Cinema Retro's Dean Brierly serves up another fascinating, exclusive interview.
The Martin Woodhouse Interview
By Dean Brierly
Perhaps the most potent evocation of the 1960s was the book
“Goodbye Baby and Amen,” with pictures by David Bailey and words by Peter
Evans. Published in 1969, it paid stylish homage to the decade’s cultural icons
and iconoclasts: from Jean Shrimpton to Terence Stamp, Christine Keeler to
Marianne Faithfull, the Rolling Stones to the Brothers Kray. It’s a perfect
tribute as well as a perfect time capsule. Well, nearly perfect. There is one
glaring omission. Chap by the name of Martin Woodhouse.
If that name doesn’t immediately set bells of recognition
pealing, it’s not because his CV is unworthy of inclusion in the decade’s
creative pantheon. Woodhouse first drew notice in 1957-58 as a research scholar
where he built one of the world’s first pure logic computers. During the next
two years, he did pioneering research on anti-aircraft missile-control systems
while serving as a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Upon being demobilized, he
joined his brother Hugh in writing all the first-season episodes of the
Supermarionation TV series Supercar. (Who can forget such characters as
Mike Mercury, Mitch the Monkey and Dr. Horatio Beaker, who was famous for
taking forever to finish a sentence and spouting the catchphrase:
“Satisfactory. Most satisfactory!”) Woodhouse subsequently graduated to writing
for real actors, contributing a number of sparkling scripts for The Avengers
that helped instill the show’s surreal, science fiction ambience and Cathy
Gale’s fully liberated character. He penned a series of brilliant espionage
thrillers between 1966 and 1976 featuring research scientist-turned reluctant
spy Giles Yeoman (and his occasional CIA sidekick Yancy Brightwell). To top it
off, mystery writer and critic Dorothy B. Hughes famously dubbed him “a
Woodhouse in Alfie mode during the mod 1960s in photo taken for book jacket.
Woodhouse certainly looked the part, projecting unflappable
cool from behind Alfie-like eyeglasses in his early book-jacket photos. One can
imagine Bailey and Evans slotting him into their book between, say, Michael
Caine (who would have been perfect casting as Giles Yeoman) and Jonathan Miller
(another multi-hyphenate writer with a taste for dead-on-target satire). Unlike
some of his more famous sixties contemporaries, Woodhouse not only survived
that tumultuous era, but continued to push past creative and cultural
boundaries in succeeding decades. He co-wrote (with Robert Ross) a trilogy of
mid-70s alternate history novels centering on Leonardo da Vinci as a kind of
Renaissance James Bond. In the 1980s he invented the solar-powered Lightbook,
the world’s first e-book reader (for which he’s been dubbed “The Father of
Modern Electronic Publishing). Recently, his time has been spent setting up an
ambitious, large-scale charitable organization to distribute e-books (and by
extension, education) to countless children in impoverished Third
World countries. Woodhouse now resides in sylvan contentment in
Haslemere, Surrey, England. He recently took time out
from his altruistic and creative endeavors to share some of his memories with
So, what’s it all about, Martin?
SPIES, SWINGERS AND LEONARDO DA VINCI
The dust jacket copy in your spy thrillers describes you
as a pilot, engineer, medical doctor, computer designer, stock trader and,
according to Dorothy B. Hughes, a swinger. Was Dorothy on target? And what were
her observations based on?
I’m not sure what is meant by “swinger.” If it means
“guys and gals both,” then no, at least, not since school days. At 15 the
young male will jump anything that moves, I guess, male or female (or even a
sheep), but ever since girls became available I’ve stuck with
them. If it means “lots of girls,” then I suppose, yes. I didn’t get
married till I was 40, so there must have been a fair few in the 20-odd years
before that, but I liked all of them, so I don’t think that’s exactly swinging.
I was taught very early on not to take a girl to bed if I didn’t want to have
breakfast with her in the morning, which is a very sound piece of advice I have
always followed. If swinger means “various intellectual points of view,”
though, then yes, I guess I’ve always swung.
Why did you explore so many career paths?
