Inside Pitch Dec 88

I suppose with having spent three of the eight weeks between Sensation deadlines in the States, much of this Inside Pitch will inevitably be related to that excellent trip. I will keep the travelogue short. As for the rest of Inside Pitch, it covers the usual topics of games, books, TV, films, sport and people. If I get over this rather grotty flu bug then you may also find a quiz somewhere which you are invited to enter if only for me to see if anyone is out there.

The trip was basically unplanned apart from flights - I flew to San Francisco and returned from Boston. The general idea was to stay with Chuff for a few days in the Bay Area, head down the coast to the Monterey peninsula and then East to Boston to meet Brian Walker and Phil Murphy for the climactic visit to Alan Moon and the North Shore Game club. As I don't drive, I got around by foot, cabs, plane, Amtrak and Greyhound which if not as luxurious or inexpensive as a car was a damn sight more interesting. The weather was excellent and I got to just about everywhere I wanted apart from Denver which fell foul of an incompetent Amtrak clerk who failed to get me on the one-a-day train. Highlights were San Francisco, which with more time to explore becomes a correspondingly more appealing destination, and Boston which is a city I instantly liked. Very British in feel, lots of places to see including the excellent Computer Museum and a real sense of history. Nice women, too. Carmel remains as quaint and attractive as ever and a great place to stay, relax and eat. A fine trip and one I hope to do again for Origins next July, though possibly combined with Baltimore for Atlanticon.

Starting with sport, as you might expect I had a great time. ESPN was available in just about all the hotels I stayed in and I watched what I could. The net result is that I have a partially renewed interest in football that is more due to the college game than anything. I saw one of the best games I've ever seen in the Oklahoma v Oklahoma State game which featured the likely Heisman winner, Barry Sanders. The lead changed so many times I lost count and the fan rivalry really made it. Superb, I hope it appears on the ITV early morning slot over the winter. Watching football with a bunch of knowledgeable people as I did at Chuff's is also an eye- opener. As much as I may like to think I know a fair bit about American sports I am never going to match these people who have experienced it, first hand, since birth.

If you go to the States in November you don't expect to see any baseball. As luck would have it, I did, courtesy of ESPN. The Major Leagues sent a team of All Stars to Japan to play a seven game 'public relations' series. Some observers say it could, ultimately, lead to a true World Series which would at least stop these American chaps calling themselves World Champions without justification. Come to think of it, the Cubans may be interested as well. Anyway, the all conquering ML boys lost game 2-1 one behind the pitching of Hershiser and I saw game two on ESPN which showed that perhaps the Japanese aren't so bad after all. Danny Jackson was on the mound against a young ace from the Nippon Ham Fighters at the Tokyo Dome. The US lineup was Palmeiro, Larkin, Puckett, McGriff, Bonilla, Henderson, Burks, Laudner and Reynolds. The team was managed by Sparky Anderson who had chosen a team with power and speed, both of which the Japs have very little of. It worked fine for three innings with Jackson pitching perfect ball - they didn't seem used to the curves and the heat - but after that the Japanese tied it at 4-4 after eight and it went on to a 6-6 draw, which are of course allowed in the Japanese Leagues. It was a great game, the home team just kept coming back and weren't fazed by the American reputation that in previous tours had possibly hampered their performances. They certainly took it seriously. Unfortunately I missed the end of game five due to game playing commitments and I don't know the result of the series. If anyone knows the final outcome, please let me know. There is still no doubt that Japanese are of a overall lower standard than the majors and the US squad sent was hardly the best, but the days of a World Challenge between the US and Japan champions may not be all that far away.

What was unique about the coverage was the use of a bird's eye view camera, presumably mounted in the dome ceiling. This gave unusual and revealing shots which emphasised the size of the field, the speed of the game and the brilliant accuracy of the throwing. As friends of mine will know, I could watch baseball for appreciation of the fielding alone, luckily they throw in pitching and hitting as well. The camera seemed to be able to zoom in on various parts of the field so it was probably remote controlled but I am reminded of the system shown on Tomorrow's World a couple of years back which was a free moving camera mounted on wires above the playing surface. Anyone know if this came to fruition or is it yet more proof that anything appearing on Tomorrow's World never makes it to the real world?

While I was out there the Cy Young awards were announced and produced no real surprises. Hershiser's win in the NL was a foregone conclusion after his phenomenal season and 'my own' Frank Viola took the AL. I'm looking forward to getting my lineup arranged for next year's Gonzo season and I have the age old problem of whether to stick with a known but one year older team or to bring in some new blood. I think I will probably opt for a mix of the two and will do my utmost to recruit Jose Lind and, as much as it hurts, I may trade Mike Schmidt if anyone wants him.

