9 reasons why your business needs to be more like John Lennon


John Lennon ink drawing 1967

John Lennon from 1967 by Ayd Instone

John Lennon may have left us 31 years ago, but his legacy is not only alive and well – it’s making a lot of money.

• It has an annual income of over £10M which adds to the existing £400M already banked.

• Lennon is number one in the world for rock memorabilia. Any handwritten lyrics usually sell for in excess of £400,000. In June 2010, handwritten lyrics to A Day in the Life sold for £810,000. His simple line drawings sell for around £4000

• 1 million people visit Liverpool each year to follow the Beatles trail, spending around £48M while they’re there.

• There are over 5000 books on Lennon currently in print. There are numerous stage musicals, plays and tribute acts performing around the world.

You may scoff and say, “of course there’s money, he’s an icon, a legend, due in part to the obvious fact that he’s dead. It’s not like my business at all, a completely different thing.”

But you’d be wrong. Just think about what that really means…

The aim of any business is to make money and the aim of any business owner is for that business to make money without them being there. Lennon has achieved that.

He did, in fact achieve it in his lifetime and were he alive and well today he would be making even more money. The Beatles were repeatedly offered $1M in the mid 1970s to reform, even just for one day. They couldn’t be bothered. In one such offer, they were asked live on a television show, just to turn up to the studio before the show finished. Oddly, Paul McCartney was visiting John in New York at the time. The story goes, they got as far as putting their coats on, but then, feeling a bit tired, decided to stay in and order pizza instead.

But let’s put to one side the thoughts of Lennon and the Beatles being gods with the Midas touch, leave for a moment the wonderful music and the messages of peace and love and look at some of the practical aspects that have turned John Lennon from rock ‘n’ roll performer into a massive, profitable business empire.

Lennon’s legacy is a type of business that if we weren’t clouded with the magic and beauty of his original product: entertainment and the fact that so many of us equate creativity with some other purpose other than making money, we’d see what it is. It’s a franchise.

The Lennon franchise includes those heritage tours, the museums and exhibitions, the sales of his artwork and writing, the repackaging of his back catalogue plus the ever expanding business in tribute acts, musicals, biopics and books created by an ever increasing pool of fans, friends and relatives. They may all working to keep the name alive but in the process have created  a branded merchandise franchise not too different to George Lucas’s ever expanding Star Wars (do you remember when it was just a film?) or even, if I can bring myself to say it, MacDonald’s.

There are some key choices that Lennon made, as part of the Beatles and after that helped to grow the Beatles, and then his own solo success. He also made more big, and more devastatingly bad decisions in his short career than the rest of us usually make in a lifetime.

Here are 9 great decisions and actions he used to great effect:

1. Choose one niche, do one thing really well, irrespective of what everyone else is doing

It’s hard to believe now, but when the Beatles performed their peculiar version of Rock ‘n’ Roll to audiences in Liverpool and then Hamburg in 1960 to 1962 they had chosen an obscure and almost irrelevant out-of-date musical style. Rock ‘n’ Roll was a fad that had lasted from 1957 to 1959, mainly imported from America by the likes of Bill Haley and Elvis. Many of the other acts we know about today in the pantheon of the genre were not too widely known and by 1960, rock ‘n’ roll had all but vanished to be replaced by crooning pretty boys singing safe, boring Tin Pan Alley formula songs. The Beatles chose what they liked and what they were good at, irrespective of market forces. They were told by the record company Decca, “groups with guitars are on the way out…” and they took no notice.

2. Appoint people to your board who are better than you

The American author and speaker Bill Stainton puts it best in his book about the Best Decisions the Beatles Ever Made where he points out what bigger and decision could a teenager like Lennon could make than to allow a cleverer, more talented, prettier musician into his own band with whom he’d have to share the limelight with? Lennon knew that the Beatles would be better with McCartney. His ambition and decision making process was not clouded by pride.

3. Charm the media with natural wit – not a fake persona

One of the keys to the Beatles immense success was the way they charmed the World’s media. Lennon was the best at it. It worked because he was always himself. Whereas McCartney was always awkward and embarrassed in front of the cameras, Lennon appeared natural and honest. He could be cruel, cheeky and very funny. The Beatles became quickly seen as young men of interest and influence, not just grinning pop singers. Their opinions were sought on a variety of intellectual topics that before the Beatles appeared, would be unthinkable to ask a mere singer or musician. Lennon’s honesty and integrity came across and it connected people to him.

4. Bring your interests and expertise into your money making products and services to make them more unique and more compelling

The towering beacons of the 1960s were undoubtedly the Beatles and Bob Dylan. What’s fascinating is how they admired, hated, loved and influenced each other. Lennon inspired Dylan to expand his music arrangements into new areas and Dylan inspired Lennon to expand his lyrics into new areas. Dylan couldn’t understand how Lennon could write such interesting, deep, funny and clever prose in his two books (In His Own Write, 1964 and A Spaniard in the Works, 1965) and yet kept that use of language, wit and allegory out of his song lyrics. Literary reviewers had likened the poems in In His Own Write to Edward Lear. High praise. And yet Lennon was still writing songs about banal topics as ‘diamonds and rings’.

