Claptrap 1: The movie

This is the first in a series of posts to mark this month's 25th anniversary of a television documentary that completely changed my life and can now be watched in full below.

Before that, I’d spent nearly twenty years working in universities and doing research that was widely regarded at the time as being thoroughly 'useless' (i.e. lacking in any theoretical or practical implications whatsoever).

But a series of lucky breaks led to my getting the chance to take part in a World in Action documentary based on my book Our Masters’ Voices: the Language and Body Language of Politics World in Action series frequently attracted audiences of 15 million or more viewers - though 'attracted' is probably the wrong word, because it came on immediately after the nation's most popular soap (Coronation Street): it was also before everyone had remote controls, which meant that viewers still had had to make the effort of getting out of their chairs if they wanted to switch channels.

Such was the impact of the programme that, on the following morning, my phone hardly stopped ringing, with everyone asking the same question: "can you do the same for me?" Without realising it at the time, I had embarked on an irreversible journey from the peaceful seclusion of an Oxford college to the more hectic world of freelance consultancy.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging about some of the background leading up the publication of Our Masters’ Voices and the making of the film Claptrap.

It was called ‘Claptrap’ because one of the definitions of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is a ‘trick, device or language designed to catch applause’. I’d originally thought of using it as the title of the book, but decided against it because it would be too much of a hostage to fortune for reviewers.

Gus Macdonald, the film's producer who'd dreamt up the idea in the first place, had no such qualms about using it as the title for the programme - but by then, of course he did have the advantage of knowing that the experiment had been a success.

You can watch the film here in four consecutive episodes (and I hope you're impressed by my new Apricot computer!).

P.S. A better quality version of the film can now be watched in full HERE.

• CLAPTRAP 2: Eureka
• CLAPTRAP 3: News leaks out of the lecture theatre


David Cox said...

I think the SDP used the speech on their PPB. Even after World in Action was screened. I think I'm right in saying more people joined the SDP after her speech as well.

Max Atkinson said...

David - As far as I remember, the SDP never used anything from Ann's speech for a PPB. They did however use Rosie Barnes (in one of the worst PPB's I've ever seen) and a lot of people used to confuse the two of them.

It wouldn't surprise me if new members came in after the speech. What did surprise me was that the SDP leadership, Owen included, were fuming about it. They thought it a disgraceful 'stunt', and I remember trying to convince them that it was excellent PR for them that they should make the most of. If nothing else, it meant that the 1984 conference got far more media coverage than it otherwise would have done.

The SDP's head of PR at the time was Simon Lewis, whose more recent appointments have been in Buckingham Palace and Downing Street! In those days, Cowley Street was also home to quite a few others who later moved onwards and upwards (and sideways), like Danny Finkelstein who moved on to the Tories and the Times.

David Cox said...

‘Disgraceful stunt' ! What is false or distasteful about giving somebody the skills to communicate and articulate their ideas; after all, Ann was given the training, but the message was Ann’s, and it was Ann who delivered it. I remember Danny, I was on the YSD National Committee he chaired.

Jeremy Jacobs said...

Great videos Max. Has anything changed in the way speeches are delivered since those days?

Max Atkinson said...

Jeremy - Nothing's changed since then as far as the basic techniques of planning, writing and delivering an effective speech is concerned.

But what has changed is the way the British television news media cover speeches - i.e. far less than in the past and, if you get to see any at all, the chances are there'll be a reporter in the front telling us what the speaker (in the background) is saying.

Collecting the data was much easier in 1979 when I first started studying speeches, and, for one of my lectures, I'm still using a couple of video clips from speeches by Thatcher and Kinnock in the 1987 election - for the simple reason that I haven't seen any comparable examples on prime-time news programmes in any of the elections since then.

One result of all this is that the general standard of political speaking by British politicians (with the notable exceptions of Blair and Cameron) has declined massively over the past 25 years- after all, why bother making speeches if the BBC et al. aren't going to cover them.

So we now have to put up with endless boring interview and films of politicians walking around schools, hospitals and shopping centres.

If you haven't seen them already, there are several posts on the blog touching on (or should I say 'ranting about') such issues, e.g.:

- ‘The Lost Art of Oratory’ by a BBC executive who helped to lose it in the first place (March 2009)

- Mediated speeches: whom do we really want to hear (Sept 2008)

- Obama’s rhetoric renews UK media interest in the ‘lost art’ of oratory (December 2008)

Unknown said...

Max - Politics aside (and you very nimbly and successfully manage that in all you write and post; hats off) this warrants close study and wide review.

Its power is not only undiminished by rather enhanced by the passing of the years. Ok, so I'm of an age now where all the clips fall into the bracket of 'nostalgia', agreed, but this is very fine wine. Still drinking well!

I'm intrigued by two thoughts after reviewing this once more (a) what became of Ann B's political involvement? Or subsequent activities? and (b) did The Guardian deign to report matters? And if so, how?

Best, Colin

Anonymous said...

I find it ironic, that a speechwriter and "expert" on public presentation looked so nervous when speaking in the second video.