Last year Bill Heine conned me into saying yes to a charity event before I knew what it was. When I discovered I’d said yes to Strictly Oxford 2015, I was rather terrified to say the least.
Although I remain terrified (perhaps now more than ever) I’m very glad I said yes to it. We’re raising money for Vale House, Oxford – a specialist care home providing dignified end of life care for those in the final stages of dementia. Something I know from personal experience is utterly essential for those living with dementia (and their families too).
Seven weeks ago I had no idea how to do any ballroom or latin steps, and now I’m facing the prospect of dancing jive, American smooth waltz and a Charleston/quick step combo in front of hundreds of people at the New Theatre, Oxford on 25th April.
We’ve been given expert tuition by the professionals at the Step by Step dance school in Headington, Oxford, and they’ve really worked miracles with us. 15 non-dancers are suddenly doing (what I think is) a rather complex jive routine, an elegant waltz, and exciting freestyle routines. It’s been a huge amount of fun, and I’ve met some wonderful people along the way – including my brilliant (and extremely patient) dance partner Beverley.
We’ve only got two more training sessions to go before the big day, and I already think I’m going to be very sad when it’s all over. It’s been an absolutely amazing opportunity.
So, if you can join us on the 25th April at the New Theatre Oxford, you can pick up some tickets here. It all helps with the fundraising for Vale House.
For the best part of a year now, we’ve been working on a new project – and on Tuesday 30th September (which is incidentally the 49th anniversary of the first transmission of Thunderbirds in the UK) we’ll be launching it on crowdfunding website – Kickstarter.
The project itself is called Firestorm. A number of Gerry Anderson fans will be aware of the title – the show was originally produced by a Japanese company in an anime/CGI crossover style they titles “SuperAnime” (after the famous Supermarionation style of Dad’s 1960s series). But the niche interest in anime, combined with the fact that there was no English dub, meant the series never made it outside of Japan and South East Asia.
By the time the Japanese version of Firestorm made it to the screen it had undergone significant changes from the original Gerry Anderson concept. But we’re going back to the original outline, synopses and story ideas, and redeveloping the series from there.
Over the last year Anderson Entertainment has secured the rights to all future series/remakes of Firestorm, and have been developing the series. We decided very early on to use a combination of film-making methods and styles that are entwined with the Gerry Anderson universe.
We’re heading back to practical filming – with as many in-camera elements as possible. Physical sets and props, practical effects, miniatures and – perhaps surprisingly – puppets. The new combination of elements is something we’re calling Ultramarionation.
We want to get the series rolling with a pilot episode funded using Kickstarter. This will allow Anderson Entertainment to keep full creative control over the series, to make sure we can keep is as true and pure to the Gerry Anderson series that so many generations have enjoyed over the last 60 years.
More details about the puppetry method and other information about the cast and crew will be announced in the coming days.
The Firestorm Kickstarter campaign launches on 30th September at 9.30am (UK time), and runs until 2nd November.
His response? “If they can find it, they’re welcome to it!”.
So, not long after his death the wheels were set in motion to have his brain and spinal cord removed, examined and stored for research.
My feelings about this? Pride.
I wasn’t sad, upset, angry or anything else. It just made me immensely proud that my father had made this decision.
Why do brain banks need brain donations?
The scientific and medial community don’t fully understand dementia – whether Alzheimer’s, Parkinsonian, or any other type. We know a lot more than we did 10 years ago, but not enough to truly understand the diseases and get to grips with them in order to find a treatment or cure.
By studying diseased AND normal brains (and comparing the two), researchers can begin to understand and identify the mechanisms which cause disease, why it happens in the first place, and how to stop (or perhaps prevent) it.
The more brains that are studied, the better the chance of finding a treatment or cure that works for everyone.
Emotions running high
I spoke with Petrie Hosken on LBC on 1st June about this, but rather than focusing on the importance of tissue donation – a lot of those who hit out at the suggestion that more brains should be donated tended to be saying “it’s my brain, I should have the right to decide what happens to it”, while in the same breath saying that the feelings of the deceased loved ones had to be taken into account, and must be valued above all others in the minutes, hours and days after a loved one’s death.
You can’t have it both ways.
In my view – there is no way that relatives should have any power to reverse a loved one’s decision about tissue donation – unless they were not of sound mind when they made the choice.
Although one’s gut reaction to taking a loved one’s brain out of their skull after death might be a little unpleasant, if you look past the gut reaction just a little, then surely it makes sense to always opt for brain donation?
