The story of a long lost friend, found again


Palitoy Talking Dalek

In the attic…

I’ve become obsessed with an idea, or rather a feeling or memory of an emotion. It’s linked directly to an artifact that you probably don’t have the same interest in, let alone have any connection to. But the object isn’t the point of this, the linkages and thoughts that are connected to it are. So for you there may be a similar effect but with a very different artifact. Let’s see.

Five days before my sixth birthday, on Christmas morning, I awoke to find a box in my stocking, left by Father Christmas. It measured 8” x 6” x 6”. It was still dark when my brother and I climbed excitedly into my parent’s bed to open our presents. I unwrapped the box to discover what would be the most treasure toy of my childhood and my most valuable possession until I owned a computer six years later.

I played with the toy constantly until I was around eleven. Then it became an ornament on my windowsill, on display to see every day. Then, when I eventually left home to go to university, never to return, it was packed in a cupboard in a box which a decade later made its way into my loft.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a fan of Doctor Who. My parents knew I was that Christmas as I opened my presents to reveal The Dr Who Annual 1977 (which I wasn’t capable of reading until a year later) and the joy of joys: a Palitoy Talking Dalek.

Even the box was exciting. It had an illustration of a red Dalek on one side and a silver one on the other side. Mine was silver, with blue spots. There was a little bag in the box that contained the appendages; the eye, gun and sucker-arm. I put it together and put in the two HP7 batteries and pressed the black button on the Dalek’s head. It had four phrases, “Exterminate, Exterminate!”, “What Are Your Orders?”, “You Will Obey!” and “Attack, Attack, Attack!” Later I would discover that these were located on a small vinyl record disc inside the Dalek. David McKiterick took the record out of his bothers Dalek and put one in from a talking doll. So the Dalek said “Mama! Mama!” and some poor unfortunate little girl’s doll said “You Will Obey!”

I made the later, regretful, decision that I didn’t need to keep the Dalek’s box. It got thrown out on Boxing Day. That was the last toy box that I didn’t keep. So with future toys I would be able to keep them in pristine condition, return them to their box and open them up again, re-enacting opening them for the first time. But with my Dalek, the box had gone.

I did see a box, one more time, the following year when we were in Durham’s department store, Doggarts (later to become a branch of Boots). They had Talking Daleks on sale there. I longed to have a red one to compliment mine, but at £5, they were far too expensive. Simon Payne brought his red one to school when we were allowed to bring in a toy one day. I took in some teddy bear. There was no way I was going to risk any damage or loss to my Dalek.

But somehow, even with my due diligence, the sucker-arm was lost. I made a replacement one from a sucker dart from one of those guns that fired suckered darts. I made a replacement arm, gun and eye for Simon Mckiterick’s too. His dad had bought the last Talking Dalek from Doggarts, without the box or appendages. His Dalek didn’t last long, after losing the record, it got totally dismantled. I saw the shoulder section from Sarah Woolfenden’s bedroom window, inexplicably on her garage roof.

The following Christmas I was lucky enough to receive a Doctor Who doll (in the likeness of Tom Baker) and his Tardis, as well as the most prized book of my childhood and beyond; Terry Nation’s Dalek Annual 1978.

It was then that I noticed that something was amiss with my Palitoy Talking Dalek. Namely, it had the wrong number of spots. Looking at the pictures in my Dalek annual it seemed that the number of skirt panels were wrong too. Even though it was, to date, the most accurately reproduced model Dalek, the head was a little too small and squat too. Why did the sucker arm have a central spike and why was it and the eye red? I had suddenly become visual discerning.

The inaccuracy in Doctor Who toys is startling. The Cyberman had a nose. Tom Baker’s face looked exactly like Gareth Hunt from the Avengers (that was because the Tom Baker mould was damaged just before production so they actually did use a Gareth Hunt mould). Later 1980s toys had big errors such as the six-sided Tardis console having five sides, Davros, famous for having just one arm, had two, and the robot dog K9, who everyone could tell you was grey; was green in the toy.

But these things didn’t stop me having fun playing with my Dalek. I painted the eye the correct colours and in 1979 stuck on black stickers on the shoulder slats to match the on-screen look of the Daleks in Destiny of the Daleks.

By 1981 my Dalek would no longer talk. He stood on my windowsill until I went to university  in 1990 and was then packed into a box that sat in a cupboard and then was shipped out to my own house and made it’s way to my loft.