Lennon took this observation seriously. The first results were the introspective coded lyrics of I’m A Loser (Beatles For Sale, 1964) and You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (Help!, 1965). These were followed by the creation of songs whose theme was not romantic love such as The Word (Rubber Soul, 1965) and the mighty Tomorrow Never Knows (Revolver, 1966). From then on, Lennon’s songs explored obscure themes of existence and thoughtful psychology with only the exception of songs directed inspired by his relationship with Yoko. Look at the internal questioning of Strawberry Fields Forever, the dreamlike Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the wordplay of I Am the Walrus and the surreal imagery of Happiness is a Warm Gun.

5. Be prolific

From 1963 to 1966 the Beatles averaged every year two national tours and a world tour, 3 to 4 number one singles, 2 top charting EPs, 2 number one albums, a film and a few short promo films, a Christmas show, numerous tv appearances and a weekly radio show, every year. That’s prolific.

6. When you have nailed your first key product or service, move onto the next natural one. Constantly change by evolving

Having conquered the hit song, Lennon and McCartney started selling their spare songs and writing songs for other performers to sing. This increased their earnings considerably. Lennon then entered the world of book publishing with his collection of funny surreal verse, another win. Then they entered the movie business producing four hit films, A Hard Days Night (1964), Help! (1965), Yellow Submarine (1968) and Let It Be (1970). The Beatles left frustration and feelings of inadequacy with other rock musicians in their wake. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was frustrated with his own groups inability to change and evolve their sound as quickly as as unexpectedly as the Beatles. There was a secret competition to out-do each others albums that came to a head when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band causing Brian Wilson to give up and have a nervous breakdown. He shelved the Beach Boys album Smile (it was finally released in 2011) feeling it wasn’t enough. He knew that the Beatles sound was constantly evolving. “Each Beatle album sounded different” he said.

7. If it’s boring, stop doing it

Like everyone of his generation, Lennon wanted to be a film star, among other things. After getting the taste for it in the first two Beatle films, he agreed to be in Richard Lester’s How I Won the War in 1966. He described the experience as being “as boring as hell” and would not appear in a movie again (bar the Beatles own biopic, Let It Be.)

8. Marketing is simple if you keep it simple

Lennon was a genius at marketing. Just think about the ‘Bed in for Peace’ from 1969. It’s still talked about today, 42 years later.

9. Seek out new experiences and new muses

John Lennon ink drawing 1974

John Lennon by Ayd Instone

John had a number of creative breakdowns, each of which he recovered from with something new. The first was perhaps after the whirlwind of touring as a performing Beatle came to an abrupt end in 1966. He, like the others, felt defined by being a live performer with a full schedule. What was he to do now? After throwing himself into the red herring of film acting, Lennon and the Beatles found that experimenting in the recording studio wold give them a new direction. It worked and a new level of creativity was reached.

The next breakdown was sometime in late 1967. Sgt. Pepper had been a massive success, as had every other piece of music that had come from the studio experimentation. But by the end of the year Lennon was creatively drained. His home life was at its lowest ebb. The increased use of drugs was having an effect on his ego resulting in a massive loss of self confidence and feeling of failure. Added to this was the death of the Beatles manager and Lennon’s close friend, Brian Epstein. He was questioning the meaning of everything and losing his purpose.

There were two parts to his escape from this low. One was the getaway: the Beatles retreat to India. Intended as a spiritual retreat, it re-fueled each Beatle’s creativity, composing so many songs that their next LP would have to be a double, The Beatles aka The White Album (songs from India also made it onto the Let It Be and Abbey Road albums the following year as well as onto Lennon, McCartney and Harrison albums for many years to come.)

The other aspect to Lennon’s creative revival was Yoko. Many people cite Lennon’s pairing with Yoko as the worst thing that could have happened, and the reason for the Beatles split. The truth is more complex. It’s true that Yoko replaced Paul as Lennon’s main collaborator. It did mean the fab four would never be the same, but that had been true throughout their career anyway. Yoko started off as John’s new muse, his inspiration, then became his competition and then his business manager and finally Empress of his legacy.

After the Beatles split, each Beatle suffered heavily with lack of purpose, low self confidence, doubt and criticism. In many ways John suffered most, in part because George and Ringo came off, initially, so well in comparison. It must have confused and galled Lennon that Harrison, freed from the restrictions of two songs per LP in the dominated world of Lennon-McCartney, had just released a triple LP of critically acclaimed material. Ringo became (briefly) the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Paul carried on being Paul, now teamed with his new wife Linda, and was having melodic hit after melodic hit. And yet there he was, the instigator and powerhouse of Beatlemania, struggling to enter the charts, estranged from a hostile press, addicted to Heroin and within a few years separated from his second wife. (He and Yoko nearly divorced, their 18 month separation was re-branded as ‘The Lost Weekend’ by Lennon after their reconciliation of 1974).

