Saturday, 18 November 2017

MICROGORIA 49 - The Hamlyn Book of Ghosts


In this episode, Mr Jim Moon returns to the haunted shelf of childhood favourites and dusts off the very creepy tome, the Hamlyn Book of Ghosts by Mr Daniel Farson, first published way back in 1978! 

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Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The 'Orribe 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat - The Mysteries of Mastermind


Welcome once again dear fiends to the 'Orrible 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat! Now then, last time you popped over we were rummaging in the Old Board Games cupboard, and had uncovered the history of the international bestseller Mastermind - namely that this well-known game was actually an adaptation of an old pen and paper pastime called Bulls and Cows. However we didn't quite reveal all the secrets of this code-breaking game...

Bulls and Cows was a game which involve guessing a sequence of numbers, or in a popular variant, words. Now obviously any game involving numbers raises the spectre of mathematics, which for many folks is the polar opposite of fun. And therefore a key factor in Mastermind becoming a global hit was the simple but genius decision to replace the numbers with colours. To begin with this gives the game a visual appeal, but also the placing of multi-coloured pegs gives the game a pleasing tactile quality too. And it should be noted too that having a choice of six colours to create a sequence to be guessed by the other player actually cuts down the odds of guessing it correctly, hence making the game a little bit easier and more accessible for younger players. Now at this point I would to the maths to show the reduction in possibilites but you'd all stop reading. Such is the dread power of maths! 

Anyhow, instead of scoring "Bulls or "Cows", the board game used a system of black and white pegs. A correct colour in the right place gets a black peg, whereas a correct colour in the wrong spot gets a white peg. Now the board in Mastermind has a number of rows for the player to make his guesses, and each row of peg-holes has an additional quartet of slots for marking the guesses. Dr John Billingsley, who played a key role in developing the game, cunningly decided that the marking holes should be placed in a square to disrupt the tendency for players to mark each peg in sequence, thus making the game a little too easy. 


Now it was also Dr Billingsley that gave the game its name. And here lies one of the great mysteries of Mastermind. For around the same time as the board game hit the shelves, there was a hit TV show on the BBC in England which was also called MastermindDevised by a chap called Bill Wright, the inspiration for this quiz show was actually Wright's experiences in World War II being interrogated by the Gestapo! The show's format is both iconic and brilliantly simply - basically each episode sees four contestants face two rounds of questions. Each in  turn takes their place in a black leather chair lit only by a spotlight and faces two minutes of questions. The first round is on their chosen specialised subject, with the second round comprising of general knowledge questions. Winners of each show then go on to compete with each other until at each series's finale an overall winner is decided and awarded an ornamental glass bowl. And no, I'm not making that up! You really did only win a bowl. 

For those you who are unfamiliar with the show, here's the final of the series from December 1981 complete with some festive BBC idents! 


Now the TV show Mastermind has something on an interesting history in itself. It first aired in 1972 on a Sunday evening in a late night slot. Given its cerebral nature, it was thought that the show would only ever have a niche audience - for there were no flashy prizes or big cash giveaways, and the questions were of a high level of difficulty. Not your usual quiz show in other words. However in 1973, the BBC found itself in a bit of a bind. A raunchy sitcom Casanova '73 which starred Leslie "Ding Dong!" Phillips had proved to be a bit too lecherous and had drawn a flood of complaints. After three episodes, a full scale public outcry was taking place and the Beeb decided to swiftly move the sexy show to a later time slot. However this snap decision to appease shrill self-appointed voices of the probably mythical Silent Majority such as Mary Whitehouse left a gap in the schedules. And so, as a stop-gap Mastermind was given the troubled sitcom's old slot. This was of course only meant to be a temporary move, but to everyone's surprise became a huge hit. 

Now while competing to win a glass bowl by answering questions on subjects nobody at home knew a thing about might sound like the dullest thing ever, Mastermind was actually riveting television. To begin with we had that brilliantly atmospheric theme tune - a piece called "Approaching Menace" by British composer Neil Richardson - usual playing over a very simple title sequence that just showed the famous black leather chair lurking in its single spotlight. Whereas most quiz and game shows are wheeling out bright colours and the kind upbeat music produced by a surfeit of sugar and e-numbers, Mastermind could be mistaken for the opening of a dark thriller or even a horror movie! And while the original run of the show was hosted by the charismatic Magnus Magnusson, who managed to be both a genial and a somewhat sinister quiz master, the real star was always that infamous chair lurking in the dark. 


