Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Adventures of Robin Hood 1.1-4 (1955)

A few years ago I watched the Michael Eaton BBC/HBO telefilm Fellow Traveller. At times langorously reflective but at others nailbitingly pensive, it starred Ron Silver as Asa Kaufmann, a blacklisted Hollywood writer working in 1950s Britain on a film adventure series for television, patently Sapphire Films‘s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-1960). I’d not seen very much of The Adventures of Robin Hood itself, bar catching the odd episode on satellite channel Bravo in its ITC back catalogue phase, but watched the first four episodes last night. All were written or co-written by Eric Heath, a pseudonym for Ring Lardner Jr., one of the ‘Hollywood Ten’ sacked from their studio positions in 1947 following their refusal to confirm or deny their present or sometime membership of the Communist Party before the House (of Representatives) Un-American Activities Committee.

Richard Greene is a reliable Robin, somewhat heavy-set by the standards of Flynn, Praed, Connery (J.) or Armstrong, but this physical solidity is used to underscore his moral integrity. Found sick by a pilgrim at the gates of Jerusalem, and nursed back to health before returning to Nottinghamshire to claim his estate, this knight back from the dead is sick of killing, but finds himself in an England where he is told by an ailing old retainer that the law has been reduced to the rule kill or be killed. Robin’s enemies are killed only when they attack, or die when their own plans turn against them. The centre of villainy is the Sheriff of Nottingham, played with calculated coldness by Alan Wheatley, but more often than not Robin and his outlaw band fight his faceless, helmeted soldiers. Presumably they can be discounted as collaborators, who have surrendered their humanity to become automata in the service of the Norman lords, or adopted their materialist value system.

Robin is egalitarian: he wants to wait his turn when told he can jump the queue and see the Sheriff, after first having been told to wait in line by a jobsworth clerk who thinks returning soldiers expect preferential treatment, which must have elicited nods of identification from many viewers. He abandons his aristocratic identity when among the outlaws in Sherwood and claims no automatic authority. On robbing the moneylender Herbert of Doncaster, Robin and his aide of the first two episodes, Alfie Bass as Edgar, carefully go through Herbert's accounts to return excessive interest payments to poor villagers. Robin rises to succeed Will Scathlock as leader of the Sherwood outlaws on grounds of intelligence and the inspiration of his redistributivist, compassionate message. It is not for nothing that at Scathlock's death Robin breaks the outlaw chief's sword and places the stump of the blade and its hilt on his chest as a funeral cross, and Robin's friar's outfit in 'Friar Tuck' is perhaps not just a disguise.

The world of the Sapphire Robin Hood is on first acquaintance a masculine one, where women are motherly figures or else sycophantic adornments. This changes with the third episode, which includes a brief glance of Marion and establishes that she has turned down all proposals of marriage, most of them from the Sheriff, as well as introduces the semi-regular character of Joan, barmaid at the Blue Boar Inn where the enforcers of the regime loosen their tongues. The first female guest star in the episode is the Countess of Bedford, who exists to demonstrate aristocratic decadence and the racialism of her husband the Earl of Bedford, who disparages his wife (who resists his caresses) as a ‘Latin’. While attempting to co-opt Little John's physical vigour in the service of his own feeble sexuality, the Earl justifies his treatment of Little John as a chattel by boasting of Norman intellectual superiority to Saxon stock, in a scene with echoes of the American slave market as well as the racial policies of the Third Reich. Strong stuff, perhaps, for a series broadcast by a US network as well as by ITV in the UK, even if it was innocuously placed in early-evening children‘s/family viewing. Uncomplicated stories of good and evil they may be, as The Times remembered on Richard Greene's death, but it is these political notes which sound the series’ moral chorus.

There is fun recognising actors in guest roles. Leo McKern appears in two different parts in two consecutive episodes, one a rapacious but self-satisfied Norman lord who has stolen Robin's estate, the other the cruel but bumbling moneylender Herbert. This is nothing given the doubling-up by other performers within the same episodes, with some actors appearing among the outlaws and the Sheriff’s men almost simultaneously. Leslie Phillips appears in the fourth episode, ‘Friar Tuck’, as the curiously-named Sir William of Malmesbury - approximately anticipating the 'Geoffrey of Monmouth' of the latterday BBC/Shine Merlin. Phillips makes the most of his role as a young member of the foppish ruling elite whose passion for his intended bride, Mildred, runs less deep than hers for her blacksmith lover. The intended bride herself is introduced in jerkin and hose and knocks Robin out with a bottle, mistaking her protector Friar Tuck's satisfaction with his credentials.