Despite all this excellent action, THE sporting highlight was that after some rather incompetent haggling (on my part) with a tout, I got a seat at the Boston Garden to watch the Bulls play the below par Celtics. When I booked the holiday I had no idea of the NBA schedules so I was praying that the Celtics were at home when I was in town, that I could get a ticket from somewhere and that a decent team would be visiting. Looks like someone decided I should be lucky - Michael Jordan and the Bulls would have been my first choice right up there with the Lakers and the Sixers. Sounds good so far then? Sadly it was not quite that impressive as, despite several assurances to the contrary by the tout, I ended up with a partially obscured view. I could see seven-eighths of the court but unfortunately the obscured eighth had one of the baskets in it, unless I knelt down and extended my neck three feet. Mmmm. Luckily, the closed-circuit TV came to the rescue and the result was brilliant, the best atmosphere I've ever experienced and to cap it all the Bulls won a classic game. Jordan scored 52 points and had 9 steals and his amazing exploits were greeted with stunned silence from the stands. To say the man is in a different class sounds like exaggeration but with Bird injured and well below par he was simply brilliant. Though not perfect, I consider myself quite lucky to get in at all. It was probably worth going for this alone. Magic.

Having been away for so long I haven't seen much sport in the UK. I did get to go and see Woosnam win the European Open and also the Varsity Match at Twickenham and once again the latter was an excellent game. Apart from the fact that many of the players are top internationals anyway, what makes it special is the unique atmosphere and the enthusiasm of both teams to play hard against the old rivals. Excellent, if a little more dodgy than usual due to the extended drinking hours. I have never seen a bar with customers twenty deep waiting for beer. The only other sporting event of note is the amazing election of Steve Davis as Sports Personality of the year. Mammy.

The main features of the holiday were of course games and game playing. I visited about six or seven different shops and in general the Americans have it damn good. In general, the shops have massive ranges of just about everything you could want, all laid out in spacious surroundings and of course it is all at very reasonable prices with the dollar as weak as it is. The very best shops, like Games of Berkeley and Game Gallery in Carmel, have back issues of all the magazines, out of print games, accessories, the lot. They put those in the UK to shame. I managed to buy, off the shelf, back issues of F&M, S&T and Battleplan that would require a good deal of digging in the UK. Most of the games I bought are now available here but I did buy a new Cyberpunk based RPG which has some interesting ideas and I even managed to pick up SPI's Next War for $20 from a private seller to add to my collection - I have no real intention of playing either of these though. I also got Doolittle and Waite, a game about legal negotiations which I haven't seen over here but then we aren't quite as litigious a nation. This reminds me of a curious radio news item we heard in which a plaintiff seemed to be suing himself. As I said at the time, it was only a matter of time before this happened.

While visiting the above mentioned Games of Berkeley with Chuff, we spotted a notice announcing a new games group which was to meet on the last night I was to be in the Bay Area. Chuff seemed keen to go, and I certainly was, so he rang the organizer and we went along to the chap's house. Despite Chuff and I walking in with Junta and with me having plans to play anything halfway decent, we ended up confronted with a set up Civilisation board and seven eager social inadequates. Anyone who knows my views on this game you will know how I felt at that moment. Anyway, we were summarily condemned to play Rome so Chuff and I decided to play as a team, with him moving the pieces (I couldn't remember how) and me on the trading desk. As much as I hate to say it, I had a passably good time up to a point. Chuff played superbly and I pulled off some good trades and we were holding our own until the silly season started. The reason I dislike this game is because of the pathetic rules that enable a player to dump on a neighbour with famine etc or to give him a piracy card while trading. The effect of this was we were allocated an entire famine and other partial hindrances that stuffed us well and truly. To add to that we were playing with some pretty paranoid people who really cut back on trading as the game went on. Chuff thought the rules were intended to artificially 'mix-it' to ensure that the game moved along and I would be interested to hear from fans as to what they think of them. For me, the game still stinks and at nearly six hours it should offer more than it does.

