A rare event for me, outside of this blog. I’ll be talking at the Typographic Circle evening event on 27 March, at JWT about my work and six years on, life without CDT. For more info click here.
A rare event for me, outside of this blog. I’ll be talking at the Typographic Circle evening event on 27 March, at JWT about my work and six years on, life without CDT. For more info click here.
The year: 1976
This is what was happening:
We seem to think that we are currently having extraordinary weather. However, back in 1976, it was devastating. An earthquake killed 655,000 people in Tangshan, China. A tidal wave killed 5,000 in the Philippines. Hurricane Belle hit the US East Coast. And an earthquake in Guatemala and Honduras killed 22,000.
Britain 1976, the worst drought in recorded history.
Here in the UK, the first recorded drought hit due to a prolonged heat wave, which caused many flash forest fires.
What else was going on?
The first commercial flights of Concord started.
James Callaghan became the new Prime Minister.
Fidel Castro became President of Cuba.
Steve Jobs formed Apple with Steve Wozniak.
This was to be a year of fantastic opportunity. It started with me walking into The Plough pub in Museum Street, London. Through a wispy haze of blue cigarette smoke sat the slender figure of Alan Aldridge, who was adding to the lingering smoke. He had contacted me to talk about the possibility of collaborating on a book together. He’d long moved on from his Penguin and Beatles period. At the time, he was having considerable success with his The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast book and was working on an animated film version. He had also designed the album cover for Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and was developing the idea for an animated version of that too, so he was a very busy bee – or should I say butterfly.
The book Alan had in mind was to celebrate the work of Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist. It was to be called The One Who Writes the Words for Elton John andwould contain all of Taupin’s lyrics. These would be accompanied by individual illustrations to visually express each song. Alan had a list of people from the pop world that he was going to commission, from John Lennon to Ronnie Wood. It was to be my task to commission from the world of illustration and photography, as well as design and art direct the book – no pressure there. In the event, my collaboration with Alan was minimal: I only saw him twice before he disappeared to America. And so, I was left to my own devices. The book sold out before publication and was reprinted immediately. Here is a little sampling…
Cover illustration by Alan Aldridge and Harry Willock
Illustration by Alun Hood
Illustation by Ken Carroll
Illustration by Donna Brown
Photograph by Lorenz Zatecky
Illustrated by Tony Meeuwissen
Illustrated by Peter Bentley
Illustrated by Brian Grimwood
Illustrated by Keith Bowen
Illustrated by David Pelham
Illustrated by Bill Sanderson
Illustrated by Dan Fern
Illustrated by Pauline Ellison
Back on the top floor of my Fontana studio in Mayfair, wearing my children’s book list art director’s hat, I was given the task of producing an urgent film ‘tie-in’ series for The Rescuers by Margery Sharp. The problem was that there were no stills, only some rather bad black and white reference shots. What to do?
Mick Brownfield in the 70's
Enter the extremely dashing Mick Brownfield, who had established himself as a wonderfully ‘method’ style of illustrator. He could step into the shoes of a comic strip artist, a 1940s pulp fiction illustrator or, as for my requirement, a traditional cell animator.
He was absolutely believable in all those different shoes.
Meanwhile I was wearing lots of hats too.
Photographer Robert Golden (know as Golden Light) produced many cinematic covers for me.
Illustrator Justin Todd was a mavel and I gave him masses of work
Me as illustrator for the Fontana religious list which I loved and gave my all
This is me during the long hot summer of 1976, relaxing in a field with my first daughter, Polly. We were on location shooting covers for a children’s pony series with photographer Denis Waugh, who took this shot. We were staying with the Armada Books Children’s Editor Marion Dickens, granddaughter of the author Monica Dickens. And the intriguing dark young woman that I mentioned in the last 50 + 50 post was now working as Marion’s assistant. Her name was Jessica and she was helping out on the shoot. We had become friends by this time and spent a lot of time together, especially in a delightful little French bar in Shepherd Market, Mayfair, called L’Artiste Muscle (40 years on, it’s still there). We’d sit at rather wobbly old sewing machine tables, which I recall furnished the place, and have a bottle of Beaujolais, warm soft French bread and some delicious blue cheese. We would talk and talk. It was always interesting and delightful. I have always loved the company of women, as there is rarely talk of sport, which seems to dominate most male conversations and is something that I am totally allergic to.
Alan Parker's first feature film, Bugsy Malone
Marion Dickens had mentioned that we should go and see a rough cut of a film that she was considering publishing as a film ‘tie in’. It was called Bugsy Malone and was the first feature film both written and directed by Alan Parker. We met in a Soho screening theatre, where I was introduced to the film’s producer, David Puttnam. They were both full of enthusiasm. Parker was riding high as a commercials director, having won everything there was to win and now with his sights on Hollywood. Puttnam had also had success with two David Essex films, That’ll Be the Day and Stardust, and was about to set up his own production company (Enigma). He later asked me if I would be interested in designing its identity. John Gorham was great friends with Parker and virtually designed everything for him, so Parker was out of bounds for me. But Puttnam had mentioned that he was going to produce a film with Ridley Scott. So, I kept closely in touch.
