Robin Brown

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A Demigod In A Ford Mondeo

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“We’ve been waiting for you for half a fucking hour you daft bastard! I’ll miss my fucking flight because of you!”

Thus screamed the motoring correspondent of a national newspaper down the aisle of a coach on one of my first foreign trips as an automotive journalist. It isn’t quite being punched in the face following a row over a steak dinner, but it’s perhaps the most enlightening personal experience I can relate in trying to convey how monumentally brattish motoring journalists are.

To put this in context, my mobile phone had somehow defaulted back to British time and woken me an hour later that I’d expected, meaning I’d climbed onto the coach to the airport 15 minutes later than scheduled. With the built-in safety valve that all press offices factor in to such jaunts, it meant that we only spent three hours sitting in an airport departure lounge rather than three and and a half. Nevertheless I was virtually ostracised from the remainder of the group that day, deemed persona non grata by the angry – and influential – hack.

The incident is indicative of an attitude common in the profession, particularly among older and more established motoring journalists. They are some of the most spoiled people in the country who aren’t famous – being whisked around the world on a succession of what are essentially action-packed, high-luxury, all-inclusive foreign holidays and mollycoddled by a team of PR professionals on every step of the way.

I have driven on frozen lakes, screamed around some of the most famous tracks in the world and hooned in some of the best, fastest and most expensive cars in existence. I’ve driven over a police car in a monster truck, slept in an igloo, dined with footballing legends and gone husky-sledding at the expense of various car manufacturers. I crashed a car once, through no fault of my own, and was driven back to the country pub where the launch was talking place. The PR team checked I was alright, laughed it off and sent me straight back out in another. While it generally requires a vast pool of knowledge, talent and perseverance to get there, frankly being a motoring journalist is a blast. We have what most people consider to be one of the best jobs that exist this side of royalty or celebrity.

Driving over a police car in a monster truck

Driving over a police car in a monster truck

In between these trips, for which many are well paid by a variety of freelance or full-time outlets, there’s likely to be a succession of press cars, delivered to our doors at times that suit with a full tank of fuel. Many motoring journalists do not own cars: they don’t need to, nor do they buy petrol. I consider this an enormous treat, as do many colleagues and friends in the industry, albeit one that’s central to a strand of my career; others consider it a given and don’t produce any work off the back of it. They are provided with cars and invites simply because they’re important enough – on whatever metric the car manufacturer has decided. Frequently this means because the PR and the journalist are mates.

A famous example of this sense of you-couldn’t-make-it-up entitlement is an article that was passed around the inboxes a few years ago where a journalist for a scarcely-relevant freesheet berated a popular British manufacturer for denying his request for a press car, raging about the injustice this amounted to, especially in light of the coverage he had provided the previous year when he’d taken the car to Monaco and been complimented by George Clooney.

The best sources for this kind of gossip in the car industry are the drivers and auxiliary staff who drive, clean and maintain the cars. Treat them as human beings, rather than minions, and you can learn a great deal from them. As people who drive a different car every day they’re great sources of auto knowledge. And as they’re delivering cars to VIPs on a daily basis they know all the naughty secrets of the industry: who’s nice and who’s not; what this person said to that person and who crashed what.

I’ve never met Jeremy Clarkson, though I’ve met many who have. Opinion of the Top Gear host seems to coalesce around the fact that he is funny, awkward and incredibly rude (one fellow hack told me that’s he’s also a massive bird-watcher, which I didn’t see coming). Were you to judge the behaviour of motoring journos on the lower rungs of the industry in relation to their fame, however, you would assume that Clarkson is a terrible ball of seething hatred, merrily throwing kittens into combine harvesters and screaming torque-related obscenities into the faces of nuns. Being used to getting their way, regardless of how inconsiderate, insensitive or awkward their demands are, has made monsters of many a journalist — it’s behaviour totally at odds with how important, in relative terms speaking, they really are.

Driving high-powered saloons around race tracks

Driving high-powered saloons around race tracks

I have heard tell of the car journalist who hires out press cars to friends and family, the sports personality who merrily writes off cars like they’re going out of fashion, the hacks who won’t give a hapless driver a lift to the station, forcing them to slog it to the nearest rural bus-stop or wait outside for a taxi. Household name or no, what the badly-behaved motoring journos have in common is that they exist in a professional bubble where they are indulged, accommodated and fawned over in just about every aspect of their lives.

Press officers are there to help, assist, flatter, amuse and entertain you and I don’t doubt it takes rare skill, patience, knowledge, humour and diplomacy to deal with the demands of the press pack. If you don’t like your dinner, complain to a PR; if you want to drive a different car to everyone else at a different time of the day, tell a PR; if you want some money to buy a souvenir for your kids, ask a PR; if you want to have a go on a 30-tonne snow-blower 6,000 feet up the Alps, get a PR to arrange it for you. With nearly ten years behind me as an automotive journalist even I have to remind myself that I’m in a lucky position. Being a motoring journalist is the nearest you can get to having your own personal factotum; a demigod in a Ford Mondeo.

As someone who is both famous and important it should come as no surprise that Jeremy Clarkson is rude to people he considers underlings. Even many rungs down the ladder from Top Gear, being a car scribe is probably the closest anyone can become to being famous and important while being neither.

Originally published on

Written by Robin Brown

August 27th, 2015 at 5:54 pm

Jonathan Trott: A Very Public Illness

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I watched the recent return of Jonathan Trott to the England Test team with a mixture of concern and sadness. Trott has had an extended sabbatical from international cricket, following the implosion of his batting in the 2012/13 Ashes series, due to what he described as a ‘stress-related illness’.

It has become clear that this is the favoured catch-all term for a variety of mental illnesses, which are still discussed with a certain coyness in sport. Trott also followed the same sequence of events laid down by Marcus Trescothick, of alternating between denial and acceptance. But while the former England left-hander has since come to terms with his mental illness, albeit at the expense of his international career, that never seemed to be the case with Trott.

The Warwickshire batsman went back to county cricket, left again, rejoined and made hay. He also fared well on a Lions tour and was apparently given an all-clear to return to the crucible of Test cricket by a battery of ECB analysts. Trott’s problems, it seemed, were down to fatigue: Pressure, a failure to live up to his own exacting standards – a crisis of confidence, form and temperament that must have been fearful, disturbing, crippling. A terrible vicious circle. It seems to be a peculiarly male problem: the need to provide, prosper and succeed – the failure of which can be devastating to a psyche that is geared up to those goals.

Trott may have viewed his collapse in Australia as letting down his team-mates, family, employers, captain and even country. That it happened in a public spotlight, under hostile conditions and in circumstances that posed extreme physical dangers must have been a shattering experience. A loss of self-image, self-respect; a loss of self-knowledge. To fail at the one thing at which you truly excel; the thing that defines you as a man must be devastating indeed.

Despite a number of international cricketers speaking publicly about their difficulties with mental illness – Trescothick must receive high praise for paving the way for other to follow – Trott received a good deal of criticism from commentators ill-equipped to understand his situation, yet he must bear some of the responsibility for that reaction.

