2017: A year of Cook’s Tours?

cookstour


In episode three of The Grand Tour Jeremy Clarkson and colleagues finally get round to addressing the show’s title by going off in fast, expensive cars around Italy. Their route, they announce, is that which original Grand Tourists might take – Siena to Venice via Vicenza and Florence – and as they zoom through sun-blasted Tuscan hills they explain why. GTers – rich people mostly, but sometimes poor people with rich sponsors – sought to escape the confines of their own cities and regions and experience the best of other cultures. This rarified Renaissance-themed wander had, then, an open-minded, culturally curious and liberal flavour despite being aristocratic and expensive to realise. As such its name is lent to the tv series with considerable justification: Amazon’s production cost a lot of money and the team are obviously enjoying world travel and meeting foreign people.

Ha! ‘Meeting foreign people’? GT is definitely a lot of rich men enjoying swanning about but ‘meeting foreign people’? Banter-Hitler Clarkson enjoys ‘meeting foreign people’ as much as Donald Trump enjoys meeting Mexican shovel makers. He’s as ‘open-minded’ as a bowl of split custard. Fuc. King. Hell.

Well, sorry. But… yes. You might not like it but Clarkson is open-minded because… he listens and responds to what people actually think. And not what people should think. His open-mindedness consists in not pre-judging people; avoiding writing whole swathes of them off as bigots; failing to imagine that they are either stupid (actually, they get it when people fool around) or delicate (actually they’re pretty stable and won’t be mortally wounded by people fooling around), a generosity of spirit commemorated a few days after his sacking when 4 million people (from around the world) instantly signed a petition to get him back. Here was an act of loyalty by an audience who instinctively felt he was on their side, who felt a misdemeanour from anyone else would probably have got them severely reprimanded, not sacked, and that lungeing light-headedly for his producer on an empty stomach wasn’t a last straw but an excuse to dump the man for all the stuff the higher-ups didn’t like about him and all the stuff they did, which was this: his tone.

Clarkson pays tribute to this audience/presenter bond forged at Top Gear in the first few minutes of the new show during a sequence which probably cost millions to film and probably ranks as one of the year’s most feelgood pieces of television. And now, six episodes in, the audience has returned the compliment by making the show – inevitably – very popular. Which brings me to my point. This didn’t happen for the post-Clarkson Top Gear. Simultaneously over-engineered and bodged, the BBC’s box-ticked and peer-reviewed-up-the-wazoo comeback utterly stunk. Oh BBC, how far you have fallen. Is there anything, anything at all you can do to claw yourselves back into our affections?

Well, of course there is. And why stop with just clawing your way back to the same level as a content-delivery company more obsessed by drones than British culture? Jesus Christ, BBC, remember your history. Be realistic, demand the eminently possible. Think about how you survived and renewed over the decades. You might start to make out a pattern involving risk-taking and fearlessness. You weren’t afraid to challenge authority, to reflect the voices of the nation back at their stuffy, entrenched betters. When you saw energy, enterprise and rebellion from the young you encouraged it and invited it in. Illegal pirate radio sparked Radio 1; The rude and impertinent Cambridge Footlights spawned TW3; Monty Python, the Johns Walters and Peel, Danny Baker, were all sucked up from the underground and transformed into national treasures. The disgusting bliss of alternative comedy: trickled out of the Comedy Store and Raymond’s Revue Bar to become a comedy tsunami through The Young Ones, A Kick up the Eighties, Alexei Sayle, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Saturday Night Fry, Cabaret Upstairs – the list goes on and on. Remember all that? What about the reputation conferred on you by the fighting, kicking, biting son of a coal-miner Dennis Potter as the real national theatre? This is a matchless record born of a risk-taking attitude against those who said ‘don’t encourage them, that way lies chaos’. So if you feel a bit scared to reflect the rebellious voices of the present, bear in mind that over time centres of cultural gravity shift and almost always justifiably, for good reason by good people. The loud voices with critical takes on the ‘regressive left’ and its obsession with environmentalism and identity politics might seem insensitive and harsh and opposed to All That Has Been Fought For, but they’re not critical out of cruelty or on a whim. They might seem to trample on sensitivities but criticism can be healthy: treated as robust, people have a natural tendency to match expectations, thereby avoiding the trap of wilting into therapy or medication.