Each year there was a major sales conference for the whole of Collins Publishers up at the main print and bindery at Bishopbriggs in Glasgow. We all had to troop up there and my first experience was quite a shock, mainly because there was a traditional evening meal presided over by the tall figure of Sir William Collins in full benefactor mode, complete with a silver-trayed procession of haggises preceded by a fully kilted piper. But the really bizarre part was that the dinner was for male staff only. All of the female members had to fend for themselves. I refused to attend in the following years, preferring to spend my time with the women, which was far better than a whisky-sodden room of men.
With my studio being at the very top of the building, I was tucked away from prying eyes. And so, Fridays became party time. I would persuade the odd job man Len to supply us with a box of wine from the very well-stocked Collins’ cellar. The various editors, Kristy McLeod, Caroline Caughey, Marion Dickens and Jessica Datta, would bring in food and we would wail away the afternoons and early evenings eating, drinking and listening to music, which got louder with the increasing consumption of alcohol. I don’t know how I got away with it for so long, but I did and it was great fun. On the work front, I was delighted to have five pieces of work in the 1976 D&AD Annual, which encouraged me no end. I was so competitive in those days.
Ken Carroll still featured regularly at the studio and we would go to the very first Chicago Pizza Pie Factory, which had just opened in Crown Passage just off Pall Mall. Founder Bob Payton would often be there to chat to customers, who had to bring their own drinks, as there was still no alcohol licence. Towards the end of the year, Tad and Bill (my two original assistants) left for pastures new, and two new lively characters were to join. And David Puttnam phoned to ask if I’d like to design the titles for a new film he was producing. It was called The Duellists and was to be directed by Ridley Scott. More about that in the next 50 + 50 post.
My album for the year:
My Films for 1976:
All the President's Men directed by Alan J. Pakula.
Network written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet
Taxi Driver directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Paul Schrader
The Missouri Breaks directed by Arthur Penn. Not a great film but I'd see anything with Brando in it.
Related Post: 50+50 part 13
My friend, and sometimes collaborator, Michael Wolff and I have been on this planet for 150 years. During that time, we have clocked up five marriages and thirteen children between us.
So the topic of love, soul mates and lifelong relationships has taken up a lot of conversation over the years. And we have both come to the same conclusion. Michael has beautifully summed it up here in this heartfelt piece of prose.
I’ve never cared for the expression “Falling in love” It’s always sounded to me like some sort of careless accident. Falling’s never a good idea anyway, it nearly always results in pain.
Choosing is an entirely another matter. And even choice can hurt because choosing in matters of love can be flawed and disappointing.
The problem is often a misconception of attraction. I’ve been thinking about attraction and of course I only really understand it from my own point of view. This, I think is how attraction works. It’s an internalised system of matching. From a very early age, probably around 3 or 4, many individuals start cataloguing what they find attractive in others and what repels them. I certainly did.
For example if a little boy of four is smacked around the chops by a curly headed blonde, then that may be it for curly headed blondes forever.
Little by little a catalogue of stereotypical images of attractive people are stored in the brain, they come from pre-erotic and erotic glimpses of people or from films, dreams, books, magazines and a variety of images.
Then as relative maturity arrives we start searching for ‘the one’. We look hopefully and tirelessly at almost everyone we see until we settle for a look-a-like, someone who appears to resemble a stereotype already in our cerebral catalogue.
Instantly we click and fuse the image of the one we’ve just noticed into the one we already have in mind and our hormones and a whole variety of chemicals and electrical impulses start to get busy.
That way we control these images so that who we’ve picked matches what already attracts us and then, through some magical focussing and subconscious superimposition, we fall in love with the perfect image we’ve personified as the person we think we see.
We even impose the attributes we’ve already fantasised about and wished on the images in our catalogue of attractive people and imagine who we now see as the same person.
Then after a chemical flurry of wonderful good times together and happy sexual joy, gradually, and sometimes very gradually, whatever relationship we believe we’re in flexes to reveal the adaptations we’ve had to make until the real person we’ve chosen turns up, and we find their resemblance to what we had in mind is minimal.
How disappointing that can be.
Thank God really meeting people, finding oneself ‘becoming’ in love, and loving a person for who they are is an entirely different, wondrous and delightful cup of very rare tea.
I’ve found that love is really a job. It’s serious undertaking that can bring happiness beyond any dreams or wishes.
The job: to give your partner a greater and richer experience of themselves than they can achieve alone, and then, even harder, to be able to receive the same enriched sense of yourself from them.
I think this is the most beautiful and useful description of a relationship...
“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.”
Designers by their very nature are highly tuned visual creatures.
But sometimes the tunes that travel through the ears can be just as creatively enriching as anything absorbed through the retina..
In his 5th letter to young Indian designers my good friend Michael Wolff shares the music that has made an important contribution to his life, creative or otherwise.
