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Albertus and The Prisoner

For those of you not familiar with it, The Prisoner is one of the most iconic TV shows to have come out of the 60s.

It ran on ATV from September 1967 to February 1968. While any TV programme is obviously the work of a huge team of people, this show had one powerful force at its core: it was co-created, directed, and produced by Patrick McGoohan, who also starred in the lead role of No.6.

McGoohan had made his name in the black and white spy show Danger Man, and had even been asked to be the first Bond on the back of his work on that. He turned down Bond, but after more than 80 episodes, had grown bored of working on Danger Man. He proposed a new show to Lew Grade (the cigar chomping head of ATV) – The Prisoner.

The plot revolves around No.6 - we know little about him, not even his name. The fantastic opening credits (above) show him resigning from some sort of governmental position, and then being abducted, and waking up in The Village – a mysterious community in an unknown location. Over the course of the series, his captors use any means necessary to find out what he knows, and why he resigned. It’s a psychological battle of wills in each episode, as each new No.2 tries and fails to break him. It’s an incredible show, well worth checking out.

But what’s particularly of interest from a graphic design point of view, is the rich use of a single typeface, Albertus, during the show.

Arrival

Used far more extensively than just on the credits, the typeface appears on props and signs throughout the series. It represents the Village as much as the sets, the costumes or the characters.

Telephone booth

Exhibition of arts and crafts

Speed learn

Sometimes the lettering was very professionally rendered, other times slightly less so:

Polling Station

Occasionally another typeface sneaks in, but often this just highlights the ubiquity of Albertus everywhere else. Futura shows up a couple of times for example (decades before Wes Anderson made it his own):

Resigned

Push and find out

But Albertus is No.1 in this show.

The typeface was designed by Berthold Wolpe. Born in Germany, Wolpe had apprenticed at a metalworkers, becoming proficient at engraving in gold, copper and silver. He travelled to England in 1932, where he met Stanley Morison. Morison saw some photographs of a set of Wolpe’s bronze inscriptions, and asked him to create a typeface for Monotype based on the lettering. So in 1935, Monotype Series No. 324 was born: Albertus Titling.

Albertus Titling Monotype Series No.324

As you can see, it’s a beautiful typeface, somewhere between a serif and a sans-serif, with a few rather tasty alternate characters, and a frankly wonderful number 2. (Oddly, it doesn’t seem as if the Titling set has ever been digitised. What’s that all about?)

The marketing material of the time described it as follows:

“It is obviously a cut, and not a drawn letter, and possesses that squareness which in Roman inscriptions so notably serves legibility; but while true to the orthodox proportions, displays a marked individuality in the treatment of detail. The main strokes so terminate that the alphabet stands midway between the classical inscriptional letter and the modern sans serif.”

Albertus Titling was uppercase only, but a lowercase set followed in 1937, with bold and light versions arriving shortly afterwards in 1940.

Albertus Typefaces 1962

We’ve not been able to find any direct statements from the McGoohan or any of the other creators of the show about why Albertus was chosen. It has a strong flavour to it, which will have helped to define the Village as somewhere out of the ordinary, and perhaps its duality fits well with the feeling of the setting as somewhere both old and new.

At the time the series was made, people would mainly have been aware of the typeface thanks to Wolpe’s vast number of book covers at Faber & Faber, where he used it extensively:

For the union dead

Lord-of-the-Flies

Lupercal

But we should perhaps look a bit closer at the way Albertus was used within the show. As with all things in The Prisoner, first appearances can be deceptive.

Opening McGoohan

In the opening credits, the typeface is tweaked here and there. In the instance above, the ‘G’ of McGoohan has an extended stem that drops below the baseline.

The programme’s title was carefully adapted too:

Opening The Prisoner

The dot of the ‘i’ has been removed, but most distinctly of all, the lowercase ‘e’ has been attacked! The right hand side of the bowl has been lopped off, so that it resembles a sort of epsilon (the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet).

This adaptation was extended across nearly all appearances of Albertus in the programme. We’ve hunted high and low for information about why this was done, but as yet we haven’t discovered any facts. Obviously it makes the typeface feel much more bespoke, but we’d love to know if there was any reason beyond that. Was it perhaps done to instil a feeling of discord?