By donating brain tissue the deceased is making a positive impact on the world long after they are gone. In fact – if research on that brain tissue ended up improving treatment for a disease like dementia – their donation could end up improving (and perhaps saving) the lives of hundreds of thousands of people – including the friends and relatives they leave behind.
If the brain isn’t donated? Then one of nature’s most incredible objects – one of the most complex and intricate in the known universe – ends up rotting in the ground or being incinerated.
Surely, it’s a no-brainer? (Pun intended).
Status quo bias
So why do we get so upset about this topic? I think it has a lot to do with our outdated “opt-in” tissue donation system.
We grow up in a culture where we can decide to add our names to a list which will allow doctors and scientists to make use of our organs.
We have an 11% consent rate.
If you were born in Austria you would grow up with a different mindset. There they have an “opt-out” system. By default your organs are made available to those in need of transplants etc. but you have the option to opt out of the scheme.
The Austrians have a 99.98% consent rate.
Is that because Austrians are kinder, more thoughtful, and altruistic by nature? Possibly. (It’s not this. Culturally Austria and Germany are similar, but Germany’s opt-in system yields a 12% consent rate!). But the most likely reason is that we humans are inherently lazy. Most people accept the default option and never bother to take action to change it, unless they feel strongly about it.
The best option here would be implied consent with an option to opt-out. I’ve discussed this before in a post about Jennifer’s Choice.
Brain donation options
If you’d like to sign up for brain donation – then you can contact any one of the UK’s brain banks to find out more, and to sign up. You’ll need to do this until we change our system to an opt-out, rather than an opt-in one!
It doesn’t matter if you die with a healthy or a diseased brain – it will be of use in helping future generations – and potentially your loved ones and friends.
“Oh, we’ve spent a lot of time using focus groups to fully develop this show.”, he said.
“We’ve really made sure that what we’re doing fully engages the target audience.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
“We asked the kids exactly what they wanted from a TV show, and so we carefully adapted the show to help meet their expectations.”
I tried to mask a huge sigh, but probably failed.
Believe it or not I recently heard all of these statements in a single meeting, and I felt nothing but sadness (and a little splash of anger and frustration too). It got me thinking… Why are we so obsessed with using focus groups? Can focus groups really be the solution to making the best entertainment possible?
The more I think about it (and I’ve thought about it a lot over the last year) the more I realise… Focus groups are used not to improve the quality of the series or film they are producing, but to cover the arses of the executives involved with them.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting for a minute that collaboration and creative input from multiple parties isn’t important feature of the creative process. Far from it in fact – I’d say it’s essential. If you’re a creative and you don’t have anyone around you to call you out on your bullshit, then you are in trouble. But there’s a huge difference between creative collaboration and the creatively sterilising effect of trying to please everyone who might see your creation.
Using a focus group to help plan a creative project is disastrous. And when it comes to using children’s focus groups to develop new television and film projects – I begin to get particularly angry and frustrated.
When you say to a kid: “Do you like this?” you are asking the child for their subjective experience of whether or not they enjoyed something. And that’s interesting and potentially useful. But as soon as you start to ask kids what they would like to see, and what their ideal show would be then you’re staying a dangerous descent down a slippery slope.
The answers you are likely to receive will likely revolve around another show they have already seen. You may not think that’s a problem, but I’m here to tell you that it is a major problem.
If all information derived from focus groups is based on recommendations from members of the public that allow producers to gradually close-in on an average crowd-sourced likeability then what is going to happen? Shows relying on focus groups begin an inevitable decline into mediocrity. With each successive cycle of focus-group-based development we see increasingly mediocre shows, and so on. What a depressing picture this paints.
Let’s step back for a minute and look at some creative masters in a wider context. How about we start with music?
Endless efforts have been made to scientifically study the music of Mozart and Beethoven to quantify and objectively measure what makes their symphonies and concertos such masterpieces. The hope of these exercises is to distill these masterpieces down to their most basic elements. That would allow composers (or even machines, perhaps) to compose new masterpieces using some sort of formula. So have these efforts worked? Of course not – it’s not possible to formulaically create a masterpiece!
The thing that made their masterworks so unique and timeless was the singular creative genius of these men.
Even if it were possible to formulate a way of writing music to challenge the mastery of these men, it would soon be home defunct as the things that truly make them special is the way their compositions stand out in the context of everything else. The colour black seems most black against a white background and vice versa. By making everything special you inadvertently make everything average.
So focus group use in creativity not only stifles creativity, even if it were to achieve its goal of improving a series towards this “best fit” that executives are aiming for, it would inadvertently make the show average. But this part of my argument is pointless… Focus groups don’t help make a winning product.