Are we beginning to know one another? I hope so, even though no one’s been in touch with me by mail or email yet. This is my fifth letter to you. Maybe, because I’m in London, I seem remote to you, so, in this letter, I’ll open my heart through the medium of music. Two great art forms are particularly close to designing, One is cooking and the other is music. Both are visceral and intensely creative. So with this longer than usual letter, I want to tell you my life story through music.
I call it ‘a mockery of age’.
Since I was six, music has always been an intimate companion.
I’d hear my parents saying words like ‘foxtrot and quickstep’ and placing their precious shiny black records on their felt covered
gramophone turntable. Then they’d carefully lower a strangely shaped chromium plated arm that played a variety of scratchy and hissing music all through my childhood. There was always an argument about when to change the needle. And then, another argument, noisily in Russian, about who’d lost the tiny tin with dozens of perfect new Columbia steel needles, nestling in crisp paper inside. I lived with either the sound of argument or the sound of music. This first piece
of music always restored the household calm. For me, Victor Sylvester’s elegant dance music created anticipation of glamour and of romance to come.
Music became my refuge. I used it to emphasize sadness and joy.
By the age of eight, hymns – sad tunes like “there is a green hill far away”, were my ‘under the bedclothes’ mantras to cry with Songs by George Formby, were my inner music for laughter and happiness.
During World War 2, thousands of songs, from BBC radio signature tunes to military marches, filled my head. The most enduring was Lilly Marlene, sung by Marlene Dietrich. She was my introduction to erotic fantasy:
A jump of ten years through Phil Harris, Benny Goodman, Spike Jonze, Edith Piaf and literally weeks of French cinema and passionate Francophilia – which still burns steadily with me, especially in the songs of Edith Piaff and Rina Ketty.
In those days, I spent hundreds of nights with Dixieland, New Orleans jazz and blues, dancing in London’s jazz clubs, instead of persevering with Architecture at the AA – Sidney Bechet, an American from New Orleans who lived in Paris, was my next music hero. France, America, movies, and music had crept indelibly into my world.
Adult life ran alongside my own kind of life, and my musical taste became so eclectic it gradually become impossible to explain it.
Music still continues to bring solace, exhilaration, sadness and joy.
Singers like Ruth Etting and Bessie Smith, and big band swing, held me in their thrall. The singer that reflected all of this and epitomised the huge and central role of humour in my life was the joyful and exuberant Fats Domino – complete with his 200 suits!
Time to turn up the volume, especially with Fats.
Les Paul and Mary Ford
Les Paul’s guitar playing, his multi-track arrangements with Mary Ford and Count Basie’s subtle piano interweaving with his juicy and immaculate big band, were both special to me as I started to appreciate how ‘the big picture’ and infinite detail are inextricable expressions of each other and this duo continues to influence my work. These two pieces are permanently imbedded
in the ‘easy to reach’ part of my music memory.
By now, some rock’n’roll groups were far outstripping the creativity of the design world in which I worked. The Beatles in particular, light years more dazzling and important to me than any designers working in my lifetime – except possibly Le Corbusier.
I was amazed by The Who’s opera Tommy – amazed. Not just by the subject and the story and the wonderful observation in the poetry of their lyrics, but by the orchestral power of the music. I stood next to a battery of speakers throughout a deafening live performance at the Round House and was transported to a place I can’t even begin to describe. The ‘acid’ did no harm and volume is essential. Listen
At this time I was living a family life and leading the creativity in Wolff Olins. Those who worked with me were people of extraordinary talent. Each one of them took me beyond where I was capable of going alone. I can’t remember why, but I spent many nights doing long drives of hundreds of miles listening to hours and hours and hours of American rock’n’roll on the eight track “Slot Stereo” we’d designed.
I feel such empathy with this tremendous music. Bands like Credence Clearwater and The Band had permanent space in my mind. This music is sublime It’s almost running permanently through my blood stream today. I love it!
Some songs, where the lyrics and the music are as one – like flowers and their leaves – are like a perfect thirst quenching drink on a balmy summer day. This Paul McCartney song, Blackbird, always comes effortlessly into my mind. For me, it’s the sound of absolute equanimity.
It ripples down my spine.
At an altogether deeper level, Mozart’s music has reached me more intimately than anyone else’s. This miraculous aria from the Marriage of Figaro has always, and will always, stop all thinking and hold me enthralled. It’s nothing to do with the opera itself or the story, but simply the purest singing of a great soprano and Mozart.
Nothing else to say. Just close your eyes and listen.
My work life is now turbulent – from leading a company of many colleagues, many who became my greatest friends, to ‘leading’ a one man band – then back to a company of colleagues and then back to singular work again, and then again.
A roller coaster life with the great joys of an ever extending family to keep me sane and living with love. America became an unexpected fact of my life. My family extended again to embrace more ‘growing up children’ from Kansaa, more best friends and more American music, both early country music and the music of the time. The Carter Family always promps a tear.