Here’s a look at the difference between a regular setting of Albertus, and a Prisoner style setting:

A still tongue original

A still tongue revised

We created those two slides for this post, but here’s how it looked in the show itself:

A still tongue makes a happy life

As you can see, the sign is hand-rendered, and the ‘e’s have been given their own little flared terminals. A little bit bonkers. By contrast, in the credits, the ‘e’s have clean sharp ends:

Opening Guest Stars

Here the ‘e’ has a distinctly even stroke, and a vertical terminal at the top:

Vote for No.6

And in fact, the lettering changes constantly throughout the show, presumably depending upon who created each piece, and how much time they had to work on it:

Roland Walter Dutton

Progress report

Questions are a burden

Check out this heavyweight version:

Music begins where words leave off

And what’s going on here?

The village storybook

That poor ‘e’ looks a little bit stretched out.

And sometimes, the customised ‘e’ was forgotten about entirely:

Village Map

You can picture the scene on set when that was produced:

Art dept guy: ‘So here’s the map you asked for.’

McGoohan: ‘Great, that’s looking really… Wait. What. Is. This?’

Art dept guy: ‘Um, is something…’

McGoohan: ‘What is this ‘e’? What the hell is this ‘e’? What the bloody hell is this ‘e’ doing here? Answer me that. I want information. Information.’

And it happened more than once:

You have just

been poisoned

Sometimes they even got it right and wrong at exactly the same time:

Village foods

Regardless of any inconsistencies though, The Prisoner is a fantastic example of using typography as a key part of the creation of a fictional world.

We’d love to know more about the specifics of why the typeface was chosen, why it was adapted, and who actually created all the props and signs. So if you know anyone involved with the show, do get in touch.

Oh, and if you’d like to play around with making your own Prisoner bits and bobs, there’s a downloadable font called Village, created by Mark Heiman in 1994 in homage to the show, which features the lopped off ‘e’, and which also has ‘i’s and ‘j’s with their dots removed.

And remember – you are not a number.

be-seeing-you-2

—————

This post is an adapted version of a talk given by Alistair Hall at Grafik’s Letterform Live event on 25 February 2015. Larger images are available on Alistair’s Flickr set.

The Story 2013

Last Friday we were lucky enough to go along to The Story 2013 – a rather wonderful little one-day conference about stories and storytelling organised by Matt Locke. The Ministry of Stories were doing a short presentation about their work, and a portion of the proceeds from the ticket sales went to the Ministry too.

Matt asked us to create a small gift to give away to all the delegates on behalf of Hoxton Street Monster Supplies, so we put together these pouches of Witches’ Brews:

“Featuring some of the very rarest ingredients, our Witches’ Brews deliver perfect potions every time. This classic blend includes Scale of Dragon, Wool of Bat, and Scraping of Lipstick; wonderfully enhanced with Roasted Toenails, Plucked Fairy Wings, and of course, Blackberry Leaves. For each brew, simply steep one bag in a cup of boiling water for about 5 minutes, while chanting the appropriate spell or incantation.”

The back of the packs featured the running order of the event:

(We’ll be producing the Witches’ Brews as a product for Hoxton Street Monster Supplies in the near future, so stay tuned.)

The conference itself was really fascinating, with many highlights.

It opened with the wonderful Edwyn Collins discussing his life after suffering a devastating stroke in 2005. He was chatting with director Ed Lovelace, who is putting together a documentary In your voice, in your heart, about Collins’ journey back after the stroke.

A bit later, Laura Dockrill exploded onto the stage to talk about her new book Darcy Burdock. Laura’s fantastic, and her reading from the book was electrifying.

After lunch, animator Ben Boucquelet spoke about the genesis of his totally brilliant TV show The Amazing World of Gumball, which airs on Cartoon Network. Based around a kid called Gumball Watterson (is that a nod to Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes?), and his family and friends, it’s a glorious mish-mash of animation styles, all anchored in really brilliant storytelling – heartfelt without collapsing into sentimentality.

“The Wattersons are a totally normal family. Dad is a big pink rabbit who stays at home while Mom works at the Rainbow factory. Their kids are pretty standard too: there’s Gumball, a blue cat with a giant head. Anais, a four-year-old genius bunny rabbit and Darwin, a pet goldfish who became part of the family when he sprouted legs.”