It wasn’t really deliberate. My current partner—who as
it happens was also my first girlfriend in, oh, 1946, when she was 11 and
I was 14, it’s just that we married other people in between then and now—says I
have a butterfly mind, and I think she’s right. When I’ve done something
I’m always a bit, like, okay, fine, done it, got the T-shirt, now what’s next?
When and why did you begin to write?
Age ten or thereabouts. I just like words, my own and
Who were your literary influences?
Lordy. Kipling first, I’d guess, then Leslie Charteris,
all the ancient thriller writers, especially those with a bit of lightness of
heart. Oh, and from your side of the pond Raymond Chandler, of
course. And (much later and my most influential daddy of them all) John D.
MacDonald—there’s never been anyone anywhere close to him for the light
Your Wikipedia entry credits you for having embraced the
“two cultures” of modern society — science and the humanities, which C.P. Snow
positioned as antagonistic. What’s your take on Snow’s thesis?
Well, now. Number one, yes, there are two cultures and
they barely overlap, so Snow was, and remains, right. I don’t think, though,
that I have ever been particularly over-conscious of the gap for myself. I
do think that young minds are, early on, “tramlined” into one style of thought
or the other and then find it hard to bridge the gulf between them. This
fact, in turn, pushes the “two cultures” still further apart. But I have
never consciously attempted to bridge them in any literary sense, though I
have at times become impatient with so-called “science fiction,” much of which
seems to be nothing of the kind, but on the contrary indulges in mere fantasy.
I think the fact is just that I happen, through inclination and training (I am
after all a medical doctor) to be equally at home in both camps.
The ongoing debate between evolution and creationism (at
least in America)
seems to indicate there still exists a gulf between science and traditional
culture. Any thoughts?
I don’t think the gulf lies between science and the
humanities, but rather between various cults, or mindsets, in thought. The
materialism of [ethologist] Richard Dawkins, for instance, seems just as
irrationally based to me as does, say, the position of Jehovah’s
Witnesses. Both are quite simply untrue. On the whole I prefer the latter,
because their claim is straightforward: “This is what the bible says, and we
believe it and so should you,” whereas materialism repeatedly claims to be
“rationally based.” So that if you happen to have concluded (as I have) that as
a concept materialism doesn’t stand up to examination and thus is most unlikely
to represent the case, the followers of Professor Dawkins tend to say that you
are not merely wrong but wrongheaded; in other words, deluded at best or,
The 1960s was the decade of the spy as hero, both in
print and onscreen. What do you think accounted for the massive popularity of
this genre, aside from Sean Connery’s outsized charisma as 007?
I think we’re looking at fairy tales, legends, for which
human beings have an immense appetite and always have done. We cannot,
these days, plausibly claim, “Here be dragons” (and here is our dragon slayer),
so we have Mr. Bond fighting Dr. No instead.
Are you a fan of espionage cinema?
Not as a preference over espionage novels, but I quite like
a good thriller film.
How did the Giles Yeoman novels originate?
Oh. Well, I’m terribly sorry about this, but Giles is
of course myself—in the sense that we probably all fantasize that we are the
hero of whatever unlikely piece of fiction we happen to be enjoying,
particularly if it’s written in the first person. Yes, of course we could
shoot fast and straight and chuck people over our shoulders if it became
necessary, and yes, that means that girls would fancy us like crazy. You
know? Well, I’m a smart scientist, but if the bullets were flying, then me and
my American mate Yancy Brightwell would see off the opposition smartly, no
problem, and discuss nuclear engineering over a pint of beer in between times.
Did you conceive of these books as a down to earth
riposte to the more fantastical Bond novels?
No. They’re not terribly down-to-earth, you know, not
really. Though I’m pleased that they seem so.
Yeoman has a rather cynical perspective on the Cold War,
and views both east and west as morally bankrupt. He’s anti-authority, yet ends
up carrying out various missions on behalf of British Intelligence. Was this
aspect of his character autobiographical?
In a minor way, yes, in so far as I was a scientist as a
Pilot Officer in the RAF, and thus a soldier and thus developed, rapidly and
firmly, a highly cynical view of politicians and, indeed, of British
Woodhouse in his days as an RAF pilot
My favorite aspect of these books is their balance of
sardonic humor and ingrained optimism. Those qualities seem to be fundamental
to your personality.
I’d agree, yes. Nice of you to observe it.