His recovery from all this took the rest of his life to turn around. First, during The Lost Weekend, he was re-aquatinted with old friends and collaborators, healed old wounds and wrote and performed for fun. He hung out with Ringo, Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, Bowie, Elton John and Mick Jagger, but it was his oldest friend that would seal his fate to create the final chapter in his life. He’d been seeing Paul McCartney on and off in 1974 (they even had a jam together with Harry Nilsson and Stevie Wonder). John was ready for a reunion and Paul had the choice, after a conversation he’d had with Yoko, that he could get the Beatles back together, or, relay how Yoko felt and what John needed to do to heal their marriage. Paul chose to help John and Yoko. They got back together in 1974. The Beatles reunion was postponed for the next opportunity, but by the time it was planed to happen in 1981, it was too late, John had gone.

But returning to John’s creativity breakthrough, it needed two elements, missing from the early 70s, which he finally found in the last years of his life. One was security. At last his finances were in order. His lifestyle was healthy, his home life was stable. He has a proud ‘househusband’ and father, bringing up his son Sean. The second was adventure. he sailed a boat single-handed through a storm in Bermuda and he thought of returning to the stage with new material (plus greatest hits of his solo and his Beatle hits) in the new year of 1981. The first fruits of his renewed creativity gave us the LP Double Fantasy and the posthumous tracks on Milk and Honey. There would have been much more to come if history had taken a different course on 8th December 1980.

In the next article I’ll discuss more of the best business decisions Lennon ever made plus look at some of the most devastating bad ones that almost brought the myth, and the money, crashing down.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


Advertisements

The power of stories and how to create creators


Rapunzel cake

Mabel's fairytale cake - with Rapunzel

I’ve become fascinated by the concept of the change from story consumer to story creator (just as I have previously written about the change from music listener to music composer).

Most people would consider themselves a reader, but how many consider themselves a writer? Everyone should, because everyone is (or was, as we’ll see).

Storytelling is not just the most important activity in our lives, storytelling IS our lives.

This is no more noticeable than with my eldest daughter who has just turned 4. Stories are her certainly her life. She wants to be read stories all the time, always wanting to squeeze one more before school or before bedtime. (I found it interesting that she doesn’t use the noun ‘book’, hence her brother, when he did something wrong was “in the bad stories”.)

But now something has changed. She is creating her own stories:

“One day there was a princess in a high castle and she had short hair. And one day a prince rode by and she let down her hair and she fell down because her hair was short and the prince kissed her and she woke up, the end.”

This is obviously a variation on Rapunzel, but what is interesting in that Mabel was aware of what the hair meant and chose to modify the length, negating the original premise and causing a new drama of its own.

This was followed by another variation:

“There was another story with a princess with short hair in a castle which was lower so she could reach the prince. The end.”

This version is a further modification, removing the obstacle to the princess’s desires.

Princesses are the main feature of Mabel’s story worlds but unlike in the real world they are not the female offspring of reigning monarchs but creatures of the same genus as fairies, angels, pixies, witches and girls. They inhabit worlds of magic, are beautiful, wear beautiful dresses, sometimes have wings and sometimes are on the look out for a prince. Sometimes cats have been added to the pantheon giving us the curious creature of a cat fairy princess which Mabel wanted to be dressed up as for a fancy dress party.

But what is a story? Is it an account of past events of a related plot, that link together to create meaning to inform, to entertain or educate? Like any whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, as story is more than the facts, events and characters that inhabit it. This ‘extra’ something is the emotion that the story invokes, the questions it raises (or answers), the connection it makes to our lives by which – and this is the most important bit – we measure and create our own lives.

We must never, ever underestimate the power or stories in our lives, especially with children. Stories provide snatches of narrative and context by which we build our own life biography.

Our constant task in life is to make sense of the seemingly random events that happen to us. Deep down we know there can never really be any coincidences or purposeless randomness. Everything that happens to us MUST happen for a reason. That ability to put facts into context (which is what a story is) is hard wired into our very being.

If, when we can’t weave the story, when we can’t find the meaning, we enter that condition we call depression. In that rehabilitating, powerless state we are not depressed at all, we have lost the thread of the story, we have lost significance of ourselves within our life story and we have lost our meaning.

A life with its meaning and significance is never a depressed one, no matter what seemingly sad and shocking events happen in it.

The loss of a loved one, death, illness, failure – these are the things that can make us depressed if we loose the thread of the story. This is why, when times are at their toughest, that humanity conjures up the next chapter of the story, the reason for the sudden unexpected event, the meaning behind the seemingly unfair or random change. We invent serendipity, we invent superstition, magic, divine and demonic forces. We breath life into the gods.