This autobiographical account ‘of music now stops being any attempt at personal history, because all the music I’ve selected from now on, is really just music that I’ve loved for many years. A bit like my clothes, some have been around for decades. They come and go and then I start wearing them again. Bob Dylan’s poetic lyrics always connect with me. I sometimes feel, when I remember them, that at certain times they literally were my life. I seem, from time to time to have lived through some unaccountable episodes. Among them extended times at Isle of Wight festivals and ‘trips’ into adventures I don’t even remember.
Most of Dylan’s music resonates naturally with some of those extraordinary interludes. Especially long, long songs like Jack of Hearts and this song were he sings about a little rooster with something on his mind.
You’ll need to buy Blood on the tracks to hear the original.
I like this cover version - but she’s not Dylan. Meet me in the morning is Dylan so no worries. Turn up the volume.
In 1986 I met my third wife in Kansas City. She was my Kansas City Baby, living there with her son, her daughter and a three legged cat – Lucy. Her son Jordan and I often danced to this George Harrison song.
It wasn’t an easy time for him and this song always made us want to dance and feel warm and happy! Sometimes, in my life, music has played a defining role in the start of a relationship.
At any point in my life there are certain pieces of music that keep recurring. I know them so well, forget about them completely, and then they come back, bringing a wave of recognition and delight. Billie Holliday has always been there in that way for me. The musicians who play with her support her with such obvious affection, it reminds me of my good fortune in working with so many friends, and how often they’ve supported me and brought their strengths to compensate my weaknesses There’s always a mixture of tragic sadness and a love of love in Billie Holiday’s music. Listen to these lyrics. They’re quick, short and tell the whole story. It’s glorious music.
Sometimes, although my family was from St Petersburg, and all my life has been an English one so far, songs like this one by Maria Muldaur make me feel as if my roots are from somewhere like Tennessee in the American South. I feel a kind of longing for it. Strange – but it’s such sweet music.
At one time I was flying to Kansas City to see my Kansas City Baby Marty every week. One of my daughters and two grand children live there and my very, very close friends the Barsotti’s live there too. Charlie Barsotti is my favourite New Yorker cartoonist and very special friend. His home is where I recharge my sense of humour, and where I relax most deeply. I delight in the biggest and the smallest of American stores and unbeatable BBQ. (The Nebraska furniture store is over a million square feet. USA!) Chuck Renner’s store in Kansas City is where I buy my cowboy boots.
Dear God, this is all amazing music, although I realize I haven’t brought my love of the Pink Floyd into this letter. I always think of them as designers and of course brilliant masters of song. Here’s a track which ridicules and dismisses so much about education. Although what we teach kids is improving in many countries, watch this TED talk by Ken Robinson many years ago. Few governments take any notice.
All I can say that for me, thank God school is over for ever.
As far as Gods are concerned, Charley Parker is one of mine. I hated ‘bop’ until I loved it. It happened suddenly - all over in an hour. It was Dizzy Gillespie’s fault. At any point in the last forty years, whenever I need to loosen up and find a feeling of fluidity, it’s either the miracle of cranial osteopathy or listening to any Charlie Parker. This short track in particular.
It wasn’t all that long ago that I realized how valuable and wonderful tears were. I was always uncomfortable with mine, and not too happy around anyone else’s. This timeless duet is at least as miraculous as two summer skylarks soaring and singing together.
It never fails to bring locked away tears to my eyes. It’s always been music that moves me more than any other. I hope I can take it with me when I go.
This is another track to close your eyes to, keep calm and fly with these glorious birds.
This was completely irresistible the first time I heard it. It remains irresistible. For me this is the most extreme music. I don’t just hear it, I eat and drink and dance it. It reaches all of me, and it connects my very first experience of what music did to me when I first heard it, to my experience of music today. For me it makes a mockery of age.
It needs volume. Warn your neighbors first and then let go.
Before the last song in this story, so far, are three songs that not only reach my heart but are closer to my mind and the truth inside me than any other songs I’ve ever heard. Two of them are by the genius John Lennon and the third by Eric Clapton.
See what you think and feel when you listen.
This last song will probably mystify those of my friends who aren’t English. It’s a kind of cultural poem set to music. The music behind this ‘auction of gloom’ is timeless – timeless in the sense of stretching across decades.
There’ve always been meetings or events, which I know I’ll hate, and to which I have had to go; particularly some English meetings and events. For me this brilliant song by Spike Milligan – another great genius – both epitomizes and ridicules these stifling functions. Hopefully never again is what I always say to myself, and then, there I am – in another dreadful function with dangerously catered food, in a huge nowhere room that I never want to see again.
In the end, all there is to do is to laugh and laugh, and eat and love and appreciate friends and all the miracles in life – find something good in everything, avoid causing harm, do your best to bring what you can to the world, and love again and laugh again, and laugh and laugh and laugh.
In my next letter I might tell you the same story. This time how through many things and places I’ve seen that have inspired me all through my life so far that have made me the kind of designer I am.
Some are things to love and appreciate and some so terrible that they have to change and I am compelled to be part of that change.
