Saturday, 3 January 2015

Space Zeppelins of the Future!



Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

For my first post of 2015 I thought that, in the spirit of all things new and exciting, I might look to the future for a change - albeit a future with a firm link to a technology of the past.

Airships have long been a favourite form of transport for this blogger, evoking as they do images of stately and luxurious air travel between the wars - of huge cigar-shaped behemoths, true liners of the air carrying well-heeled passengers across the Atlantic far quicker than any ship could hope to.  If ever there was a vessel to symbolise the peak of 1930s technological advancement, then the airship was it.  Then in May 1937 the Hindenberg exploded over Lakehurst, New Jersey.  Footage of the falling mass of flaming wreckage and the commentators anguished cries has passed into history but at the time was seen around the world by millions and the image of the airship was almost irrevocably tarnished.

sourceR.101 on its maiden flight over Bedford, October 1929

I say "almost" because, like any gas-filled envelope, you can't keep a good airship down(!).  For the last fifty-odd years, since the end of the Second World War, airships have slowly begun their comeback in a myriad of new roles - flying advertisements, mobile weather stations and tourist transport, to name but a few.  In recent years there has been much talk of using modern airship designs for heavy payload lifting or accessing inhospitable areas, at the fraction of the cost of fixed- or rotary-wing aircraft - some articles about which have appeared on this very blog.  Now in the last year have come two new, somewhat interlinked ideas for new airship uses - in space! 

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Astronomy From High Altitude Airships

Back in early 2014 the University of California, at the behest of NASA and the Keck Institute for Space Studies, came up with a splendid-sounding idea for a future space telescope and potential Hubble replacement - a telescope mounted on a high-altitude airship!  Designed to fly in the thin air of the stratosphere (upper atmosphere, 60,000ft+), these "HAAs" would carry an ultraviolet telescope, similar in function to the one on Hubble and able to carry out much the same functions.  Of course, as this article makes clear, there are still several technical hurdles to overcome but so impressed have NASA and KISS been with this proposal that it is hoped they will run an open prize challenge for similar projects.  So with any luck we may see a few more high-altitude airship designs in 2015!

NASA Seeks Comments on Possible Airship Challenge

One such proposal - or rather a variation thereof - has just recently been announced by NASA (which bodes well for HAAs), who have had the wonderfully science-fiction/steampunk idea of exploring Venus using airships!  That's right - Space Zeppelins!

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As the fascinating article at the top of this post makes clear, the upper atmosphere of Venus is far more hospitable than the hellish surface (where the average temperature is over 400­­°C, pressure is 92 times that of Earth's and sunlight barely 10% and where it rains sulphuric acid).  At 30 miles or so up, however, it would be possible to travel above the sulphur clouds.  There would still be the ability to conduct many useful experiments - probes could be sent down, samples taken and, well, there's always just the wonder of human exploration.  Yes, these Venusian airships could easily be manned since the pressures and temperatures at such a height would be much more Earth-like.  In fact in the long term NASA may be considering so-called "cloud cities" - a collection of airships grouped together as a sort of floating base station.  What a hugely exciting prospect it all sounds!



Of course, airships as a means of exploration is nothing new.  Before their [relative] success in a commercial role airships were being touted as the future of air travel even over aeroplanes and both before and after the First World War several airships performed feats of great exploration, some unrivalled by other aircraft before or since.

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America moored at Spitsbergen, Norway, c.1906

The airship America made several attempts to reach the North Pole between 1906 and 1910, all unsuccessful but among the first to be tried in such an aircraft.  In late 1910 its pilots endeavoured to make the first transatlantic crossing by air, nine years before Alcock and Brown, but again without success (although they did travel a total of 1,370 miles, albeit south along the east coast of the USA!).  The centenary of that attempt has been the subject of an earlier blog post.

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Norge over Ny-Ålesund, Spitsbergen, Norway, 11 May 1926

It was the Italian-built airship Norge (above) that entered the history books as the first aircraft of any kind to fly over the North Pole on the 12th May 1926.  Constructed in 1923 for the famed Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, the Norge left Rome in April 1926 and by way of Pulham in Norfolk, Norway, Russia and Spitsbergen succeeded in flying over the North Pole - marking the first time humans had travelled there - a month later.

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Italia, April 1928

Two years later the Norge's larger sister ship Italia made a couple of polar expeditions but on the third trip crashed badly during its return trip from the North Pole, killing eight of the sixteen crew and wrecking the airship in an incident that has never been satisfactorily explained.