Around them live a host neighbours and schoolfriends, who include Anton, a crumbly piece of toast; Alan the balloon who’s in a doomed relationship with Carmen the cactus; Tina the T-Rex, who’s the school bully; and Banana Joe, the happy fool. Here are a couple of short clips:

If you’ve more time though, check out this episode, where Gumball’s dad gets a job, a situation which threatens the very existence of the universe:

Quite wonderful.

A bit later we were treated to more animated brilliance by Mikey Please, with his Bafta-winning short film, The Eagleman Stag:

Just brilliant.

Huge thanks to Matt for pulling together such a brilliant set of speakers. Already looking forward to next year.

What a wonderful world

This ad played out at last night at the end of BBC’s latest stunning series, Frozen Planet.

It’s kind of cheesy (and with more than a hint of William Shatner’s version of Pulp’s Common People) but it’s also a touching reminder of the brilliant natural history work that the BBC, and more particularly David Attenborough, has consistently produced.

We can’t help feeling that it’d make an even better ad for someone like Friends of the Earth or the World Wide Fund for Nature. Perhaps with the tag line “It’s a wonderful world. Help us look after it.”

So how about it BBC – how about you just donate it to them?

The Beauty of Books

Yesterday we caught up on the first episode of The Beauty of Books, the new four part BBC4 series (screening as part of their Free Your Imagination season about books).

The show focused on two books in particular, the Codex Sinaiticus and the Winchester Bible.

The Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest surviving complete New Testament, created around 350AD; and also one of the earliest surviving bound books: 800 pages of vellum, written in four equal columns of 48 lines. We learnt that it was mainly created by female scribes, using an ink created from Oak galls, which was more acidic than standard carbon inks, and therefore more resistant to rubbing off the page.
The Winchester Bible is a stunningly beautiful illuminated manuscript, created in the 12th Century, which still lives at Winchester Cathedral.

It’s a great show, we’re looking forward to the next three instalments. The next one airs on BBC4 on Monday 14 February at 8.30pm, and looks at Medieval books including the Luttrell Psalter and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

As little design as possible

We found a bit of time this weekend to catch up on the BBC’s Genius of Design series, which is available on the iPlayer for just a few more days.

The first show took a look at the birth of the design industry at around the time of the industrial revolution, and we were particularly taken with the No.10 Double Bow Drummer Boy sheep shears, which they picked out as an exemplary piece of design.

The steel shears are made by Sheffield firm Burgon and Ball, and have been hand-made in more or less the same way since 1730. They’re designed to be used single handed, so that the shearer’s other hand can hang onto the sheep. As they point out in the show, they have been stripped back to their absolute essence – two single pieces of steel, shaped and sharpened, part rigid cutting blade, part flexible handle. A truly beautiful instance of form following function, fitting well with Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles for Good Design (which feature earlier in the programme):

1. Good Design is innovative

2. Good Design makes a product useful

3. Good Design is aesthetic

4. Good Design helps a product be understood

5. Good Design is unobtrusive

6. Good Design is honest

7. Good Design is durable

8. Good Design is thorough to the last detail

9. Good Design is concerned with environment

10. Good Design is as little design as possible

We’ve been musing on the idea that products can evolve into a perfect form, much as an animal might, given a stable environment.

We’d love a shop that sold only those distilled, pure products; the ones that exemplified the form. Somewhere where you could get the most perfectly evolved mug, glass, watch, chair…

Lovely stuff.

Lost Land of the Volcano

Lostlandofthevolcano

Well, heck, the BBC's gone and done it again: it's created one of those programmes that makes you rejoice the very fact that the corporation exists.

Lost Land of the Volcano is a three-part nature documentary that follows an international team of scientists, film-makers and cavers as they explore the jungle islands of Papua New Guinea hoping to find and document rare and endangered animals, and perhaps even discover some new species.

The film-making is breathtaking, but it's the sense of discovery, of pure scientific awe, that really blows you away. In the final episode, in the extinct volcano Mount Bosavi (on the island of New Guinea), they even discover two new species of mammal. 