His various explanations as to exactly what was wrong with him suggested that he was experiencing burn-out. Whether Trott was unaware of what was happening to him or deliberately misleading because he feared the end of his career, or loss of face, is still unclear. But it seemed clear that Trott was experiencing a situational anxiety that was divorcing his mind and body in a game where the ability to sum up a situation and react to it correctly in a split second is vital to success and physical well-being. Any batsman fears getting hit at 90mph by a cricket ball – for reasons that became obvious in late 2014.

The England batsman’s technique has seemed bizarre since that Ashes series and his approach to batting highly unusual. He appears uncertain, his judgement clouded. The surprise is that England chose to back Trott in a position and arena that would expose him to fast, hostile bowling despite the fact the root cause of whatever was behind his exit from the team never seemed to have been addressed – because it had never really been acknowledged.

Amid the England set-up and, to some degree, in the media there seems to have been the assumption that Trott had been ‘fixed’ of the anxiety that seems to have crippled him as a sportsman, in the same way that a torn hamstring or chipped bone can be repaired or rehabbed: a physical injury that will simply go away in time.

It’s not necessarily unhelpful to compare mental illness to physical illness in some ways: it can help others understand that there should be no stigma or shame, nor that mental illness cannot be treated; that it can happen to anyone and can be just as debilitating as a broken arm or ripped muscle.

Yet it can be a double-edged sword – such a broad metaphor can also lead people to assume that anxiety, depression and other disorders can be eradicated, never to return. But old cricketers will bear testament that not all physical injuries vanish forever after a few weeks of rest and rehab: nagging anxiety, self-doubt or depression can reappear without warning, just as bone, skin and joints can tell a story on a cold, wet day years later.

Seeing Jonathan Trott bat again against the West Indies recently, it seems clear that whatever issues or affecting him have not been eradicated. It begs some questions as to how wholly the England Cricket Board and sportsmen generally have really grasped the significance of mental illness in high-pressure environments, or they have understood how enduring and difficult it can be.

On one hand it’s to their credit that Trott was given an opportunity to return to the fold, having met every challenge that could reasonably have been expected of him in representing England again. But while commentators and the bulk of the press corps glossed over Trott’s difficulties, his performances led journalist – and friend of Trott – George Dobell to describe him as ‘broken‘.

It seemed a starkly brutal term, yet it seems hard to disagree with the view that, as a cricketer, the Trott of 2015 is a very different beast from the Trott of 2010: the Trott who compiled vast, serene centuries against the best bowling attacks in the world. The strange, kamikaze walks down the wicket to fast bowlers, alarm at short balls and uncertain shot selection suggest more than a lack of form or luck – they suggest a temperament and technique that had slipped their moorings.

Jonathan Trott was Andy Flower’s ‘rock’. That, in itself, seems to hint at the dichotomies of mental illness and suggests why we’re so poorly-equipped to comprehend and react to it. From ‘rock’ to ‘broken’ in two short years. How is that possible?

Perhaps what the Trott saga indicates most of all is that our lexicon is still lacking when it comes to explaining mental illness. The words that are bandied around – broken, burnout, fatigue – vary between crude and coy. ‘Stress-related illness’, that most famous cop-out, reeks of management-speak. The embarrassment and awkwardness with which these maladies are discussed continue to hold back our understanding of mental illness and that lack of understanding necessarily means a lack of empathy and tolerance towards it.

Jonathan Trott may have been a fine servant for English cricket for several years, but his abortive return to the England team demonstrates the strange omerta over mental illness in sport still holds sway.

Originally written for Opening Up

Written by Robin Brown

August 25th, 2015 at 5:54 pm

Posted in Journalism,People

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This Is Why Banks Should Stick To Numbers

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Not a penny more, not a penny, er, fewer.

• See less/fewer for context and more on this

Screenshot 2015-04-01 15.55.48

Written by Robin Brown

April 1st, 2015 at 2:49 pm

Posted in Journalism

Ramsey Campbell Interview

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I interviewed Ramsey Campbell last year for the SevenStreets Almanac – a short-lived print version of SevenStreets that lasted for about as long as we had the energy and interest to keep ploughing hundreds of hours into something that paid us less than it needed to.

I became aware of Campbell years ago as I’ve always dipped in and out of the wider horror genre, feasting on short stories when younger and buying up Stephen King, James Herbert and Dean Koontz. I’m a particular fan of short stories, being brought up on MR James, Saki and O Henry, and the form lends itself well to science-fiction and horror genres with macabre reveals. That led me to stuff like JG Ballard, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell.

I saw Campbell speak at a Twisted Tales event in around 2010 and was struck by his knowledge and humour, so I was chuffed when he subsequently started posting comments on SevenStreets – usually talking his favourite Chinese restaurant. I’d long earmarked him for a proper sit-down interview about his relationship with Liverpool so the Halloween edition we did (at the bottom) was a good opportunity.

Ramsey was as hospitable as I expected, with a big, rambling house – little stacks of DVDs and books everywhere – filled with curios. But I liked how he basically sat and talked to me in his slippers. Matt Thomas took a great pic of Ramsey sat on the sofa which we both instantly thought was the image to use. The interview itself is not vintage stuff, which is my fault, but went some way to exploring the idea that a writer’s physical location – and formative experiences in a particular place – can affect their writing, whether consciously or unconsciously.

I included a reading list at the bottom for those interested in reading Ramsey’s Liverpool-flavoured work, but it’s an awesome canon, to which I can’t really do justice. I’m continuing to tick them off – and re-read a few through the lens of a couple of hours with the author. And I continue to look at Liverpool’s buidings, roads and waterways – and ponder what’s behind, beneath and beyond them.

ramsey campbell interview

I look on from the bay window onto the front lawn and leafy street in Wallasey.

“Do you neighbours know what you do?”

“Yes, I haven’t been run out of town yet!” replies Ramsey Campbell, a man often referred to as the country’s greatest living horror novelist.

I was pondering what it might be like to have a well-known author as a neighbour, but Ramsey answers the question as if I’d suggested that perhaps a man of his profession should not be allowed to live among other people. His warm greeting, an Escher-print t-shirt and pair of comfy slippers indicate that nothing could be further from the truth. Unless you really dislike Escher.

Campbell, a writer for half a century, started off writing in a fictional universe; namely a Lovecraftian town called Brichester, but as time passes and Campbell moves away from Lovecraft to a more subtle MR James idiom, it becomes more recognisable as Liverpool, before being ditched altogether in favour of the author’s hometown.

By the time of Creatures of the Pool – described by Campbell as his ultimate Liverpool novel and ultimate SevenStreets novel – it’s clear that Liverpool has become as much a character as any of Ramsey’s human, or non-human, cast. In his short stories and novels the city takes on a whole new aspect: a city haunted by shadows, connected with its past, harbouring people and things to be avoided who may or may not be phantoms of fevered minds.

Campbell’s journey to authorship started with a chance encounter with a copy of Weird Tales, a pulpy anthology that was something of a gateway drug to youthful minds attracted to the escapism of science-fiction and horror.

“It was one of those places that sold sweets and books in Southport on Seabank Road, including these American imports with a half-crown sticker on the front. The cover had a birdlike grotesque in the foreground in this black desert, being approached by two monstrous skeletons with huge skulls. If that was the cover what would it be like inside? At seven I was too young for it and my mother wouldn’t let me buy it but the memory of it stayed with me.

