoiding any challenge. These events are rare and lauded. Try playing the game yourself, and you’ll see just how difficult it is.
The original team of regulars – often supplemented by a carousel of guests – had ample qualifications. They consisted of the writer, restaurateur and former politician Clement Freud; actor, writer and voice of ‘The Book’ in the Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy Peter Jones; actor Derek Nimmo; and Kenneth Williams – he of Carry On infamy. This assemblage was as much a regular fixture on the panel as the self-selecting Arsenal back four of the 1990s. Along with an array of stand-ins to keep the familiar voices on their toes and to add spice, this quartet remained until the death of Williams in 1988.
Each brought something unique to the mix, and played in their own way, whether it was Freud imparting knowledge with paced, monotone delivery, or Williams playing up to the audience. As the original first team departed – Freud being the last, in 2009 – a new generation of talent took their place and continue to keep the show freshly entertaining. Today, Paul Merton, Sue Perkins, Gyles Brandreth, Julian Clary, Graham Norton, Liza Tarbuck, and Ross Noble commonly have their fingers poised on the infamous buzzers, ready to butt in and spoil each other’s flow.
Present at every recording and often, good humouredly, the butt of many panelists’ jokes, is octogenarian master of ceremonies Nicholas Parsons. His steady, unpartizan stewardship has been a major factor in its popularity. Were he to depart after such a long period in the chair he would undoubtedly be missed enormously. But, like Countdown after Richard Whiteley, even without such an integral component, the show is so brilliantly planned that it could function and go on without him. Where its television rivals for staying power, Have I Got News For You, and Never Mind The Buzzcocks have become tired and predictable, Just a Minute enjoys infinite variety.
In celebration of its longevity, Radio 4 broadcast two special commemorative recordings. One, a three hour collection of highlights featuring classic and contemporary players, Just a Minute: Without Hesitation, the other an episode recorded in Mumbai and starring Paul Merton, Dominic Brigstocke and two Indian stand-up comedians. The audience, mostly, you would imagine, unfamiliar with the format, responded warmly and very quickly were playing along, booing, cheering and applauding in all the right places. A testament to this genius invention, that it can transcend cultural and language barriers.
On BBC2 on Monday 26th March 2012, at 6.00pm, Just a Minute will begin a ten episode run as tea-time television quiz fodder. This isn’t the first time it has made the transition, but now it has a chance to win over the radio-shy segments of the British public and it will, hopefully, become an idea on which the whistle will never blow.
‘It’s a gift and a curse at the same time…You get the pain much worse than anybody else, but you see a sunrise much more beautiful than anybody else.’
Can it really be ten years since the passing of one of my heroes, writer, poet, musician, actor, campaigner and comedy anarchist Spike Milligan? His status as the father of alternative comedy and unquestionable influence on British culture has often been documented both in his life and since his passing, and this is not intended as a tribute or biography. The chronicle of his life and works have been recorded elsewhere, better and more thoroughly, and often by those who knew and worked with him.
Prevalent in his life, and what most interests me, underlying every endeavour – The Goons, Puckoon, his war memoirs, the various Q series, his humorous and serious verse – was a long battle with mental illness. The term manic depressive – bipolar disorder, to give it its contemporary label – might almost have been coined for him, struggling as he did against extremes of madcap creative genius and complete mental and physical inertia, accompanied by the darkest, sometimes suicidal and even murderous, contemplations.
The often cited trigger for his depression was an incident during his war service in Italy, in which he came under heavy shellfire resulting in a lengthy hospitalisation and a number of complete breakdowns. Shellshock, as it was known then, or post-traumatic stress as you would now call it. He was removed from front line service, although he remained in the army and in Italy until after the war, which was the period in which his entertainment career began.
But according to his confessional appearance on In The Psychiatrist’s Chair with Dr. Anthony Clare – originally recorded in 1982, but transmitted as part of Radio 4’s recent programming* in honour of the late Milligan – his anxieties and many of his psychosis can be traced back to his upbringing in India when he was a awkward, introverted child, sometimes beaten by his mother, without his army-absent father, alone until a brother came along eight years later. As a result he grew up overly-sensitive and with little tolerance. His extroverted persona and lunatic behaviour were compensation for an underlying shyness.
With his depression at its worst, Milligan opted for an induced narcosis for three weeks, when he simply could no longer cope with his issues. This hit during what most would consider the pinnacle of his career – The classic, surreal radio comedy, The Goons. He wrote the scripts on automatic, like a production line, and would come to resent this period of his life. The fact that, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the stress and mounting psychosis, he turned out an impressive body of ground-breaking material, is an astounding achievement, and what most impresses and inspires me.