Someone on ebay makes replica arms and boxes. What a crazy and yet genius idea. So now I have the parts to restore my Talking Dalek. But can I get him to talk once again?

I brought him down from the loft, dismantled the mechanism and washed him, taking off the stickers from 1979. His silver grey plastic had a slight golden tinge to it, probably due to exposure to light over the years. The inner mechanism is a tiny record player with a transparent disc that contains the phrases. I cleaned all the parts and removed the dust but nothing happened. I feared the motor had given up the ghost but after attaching the batteries directly to it, it started to spin. It too was probably clogged. I left the battery connected for ten minutes and the motor span faster and faster. Putting the needle back in and assembling the whole thing, I pressed the button.

It was a magic moment as an unearthly voice from the past grated out those famous words. What you need to appreciate is that sound coming from the Talking Dalek is not electronic; we’ve become too familiar with toys that have sampled digital sounds stored on computer chips. This is different. It’s an analogue, organic sound. The whir of the motor and the scratchy, wobbly sound echoing from the tiny disc. The Dalek toy is designed inside as a sound box which echoes and amplifies the sound, reverberating it throughout the inside of the Dalek.

Perhaps that why this was not just my favourite and most treasured toy; it was somehow alive. I wonder how he feels now, working again, being played with again. I wonder how he feels looking up with his red eye into my eyes, to see I’m no longer a five year old boy.

Palitoy Talking Dalek and boxIn February 1977 we sat on my parents bedroom windowsill, looking out into the evening as the snow started to fall. We watched it fall, my Dalek and I. First it covered the black tarmac with a powdery white covering. Within the hour it had hidden all sign of the curb as the pavement and road became a single blanket of white. We watched as the night fell and the street lights came on in the silence that only snow knows. Then it was tea-time. Outside the snow continued to fall and the wind blew drifts over the village.

That’s why there’s a value for me in this adventure. By restoring my Talking Dalek I’ve somehow re-connected, not with a old plastic toy, but with the little boy who used to treasure it. We are the same he and I, separated by a gulf of half a lifetime, of sorrows and joys. I need to remember that we are the same. Whatever trials and tribulations face me today, I owe it to that little boy to not let him down.

I also have children of my own now. There are at the age when they will be forming memories that will define for them their own history of who they are. It’s my job to facilitate and support that process in whatever form it takes. It’s unlikely to be a Talking Dalek that will excite and inspire them. They had fun pushing the button for a while before running off to play some other game.

My Talking Dalek also remind me that we are all unique in our loves, our passions and our journeys. My parents could not have guess the relevance of my Talking Dalek and I may probably never know what memory triggers my own children will find.

So have a think at what connects the dots in your life. Is there an artifact, a sound, a place that connects you to that small child from all those years ago?

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 secret of the Ascent of Man


Ayd Instone Creativity speaker

We take it for granted that our creativity, as a species, is a permanent feature.

What if it is not?

What if, as a people we stop asking questions and punish those who question?

What if we stop teaching our children to learn and start programming them to regurgitate results we want to see?

What if we silence mavericks, deny prophets and ignore visionaries?

What if we stop looking up at the stars in the night sky and wonder?

What if we tear down the old gods and set up dangerous controlling aspects of ourselves in their stead?

What if we set our sights on comfort today without thought for our children’s children tomorrow?

What if we lose the compulsion for adventure, exploration and risk taking?

What if we begin thinking about what we can get for ourselves as greedy individuals and not what we can give to help our community?

If we do these things, we will still survive as a species. But the creatures that will remain will not be one our ancestors from the past million years will recognise as human. It will not be one that would deserve to be part of the extraordinary story of Homo Sapiens.

All that would be left would be an animal. An animal that may well survive in clement weather until crisis of resources or environment will sweep it into the fossil record for some far-flung future Sapiens to discover.

I’ve been watching the acclaimed BBC documentary, J. Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. The accolade of it being ‘the greatest documentary ever made’ is well placed. After just the first two minutes, Bronowski’s passion, energy, vocabulary and burning intelligence comes across as magnetic. Add in the fantastic photography from all over the world and get PInk Floyd to provide the soundtrack. It’s the definition of success.

Every ‘knowledge expert’ today should look to Bronowski for inspiration on how to do it.