And what really made Mastermind such tense viewing was a very simple device employed by the show from the very beginning. And that was that as each contestant took their place in the ominous black chair and began their round of questions, the camera very slowly and oh-so-steadily zoomed in, so that by the time the buzzer sounded to mark the end of the round, the camera was squarely on the contestant's face. Filming the rounds in this way proved to be a stroke of genius, for it allowed to viewer to taste the rising tension of answering a barrage of relentless questions against the clock. 

The show ran every year until 1997, when it was decided that perhaps old Mastermind was a bit long in the tooth. But you can't keep a classic off the air long, and while TV execs might have thought the show old and boring, audiences still loved it. After all, there was a very good reason the show had ran for a quarter of century with the only changes to the format being tweaks to the title sequence. Hence it was revived almost immediately on radio, then on the Discovery Channel with Clive Anderson hosting. And then in 2003, it returned to its rightful place on BBC 1 with John Humphreys as the host, where it is still running to this very day. 

Now then, to get back to our original specialised subject of old tat, what has all of the above got to do with the board game? Well, that is in fact the very question that bedevilled generations of TV viewers and game players. Was there some connection between the game and the TV show? They had the same name, and given that the box showed a distinguished man in a darkened room, looking ominous, the game seemed like it was somehow related to the TV show. But that wasn't Magnus Magnusson sat in a stylish modern armchair chair! And he never had a beautiful assistant like the suave chap on the game box. Plus if the game was a tie-in to the TV show, why wasn't it effectively Trivial Pursuit a decade or so early? 

Well now, at last we can reveal the truth! And what is more, once again it is down the Dr John Billingsley. As Mastermind the TV show was just becoming a huge hit, the good doctor provisionally entitled the new board game with the same name, never thinking that it would hit the shelves with that monicker. Our genial boffin assumed that there would be all manner of legal difficulties and another name would be chosen for the game's release. However the makers of the new game Invicta loved the name and went with it, and somehow the BBC never challenged them over the use of the same title. Possibly if they had been doing a quiz questioned based game things might have been different, but I suspect the prevailing thinking at the time was that "mastermind" was simply a term in common usage and no one, not Invicta or the Beeb could lay claim to it.


However, who was that chap in the chair? Well, there's an interesting tale too. Given the name 'mastermind' and the brief that this was a code-breaking game, the marketing folks thought they'd invoke a James Bond/spy vibe, and so started looking for a suave-looking gent, a beautiful girl, and also hired a cat. The original model they had booked didn't turn up, so a local man who ran a string of hairdressing salons, Bill Woodward was suggested at short notice to fill the chair. And with his neatly trimmed beard and sharp suits, Bill certainly fit the bill. Likewise his glamorous companion was also a bit of chance casting. The mysterious lovely lady was Cecilia Fung, who at the time was studying computer science at Leicester University - a rather nice coincidence that chimed with the game's origins in a computer version called Moo! Cecilia was literally stopped in the street by folks from the modelling agency and offered the job on the spot, and being a struggling student she jumped at the chance.

And thus history was made! The iconic cover photo looked intriguing, glamorous, and stylish - with the aura of sophistication and mystery it generated, it undoubted it helped the game become the global smash it was. Bill Woodward did many promotional tours for the game, so much so that at one stage he had "Mr Mastermind" on his passport! However more than a few players over the years were perplexed to discover the game rules made no mention of this suave fellow and were left wondering who he was and what was his deal? Was he an M type of guy, giving the orders for secret missions? Or a Blofeld, plotting some nefarious scheme? In fact, they were going for a Bondian supervillain look, hence the hiring of the cat. Bill later recalled that several shots were taken of him holding the kitty in full Blofeld mode, but in the end it was decided to ditch the moggy. However unfortunately that wasn't before the cat itself had registered its own unique protest against the concept by pissing all over Bill's trousers. 

