20 July 2016

Sinclair MK14

As with so many Sinclair projects, 1979's MK14 was a miniature computer with an equally diminutive price tag: £39.95. Notable for bringing cheap computing into our homes, those of us used to current technology may well be disappointed by the MK14's specification. Rest assured that while little more than a circuit board with a keypad and calculator-style nine-digit display, the MK14 was cheap and groundbreaking, simply by virtue of allowing anyone - not just those computer scientist boffins - to get their hands on a real, live computer. Selling over 50,000 in its time, the MK14 has since become incredibly rare, and a working MK14 is highly-prized amongst Sinclair collectors.

This single board computer didn't even have a case - there simply wasn't the option available. A tall, narrow circuit board held the various chips, which varied depending on the skill and enthusiasm of the owner: the MK14 came in kit form, so while every MK14 featured the SC/MP 2 processor, the amount of memory on there varied from 256 bytes all the way up to 640. How did this work? 256 bytes came as standard, but another 256 could be soldered onto the board, giving a grand total of half a kilobyte. And if 512 bytes just weren't enough, the optional 8154 I/O controller chip provided a further 128 bytes. In addition to this overwhelming bounty of RAM, the MK14 was also equipped with 512 bytes of ROM. The MK14 also had two edge connectors, one for attaching a better keyboard to the machine, the other simply allowing the user access to the processor's signals: an expansion port, in other words; the fore-runner to the similar feature of the ZX series.

Sir Clive was already into membrane keyboards at this point, and the 20-key membrane has much in common with the dodgy input methods that plagued early users of the ZX80, ZX81 and ZX Spectrum computers. Just to the left of the keypad was a red push button, which would reset the machine. The twenty keys were shared out into the sixteen characters necesssary for hexadecimal input, while the remaining four keys were assigned as 'Go', 'Mem', 'Abort' and 'Term'. 'Go' began program execution at the current address, 'Mem' moved on to the next address and allowed the user to assign it a hexadecimal value. 'Abort' moved to address entry mode, where the user could quickly change to a different address, rather than cycling through, and 'Term' provided a data entry mode, where memory contents could be quickly changed using the keypad.

At the heart of the MK14 was National Semiconductor's SC/MP 2 - the Simple Cost-effective Micro-Processor, running at 4.4MHz. Intended for use in control applications, the SC/MP chip was cheap, and perfect for learning about programming. Interaction with the user took place through a nine-digit display, although the machine required some hardware modification to actually use the ninth digit.

Veterans of the early ZX computers will remember how the processor would halt the display routines whilst calculating. Although the MK14 could be expanded to use a CRT, it also suffered from this peculiar but necessary design feature. Nevertheless, a 32x16 text mode and 64x64 graphics mode, although monochrome, was impressive for the time, and undoubtedly paved the way for the ZX80.

09 July 2016

Up Pompeii!

'A sort of Carry On Up The Forum' (Radio Times Magazine)

Up Pompeii combined saucy Carry On style comedy with elements of farce to produce a well-loved vehicle for Frankie Howerd, in the role of Lurcio, to 'tickle the fancy' of the entire British public.
Beginning with a 1969 pilot episode, running through 1970 and culminating in the 1971 film version, Up Pompeii was a runaway success. Fourteen BBC episodes were made, featuring a regular cast and guest stars such as Barbara Windsor, Pat Coombs, Geoffrey Hughes and Mollie Sugden. It is for Frankie Howerd's impeccably smutty delivery that the show is truly remembered, however, proving once again that there's always room on British television for plenty of sexual innuendo and camp capers.

The format of the show was simple but effective. Lurcio was the slave of government senator Ludicrus and his buxom wife, Ammonia. Every episode, despite its innocent beginnings, would expand into a complex, usually life (or at the very least job) threatening mess, from which Lurcio would escape only through the most ingenious wriggling. Howerd toyed with the role mercilessly, dropping in an out of character as he pleased, making mocking asides to the camera, playing along with the audience in his own distinctive way. Even the plot was subject to Howerd's good-natured mockery, as he'd call the viewer's attention to the implausibility of what was going on, questioning the standard of his fellow actors and the ability of the script-writers. Far from detracting from the comedy value, Howerd's presence made the show what it was, and was, in all probability, essential to the BBC being allowed to get away with the cheap polystyrene sets and dodgy-looking costumes. When they're pointed out to you by the star of the show and you're invited to laugh along, it's difficult to find anything to complain about.