What really saved the evening for me was that, in a pseudo-psychological way, the players represented an amazing cross section of the stereotypes that one comes across in this hobby. The fact that they were Californian, with all the supposed weirdness that brings, only added to the fun. Ignoring Chuff and I who are of course exempt from this analysis, we start with the host who was 'The Whiner'. He is best summarised by, "If you do that I'll be forced to take stringent action". Wow, powerless threats already. When the opponent does whatever it is, he whines something rotten. The next type is 'The Weirdo', and was he odd - eight stone, dark glasses, lisping accent, and shoulder length white hair - his phrase is "Don't Fuck with ME", and strangely enough, no-one did. But he got flooded which fried his nuts nicely. Next up in the Siggins Guide to Gamers is 'The Quiet One' - This guy was so subdued I don't even remember him but he did do everything anyone told him to do and, not surprisingly, he didn't win. Most games have 'The Back Seat Player' who suggests to all and sundry what they should do for the best, even if they're on the other side of the board. This guy was just like that and paranoid to boot and he actually used the word "advocate" all the time eg "May I advocate you build your next city there". When you hear that for the fifteenth time the old patience wears a little thin. But even he wasn't as bad as 'The Imperator' - "You will do this or you will regret it" - and the poor saps just kept doing it. But he didn't win either as he was far too obvious. The next one I can relate to, for he is 'The Neophyte' who is playing for the first time with a bunch of grognards and sails along not having any idea what he is doing until someone stomps all his armies or he gets flooded or someone tells him a crucial rule (conveniently forgotten at the start) which blows his entire strategy. And finally, before this becomes a thesis, we have 'The Shrewd Winner'. Strangely enough, this chap was a subtle mixture of some of the previous types and won comfortably. Perhaps there is a moral there.

The second game meeting was one I had been looking forward to for weeks and it took place in the Best Western Hotel, Danvers, Massachusetts. This is the monthly home of the North Shore Game Club which is run by Alan Moon and a bunch of other harmless committee-types. Overall it was easily the best day's gaming and fun I've had since, oh, Sensationcon. The 'Aliens' (as we became known) present were Brian Walker, Phil Murphy and myself and we had a great time. The long awaited day did not start well for me. We had breakfast in the hotel's restaurant and I had the pineapple juice. Not a wise move as within the hour I was a feeling terrible and I was, to say the least, as sick as a dog. This was a neat way of getting out of a game of Six Day Race in which I was placed last - this is totally unheard of so I must have been very ill. Either way, these colonial chappies have taken it upon themselves to change the victory criteria for one of my favourite games as they base winning on laps behind as opposed to points. I don't rate it I'm afraid but then one must expect this sort of pettifogging from Moon and his cronies. I have sued the hotel restaurant for a million by the way.

I was feeling much better late in the morning and we pressed on into the pile of Brian's games which seemed to be ever present and always had some new gem to translate, learn and play. There were three excellent games which were Karierre Poker, Coup and Indiscretion. Of average quality were Suppenkasper and Top Secret while Hexentanz and Finish come in as almost complete dogs, albeit with some saving graces. Karierre Poker was the hit of the day and was played for hours. It is a simple card game for a large number of players which has an excellent play mechanism, but with some balance problems. It is based on the pecking order in a large company which goes from The Boss down to the lowly dishwasher. Depending on his performance in each hand, each player is assigned a position and the idea is to work one's way up and get to, or near, the top. This is because the poor old dishwasher gets to do all the grotty work like collecting the cards, shuffling and dealing. He also gets mucho abuse. Working up the company ladder is hard because the underlings have to give up their best cards to the bosses each time which makes play balance tend toward inertia - the bosses stay powerful and the workers weak. As Brian said, perhaps this is a simulation game? Ooooh, little bit of politics there. The best part of the game is that it clearly splits the players around the table into the bosses and the scumbos and abuse is rife, though quite why we Aliens spent most of the game in the cellar is a mystery to me. Whatever the reason, we were made to pay dearly for all those Masterpiece Theatre episodes of 'Upstairs, Downstairs' as our American cousins took readily to the role of Lord and Master. Some of the smug grins, especially from the evil CEO Alan "Flog 'em till they grovel" Moon, were nausea inducing. Sadly I only made it to the top at the very end, so had no time to introduce my worker participation and profit sharing schemes. Karierre Poker could easily be played with two normal card decks but the proper set with all the nice bits is available from Just Games for about a tenner. A fine game that needs some tweaking. (PS see latest Games International for a workable solution to this).

My personal favourite of the day was Coup (possibly because I won in some style), yet another German game with a share trading theme. It shares a lot with Acquire in that tiles are drawn, held and laid out in numbered lines on the board. The effect is not dissimilar to the card game 'Sevens' which is another clever angle on the theme. The holding back of tiles in one's hand is vital to prevent other players romping away because the idea is to watch for the companies likely to have the longest lines of continuous tiles at game end. Throughout the game you can buy shares in any of the six (?) companies and their end value is determined by the 'chain' lengths. Very simple, very clever and a game I shall certainly buy when it appears again. The availability factor is obviously important and on the completion of each good game I was heard to ask Brian, 'But can we buy it?'. Often the answer was yes which bodes ill for the plastic but in the case of Coup, it won't be available until next year.