Yeoman’s fallibility and vulnerability add an emotional
texture that’s missing from much espionage fiction. He also seems to become a
bit unstable as the series progresses. He begins as a reluctant spy in “Tree
Frog” (1966, but increasingly develops a taste for being where the action is.
By the fifth novel, “Moon Hill” (1976), he’s actively courting dangerous
situations, even putting his friends at risk. Care to comment?
I agree with your analysis, and I think that also partly
reflects what I feel. I think an actual person (and I do see Yeoman as an
actual person—how could I not do so?) would feel and behave in exactly such a
fashion. In “Moon Hill,” Giles tells Fred Bowling, their steady and sane
financial manager, “It turns out I’m a kind of lightning conductor for
violence, and they (meaning Kate and Yancy, his partners) can’t do
without me.” In other words, they’re hooked on excitement—which seems
to me to be entirely reasonable.
Were there any intended messages in these books, like,
say, wariness about technological advances being subverted toward darker ends?
I’m thinking specifically of “Mama Doll” (1972), in which electronic brain
implants drive one of the characters to murder.
No, those things are just technological plot mechanisms
(though scientifically true). The underlying message has nothing to do
with science. It’s that you know who your friends are, that you tease them
unmercifully, but that you watch their backs and they watch yours.
Did you ever receive film offers for the series?
No. I don’t know why not, but no. But then I have no
idea, for instance, why John D. MacDonald’s “color” series (“Nightmare In
Pink,” “The Deep Blue Goodbye,” “A Deadly Shade of Gold,” etc.), with their
protagonist Travis McGee on his houseboat in Bahia Mar, Florida, haven’t been made into a film
series. The stories are splendidly exciting, the human relationships well
drawn, the dialogue entertaining, and they must have millions of
readers. So why on earth not? Hey! I’m available to write the
screenplays, guys, since John D. ain’t.
Are you disappointed that none of your books were turned
In the sense that I’d like to have seen them done properly,
yes. In the financial sense, no.
Which actor do you think would have made a good Yeoman?
Lord. I’d need notice of that, I think. I can’t
instantly think of a person who’s a “must,” so that means there isn’t an
automatic choice. One of our newer and hence so far less well-known English
actors, I guess, who would then, as Pat Macnee did with John Steed in The
Avengers, make the part his own and create his own persona while doing so.
This series has certain affinities with the “Harry
Palmer” spy novels written by Len Deighton. Both feature insolent characters
drawn against their will into the world of espionage. Did you and Deighton ever
get together and talk shop?
No, the only writers I’ve ever got together with over a pint
would have been in television.
You also co-wrote (with Robert Ross) a series of novels
about Leonardo da Vinci that position him as a kind of 15th century equivalent
of Giles Yeoman. How did that series evolve, and how closely do you identify
with da Vinci?
Me? Yeah, I’m Leonardo, all right, except that I
believe he fancied boys and I don’t. But chucking off a couple of frescoes
on Monday and a bit of light engineering come Wednesday, sure, that’s me, just
as Giles Yeoman is me. The idea for the Medici series, though, came from
Bob Ross. We were both living on Montserrat
at the time—it’s now a heap of warmish volcanic ash, of course—but the whole
island community was never much more than the size of a largish
village, so we were bound to fall together. He was a big Leonardo
fan. I was struck by the fact that on top of everything else Leonardo was
ambidextrous. He was clearly good-looking, never mind his sexual
preferences, and it is mentioned (briefly) that he could fight with a sword. So
“Leonardo da Vinci as the James Bond of the Renaissance” kind of sprang
automatically into both of our minds. And it was, equally obviously, a
piece of terrific fun. So we did it. I am, incidentally, a tiny bit
astonished that nobody in the film world has similarly seized on the idea and
indeed the actual phraseology. I mean, come on, the publicity practically
writes itself, yes? Well, there’s still time, I guess, since we’re talking
SUPERCAR: THE MARVEL OF THE AGE
How did you come to write for this series?
I was six weeks away from being discharged from my National
Service as a Pilot Officer and was all set to go back to my scholarship at the
Medical Research Council Applied Psychology Unit at Cambridge—to study
artificial intelligence, of course, using the computer I had already built as a
primitive first step towards doing so, before I got drafted—when my brother
Hugh phoned and said he had to write 26 half-hour episodes for a children’s
series using puppets and couldn’t do it by himself, would I like to
help? I said yes. This is Rule One in life, incidentally: Always say yes,
unless you’re a girl, I suppose.