“I picked it up a few years later to find that it’s a vulture that’s painted quite badly with two human skeletons in the background. But my mind latched on to the original image and wanted it to be stranger – it invented this even more bizarre image. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”

This is something of a trend in Campbell’s work; stories rooted in the everyday and brought to life through detail where the protagonist gradually realises that something rationally inexplicable is taking place. Whether it’s all in the mind of the narrator or main character is often left for the reader to decide.

“The writing that I enjoy – and the writing that I try to create – is something that makes you look again at something you take for granted. One of my first stories, The Cellars, is essentially a historical document now of Liverpool city centre as the characters walk this route between Bold Street and to Old Hall Street. And I did the walk – I always go and look again, noticing details I’d never seen before that I could use.

In his earlier works Campbell describes a Liverpool not seen for decades; a Liverpool down on its luck – full of blasted landscapes and joblessness. It was fertile ground for a writer who melded the physical landscape with unconscious terrors.

“In those days I would go to cinemas – The Homer in Great Homer Street and another in Kensington. To get to them you would pass these derelict streets; through this wasteland that Liverpool was in the war. This entire new city opened itself out to me as I was discovering Lovecraft, and the two came together.

“A lot of the stories come out of the location. With Mackintosh Willy I was walking in Newsham Park and found these fading footprints in some new cement. And then I noticed on the park shelter was written Mackintosh Willy; when I looked closer I realised it was three guys’ names – Mack, Tosh, Willy – who had graffitied their names on the wall. And that was all I needed to write the story – the idea of Mackintosh Willy.”

Campbell accepts that Liverpool has very much shaped the writer he has become and though it’s tempting to speculate that there is something in the city that has spawned several more renowned genre writers – not least Clive Barker, who has used Liverpool in much of his writing, most obviously in The Forbidden, the story that became Candyman – he seems inclined to regard of it as coincidence, while acknowledging this part in aiding Barker’s rise to the top table of horror. However, another luminary of the genre hints at something more fundamental between Liverpool and the writers it spawns, as Campbell says:

“Stephen King says something in Danse Macabre to the effect that in my first novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother, Liverpool is the main character; this slumbering beast.”

Can a city – its architecture and race memory and scar tissue – affect the minds of the people who live, write and work there; somehow turn their conscious and unconscious minds into a conduit for things only understood instinctively? Campbell’s work frequently feels like a synthesis of influences – the city of Liverpool speaking through him.

Having digested much of his work over the last 18 months I have begun, as Campbell says, to look again; looking up at the rooftops and facades and down at the flooring and paving, pondering what lies beneath the streets and the rolling Mersey.

Liverpool’s rich, deep, febrile history is evident in its buildings, its road names and peculiar topography: slavers and slaves, rogues, murderers, lunatics – even its own mischievous spirit in Springheel Jack, the fleet-footed gremlin of Everton’s rooftops.

Whitechapel, Princes Avenue and James Street look different to me now with the added context of Campbell’s insidious prose, which lends the suspicion that there is something else at the edge of our perception; something we might glimpse if we were to look again. The creeping suspicion that, somehow, something is vaguely wrong.

Ramsey Streets

Many Ramsey Campbell stories are set in specific Liverpool locations. Here are just seven.

Mackintosh Willy

An old shelter in Newsham Park is the setting for a disturbing tale concerning an old tramp, to whom there is more than meets the eye.

The Companion

A youth is pursued through a fairground in New Brighton by a gang of ne’er-do-wells, taking to a ghost train to escape.

The Brood

An insomniac is unnerved by an old woman standing underneath a lamppost outside his flat on Princes Avenue and resolves to investigate who she is – and why local pets are disappearing.

The Man In The Underpass

A young girl forms a connection with some unusual graffiti in an underpass off West Derby Road.

Creatures of the Pool

Gavin’s father has gone missing. As he searches for him and begins to piece together Liverpool’s myth and history he starts to realise that the city’s connection with what lies in the ground and the water has formed its present. The book is crammed with real-world historical detail on Liverpool.

The Face That Must Die

A homophobic killer stalks the streets of Aigburth and Toxteth in this bleak, hallucinatory thriller.

Calling Card

A miserable tour of Liverpool lends no respite for a woman who lives on Lark Lane, seemingly haunted by a ghost of Christmas past. Commissioned by the Post, it was initially unused, having been deemed too horrible.

The edition of the Almanac the interview featured in…

Written by Robin Brown

December 6th, 2014 at 1:11 am

Posted in Journalism,People

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Why Trolls You Every Day

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I’ve long suspected of essentially trolling its own readership and, by extension, any passing social media visitors that come their way. That’s no surprise given that is restyling itself as a global news source to compete with HuffPo and in direct opposition to the notionally right-wing Daily mail Online. But the reporting over Dr Matt Taylor’s supposedly misogynistic t-shirt and resulting fallout proved it for me.

I don’t want to get into the sexual politics on this issue – nor any of the articles written by Jessica Valenti, Bidisha, Barbara Ellen or Hadley Freeman that are churned out at an astonishing rate – as any resulting debate detracts from my core opinion on this: much of it is open trolling.

I can’t comment on whether these beliefs are genuinely held or not as I don’t know any of the writers – and it’s hardly unreasonable to suggest that clickbait is unthinkable in this day and age, despite my reservations. But I’ve come to the conclusion that whoever is commissioning these articles from certain writers, on certain subjects and in such large volumes is basing it on intelligence that shows the traffic, sharing and interaction resulting from such ‘battle of the sexes’ articles is where the money is.

Work in any digital media and you’ll come across advertising brokers who will speak of the vast sums of money that are open to sites that hit enormous monthly uniques – if you don’t hit them you don’t even get in the door. So the internet arms race really bears little relation to the quality, interest or demographic data of your readership.

In that context, The Guardian is looking at a six-year drop of almost 50% on daily sales, to 180,000 copies a day. Compare the digital readership and you’re looking at 40m uniques per month, making the site the fourth-highest English-language news site in the world – that change from to and editorial strategy of hiring bags of American writers is obviously paying off.

The traditional readership then is of comparatively little value compared to the potential riches of wielding daily unique visitor numbers in the millions. And for for the news division, losing close to a million quid a week, a global audience hoovering up manufactured Guardianista outrage is more valuable than a dwindling domestic market. Hence articles that amount not only to clickbait, the realistic value of which is weak, and flamebait, which not only attracts clicks in the first place, but brings with it social media shares from diametrically-opposed readers but plenty of return visits as people deliver their latest comments in ongoing arguments, account creations and – conceivably – app downloads, leading to more data harvesting.

The Guardian isn’t alone in this. While Mail Online is predicated on celebrity gossip and scantily-clad women, it ploughs a similar furrow in trolling its readers with articles like this. Both are chasing online profits that have long appeared elusive – and conceivably illusory in the case of the Mail, but massive increases in ad yields over the last year seem to indicate that the long-hoped-for maturing of online revenue-generation platforms has finally arrived. Not only that, but people have adapted at a lightning pace to the arrival of smartphones and tablets, opening up huge new frontiers in subscription models and data harvesting. Harvest data and you can sell it – or use it to leverage across a wide range of platforms, such as the platform that Guardian Media Group affords.

This is the second element of why this content is being pushed in such large volumes. If someone downloads your app, you can upsell all your other services. You get access to lots of demographic data on them. You might sell that data on – or use it to create bespoke campaigns aimed directly at them. Conceivably you can read their text messages and emails, depending on how intrusive your app is. Then you can sell that data – or use it at your own leisure. There’s cash in code.