Indiscretion is the card game I have been looking for to spice up all those games I have grown a bit tired of. It is basically a perfectly normal set of playing cards that have the suits marked on the reverse. This is obviously an interesting kicker to existing games like Bridge, Nullos, Gin, Hearts/Black Maria, Piquet, any trump game and even, as suggested by the rules, poker. There is also good scope for completely new games and one of these which we played was, after Nullos, one of the best two player games I've seen. I have tried the Indiscretion cards with most of the above games (it certainly makes leading easy in Bridge!) and while it adds to some of them it completely screws others and it always seems to make play slower because the players are constantly looking at their opponents' cards. Anyway, for £6 this is the best value for card players going and I would imagine it would make an ideal Christmas present. Just Games again.

What else. Well, retracing slightly, I played a couple of baseball games at Chuff's which are old systems but worthy of comment. I certainly hadn't come across them before and I am unlikely to find them in a hurry but here goes anyway. The first one is 3M's Big League Manager Baseball which was an interesting design but it did seem rather difficult to score runs. It is a pitch by pitch design with twelve types of pitches, some of which the batter is 'strong' on rather like the scouting reports we occasionally see. If the batter guesses correctly he obtains a hit and if it his strong pitch he has a chance at a long ball. The results are cross referenced to a complex looking number dial that generates the hit type. Overall there are two or three small problems in an otherwise fine game. Firstly, the calculating wheel is designed with the two supplied teams built in so it is impossible to use any other players. Secondly, homers and extra base hits seem rather scarce - it is possible with a bit of brain power to work out the odds from the wheel and they seem rather low. Finally, the game is not that quick but for a pitch by pitch game it is acceptable. Not bad, one I would certainly like to add to my collection.

I would also like to find the second baseball game we tried called The National Pastime, designed by Allan Calhamer in 1982. I believe this gent has another game to his credit but the name escapes me as it was so boring. The National Pastime is also pitch by pitch, is much faster than the 3M game and has a clever, if not all that realistic, system. The pitcher can choose one of seven pitch types which are numbered according to their height in the strike zone. The batter calls out a number corresponding to the height of his swing, obviously with a lot of 3,4 and 5s, and tries to guess the pitch exactly. If he guesses over by 2 points it is a grounder, over by one is a hard grounder, under by one is a fly ball and under by two is a pop up. Quite clever but of course this assumes all pitches are in a single vertical plane (no curves, sliders, knucklers etc) and that the batter will still swing high even if he sees a ball heading for his feet. The batter does have the option to take a pitch and the pitch type also affects how easy it is for the catcher to get a throw away on a steal attempt. There is very little detail in the outs but that could be easily added and the players are of course all identical. There are some good ideas, it is quite easy to pick up and play and has a novel idea in the pitch types. It may be possible to expand the number of pitches to include low and away etc, perhaps up to fifteen or so, and the pitcher could then pre-announce a number which could be approximate to give the batter some idea of where the pitch is going. One for the rules tweaker and worth looking out for.

Other games played in Beverly over the weekend included Bausack, a very silly wooden block building game which caused great amusement. I think it is German, what isn't these days, and the parts are superbly made as one would expect. There seemed to be a few variants within the rules but all involve stacking weird shapes on top of each other which is good fun - real infants school stuff. Another wooden game, which also has nice wooden bits, is Baubylon in which you build a 3D maze from blocks and have to get one of your three pieces to the top first. It is a little routine for my tastes but the pieces are very nice indeed. I sometimes wonder though if we are drifting into aesthetic appreciation rather than judging the games objectively? I never have a problem with boardgames as you expect more but all these games with nice bits are deceptive. We played with two players but I suspect it improves with more. We had a quick game of Formel Eins which I have reviewed favourably before and we also had a bash at Energie Poker which has an excellent game system but I think it has been applied to the wrong subject - energy supplies. It is also a game that would appeal to planners rather than the instinctive, erratic style that I prefer. Still excellent nevertheless but I am sure, as Brian says, the core system could be applied to better things.

Not really a board game but one that will appeal to lots of sports fans is Parker's Starting Lineup Talking Baseball. The basis of the game is a very clever set of chips that contain player stats, the game system and the best voice processor I have heard. The result is a game that can be played tactically or as an arcade type game which then describes the plays to you in that Scully/Garagiola style we know and love. The trouble is, all this hi-tech chippery is not cheap and additional team cartridges (two all star sets are provided) will cost around $25. I'm still not sure of the price of this basic system but about $70-$100 seems to be the approximate range. It comes as a self-contained white plastic stadium with a console at either end. Into this you can type the plays or pitches you have chosen and the players then do their stuff. The arcade mode requires you to look at a panel of nine LEDs which show where the pitch is going and then you swing away using one of nine keys. Not bad, quick to play and one I would like to get hold of when I'm over next time and the game is generally available.