Did the two of you write in collaboration?
Very close collaboration indeed. We had to write one
episode a week, as a complete shooting script and about three weeks before it
was actually shot. I look back and still wonder how we did it.
How much of the series’ concept and characters was
invented by you?
Not a lot. The production company, A P Films, had
already built Supercar as a model and Gerry and Sylvia Anderson had laid out
most of the storyboard and characters. We didn’t much like the characters,
thought they were too stereotyped, so we stuck in Dr. Beaker as a character of
our own, which livened things up a bit and made a change from writing, at
MITCH: “Eeeek! Eeeek!”
I mean, he was a cute monkey, but his conversation was a bit
Did you create the character of Dr. Beaker?
Yes, we did, and we retain the copyright in him.
The series was played straight, and for children, but
there was an element of self-parody in it that adults could relate to,
primarily through the character of Beaker. Was this noted at the time by
critics or audiences?
Do you know, I have no idea what other people thought about Supercar
or Dr. B.
Since a certain Dr. Beaker provides your biography on
your website, you must a retain a fondness for him.
Yes, I do. None of the other characters ever showed the
slightest sign of a sense of humor. We don’t insist that Dr. B. was a riot
of jokes, but he did think a little bit outside the box.
Did you enjoy writing for this series? At least you
didn’t have to worry about the puppets ad-libbing or changing your dialog.
Yes, we enjoyed it, because we knew we were doing a
difficult job and doing it well. And no, very few of our lines got
changed, mostly because there wasn’t time to do anything much except get the
scripts duplicated, I think.
Your website hints at a falling out with producer Lew
Grade over compensation issues.
Supercar made Lew Grade his first million
dollars. We were paid £80 per episode, with no residuals, on the
understanding that if the series took off we’d “get paid properly” for
subsequent scripts. Grade then offered us £120 an episode, still with no
residuals. We, Hugh and myself, have never received one penny from Supercar—no
fooling, hand on heart—apart from those initial script fees. Of course, we
didn’t have an agent and we weren’t members of the Screenwriters Guild. We
were green and we thought a promise was a promise. I say no more. In any case,
the next thing we heard, from Sylvia Andersen, was that we were fired because
she was going to write the screenplays in the future to save money.
What was your take on the whole Gerry Anderson Supermarionation
I thought it was a good idea at the time.
DOMINATION, LEATHER AND THE AVENGERS
Patrick Macnee as John Steed and Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale in The Avengers
What were the circumstances of your involvement with The
I knew Richard Bates, the story editor, and that his father
was H.E. Bates, which meant that whatever got written was bound to be literate,
and therefore fun. I think you can see that the concept of “fun” has
played a considerable role in my life.
I understand you played a significant role in the
conception of Cathy Gale’s character.
Not except in the sense that a bunch of us—Brian Clemens,
Richard Bates, myself and others on the creative side—had persuaded Sidney
Newman and Verity Lambert that if The Avengers was going to have both a
male and a female protagonist (you may recall that the first series under the
name starred two men, Pat Macnee and Ian Hendry), then the girl ought not to be
just a story accessory to John Steed, as had been the case with every such
series up till then, but on the contrary should be his equal and maybe even
better than him in some aspects, like fighting. I also recall an evening
in a pub in which we all agreed that the sexual fantasies of middle-class
Englishmen included being dominated by a beautiful woman, preferably clad in
leather. Hence, Cathy Gale’s forceful character and inspiring wardrobe. To his
great credit, Pat Macnee was all in favour of his idea, and Honor was Honor. We
all got on with one another, and, hey, that’s how it happened.
Did you also help shape the series’ overall conception?
