My Favourite TV shows of 2017

December 17, 2017

These are fifteen of my favourite TV shows of 2017. Here they are in no particular order:




Decline And Fall

The Handmaid’s Tale



Big Little Lies

The Moorside



Babylon Berlin

Three Girls

OzarkThe State

The State

13 Reasons Why


I could have mentioned Alias Grace, Halt and Catch Fire, Line of Duty, The Deuce, or The Trip to Spain too. And I have not included any documentaries either. I might feature those in January.


Logos, the good, the bad and the downright obscene

March 26, 2017

Last week I listened to Radiotopia’s magnificent podcast about design 99% Invisible. The particular show featured an interview with award-winning designer Michael Bierut. He is author of How to use graphic design to sell things, explain things, make things look good, make people laugh, make people cry, and (every once in a while) change the world, which came out in 2015. He is a partner at Pentagram in New York City and is the man behind the Obama and Hillary’s logos for the last three presidential elections, as well as designing the sign outside of the New York Times building on 8th avenue and these signs outside the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, which elegantly remind dog owners of their responsibilities:

Logo is an abbreviation of logotype. Wanting to identify yourself, your work or your compsny is not new. In the past there were such things as coats of arms, signature seals, watermarks, silver hallmarks and literal brands. The first trademark legislation in England was passed by parliament during the reign of Henry III in 1266 and required all bakers to use a distinctive mark for the bread they sold. Nevertheless, it was the Bass red triangle which would revolutionise international brand marketing. in the 19th century Bass began applying red, blue or green triangles to their casks of Pale Ale depending on which of their three breweries they came from. After 1855 the triangles were all red and on January 1st 1876 the Bass Red Triangle became the first trademark to be registered under the UK’s Trade Mark Registration Act 1875. The rest is history.

Logos come in all shapes sizes and styles. Bierut has identified three types

  1. wordmarks: Google, Disney and Coca-Cola
  2. pictorial logos: Apple, Shell and Mercedes Benz
  3. abstract iconography: Adidas, Chanel and the Nike Swoosh

These are archetypes and a design may have more than one feature. For example, the famous I love NY combines 1 and 2.

The interview on 99% Invisible is called Negative Space Logo Design with Michael Bierut. The concept of negative space is essential for understanding many logo designs. Positive space refers to the areas in a logo that are the subjects, or areas of interest. negative space is area around the subjects. The classic example is the one when you either see two faces or a vase.

If you are seeing a vase, then you are seeing the white area as the positive space. The black areas become the negative space. If you see two faces, then you are seeing the black areas as the positive space and the white area as the negative space.

This allows designers to be very playful in what they do. They can often conceal messages. A famous example is the FedEx logo, which has am arrow between the E and the X:

Many other companies have hidden messagrs in their logos:

Baskin Robbins are famous for their 31 ice cream flavours and you can see the number in the logo:

The first letter in the Pinterest logo resembles a pin:

The Amazon logo has two for the price of one. First, the arrow points from “a” to “z”, suggesting the huge range of goods Amazon offers. And secondly, the entire thing looks like a smiley face:

Logos can be overrated. In the end they derive their meaning and usefulness from the quality of the company or organisation they represent. If a company is second rate the logo will eventually be perceived as a failure. Colour is a key element in logo design and plays an important role in carving out a brand identity. Colours acquire connotations and associations, though these will vary in place ant time. Here is achart I found online which shows how colours are used by companies:

Since the fist appearance of the red Bass triangle in the 19th century logos have conquered the world. but not everyone is happy with this. Sometimes logos can be attacked. One group who have been active for nearly three decades are the Adbusters Media Foundation. The Canadian not-for-profit, anti-consumerist, pro-environment activists are famous for their campaigns – Buy Nothing Day, TV Turnoff Week and Occupy Wall Street. I do not share their ideology but I do enjoy their spoofing of popular companies and advertisements.

Here are a couple of examples:

Sometimes, though, the damage is self-inflicted. One recent example is the logo for Trump Pence in 2016. Onceyou’ve seenit, it is impossible to unsee it :

When logos go wrong, sex is often the cause. Here are some examples that I found online:

Locum – a Swedish real estate company.


Catholic Church’s Archdiocesan Youth Commission

I do have my doubts if they are all real.   This has been my brief tour of the fascinating world of logo desgn.

A couple of videos

March 26, 2017

Here are a couple of videos about logos:

Michael Bierut talks about what makes a truly great logo.