Highlight of all the games played over the weekend was Homas Tour; at last an excellent game about cycling (road racing variety). This was so good, my mind was racing with the possibilities of it even though I rolled in as last team. Or possibly that is why I rolled in as last team. Anyway, I think, with effort and a few conditionals, it would even play postally. It is slightly abstract in that there are two mountains and cobbles in the same course and all the teams have the same strengths, but it is excellent at simulating the break, strong climbers, sprinters and slipstreaming. It should also lend itself to all sorts of rules tweaks and modified ratings. The one hitch is that the game is rarer than rocking horse droppings. I'm looking already (and will probably continue for some years) but Alan Moon solved the problem by judicious colour photocopying and making his own parts. I suspect it wouldn't be too difficult to take the system basics and create your own courses anyway. Finally, Hol's der Geier is a very simple but fascinating card game which really throws up some amazing group decisions. You will have to play it to see what I mean. On reflection, that is a superb collection of games.

So, the personalities of the North Shore Club. Alan Moon is brilliant. Really funny, games mad and a jolly nice chap, albeit with a wicked sense of humour - I will wait to see what he says about me in the imminent newsletter before I decide to talk to him again. (PS Not too bad considering, all I have inherited is yet another nickname to add to my already large range). His game collection is amazing at over 800 items; it covers most of the walls in the house and much of the basement, and while I was looking around (you aren't allowed to touch) I had to keep wiping the dribble off my chin. Alan has games in twos or threes that I have been hunting for years. He won't thank me for saying it but he is like me in a lot of respects, though he does take collecting to extremes. I would hate to see his credit card bill, mine is bad enough but Alan is buying games at a phenomenal rate and in the three days we were there, four box loads arrived! He claims, weakly, that this is not usual. He then counts the counters in each game and checks all the parts. Weird. Anyway, I haven't enjoyed myself as much in ages and I actually hurt from laughter at times. That can't be bad and my thanks go to Alan (who unaccountably looks exactly like an old boss of mine) and his understanding and accomodating (major understatement there) wife Denise for a brilliant weekend. There is very little they can do to stop me going back.

Oh, finally as a truly impartial observer I have to put the record straight on Brian Walker's game playing abilities. The poor man has come in for some severe stick from the vitriolic Moon and, to be fair, he isn't as bad as Alan paints him. He isn't perfect though. His main problem is that he whines an awful lot when he is losing and then quickly transforms into a smug git when his fortunes change. I described him at the time as having a faulty timer on his emotional biorhythm which must be adjusted to seconds rather than months - up and down like the Assyrian Empire to coin a phrase. He did in fact win at least two proper games on the Saturday, as Phil and I did, but we had to concede the overall Victor Ludorum to Alan who I think won a few games by varying methods, mostly honest, but which always involved a constant stream of abuse and frantic giggling. He reminded me most of the young Harry Secombe from Spike Milligan's books.

Returning home to the UK it seems at last there is a viable game club in the central London area in the shape of the GLC Game Club which meets weekly in County Hall. I know there has always been Sigma and the Esso club but the latter is apprently full and the former is cliquey and has too many wallies. I've been along to the GLC club on two occasions now and find it not at all bad. Brian Walker has got himself onto the committee and some of the South London mafia are starting to appear so it could be worth a visit. Games played cover the whole spectrum from Walker type games, through figures and boardgames to role players. There are some great characters among the membership and the evenings normally produce a few laughs. I think the only problem with the club is that it is having to look for new premises as County Hall is due to be made into a hotel.

Onto computer games now and an update on my all time favourite computer game - Leaderboard. I raved quite a bit about this one two years ago and I have had the basic version of the program on my Amiga since I bought it. It is now succeeded by World Class Leaderboard which irons out most of the small problems and adds improved graphics and user designed courses which means you can play St Andrews, Cypress Creek, Pebble Beach or wherever. The editing of courses takes a little while from scratch but it is just as easy to amend the courses supplied. There are still a few features missing like sloping fairways and the ability to impart backspin to stop a shot but just about everything else is there. The other aspect is that the superb perspective of previous versions which enabled you to judge club selection by eye has now all but gone, which is ironic given the improved graphics. Nevertheless, a fine game and my previous review, which was somewhat effusive, applies for this one in spades.