So what is the real purpose of these groups? In my view, whatever the executives say – the primary use is so that if the show bombs the exec can say- “but the focus groups said…”. It gives them a get out of jail free card. It’s seems as though these focus groups have become a sorry of equivalent to due diligence in finance. As long as you can cover your arse with a paper trail then everything will be fine, and maybe you won’t get fired. Maybe.
We have to wonder about how many shows never made it because of failings at the stage of development involving focus groups. Their lack of effectiveness is so easily hidden. If a show succeeds having had a positive review from focus groups – thank goodness for the focus group. Of it fails then the focus group get out of jail free card is used and the exec makes sure he uses them next time… After all, it gave him an excuse watertight enough that he was able to keep his job despite the failure of his project.
Doctor Who failed miserably at the focus group stage during its 2005 rebirth, and that could have spelled disaster for producer Russell T Davies if he hadn’t managed to conceal the result from BBC executives. I’m fairly sure that all the BBC bosses since then are glad that the focus group results were kept from them.
But there is a more serious reason why focus groups can only be damaging to a creative driven industry like film and television production.
It takes time for new products to be adopted by the public. It generally takes a small passionate group of “sneezers” (people who get excited about something new and start telling everyone they possibly can) to get behind a new product and make it a success. This is down to familiarity and status quo bias amongst the general public – we don’t tend to like “new” and “different” things when they first appear – but once people begin getting excited this initial resistance can soon be broken down. The problem is that a focus group will only enforce these biases. How can genuinely new and exciting products ever reach the market when faced with these hurdles?
And yet despite all the patently obvious failings of using focus groups in developing new film and television – it seems that every creative industry is still obsessed with using these focus groups to drive and steer development of their output.
On a personal note – can you imagine what would have happened if my late father’s ideas had been presented to focus groups? He would have forever been making Andy Pandy and Muffin the Mule type productions. The focus groups would have shown that kids “enjoyed” and “wanted” more of the same – because that’s what they had been exposed to. If focus groups had existed in the late 50s and early 60s then we wouldn’t have shows like Thunderbirds to enjoy now. To produce something truly extraordinary and successful we need someone who is willing to take a risk and produce because they passionately believe in their idea.
Throughout history the best partnerships between creativity and business had been where a person with money gets behind a passionate creative. Dad was very lucky as he had Lew Grade as his patron for many years. But think of composers, artists, and producers who, throughout history, have been able to excel in their fields with the funding they need, given to them by wealthy patrons. Artists as diverse and important as Chrétien de Troyes, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson all sought and enjoyed the support of noble or ecclesiastical patrons.
These systems have produced some of the greatest music, art, theatre, television and film in human history. And none of these artists were told by their patrons: “Hang on, before you start your next work – I think we should ask a group of people what they’d like to see from you”.
Can you imagine if their patrons had said:
“Sorry Leo, she’s just not smiling enough. The focus group want to see a big grin on her face.”
“Really, Bill? ‘Romeo and Juliet’? The focus group said they didn’t like the name Romeo. They thought ‘Conan’ sounded more heroic.”
But as long as the corporate obsession with using focus groups to give creativity continues, those corporations will drive themselves creatively and financially bankrupt, and real genuine examples of genius-driven creativity will be harder and harder to find.
Over the years Dad came up with lots of project ideas… many of which became incredibly popular. Others didn’t quite make it. Some were just discarded before getting to a scripting stage. Others made it to scripting and storyboarding but were then chucked out. A few made it to pilot film stage and most notably these include the Investigator, The Day After Tomorrow, and Space Police.
I spent many happy hours watching (and re-watching (and re-re-watching)) the pilot for Space Police – which would eventually be transformed and made as Space Precinct almost a decade later.
It felt quite grown-up when I was watching it as a 6, 7 and 8 year old, but it also felt really accessible. The baddies were varied, funny, and only sometimes scary. Shane Rimmer’s voice was strangely reassuring (although I hadn’t yet consciously connected his name or voice with his best-known roll – that of Scott Tracy in Thunderbirds). I found the story really exciting – and despite watching it monthly for 3 years, I never grew tired of it.
So, when going through Dad’s archive after the funeral – I was disappointed not to find any copies of the script. Luckily Ralph Titterton was able to loan me a copy of the script (thanks, Ralph!) and I was finally able to see Dad and Tony Barwick’s intentions for the story. I found the process so fascinating, and enjoyed reading the script so much that I felt I had to share the screenplay with Gerry Anderson fans who might enjoy it.