As adults we consume stories in the forms of news, gossip, cinema, television and radio as well as in novels. Few of us perhaps create those type of stories but we are all still storytellers everyday in our work; communicating our ideas to others, recounting recent events to friends and family. Perhaps we’re not aware that we are not just readers and consumers of these stories. We weave their meaning with the transcript of our own lives and position ourselves in relation to them.

This could be from aligning ourselves with the views of a newspaper columnist, politician, rock star or even a standup comedian, buying into their beliefs and stories and allowing them to run along side our own, giving us a particular framework, political, moral or spiritual with which to run the events of our lives.

Sometimes a particular story, or version of a story, is so potent that it becomes so interwoven with our lives that it defines the direction our life story takes and modifies behavior.

One of the worlds most influential stories in history that has inspired lives for over two thousand years has to be that of the carpenters son who turned out to be God’s son who was rejected by his people, put to death but came back to life. Within that particular tale there are stories that are re-told and relived over and over again: the Last Supper is retold every Sunday in every Church as the service of Communion. The Passion of Christ, his trial, suffering and death is relived every Easter as is his birth in the nativity every Christmas.

But more recent, or more humble stories can and do have transformational effects too.

I’ve known teenagers who changed the direction of their lives to become teachers after seeing the film, The Dead Poets Society. That same story inspired Steve Jobs of Apple in his promotion of the Apple Mac computer as a creative tool in the Think Different campaign.

Star Wars figures C£Po, R2D2, Darth Vader, Princess LeiaTo my generation of children, the story of Star Wars, which was in effect a re-telling of ancient fairy stories, was so potent in its splendor as an exciting alien tale, that it entered our consciousness. It provided what all fairy stories provide; a moral template for good and evil, the concept of the hero’s journey, the quest, where obstacles must be overcome and sacrifices made. The characters are archetypal, but still colourful. Some adults at the time found it hard to see the depth in it and even with the mania that surrounded it’s original release where people queued around the block to get into cinemas, would not have predicted its longevity. Even its creator George Lucas didn’t know the secret of the success of the original film (and the two subsequent films that formed the original trilogy). The prequels that followed twenty years later lacked something. Even though they were more spectacular and exotic that the originals there was perhaps a lack of depth or mystery and less room for the imagination to weave within the story. This isn’t surprising or unusual. It’s not the artists job to understand their art. It is the job of the audience.

In 1977, a colleague of my Dad’s was round at our house. He’d been to see the original ilm, as had nearly everyone, to ‘see what al the fuss was about’. The opening scene, as you may remember features no human characters. For the first ten minutes we are expected to engage with a gold metal man and a walking, twerping dustbin on wheels in the white corridors of a spaceship that has been swallowed by a giant spaceship. Baddies appear in the form of white plastic-clad soldiers, their faces hidden by helmets, led by a black cloaked pantomime villain compete with black skull-like mask. No wonder Frank walked out after 10 minutes after seeing this rubbish.

But that’s not what we children saw. As a six and a half year old I saw the fear and trepidation of the gold robot. I saw the determination of the small domed headed clever robot. I saw that they were the characters we were engaging with and that they were carrying the story and that the humans and stormtroopers fighting in the background were incidental their story, the goodies, our friends. After 10 minutes we knew that C3PO had reluctantly agreed to take part in an important mission he didn’t understand. We knew that R2D2 carried secrets that must be kept from the baddies. Children have the ability to see a story, to see the elements of characterisation, emotion and motivation in what to the adults were inanimate objects. In short, children’s imaginations are less literal, more hungry for meaning, more powerful. Adults want it all on plate, often too bored and in need of instant gratification and explanation to actually fire up their long unused imagination.

So many modern stories, designed for children, fail to engage in the way a fairy tale can because they lack the depth of meaning that the child can find for themselves and use the story, as it was intended, as a tool to find answers to their own problems.

Boring, literal, obvious stories are at risk of quenching the fire of a child’s imagination. If they haven’t found the tools to engage with objects and people to begin creating their own stories early enough, they may switch off their creativity and become uninterested vessels for easy stories, flashes, bangs and the oh-so-quick quick editing of fast-food dull television, just like so many tedious adults.

This is why stories for children should not be too safe, too sanitised or too obvious. We, as parents and teachers must try not to explain the meaning of such tales but encourage the child to search for and find their own meaning, which may change with subsequent readings and at different points in their lives. This is the creative process of the transition from reader to writer, from consumer to creator.

Our job is to help facilitate these new creators. By reading a good story, a child’s mind becomes co-creator with the original author. This is the first stage to a fulfilling, meaningful, self-directed life of significance.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


Why do you do what you do?


Doctor Who Target books

Some of my favourite Doctor Who books

Have you ever stopped to wonder why do you do what you do? I don’t mean just the big picture like ‘I wanted to work in a big/small/famous company/charity doing a job description’ or ‘I always had a dream to do x’ or even ‘I have a talent for it..’.