Victory Games came in for some stick on Channel 4's Media Show while discussing the merchandising of the wholesome, caring character Freddy from Nightmare on Elm Street. Victory's game on the subject was shown and also the 'toy' glove which is being sold as part of a bumper pack by the New York firm. Alan Moon pointed out an advert in the special edition of The General which shows the horrendous item in question. I am reminded of what my old headmaster used to say, 'Put that down laddie, you'll have someone's eye out'. This gear is tacky in the extreme and downright dangerous. As Alan said, it won't be long before the first lawsuit is brought by some outraged parent.

Good news on the sports games front is that Sportspages in London have at last seen the light and are stocking Strat-O-Matic and Sports Illustrated games, both baseball and football, albeit at somewhat inflated prices. Sportspages has become something of a mecca for sports fans around the capital and the place is packed on Saturdays. For this reason, I would think this is just about an ideal location to recruit new blood and while the owner's intentions may not be exactly geared to that aim, the result is the same. I wonder if we could put some flyers in?

There may be a few of you interested in this; after three or four phone calls and much badgering of a 'supervisor' I managed to persuade Time Life to send Sports Illustrated to England, albeit with no free gifts or special offers. I have been trying to arrange this for some time and they now seem to have the postal arrangements set up so I ordered myself a sub at $75.00 for the year. It remains to be seen whether in nine months time I still regard it as a good buy but at £1 per week it is worth a punt. No sign of it yet though, it comes surface mail at that price.

I thought I had come across some good news when I read an ad in San Francisco which proclaimed that UPS were now shipping to Europe. I instantly thought that this would mean cheap and speedy postage and a much simplified method of ordering goods from US retailers. Wrong. I called into the UPS office to get a schedule of charges and being as it costs something like £30 to send a letter we can safely forget it. It is more a courier service than anything so another chance goes begging.

I have very mixed feelings about Harry Enfield. This is a man who on at least three occasions earlier this year said Loadsamoney and Stavros were to be killed off and went on to milk them for all they were worth. I don't blame him for that, after all he does seem a genuinely 'nice bloke' and I would do exactly the same, but what I can't stand is all the righteous lefty spouting and then taking the big payoffs in the name of a good cause. It is more a relection of the way society and success work rather than an indictment of Harry and his mates but it never fails to get me narked. I have seen it before with The Redskins who signed a big recording contract and then promptly disappeared into a large mansion, ditto Alexei Sayle. Either way, all the background hypocrisy didn't stop me going to see young Harry and his creations at the Dominion. I was only partially glad I did. Stavros was brilliant as ever but the rest are very doubtful. Apart from the fact the phrase 'Loadsamoney' is now very naff, I always felt the characters had some mileage left in them as evidenced by the Sekonda watch ads. But sadly, the freshness and humour of Loads and Buggerall are long gone, the material is samey and the latter character has transformed into Biffa Bacon from Viz, which is also a shadow of its former self. The other character, Sir Harry Stocracy, was weak and generally unfunny. A redeeming bonus was the fact that we were sitting behind some East End scaffolders, with docile Kylies in tow, who really didn't understand the material for what it is. The dismayed look on their faces when Enfield had a go at chippies and scaffolders was a treat - one of them refused to believe scaffolders didn't 'earn LOADS' and stood up and said so to his own great embarrassment. Classic stuff. What also saved the evening was the support act, Craig Ferguson, formerly Bing Hitler I believe. This act was really funny, he did a solid 45 minutes and dealt with hecklers in a way that suggests a tough rise to the top. Excellent and all the better for being unexpected. Overall, at a fiver for a ticket you can't complain but the merchandise was a rip-off and the patchy material didn't help. We shall see what happens next in the meteoric career of Mr Enfield.

I was entertained enough in States to avoid most non-sport TV but I did spend an evening in to watch an hour long Cosby and a couple of episodes of the new series of LA Law. The Cosby show centred on the birth of Cliff's first grandchildren and if this what we have to look forward to I can't say I'm that impressed. This must be a series or two on from those we have seen and there are two factors that make it seem very different from the current re-runs on Channel 4. Firstly, the show has become decadent; not quite debauched, but definitely decadent. The intro music is a piece of obscure jazz, the family walk around the ever more luxurious house preening themselves and all the warmth and much of the humour seem to have disappeared. You can even imagine little Rudy counting her earnings in the kitchen. I hope it was a non-typical episode or I will have to re-watch all my old tapes instead of the new series. The second factor is that everyone looks really old. Pretty obvious statement really but it comes as a shock when you jump a whole series. The worst case is the still witty Theo who looks as if he should be in a street gang or singing for Cameo or somesuch flat-top soul band. Oh yes, the grandchildren (twins) out of Sandra and the drip are to be called Nelson and Winnie. Just a wee bit tacky, I fear.