The Cathy Gale episodes you wrote typically had a technological or science
fiction element to them, an aspect of the series that continued into the Diana
I don’t think this shaped the way things went, or not
intentionally. It was just that I knew a lot about science and could see
that it would provide intelligent and exciting plots, or plot premises
anyway. I was in fact more interested (and I think a bit influential) in
providing the villains with some redeeming characteristics—John Carson in
“Second Sight” must surely have been one of the first bad guys actually to be
blind. But on the other hand, the later series, with Diana Rigg and others, in
which I was not markedly involved, did develop the “science” aspect of things;
and perhaps this was because I had indeed shown that science could provide good
You also introduced a surreal tone in such episodes as
“Mr. Teddy Bear” and “The Wringer.” The bad guy in the latter runs a
brainwashing unit and has a penchant for bizarre verbal riffs: “Time is what
you make it, baby. Reality is merely a causal affair, we all know that. In
reality, there is only the void.” Pretty far-out stuff, especially for 1964. Do
you think you got enough credit for this aspect of the series?
Never mind credit, I’m much more interested in being allowed
to get away with stuff like that. I have never been much interested in
“receiving credit.” Really, I haven’t.
Did you get to know Macnee and Blackman very well during
the time you were involved with the show?
Not much more than one would think inevitable. Having
said that, we were a rather more closely knit group of people,
personally—production, direction, cast, writers—than one would suppose to be
the usual run of things.
What did you consider their best qualities as actors, and
did you try to write to their strengths?
Again, not consciously. I think all of us were in a
small sense the people we played, or wrote, or directed. And I do think
that this, the personal identification with both character and writing,
accounted for the quality of the series as a whole.
There seems to be an autobiographical note in some of
these episodes. The scientist Kearns in “The
Big Thinker,” for example, has a sardonic veneer that masks a basic humanism.
Cor, blimey. Again with the analysis? Maybe you’re
right, though. Do I have a sardonic veneer overlaying a basic
humanism? I’d like to think so. And, all right, dropping the smart chat
for a moment, yes, I believe I do.
You wrote only one Diana Rigg episode, “A Sense of
History.” Why did you stop writing for the show after that?
No great reason. I’d just hit the “okay, done that bit” that
I’ve mentioned earlier, that’s all, really. I also saw that writing a
novel gave you total creative control, rather than compelling you—however
pleasantly—to conform to what others might control instead of you. So I
just quit the screen and started writing books instead, in much the same style
but without needing to supply stage directions.
You’ve written that“A Sense of History” was inspired by a nocturnal vision of Diana Rigg in
Robin Hood drag. What does this tell us about Martin Woodhouse?
Nothing sexual, I am disappointed to have to tell you.
Diana Rigg in A Sense of History episode of The Avengers
Did you share this inspiration with her?
No, I didn’t. I just went away and wrote it. As a
kind of sidelight on this reply, I recall early on having a conversation with
Pat Macnee during which I claimed that the writer has enormous power over the
player of a part. Pat quite reasonably protested, whereupon I said that my
next screenplay would compel him to strip to his underpants. It did. Mark you,
he might just as reasonably have pointed out (but, being a gentleman, did not)
that he must look a lot better in his underpants than I would have done in mine.
Do you have a preference for any particular era of the
show? (Blackman vs. Rigg vs. Thorson vs. Lumley?)
I’m partial to Cathy Gale, of course, but for no great
reason apart from the obvious. Diana Rigg was excellent. After that, I had
probably gone to America and
the West Indies and so forth.
What do you recall about working with the production team?
That it was fun. We were all just friends and acquaintances,
as I’ve said. I believe there is rather less “psychology” involved in making a
series than is sometimes implied, though I may be wrong here.
Did you have a free hand to script the episodes as you
Yes, absolutely. I would come up with a one-page
storyline, give it to Richard, and then go away and write it. I’m pleased to
say, incidentally, that I don’t recall ever having had a story idea turned down.
Your Avengers teleplays seem like dry runs for the
I think that’s merely because everything I write has the
same under-layer, not because anything I have written at one particular time
has affected something written at a later date. I mean, the Leonardo da
Vinci of the Medici novels is pretty much like Giles Yeoman, who is a bit like
John Steed, who is (yes, right) a little like the way I see myself.
Did you ever feel let down by the less than stellar
production quality of the videotaped episodes?
Not really. The technique of the day is what it is. I
like black-and-white a good deal, for instance. It truly is the content,
and little except the content, that gratifies or disappoints.
The 1960s was a golden age of British television writing.