I mean examining the actual tasks that you undertake in doing that role. Which bits do you find motivating and easy. I believe it’s in these micro-tasks that you’ll find the tendencies and traits that reveal what your ‘talent’ actually is.

I loved Doctor Who novels. They were novelisations of the television series adventures, often by the original scriptwriter and published by a company called Target between 1972 and 1990. In the 1970s and 80s they were the only way to re-live stories that had been on television. Doctor Who was very, very rarely repeated and stories weren’t released on video until the late 1980s and even then, most of the earlier black and white stories from the 1960s had been thrown away by the BBC. So the novels remained the definitive versions.

They triggered a few interesting traits in me. The first being the most dramatic. When I got my first one, age 7, I couldn’t read it. I had to learn to read, the book motivated me to learn.

The second was the concept of collecting. I didn’t just want to read them. I didn’t just want to re-read them, I wanted to collect them and keep them together on my shelf and sought out missing ones for my collection. By the late 80s when I had a computer that could print, I printed out a list of all the televised adventures with their number of episodes and broadcast dates and a box to tick when I had the book of that story. It was printed on a dot-matrix printer on that roll paper that had holes down the side. I stuck the list, which was 3 foot long, on my wardrobe door. The tick boxes by the way were colour coded: Red for Hartnell, Orange for Troughton, Yellow for Pertwee, Green for Tom Baker, Cyan for Davison and Blue for Colin Baker. (McCoy was added later in purple.)

The third trait was that I studied the design of the covers. I noticed that the early ones were the best, with highly graphical representations of the elements of the story drawn by Chris Achilleos. I noticed that the Doctor Who logo had changed through the years.

Doctor Who Target books

All my Doctor Who Target novelisations

And then there were the spines. The spines were my favourite part of the books. It was because that’s what you saw when you displayed them on the shelf. I noticed that the design of the spines had changed too and that if I displayed them in publication order, I could see the evolution. They used the same typeface, in various colours on a white spine for the most part until the early 80s when the spine and back cover became a colour. Sometimes the typeface was a condensed version, or smaller size to fit on the longer story titles. The Target logo started of big and in colour and got smaller and became white or black in the later years. But I didn’t display them in publication order. I ordered them in broadcast order, from November 1963 to October 1989.

In 1983 Target did a thing that infuriated me. They started numbering the books, “This book is number 60 in the Doctor Who Library” it said on the inside and had a number printed in a different typeface to the spine text on the spine. The reason this was so annoying was that the numbers represented the order that they had published the book and they applied the numbers retrospectively to the older books on their reprints (often replacing the great Chris Achilleos artwork with something inferior and the crummy late 1980s logo). But even that wasn’t the problem. It was that they’d numbered the books, published prior to the numbering idea alphabetically and then consecutively from that pint onwards. So The Abominable Snowman was ‘Book Number 1 in the Doctor Who Library’ and yet the story that followed it in broadcast order or publication order had no connection at all except that it began with A. If I was to follow this obscure system I’ve have two unconnected systems and the books in apparent random order on the shelf. This was intolerable. On top of this, Douglas Adams refused to novelise his three Doctor Who stories and Terry Nation had withdrawn the rights to two of the early Dalek stories so they would always be gaps on five books in my collection. I ignored the numbers and kept to broadcast order.

Doctor Who Target books

Here are some spines. Hang on, they’re in random order!

So what does this tell me about what I do now. The love of books is still there. The ‘collection’ reveals itself in my work as a drive for order and completeness. The interest in the covers revealed itself to be an interest in graphic design and illustration, especially on products like books. The interest in the spines also revealed a trait for accuracy and systems that have meaning.

It should be no surprise that a large part of my work involves all those traits. It’s what I’ve always done. What traits do your early interests reveal and do you incorporate them into your daily routines and your work?

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com



The Memory Cheats?


One of my Dalek drawings, aged 14

Can we trust what we remember? Can we be sure that what we saw is what really happened, or does ‘reality’ not really exist unless we remember it?

Perhaps there is no truth, and no real shared reality. How can we really ever be so sure if there can only ever be our interpretation of it…

There’s a joke amongst fans of the television series Doctor Who that if you want to wind them up all you have to do is say, ‘the memory cheats’.

It’s a phrase that came from the producer of the programme throughout the 1980s, John Nathan Turner, who had the arduous task of updating the programme for the new decade. Some say he made too many changes too fast which gave fandom the idea, for the first time, that the programme ‘wasn’t as good as it used to be’.

Fans cited that the stories were more gripping, the production values higher and the acting better. They claimed the programme in days gone by was grittier, more meaningful, more realistic and more adventurous.

Nathan-Turner’s response to this was that the ‘fans’ who were now a few years older than when they were watching in the mid-seventies as children, were remembering the older episodes as better that they actually were. This was of course very possible and since the old episodes from the 1960s and 70s were never repeated, there was no way to check either way.

What Nathan-Turner had underestimated was that home video revolution was about to begin and shortly after his words were spoken he would find himself having to eat them.