This is how described the concept of the series:

“Man’s imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness, make it possible for him not to accept the environment but to change it. And that by a series of inventions, by which man from age to age has remade his environment, is a different kind of evolution – not biological, but cultural evolution. I call this brilliant series of cultural peaks the Ascent of man”

Evolution shapes animals to their environment. Mankind’s evolution stopped and instead we shaped the environment to suit us.

A person today is physically exactly the same now as the people living over a million years ago. And yet evolution (and often science in general) is so misunderstood that I’ve heard people believe that ‘we have evolved a lot since the Romans’. I met an anthropology student who actually believed that black people have black bones. Many things improve and grow with time and so too does ignorance it seems.

The first programme dealt with a great question: What separates us from the other animals? The answer is the depth of our imagination, to be able to mentally simulate future and past events and the application of our creativity.

It’s our creativity that enabled us to leave the Savannah of East Africa and to migrate north and east into Europe and China and then beyond. It was our creativity that allowed us to co-operate to build a community to hunt animals that were faster than us. It was our creativity that allowed us to adapt to the cold of the ice ages, to invent fire, clothes and tools. It was our creativity that allowed us to predict animal migration and then domesticate and farm them and cultivate plants. It’s our creativity that enabled cities and civilisations to be built that passed on our discoveries to the next generation and the next down through the millennia. It’s our creativity that creates communities and the concept of love and care.

We can’t rest on our laurels, on the glories of our ancestors. We have to make sure our species still thinks with an open mind and strives for innovation at every turn.

It’s no good having an opposable thumb if you can’t think of anything to do with it.

J. Bronowski sadly died just over a year after the documentary was broadcast, in 1974, after a life of exploration of art and science (which he considered as aspects of the same thing). He published literature, made discoveries in mathematics and archeology, he invented a type of smokeless fuel for the National Coal Board and of course his documentaries which are effectively an autobiography of humanity.

His contribution to the continuing Ascent of Man is secure. What about ours?

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


Adopt, adapt and improve: What I learned from Lord Alan Sugar


The star of TV’s The Apprentice opened the second day of the National Achievers Congress to an audience of 7500 at London’s Excel conference centre. Along with Richard Branson who would speak the following day, Sugar was interviewed by Michael Buerk. It was the first time the two had met and would probably be the last if Sugar’s response to Buerk’s questions was anything to go by.

Sugar felt a bit affronted by what he considered to be simplistic, inane or irrelevant questions. He correctly surmised that we wanted to know his business thinking, how and why he did what he did. We were less interested his so-called ‘rags to riches’ backstory (which turns out not to be quite true anyway). When asked what one piece of advice Lord Sugar to give to the audience he refused to answer, saying how could he cater for all the different kinds of people in the audience with one stock answer. This gave us an insight into the real Alan Sugar. And guess what, despite what he says, it’s very much the same as the belligerent boss we see on the telly.

The questions I would have loved to know the answer to were things like why did he sell of his manufacturing business when he places such importance on making things? Especially when his definition of a proper business is “you have an idea, you make it and you sell it.” He attacked those who made their money on the stock markets, “making money from other people’s misfortune” and yet there he is now, effectively a property mogul. Not too dissimilar.

He also critised big internet business such as Facebook, citing it as a waste of time. He couldn’t see “where the money is” in such businesses and made reference to ITV losing money of Friends Reunited and the dot.com crash of 2000. Both of those examples are as irrelevant as saying there’s no money in computers because Apricot* went bust. Sugar fails to understand what has become known as ‘the New Economy’. The ‘money’ in Facebook is not extracted from traditional methods but from the value in the network and the targeted way people can be reached. Money these days is not made by shouting but by going where the eyeballs go.

Sugar’s main belief still does stand true and offers us all a sober lesson. He believes that a business should start from the ground up, work hard and make money and profit. He pointed out that many young people have been given the erroneous impression that it is all too easy and that it is their ‘right’ to be able to do it and to get loans from banks without taking on board the risk. Sugar had got into trouble at a college, where he was asked to give a talk, for responding in his down to earth way. He critisised a student who thought it was outrageous that the bank wouldn’t lend him hundreds of thousands of pounds without putting his house on the line. “You have to show the bank you are willing to take a risk. If you don’t, why should they” Sugar said.

He gave a great example of this when he wanted to borrow some money for his fledgling computer business in the early 1980s. The bank asked him what assets he had. He listed the components and half-built computers he had in stock. The bank valued all that at zero. They told him that if he went bust, what would they do with a load of components and screws? This is a good lesson for us to hear as we often think in business that we have value in assets which in fact are liabilities (there may be assets we do have, that we don’t value as much as we should, such as intellectual property).