With that in mind, bring back Weird Weekends (your own popular world-touring show from a few decades back). Not, obviously, in the same guise – you couldn’t do now what Louis Theroux did then. As alluded to above, the centre of gravity has shifted on that front. The weirdos and obsessives Louis went round the world to meet and capture as they stumbled over their words and thoughts seemed laughable and isolated to odd pockets of society then, but post-Brexit and post-Trump it’s harder to… what? Look down your nose? Compartmentalise? Yes, they may still be outliers but the distance, the co-efficient of weirdness has shrunk.

No, the brief needs updating. As it happens, the weirdness-shift has exposed a whole new crowd on the other side of the spectrum as sociologically and psychologically fascinating. Consider Gina Miller, the strange woman who’s spending large sums of money in court to derail a democratic decision made by 17.4m more people than her; or just head into academia, you’ll be like a kid in a candy shop. Where to start? My choice would be Michael Mann; extraordinary man. Absolutely extraordinary. Or what about the vastly wealthy ex-vice-president who’s obsessed about everybody else’s consumption habits. Weird celebrities (previously Jimmy Savile and Michael Barrymore) might be the permanently-exercised Father Ted co-writer Graham ‘straight off the deep end’ Linehan or Thom Yorke. Again, there’s a long list.

Of course, as with Louis’s original series the aim would categorically not be to smear. Theroux avoided easy judgements for good reason: no-one is 100% mad or deplorable. He was too interested in people to just sneer at them even if, in the event, Blairite Islingtonians took from his work an invitation to gawp at the awfulness of various redneck-types and ponder on the weird cultural destinations certain paths of evolutionary psychology will pitch us all if we don’t listen to our betters. (But what do you expect from Blairite Islingtonians?) The aim would be to examine the nature of insecurity with a novelist’s curiosity, in this instance the kinds of anxieties that evolve in parallel with growing power and influence. (These worldviews seem to slowly prioritise ‘responsible decision making’ to such pathological levels that maths and science begin to metastasise out of all control and infest politics and ethics like a monstrous, ravening cancer.)

But there would also be a second, equally important aim (possibly even more important aim). What are the big institutions for? They’re there to unite, to bond people with clashing evidence and differences of opinion together in negotiation. If big institutions forget this they betray the people and themselves as they allow a process of polarisation to take hold. Left in the bearpits of Youtube and Twitter our current uppity voices won’t develop and grow but instead fester, and the same will happen for wider society. Pollsters will forever be in the dark about what the hell is going on. One side of the nation will continue to snub the other. Alternatively, imagine what we might learn if, just for once, some sceptical voices on the internet were given the space to grow out of the flame-wars. There is no question this would help us move towards a more rounded understanding of each other.

Come on BBC. After a couple of hundred years of elitist Grand Touring the Thomas Cook Company turned up in the 1840s to offer something similar at affordable prices to the masses and you can do the same now, culturally speaking. There’s a huge opportunity to hear from strong voices online. If 2016 was a year of Grand Tours (a lavishly bank-rolled Clarkson going off round the world to enjoy meeting foreign people; Farage and Trump touring remote psephological lands to take new knowledge back home to a bewildered, bubble-wrapped Westminster and Washington), why not make 2017 a year of Cook’s Tours with the famed little people brought into the process? BBC commissioners and producers, listen: you don’t need Amazon’s riches, you can do this on a shoestring (with the added bonus of embarrassing the hell out of those spendthrifts in the process). The internet is short-circuiting with thinkers, jokers, writers, tweeting detectives, questioners of a wide variety – who will expand your horizons and slap you bang in the middle of the nation’s affections for the price of a cheap weekend in Merthyr Tydfil. Visit them and, even better, invite them back home. Ok, from the thorax: B-B-C! BBC! BBC!