Episodes of Doctor Who from what was now being referred to as its ‘Golden Age’ were fast becoming available for all to see. It was then pretty obvious to all that 1975’s ‘Pyramids of Mars’ with Tom Baker was indeed a better televisual experience all round than 1988’s ‘Silver Nemesis’ with Sylvester McCoy.  By 1989 more people bought the videos of the old stuff than were watching the new stuff on tv and the programme was cancelled by the BBC after 26 years.

John Nathan-Turner died in 2002 and never got to see the massively successful re-launch of the programme in 2005. However the successes and failures of his 10 years as producer were key to making the reborn version a success. Russell T Davis knew that you can’t go back and pander to what we thought was good 30 years ago; the new Doctor Who could not be overly nostalgic or self-consciously retro, it had to appeal to a new audience. But at the same time, with, by 2005 all the existing previous 25 years of the programme out on video, the audience would be able to make a direct comparison with the high water marks of the programme’s past. Davis got the balance right and with an average of nearly 10 million views tuning in each week, Doctor Who continues to be the BBCs most profitable programme and has lasted seven years so far.

But there’s still something about John Nathan-Turner comment, back in the mid eighties that niggles…

When we view the best of the episodes from the 1960s, 70s or 80s, there isn’t really a lot different between them, the production values are fairly consistent across the 26 years. There are a lot of good monsters and a lot of very, very poor monsters in every era of the old show (although there were never wobbly sets as is often insinuated). The main difference between the episodes is that some stories are better than others (and it does appear that there were a larger number of more consistent compelling, gripping stories in certain earlier eras of the programme than the late 1980s.) But it’s only when we compare an episode from the new series with, let’s say the best of the old series that something else, something new becomes apparent. There are notable differences.

Firstly there’s the quality of the picture. Before 2000, most BBC programmes were recorded in an aspect ratio of 4:3, the shape of your old television. Since then all recording has been filmed in widescreen, 16:9, giving a bigger, wider picture. Old programmes look odd sat in a square on a new tv, or get stretched to fill it. Since 2010, the BBCs flagship programmes have been filmed in HD, a higher resolution than the standard broadcast quality used since 1970 when colour was introduced.

The old series was recorded on film (for exterior location scenes) or video (for studio scenes) with multiple cameras. This means that the programmes was effectively filmed in the studio as if it was a play. The actors acted out the story and the director and the vision mixer sat up in the gallery and switched between the many cameras filming the action in the studio below. The old series (as all television drama of the period) has the feel of a live play, it is often slow, the actors voices sound echoey, there are mistakes made and lines fluffed but there are kept in as it would often be too time consuming to reshoot the entire scene.

In the 1960s it was so expensive and time consuming to rewind and re-record video that many mistakes were left in such as Daleks zooming into the set, unable to stop and crashing into the opposite wall of the set. The first Doctor, WIlliam Hartnell played the character as a cantankerous old man, but some of his characteristics weren’t acting as he struggled sometimes to remember lines, most famously saying that the Daleks would destroy a planet leaving it “like a burnt cinder, hanging in Spain….. in space”.

The new series by comparison is filmed just like a cinema motion picture, with one film camera, one shot at a time, with each shot perfected before the next angle is filmed. This gives a very different look to the finished programme.

But perhaps the most obvious and startling difference between the old and new series is the fact that the new series takes advantage of being processed digitally allowing computer effects to be added later. In the old series, almost all effects had to happen right there, live in the studio. It wasn’t until the mid 70s when we actually saw laser beams from Dalek guns or from K9’s nose.

And this is the point where we see how ‘the memory cheats’. So many Doctor Who fans of the programme from the 60s and 70s would swear that they’s seen laser beams from Dalek guns as far back as 1964, but they’d be wrong. The story implied a better reality than was actually there.

On New Years Day, 1972, the Daleks appeared on television for the first time in colour, in a new Doctor Who adventure, The Day of the Daleks. This story was recently used as an example by physiologists looking into to concept of memory and how it works.

Dalek drawing

One of my Dalek drawings, aged 13

At the climax of the story, the Daleks invade Earth, coming out of a railway tunnel, flanked by their ogre-like warriors the Ogrons. They march slowly forward, firing their weapons at the UNIT solders who are defending a large country house, protecting a politician the Daleks have come to exterminate.

What’s obvious to us now, watching 40 years later is that there are only three Daleks in this ‘assault’. There are flashes and bangs of live explosives, but no laser beams. And yet the memory of those that watched, aged 5 to 10 distinctly remember seeing the most exciting invasion force they could possibly imagine.

What this highlights is a number of interesting insights into how memory works and how it, in some ways does ‘cheat’.

When we see events, we don’t record them in memory. What we remember is snapshots of images and emotions where those images and emotions have meaning and significance to us. So a child watching in 1972 would remember the exciting bits with the Daleks but not the boring bits with the politicians at UNIT HQ.