By the end of the 1920s aeroplanes had advanced to the point where they were able to undertake individual exploration and record-breaking far more freely than airships.  Nevertheless the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, among others, continued to prove the worth of the airship as a long-distance aircraft in a series of flights including the famous round-the-world trip of 1929 (which was the subject of an interesting documentary a few years ago).  Two years later, in 1931, it too made a highly-publicised journey to the Arctic Circle culminating in a rendezvous with a Russian icebreaker.  Meteorological and magnetic field studies were undertaken successfully, hundreds of photos were taken and the Graf Zeppelin proved categorically that airships had a practical use in polar exploration.

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It has taken nearly 70 years, but I am pleased to see we are now once again waking up to those same practical uses for airships today - plus a couple of new ones! Another example of a past technology still having a useful application today - and what a thrilling example!  We may yet see a new heyday of lighter-than-air exploration - perhaps even taking us to other planets - and I for one can't wait to see what 2015 has in store for science and the airship.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Three cheers for the New Year!

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 To all my readers, followers and friends.

I wish you all a healthy, happy and successful

2015

and look forward to my sixth year of blogging 

here at Eclectic Ephemera.  


Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm: a review



Christmas telly this year was widely derided by critics, most of whom pointed to the large percentage of repeats and "unoriginal programming" that would be clogging up the major channels during the festive period.  While a big amount of Christmas repeats (curse the sprouts!) could well be said to be the norm for most years nowadays, I have to admit I found this year's offerings to be quite good - a decent mixture of old classics and new films plus the odd interesting programme (B.B.C. Four was the place to be for us vintage/jazz aficionados over the holidays, as Mim over at Crinoline Robot foretold).  One little gem of a programme in particular caught my eye on Christmas Eve and so, as it might be of particular interest and enjoyment to my readers, I thought I'd give it one of my impromptu short reviews.

The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm was a one-off hour-long comedy that was broadcast on B.B.C. One on Christmas Eve at 8:30pm.  The story and characters are based upon a series of children's books written between 1933 and 1983 by Norman Hunter.  Now here I have to admit that, while I knew of the character of Professor Branestawm, I've never read any of Hunter's thirteen books that featured him.  (I often think that can be a blessing in disguise, actually, as it meant I approached this programme with no preconceptions.)



Playing the title character was the British comedian Harry Hill.  For those readers not familiar with Mr Hill's work he is probably best known for presenting irreverent comedy sketch shows, often featuring slapstick or absurdist humour and usually mocking pop culture (TV programmes, celebrities etc.) in some way.  I think it's pretty fair to say that his is a particularly British brand of humour, which you either get or you don't.  His best known programmes include The Harry Hill Show and Harry Hill's TV Burp; for the last ten years he has also narrated You've Been Framed, a long-running home movies and funny clips show.  This turn as the literary character Professor Branestawm would, in fact, be his first real acting role.

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Some kindly critics did point out that the role would not be too much a stretch for Hill, being much like an extension of his comedy persona, but be that as it may I thought he did a very good job bringing the character to life.  He imbued the Professor with just the right amount of absentmindedness (a lot, for this character!) and bumbling confusion; when it came to the few moments that required some [serious] acting he was more than up to the task to in my opinion.  Hill's experience with physical comedy, allied to his [relatively] younger age than the character he played, also helped add to the well-roundedness of the portrayal - especially during the more action-packed moments!

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Anyway, before I get too far ahead of myself, a quick overview of the main characters in the stories and the basic plot of this latest adaptation.  As mentioned, Professor Branestawm is the archetypal absentminded professor, forever coming up with crackpot inventions that usually form the basis for each book's storyline.  Other recurring characters include his best friend, the eccentric ex-Army officer Colonel Dedshott, and his housekeeper Mrs Flittersnoop.  As you can probably tell, being aimed primarily at children the characters are very exaggerated and the stories often fantastic.  The first two books of the series were written in the 1930s, so it sounds like there should also be a good period feel to the stories; the remaining eleven were written much later, between 1970 and 1983, but I suspect may contain that same air about them.

Despite this, the various elements of the stories were skillfully woven together by the programme's writer Charlie Higson (who also appears as the town's mayor).  Higson - best known in TV-land from the '90s comedy sketch series The Fast Show - has form in this area, having not only helped write the aforementioned programme but also a series of young adult novels featuring a teenage James Bond.  Here he transposes the action to an idealised 1950s version of the professor's home village of Pagwell.

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It's certainly a beautiful location (actually Shere in Surrey) and one that perfectly complements the storyline.  Despite the latter containing many elements of fantasy it was careful never to go too far overboard, retaining a welcome air of almost-believability.  The comedy was very much in evidence but very well balanced against the plot, never descending into overwhelming physicality.

