Manic Street Musical

So, I did it. I spent the summer writing and the autumn editing and correcting endless typos.

Here is Star Cross-dressed Lovers (A Manic Street Musical) [Linked updated May 2012]. A time-travelling political rom-com of a show in two acts, neither of which are credible.

I’m weirdly proud of this. I know I said it was a joke but I did actually try to make this entertaining trash, if not high-level. I suspect if you don’t know the Manics it will make no sense at all. And if you do know them I suspect you’ll be horrifed I placed such firey, jealous, all-consuming songs into a musical at all. But that’s why it’s funny. It’s all a joke.

Feel free to download and use as you will. I only ask for credit (and protection if you send it to James).

Bang! goes the science

Last night, the BBC showed a Bang Goes The Theory special, examining how many cyclists it would take to power an average family’s home across a single day.

For the most part, it was an interesting if not intellectually stimulating look at how much energy we can use and waste without even noticing. We had shots of the family cooking, cleaning and gaming, interspersed with clips of increasingly desperate cyclists trying to keep the whole shebang running. If the voltmeter felt in to the red, that’s it: fizz, fail, power gone.

Every so often they’d stop and ask an expert type exactly how much power the cyclists had generated across the course of the day so far. Mr Expert would respond with a number of kilowatt hours (kwh). Now, I have a Physics A-level from not too long ago and I’ll admitt that even for me the concept of a kwh was a fuzzy memory rather than a clear understanding of quite what energy the family was using.

So rightly, the BBC decides it should convert this rather abstract kwh into something more solid that the viewers at home could relate to. And what did they pick? Something simple but still measurable and scientific that everyone can relate to, like number of 100watt lightbulbs running for an day? No actually, it wasn’t. They went for that well known unit of engery, the digestive biscuit.

Let me just repeat that: digestive biscuit. How in the name of all that is science does one get from kwh (the multiplication of power in watts and time in hours) to digestive biscuits (the multiplication of flour, sugar vegetable oil)? It… what? How many digestive biscuits does it take to cook a chicken? Operate lift? Burn down McVities? It just doesn’t work.

OK, let’s say we’re comparing the kwh to the energy contained within each individual biscuit. Fine. First, can I have some information on mass and composition of the biscuit, please? Then would that be the energy in joules? In calories? The energy dissipated from me jumping up and down on a 20-piece packet until each sorry biscuit is a pile of crumbs so dense it will soon be designated anti-matter? Which?

I remember watching an episode of the children’s afternoon news slot, Newsround, where they compared the height of a building to that of so many Tyrannosaurus rexes, and wondering how on earth I was meant to know how tall a T. Rex was. But at least they were comparable units!

Converting kilowatt hours into digestive biscuits is like taking a length, and conveying it in terms of forrest.* It’s not adapting to an audience BBC, it’s just nonsense.

*That is, the distance covered by [x] sheets of A4 paper, laid end-to-end portrait orientation, where [x] is the number of A4 sheets that can be manufactured from a forest containing an indeterminate number of trees of unspecified height. Try using it next time someone asks how far to the bus stop. I’m sure they’ll understand.

The joy of me and Alan Turing

On Saturday I visited Bletchley Park, the mansion house estate that became the Enigma-cracking, computer-building hive mind of the second World War. I’d been wanting to go for ages; partly because of the family connection (my great uncle worked there) and partly because I’m an almighty geek and the following things fascinate me: computers; code-breaking; Alan Turing; the 1940s; train journeys through the country.

I joined a guided tour and learned about the ‘wrens’ who did a lot of the leg work (women outnumbed men 3:1), the attacks thwarted because of their work, and got to look around working models of some of the very first computers.

There was also a reconstruction of Alan Turing’s office, including a mug an enamel mug chained to the raditor – one of his many quirks being that he was convinced someone would steal it.

The most fascinating thing for me was the way the Turing Bombe worked, the machine that was used to find out the day’s setting for each Engima code. Huge, complex and awe-inspiring. The same goes for Colossus – the first prgrammable computer, and built entirely out of GPO parts! I could have watch it wirring around for hours.

What realy suprised me was learning that Bletchley Park was kept a secret right up until the 1980s. I’d always known my great-uncle served there, and I just assumed it was common knowledge what the place was used for, or if not, I never imagined it’d be 40 years until it all came out. That’s a long time for 8000 people to keep a secret!

For more info, try their website ortwitter.