I believe the print version of the Guardian’s days are numbered, as a daily newspaper anyway. Although print is massively more profitable per reader, the writing is on the wall in terms of how we consume media – just look at Autotrader, which disappeared as a physical proposition in 2013 and now exists in online-only format. It also happened to be owned by Guardian Media Group until very recently and basically bankrolled their push into other English-speaking markets.

With online, it’s not just about the numbers – and engagement isn’t simply about giving people something they like. Give them something they don’t like and it’s of similar, if not greater value. In this environment, the newspaper-as-troll has an important role to play: you’re not simply trolling your existing readership, you’re attracting new readers to your site; complete new demographics who might never buy the paper – or choose to click on a website they know to represent political opinions they don’t share.

Throw a story in their face – a relatable story they recognise – and throw a controversial spin on it, such as blasting they guy who landed a satellite on a comet for his choice of shirt, and you open up the potential audience enormously. And because gender politics are truly universal, it affords a scope that’s simply not open to domestic or less inflammatory subjects.

The row over Dr Matt Taylor’s shirt – and resulting article, which makes some reasonable points in s way that seems designed to attract opprobrium – is a micrcosm for how The Guardian works in an international, online journalism economy. It’s has global reach and you can spin a supposed gender battle out of it. It’s shareable, it’s digestable and it reads like naked flamebait. Currently it has around 5,000 social media shares and 1,000 comments.

Over on social media it’s lighting up the boards. The following tweet caught my eye – it’s another microcosm of the gender polarisation in this debate, though plenty of women have decried the article in question. More than that, it neatly highlights how the axis of controversy-share-traffic plays out for The Guardian. Write something you know to be controversial, package it up in a way that appears designed to kick off a huge argument in the comments section and push it out on the social networks.

Clickbait is dead, says Buzzfeed. Long live flamebait.

Written by Robin Brown

November 16th, 2014 at 3:11 pm

Posted in Journalism

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Richard Attenborough Interview

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Lord Attenborough’s recent death took me back to an afternoon in 2000 when I went to interview the director, who was promoting Grey Owl – his penultimate work and probably not his best. For some reason, which still baffles me, I had been chosen to interview Attenborough by whatever company had been retained to deal with these things. Alongside Joe Riley of the Echo, I was the only one afforded any time with the great man.

The do took place at what is now the Radio City tower with much food and booze laid on for the occasion – it was like walking into an episode of Sex and the City. Having headed straight from the office where I was laying out the next newspaper, under orders to pretend I’d seen the film at a screening and probably looking like a complete scruff, I was rather out of place. Attenborough clearly spotted this while doing the rounds and made a point of coming over to me to engage me in conversation.

It was a lovely gesture, though I would have warmed to him anyway. I was very chuffed with the interview, where Attenborough nursed me through with interesting and thorough answers to what were probably unimpressive questions and hushed the people telling him he had to make time for other interviews (there weren’t any more as it transpired, we’d talked for so long no-one else got to speak to him). Afterwards he asked: “Was that alright, Robin?”. I was thrilled with that too. He essentially sacrificed the time reserved to promote his new film to be nice to someone who he obviously thought needed it.

I’ve reprinted the interview that resulted below, which is rather shot through with an angsty pessimism that reflected my mood at the time but reflects a style that I have adopted to a lesser degree ever since: a little bit gonzo, emotive, personal. I quite like the interview, despite the lack of quotes, looking back but it wouldn’t have amounted to much without the help of the subject. Those 20 minutes with Lord Attenborough were a wonderful treat and instructive too.

Godspeed, Dickie.

Lord Attenborough. The name itself is so thick with meaning, gravity and grandiosity that the prospect of meeting the man is quite unnerving.

I’m also surrounded by so much decadence at Radio City headquarters at the top of St John’s Beacon, while surveying some of the city’s seamier quarters of Liverpool that it’s impossible not to be struck by the juxtaposition. As I enter the building I am entreated to buy a Big Issue; as I enter the room chosen to host the launch party for Grey owl, Attenborough’s new film, I am faced with plates full of food, a lobster perched slightly sadly on top, as several people try to force wine into my hand.


Slightly fazed by it all and the roll-call of people who move on to another victim once they learn that I’ve come from the student newspaper, I sit by the window to admire the view. Realising there’s someone standing next to me who hasn’t moved away once they’ve noticed my whiskers, I turn to make a comment on the scenery when – inevitably – I’m faced with the man himself: “Magnificent view!”

Lord Richard Attenborough looks like my Grandpapa.

After a fat man from the Liverpool Echo creeps to Attenborough for an eternity, I am maneuvered through the gaggle of journos – “Janet Bland from the Daily Post…” – and get to spend some time with him in a side room. He looks tired [Attenborough was 77 at the time] but that doesn’t seem to dim his enthusiasm.

“Louis B Mayer always said that films have nothing to do with messages, I don’t agree with that, I don’t accept that. I believe that movies are essentially entertainment, but I also believe they are about things that people care about: totalitarianism, racial concerns, religious persecution – things that are worth talking about.

“I do believe that the environment is of great concern. There was a statement out yesterday that said within 70 years we will have plundered the planet, there will be no natural resources left: trees, water. It’s terrible, terrifying.”

Quite what the throng of hacks outside would make of this is anyone’s guess, but there’s no stopping him.

“Now, here’s a tale that deals with these issues, but with a fabulous tale behind it. A guy who was a total phone; a liar, drunk and bigamist…”. Ah, this will be Grey Owl, the true story of the Red Indian who renounced his life as a trapper in Canadian forests to become the leading figure in global environmentalism prior to WWII, only for it to be discovered, upon his death, that he was a chap from Hastings called Archie.

Attenborough’s delight at this story is evident – and his passion when talking about environmental issues evident. Indeed, Grey Owl shares many characteristics with many of the director’s other films: tolerance, harmony and respect chief among them. Looking at the critical and box-office receptions for Ghandi, A Bridge Too Far and Cry Freedom it’s hard not to conclude that Louis was wrong after all. But where does all this come from?

“Mike Parkinson said to me: ‘Your parents were committed to good causes’. They weren’t good causes – they were committed to helping people live and breathe, everyday things. It seemed unthinkable to them that you were not concerned with people less fortunate than yourself, or people who were being persecuted. You can’t just stand by. It isn’t something special to me; it’s perfectly ordinary behaviour.”

I’m with him, but the executives who refused to bankroll Attenborough’s films when he was transitioning from Hollywood leading man to director didn’t seem to agree. They laughed Attenborough out of the room for wanting to make a film about ‘a little brown man, dressed in a sheet and carrying a beanpole’. They had reckoned without his eye for telling a good story and his tenacity. Having spent 20 years trying to get the funding together to make Ghandi, he promptly won eight Oscars.

“My monstrous behaviour was that I gloated over the fact that all those buggers who turned me down then started to bid for it,” he admits a little ruefully, but with a definite twinkle.

Attenborough clearly loves making films, despite the difficulties he has encountered – he has also had to raise the cash to make Grey Owl privately – but it seems to me the overriding reason is to convey messages of humanitarianism in a format that people find palatable. The spoonful of sugar in Grey Owl is the love affair between Piers Brosnan’s eponymous lead and his wife, but the message behind it is hard to miss.