So – we’ve spent the last couple of months putting the screenplay into a paperback, and also formatting it as an ebook. It was an interesting process, and the fact that I’ve been able to re-read the script several times has been a bonus!
We’re very lucky that Shane Rimmer (who played lead character Chuck Brogan) agreed to write a lovely foreword, and you’ve also got a tiny intro from me jabbering on about how much I loved the pilot film!
Anyway… now, it’s ready for you to enjoy!
You can get it for your Kindle, or for a couple of quid more pick up a copy of the beautifully designed paperback. You can buy the Space Police screenplay from Amazon.
Since my involvement with Alzheimer’s Society started, and throughout the time working with Dad to promote awareness and raise money, I’ve noticed something rather startling. Very few people have any significant knowledge about dementia or about how to deal with people with dementia. Bearing in mind 1 in 3 people over 65 and 1 in 2 people over 80 will die with dementia – it’s something that is going to affect us all eventually – whether we get the disease ourselves, or have a grandparent, parent, spouse or partner that is affected.
Combine this startling lack of knowledge with the stigma currently attached to dementia and we have a very naive population that are not ready for the massive increase in numbers of people suffering from the disease – there are already an estimated 800,000 in the UK, rising to around 1.7 million by 2050.
Over the last few months, I’ve had many friends, colleagues, acquaintances and even strangers contact me to ask for advice. Now, I’m not a doctor, or a dementia specialist… and I think this is the key point. I’m just someone with experience of living with and caring for someone with dementia, and how to cope with it. This suggests to me that people prefer talking to someone on a non-professional basis – and this can open the way to getting a diagnosis, help and treatment for the person they are worried about.
But there’s much more to Dementia Friends than this. Knowing how and when to help someone with dementia can be tough – but having dementia friends within the community will mean that there’s always someone around who can help… whether it’s helping someone find the right bus, or making sure local businesses are dementia-aware. Dementia Friends know how to act more sympathetically towards people with dementia in their communities and workplaces, and will undertake to turn that understanding into action to help people with dementia feel included in their communities.
I’m really looking forward to helping promote the initiative and to becoming a Dementia Friends champion myself in due course.
If anyone wanted to read or re-read the my eulogy for Gerry Anderson, my Dad at his funeral – I’ve transcribed it here:
“I’d like to start by reading you a reference that was written by Dad’s first ever employer – “Lewis’ Photos of Regent Street”. It was written in December 1944 when Dad was just 15.
“Mr G A Anderson was in the employ of this Company for about six months.
During that time he has shown himself to be honest and reliable, persevering, and always anxious to oblige.
He is leaving the company to better his position, and carries with him the good wishes of all”.
I think you’ll all agree that he went on to better his position – making a huge impact on the lives of millions, and leaving a phenomenal legacy behind him.
His RAF Certificate of Service and Release from 1949 stated:
“Corporal Anderson has been employed as a Radio Telephone Operator during his service in the Royal Air Force. He has proved to be a very capable NCO and RTO, and can be recommended to any employer as industrious and trustworthy”.
I think these documents go to show that: as you age, you don’t change. You just become more so.
Dad always told me that something wonderful happens when you die: You suddenly become a brilliant, amazing person, and nobody says a bad word about you. But he would be the first to admit that he made a lot of mistakes in his life.
So, I’m not going to talk to you about Dad’s television and film achievements, or go through a list of qualities he had. Instead, rather than talking to you about Gerry Anderson the TV producer; I’d like to share with you a few things about my dad.
My dad was not a great one for public recognition, but did enjoy the occasions on which he was recognised by fans of his work. In the early 1990s he was in London at some serviced apartments for a meeting. The caretaker who let him in instantly recognised him and said “Oh! Could I possibly have your autograph please” handing him a pad. Dad gleefully signed his name, and handed back the pad. Confused, and tiliting the pad from side to side, the caretaker said: “What’s this supposed to say? It doesn’t look anything like Donald Pleasance!”. Dejected, Dad proceeded to his meeting.
He loved keeping up with the latest gadgets. He was one of the first people in the UK to buy a VCR from Japan – the Philips N1500 in 1975. The guys at the sorting office had never seen one before, and so it never made it to Dad’s home. Being only a few years after the Post Office tower bombing: It was destroyed in a controlled explosion by the bomb squad! He was just too avant garde for some people.