It’s not good enough that the old guard at the BBC, like Charlie Brooker above, humorously cover their arses (after years of wiping in one direction) by shrugging their shoulders and saying it was the bloody echo-chamber’s fault. They got Brexit and Trump wrong, end of. Others didn’t. Why not commission people who had more of an idea where things were going? You know, people in touch with the rest of the world …

… intelligent, talented, uppity working class people with growing popularity?

SOME MOVEMENT ALREADY?

As noted elsewhere on Cliscep, Radio 4 producer Jo Fidgen, who in her Nothing But The Truth interviewed Stephan Lewandowsky on the subject of ‘post-truth’ (but not in the most interesting way available to her) says she’ll read material sent to her by our own Ben Pile. Which is good.

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25 thoughts on “2017: A year of Cook’s Tours?

  1. Well, Ian, you put me to shame for my having a very jaundiced view of the BBC. You see hope, a willingness to listen, to try a different tack, to recognise how remote and arrogant they have become. I just see entrenched, smug, suffocating, anti-intellectual, well-off vampires clinging to poorly examined prejudices. That’s not very nice of me, and so I do hope you are right and I am wrong. The CO2 Alarm Fiasco would be a good place for them to start.

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  2. John, I’m not really particularly optimistic. It can go one of two ways: the online alternative media continues to grow and have more relevance than the mainstream, trouncing the mainstream in terms of numbers and popularity. Or established media can wake up. I’d prefer the latter, as I think it would be more unifying and healthy; online it’s getting polarised and vicious. Nothing wrong with one side going at the other, so long as somewhere down the line somebody thinks again, instead of doubling down.

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  3. “I just see entrenched, smug, suffocating, anti-intellectual, well-off vampires clinging to poorly examined prejudices.”

    THAT good?

    You are a more generous man than I, John!

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  4. Great stuff, but surely you’re not old enough to remember Cambridge Footlights and That Was The Week from the early sixties? Or do they do courses in TV comedy history at university nowadays?

    This was the moment the BBC (and therefore Britain) decided it was OK to make jokes about religion and the royal family. Will we one day be allowed to make jokes about climate science? (When Breitbart comes to Broadcasting House.)

    Ben’s tweet exchange looks hopeful, but we clisceppers have had our hopes of constructive dialogue dashed twice in recent months. Once last August when at
    http://steamtraen.blogspot.fr/2016/08/its-small-world.html
    we tried to explain to the estimable Nick Brown why it was not a good move to coauthor a paper about Debate, Denial, and Skepticism with Michael Mann and Stephan Lewandowsky. He listened patiently to us (and to Steve McIntyre and Jonathan Jones) and signed off saying: “I imagine some of us might meet again at some future point.” Since then, nothing.

    The second occasion involved an article by philosopher Neil Levy last September at
    http://www.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/blog republished at http://theconversation.com/what-do-sugar-and-climate-change-have-in-common-misplaced-scepticism-of-the-science-66296

    Oxford Ethics blog are not used to getting dozens of comments on their blog articles, and their site has been closed because of “technical problems” ever since. Pity there’s no one at the University of Oxford who can fix websites.

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  5. Geoff, while we’re at it, why aren’t you writing for the Guardian? I mean the proper Guardian, when it used to be good? I’ve answered my own question.

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  6. I noticed that in your mockup 2017 cultural Cook’s Tour you include Glastonbury and Hay, but (pointedly?) omit Hull. Why is this?

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  7. Alan: The abrupt sacking of Mike Phelan has to be a good reason. I know I speak for Ian when I say there’s no south-western cultural bias in Cliscep, oh no.