Robin awakes to find Mildred changing into feminine attire, represented first by the camera focusing on her hose-clad hips as she removes the jerkin, and then her calf being revealed from beneath her stocking as a frilled petticoat falls to cover it. Richard Greene's face expresses the alarm of a serious adolescent who doesn't want to acknowledge the existence of that, and he pretends to be asleep. Sadly with her masculine outfit goes Mildred's assertiveness and she has some particularly fragile dialogue. Nevertheless after nearly fifty-seven years the first few episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood remain spirited entertainment on their own terms as well as capsules of the preoccupations of North Atlantic popular culture in the 1950s.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Reflecting the nation: the BBC and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee

Kilometres of space have rolled from presses and tumbled across screens in the past few days expressing criticism of the BBC's reporting of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, with particular opprobrium being reserved for its coverage of the Thames Pageant. Initially this household watched the BBC's programme, but soon turned to Sky News. While the BBC had more vantage points and more presenters than Sky News, the latter concentrated on describing the pageant and seemed better informed, with substantial thanks to the presence throughout of Alastair Bruce, whose multiple personas as soldier, historian, herald and broadcaster were thoroughly utilised during the entire weekend. The BBC instead regularly cut away from the pageant to the antics of their own presenters on shore or on their own boats, whether Angelica Bell meeting newborn 'Jubilee babies' and their parents in hospital, Anneka Rice doing something forgettable by the side of the river, Sandi Toksvig and Griff Rhys Jones looking puzzled as they interviewed guests and sheltered from the rain below deck, or (worst of all) principal anchors-away Matt Baker and Sophie Raworth sinking rapidly under a weight of conflicting expectations and watery instructions through their earpieces. Matt Baker, confident at the helm of Countryfile and The One Show, and one of the pillars of Blue Peter's now-passed third or fourth golden age of the 2000s, at least seemed conscious of his own inadequacy given how defensive his body language was.

The press have drawn upon the negative reactions to the coverage expressed on Twitter. At first it appeared that many of the critics weren't actually watching the BBC's coverage, as they mocked the supposed subservience of the people they expected and imagined to be leading the broadcast. However, their early targets, Huw Edwards and Nicholas Witchell, were barely glimpsed, despite a promise in the Radio Times - no longer published or licensed by the BBC, but still in the minds of many associated with them - that Huw Edwards would be the chief presenter of the BBC broadcast of the pageant. Instead much of the burden in the later part of the event fell to Chris Hollins, battling with rain and spray on a boat, who at least managed to describe what he saw competently, but athletics commentator and sometime Olympian Paul Dickenson was evidently thrown his hammer too far, and demonstrated no grasp of the symbolism offered by the different vessels and their roles in the event, nor the way the pageant related them to the existing furniture of the river landscape.

Some interests connected with particular vessels, led to believe that their effort was to be broadcast as part of a national expression of thanks to Elizabeth II, appear to feel cheated. The Guardian reports that the BBC coverage ignored the special compositions for the event performed on thirteen 'music barges', leading to outrage from composer Orlando Gough. I had the impression that Sky woke late to the presence of these barges too. Somewhere communications had been lost between the organisers and the broadcasters, with their conceptions of the event not overlapping as well as they might in the case of Sky, and barely touching in the case of the BBC.

Other media outlets have been crowing at the apparent absence of BBC management from the airwaves, presses and net cables as the reign of Elizabeth II seemingly gives way to that of the public broadcaster's critics. Gillian Reynolds, doyenne of broadcasting journalists, drew attention to the inadequacies of jubilee reporting when taking part in a discussion on Radio 4's Today programme, including Richard Bacon's alleged dismissal of the thanksgiving service, in his Radio 5 Live commentary, as "a bit stiff". In response Mark Damazer, former controller of Radio 4 and now master of St Peter's College, Oxford, defended what he thought was an attempt to be "informal and to use the modern idiom inclusive". Presenter Evan Davis seemed to miss the point as well, suggesting to Gillian Reynolds that she wanted every royal event covered by a Dimbleby, as if only members of a particular family were capable of communicating certain details to the public, and confusing contextualisation and information with tone and mood.