It’s a passion that has led Attenborough behind the camera more and more as his career has progressed, but it’s worth remembering that he was one of Hollywood’s key leading men during the golden age, starring in classics such as Brighton Rock, I’m Alright Jack, Seance on a Wet Afternoon and 10 Rillington Place. More recently he has appeared in Jurassic Park, where Steven Spielberg asked him to direct portions of Schindler’s List – he was too busy working on Shadowlands, a critical smash that was showered with Oscar nominations and BAFTA wins.

I waste some precious time musing on his early film career – “William Hartnell was a wonderful man!” – Brighton Rock being one of my favourite books and a strong film to boot. Attenborough’s anti-hero Pinkie is one of the most fearful, most violent figures in literature. He can’t stop himself though; a gentle chat about the films of the 40s becomes an impassioned statement about film violence: “We become inured to violence, we accept it as the norm. We should be horrified by it and we should be horrified by war.”

Time ticks by and we have to make way for Lord Attenborough’s next engagement. I leave the interview and seek out more booze. Everywhere people are chattering into mobile phones, taking wine from pretty waitresses without acknowledging them and networking furiously. What will these people take away from Grey Owl, Cry Freedom or Ghandi?

“What was he in?”

“You know, the one with the dinosaurs.”

• Image via Creative Commons, Flickr

Written by Robin Brown

October 29th, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Posted in Journalism,People

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Jimmy McGovern Interview: Failure Is Good For You

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I stumbled in from the pub tonight and flicked through the channels until I came across an episode of Cracker. It was To Be A Somebody, the incendiary episode starring Robert Carlisle as Albie – a white, working-class scouser-turned-serial-killer – and I watched the last 15 minutes as rapt as I was when I first watched it at the age of 16.

Even then I knew I was watching something important – something that included Hillsborough, racism, working-class socialist bigotry and a host of other issues that send a shiver down the spine of any middle-class liberal. A disturbing confluence of issues – overlapping on a Venn diagram – as relevant today as they were 20 years ago.

Watching it back it’s hard to not view Albie’s call-to-arms in terms of Irish republican violence, 7/7 and even the rise of UKip, BNP and EDL. A touchstone for the disaffected white working-classes, denied the social gravity of work, unions, church and football. It struck me, although the outcomes may be somewhat different, that it’s hard to disagree with the thrust of his script.

Cracker Albie

I interviewed Jimmy McGovern in 2005 for Black & White Magazine, a Liverpool culture magazine I edited back in the day. At the end of some delicate negotiations I had an email exchange with Jimmy where we exchanged questions, discussion and gossip.

He was incredibly accommodating, polite, funny – I have not a bad word to say about him. Doctor Who was gearing up for a return at the time and he gave me some juicy gossip involving Christopher Eccleston, whom he obviously held in high regard. I also got a lovely Christmas message from him at the end of the year – I like to think he’d appreciated something in the questions I asked.

As is always the case, we lost touch and I doubt he even remembers the exchange ten years on. But I remember his personal kindness to a young journalist to whom he owed nothing – he also allowed me to sell the interview to Tribune – and willingness to engage on subjects we both found interesting. Thanks Jimmy.

Ten years on from that interview – and 20 years from the episode’s debut – the issues of which we spoke are still relevant. And, with The Street and Accused, so is Jimmy McGovern.

The following represents the compiled Q+A I assembled from our email conversations, printed in Black & White Magazine and Tribune. Inevitably I feel I was a little gauche and tactless – and wish I’d pursued certain lines on inquiry, but remain pleased with the exchange.

Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?

Right now I’m trying to do final polishes on the Cracker special and a six-parter for the BBC provisionally entitled The Street. As for the six-parter I’ve written only two eps and been a sort of lead writer on the others. The Americans would call it “show runner” but to hell with the Americans and their cultural imperialism. With the exception of a man called James Quirk the writers on The Street have been relatively inexperienced – but they all had good stories to tell and that’s the main thing for me. I’m sick of watching telly and seeing the same old stories being regurgitated. When I’ve finished these polishes I’ll be switching over to a musical about the history of cotton. We’re trying to blend negro-spirituals from the cotton fields with brass band music from the cotton mills. God knows if it will work.

What made you decide to come back to Cracker?

I’ve gone back to Cracker because I used to be co-organiser of the Hillsborough Memorial Golf Day and we needed a sponsor so I went to Granada and told them that if they sponsored the golf, I’d write them another Cracker.

Do the characters you create inevitably stem from aspects of your own personality – even if it’s a small one?

You’re right: if you’re in any way serious as a writer, you will always write characters based upon your own personality. That’s easy to say when it’s people like Fitz [from Cracker] because people like him despite his flaws. Not so easy when it’s characters like Albie [from the episode To Be A Somebody] but Albie was based on how I felt in the aftermath of Hillsborough. I don’t think I could have killed anybody over Hillsborough. In fact I’m sure I couldn’t. But I certainly felt like killing Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher and every single member of the South Yorkshire Police. And as for The Sun… I think every single killer in Cracker has come from somewhere deep within myself.

Hillsborough seems to be something of a touchtone across more than one of your works; something that has deeply affected Liverpool. Is this a fair reflection?

And you’re right again: because of that, some people think I’m a headcase, a hot-headed, angry, frustrated Scouser. But I’m not. I’m fifty-six. I’ve been married for thirty odd years; I’ve got grandkids; I play golf. The secret is, I know I’m nothing special. I know I’m not particularly good. Or particularly bad. I’m just like everyone else. And if I’ve felt like doing horrible things, then I’m bloody sure everybody else has as well. Nobody’s unique. Well, everybody’s unique but you know what I mean.

I have always seen myself as left-wing but, honestly, throughout the eighties it was hard to be a left-wing, white, working class male. We were blamed for everything: racism, sexism, fascism. And, of course, the epitome of the white working class male was the football fan. People hated them, especially people on the left. Hillsborough came out of all that and, after Hillsborough, I said to myself that I would never let people attack us (white working class males) like that again. And Fitz came after that – the first post-feminist, post political-correctness TV series.

I never had any doubts about writing the story of Albie in Cracker. In fact the Hillsborough families came to a screening and supported it. They, more than anyone, understood Albie’s anger. As for the drama-doc itself, I wrote it because the families asked me to write it. As simple as that.

Do you still have a personal faith, or are you a cultural Catholic?

I have never attacked the Catholic faith. I have never attacked any religion. There was one particular journalist who slyly hinted that I might be anti-semitic but I can tell you I’m not. The great religions, when they are properly adhered to, are a force for good. It’s the institutions that sprout up around those religions that get up my nose. And the hypocrites within them. One example, the Catholic Church sheltered child abusers for years. If it had done this out of compassion for the abusers, well that might, just might, be understandable. But it sheltered the abusers because it was frightened of losing its great wealth in the courts.

What would be the worst and the best we can expect to come out of Liverpool winning Capital of Culture?

I’m ambivalent about Capital of Culture. On the one hand, if we ever get my cotton project onto the stage it will probably be because of Capital of Culture money. On the other hand I’m not prepared to be gagged because of that. I think 2008 will pass the vast majority of Scousers by, just as whatever-year-it-was passed the Glaswegians by.

