Sunday, January 31, 2010

Practical Communications.

Erith sculpture

The photo above is of a somewhat pointless and inconsequential piece of street sculpture located between Erith town centre and Morrison's car park. My only wonder is that it seems to continually escape vandalism. It is not so much that I dislike the piece, more than it seems pointless, rather obvious and boring; I reckon that any potential vandals have a blind spot to it, or that they simply cannot muster the enthusiasm to cause any damage or mayhem.

I came across an interesting and somewhat motivational quotation earlier this week; "Any problem in the world can be resolved by the careful employment of high explosives".  Certainly a subject worthy of debate. I am not sure I agree to be honest, there are times when a sniper rifle gets the job done better.

I see that certain supermarkets have banned customers from entering their stores when wearing pyjamas. What posesses people to leave home still in their sleepwear utterly bemuses me.  You can read the original story here. My own concern is something that occurs with regularity as soon as the sun comes out, and the temperature rises in Erith. You inevitably see a host of scrawny,  pigeon - chested Chavs strutting around the area, bare from the waist upwards. Over the course of several days you see them transforming from a pasty, blueish white to a sun burned lobster red. Only their inevitable tattoos escape this transformation. I gather that in most parts of the USA appearing without a top in public is illegal. I wish the same was true here.

I have been commissioned to write an article on how the film "The Boat that Rocked" (called "Pirate Radio" in the USA) compared with the real thing - relating to my own experiences when I worked for Radio Caroline. I was hired by the editor of Practical Communications Magazine to pen a piece for inclusion .in the next issue. You can read the article below; please note, whilst the spelling is in English, I have used American terminology throughout. When one is a writer for hire, one must give the employer what they want.

When I went to the movie theatre to watch the movie “Pirate Radio” (which was titled “The Boat that Rocked” in Europe). I did so with mixed feelings. The reason for this was that in the late 1980's I was a disk jockey and trainee engineer on board the Ross Revenge, the home of Radio Caroline, the biggest and best known of the offshore radio stations that broadcast music into Britain and most of Northern Europe between 1964 and 1990. I was worried that what I would see would be a terrible distortion of fact.

“Pirate Radio” is set over the course of a year, between the summer of 1966 and 1967 on board a fictional offshore radio station called “Radio Rock”. It tells the story of the crew and D.J's playing music over the air waves to entertainment starved Britons, and the efforts of the British Government to stop them. The movie was written and directed by Richard Curtis, of “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, “Notting Hill”, “Bridget Jones' Diary” and “Bean” fame. The film is set in his usual slightly idealised version of Britain, where the sun always shines and things turn out for the best in the end. If you have seen any of his other pictures, you will know what to expect. 

The movie is episodic, and some of the events ring true, whilst others struck me as serving the plot, rather than actual reality. In one scene, to characters challenge each other to climb as high as they dare up the ships' antenna tower. If anyone had tried to do this on board Radio Caroline, they would have been almost instantly been fried to a crisp by the 50,000 watt radio signal it was transmitting. The tower was and antenna feeder were surrounded by orange railings to stop crew from getting too close, and all new joiners were given the safety tour by the chief engineer with dire and graphic warnings about getting too close.

The design of the Radio Rock ship was copied closely from the real thing – Radio Caroline's ship, the M.V Ross Revenge, which is now in dry dock on the River Thames just East of London. The movies' production designers were permitted access to take photos and measurements so that their mock up vessel looked remarkably similar, even using the same colour scheme. At one stage the Ross Revenge itself was going to be used, but there were legal and insurance issues that prevented this. Radio Caroline were directly involved in providing consultancy and technical assistance during the production of the movie. If you watch any sequence showing Radio Rocks' studio, all of the equipment is actually from Radio Caroline, and was in full working order. The actors' playing DJ's don't have a clue how to use it though – in many shots you see them starting the record decks from the power switches, rather than the start / stop buttons on the mixer – doing this would have caused the records to “wow” as they got up to speed. The record decks were vintage 1960 items, but the tone arms and pickups were 1990 era – something a few eagle eyed viewers have noticed.

One thing that also struck me – the cabins on board the Radio Rock ship were all palatial – far too big for a vessel that was meant to have been converted from a fishing trawler. My cabin on the real thing was 8' x 8' square, and was considered pretty luxurious compared with some others. The reason for this was the interiors on the fictional ship were shot on a sound stage at Shepperton film studios in Surrey, England. The Director and camera crews needed enough space to set up the camera and sound equipment, as well as having the actors in place.