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The supporting cast were clearly having a ball:  Simon Day (another Fast Show alumni) was thoroughly enjoying himself as a splendidly chappist Colonel Dedshott; Ben Miller hammed it up excellently as the evil Mr Bullimore, aided and abetted by David Mitchell as the scheming councillor Harold Haggerstone.  It was good to see Miranda Richardson (Queen Elizabeth in Blackadder II) as schoolteacher Miss Blitherington, who featured as part of a sub-plot (slightly laboured, I thought) about the professor's schoolgirl friend Connie (Madeline Holliday) wanting to become a scientist, with the message obviously being "follow your dreams" and the sexist, male-dominated world of the Fifties fair game.



Anyway, I won't give away any more of the main plot beyond saying that the professor and Connie must go up against the council and the devious Messrs. Bullimore and Haggerstone to try and save the prof's "Inventory" workshop - that just about sums up this riotous one-hour programme without leaving any spoilers!  Highlights for me in particular, I will just finish by saying, included the "mobile telephone", "Robot Father" and the results of the "wonderful photo liquid".  In truth the whole 60 minutes was a joy to watch, with some genuine laugh-out-loud moments.  While definitely aimed more at the younger viewer (I was surprised at the somewhat late hour it was initially put out at) it's certainly got something for all ages - including some wonderful '50s fashions! - and is thoroughly enjoyable.  The only pity was that the B.B.C. didn't promote it a bit more (a few trailers several weeks in advance of the 24th and one the night before were all I saw) and that it was only a one-off.  Still, with 13 books in the canon I'm sure there must be a series in there somewhere; let's hope Higson, Hill and most importantly Auntie Beeb can be persuaded to make it.  In the meantime the Professor Branestawm books have found another reader, as I'm off to read the stories on Google Books.

The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm was first broadcast on B.B.C. One at 8:30pm on 24th December.  Another showing will be on CBBC tomorrow at 8:30am and it will also be available on iPlayer for the next 4 weeks.  Those of you without access to the B.B.C. can view the trailers here and here, while the entire episode is here.


Sunday, 28 December 2014

The spirit of Christmas present(s)

Well, I don't know about you but Christmas 2014 went past in something of a blur for me, albeit a very enjoyable blur at that.  Now here we are already but three days away from 2015.  I blame the weekend, personally...  Actually I feel the real reason in my case was a combination of putting up the Christmas tree a week late on the 20th due to a head cold the previous weekend and working up until the afternoon of Christmas Eve.

Anyway I ended up having a lovely Christmas Day at my sister's (she does read this, so hello Sis! if you are - thanks again for the dinner and pressies!) where I was able to play Monopoly with people who actually wanted to for the first time in years (discovering my 19-year-old niece has usurped me as the family Monopoly Champion), enjoy a delicious roast beef dinner and listen to my brother-in-law's Hoagy Carmichael collection.  Bliss!



But of course, you'll want to see what presents I received!  Let's have a look, shall we?

My parents have been in Pittsburgh, PA visiting my aunt & uncle since the beginning of the month and aren't back until after the New Year, so as an early Christmas present mater bought me this spiffing wool jacket when we were browsing in the local TK Maxx (some impressive bargains to be had in that store if one's willing to sort through a lot of stuff) a few months ago.  It's been worn often in that time (including on Christmas Day itself) and is fast becoming a staple of m'wardrobe.


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However one thing that has long been missing from the same is an overcoat of similar [earth] colours for days when I'm in a country mood and wearing greens and browns (currently I have a number of blue/black coats only - plus the heavyweight 1940s Kaufmann's full-length wool jobby from m'aunt, which is too good for day-to-day wear).  It looked like being a long and ultimately fruitless search for an inexpensive brown or green ¾- or full-length coat that wouldn't risk making one look like Arthur Daley/Inspector Clouseau/a flasher, until an old favourite online emporium - Samuel Windsor - came to the rescue with their Country Coats sale.  Now the splendid-looking Bedale Tweed coat is winging its way to me as I type.

Just prior to Christmas I'd also order some new woollen ties from the same source, with a view to further augmenting my autumn/winter wardrobe.  I already have a few secondhand [skinny] woollen ties, which have stood me in good stead over the years, but I fancied some more [wider] ones including one or two in blue - an underrepresented colour in my tie collection's palette.  SW were able to oblige with four in very pleasant colourways - including a Navy and, interestingly, "Air Force" blue.


The fourth tie - not pictured here because I'm currently wearing it - is called Corn
a nice green-gold that will go well with both greens and browns.