Sadly now, although you can still buy Mastermind, made by Hasbro these days, the iconic packing featuring Bill and Cecilia has now gone. And I can't help feeling that the game has lost some of its mystique and magic with this departure. However I am willing bet that if they were reinstated on the box, there would be a sharp spike in sales, for I am sure that that mysterious air of style and sophistication would once again have prospective buyers picking up the game just to find out who they were. Rumours that the cat is now lurking in a secret volcano base of its own and plotting world domination are entirely made up by me just now. 




Saturday, 11 November 2017

HYPNOGORIA 75 - Day of the Triffids Part IV


In this addition to our history of the Triffids, Mr Jim Moon rounds up some triffid apocrypha. We discuss some comic book adaptations of John Wyndham's classic SF novel, and take an in-depth look at the official sequel Night of the Triffids by Simon Clark which was published to mark the 50th anniversary in 2001, and its audio adaptation produced by Big Finish.  

NOTE - unfortunately some gremlins got in the works and early listeners might find some weird noises for a couple of minutes in the early part of the show. However a fixed version sans interference has been uploaded now! A fresh download will banish the gremlins !

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - HYPNOGORIA 75 - Day of the Triffids Part IV

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Thursday, 9 November 2017

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Martinmas


The 11th of November is of course Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, an annual commemoration of the day the First World War came to an end, at 11 Am on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. Poppies are sold, services held and a two minute silence at 11 AM is observed. However long before the horrors of the Great War, the 11th of November had long had a special date in European calendars. For now what we now think of as Armistice Day falls upon the date of a forgotten feast, St. Martin's Day or Martinmas.  

Thought to have been born on the 8th of November around 315 AD, Martin of Tours was a Roman solider who converted to Christianity. When he refused to fight, he was imprisoned for a time, and in the end left the Roman legions to preach across Europe and establish a hermitage. Martin was so devout that it was thought he would be an excellent bishop. Martin himself however was less than keen on the idea - as a man of sincere faith, he loved the contemplative life and had tricked into coming to the city of Tours on the claim a sick friend needed his ministrations. When Martin discovered the deception, he responded with some duplicity of his own and tried to dodge this promotion into the church hierarchy by hiding in a barn full of geese goose pen. But when the Church authorities came to take Martin to the cathedral to be made a bishop the geese honked so loudly that Martin was quickly discovered. 

As it was, Martin did indeed make a very good bishop, although it is said he founded a monastery at Marmoutier in order to have somewhere to withdraw to and continue his worship in the humble and quiet contemplative manner he prefered.  After his death on the 8th November 387, he was venerated for his good works, and legends grew up around him with the usual crop of miracles such as having visions of Christ, healing the sick and raising the Devil being attributed to him. The most famous tale about him related how he sliced his cloak in two to give half to a poor beggar man. Later Martin had a dream in which it was revealed that the beggar that been Christ and thus began Martin's life of piety and devotion. Hence he became St. Martin and his feast day was set as the 11th of November, a couple of days after his death date. From the late 4th century into the Middle Ages, St. Martin's Day was widely celebrated across Europe, with great feasts being held on Martinmas Eve (10th of November) and the traditional dish was roast goose - according to legend a commemoration of the noisy birds that foiled Martin's attempt to dodge bishophood. 

Now St. Martin's Day was a time for merrymaking and feasting for good reason. For on the 12th of November, what the medieval church called Quadragesima Sancti Martini - the Forty Days of St. Martin - began a time of fasting and spiritual preparations for Christmas. So naturally folks wanted to ensure they had a good eat and drink and made merry before this period of devotion and self denial. And there were practical reasons underlying this too - for Martinmas coincided with the last harvests, and it made good sense to consume what may be perishable at this time. Animals were butchered and their meats was salted to provide food later in the winter, and for several centuries salted meat from cattle killed in these harvests was referred to as Martlemas beef. These forty days of fasting and contemplation that followed St. Martin's Day are also  the origin of what we now call Advent. 


As is common with saint's days, there was a wide variety of different traditions to celebrate the date across Europe. In Flanders, children received presents on this day rather than the more usual St Nicholas's Day, while in Germany Martinmas was marked with parades of paper lanterns. Indeed, this delightful tradition still continues to this day and in recent years has enjoyed something of a revival and has began to spread.  In England, after our switching of calendars and the infamous loss of eleven days, Martinmas became known as Old Hallowtide or Old Halloween. Much like Michaelmas, Martinmas was also a time for hiring fairs where folks could secure employment for the coming year. 