Liverpool has given you a lot of source material in the forms of Hillsborough and Dockers, albeit frequently tragic and terrible. Does this make you ambivalent about living here?

No. I thank God I was born here. I have always loved this city and the older I get, the more I love it. The people above all, their humour and passion and sensitivity, but also the river, the architecture, the parks, the history of the place…

I have always had a soft spot for Ireland. My wife has 100 per cent, pure Irish blood in her veins. And, of course, I have the obligatory great grandad who came over in the Famine. But I see myself as a Scouser, a catholic, white, working class Scouser. That means I’ve plenty in common with the Irish but, no, I am not Irish; I am a Scouser. Lots of people see themselves like that, I think, and that’s healthy surely.

Where did The Lakes come from? Was there an element of it being something that was ‘fun’ to write?

I am proud of the first series of The Lakes. The trouble was the second series. We brought in a lot of very good writers, each with his or her own “voice” so the second series went all over the place. But the first I liked. And a lot of it was autobiographical. As was Hearts and Minds of course.

I know I’ve got this reputation for grittiness but, actually, the first two things I wrote, other than Brookside, were Felix Randal and Traitors. Felix Randal was based on the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, about a farrier in Liverpool in the late nineteenth century and Traitors was about Father Garnet’s involvement in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

Are there particular actors who you prefer to work with?

Because I write a lot about working class characters, I like to work with actors who are working class. It’s the hardest thing to pull off for an actor, I think: to act outside your socio-economic group. Interestingly, Irish actors can do it. It’s often very hard to spot an Irish actor’s background. But for the English it’s not so easy.

I used to fight like mad to get my programmes made in Liverpool. But I got tired of people accusing me of portraying Liverpool in a bad light. You know, the people of Manchester have never said to me, “Hey, you Scouser, how dare you portray our city as full of headcases and psychopaths!” That’s because they understand that film and TV production brings millions into the local economy.

What are you most proud of of your scripts?

No matter how well something has been done, it could always have been done better. I’m proud of Hillsborough of course because it helped people. I’d say the same thing about Dockers, Sunday and Priest. But Heart, a small movie, was a bit of a failure as was the second series of The Lakes. As for Mary Queen of Scots, I wrote it as a big-budget movie and, in hindsight, I should have fought to get it made as such. But failure is good for you, you know. Particularly if you’re Catholic.

Written by Robin Brown

September 4th, 2014 at 12:38 am

Posted in Journalism,TV

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International Rescue: Liverpool’s Third Sector

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A feature on the extraordinary Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, written for The City Tribune (Issuu below).

Time and again, Liverpool’s mercantile background informs its present. The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) is no different. Were it not for Victorian merchants heading back from the tropics with all manner of exotic diseases, the issue would never have come up, but when the city’s businessmen went to the government with an idea for an institute to deal with these new threats, London wasn’t interested.

Undeterred they returned to Liverpool and invested their own cash; in 1898 the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine was born. Impressed by the idea, the government opened a second, in London, a year later.

106 years later the School has 400 students hailing from 70 countries around the world — and its origins are obvious in the ease with which is negotiates public and private sectors.

Professor Janet Hemingway CBE

“Because of the origins of the LSTM we’ve always been business friendly and influenced by business — looking at real-life issues and problems,” says Professor Janet Hemingway CBE. “That tradition hasn’t really changed since we first started. We’re not blue-sky; we’re very hands on”

Professor Hemingway, the current Director of Liverpool School of TropicalMedicine and Professor of Insect Molecular Biology, to give her full title, initially trained as a geneticist in Sheffield and ended up in Liverpool via London, south-east Asia, the States and Cardiff.

She describes herself as being steeped in tropical medicine for almost 40 years and is polite, assured and unmistakably British — a dash of no-nonsense and stiff-upper-lip pragmatism.

While the School’s activities are many and varied — spread across a number of sectors and carving out a pivotal role between government, business and third sector —the people of Liverpool may recognise just one of its most public-facing services. “We run a travel medicine clinic,” says Professor Henderson. “We also deal with specialist referrals that GPs can’t deal with — if you do get sick while abroad there’s a good chance you’ll be referred here.” Although the people of Merseyside may only know the School as the place they get their pre-holiday jabs, the LSTM has a much higher profile abroad. “We say that we’re one of Liverpool’s best kept secrets, but if you go into the tropics we’re very well known,” laughs Professor Hemingway.

Price Waterhouse Coopers asked people overseas what they knew about
Liverpool. We were third after football and The Beatles.

The School’s awkward positioning — partially academic, part-business and part public sector — makes it in some respects a de facto NGO; without it, Hemingway believes, much governmental and aid work simply could not happen.

“Without us that process would not begin. We help with catalysing that process and we’ve got the ability to test these products within at-risk populations. We’re about improving health in the tropics and you work out what you need to do, how to do it and where you need to do it. “Once they have them, big pharmaceutical companies will give out millions of drugs for free, but there’s no normal distribution system for getting them out so we have to work with various ministries of health to distribute these drugs. At last count we work with 36 different countries; we have a brand name overseas that most organisations would be delighted with.”

With AstraZeneca, the School was responsible for co-developing one of the first anti-malarial drugs — an example of the role the School plays in bringing real-world products to market. But the School doesn’t work exclusively with one industrial partner.

Student at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine

“The consortia we work with might be quite large and involve companies, government agencies and NGOs. We work with many different companies because we have the proper firewalls in place; people trust us with their IP and activities. “We’re in that space between research and generating products — medical devices, diagnostics, drugs, agrochemicals, IT systems, policy and practice — and have always worked in industry.”

Professor Hemingway recognises the unique role the School plays is drug formulation, strategy and logistics — yet it does remain fundamentally a place of learning. “Most of our clinical staff are practitioners but that’s because we need to be at the top of our fields and work with patients — you can’t maintain your clinical practice without doing that; they’re all practising clinicians but will need to balance those activities.

“We’ve got clinicians who want qualifications in tropical medicine — a standard clinical degree in the UK won’t equip you for dealing with tropical diseases. We run a three-month specialist course that brings clinicians up to speed in tropical medicine and have about 280 clinicians who will do that course each year.

“We’re also dealing with parasites and insects that transmit the diseases we’re concerned with and have specialist courses for biologists who want to be on the parasitology or entomology side; public health people who are interested in distribution; nurses coming here who want to work in tropical environments; midwives who will work in resource-poor settings, where you will not be attended by a doctor if you’re having a baby, to reduce the phenomenal maternal and child mortality that still happens in many countries.

“We also run a number of programmes in humanitarian assistance; we train people to go into situations of developing-world conflict and natural disaster because if you don’t know how to deal with the politics and logistics of those situations you’re a hindrance, not a help.”

Professor Hemingway sees the LSTM as a model for how academia and industry can better work together. “I don’t think there’s a great model out there for academia working with industry — we’re different because we were set up wanting to do something in terms of improving health. We’ve always been in that translational space; the drivers coming from government now are pushing academia into that space that we inhabit. It means that we’re a lot more used to talking that industrial language.

“There’s been a push for a very long time for academia and business to work together but it’s been very slow because the drivers for success are poles apart. “Because science in universities tends to be driven by people being inquisitive about how things work, academics in industry are seen as unfocussed; going off at tangents because they happen to be interesting, rather than the most direct route from A to B. You have to get those two cultures understanding each other’s language and drivers.”

Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine

The School has recently normalised its relationship with the government to receive its funding and reward degrees directly, rather than through the University of Liverpool — a natural development of the School’s original independence.

Hemingway believes the move will improve the School’s profile nationally and internationally and allow for continued growth and expansion. It comes at a time when the LSTM is expanding into a new building and pushing into new areas after winning millions of pounds in grants to expand its life-saving work — including £650m from the foundation set up by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

“The Gates Foundation realised that industry, off its own bat, wasn’t going to develop these products and if they left organisations like us to develop ties with industry, although it would happen, it would happen way too slowly. So they started giving fairly substantial awards to consortia to develop these new products.

“Because we were already working in that space we were able to react quickly in terms of developing new drugs to combat malaria, tuberculosis, filariasis and worm diseases and new public sector insecticides. We follow the industrial process and take these products through to market — some even came out last year as a result of those partnerships.”

Among other projects, the brand new Centre for Maternal and Newborn Health, due to open in October 2014, is doing pioneering work in tackling the appalling number of deaths that result from childbirth every year. It’s an example of what Hemingway describes as the desire among the School’s staff — from clinicians to cleaners — to do something beneficial.

“We’re there to respond to need, so when you look at the big questions it’s blindingly obvious that there’s a big problem around maternal and child health, with unacceptably high levels of child mortality.

“It’s a case of looking at what skills we can bring — and can we get out there and test it so it’s not simply theoretical. We were getting some very good results coming through from the countries we worked in — now we’re getting more requests than we can actually handle. We wanted to build on the success that we already.”

Hemingway is enthused by the opportunities ahead, with a brand new Royal Liverpool Hospital and bio-campus arriving a matter of yards away — in the heart of Liverpool’s so-called Knowledge Quarter — by 2017.

“Within the Knowledge Quarter you will have co-located the LSTM, the University of Liverpool and the new Royal Liverpool Hospital with a bio-campus sitting in the middle. There’ll be a clinical trials unit that has access to patients, the research base and hi-tech equipment. That’s a potent mix and Liverpool needs to attract the right companies to that area. “We’ve got the biggest concentration of infectious disease research going on here — we need to grow that in an academic and industrial sense. We want to work with SMEs in the area and the larger companies — most obviously companies that are sending large numbers of people overseas and look at their healthcare needs. There’s a feedback loop there.”

The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine may be a vital cog in the wheels of international health, research, drug development and policy, but it’s heartening to know that it is still looking after the health of locals who are following in the footsteps of those merchants of Victorian Liverpool.

Written by Robin Brown

June 6th, 2014 at 1:16 am

Posted in Journalism

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Generation Game: Liverpool’s Console Rooms

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A feature on Liverpool’s flourishing gaming industry, written for The City Tribune (Issuu below).

Just two years ago the gaming landscape in Liverpool looked bleak. Sony’s Studio Liverpool — the bedrock of the region’s landscape in various guises for decades, responsible for genre-defining games including Lemmings, Colony Wars and WipEout — was closed down, just a year after Bizarre Creations, of Project Gotham Racing fame, became defunct.

However, with the city’s nurturing of industry talents it was only a matter of time before new companies started to spring up. In a matter of two short years, Liverpool is packed with games studios that have emerged from Studio Liverpool and Bizarre. Lucid Games, Playrise Digital, Starship and Firesprite are among them, with a dozen more companies in the city working in the sector.

Nick Burcombe who, along with artist Jim Bowers, conceived Wipeout in a pub in Oxton, is just one of a series of former Studio Liverpool employees who is starting out again, with his own start-up, Playrise Digital — a mobile developer. The studio’s first two games were a light-hearted physics puzzler called Baby Nom Nom and Table Top Racing, the latter a cross between Mario Kart and Micro Machines that has lit up the download charts — five million and counting with a port to PS Vita on the cards too.

Table Top Racing by Playrise Digital

Table Top Racing by Playrise Digital

“Right now, Liverpool is fast becoming another hot-bed of game development and we’re very proud to be a part of it,” says Burcombe of the nascent industry.

“It’s great to see such a creative resilience after the devastating closure of Sony’s Studio Liverpool and Bizarre Creations. “The loss of the studio is very big deal, but in Elevator Studios and the Baltic Triangle Liverpool has a hive of creative industries. You have the bands and music publishers too. Playrise, Lucid, Starship, Ripstone, Paw Print, Catalyst, Atomicom and Firesprite — plus many other new companies are at the cutting edge of this new era of game development in the region.”

Firesprite is another company that has risen from the ashes of Psygnosis and Studio Liverpool, boasting a team has worked on their key titles. Firesprite’s The Playroom is an alternate reality game that comes pre-loaded on PlayStation 4 — using AR technology it projects cute miniature robots into players’ living rooms.

While Firesprite’s founders all worked at Studio Liverpool. Art Director Lee Carus believes Liverpool’s current success in the sector is indivisible from the industries history in the city. “It’s part of the fabric of Liverpool now and you only have to look at the amount of people who have stayed in the city since the closure of the big studios. Having that talent base on your doorstep is a massive consideration.

“I think Liverpool is experiencing a boom in the gaming sector now. You only have to look at the number of developers in the city right now to see that. Ranging from two or three people right up to the bigger players like ourselves and Lucid Games.

Starship’s Martin Kenwright has also benefited from the glut of talent in the city, but while his company is creating traditional games, Starship is also venturing into new territories by developing apps that have a function beyond entertainment.

“We’ve created a business model which has ‘gamification’ at its core, and we’re using that to disrupt other sectors and to create new vertical revenue channels,” says Kenwright “The power of play is something that we’re really interested in here at Starship, and it’s influenced our IPs massively.” However, while Kenwright is a big believer in the city, he also believes it has to attract more investment and help existing companies develop more commercial skills.

It’s an area in which Carri Cunliffe of Secret Sauce is heavily invested. Cunliffe created north-east games network GameHorizon that, in turn, spawned an annual conference and works in the games industry to develop networks, curate industry events and work with games companies in business development.

As part of the International Festival of Business, and in co-operation with industry trade body the UK Interactive Entertainment Association, Cunliffe will be realising a two-day expo showcasing games currently in development. In addition there’ll be workshops with the government’s UK Trade & Investment arm, looking at how to make the most of new industry tax breaks, exports, new territories and learning from companies that have a background in those areas.

“There are some industry clusters around the UK and Liverpool is one of them. When a company like Psygnosis bases itself in a region it seeds a whole new growth of businesses as the people involved start their own businesses.” Cunliffe believes that new tax breaks that will allow games developers to claw back 25% of their production costs, if they are gauged to be sufficiently British and use a certain proportion of talent from Britain, will be significant in aiding small, independent developers. “What we find with smaller, independent developers is that there’s a strong cultural aspect to their product, so they will be able to claim back a percentage of money.

This is something which the UK film industry has benefited from for a number of years and is why many British films have a cultural essence. “It’s a little help for an industry that’s growing and it signals that the government recognises it’s important to the growth of the economy. After all, the domestic games industry is bigger than television and films put together.”