As I may have mentioned my new office has a very relaxed dress code; fortunately that includes a relaxed attitude to me flouting it (showing them the way, more like!).  I initially took the opportunity to break out my cravats but as winter began to bite I started missing my ties.  I've always felt that woollen and knitted ties are more informal, so now I'm glad to have a few more from which to choose during these colder months.

My first work Secret Santa was a jolly affair and proof that they've "got me pegged", as my manager put it, as I received this nice little lapel pin in the form of Morgan Motor Cars' crest.  Quite an early example, too, dating from the 1940s so I'm told (the "secret" part of Secret Santa falling by the wayside somewhat when we all had to guess "who got who" at the end of the proceedings!).



Finally, my sister came up trumps again with a copy of Cooking For Chaps, the new cookbook for chaps and "the man about town" by editor of The Chap magazine Gustav Temple and professional cook Clare Gabbett-Mulhallen, plus an apron and tea-towel set featuring a splendid quote from Roderick Field - "Tea is the finest solution to nearly every catastrophe and conundrum that the day may bring"!  Quite right too! 

That's it from me for now; I'm looking forward to seeing what other vintage bloggers were given by Father Christmas, and to the forthcoming new year.  Plus I hope to have a few more posts up before 2014 draws to a close, which - along with all those for 2015 - I can't wait to start writing.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

A Vintage Christmas Carol

It's Christmas Eve, which must mean we're long overdue for another selection of festive ditties from down the years!  Well, you didn't think I would forget what is fast becoming an Eclectic Ephemera Christmas tradition, did you?  Once again I have delved into my Christmas music collection and scoured the dusty corners of YouTube to bring you some lesser-known Yuletide tunes, plus an extra special treat.

The [now rare] double CD Vintage Christmas Cracker, which I was fortunate enough to obtain before it became rarer than turkeys' teeth and which has formed the basis of my last four annual posts on the subject, once again provides a number of songs - but this time with a slight difference.  I'm sadly running out of dance and swing band versions of classic Christmas tunes so by way of a change this year I'll be focussing on some of the more traditional choral pieces that were also recorded during the 1930s.



"Uncle Mac's Christmas Carols" is a splendid collection of carols, some less well-known than others, sung by St Brandon's CDS Choir in Bristol.  With wonderful introductions by announcer Derek McCulloch, this medley was broadcast on the B.B.C. Light Programme in November 1939.



This version of Sleep, My Saviour, Sleep was a best seller in October 1932, when it was recorded by a ensemble singers calling themselves "The Celebrity Quartet".  They were:  Isobel Baillie (soprano), Muriel Brunskill (contralto), Heddle Nash (tenor) and Norman Allin (bass).



A Christmas carol without a boy soprano is like Christmas Day without turkey (says the man having beef).  Master Dennis Barthel takes the vocal here, with Herbert Lawson on the organ, at an unspecified location in London, October 1930.



John McCormack was a famous Irish tenor who was very popular on both sides of the Atlantic from c.1905-1930.  Here he performs O Come, All Ye Faithful in (sung in Latin as Adestes, Fideles), recorded in Camden, New Jersey almost one hundred years ago - 31st March 1915.



With a great deal of festive talk focussing on the centenary of the "Christmas Truce" on the Western Front, on the first Christmas Eve of the Great War (and British supermarket Sainsbury's moving and very well done Christmas advert) it is only right and fitting that Silent Night should feature here.  All the more so that it should be the German version Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht - to my ears as beautiful, if not more so, than in English - that would have drifted over the trenches one hundred years ago, to be answered in kind by the British soldiers with the result we know.  This version was recorded in Berlin, in September 1932, by the incongruously-named close-harmony group "The Comedy Harmonists".



A few years ago I featured two versions of Winter Wonderland, both recorded within a month of each other at the end of 1934 when the song itself was only months old, including the very first recording made for RCA by Richard Kimber and His Orchestra (the other version being Ted Weems').  At the time I rued the fact that the third, most successful version - performed by Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians in the same year - was the only one not on YouTube.  Well, now it is!  I'd not heard this arrangement before - quite jolly, don't you think?



Finally, I happened across this lovely video featuring everyone's favourite frog, singing one of my favourite songs from one of my favourite Christmas films - The Muppet Christmas Carol!  Funnily enough on Channel 4 earlier this evening (although I will be watching my old uncut *shakes fist at Disney executives* VHS copy later).  I can do no better than to echo the sentiment therein and wish you all, readers, followers, visitors, friends - a very Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Britain's first ever sci-fi film 'Message from Mars' restored



Britain's first ever sci-fi film 'Message from Mars' restored

You could be forgiven for thinking I had decamped to Mars myself, such has been the silence emanating from this blog over the past 6 weeks.  Exile to the Red Planet would be no less than I deserve for neglecting this place for so long; once again I find that work (plus the ubiquitous Christmas Cold, which struck last weekend but thankfully had worked its way through me by the Monday) has taken up more of my time than I realised.  Devoting more time to Eclectic Ephemera will definitely be a New Year's resolution, methinks!