What Sugar was good at, was seeing an opportunity to sell someone something they wanted. His early examples were when he was employed to sell tape recorders. Instead of hauling round every small independent shop that might buy two units, he went to the then new bigger chains such as Currys, Rumbellows, Comet and Dixons and got them to buy hundreds or even thousands.

All his type of innovative ideas take the same kind of route: he modifies something that already exists to make it more attractive. Think about his most famous business, for which he is still known for today, home computers. The market was dominated by the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Acorn BBC. Sugar had previously been making bundled hi-fi equipment. Up to that point, all hi-fi equipment was sold as separate units made by different specialist manufacturers. You bought a record player, a tape player, a radio and an amplifier and you ‘stacked’ them on top of each other and plugged speakers in. His model was to use cheap Japanese electronics and put the record player, tape cassette player and radio all in the same box. At the time this was a revelation and it opened the way for the stereos and ‘ghetto blasters’ that defined the 1980s. Lifting the lid of a rival’s computer he saw that inside there was no magic, it was just silicone chips, resistors and circuit boards, just as in his hi-fis. He applied the same idea he had done to his hi-fi business. Let’s have a closer look.

Sugar four things that made his business a success, these four simple innovations:

  1. He built in the datasette (the cassette tape recorder that the computer programs were stored on) into the keyboard.
  1. He bundled a cheap monitor so that the kids wouldn’t have to plug their computer into the family television.
  1. He used MSX BASIC as the operating software. This was a new variant of Microsoft’s BASIC programming language that was already being used on most of the computers of the time. The difference was that each of the different companies used a different version of BASIC so a program written on one make wouldn’t run on another. MSX was a new standard that was being adopted by a host of other computers meaning that software for the new Amstrad computer had more games being written faster.
  1. He made it really cheap, and sold it really cheap.

Many would argue that the Amstrad home computers (as well as his stereos) were cheap, cheerful and lacked style and class. They didn’t attract the wider appeal, kudos and cult following of the classic home computers like the ZX81, Spectrum, VIC20, Commodore 64 and BBC B. But they did make Sugar a lot of money.

When the home computer market ran out of steam (the home computer gold rush only lasted from 1980 to 1984) he switched his attention to a computer that would only have one function: a word processor. This is perhaps Sugar’s finest hour. He got into that gap in the market at exactly the right time. With subsequent innovations such as his hand-held personal organiser and video phone, he was too early. In fact it seems, with the possible exception of his BSkyB equipment and petrol station advertising screens, that consumer product magical innovation skill has eluded him since the mid 1980s.

But perhaps that too is a lesson for all of us. Our businesses may be lucky enough to make money from something that becomes iconic, or maybe we’ll have to be happy with making money from something that goes unseen and unsung by the general public but is successful nonetheless. We need to make sure we are working hard to make profit, not glory as the two seldom go together.

One thing is clear from what Lord Sugar had to say. If you want to start a business and be successful in it you must chose something that you have some knowledge in. It must be something that you have experience in, and it must be something you have a passion for. So many people, he pointed out, have made the mistake of trying to jump on what they think is a get rich quick bandwagon of what appears to be a good idea but is outside those key areas of their knowledge, experience and passion. The secret to a successful business is simple, obviously simple, but it’s not easy: hard work, determination, innovation and an eye always open for opportunities.

Just look at what happened in the latest series of the BBC’s The Apprentice. Sugar changed the rules. He wasn’t looking for another employee this time. He didn’t need another salesman. That’s why Tom the inventor won. He was really the only suitable candidate. The rest were old school sales employees. Sugar valued the approach and ideas that Tom had and saw the value in his already substantial achievements with his curved nail file invention. Who knows what he’d come up with next.

This shows that Sugar still has some interesting business mileage in him, unlike Donald Trump who’s tv series has descended into celebrity game show farce.

Lord Sugar may not be held in the same high esteem as Richard Branson or James Dyson and his companies may not be regarded as cool as Innocent or Apple. he may be out of touch with some of the newer methods of doing business such as the increased emphasis on networking (although he does tweet every day) but his knowledge of the principles of starting, innovating and selling to make a profit are universal and give us sobering lessons we can all apply.

*Apricot was a British PC manufacturer in the 1980s who could have rivaled IBM and Apple, but didn’t.

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