The point of sharing myself with you in this way is to encourage you to celebrate yourselves so that you can flourish by being fully who you are, through how you live your life and how you create your own work.
This is me in 1946 sitting on the beach at Broadstairs in Kent
I was born during the last years of WW2 and, as a young boy growing up in post-war Britain, things were pretty bleak. The scares of the Blitz in London were very evident for well over two decades and there was a drabness to daily life, often exacerbated by what was called ‘pea soupers’ – extreme smogs brought about by excessive coal burning. But, as is often the way, with a negative comes a positive. The smog would transform the streets of London into exotic expressionist paintings.
Smog, a very regular event in the 1950s
For as long as I can remember, I have had a highly tuned visual awareness, which was developed in no uncertain terms by weekly visits to the cinema with my mother. I would lose myself in the Technicolor wonders whose projected shafts of light would dance through the curling cigarette smoke. This cinematic experience took me away from the greyness of post-war Britain to a wonderful dreamland.
Terence Davies's wonderful The Long Day Closes (1992) an evocation of 1950's Britain echoing my own childhood but without the beatings.
Reading was something I struggled with and it was not until my adult years that I realised that I was, and still am, dyslexic. But it was not a condition recognised back in the 1950s. So I was labelled as being a slow learner. But I actually loved books, but not to read: to look at. The local reference library was a haven for me. It was warm on the long winter days and there was a comforting peace about the place. I would sit quietly in the corner and make my way through the many large, heavily illustrated encyclopaedias, and I particularly loved the National Geographic Magazines, which were in plentiful supply on the shelves.
I would flick through those pages and be transported to faraway places, and between the articles were wonderful advertisements that gave an insight into an intensely colourful and exciting world 3,500 miles away across the Atlantic: the US, the place of plenty. They even had colour television in the 1950s and cars that looked like they were from outer space in vivid colours under their endless blue skies – here in rain-swept Britain, the majority of cars were black. For a ten-year-old, the US was so seductive. I fantasised about living there and spent a lot of time copying the advertisements onto large sheets of paper to decorate my bedroom wall.
Being visually distracted has always given me enormous delight and I am constantly aware of my surroundings, constantly on the lookout for the unexpected. And my trusty camera or iPhone help me record those moments.
It is surprising what is in front of you, if you can be bothered to look.
Last year, I did a little personal investigation on how people were interacting with each other in this age of Twitter, Facebook and all other social media, and my findings were depressing.
This is 21st century conversation. Isolated from ones surroundings.
Aboveis a group of snaps that I took just walking around my local neighbourhood. As you can see, no one was physically communicating but doing it at a distance, even though they often had friends directly in front of them.
The seduction of the digital world has removed people from the here and now. When you are next out and about, turn your phone off and look around you. I guarantee you’ll be shocked at the number of people completely cut off from their surroundings, and in the process they miss so much. And others are so engrossed in texting that they will walk straight out onto a busy road, oblivious to the danger. But put your mobiles away and look around you and you’ll catch moments like this…
Just a small selection of things I have snapped when I am out and about. You just have to look.
These days, we are stuck in front our computers, almost motionless, for long periods of the day, so there is even more reason to get out and make a point of taking in the surroundings. There are always new things to see, which in turn set the creative cogs spinning. A stroll for me is recharging my brain. So why people, especially young creatives, don’t take advantage of the free show on offer, I’ll never know.
The great, late Alan Fletcher used to stalk his local area for discarded debris for use in his many collages: had he never bothered, we would be the poorer for it.
The title for this piece “Embrace distraction” has been a guiding principle for years. If I am trying to crack a tough creative problem, I’ll stop what I’m doing to look for something else, anything and everything. You never know where it might take you. So, next time you are stuck, go take a walk.
This post was first published in Kyoorius magazine.
During the coming weeks BBC Radio 4 will broadcast James Joyce’s collected short stories Dubliners in 20 episodes, read by the actor Stephen Rea. For me The Dead has one of the most beautiful finales of any story.
In 1987 the great American director John Huston adapted The Dead for the screen. It was to be his last film. He directed most of it from a wheelchair, as he needed an oxygen tank to breathe during the last few months of his life. It is a gem of a film made with real love and understanding of the Irish. Sadly, Huston died 4 months before the film was released.
This is the last, beautifully touching scene from Huston’s film, sensitively played by the late Irish actor Donal McCann.
David Bowie: the man who started it all.
The Bay City Rollers
Prince charming in the shape of Adam Ant
Garry no longer Glitters.
Boy George in his sartorial heyday.
There was a time when it was only performers in the pop world who made deeply embarrassing fashion mistakes. I’m thinking here of the ’70s and ’80s. They were quickly followed by the disc jockeys, who, bathing in the reflective glory of their rock and roll masters, started to appear on television looking ridiculous…
The least said about this despicable man the better.
But most other individuals involved in television presenting tended to be kitted out on the lower slopes of sartorial sensationalism…
In his ‘everyone’s favourite uncle’ outfit, John Betjeman was perfectly pitched for his television appearances in the ’60s and ’70s.