I have my own experience of mental illness, both personally and affecting those close to me. When asked if he would swap the illness for a more balanced life, Milligan, as is common with those who suffer with bipolar disorder, declined. Like a sine wave, the unbearable troughs are countered by soaring peaks, in which he and others are capable of their greatest works. Medication, although it takes the edge off the lows, can dull other things too. Being a long standing admirer, I know something of Milligan’s life story, but learning details of the depths he reached, and how he coped with his illness, for me, earned him a new level of respect.
As he aged, he learned to cope better with his problems, although he was never free of them. His controversial epitaph, inscribed in Gaelic on his tombstone, ‘I told you I was ill,’ sums up the man. He maintained his sense of humour throughout, even when facing the end.
I’m always conscious of avoiding direct comparison between my efforts and those of the subjects of some of my articles. I am not a creative genius, nor have I ever plumbed the depths of despair like Spike Milligan, but I can appreciate in my own way what he went through and what it meant to have still been able to write through it all.
* The Spike Show: Milligan Remembered, a compilation of new and old programming, presented by Milligan’s secretary Norma Farnes.
“Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were only one typeface in the world? Designers would really have to think about the idea behind their designs instead of covering it up with fancy typefaces. One, universal typeface would really strip away all the flashy emptiness in design. And, of course, that one typeface would have to be Helvetica.”
The best is definitive by definition, but in some cases is an abstract concept. What is the best album ever recorded? You may have a favourite, or be able to compile a list of worthy candidates, but that list would be entirely subjective. What is the best food? It may be possible to conceive of some ideal consumable, perfectly nutritionally balanced yet satisfying every craving and taste bud, at the same time involving no environmental impact and minimal guilt. You might as well try eating Scotch Mist on toast.
But what is the best typeface, and why should you care? I would argue it is important that someone should care.
Just My Type by Simon Garfield makes the case for the latter question quite brilliantly, being a lengthy love letter to type – its form, its history and the culture that surrounds the little letters. BBC Radio 4 selected the book as their book of the week for the week beginning 5th December 2011, and serialised it in an abridged form read by Julian Rhind Tutt. The five programs only cover the first five chapters, and those are just a taster of a subject that has risen to a kind of geeky, obsessive cultural prominence.
I am a graphic designer by profession, and, due to my dogmatic adherence to the rules of type, I have been described by some as a ‘font Nazi.’* There is an unspoken etiquette regarding the use of typefaces. Comic Sans for example – a typeface that receives coverage in the very first episode of the Radio 4 series, which gives you an idea of how much these cartoon characters split opinion – would not be suitable for use on a funeral notice, or wedding invite. It is a jaunty font, that looks like it has been formed by a child with a felt pen. As this slideshow illustrates, out of context it looks vulgar and awkward. Although I shirk at the request to use it by a client, this most loathed of letter forms does have its place.
It comes down to appropriateness of use. Typefaces are more about right and wrong than good and bad, and all the grey areas in between. But, as Dutch artist Erik Kessels proposes in the above quote, if there were only one typeface – an idea, in itself, that I wouldn’t support – it would have to be the Swiss Helvetica.
I am more in favour of standardization rather than uniformity. We can understand the importance of standardizing something like time, as happened in 1840, so one o’clock in London is the same one o’clock in Newcastle or Manchester. But we wouldn’t go to the extent of making it also one o’clock in New York and Tokyo. Standardization benefits us in the case of expectancy: If we buy a Big Mac in a McDonald’s in Los Angeles, we know that, barring regional variations, it’ll be the same as Le Big Mac in Paris.
The great patriarch of sans serif type is unquestionably Akzidenz-Grotesk, and it is its descendants that dominate the practice of type standardisation. It began in the first half of the twentieth century on the transport networks, just as standard time did. The London Underground kicked proceedings off, with Johnston Sans adorning their signs from 1916. The names Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert may mean little to the average reader, but their typefaces Motorway and Transport are seen by millions of motorists and pedestrians every day in the UK. They are the typefaces of all UK road signs, specifically designed to be legible from distance with bold spacing, and have been adopted in Hong Kong, Iceland, Italy, Greece, Denmark, Portugal and in the Middle East.
However, Helvetica’s use has now reached such a climax that it is impossible to avoid, unless you’ve lived in a cave for the past few decades. As Just My Type recounts – Episode 3 of the Radio series – New York resident Cyrus Highsmith tried to spend a day without Helvetica. It was harder than you would expect. He couldn’t eat anything that had Helvetica on its packaging, nor use transport that used it – which includes the city’s subway – but that didn’t matter anyway as he struggled to even spend money, as new US bank notes use it, as did his credit cards. Add to that list BMW, Jeep, Kawasaki, Microsoft, CNN, Panasonic, Motorola, Mitsubishi and NASA to name but a few which utilize it extensively, and you’ve got some idea how much its familiar characters inhabit our lives.