The Autumn TV schedules often cause a pick up in my viewing and this year has been no exception. With Hill Street and Lou Grant back on I am happy enough but there have been others more than worthy of mention. I thoroughly enjoyed An Audience with Victoria Wood but best of all has been the second (third?) series of Channel 4's Equinox and in particular two programmes that were right on the money for my tastes. The first covered chaos theory and fractal maths which, as I have often said before, I am unaccountably drawn to. The computer graphics were superb and the concepts were explained in the cleverest way I have yet seen. Compulsive viewing and the past-master Horizon could perhaps learn some lessons here. The other program was an excellent documentary on camouflage and modern detection techniques. Once again, the explanation was clear and concise, the footage spot on and it was up to date enough to include comment on the new stealth bomber. I have never seen critical mention of this series and to me at least it seems underrated and unheard of.

The new series of Sumo on Channel 4, while very welcome, seems to have some problems with content. Last night's programme had four full bouts and some highlights which rattled around in the half-hour slot like a baby in a boxcar. OK, I like the background information and interviews with the stars as much as the next man but what we really want is a few more collisions between the big boys. I suppose it is possible that the Japanese haven't given permission for all the bouts to be shown in which case a few less programmes in the series would have been the answer. Still good though and I am still interested in getting a game going by tracking down the editor of Into Touch who used to run a sumo game. I suspect I would have a few problems filling a waiting list though.

Although I always seem to be commenting on Channel 4, the BBC still produce fine programmes and best of them this month has been the short series of six programmes on trains called The Train Now Departing. I suppose I have always been something of a train buff, though I never did collect numbers or 'spot', and I still prefer that way of travelling to any other. The series was perfectly composed and the chance to see any of Ivo Peter's superb colour footage of the last days of steam was much appreciated. The series followed the hard to match traditions of Great Railway Journeys and Steam Days with some style. I have also been enjoying the sumptuous Sunday afternoon production of the Narnia Chronicles which although obviously targetted at kids are very watchable by adults, especially if, like me, you were brought up reading and re-reading C S Lewis' excellent stories. Given the cost of the production and the generally excellent sets and costumes, I thought the animation of the mythical creatures very weak and this really stood out badly. Nevertheless, yet another classic from the Beeb's Sunday evening slot.

If I had mixed feelings about Harry Enfield, the same applies, but for different reasons, to Channel 4's Whose Line is it Anyway. This programme has the potential, which is often realised, to be excellent. The trouble with it is that it can, due to its nature, be appallingly pseudy and always gives the impression that it is rehearsed - surely no-one can be that consistently witty and inspired? That said, I can see no way the material is pre-prepared given the random influence of the audience. However it works the presenter Clive Anderson and the mainstay John Sessions are brilliant, effectively carrying the series and some of their ad libs and improvisations border on genius. If you ignore the ever present unsuccessful lines it is generally funny and a fine idea. I look forward to the next series with interest though I suggest they ditch the vastly overrated Stephen Fry and ship in some more mental, and preferably very fat, Yanks.

I enjoyed the recent BBC series of five programmes discussing cable and satellite TV and its likely impact on the four established channels and viewing in general. I know much of what will appear on the new systems will be crap but there should be some good mixed in with it. I will, like many people, wait to see what develops (especially in the proportion of advertising allowed - I could not handle a US style diet of adverts) but I am in theory a longer term buyer of a dish or squarial. My main worry is that if I subscribe to a sports channel I could easily go off sports which I now enjoy in small amounts. I have already experienced this with American Football where I used to enjoy the odd game, but as the C4 coverage increased, my interest fell away. This is undoubtedly partly elitism but is also a case of too much of a good thing. There is also the danger of not getting value from the dish purchase unless one becomes a couch potato, something I have no real intention of doing. As I always say, we shall see.

Although you will read this after Christmas, I have only just got the Radio and TV Times which show a pretty dire selection for the Christmas period. To save the day there are Bogart and Keaton seasons and there are some films worth re-watching like A bout de souffle, Local Hero, Pauline at the Beach, Empire Strikes Back, Cuckoo's Nest, Gremlins, Back to the Future, Being There, Cotton Club and, in a sillier vein, Top Secret and Lust in the Dust. Hopefully there will also be the usual French imports which are always worth a look - the excellent Secret Drawer from last year (?) is one example - but overall it looks pretty gloomy apart from Minder and yet another Audience with Dame Edna. Also, unless I missed it when I was in the States (very unlikely), I haven't seen any sign of Repo Man which was promised by the Beeb for 'late 88'. Presumably it got postponed to allow for another fifty-odd exciting frames of snooker.