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  8. Ian. I do wonder if you are plagued by a selective memory syndrome. I do not disagree with your diagnosis nor your suggested treatment programme (however I don’t believe the patient will take up your prescription or even recognize its illness). You list memorable programmes of the past and regret that the BBC is not producing the same today. But those choice programmes were plums within a pudding of inferior dross. Today the BBC is producing or is commissioning extremely good drama (I happen to think Happy Valley and Line of Duty are as good as Softly Softly – my previous high point for police drama). This has developed into a downright competition with ITV to the benefit of all viewers. Meanwhile Netflix, Sky and others have joined the party. With respect to Comedy, there seems to be no one out there to match the enormous talent pool of the 1970s. The BBC keeps trying with pilots, but none come close. Perhaps we just have to wait until the talent comes along.

    I am still of the opinion that BBC entertainment is as good as, or in many cases is substantially better than any other english-speaking broadcaster, but some of the pay-for services are coming up fast.

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  9. Alan,

    haha – yes. No need to include Hull, it hasn’t proved itself to be insufferable. Yet.

    Regarding your second point: I agree BBC entertainment is pretty good. Strictly is great, one of those programmes you can bring up in conversation and be 90% guaranteed the other person will have seen it. But BBC Drama is rubbish. Imagine trying to get a script accepted about fracking, something like Edge of Darkness but instead of being critical of the nuclear industry, critical of Friends of the Earth (who are still lying about it) and all the conservative forces keeping it from happening. No chance.

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  10. I have to admit, I made the personal decision to do my bit to defund the BBC over 5 years ago and consequently have not availed myself of its politically biased output ever since – barring the the odd unoffensive Uni Challenge or wildlife program (no longer an option after they closed the iplayer ‘catch up loophole). So this post is not really current for me. I never did listen to Radio 4, which probably has had some very interesting talks over the years, but too much of it seemed to be an exercise in people enjoying listening to the sound of their own voices, whilst not actually saying a lot at all. Radio 3 was enjoyable for a while until it became the target of presenters who also seemed to enjoy listening to the sound of their own voices, most especially when engaging in rapture-inducing repetitions and re-repetitions of that holiest of holy words – ‘Opera’.

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  11. Jaime, it’s a growing club – people either refusing to pay the license fee or giving up on it – according to various comments sections (Spectator, Guido, Breitbart). The BBC needs to learn some lessons from it.

    Radio 4 comedy is the worst. The Now Show is like being in Sunday school, a load of trendy vicars with guitars being ‘amusing’ while sketching out how to live pleasantly and inoffensively and be good little children.

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  12. The news this morning – and I heard it on BBC Radio 4 – is that Nigel Farage is doing a radio talk show on LBC. There was a suggestion that the US ‘shock jock’ style of talk radio may be coming to the UK. If so, it’s another indication of the failings of the Beeb to represent a wide range of views.

    Radio 4’s so-called comedy shows are indeed awful and getting worse – The Now Show and the News Quiz in particular, but there are some others even worse, I can’t recall their names, that are nothing more than political rants. The only ones worth listening to are the classics like ISIHAC and Just a minute.

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  13. Something strange happened to me after putting down my somewhat flippant comment at 8:55am. I got into my car about fifteen minutes later and switched the radio on. Very unusually (normally it’s set to Classic FM, Radio 3 or Radio 5 Live) it was on Radio 4 and I found myself listening to Jim O’Neill presenting brilliantly, I thought, on the many facets of globalisation. As an avid Manchester United follower from childhood Lord O’Neill interviewed a couple of United fans as well as his old boss George Osborne. The old Goldman chief economist coined BRIC of course and he really seems to care about the massive impact of globalisation, as it is called, post-Bretton Woods, in the greatest reduction of poverty the world has ever seen. His interview with the Chinese ambassador was perhaps the most informative of all. But so were all those from north east and north west feeling left behind, all of whom it seems had voted for Brexit.

    The link with Mike Phelan, rejected by Hull’s owners, so disliked by those in the area, even more than the Glazers in Manchester, was only one reason I enjoyed it so much. Congratulations BBC, the presenter and producer Helen Grady. It can be done.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Paul: Isn’t it terribly old hat that Farage is a shock jock on LBC? I’d estimate he’s been doing it for at least three years, just like Katie Hopkins and (less controversially but still subversively) Iain Dale. On the other side of the divide I really like James O’Brien most times I hear him (recently drafted in by the Beeb onto Newsnight). Good outfit for the capital. But maybe I’ve got Farage’s longevity there wrong.