But since the programme consisted of four 25 minute episodes broadcast over four weeks and never seen again, the child’s re-imagining of what they thought they’d remembered becomes part of the memory. At that time, there were few books and magazines about Doctor Who so any reference such as in the Radio Times (Day of the Daleks was heralded with an exciting illustration on the front cover) would have been memorable and that would have been incorporated into the memory of the events. As too would be the novelisation of the story, published a few years later which differed in many respects to the broadcast story (it could afford to many more than just three Daleks in the final scene). This is known as ‘blended memory’ where various sources are mixed together to form what appears to be a single memory.

So was John Nathan-Turner was right all along? The memory does ‘cheat’ in a way. What it shows it that a compelling story can act as a trigger or seed for the imagination which will them embellishes it to form a more exciting and memorable memory worth remembering.

Most people today tend to live ‘literal’ lives, hell bent on thinking that there is one ‘truth’ and that there is only one all-encompassing meaning to everything. Most people are reductionist and anti-paradoxical, searching for and expecting cold facts, thinking that bare logic is better than personal meaning and experiential significance. I believe they are wrong.

I’ve used Doctor Who as an example here, because it’s a clear example for me to explain, but I could have used anything that creates memory and fires imagination such as football, religion or music, all of which are enveloped in magic, myth and paradox.

Is Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks an irrelevant, old-fashioned, poorly produced an conceived children’s programme that is as corny and unbelievable as it is boring? Or is it an exiting adventure about the dangers of time travel, the nature of terrorism and freedom fighters, and the fear of totalitarianism?

It is of course both and neither depending on its personal connection to your imagination (as with everything). The memory doesn’t ‘cheat’ at all – it creates our reality from the meaning and significance of the events that happen to us.

We need to face the fact that there is no truth, and no real shared reality except the ones we create which are always slightly different from each other. How can anyone of us every be so sure that we’ve got it right when there can only ever be our own interpretation of reality. Perhaps if we realised this and accepted it, just maybe we’d all get along just a bit better.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


Why do we remember what we remember?


Snow in SherburnSometimes I feel as if every point in my life is all happening right now, all at once and it’s just the bit I chose to focus on that defines the present.

Why do I remember such detail of one ordinary day 30 years ago but can’t recall cleaning my teeth last night? Why do the years pass by, blur and overlap? For some seemingly important events, we struggle to pin them down within a three year margin.

Yet other memories, when we step back into them, we find ourselves right back there, fitting snugly back into our younger skin, our smaller, more agile bones, with perhaps a more inquisitive or sharper mind, living that so-called past it as if it was the here and now, living a life with more time yet to come than time that has passed by.

As I write this it is not January 2012 but January 1982. I’ve woken up to the glaring bright light of the sunshine at the front of the house, through my window, where it is reflected off the blinding snow. There is darkness at the back of the house where the drifts have blown up to cover the downstairs widows. We can’t open the patio doors.

Round at Sean’s house, the drifts are so deep that he wants to jump out of his bedroom window into the snow, just a few feet below. His dad shouts for him not to, “the car’s under there!” he yells. It was true, although there was no sign of their burgundy Vauxhall Cavalier mk1 now. Just the white. For the rest of the day, and the next few weeks, Sean and I explore a new arctic wilderness. Everything has changed. There is no boundary between path and road, field and street. Just pure, untouched white. We build caves and igloos and navigate new uncharted territory until new snowfall and blizzards drive us back.

Sherburn Village, three miles out from Durham in the North East of England, resides on a hill, making it prone to being cut off in the winter by deep snow drifts that blow off the fields around, covering the sleepy village in a snug blanket of pure white. It is a great winter this year. One to remember.

The snow stays until March. Even now there are giant mounds or balls of dirty ice, taller than us, at the end of every road and in the playground for us to climb on.

Winter turns to spring and it’s not until after Easter before my class go on our long anticipated nature trip to look for tadpoles. Although I know it’s far to late to hope to find any. The walk has been delayed for various reasons, the latest being that have to see the school dentist. She’s given us small red sweets that when you chew them your mouth goes all red but it shows up the plaque on your teeth. I don’t see any plaque but we all look like vampires for the day. Then, after this annoying postponement the day has finally come when we can all march off down the country lane to look for our pond life.

The country lane is a black tarmaced road running through open fields and hills. The road is very long and strangely, you always feel warm riding or walking down it.