You had people like Richard Harris, the Kennedy Martins, Brian Clemens, Dennis
Spooner, Philip Broadley, Trevor Preston, and so on. Did you share a feeling of
camaraderie with any of them, or did you work more in isolation?
Except in the sense I’ve described, of all being colleagues
on the job, I have always worked pretty much on my own. I suppose in a way
I feel closer to John D. MacDonald, whom I never met, than anyone else in the
writing field. It is a solitary—not lonely, but solitary—occupation,
writing. I mean, coming down to it, there is just you and the typewriter
(or word processor). Yes?
Do you watch much television and film today, and how
would you say these mediums have evolved (or devolved, depending on one’s
perspective) since the 1960s?
I watch about 20 hours a week, I suppose. At any given
time there will be maybe two or three police or thriller series worth a regular
look, plus a lot of terrific documentary stuff. Then there are old films I
missed in the ’70s and ’80s. I think, then, that I’m a little surprised there’s
as much good (or good-ish) stuff as there is. I talked to Richard Bates
the other day—I actually had a story idea—and he said it’s all changed now,
there are far fewer independent production companies that will take a look at
something new. And, of course, the networks, even the BBC, tend to generate
stuff via committee, which means: “Let’s do what we did last
time.” Dull. But of course there are hundreds and hundreds of hours
of this and that, even here in the UK, so one can probably find
something worth watching every night. As for films, well, the production values
(for instance, effects) we have these days are fantastic, the fight sequences
are amazing, but, of course, subtlety of character is rare, and it’s subtlety
of character that makes a good story. This is true even for the “average
viewer” (you know what I mean here), who may not wonder what seems to make one
character more alive than another. And you cannot—except financially,
which is what counts, I suppose—make 20, 30, 40 James Bond films, because Bond
was a good character (that means, more than one-dimensional, and wittily so)
when Fleming created him, but he hasn’t got enough weight to go on
attracting us forever, so he’s now just a stud with a gun, poor fellow.
TEACHING THE WORLD TO READ
Can you talk about your solar-powered “Illumination”
e-book readers for deprived children in the Third World?
Well, the story goes like this. In 1987 I was working with
the old Apple 6502 personal computer, but had just bought an IBM PC because it
had a color screen. I’d kept up my interest in computers and artificial
intelligence all the years I had been writing television and books, in Los
Angeles, then Barbados, Grenada, Montserrat (where my son was born) and finally
back in England, where my wife Penny divorced me. (For reasons unknown, except
that I suppose if I’d been married to me I might have divorced me, too. I can’t
be that easy to live with.) So in 1987 I was living alone, and playing around
with my new toy, and it struck me that if you simply drew a succession of
screens on it, moving with a key-press to the next screen, you would effectively
be using your PC as an “electronic book”—with pictures, and in color. At the
time we had no laptops or anything; I just had a clunky great IBM 286, but I
was so struck by the idea that I decided to write a program (in C and machine
code) to do just exactly this. It took me the best part of two years to write,
but by the autumn of 1988 I had Illumination, which was the first specific
“e-book reading program” ever to have been written. By 1990 I had used it to
create and “publish” five books or so, all illustrated and all in
color. In 1992 a young artist called Andy Roberts used Illumination to
write a complete comic book of 120 pages or so. It was called “Nervous System”
and is, so far as I know, the very first e-book ever to have been published
and sold. Together with a small band of friends I then formed Illumination
Publishing Ltd., and we produced, between 1992 and 1997, around 20 or so more
pictorial books in color, all of them free-standing and needing nothing like
Windows as an operating system. Each Illumination book has its own built-in
reading program, is held on a single 3.5 inch diskette, and simply plugs into
whatever machine you want to read it on.
It’s clear, I think, that I have personally “invented” the
e-book. It will come as no surprise that nobody was the slightest bit
interested in electronic books back in the ’90s, and that they still aren’t all
that interested. In fact, I have been constantly told, with absolute authority:
“Nobody will ever want to read books off the screen.” This, naturally,
assures me with equal certainty that within a few years from today the whole
world will be reading novels, children’s books, newspapers, magazines, academic
journals, school textbooks and every other kind of written material from the
screen rather than on paper, and that electronic book readers will be as common
as mobile phones are now (and a lot cheaper, in fact). This is, I imagine,
obvious to you who are reading this, and indeed to any equally sensible
person. It just isn’t obvious to the publishing industry or indeed the
commercial world as a whole. We have a multi-billion-dollar-a-year market
here, but nobody wants to take a piece of it. This is known as The
Wonderful World Of Computing. But there you go, eh?