Here’s some pictures:


Two of the huts where the Wrens would work


Reconstruction of Alan Turing’s office


The mansion house


Looking across the lake to the mansion house


One side of a Turing Bombe


The other side of a Turing Bombe, being explained by a now-retired Wren


Statue of Alan Turing

It’s not what’s wrong, it’s what’s right.

So Vincent Flanders’, author of Web Pages That Suck (an educational tour around some complete car-crashes of websites), has said that from a design perspective, there’s little point in looking at good websites, as they are unlikely to inspire.

Now I love ripping sucky websites to shreds as much as the next person, but I wouldn’t dream of developing my designs purely on a what-not-to-do basis. Good websites are exactly the sort of sites I want to look at because they encourage me to raise my game in a creative, non-prescriptive way.

Whenever I get involved in a website redesign, I’ll look at websites that fall roughly into two categories:
1. Great site, simple as, for any number of reasons e.g. design, navigation, cross-channel integration
2. Sites that might be viewed as ‘competitors’ to my site because they operate in the same business arena, have similar content, or are actually companies in direct competition.

I’ll look at these sites to understand what’s being done well, across the internet as whole, as well as more contextually. Apple might have a beautiful site, but doesn’t sit next to a government quango in terms of business space. So to balance out, I’ll also see if any other government quangos have a really inspired way of using social media, for instance. (This is an area where government can often go wrong, by trying to appear too ‘with it’, which Apple gives the appearance of doing effortlessly). Some principles of good web design are global, some are contextual.

Looking at these sites does not put me off or dishearten me, but drives me to be as good as them. My thoughts are about what can I learn and how I can apply it, positive aspirations. If I were to look at only bad websites, I would quickly feel angry, depressed, and unchallenged. If I’m unchallenged I won’t put in proper effort, I won’t be striving for anything, because I know I can do better than the sites featured on Vince’s site.

That’s not to say that rules aren’t needed. I think part of the reason I disagree with Vince over the value of looking at bad sites is because I’m already well aware of the fatal mistakes websites can make and what should be done to avoid making them in the first place. It’s my job to know. So maybe I’m not the audience he’s trying to reach with this.

But I would say to anyone who’s interested in web design at all that learning from others’ successes is just as important as learning from others’ failures. After all, no one learned to write by reading Dan Brown.*

*yeah, it’s a needless pay off, but I really don’t want to read anything he writes, ever again. It hurts.

The relentless chime of lessons not being learned

It was 20 years ago today that the Berlin wall came down. And what have we learned? Nothing, I tell you, nothing!

For in my office, in free England, a wall has gone up! Where there was once a pluralistic sharing of ideas, the free exchange of embittered rants and mutual appreciation of the latest xkcd comic, there is now just a cold hard barrier.

My poor colleagues, in the name of ‘protection’ and ‘security’ have been shut off, excluded from the variety of office life. As in Berlin, it happened overnight. One day, an open-plan office, the next a bisection of glass and tracing paper, cutting through the heart of collaboration, and taking souls with it.

Injustice, I cry! Injustice! How will I opportunistically annoy the bunch of techies with my creative spasms now?

A rhyming planet

Today is National Poetry Day. By pure coincidence, it’s a piece of verse that’s been keeping me sane/sending me happily around the bend in the last 24 hours.

Things have been stressfull recently and I miss all my friends so badly. But – sigh no more, Kathryn. Along comes a beautiful song, some delightful dialogue and Keneth Branagh to sort it all out.

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never:
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey nonny, nonny.

Sing no more ditties, sing no moe,
Of dumps so dull and heavy;
The fraud of men was ever so,
Since summer first was leafy:
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey nonny, nonny.

If you haven’t seen it watch the whole thing, please! I am currently obsessed with this last scene, but I know it will lose the emotional pay-off if you miss out 90% of it… Here’s the last scene anyway.



It’s another Branagh-Thompson ’employ all our friends and family for six months’ effort. So from the geek side of things, there’s Emma’s mum, Imedla Staunton, Brian Blessed, and the curious case of Robert Sean Leonard (now in House) prancing around with Ken & Em, meaning that I keep expecting Hugh Laurie to come running in at any stage. But no, you’ll just have to make do with Ben Elton pretending to be a horse (!).

Love’s Labour’s Lost

It’s widely known that the economy of our green and pleasant land is not at its healthiest right now. Many have found it helpful to look back to other such periods in our history and examine the actions previous governments took to restore our economic strength, and to determine whether such a course of action might be appropriate today.

I am only to happy to assist this process with a suggestion of my own.