I only saw the end of the thanksgiving service on television, and have not heard Radio 5 Live's coverage, but didn't think what I saw of the service "stiff". Indeed, the relaxed post-party poses of the young senior royals in the front row would not have been imaginable twenty years ago, and Rowan Williams's archiepiscopal sermon was straining with some success to mix warmth with the inevitable formality of the setting. So I don't know whether the broadcasters put the thanksgiving service into context as part of a history of such services at St Paul's to mark public occasions, such as the several thanksgivings to mark victories in the War of the Spanish Succession during the reign of Queen Anne, or that in 1715 to mark George I's survival on the British throne after the defeat of the Jacobite rising that year, or those which followed later military victories and indeed the recovery of George III from insanity in 1789; or indeed that such services can still be controversial, leading to the designation of the 2009 service to mark the end of British military operations in Iraq as one of memorial rather than of thanksgiving. During the Thames pageant on Sunday comparisons with the river pageant with which Charles II welcomed his queen Catherine of Braganza in 1662, and 'that painting by Canaletto' were repeated, but opportunities for exploring the comparison were few and fewer were taken, beyond reminders that Canaletto's painting depicted London civic pageantry and not a royal event. Had I been wearing my royal historian hat and pressed into broadcasting service, I'd have wanted to contrast Charles II's pageant with this Sunday's one, emphasising the need for Charles II to depict the strength of support for his recently-restored monarchy to the Portuguese, as well as show respect to the Braganzas as a fellow-reigning house at a time when many European monarchies regarded that dynasty as only enjoying squatters' rights in a Lisbon where the more powerful Spanish Habsburgs insisted they should be reigning.

My perspective on these events is perhaps unusual. There is a direct line from my experience of the Silver Jubilee of 1977, to my undertaking a doctoral thesis on the eighteenth-century royal family in the 1990s. The relics which I have from 1977 suggest to me that it celebrated the House of Windsor as crowning a social democracy where old hierarchies of heredity sat alongside new ones of education and expertise, each validating the other; and it was probably a similar impression that made 'kings and queens' a childhood enthusiasm. Looking through the broadcasting schedules for the era, the Jubilee was a celebration of the generations which had fought the Second World War, in which Princess Elizabeth had herself ended the war a commissioned officer, which apparently has left her a dab hand with a car engine. Entertainers such as Arthur Askey were prominent. The interpretation of the 1981 royal wedding as a 'Thatcherite' event, much retailed by commentators last year during media coverage of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, has never satisfied me; the Thatcherism of the late 1980s did not emerge fully-formed at the start of her ministry and the event seemed much more an attempt to perpetuate certain symbols of the early post-war consensus into the succeeding decade, with little understanding of the chief actors in the drama nor the surrounding context. My research into eighteenth-century royalty was inevitably coloured by perspectives formed in childhood and was probably at some level an exploration of them, though principally an attempt to show how the British ruling elite dealt with the emergence of a large 'family on the throne' for the first time since the Plantagenet and post-Plantagenet royal kindred of the later middle ages and early modern period; and while this might seem an odd comparison, there were many in the eighteenth century who would not have found it so and warned darkly of intra-dynastic warfare.

This background of childhood passions and academic interest means that I don't share the assumptions of the BBC's producers, if one can indeed infer them from the Diamond Jubilee broadcasts. If Mark Damazer's assumptions are right, then the emphasis on playing games with the crowds, or Fearne Cotton's notorious review of Jubilee merchandise with Paloma Faith, surely missed the point of why the crowds were there. To make them the focal point of coverage when they were there to watch and as spectators participate in the Thames pageant and Tuesday's carriage procession was to miscalculate and obscure the interrelationship of watchers and watched. (There were times when Sky News were just as bad as anything the BBC broadcast, given one Sky reporter's decision to attempt to conduct some royal-watchers she had corralled by the Mall in a chorus of God Save the Queen.) 'Inclusivity' belittled the experience of all participants, whatever their job descriptions. Interviews with crowd members on all channels worked when an attempt was made to reach a level of identification with them as members of the public, rather than as people to be belittled for wearing face paint.