The States gave me some opportunity, at last, to see some decent films. Highlight of all those I saw was easily Bird, a long, atmospheric and brilliant portrait of the life of Charlie Parker, the great jazz saxophonist. While I do like some jazz, I had no doubts about seeing this film hoping it would live up to the excellent Round Midnight. Clint Eastwood both produces and directs and I had seen enough after the first forty five minutes to know he had done a fine job. After a further two hours I was very impressed indeed. The music was superb, the plot was gripping and the acting was the best I've seen from a cast and leading actor for ages. Forest Whitaker plays Parker and is so natural and convincing that one never really thinks of Bird as a film with actors, it simply is real. You are there with his drug problems, through the hard times, the rows with his wife, the loss of his sickly child and the ulcers. Not exactly uplifting stuff but superbly done nevertheless. The film is long, some have said too long, but it sweeps by and while I had expected lots of shots of smoky jazz clubs and sax solos, they were just a small part of the overall picture which shows Parker's life, through flashbacks and overlapping stories, from his first stage appearance to his tragic death at the age of 34. Needless to say, this is my film of the month and the soundtrack is rather good as well.

I saw Bird early on in the holiday, in Carmel rather appropriately, and it was a hard act to follow. Worthy of the challenge were A Fish called Wanda, Raising Arizona and Bull Durham. The former has already opened here and stars John Cleese, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin and Jamie Lee Curtis in a light-hearted comedy. Cleese wrote the screenplay and I understand it was directed by a member of the Ealing Comedy school and that fact shows. It is very much a fifties film updated with an eighties approach to situations, style and sex. This is no bad thing, the jokes are funny, the characters are well handled, the situations and plot are clever and very black at times, if not particularly original. Cleese and Michael Palin are superb, easily worthy of their Python background, though they do make the film very English in feel which is possibly why it has been a big hit in the States - there is a running repartee between Cleese and Kevin Kline (who hates the English) which produces some great lines. Cleese is a natural for this type of film and although he does come over as a bit Fawlty-ish at times, his work remains excellent and one wonders whether he has any limit to his talents. I liked it a lot, and although it will be a massive video success, it is well worthy of a visit to the cinema.

I saw Raising Arizona on video at Chuff's and I don't think it is that new but it is a very weird and very funny film. The trouble is, apart from the pretty irrelevant plot, I don't remember much about it as far as details go. I can't even remember who starred and being as Halliwell is a boring basket he can't help me either. Suffice to say, hire it on video now.

Bull Durham is a fine film which, while it won't win any awards, is competent in every respect. It is a film about characters and is centred on a minor league baseball team, The Durham Bulls. The film is a comedy, has a spattering of excellent lines and it is well worth your time when (if) it surfaces over here. Kevin Costner plays a minor league veteran who knows the ropes, who has been assigned the job as catcher to a young prospect with a powerful but very erratic arm. The female interest is Susan Sarandon who plays a loose woman who picks one of the players each year to be coached, consoled and to share her bed. Sarandon chooses the pitcher but deep down likes Costner who refuses to have any part of the arrangement. This is a nice triangle which gives a basis for the rest of the film. Between them the woman and the catcher bring the rookie under control, his pitching improves, the Bulls have their best year ever and everyone comes out with the right partner. The humour is subtle and clever, lampooning most of the superstitions and rituals of baseball along the way and the plot never taxes the mind too much. The baseball theme is low key but there is still plenty there for the fan to enjoy including a clever handling of the pitcher/batter doublethink. There is just the right amount of naughty bits for such a film and all players are perfectly cast. A nice film for a quiet evening, but with distinguished company this month.

Finally, back to games. I have always assumed that just about every company from the corner shop upwards are grasping capitalists with no feeling for their customers. I am at least partially wrong. When I returned to the UK, having failed to find some G.D.W. games I was looking for, at Alan Moon's suggestion I wrote to them in the hope they would know where to find them. Two weeks later a parcel arrived with two games enclosed at no charge at all, even for postage. There was also a letter explaining where I might get the other two out of print games, the price I could expect to pay and thanks for the interest I had shown. I call that impressive service. A fine company and my thanks go to them.

Sign the 'Raiders back to Oakland' petition now!

Be seeing you.

Mike Siggins, 129 Ardmore Lane, Buckhurst Hill, Essex IG9 5SB.

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