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  15. Paul Oh (deity of your choice) don’t bring “shock-jock” radio to the UK. I spent more than 4 years in the US subject to it (shared drivers’ choices). I still shudder to recall a “discussion” about racial profiling being used by the police with the “jock” being pilloried by his audience. It would be like “Any Answers” but infinitely worse.

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  16. Richard, looking into it more closely, the news stories say that he’s done a few one-off shows before, but now Farage fans can get four hours of fun every week.

    Alan, yes, one thing I was going to say but forgot is that a good cure for whining about the BBC is to spend some time in the US and try watching TV or listening to the radio there!

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  17. Richard. I also listened to and appreciated the Jim O’Neill programme. My point is that there are many informative programmes on Radio 4 of similar quality, but you must pick and choose. But don’t be too picky because you may miss extremely good programmes. Last November I was extremely ill and much of the time could only just about listen to the radio. Some days I experienced a succession of highly interesting and informative programmes, many on subjects that I wouldn’t have believed would have interested me at all. Like all media, real jewels are imbedded within total dross.

    Mike Phelan is not much admired in Norwich either, but weren’t we discussing CULTURE?

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Alan: I’ll probably stick with Radio 5 Live for the spoken word mostly. I like the fact they take official news a tad less seriously and the view of the man/woman in the street more seriously. The funniest thing I heard on radio before Christmas was Nicky Campbell reading out an email from Tony (say) berating children at that time of year, the whiny, annoying, greedy things. You wondered what he was going to do with something that un-seasonal and -PC but he just said very deadpan “That’s Tony, not to be confused with Santa.” Even his female co-host had to suppress an admiring laugh at that. (The banter between the sexes also being a highlight throughout the day.)

    I agree with Ian and others that Radio 4 comedy is mostly unbearable. I still make time for Would I Lie To You on BBC One though. Let’s get those lies and how best to tell them, to fool most of the people most of the time, out in the open! (And wasn’t Tom Courtenay a hoot on the Christmas show, sending up the self-important luvvie and knight of the realm.)

    It wasn’t Mike Phelan I was saying was despised by local Hull fans but the owners – a theme very much in line with O’Neill’s. Culture indeed, of a kind that reaches many more than your average trendy comedy. Foreign (or English) owners ‘asset stripping’ without regard for local tradition really hurts, as my son showed me in his adopted Newcastle not long ago. No apologies for mentioning it.

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  19. The BBC is a political party. It’s not about to change. I’d expect Labour to morph into UKIP before the BBC stops behaving in the way it has for the last 40 years. There’s no pressure for it to see things differently. It doesn’t have to appeal to voters. The BBC staff would say that the way the BBC is funded means that they can be uniquely impartial because they don’t have to chase for ratings but actually it allows them to be totally out of touch with the public. No need to represent the right wing half of the country, no need to represent the old, no need to represent the middle class, no need to represent anyone they don’t like and don’t understand. That goes double for stinky deniers. They get to pump out their party political manifestos and sound bites day in day out and we get to pay them to do it. In a way it’s amazing that the country votes as it does or is remotely sceptical of CAGW.

    Top Gear was a relic from the past but it was also almost entirely Jeremy Clarkson’s work. He was one of the last few nonconformists. To the BBC Top Gear was a formula but they discovered the hard way that it wasn’t that simple. In some ways the rot set in with all those alternative comedies in the 80s. Sure a lot of it was funny but a lot of it was out to offend for the sake of it. Now I love a finely crafted bit of filth but that’s the point, it has to be finely crafted. The BBC, having its mid life crisis just wants to act like a teenager and say nasty stuff and believe in every crackpot theory its older generations disapprove of. Ironically if the BBC does change its mind about CAGW it will be as passionate condemining it as they in their current support.