Also like Michaelmas, there were some folk traditions of foretelling the weather associated with St Martin's Day. It was claimed that whatever the weather was like on St. Martin's Day the opposite would hold true come Christmas - if it was cold and icy, it would be mild by Yuletide, whereas if it were pleasant on St Martin's Day, it may well be a white Christmas. Appropriately enough, the birds most closely associate  with St. Martin are remembered in one folk saying that outlines this tradition of weather forecasting - "If the geese at Martin’s Day stand on ice, they will walk in mud at Christmas". However two better known rhymes replace geese with other waterfowl - 

"If ducks do slide at Martinmas
At Christmas they will swim;
If ducks do swim at Martinmas
At Christmas they will slide"

"Ice before Martinmas,
Enough to bear a duck.
The rest of winter,
Is sure to be but muck!"

Of course whether there is any truth in this is hard to say. But certainly cold snaps in November that seem to promise a white Christmas are in my experience often misleading. Perhaps we should start making a note of the weather on St. Martin's Day and discover whether there is any merit in this old folk method of forecasting Christmas weather! 


Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The 'Orribe 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat - A Bull and Cow Story...


Welcome dear fiends once again to the 'Orrible 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat! Step this way folks as once again we sort through assorted dusty boxes of eclectic ephemera, But no, not that one! Never that one! You'd never guess what's lurking in there! Although to be fair, with a few clues you might... Particularly if you mis-spent your youth messing about with any incarnations of tonight's item! For our exhibit today is an enigmatic game requiring a logical mind and sharp powers of deduction, and what's more, one that has long been wrapped up in a few little mysteries of its own! But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back the beginning... 

Now at some point in the 19th century, and no one is exactly sure when, a little game for a couple of players emerged. It was intriguing, challenging and perhaps best of all, as it required just a few scraps of paper and a pencil, it could be played on the sly, at work, in lessons, or in church. We don't know who invented it, and like many such games that have spread through oral culture, it has gone under various names down the years. However these days, it is best known as Bulls and Cows. And it is played like this... 

The first player devises a sequence of four numbers - for example, 4321 - and writes it down where the brave soul that is to be their opponent cannot see it. Player Two then places a guess as to what that number is. Of course, the odds of randomly guessing the sequence correctly first time are millions to one, and therefore Player One will then give some hints - a correct number in the right place in the sequence is a "Bull", while a number that is in the sequence but in the wrong place is a "Cow". Hence to return to our example sequence, 4321, if Player Two had guessed it was 6123, they would be informed that had gotten one Bull and two Cows in that guess. Then armed with this information, Player Two may hazard another, hopefully more informed, guess. And thus by a series of logical deductions, and it has to be said a little luck, the sequence could be discovered. Usually the game is played in an agreed number of rounds, with each player taking turns to set a sequence, and whoever works out the sequences with the overall least number of guesses wins. 



There are several variants, most notable one that sees the game being played with a theoretically simpler to guess  three digit sequence, and a version that replaces a number code with a word. Quite why it is called Bulls and Cows, nobody knows. But I would guess that possibly the name comes from correctly guessing the right number in the right place was termed a hitting a bullseye in the early days of the game. And while we are on a speculative tip, it is also possible that Bulls And Cows inspired another well-known game that could be played on the quiet with pen and paper, Battleships. As they employ quite similar mechanics, one may well have led to the creation of the other, or perhaps both share some earlier guessing game as an ancestor.

As well as being a rather fun little game to while away some spare moments, Bulls and Cows also fascinated mathematicians. For example, it has been calculated that any number can be deduced in a mere seven moves. And given its popularity with folks who love mucking about with numbers, it is perhaps not surprising that Bulls and Cows formed the basis of one of the very first computer games. For way back in 1968, back when computers where huge beasts that took up entire rooms, all bulky cabinets, spinning wheels of tape, and a tendency to want to take over the world if SF shows of the period are to be believed*, a chap named Frank King coded a version that could be played on the mainframe at Cambridge University. A couple of years later in 1970, inspired by King's program, one JM Grochow created a version at MIT. These new computerised incarnations of Bulls and Cows were named simple "Moo". 