It starts at the top of our estate and runs a long way leaving our village behind and eventually leads onto the next. The road is lined with bushes. At certain periods there are gaps where you can get into the fields. About a third of the way down, a big steep hill drops down and after another hundred metres past that a smaller hill drops down. It had been impassible with the snow earlier in the year. Then, on a corner to the right is a grass verge, a metre wide by a fence. If you climb over this fence you can get down into a tunnel which goes under the road like a subway. Through the tunnel runs the red stream, the beck after which the village was named. Sherburn means ‘clear stream’. But the water is orange because of some kind of clay so not clear at all. The village should really be called Dirtybrownburn. On the left of the tunnel and steam and a little way above is a path leading to a farm. Another farm is on the right. Beyond is the enormous slag heap from the disused pits which looks like a terrifying mountain in the shape of a giant slug. It has many names like ‘Death Hill’ and ‘Danger Mount’. The hill has very steep sides and no grass grows on its grey shingly sides except at the very top. On the top it’s always very windy and thousands of grasshoppers live there, all different colours. You can try, but you can never catch them. Also on the top is an iron air-raid shelter from the Second World War, full of rubbish, rags and a broken vacuum cleaner. We had had a plan once, to clear it out and turn it into some sort of den, a secret base or an attraction like a cinema or ghost tour. We’re warned not to go there by my next door neighbour who tells us about a similar old air-raid shelter. It also had the same sort of roof made of corrugated iron which had collapsed, cutting in half the bodies of all the children playing in it. We don’t go there again after hearing that.

I love waking down the country lane and now we were off at last on what will be our last nature trip with the school. It isn’t long before we march single file off the road and over a field to where the beck splits and has created loads of tributaries and marsh areas. This is where we will find our exotic animals. We have little jars to catch stuff in. Our teacher, Mrs Begato, has larger containers to carry back the best of what we could find. As expected there are no tadpoles. They’d all have grown legs and leaped off to safety by now. Someone shouts and we rush over to look at the sodden marshy grass at our feet where there is a small but perfectly formed great crested newt. The first and last I’d ever see. I try to catch it but it knows this mud better than us and quickly disappears. We soon return back to school with our prized jars of dirty water, some with a few pondskaters, waterboatmen, mud and algae in them, and keep it all in an aquarium at the back of the classroom.

Then it’s the next day. We’re making plaster casts of Paddington Bear from rubber moulds. When the plaster is dry we pull the moulds off revealing our white bears. Mine looks pretty good, not too many bubbles. As soon as it’s dry I paint his coat blue and his hat black. The paint dries instantly so then I varnish it. Our bears are left to dry over dinner.

At dinner times people were not allowed in doors except to go to the toilet. I come out of the toilet. Sean’s here too. There’s no-one else about. Fueled by the energy of naughtiness, knowing we shouldn’t linger, we dare each other to see how far we can slink down the corridor, perhaps have a look at our Paddingtons. We head off down the narrow dark wooden corridor, towards our class. Then, a door opens and a teacher appears. We dive into our classroom, unseen. There’s our aquarium. The pond skaters happily skating and the water boatmen rowing around the algae. We hear footsteps in the corridor, the click-clack of teacher shoes. We crawl underneath the tables to hide. Under the table was a magazine. We have a flick through this, proud of our victory and then, when the coast is clear, we slink out again.

After dinner, Mrs Begato has some shocking news. During the dinner time somebody had come into the classroom and poured the oil used to lubricate the paster cast moulds into the aquarium and stirred it around. All our animals are dead. I can’t understand how it could have happened. Who would want to kill our pond life?

“I don’t understand how anyone got in, or even dared to” says Mrs Begato. I try not to look at Sean. I wanted to say that we knew the crime must have been committed just before the class had started as we had been here. But of course I couldn’t say that without becoming a prime suspect. It was an odd feeling, knowing that one of our compatriots had done it. One of us. And the perpetrator, the killer, is here, in this room. Mrs Begato knows that too. But since there is no evidence, no witnesses, and no confession, the crime remains unsolved.

MemoryI think about these things now, 30 years later. These events appear to have no consequence, no relevance or reference to today. Since it was the last term of junior school, we were all aged 11, I haven’t seen any of the players since back then. If I did track any of them down, few would remember such details of those particular days. Perhaps if we collected everyone together, they would remember the day before or the day after in incredible detail but they may have no memory of the country lane marsh trip or the Paddington plaster casts just as I have no memory of the following Friday or the proceeding Tuesday. I have, possibly like you, only scant scraps of other stories from 1982 as I have from 1992 and 2002 and all the other years in between and the ones before and since.

This story is important because we are the sum of our memories. We ARE the stories and the experiences. If we remember nothing, we are nothing.

I don’t know why I remember some things but not others. Perhaps I remember the snow because it was unusual and so exciting. We remember things that are outside the routine. Perhaps the puzzle of who killed the pond life is the key to why I remember those other events, the unresolved nature of it all. Does it matter who actually did it? Perhaps there was a conspiracy of silence and everyone but me knew who did the deed so for them the day falls into the deep well of forgetfulness.

Fo me I do keep on pondering. And I wonder: how accurate is my own memory of what really went on? Who WAS in the classroom that dinnertime other than Sean and me?

If you liked this theme of childhood and school memories you may like:

I own the only surviving copy of time

My headmaster still owes me £50

Everyone remembers a good teacher

Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?

The Creative Troublemaker

Don’t Talk to Strangers

The End of a Friendship

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com

www.aydinstone.com