With a critical mass of developers in the city and the expertise to create games and apps that sit at the top tables of the industry, Liverpool appears set to take advantage of these unique conditions. In that respect the closure of Studio Liverpool and Bizarre appears less of a terminal blow and more of a reboot.

Written by Robin Brown

June 6th, 2014 at 1:11 am

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Power Plants: Liverpool’s Hot Metal

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A feature on Merseyside’s automotive industry for The City Tribune (see Issuu below).

Look carefully and you may notice that some cars are more common than others in Liverpool. A flash of sleek bonnet here, a recognisable grille there — even the low-slung growl of Liverpool’s very own supercar. The automotive industry continues to flock to Liverpool and, in return, the city has taken the respective cars — the Range Rover Evoque and Land Rover Freelander 2, the Vauxhall Astra and the BAC Mono — to its heart.

The luxury crossover SUV (with some styling supposedly supplied by Victoria Beckham) is manufactured just a few miles south of the city centre at Halewood and Jaguar Land Rover are so proud of the association with Liverpool that the international launch was held in the city; an old underground railway tunnel reactivated for the worlds journalists to try out the car’s four-wheel drive. Halewood is churning out Evoques as fast as it’s able to — more than 200,000 were built in its first 24 months of production — and the resulting demand keeps the plant working 24 hours a day, employing 4,500 people; a workforce that has trebled since the Evoque hit the production lines.

Land Rover Evoque under construction at Halewood

The plant’s impact on the area isn’t confined to Halewood, however, with a supply chain and auxiliary plants cropping up around Merseyside. In 2012 a further 300 jobs were announced for a new logistics centre in Ellesmere Port to handle the additional parts for the increased volume. JLR says that it has placed £3bn worth of supply contracts since 2011, just for the production of Evoque, with many going to companies on Merseyside. Richard Else, Halewood’s Operations director says the plant is one of the most flexible, advanced automotive manufacturing facilities in Europe, but admits that JLR underestimated demand for Evoque, which necessitated a move to three shifts over 24 hours, every day. As a result a new Evoque heads off the production line every 82 seconds. Things weren’t always so rosy.

Back in 2008 previous owners Ford decided they’d had enough of Jaguar Land Rover — along with Aston Martin and Volvo, the US giant shed its Premier Auto Division, putting the future of Jaguar Land Rover in doubt. Dial back 30 years and the Liverpool’s car plants were synonymous with bolshy unions, shoddy work and industrial disharmony.

The Halewood plant employs over 4,500 people.

What’s changed? New owners Tata,having successfully ridden out the after math of their purchase — supposedly overvalued — in 2008 went about creating a product that was relevant to a modern audience, updating Jaguar and Land Rover products without losing their inherent appeal. In addition to the Evoque’s ‘styling by Beckham’ tag it boasts levels of personalisation previously unheard-of in volume cars and is packed with clever technology, including a lenticular screen that shows different images to driver and passenger.

Tata’s global reach, particularly in developing markets, has also helped JLR push into Brazil, India and especially China where growth is strong and margins fat. Halewood exports 80% of its cars to all corners of the globe. It may be made in Liverpool, but the Evoque is a global car.

James Batchelor, Editor of Car Dealer Magazine, says the Merseyside region is well-placed to emerge from the recession in pole position. “Arguably Nissan’s Sunderland plant grabs the headlines more, as does Mini’s Plant Oxford and Honda in Swindon, but Merseyside has a thriving automotive heritage — and it’s only set to get better if the indicators are right. It’s at the heart the North West’s success in this arena. More than that it’s home to Jaguar Land Rover and Vauxhall — two plants that are performing well and have great futures ahead of them.

In the case of the former, Jaguar Land Rover’s plant at Halewood is constantly being upgraded — both in terms of technology and manpower — to meet global demand for its desirable products, while Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port facility recently won the contract to build its next Astra – and that’s no small feat.”

1 Land Rover Evoque rolls off the production line every 82 seconds.

Vauxhall & Us

General Motors’ Ellesmere Port is just over the Mersey and upstream a few miles. The Vauxhall plant proudly calls itself ‘The Home of the Astra’ — Vauxhall’s small family car that has become synonymous with the Wirral peninsula. The Astra, designed by Brit Mark Adams, is one of Europe’s best-selling models — using the Opel badge on the continent — and the all-new model will built at Ellesmere Port from 2015.

With a parent company undergoing radical restructuring and uncertainty over the health of the volume market in Europe, doubts were cast on the future of the plant at the start of the decade. However, with a business case that “made itself”, according to Business Secretary Vince Cable, and Ellesmere Port recognised for its productivity and quality, the plant’s future was assured with an investment of £125m and a commitment to continue building the Astra on Merseyside into the 2020s.

Vauxhall says that almost 4,000 jobs have been created directly and in the supply chain as a result of the news — with at least 25% of parts sourced locally — on top of 2,000 existing workers at Ellesmere Port.

When construction of the new Astra begins the plant will move to a three-shift pattern producing a minimum of 160,000 vehicles each year. It’s another example of the region’s success in the automotive sector — with Toyota’s Deeside engine plant and Bentley’s headquarters in nearby Crewe there’s a network of satellite companies in the area that supply the OEMs with parts and skills.

The UK is a genuine world force when it comes to pioneering innovation and engineering

The local supply chain was a significant reason for Ian and Neill Briggs bringing their supercar — the BAC Mono — to Liverpool. The Briggs Automotive Company (BAC) was born out of the brothers’ design studio (with an impressive client list that includes Bentley,Ford and Porsche) but a mutual love of fast cars and track days led them to designing and building their own one-seater. It’s no coincidence that the Briggs brothers chose Liverpool as the birthplace of the Mono.

BAC Mono, designed and manufactured in Liverpool

“One of the challenges we have is that we can’t afford automation,” says Ian. “We needed guys from the automotive or aerospace industries or very highly-skilled technicians. But due to the amount of car industry in the Merseyside area we were able to recruit from the supply chains around here.”

With new car sales hitting a 10-year high in March 2014 and the sector’s exports worth over £30bn, all of Merseyside’s automotive companies are well-placed to take advantage of the long-awaited economic upturn. Autocar editor Chas Hallett says the domestic automotive industry is in its best shape for over 30 years.

“The British car industry was on its knees in 1982, when we were only building 887,000 cars a year. This was down to a combination of a desperate lack of top-flight engineers, the legacy of a lack of training following WWII, and the crippling divisions in British society of the time. It has taken nearly 30 years but the industry is now in the best shape it’s ever been and is a vitally important part of the country’s wider economy.”

Power Plant Image 4

Hallett believes the strategies employed at Ellesmere Port and Halewood show how British car factories can prevail, even in difficult times. “Better management, planning, design and engineering have all contributed to the buoyant state we are in now… the UK is now a genuine world force when it comes to pioneering innovation and engineering.”

What remains today of the British car industry is inevitably foreign-owned. But Brits still design many world-beating cars. And they make many of them too. It’s tempting to draw a parallel between these new cars — stylish and award-winning — with a Liverpool also unrecognisable from 30 years ago.

Time was, people in Liverpool had a reputation for their skills in stealing cars. Nowadays they’re renowned for their skills in making them — and they are some of the best, most individual and sought-after cars in the world.

Written by Robin Brown

June 6th, 2014 at 1:00 am

Posted in Car reviews,Journalism

Tagged with ,

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