My dad was amazing at creating drama. Not just in his productions, but in real life too. My brother, sisters and I all remember being told of the dangers of: riding bicycles, playing rugby, driving… even eating and drinking. He would tell us gruesome (but mostly made up) stories illustrating graphically how we might end up injured or worse if we took part in these activities. Terrifying images that stayed with us throughout our lives. But at the heart of it was a deep-seated anxiety to keep us safe and well.
He was once almost arrested at Edinburgh airport as he emerged from the ladies toilets to the sound of several startled women screaming. We all had to hide for a couple of hours afterwards to avoid detection.
My dad once made Thai fish soup with a very special ingredient: anti-fungal skin scrub that was intended for the dog. He insisted on eating a portion of the disgusting concoction before realising his mistake and phoning the vet for advice on how much damage it would do him. This led to our very kind vet adding a message to all future bottles of the shampoo: “Not to be used as an ingredient for soup”.
Finally he decided he would forgo the social stigma and embarrassment of people knowing he had Alzheimer’s disease, and became an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society – helping them raise over £1 million in the process. And it’s this that I’m most proud of him for; beyond all of his amazing television and film achievements.
Dad was very lucky to have some very special people in his life to help him along the journey. To those he worked with – what great teams you made, and what fantastic creations you shaped. To those who stuck by him as his Alzheimer’s progressed, and helped him make the most of his last months – thank you; you’ll never know quite how grateful he was. And to Mum – kinder and more caring than I thought humanly possible, Dad could barely express to me his gratitude for everything you did for him, and how lucky he felt to have you in his life.
Thank you everyone for coming to say goodbye to my dad.”
Please feel free to re-use sections of this, but please credit me, and this website.
Dad made no bones about the fact that suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease was one of the worst times of his life. He lost his driving license, his independence, his creativity, his memory, his identity and eventually his life to the disease. I think you’ll agree that’s a pretty terrible way to go. And that doesn’t even cover the half of it. Hallucinations, paranoia, emotional, and angry outbursts are some additional things you might experience, or observe, but of course as the sufferer – you can’t always see that it’s the disease that’s causing these changes. In fact, to you, you feel like the only sane one; like the World is caving in around you and nobody else can see it. But you’re normal, you’re sane… you haven’t lost your mind. At least that’s your experience as the person suffering from the disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is 60-80% heritable, or so geneticists estimate. That means that your chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease is around 60-80% down to your inherited genetics. So, as my father has recently died from the disease it’s at the forefront of my mind that I may well be carrying the genes that predispose me to, or may even cause, development of Alzheimer’s disease in my later years. Perhaps this is a selfish way to look at it. But, I’m a scientist at heart so it’s certainly of great interest to me. The personal connection just makes it more real.
So, I’m getting genotyped. By this, I mean I’m sending off a saliva sample to 23andme in order for them to characterise my genes. Part of this process will involve the geneticists looking at a range of my genes that may (or may not) predispose me to getting Alzheimer’s disease (as well as a range of other diseases including cancers and diabetes). In 2-3 weeks I’ll have my results which will tell me if I have any genes that specifically raise my chance of getting Alzheimer’s.
So what if my results come back positive; that is that I have a genetic makeup that gives me a very high (or at least an above average chance) of developing the disease. Well, this will have been the case whether I know it or not, but then I will be armed with the knowledge. And is knowledge power in these cases? I really do believe it is, and that it will become more powerful as science progresses. I certainly am not a believer in the “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” doctrine. Quite the opposite in fact.
New data about using diet, supplements, exercise, pharmaceuticals etc. to reduce the risk of developing AD is being published all the time, and knowing what I will know, I can make the informed decisions as to whether I will incorporate these decisions into my day-to-day life. If my risk is increased, then I can increase monitoring efforts, inform my GP that I am at higher risk, and be more ready if cognitive changes do start to occur.
I’ll update you in a few weeks when I get my results back. Then I will know. And knowing is half the battle.
I just wanted to write a quick note to thank everyone who has been kind enough to get in touch with us over the last 24 hours. We’ve received hundreds of e-mails, read through thousands of tweets, and receives many dozens of phone calls. Dad would have been utterly astonished by the response of the public and the media.
The most overwhelming thing has been the fact that so many people have been so touched by Dad’s work. Not just in terms of entertainment during their childhoods, but into adulthood – altering career paths and generating new interests, that might not have otherwise existed. This depth of influence has been incredibly striking for us, and as a family we truly appreciate the time you have all taken to contact us and share your thoughts, memories, and experiences.
We intend to keep Dad’s memory and legacy going as much as possible, and I will be writing about a number of upcoming projects in the near future.