22 Hidden Messages In Famous Logos

Martin’s quirky movies #5 Confederate States of America

February 12, 2017


Loyal readers of my blog will know that I am a big fan of counterfactual history. In fact I dedicated a blog post to it – In defence of counterfactuals. As well as bringing history to life, they make a serious point: we live in a chaotic, uncertain world. When we study history, we need to be aware that things could have turned out differently. I am also a fan of counterfactual historical fiction. Recently I finished reading The Underground Airlines, the 2016 novel by Ben Winters, set in an alternate United States where the American Civil War never occurred and where slavery is still legal in the “Hard Four” southern states. Reading this book motivated me to go back to a film I had seen more than a decade ago in the days when I would actually go the cinema.

The film I am referring to is C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. It has a similar premise to Winters’s novel. This 2004 mockumentary, directed by Kevin Willmott, imagines a Southern victory with the result of the creation of the Confederate States of America. he film has various elements. What I love is the way Willmott blends reality and fiction. The central conceit of the mockumentary is a fake documentary within a fake documentary. This documentary is produced by the British Broadcasting Service. As it’s supposedly being broadcast on television, it is interspersed with faux commercial breaks.

The sad thing is that many of the products advertised really did exist: Sambo X-15 Axle Grease, Darkie Toothpaste, Gold Dust washing powder, Niggerhair cigarettes and the Coon Chicken Inn restaurant. This type of racism is not so distant. I can still remember the Robertson’s golly or the Black and White Minstrel Show when I was growing up.

There are fake adverts giving a modern take on the slave trade. We have the Slave Shopping Network and its slave auctions:
States of America. The film has various elements. What I love is the way Willmott blends reality and fiction. The central conceit of the mockumentary is a fake documentary within a fake documentary. This documentary is produced by the British Broadcasting Service. As it’s supposedly being broadcast on television, it is interspersed with faux commercial breaks.

The sad thing is that many of the products advertised really did exist: Sambo X-15 Axle Grease, Darkie Toothpaste, Gold Dust washing powder, Niggerhair cigarettes and the Coon Chicken Inn restaurant. This type of racism is not so distant. I can still remember the Robertson’s golly or the Black and White Minstrel Show when I was growing up.

There are fake adverts giving a modern take on the slave trade. We have the Slave Shopping Network and its slave auctions:

And once you have the slave what better than an electronic shackle to keep control of your property:

These ads may be fake, but there was said to be Drapetomania, a mental illness that caused Black slaves to want to flee captivity. It was first diagnosed in 1851 by American physician Samuel A. Cartwright, who said that this disorder was “unknown to our medical authorities, although its diagnostic symptom, the absconding from service, is well known to our planters and overseers.” He put it down to masters being overfamiliar with their slaves, treating them as equals:

If treated kindly, well fed and clothed, with fuel enough to keep a small fire burning all night–separated into families, each family having its own house–not permitted to run about at night to visit their neighbours, to receive visits or use intoxicating liquors, and not overworked or exposed too much to the weather, they are very easily governed–more so than any other people in the world. If any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy. They have only to be kept in that state, and treated like children to prevent and cure them from running away.

Willmott alluded to Cartwright in another of the ads:

When you create counterfactual history like this, you create an alternate universe. Indeed, there are many differences. The film’s official website contains an expanded timeline of the history of the C.S.A. In this world the Civil War is known as The War of Northern Aggression. President Lincoln is not assassinated at the Ford Theatre, but lived in disgrace until 1905. President William McKinley’s assassin is an abolitionist rather than anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Rosa Parks is identified as a Canadian terrorist and a member of the J.B.U, the “John Brown Underground”. It is the confederate flag which is planted on the moon. Tim McVeigh blows up the Jefferson Memorial in Oklahoma City, with his execution being broadcast on pay-per-view. The “Muslim Menace” looms large. The Gulf Wars become the first and second Crusades, whose goals include regime change, the guarantee of oil supplies, and the conversion of the entire population to Christianity. Perhaps the history is not so alternate after all.

The ultimate message of the film is that maybe the South did win. That many of their attitudes did prevail. This is a complex question. Incredible progress has been made. The idea of an African- American president would have seemed like science-fiction barely a generation ago. The great institutional barriers have gone, but structural inequality is another matter.

My Favourite TV shows of 2016

December 18, 2016

These are twelve of my favourite TV shows of 2016. Here they are in no particular order:

National Treasure


American Crime

Silicon Valley


The Americans

The Crown



OJ: Made in America

The Night Manager


I could also have included:

Black Mirror

Happy Valley

American Crime Story: The People Vs OJ Simpson

Deutschland 83

Halt and Catch Fire

Line of Duty

Better Call Saul

Blue Eyes

This would make a top 20, although I’m sure I must have left a few out.