When John Betjeman made his famous British Transport Filmseries, he dressed in his own everyday attire, often topped off with a rather shabby looking mackintosh or trilby hat. But it didn’t distract from his brilliance.
Originally Michael Portillo presented the series in a fairly conservative mode.
Contrast that with the more recent Michael Portillo series Great British Railway Journeys. We see him wandering around clutching his precious Bradshaw railway guide close to his chest like a Gideon’s bible. When the series started, he was dress in a relatively low-key way. However, halfway through the series, something strange started to happen. Brightly coloured shirts became the order of the day.
As the series developed into Great Continental Railway Journeys, Portillo started to wear rather bizarre colour combinations of jackets, shirts, trousers and socks, so much so that I became more transfixed with his dress code than with the journeys and scenes he was describing.
One wonders who advises these presenters on matters of styling. In the case of Portillo, someone is surly sending him up. I can imagine it – Producer: “Michael, I think the lilac jacket and lime-green shirt will work really well.” Out of earshot, directed to the cameraman: “He fell for it again, Charlie.”
Portillo in his true clours
It amuses me how this clamouring to become a ‘character’ through fashion is increasing – mostly in middle-aged men – across the board and is no longer the bastion of the young.
The original presenters of the Antiques Roadshow were rather sober in their dress code, like the red-faced, rotund figure of the late Arthur Negus, whose point of difference was his down-to-earth Berkshire accent. But, over the years, the presenters on this programme have not only got increasingly posher, looking down their noses in mild disgust at the hoarding middle classes who hope to be told that their heirlooms are worth £50,000, but have also become far more garish in their dress code.
Arthur Negus in his old tweeds.
They are now desperately attempting to ‘brand’ themselves with an array of trappings from bow ties to fake tans, from veneers and brightly coloured waistcoats to novelty spectacles: all to elevate themselves to ‘personality’ status.
The Antiques Roadshow's Paul Atterbury
Mr perma-tan David Dickinson presenter of Bargin Hunt
Here are some presenters from the past and more recent prize peacocks...
The architectural critic Ian Nairn was totally disinterested in his onscreen appearance in Nairn across Britain (1972).
Kenneth Clark allowed the world be the star rather than himself in BBC’s Civilization in 1969.
Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen: he no doubt wore his outfits to detract from the dreadful interiors that he created during the run of Changing Rooms.
The former TV horse-racing pundit JohnMcCririck must take the prize for wearing the most ridiculous outfits.
The kings of the fashion world are in a league of their own. The Nazi-ranting pirate John Galliano.
And Harry Hill lookalike Karl Lagerfeld.
Long before Sarah Lund’s jumper became famous in The Killing, we had Gyles Brandreth’s monstrosities on TV-am in the ’80s.
Just one of the many horrors worn by Brandreth while on TVAM
Braces became the branding device of Ground Force’s Tommy Walsh.
Meanwhile, Tommy’s Ground Force co-presenter Charlie Dimmock had two other distinguishing presentation points that she used to great effect, cheering up many an ageing gardener.
The darling transvestite of the art establishment, Grayson Perry.
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Nostalgia is a funny thing. It can either be a longing for something from your own past or a longing for a past you never actually experienced. The latter is ever present in the world of design and architecture. Graphics, for example, is awash with remnants of design thinking that has gone before.
Above a delightful spoof 60's style paperback series by an enterprising young designer.
The internet has enabled designers to plunder the past world of graphics at a click, and the source material can be replicated, approximated and adapted to produce convincing facsimiles of that graphic heritage, mostly in the hands of young designers who were either far too young to recall the period or were not even born then.
Nostalgia can be triggered by a smell, texture, taste or piece of music and suddenly you are transported back decades. If I happen to get a whiff of coal, I am instantly propelled to the streets of Dagenham, where I lived in the 1950s. Coal merchants still made daily deliveries of their jet-black cargo to every household. The moment the familiar truck appeared in our street I would rush out, stand by it and breathe in the magnificent aroma of those loose lumps of natural coal.
Sellers, Milligan and Secombe in The Goon Show still running on BBC4 Extra
At night, by the glow of our brown Bakelite radio, I would tune the dial to the BBC Light Programme to hear The Goon Show or Journey into Space,which I was besotted with. I used to remember them fondly – I say used to because, in recent years, both programmeshave been resurrected on BBC Radio 4 Extra and its predecessor Radio 7. Having originally listened to them over 50 years ago, my own fond recollection has now been eroded due to the constant repeats, which have devalued their potency.
A bit of America comes to Britain in the 1950's with, Life with the Lyons
Paul Temple currently rerunning on BBC4 Extra
And it’s not only my particular favourites: there is a raft of 1950s and 60s programmes spewing out on BBC 4 Extra: The Navy Lark, Life with the Lyons, Paul Temple, Ray’s a Laugh, Round the Horne, Educating Archie and many, many more. If you have the radio on all night, like me, you can easily wake up in the early hours thinking you’ve been transported back to the 1950s.