In the early nineties, one entrepreneuring couple created a small start-up business which quickly grew to provide regular employment for their friends and family. Before long, their operations expanded, even breaking into foreign markets.

Sadly, as is often the way, the two parted company to set up their own firms, but not before facilitating further partnerships among their clientele. There have been some attempts to reunite the partnership, across franchises and remote working, but unfortunately these have failed to have the same impact as earlier ventures.

But it is thanks their efforts, that a whole generation of graduates was able to find work, and what this country needs right now is a revival of those efforts. I would implore the government to get behind small, family-owned businesses such as these, and remind previous visionaries that being involved in the creation and marketing of such an illustrious industry is nothing to be embarrassed about.

The good, the bad and the deliberate

When you create something, or even do anything with constructive intentions, you want it to be good… right? For example, it surely goes without saying that when I write something here I hope that you, the reader, find it enjoyable, resonant, witty, engaging and ultimately entertaining? Or if I am trying to persuade and convince you of something, I’d hope that you find my argument sound, compelling and constructive? On the face of it, the thought of anyone hoping the opposite for their creation must seem absurd. Yet, I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that.

Putting aside the numerous and often wonderful examples of those who set out to confront, annoy, and unseat us with their creations – they still have aspirations for their work – is there ever a case when one creates with the intent of it being ‘bad’? That is, it fails in whatever aim the artist sets for the work. For some that might be boring, others poorly (or even well) received. I know ‘bad’ is not the right word, just as ‘good’ is not the right term for the successful opposite, but I hope you see what I mean.

Whatever form it comes in, does anyone ever aim for failure? And if they do and they succeed in meeting that subjective measure of failure, have they succeeded in an objective sense too? If the aim is to fail, and you fail, you succeed, thereby negating your failure. A paradox caused by language or philosophy, I’m not sure, but let’s leave all that and meander to the point.

I didn’t start writing this to solve an ongoing philosophical argument, fun as that would be. A good thing too, as anyone half competent in the discipline could rip the above three paragraphs to shreds. No, all this pondering is merely me wondering aloud about a couple of projects I’ve got going at the moment.

The first is this website. At present, it remains largely unwritten – just a few headings, a couple of blog posts and lashings of lipsum. If I’m honest, the initial reason for this was ineptitude (so very sorry if you’re trying to read this Firefox, but let’s face it, you gave up long ago) and a lack of time. But now I wonder if a website documenting its own stuttering conception might be quite a neat thing in itself. A few screen shots here, a few frustrated blog posts there and suddenly the shoddiness of it – the failure element – becomes the success. Do I now have a rubbish website or an interesting experiment?

The thing is though, I eventually hope it will become ‘good’. That is, it will have some content, some colour and it’ll work. in. bloody. Firefox. The second project I’m working on doesn’t have quite such a simple path.

I am, for my sins, a recovering Queen fan – the monolithic rock group, not the head of state. I never had much time for her. I loved them as a teenager – not a cool thing in the mid 90s – and was overjoyed when We Will Rock You the musical, with a script by Ben Elton appeared in the West End. I also love The Young Ones, Saturday Live and Blackadder, three more Elton creations. But the difference in quality between these last three and the script to WWRY is staggering. WWRY is bad, so bad (whichever definition one uses). So bad that the last time I saw it in July 2009, something broke inside me and I decided I’d write my own pop music vehicle musical. And it wouldn’t be so sodding awful as We Will Rock You.

No. It’d be worse. I think. Or maybe better. Here’s where I get stuck. On the one hand, I want to write something which satirises WWRY and all its ilk, that shows up the genre in all its awfulness. The band I picked, Manic Street Preachers, I picked because I know their music better than they do, and I knew that their output – obtuse, verbose and short of love songs – was entirely unsuited to the genre. I wanted it to be cack, to take the piss out of the whole idea.

But in doing so, I’ve got to be clever and creative. I’ve got to twist a set of angry songs aimed at specific targets into a meaningful plot and dialogue. I’ve got to create characters that interest a wider audience as well as meet all the exacting expectations of excitable/lunatic Manics fans. And even though I’m doing it with the intention of making it bad, I don’t want it to be unwatchable (face facts, girl, unreadable). It can’t be just plain awful, but deliberately constructed to look awful.

So back to the failing to fail. I take pride in my work and I want it to be knowing and humorous as well as unquestionably awful. I don’t want to create something ‘so bad it’s good’, but something that’s simultaneously bad and good. Then at least it’ll be bad for a reason, which We Will Rock You isn’t.