These were among the first e-books, correct?
Yes. Not just “among” them, they were—and are—the first
e-books, period. Before Illumination all we had were word-processor files.
Can you describe some of their features?
Yes indeed. Illumination e-books include everything
from small advertising brochures (we actually created one for IBM itself, with
which they were very impressed) up through community newspapers, books of
poetry, school textbooks (“Next Door To Nothing,” a primer in calculus written
by myself), all the way up to full-length novels (“The Harp That Once” by
Patrick Hall). Every Illumination book is in color, and each has its own
typeface—some of them, as with Jewel Kilcher’s book of verse, “Friends,” or our
own illustrated version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night's Dream”—quite
beautiful in themselves. Most Illumination books are heavily illustrated.
All are smaller than 1.2 MB in memory size and most are under a megabyte—which
includes the book-reading program for each book. None uses Windows or any
other operating system apart from MSDOS and Illumination itself. All are
self-contained and free-standing.
What about the actual e-book reader, the Lightbook?
Ah. Now we come to the interesting bit. It has struck
me that since an electronic book reader can hold, say, a library of 1,000
books, which would otherwise weigh a ton or so and cost $10,000, we
can use it to educate children in the very deprived areas of the Third World, where schooling barely exists. As the
philosopher Lao Tzu observes:
“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.
If you teach him how to fish, you feed him for life.”
Therefore, to provide millions—billions, actually—of books
to the poor Third World is probably the
greatest philanthropic project for the past few hundred years. Nicholas
Negroponte has this notion, too. His One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative
aims to provide hundred-dollar computers to the undeveloped world. But
Illumination, as a program, is so small and simple that it needs very little in
the way of processor power to run it. Unlike OLPC’s laptop computer (the
XO), we can actually design the Lightbook to run on solar power (as a pocket
calculator does), rather than requiring an electrical supply to recharge its
batteries. OLPC’s computer, then, is fine for those parts of the Third World that have electricity. But I can teach a
child on the edge of the jungle or the desert in Darfur or the Congo to read,
with no such facilities, since the Lightbook is an e-book reader which I have
designed specifically to show picture-books on screen to any child anywhere,
powered simply by daylight. And my current guess at its cost is ten
dollars rather than a hundred. The charity organization I have started (in
collaboration with several partners), called The Light Of Learning, will be
able to give them away by the millions. It’s going to happen, people. I
just need some enterprising person or organization to put up, oh, around three
million bucks or so to get it started. Anybody know any such person or
What do you think of Amazon’s Kindle reading device? I
hope they’re paying you some royalties.
Surely you jest? The Kindle is kind of okay, as is
Sony’s Book Reader. But $300-plus, without color? Do me a favor, as
we say in sunny England. That
means that the Lightbook, at—okay, let’s say $30, until it’s being
manufactured in bulk—is ten times cheaper, ten times better than either of
them, and doesn’t need to be plugged into a mains socket every few hours.
Of course, they only have design departments full of bright young
graduates in digital technology. They really need a 75-year-old bloke like me,
right? (I do hope I’m not coming across as intellectually arrogant or
anything, here. I’d hate for that to happen. It’s just that, well, facts
is facts.) They could even pay me some royalties, true. Let’s not hold our
What inspired you to tackle this issue?
Intellectual arrogance (see above). Otherwise known as
A Butterfly Mind, as also noted. No, let’s get serious and even
theological for a few seconds. God, or Providence,
depending on your belief, has pointed out to me that I was given several
talents, that I’ve used them to have a terrific, fun life, and that it is now
payback time. I can provide, with financial help, books for poor children,
ten million of whom—we have all seen their pictures—die of poverty every
year. Suppose that providing the Lightbook (and Illumination, without
which it won’t work) to the poor of the world begins to save a million of those
lives a year. It’s just this easy: If I don’t give it my very best shot,
how can I look at myself in the mirror each morning?