So, by extent of use, you could argue that Helvetica is the best typeface. But ultimately preferring Verdana or Univers is as much a choice as is liking certain food, music, cinema, literature or anything else about which it is possible to have an opinion. There are rules – some of them unspoken – but a flexible and practical designer knows that they are more guidelines.
*For clarity, there is a difference between the terms ‘type’ and ‘font’. A typeface is the name for the family group, such as Helvetica or Times New Roman. A font refers to a specific weight and point size of the typeface, for example 12 point Helvetica Black. The distinction comes from the time when the letters were cast in moulded lead alloys for printing. Each set of characters of one typeface grouped in the same weight and size was called a ‘font’. In the digital age, the boundaries are less rigid and even professionals often now use ‘font’ as the less specific term.
“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”
Philip K. Dick, VALIS
Chances are, even if you are not familiar with the work of science fiction author Philip K. Dick, you will at least be aware of some of the film adaptations – some good, some bad – of his work. If you have seen Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Paycheck, Next, The Adjustment Bureau or, if you were unlucky enough, Screamers, you may have garnered some small impression of what goes on inside Dick’s head. Behind the familiar sci-fi trappings of androids, spaceships and aliens, lays the workings of a complex and disturbed mind.
Actor Michael Sheen, with the help of Professor Roger Luckhurst, makes the case succinctly in this week’s episode of Great Lives on BBC Radio 4 that it was also the mind of a genius. There are more complete biographies of his life and work, including the superb I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick by French author Emmanuel Carrere – a book written as a piece of fiction, in Dick’s style and with its subject also as its main protagonist – but this thirty minute program provides a good incisive introductory glimpse.
Science fiction, as a genre, often draws sneers from literature snobs. It’s not proper literature, as far as they’re concerned, it’s just for children and the socially dysfunctional. The isolation of science fiction novels in book shops is for the same reason tinned sweetcorn is separate from fresh in supermarket aisles– it’s for ease of finding not because they’re fundamentally different. At its best sci-fi is high art, and comparable to any work of classic or modern fiction writing. Any genre has its share of both Dickenses and Dan Browns. In mainstream fiction, Charles Bukowski has to share his shelf with Candace Bushnell, and W. Somerset Maugham probably begrudges living near to Stephenie Meyer, like a noisy neighbour who has her friends round and lets her dog bark all night. Phil Dick belongs to the high end of the science fiction spectrum.
Let me illustrate. My first experience of his work would have been in my mid-teens. There was a monthly magazine published during the nineties that released a series of sci-fi classics in a collectable, handsome hardback form. The first two in the series were War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, and Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. The third was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick – the short novel that was filmed under the title Blade Runner. That is the company he keeps.
The robots and ray guns are just window dressing – the vehicle for a series of studies of the human condition, philosophy, psychosis, paranoia, politics and, later in his career, theology. In fact, Dick also wrote a number of unregarded non-science fiction novels, only one of which – Confessions of a Crap Artist (I just love his titles) – was ever published during his lifetime. He only wrote science fiction as he needed the money and knew he could get his work published. His intentions were much higher.
Understandably, the program focuses largely on Dick’s personal tragedies and problems, which were numerous, but succeeds in putting them in the context of his work. Drugs were one of the main factors present in his life, certainly during what many consider the pinnacle of his career: the 1960s. He is described as taking amphetamines by the handful, like sweets from a jar. The visions and psychosis he suffered influenced much of his work, but in particular The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich – which reads like a bad acid trip – and A Scanner Darkly – a book written about his experience of the drug culture in the years after he had cleaned up his act.
They also cover his later period, which was characterised by a sudden religious conversion, and – although always a prolific writer – a new creative zeal. The visions he received, either directly or indirectly caused by his drug addiction, he decided to interpret in religious terms, and wrote feverishly about them, but without filters, so he produced more that should have been discarded than was worthy of publishing.
One element the program mentions that always strikes me about his work is his paranoia. Many of his characters are being pursued or persecuted, and, in real life, he believed himself the subject of prolonged FBI surveillance. This went to the extent of blaming them when his house was burgled, although at another stage he believed he may have burglarised himself then wiped it from his memory.
The program paints Philip K. Dick as both visionary and victim, and as a man who skirted the line between genius and madness. Undoubtedly he had mental issues, the program concludes, but they were focused into his work in such a way that he created a unique take on reality – what is real and what is imagined – and his work stands out, not only as great sci-fi, but as some of the finest works of imaginative fiction ever written.
Postscript: In his presentation, Michael Sheen names Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said as his favourite novel, but here is my own, personal, recommended reading list:
Man In The High Castle
A Scanner Darkly