Anyway, all these Martian metaphors are the result of this latest vintage news item - the completion of six months' restoration work on an historic British film:  this country's first full-length science fiction adventure!

The turn of the 20th century saw the birth of modern science fiction as we know it today; with the likes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells leading the way, whose novels and short stories have passed into literary history, taking their place as written masterpieces of the genre still enjoyed and adapted by people today.  Its should be no surprise that, with moving pictures emerging during the same period (a real-life example of science fiction becoming science fact!), these wondrous new stories should be acted out on screen by the pioneering cinematographers - the Lumière Brothers, Georges Méliès and others.

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It took until 1913 for Britain to get in on the act with the hour-long feature film A Message from Mars.  Adapted from a 1903 New Zealand stage play, which itself had successful runs in the U.K. and the Antipodes for 30-odd years, it was in fact the second dramatisation - the first was a 20-minute short film made in New Zealand in 1903 (and actually New Zealand's first ever movie - now sadly considered lost).  The British version of ten years later starred the famous actor-manager of the time, Charles Hawtrey (no relation to the later Carry On actor, who was born George Hartree and took the same stage name), and the story is remarkable for two reasons other than its science fiction bent.  It is rather Dickensian in its plot for a start (quite suitable for this festive season, eh?), with a miserly old codger being shown the error of his ways (except with a Martian replacing the Spirits!) and the alien being benign and helpful - a noticeable contrast to the likes of Wells' War of the Worlds or Méliès' Le Voyage dans la Lune

For decades the film languished in the vaults of the British Film Institute, existing in two parts - the latter damaged and incomplete.  This year, however, sterling work was undertaken by the Institute's restoration team to bring A Message From Mars back to its original condition, thanks in part to another print in the archives of the New York Museum of Modern Art.  The process of copying, repairing and retouching has obviously been a painstaking one but the result is magnificent.  You can see for yourselves, in fact, as the BFI - in conjunction with B.B.C. Arts - made the entire film available to watch for free on their respective websites.



Now this important milestone in British and science fiction film history can once again be seen just as it would have appeared on release one hundred and one years ago, ready to be enjoyed by [movie] history buffs and sci-fi fans old and new.  I take my hat off to the BFI for this and all the other hard work they undertake to preserve and restore our nations cinematographic history, as I sit down to watch the fantastic A Message from Mars.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Red Baron's WW1 fighter recreated



Red Baron's WW1 fighter recreated

With the the centenary of the First World War now well underway and the first Remembrance Sunday of the four-year long commemorations today, events and projects marking this momentous milestone and remembering all those involved in the conflict are coming thick and fast.

The subject of this post is one of the smaller projects in the grand scheme of things, but no less important for that - the latest replica of Baron Manfred von Richtohofen's infamous red Fokker Triplane.  I say "latest" as the Fokker Dr.1, to give it its proper designation, is one of the most popular World War One aircraft on the reproduction circuit thanks to its distinctive design and association with the greatest fighter ace of the time.  Indeed in many respects the red triplane has almost become synonymous with the Great War in the air, especially in the United States where many of them reside and where companies exist to manufacture kits.

The Dawn Patrol Rendezvous reenactors' Dr.1 at the National Museum of the U.S
Air Force, Dayton, Ohio, 2009 (source)

This new addition to the ranks resides and was built in Britain, however, by two enthusiasts at the Derby Aero Club.  Unlike some other replicas, which are often ­¾ or 2/3 scale, this one is also full-size and remarkably accurate to the original design - a testament to the owners' knowledge and attention to detail.  Hopefully we will see it at events around the country over the next four years (and beyond) - having experienced first-hand the Great War Display Team any further airworthy replicas are always welcome - perhaps they will all fly together one day!

D-EFTJ, a German replica, 2006
(source)


With several high-profile examples of flyable aircraft surviving from the Second World War it is easy to overlook the machines from the earlier conflict - original and airworthy types of which are few and far between.  Thus it falls to these modern replicas, built where possible to the highest detail, to remind us what flying and aerial fighting was like during the First World War and to honour the young men who flew them.  This Derby-built example is a worthy inclusion, and may there be many more!

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