The Barry Goldwater ads revisited

November 6, 2016

The 2016 campaign has some fascinating parallels with the 1964 one. In particular, the Democrats were able to target Goldwater with some brilliant political ads. One was the famous Daisy ad, with three-year-old Monique M. Corzilius:

The second was the Confessions of a Republican featuring actor William Bogert, a Republican supporter, a requirement of the casting:

Both these controversial ads were produced by the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency.

The Clinton campaign got Corzilius to reprise her role for 2016:

And Confessions of a Republican was also rebooted with 80-year old Bogert back:

Will they be as effective as they were in ’64? We’ll know soon enough.



In praise of documentaries

October 30, 2016

If, like me, you are a fan of the documentary format, then you really are spoilt for choice. The BBC, HBO, PBS AND YouTube are such wonderful sources of the genre. Looking online, I found these rather unsatisfactory definitions of documentary:

A film or television or radio programme that provides a factual report on a particular subject. Oxford

A movie or television program that tells the facts about actual people and events. Merriam Webster

According to the latter definition, David Attenborough hasn’t been making documentaries for over half a century. And does the use of words like facts and factual really apply to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, Michael Moore’s entire oeuvre or indeed Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation Kazakhstan?

While it is true that if you look at the biggest-grossing films of the last twenty years, you will not find any documentaries, they have become increasingly successful at the box office. Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth and Super Size Me have all enjoyed some success.

Documentaries have come in for a number of criticisms. The most damaging are those about their relationship with the truth. There have been famous cases of manipulation and staging. In nature documentaries Close-up shots may actually be of zoo animals, or rented animals in a pen. IN 2011 it emerged that BBC’s Frozen Planet had included footage of a captive polar bear cub at a Holland zoo. What must surely be the most notorious incident occurred in Disney’s 1958 White Wilderness, which was given an Oscar. They bough some lemming for 25 cents each and forced them to jump. The camera angles cleverly covered up any involvement by the filmmakers. Not content with that, they also pushed a polar bear down a steep snow-covered hillside in order to get a few laughs.

There is also the question of bias. I find the films a bit too much, although there are some memorable scenes. Who can forget him being offered a gun for opening a bank account in Bowling for Columbine? The Netflix true crime docuseries, Making a Murderer is said to have left out important incriminating evidence against Steven Avery out. In this sense I like Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans, a controversial documentary about Arnold and Jesse Friedman, father and son, who were accused of child molestation during the 1980s. Although Jarecki believed that the two were innocent, he chose to present the material in an objective manner.

Another common criticism is that of dumbing down. It’s a difficult line between popularising and vulgarising. There are times when I feel a bit patronised. For example if you watch Discovery, which I am not wont to do, they spend most of the time telling you telling you you’ve just seen or what’s coming up next. It is very irritating. And if you have only one hour, it is difficult to avoid oversimplification. These days sprawling series like Jacob Brownoski’s Ascent of Man or Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation seem to be less prevalent. Nevertheless for the discerning viewer I think there are excellent documentary series. And, thanks to YouTube, many classic can be seen online.

I know there are some wonderful nature documentaries, but I have to say that I am more drawn to the ones involving humans. I do have some favourites. Ken Burns makes some spectacular programmes. He does not cater for the short attention span. His biographies of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mark Twain really bring their subjects to life. And his three-part history of prohibition illuminates the madness of the short-lived eighteenth amendment. Then we have Adam Curtis. His documentaries include The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, The Trap, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace and Bitter Lake. I have just seen his latest, HyperNormalisation, which is about “how we got to this strange time of great uncertainty and confusion where those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed and have no idea what to do”.  I love the way he gets you to engage with some off-the-wall ideas and I don’t where he finds the archive footage, but he is a singular talent. I could have mentioned Louis Theroux or the BBC’s wonderful Storyville series. There is just so much great stuff out there.

One thing I have realised while doing this post is the documentaries that I haven’t seen. These include Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line or a number of Ken Burns works. Luckily, I have You Tube, although I’m not sure where I’ll be able to find the time. I will finish with a list of my favourites. Here they are in alphabetical order:

Capturing the Friedmans



Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Making of a Murderer

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

The Century of the Self

The Jinx

Waltz with Bashir

When We Were Kings