And, brilliantly, the BBC has even seen fit to upload the PDF of the final report made by Dr George McGavin (the show's bug expert) about the trip – here's its summary:

"An international team of scientists and filmmakers spent six weeks in the forests in and around Mount Bosavi in the Southern Highland Province of Papua New Guinea. In the course of the expedition, it is estimated that at least forty new species were collected. These include at least sixteen new species of frog, two new species of lizards, three new species of fish, one new species of bat and an undescribed, endemic subspecies of the Silky Cuscus were documented. Another mammal and the largest new species of animal discovered during the trip, was a Woolly Giant-rat, found in the forest inside the crater of Mount Bosavi. In addition there are undoubtedly many new species of insects and spiders represented in the material collected. Our findings show that Mount Bosavi and the surrounding area is unusually rich, especially in local and regional endemic species. It is therefore vitally important for conservation organisations and the government of Papua New Guinea to work in partnership with local landowners to ensure that the forests of Mount Bosavi are incorporated into Papua New Guinea’s protected area network as soon as possible."

Great stuff eh? Makes you glad to pay the licence fee.

UK folk can watch the show on the BBC's iPlayer, and there's more info about the show on this Out of the Wild page. 

Design for life

Design for life

So, who caught the opening episode of BBC2's Design for Life just now?

The show is the design version of The Apprentice, with Philippe Starck hamming it up as a gallic  Sir Allan. 

Starck

In the first episode we were introduced to the group of 12 British wannabe product designers*, who applied to the the show in the hope of winning a six month placement at Starck's design group. They were whisked off to Paris, where their first challenge was to scour a supermarket in search of examples of good and bad product design.

Starck held up an army jeep as an example of really great design, "its the only vehicle which have the elegance of intelligence, because it's not driven by marketing, it's driven by function". Which is fair enough, but more than a tad ironic coming from the man whose most famous product is the almost entirely non-functional Juicy Salif lemon-squeezer (below). He went on to lament the fact that designers are churning out too many unnecessary products… a case of the designer pot calling the kettle charcoal-grey?

Juicy-salif

Still, it's always good to see design getting an airing during prime-time. And Starck is at least entertaining. But what did you make of the programme? Answers on an inflatable postcard, or chuck us a comment just below.

More info on the show here, and it runs for another five episodes, and you can catch it on iPlayer too.

*What's the right group noun for that? A CAD of designers? A sketch of designers?)

Armando Iannucci in Milton’s Heaven and Hell

Paradise

When's the last time you read a poem? And when's the last time you read an epic poem?

At once, as far as Angels ken, he views
The dismal situation waste and wild.
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,
As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.

The BBC is in the middle of its Poetry season, and last night screened a simply fantastic documentary, Armando Iannucci in Milton's Heaven and Hell

As the name suggests, the show is presented by the horribly talented Armando Iannucci (the man behind the TV show The Thick of It and the movie In The Loop), and is all about John Milton's Paradise Lost

Watching the programme is like sitting in on a brilliant lecture: Iannucci is passionate, entertaining, informative, and above all engaging. He fleshes out the historical context to the poem, looking at the social and political environment in which Milton was writing; but also examines the text in detail, honing in on words and phrases, to see how they create their effect.

Milton

It's genuinely a real treat, and worth checking out, even if your last experience of poetry was on the inside of a greetings card.

Nature’s Great Events

Jasonroberts

It's not often in life that you get to use the phrase 'awe-struck' with any kind of real meaning. But heck, Nature's Great Events, currently running on BBC1, seems to be determined to change that. Repeatedly.

The series is just mind-blowingly good. Every episode manages to show us something we've never seen before – be it beautiful, inspiring, heart-warming or tragic, this is the real reality TV. And it's made truly perfect by the ever-brilliant narration from the god-like genius David Attenborough

For a taster, check out the show's video gallery. You can catch the full programme on BBC1 on Wednesday evenings, or on the BBC's iPlayer. The Nature's Great Events [DVD] is released on 16 March in the UK.

Truly brilliant television.

(Oh, and the image above is from Jason C Roberts, location manager from Episode 1 of the series: The Great Melt. Check out the full gallery of images.)

Here’s Johnny

Johnhicklenton

This looks like it should be really interesting: More 4 are showing the award winning documentary Here's Johnny (February 17, 10pm) about the comic book / horror artist John Hicklenton.

Hicklenton has worked on raft of fantastic strips, including the daddy of British comics, 2000AD, and the groundbreaking Crisis. He's also suffering from MS, and the show explores both his work and the frustrations of living with the disease.