The writers of the show, Talbot Rothwell and Sid Colin, were both writers for the Carry On series of films, which explains the smut and innuendo that found its way into Up Pompeii  Furthermore, the series itself owes much to the Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To the Forum, in which Frankie Howerd had already taken two roles - that of Prologus and Pseudolus. Radio Times, in fact, accurately described Up Pompeii as 'a sort of Carry On Up The Forum'.

Following the success of Up Pompeii  the writers, along with Howerd, retained the format of the show but, in a move similar to that of the later Blackadder series, shifted to a different historical period. The film Up The Chastity Belt, 1971, featured the writing skills of comedy veterans Alan Simpson and Ray Galton in collaboration with Sid Colin, and repositioned Lurcio as Lurkalot, hapless serf in the Crusades. Up The Front, from 1972, pushed Howerd forwards as the under-footman Lurk. Back on the BBC, Whoops Baghdad attempted to set Up Pompeii in an Arabian Nights scenario, whilst a 1975 Up Pompeii special really signified the end of the franchise's success, though not the end of further cashing-in attempts.

There is no doubt, however, that Up Pompeii was, and indeed still is, a classic British comedy. With Howerd's larger than life stage presence, limitless supply of saucy catchphrases and an entire legion of risqué and witty names (Ambi Dextrus, Pussus Galoria, Scrophulus, Scrubba and Tittia are but five which spring to mind...), the show was pretty much bound for success, and well worth half an hour's hilarity out of anyone's busy schedule...

' As Cleopatra said to Marc Antony: if you liked it, tell your friends!' (Lurch)

Sources: BBC Website, IMDb, Beebfun

07 July 2016

Hot Water Pastry

Hot water pastry is a strangely-made but traditional pastry used for making raised pies. This includes the venerable pork pie, most popular in the UK (and one or two other places), but also extends to include veal or game pies. What distinguishes a raised pie from an everyday pie is the lack of pie dish. The pie itself is placed on a baking tray, and the sturdy walls of pastry are left to hold in the filling as best they can. Correctly made hot water pastry is easily up to the job, however, and constructing a hand-raised pork pie is an excellent excuse to melt a block of lard and stir in some flour.

Okay, there's a little more to it than that, but not much. Hot water pastry is simple, perhaps because it seems to break all the rules held most dear to the experienced pastry chef. Keeping it cool, refraining from overworking the mixture - all of that means nothing when it comes to hot water pastry. Something of a masochist, this pastry likes it hot and will thank you kindly for a good beating...

You'll need:
350g (12 oz) plain flour
A pinch of salt
1 egg yolk
4 tablespoons of milk
4 tablespoons of water
25g (1 oz) butter
75g (3 oz) lard

Begin by sifting the flour and salt into a bowl and making a well in the centre. Mix the egg yolk with one tablespoon of the milk and pour it into the well. Don't worry about it needing to be cold; warm milk and flour is perfectly acceptable for hot water pastry, mainly because in a moment you're going to heat the lard, butter and remaining milk and water in a saucepan.

Only heat it gently at first, just to allow the lard to melt, and then bring it to a brisk boil. Pour this into the well and mix until everything is completely blended. By this time your mixture should have cooled to the point where you can comfortably handle it, in which case it's time to tip it onto a floured work surface.

Knead it thoroughly until the pastry is smooth, at which point the pastry needs to rest for about half an hour. Keep it warm as it rests - the best way being to place in a bowl over a saucepan of hot water. Covering it with a clean cloth at this point is also beneficial.

Following this the pastry can be rolled out to a thickness of about 5 mm (quarter of an inch) and used as required. To create a pie case the pastry can be moulded around the bottom of a jar. Upon removing the jar it can be filled with whatever takes your fancy - rich pork and onion filling or a beef and gravy mixture - and topped off with a pastry lid before baking. Delicious!

Hot Water Pastry: Merely one of a series of adventures in the peculiar realms of British cuisine!