Back in the 1960's the offshore stations anchored three miles off the coast. The term “radio pirates” is one created by the British tabloid press at the time, and it is colourful but inaccurate – they were not actually illegal, as they were outside of British territorial waters, and thus not subject to British law. In the 1960's the territorial sea limits were set so that the ships had to be only three miles from the shore. By the 1980's, and during my time on Radio Caroline, the limit had been upped to twelve miles, and the Ross Revenge was actually anchored nearly fifteen miles out to sea, off the coast of Kent. All the sequences in the movie of groups of women coming out in tourist boats for some amorous fun with the D.J's is complete rubbish. It simply never happened. The journey out to the real ship would take hours and only the most dedicated offshore radio fans (often called “Anoraks” due to to their preferred style of warm, rather geeky clothing) would make the trip. They were almost exclusively male. 

Another major hole in the story is (*Spoiler Alert if you have not seen the movie yet*) when the Radio Rock ship starts to sink at the end of the movie, the studios, transmitters and all the electrical systems continue to operate normally, even when submerged in that great electrical conductor, salt laden sea water. In reality on Radio Caroline, we had frequent power outages caused by a circuit breaker tripping, something that was easily resolved. The standard fix was to have a bit of 2" x 4" lumber rammed between the power panel and the opposite bulkhead, holding the circuit breaker closed – not something a modern Health and Safety department would ever recommend!

If this sounds like I am trashing the film, please think again. I loved it. It is by far the most accurate portrayal of an offshore radio station ever committed to film. Yes, it has some clunky moments, is too long, and has several technical inaccuracies, but as someone who has lived that life, albeit twenty years later than the events portrayed, it evoked the spirit and the feel of the camaraderie that life on board an old and rusty ship anchored in the middle of a frequently stormy sea, miles away from your friends and loved ones only can do. The critics, by and large were dismissive of the movie. I think I am somewhat better qualified to judge it than they. Go and rent it on DVD if you have not seen it already. 

I know – I was there.

I don't know if any of you have been to see the recent Guy Ritchie film "Sherlock Holmes" at the cinema; I watched it last night, and it is a hell of a lot better than I was expecting. I am a big Holmes fan, and was expecting a bit of a mish - mash tribute to the greatest fictional detective. Instead, I got a Star Trek style reboot, whilst keeping the essential elements intact. The movie trailer is somewhat misleading - it looks like a non - stop action buddy movie; this is only one element of it. The script is both clever and witty, and for the first time you see Holmes' internal monologue, illustrating how he reaches his conclusions after his observations. Even during a fist fight, you can now understand why he does what he does. I look forward to a sequel, featuring Professor Moriarty.

Snow Hill office - Jan 2010  891

Above is a photo of an audio mixer at work - there's nothing like a new toy to keep things interesting. It is part of a new multi media centre in Birmingham that I manage. Certainly an interesting project. There is going to be an exact duplicate in Docklands later this year too. Click on the photo for a larger view.

I see that Ofcom have withdrawn the broadcast licence for Teletext in the U.K. This is going to mean no more television text service. You can read more about it here (download PDF file).

As you will see from the photo below, confidence tricksters are once again targetting local residents with one of the usual "best ever" electrical goods sale. These things have been going on for years, only to rip off the gullible. This was pushed through my letter box only a day before the scam was due to take place. If something sounds like it is too good to be true, it generally is. Take heed.

The video this week is from excellent American blues / rock guitarist and songwriter Joe Bonamassa. He could be described as the new generation Dave Gilmour / Eric Clapton, and has already played with both. He also hosts a show on Planet Rock, one of my favourite radio stations. Give the clip a play and do let me know what you think. As previously mentioned, your comments won't appear straight away, as I now have comment moderation enabled, thanks to  the malicious actions of some script kiddies and Chinese spammers.

1 comment:

  1. I don't actually think that OFCOM actually revoked the teletext licence, I think as reported elsewhere teletext just realised there was no way to make any money, so they informed OFCOM of their intention to under perform to the conditions of the licence. OFCOM gratefully agreed and allowed the discontinuation of their licence.
    Subtle but important differences.
    What we are seeing here is licence holders who realise that they can no longer make money out of their franchise, being allowed to escape the clauses in their contract to allow OFCOM to re-sell the bandwidth to another service at a higher profit.
    BTW I refuse to submit to American spelling, even if spell check insists!
    Also did I read it right?
    You wore your pyjamas whilst shopping on the Ross? Bizarre!