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  20. Dunno what the fuss about BBC Radio comedy is all about. I have it on all day and it’s fantastic.
    Hancock’s Half Hour, Dads Army, HIGNFY, Jimmy Edwards, Round the Horne, Men From the Ministry, Cabin Pressure, Goon Show, Hut 33 etc and etc.

    Granted, I’m not talking about listening to an actual BBC channel to get all this and I do have to wade thro’ a small amount of adverts about the benefits of smoking certain brands of cigarettes, not being an amber-gambler, keeping a two second gap in traffic, following the country code and the implications of the forthcoming decimalisation of the GBP just to mention a few but, otherwise, it’s a 24×7 feast of old BBC radio comedy ranging from the shockingly bad to the sublimely hilarious.

    Although my usual mechanism to get all this is via my old Kindle Fire, I sometimes listen to it on my PC although perhaps because of my Norton Anti-Virus I do get the occasional connection-dropping more on the latter than the former.

    Here’s my PC link:

    PS – I use the subscription-free versions on both platforms.
    Warning: The broadcast content fully reflects the language of the times and some may find the language employed offensive.

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  21. Who remembers the good old days of “Tomorrow’s World” with Raymond Baxter and James Burke? It gradually sank into the mire of BBC antipathy to science, technology and industry. The BBC understanding of science these days seems little more than parroting Greenpeace press releases and whatever flavour of global warming is going to kill us this week.

    Some years ago I read a BBC executive gently chiding critics who thought standards should have been maintained prior to the programme eventually being axed. He didn’t even pretend that standards had fallen, but appeared quite comfortable with the argument that it was somehow inevitable. What might they have done by spending Jimmy Saville’s wages on some genuine science correspondents?

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  22. Michael Hart. I believe you may have forgotten that Tomorrow’s World was followed by what I consider the finest popular science programme ever – James Burke’s “Connections” where a modern invention was linked through a series of seemingly unconnected inventions into Medieval times. Eventually the different end point devices were connected together in a final programme on the Titan rocket.

    I believe the dumbing down of science programmes is deliberate and you can take the high or low road about it. The low road is that the change is a deliberate chase for ratings, the high road is that it is an attempt to interest more of the public in science. Mrs K is an arts graduate and watches many science programmes because I want to see them. Anything technical and she switches off and does something else. So I suppose the high road is somewhat valid.

    There are still the occasional fascinating science programme.

    I simply hate the practice of pairing up a genuine expert with a comedian (even if the latter has some science background). It cheapens the whole thing.

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  23. Horizon used to be very good, but then they dumbed down the format to a very tedious slow burn process of ‘revelation’ of explanations which would become obvious at least 15 mins earlier to all but the most scientifically ignorant of watchers.

    On climate change, the most notable effort to communicate the science of late was ‘Climate Change by Numbers’, which I think was a valiant effort, but which ultimately failed.

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  24. “Who remembers the good old days of “Tomorrow’s World”…

    Back in the early 1990s a company I was involved with produced promotional material for an outfit that was promoting chlorella, a form of algae, for a number of applications.

    One of their projects involved running a highly modified Perkins diesel engine on dried and powdered chlorella, and appeared on ‘Tomorrow’s World’ as ‘Syd the Symbiotic Diesel’.

    The chlorella was grown in an aqueous solution pumped round large coils exposed to sunlight with CO2 bubbled through it, so the engine could truly be described as running on its own exhaust.

    As I had some experience of automotive engineering, I had some interaction with the engineers and scientists who developed the engine and discussed the various problems – such as the silica in the algae slagging down the exhaust valves – and potential improvements with them. I still have some of the promotional material somewhere.

    Unfortunately, the research – although promising – for various intriguing reasons never got any further…

    And thereby hangs a very interesting tale indeed…

    As to James Burke, I met him a number of times when I was in London, a very interesting gentleman indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. I was very impressed with James Burke’s series but he lost a lot of his shine when he was on The Adventure Game and turned out to be a bit of an idiot.

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