How are the books to be disseminated, and to which
countries? And are the governments of these countries receptive to your
Fair questions, but we ain’t that far along the road yet.
You can download an Illumination book at www.the-office.com/summerland,
but I’m still prototyping the Lightbook as a piece of hardware.
When do you expect the charity to be up and running?
Before I drop dead. No, okay. This time next
What in your view was the most positive legacy of the
The notion that disagreement with received authority is not
merely fun, but essential to the health of a community. Naturally, and as with
every other good thing, this perception was misused then and has been further,
and greatly, misused since, but we were beginning to become set in our ways and
the sixties shook us out of them. It’s interesting that received authority is
having a comeback. Here in England at any rate (and to an alarming extent), the
personal wishes of local people are these days regularly overridden by what
local authority happens to consider is a good thing, as in: “We think that
rural post offices and schools should be closed to save money. Sorry, rural
dwellers, but your feelings that schools and post offices are vital to the
communal health of your villages have no statistical backing. See our recent
White Paper on the subject.” You know, I haven’t smoked a cigarette in 20
years, to the advantage of my health and purse. But daily exhortation, not
to mention physical restriction, on this matter is really starting to make me
feel as though I need a drag. Preferably on a ciggie that has “ YOU”
printed along its side.
You built one of the world’s first logical truth
computers in 1956. Have you kept pace with subsequent developments in
artificial intelligence over the years?
Yes, I have, but we haven’t got all that much farther
on. There won’t be such a thing as artificial intelligence until we can
allow the digital networks to absorb imprecision as a means to thought. Logic
and fact aren’t enough, not nearly, not by a long chalk. Facts aren’t dull
in themselves, they’re exciting, but the way we assemble and handle them is
boring, dull, poorly conceived and even more badly implemented.
“Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
[Excerpt from “Fern Hill,” by Dylan Thomas]
And I don’t even understand his last three lines. I mean, I
don’t understand them, but I know bloody well what they mean, and so do you,
yes? That’s the difference between our brains, yours and mine, and a
digital electronic brain. A drunken Welshman? Well, when we can put the
equivalent of a Cray supercomputer on a single chip—which will be any day
now—will we be anywhere nearer telling the truth about The Way Things Are than
Dylan was? No, we won’t. So we won’t have artificial intelligence, will
we? That’s because intelligence, as opposed to data-processing capacity, is a
function not of the brain, but of the mind. Which is not the same thing at
As someone who has long been involved with computer
technology, what do you think of the ever-larger role technology plays in our
Not a lot. As Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is reported
to have said about “taste”: “I don’t think it helps.” Right
on, ma’am. Technology, neither.
Are your currently writing anything?
Short stories and verse.
Any plans to resurrect Giles Yeoman?
No, not really. He’d be getting on a bit, just like me.
You’ve recently updated and expanded your website. What
can Cinema Retro readers expect to find there?
More of the same, I guess. I do hope to report everything
that’s going on, as it happens. And anyone who wants to contact me, please do
so. I am email@example.com.
(For more information on Martin Woodhouse and his
charitable organization, The Light of Learning, please visit www.martin-woodhouse.co.uk.)
Dr. Beaker Speaks
Dr. Beaker: “I really must overcome this problem.”
Mike Mercury: “What’s the trouble, doc?”
Dr. Beaker: “I find it most irritating. It takes far too
long to bring this liquid to a suitable temperature for infusion.”
Mike Mercury: “Is this part of the test for the ceramic,
Dr. Beaker: “Test for the ceramic? No, of course not! I’m
just making a cup of tea.”
Woodhouse’s Avengers Scripts
A Chorus of Frogs (1962)
Mr. Teddy Bear (1962)
The Golden Eggs (1962)
The Big Thinker (1962)
Second Sight (1963)
The Wringer (1964)
A Sense of History (1965)
Tree Frog (1966)
Rock Baby (1968)
Phil and Me (1970)
Mama Doll (1972)
Blue Bone (1973)
The Medici Guns (1974)
The Medici Emerald (1976)
Moon Hill (1976)
The Remington Set (1976)
The Medici Hawks (1978)
(Photos of Dr. Beaker and Supercar courtesy of Dave
Hobson’s fantastic Supercar site: www.mikemercury.net.)