As a teenager in the late 1950s, Sundays were without doubt the most boringly depressing day of the week: shops were closed and nothing seemed to happen. I would normally be drawing, and the smell of the many Sunday roasts on the go emanated from the surrounding houses. All the mums were tied to the kitchen and all the dads would be down the pub. The radio would splatter out an assortment of extremely dull programmes like Life with the Lions or Educating Archie,
Imagine a ventriloquist act on the radio, well, Educating Archie was just that
but the worst of these was the Billy Cotton Band Show, and what a horror it was for me. The humour was out of the ark, along with the appallingly bland music.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, there was a singer in the show called Alan Breeze, who looked like someone’s dad and not the teenage pop stars of the period. Embarrassingly, Breeze would sing the latest hits, be they by Cliff Richard, Elvis, Fats Domino, Little Richard or Buddy Holly. The latter collection of stars would rarely be played on the BBC at the time – for that, you had to tune into the crackly reception of the commercial station Radio Luxembourg. So, we had to put up with Breeze, and it was so depressingly awful for a teenager to have to endure his annihilation of the hits we liked so much.
This is a crystal set. Many of us had these back in the 1950s to tune into Radio Luxenbourg under the bed covers.
At the time, the BBC was awash with programmes like this, all aimed at a ‘family audience’ – teenagers didn’t exist to the corporation. The formula had remained virtually unchanged since the Second World War radio era. And the liberation for teenagers, pirate radio, was still a decade away.
The digital age has given us so much, but it has also devalued the distant and fond memories of radio programmes that seemed so special then but are never quite the same on rehearing. Nostalgia really is becoming a thing of the past.
To give you a flavour of my dreary Sundays back in the 1950's here is a sample of The Billy Cotton Band Show (This is a 1960 TV version, but the 50's radio version was exactly the same).
Click here to be depressed.
And here is a short film of a Radio Luxembourg broadcast, rather hilarious
The year: 1975
This is what was happening:
The British Conservative Party chooses its first female leader, Margaret Thatcher.
The Vietnam War ends as Communist forces take Saigon, and South Vietnam surrenders unconditionally.
A London underground train crashed into a brick wall on February 28th at Moorgate in London’s financial district.
US Apollo and Soviet Soyuz 9 spacecraft link up in space. Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts shake hands.
On TV The Good Life with Felcity Kendal and Richard Briers took the nation by storm and an upturn in grow your own.
Ken Russell’s film version of The Who’s Tommy premieres in London and is an example of his visual over-indulgence and fading star.
By 1975, I was deeply entrenched in my new world of paperback publishing and rather liked the immediacy of the industry. The studio was running smoothly thanks to my super-efficient secretary Rosemary and my dedicated assistants Tad and Bill.
Designing covers for Fontana was akin to being a character actor with the ability to assume different identities at the drop of a hat. One minute I was designing or art directing covers for rather esoteric philosophical or religious studies:
Just one of dozens of religious covers illustrated by the immaculate Tony Meeuwissen.
and the next I was creating covers for some hard-nosed commercial detective series:
Just two of very many Ross McDonald, Lew Archer detective story covers that I designed along with photographer Graham Miller
Also this Eric Ambler series that I designed with photographer Roberst Golden and great fun to work on.
I also love spoofing things up like these two newspapers, all set in letterpress and printed on the correct paper.
John Gorham, a man know for his highly decorative and nostalgic work could also be remarkably minimal and conceptual, as in this beautifully simple cover he designed for me.
Giving an authentic look to photographs by hand colouring, sepia toneing and distressing, as in the above two covers from '75, were all hand done by me in that none digital age.
I absolutely loved the extremes and have come to realise that is why all of my subsequent work is a little hard to categorise. I had so much fun being commercial one minute and super-sensitive the next that I never got out of the habit. I can’t understand designers who just doggedly follow the same stylistic rail track: it must be so dull and monotonous.
To help give the covers a more coordinated look, I dispensed with the historic myriad of typographic styles that appeared on the spines in favour of a simple, uniform style using Goudy Bold and Goudy Old Style (above). I also strengthened the logo and colour-coded them into four categories: blue for fiction, orange for non-fiction, green for science fiction and red for religion.
Left the original Fontana logo designed by Leslie Lawrence and John Constable in 1969 and right the strengthen version with colour coding introduced by me in 1974
William Collins Publishers was another of those environments filled with high academic achievers, many from Oxbridge universities. And then there was me with my one O-level from a secondary modern excuse for a school. But, by this time, I was a pretty adept chameleon and Collins became my second university. A perk of the firm was that, by default, you became a member of the delightful La Petit Club Français, just a few doors down from the Collins offices. What you have to know is that in the 1970s, there were still strict licensing laws in operation: pubs only opened from 12:00 to 14:40 and then again from 18:30 to 21:30. By contrast, licensed drinking clubs could serve alcohol from 15:00 to 23:00, and La Petit Club Français was such an establishment. On any given day, it was not unusual to find a large gaggle of Collins staff propping up the bar. It was a place where births, funerals, divorces and departures were discussed or celebrated and it was also the perfect venue for illicit affairs of the heart. With its crackling fire in the hearth, intimate lighting, weathered leather couches, an upright piano, constant flow of wine and an upstairs dining room serving food as variable as the weather, it was a sheer delight to be a member. They even celebrated Bastille Day and hung bunting across the road.