Now one of the players of Moo at Cambridge was a fellow called Dr John Billingsley who in the early '70s just happened to have a consultancy with a plastics firm, Invicta. And around the same time, an Israeli postmaster named Mordecai Meirowitz had been inspired by Bulls and Cows to create a board game version of the old favourite that replaced numbers with coloured pegs. Meirowitz had shopped his creation around various toy firms but with no success. I'm guessing that games manufacturers couldn't see the point of making a version of the game with folks could play themselves with just a pencil and scraps of paper.

But as it happened at this particular moment Invicta were looking for to break into the toy market. Their big rivals, Auto Plastics had just gone under after being taken over by the Nestene Consciousness**, and Invicta were looking for a game to be produced that required a lot plastic molded pieces. Having encountered Moo at Cambridge, and having played at an old skool pen and paper version with his children, Dr Billingsley recognised the potential of Meirowitz's game, and thus the boardgame now known the world over as Mastermind was born! 

Making its debut in 1971, Mastermind was an instant success and in the early years of the 1970s pretty much conquered the world. And indeed, it is still going strong today, with new generations discovering the delights of code-breaking and plastic pegs in their spare time. However there have long been questions around Mastermind that not even the best codebreakers have been able to answers... And next time, we shall have a crack to finally answering these enigmatic questions! 


* Probably best not to, to be honest
** At least according to leaked files from U.N.I.T.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

MICROGORIA 48 - The Dracula File


As promised in Microgoria 37 - here's an in-depth review of the new graphic novel The Dracula File from Rebellion. Collecting together all the episodes from classic British horror comic Scream, plus various strips that appeared in specials, at last we have the complete saga of The Dracula File by Gerry Finley-Day and Eric Bradbury! Mr Jim talks about the history of the strip and why no vampire lover should be without this marvellous new hardback collection! 

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - MICROGORIA 48 - The Dracula File

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Tuesday, 31 October 2017

INKTOBER WEEK #4


Day 24 - I'm calling this one "Granny Smith" 



Day 25 - "Before the Storm"

"Something clambered up from the dark - a bloated blanched oval supported on myriad fleshless legs. Eyes formed in the gelatinous oval and stared at him. And he prostrated himself as he had been told, and called the horror's name - Eihort - and under the arched roof amid the nighted tunnels, the bargain was sealed"
from Before the Storm by Ramsey Campbell



Day 26 - "The Red Lodge"
"I saw something slip through the door. It was green, thin and tall. It seemed to glance back at me, and what should have been its face was a patch of soused slime..."
from The Red Lodge by HR Wakefield



Day 27 - "The Headless Horseman"
"When the spooks have a midnight jamboree
They break it up with fiendish glee
The ghosts are bad but the one that's cursed
Is the headless horseman; he's the worst
That's right, he's a fright on Halloween night!"



Day 28 - "The Return of Grimsdyke"
Peter Cushing in Tales From the Crypt 1972



Day 29 - "The Phantom of the Opera"
"He is extraordinarily thin and his dress-coat hangs on a skeleton frame. His eyes are so deep that you can hardly see the fixed pupils. You just see two big black holes, as in a dead man's skull. His skin, which is stretched across his bones like a drumhead, is not white, but a nasty yellow. His nose is so little worth talking about that you can't see it side-face; and the absence of that nose is a horrible thing to look at..."
from  Le Fantôme de l'Opéra by Gaston Leroux



Day 30 - "Prince of Darkness"
Sir Christopher Lee as Dracula


Day 31 - "Portrait of the Artist as a Spooky Man"

And that dear friends brings us to the end of #inktober! This was the first year I actually got it together to give it a shot, and I've had immense fun doing it. For anyone who wants to sharpen their artistic skills or, as it was in my case, revive some long dormant ones, I can highly recommend the simple exercise of doing a sketch a day. It's also a great way to experiment - I had alot of fun trying out some different styles, and while not all of them quite worked, I'm still quite pleased with the results. Certainly I shall be continuing my sketching endeavours into the future from now on!