06 August 2016


Enya Brennan (the anglicised version of Eithne Patricia Ní Bhraonáin) is a massively successful Irish singer, composer and instrumentalist, the second biggest Irish musical export after U2 and undoubtedly Ireland's best-selling solo artist. Although Enya herself dislikes the term, New Age describes her music best: heavily layered vocals (layered up to eighty times in some cases) and an almost wickedly excessive use of the Roland D-50's strings and pads. She's rather reclusive and has a habit of releasing music to massive sales and her own relaxed schedule, years apart.
Enya: The Group
The musical group Enya is actually a partnership. There's Enya, who composes and performs; the music is all hers, although guest musicians are occasionally roped in to perform specific parts. Roma Ryan creates lyrics, utilising a dizzying range of languages including her own invented language Loxian. English, Irish and Latin feature most prominently, but Welsh, French, Spanish, Japanese and one or two Tolkien languages have appeared. Nicky Ryan (yes, Roma's husband) produces.
Enya was born in 1961 to a musical family, and from a heavily musically-influenced childhood went on to form Clannad with various siblings and two twin uncles. A slightly acrimonious split led producer Nicky Ryan and Enya to the formation of the Aigle Studio and the kickstarting of Enya's solo career.
Two instrumental pieces appeared on the 2-track cassette album Touch Travel (Good luck finding that one; console yourself with the second track which re-appeared on Watermark.) and various tracks appeared on the soundtrack to The Frog Prince, a 1984 movie. The 1986 BBC documentary The Celts provided an opportunity for Enya's first real solo album, the self-titled Enya. It didn't attract much attention at the time, but in 1988 the album Watermark produced the hit single Orinoco Flow, familiar to many for its repeated chorus of 'Sail Away' and heavy use of the Roland D-50 pizzicato strings sound, 'Pizzagogo'. The Watermark album sold eight million copies.
From then onwards, Enya continued to enjoy massive success. Shepherd Moons sold ten million copies and earned a Grammy Award. The Celts was re-released, and followed some years later by The Memory Of Trees. Enya's work is used extensively in films of all kinds, sampled by bands as incongruous as The Fugees and P. Diddy, and is instantly recognisable as Enya. Enya currently has four Grammy awards under her belt, and (it probably goes without saying) is massively rich.
As with all things musical, Enya has her fair share of passionate loathers. At first listen, some may complain, the distinctive 'Enya sound' means that if you own one Enya album you own them all. In South Park. the soporific, stultifying air of Enya induces grandpa to insert a fork in a nearby electrical socket. You are, of course, free to make your own mind up, and throw Enya's music onto the still warm ashes of Chris de Burgh's massively successful Lady In Red. It'd be a sad world if we all liked the same things, now, wouldn't it?
Album Discography
Enya (later re-issued with slight modifications as The Celts)
Shepherd Moons
The Celts (a re-issue of the first album)
The Memory Of Trees
Paint The Sky With Stars (A best-of collection with two new songs)
A Day Without Rain
And Winter Came...

Dark Sky Island 

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