Freelance designer Ken Carroll became an extended part of the Fontana team. He could turn around work at an astonishing rate, and I would keep him topped up with covers to design.
By that time, we were great friends and pretty much inseparable. Along with our wives and children, we holidayed in the Dordogne area of France. Ken’s wife Sue was a friend of the designer Jim Northover (of design consultancy Lloyd Northover), who owned a charming farmhouse there. So, we spent, as I recall, a boiling couple of weeks there, trying to avoid the blistering sun.
The Dordogne, France 1975. From Lto R: Sue Carroll, Joe Dempsey. Ken Carroll (holding Oliver Carroll), Ben Dempsey, Daisy Dempsey and Margaret Dempsey.
Ken and I had a bit of a passion for enamelled signs, and France was littered with them. Following a pleasant meal one evening, and after the children had been tucked up in bed and our respective wives were quietly chatting, we set about recording all of the colour combinations of enamelled signs.
Here is the original magic-marker drawing from that hot evening back in 1975. I can’t imagine why I have hung onto it all these years.
The kind of things that obsessive graphic designers do.
One of the Monday routines at Fontana involved me presenting and discussing future covers with Lady Collins, who presided over the religious list, which went under the imprint of Fountain. These were no conventional meetings. Sir William and Lady Collins had a large flat within the house where they stayed during the week, and at weekends they would decamp to their country pile. So, my meetings with her were in the flat. We’d always have tea and biscuits or even scones. She would preside perfectly centred on a squashy sofa with her two beloved pair of shih tzu dogs by her side, feeding them titbits. Between this, I would show her the roughs for the various covers, often with the dogs jumping all over me. She was an absolute delight, with that traditional British ability to appear positive even when delivering something negative, just as Mary Berry does on The Great British Bake Off. “Absolutely marvellous” was Lady C’s favourite phrase. And it was with her religious list that I was able to produce some really adventurous and beautiful work during my time there.
I continue to use many of the illustrators, designers and photographers that I’d commissioned while at Heinemann, but I would keep my ear to the ground for emerging talent. One day, a rather doe-eyed, baby-faced young man dropped by to show me his work. It was unusual because he presented his illustrations like cell animation stills. A black outline was drawn directly onto acetate and then the colours were blocked in on the reverse side, giving a completely flat, immaculate finish. The young man’s name was Brian Grimwood. Not only did I think he had great potential and immediately commission him but he also had already plotted out a five-year plan for his future. I’d never met such an organised individual. And, over the years that I knew him, his grand plan seemed to fall into place seamlessly. This is the first commission I gave him:
And below is an illustration he did of me to accompany an interview I had with AoI magazine in 1975. I remember that hair well.
Strolling down St James’s Place was always a pleasure, especially on a bright spring morning. The railings outside of Collins would normally have a collection of ladies’ bicycles chained to them, mostly with wicker baskets attached to the handlebars. It all looked so civilised and middle class.
This was the publicity department outside of 14 St James’s Place. On this occasion to promote the launch of Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear paperback series. From left to right: William Fricker, Michael Cheyne, Michael Bond (Author), John (designer),sitting: Helen Ellis, Julia Bennet, Debbie Jarvis.
Walking through the entrance was rather like arriving at a classic English house. There was a grandfather clock gently ticking away, a dark oak Elizabethan coffer, oriental rugs and runners, paintings, glass-fronted cabinets lined with books and a seemingly random arrangement of classic armchairs covered in russet-coloured hopsack with scatter cushions. The lighting came from a variety of low lamps. This was the main reception and everything led off from here. So different from the clinical corporate interiors of publishers today, with their security barriers and lanyard plastic passes. Back then they really were publishing houses. One day, while strolling through the reception, I noticed a young woman sitting on a window seat. She was engrossed in a book. I recognised the cover as it had been produced while I was at Heinemann: Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey. The young woman of dark complexion and the jettiest of jet-black hair and looking very Bloomsbury-ish instantly fascinated me.
I was, and still am, ever the curious romantic. It turned out she was waiting for an interview. I didn’t know it then, but our paths would cross again. But more of that another time.
My films for 1975:
Barry Lyndon Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The famous forward tracking zoom used in Steven Spielberg's Jaws
By 1975, pop music was becoming rather bland. I still remained faithful to Joni Mitchell and Sandy Denny, who I adored, but I drifted towards much more classical music. Little did I know that Alex McDowell, a young student at St Martin’s School of Art, was in charge of college entertainment, and had booked a new group to appear there. Their name was The Sex Pistols.
Related post: Fifty years on No. 12