The involvement of sport and leisure presenters on Sunday and the apparent dominance of general 'live events' specialists over news people during the Diamond Jubilee broadcasts suggests that the BBC, like other aeas of the political and media establishments, waylaid by the 'Jubilympics', the proximity of the Jubilee and the Olympics next to one another having led to preparations for the two events to merge and the Jubilee being treated by some bodies as a rehearsal for the Olympics rather than an event itself. This seems to be an unfortunate and mistaken consequence of the inevitable and necessary exploitation of synergies in an age of supposed public austerity. The controversy seems to have sparked keen reporting of BBC in-fighting relating to the succession to the director-generalship. This story is not finished yet.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Three Johnston relaunches, part two

The first part can be found here

Presenting Harrogate

There are recognisable local news priorities given good coverage across all three papers. The Harrogate Advertiser integrates stories about the Olympics well, including a routine story of police transfers from North Yorkshire to London for the games. Its Diamond Jubilee coverage, too, blends together experienced presentation of reports from village correspondents, listings and short features on particular events and local history features drawing on the photographic archive to leave this reader assured that the Harrogate Advertiser knew how to synthesise a common sense of what the Jubilee meant to its coverage area from disparate events and agendas, essential for a publication such as this where its personality needs to appeal to as much of the area as possible. There is solid crime and court reporting too, with a lead court story about a child rapist on page 7 and a double-spread of mid- and minor-ranking reports on pages 22 and 23. There is a 'School of the Month' with photographs of several classes and teachers from Brackenfield School (but where precisely is it?), prominently labelled with reference numbers; one hopes photographic sales have done good business. The byline for the school's headteacher, who wrote the piece, is almost misleadingly small, and I couldn't find any mention of it being an independent school. There was no advert or contact details so it wasn't blatantly advertorial.

The editorial-advertising balance is good and juxtaposition of advertisers and stories appropriate without being obvious. An antique jeweller props up the main nostalgia story, page 5. On the three court news pages bed retailer Dreams dominate, as if to reassure readers that they will not be murdered in their sleep. Dreams have also taken two business pages - 56 and 57 - but editorial does its best to show this is not a commentary on North Yorkshire's economy. On page 6 a story under the 'Bizarre' tagline (which I regret - far better for the presentation to be matter-of-fact) concerning the forthcoming sale of a vampire-slaying kit at Tennants Auctioneers in Harrogate is diagonally alongside an advert for the Royal Bank of Scotland, while it appears that though Harrogate Phoenix Players can take you to the United States in song and dance, editorial suggests the most exotic place Leeds-Bradford Airport can send passengers is Glasgow. Were I the proprietor of the Monkey Bike Company of Harrogate, who have taken 80% of the left-hand side of page 54, I'd want urgent discussions with the paper as the resolution of the ad is very low and the e-mail and web addresses illegibly pixellated. The more obviously barely digested press releases are towards the centre of the paper, with a story apparently about the restoration of Allerton Castle, near Knaresborough, really emphasising that it's available to hire through events specialists Dine. The Johnston Press Jubilee supplement encountered in The Bucks Herald here appears in pull-out form wrapped around the central property section. Further back, entertainment section Weekend appeas a little lost and teething troubles are evident on pages 127 and 128 where listings appear in the wrong font. The Food and Drink double page manages some intrigue among the copy drawing attention to initiatives by local businesses, with the paper reporting it's been unable to identify the Harrogate restaurant for sale at the price of £1.25million - though locals might know better.

The sport pages manage very well in the new format - the template alows for several photographs of cricketers in action to be placed prominently alongside reports of matches, and team pictures of swimmers, rugby players and taekwondo students. The template allows for little advertising on the sport pages, with the Harrogate Advertiser sport section backed by a page mixing of entertainment, holiday and sport ads and a bar on the back page of dating, safetywear and windows, and the Northumberland Gazette attracting motoring display ads instead. The Bucks Herald goes for smaller car ads than the Gazette, with a solicitor advertising their conveyancing services too.

For Alnwick and the County - and Jessie J

The Northumberland Gazette is the northernmost of the three titles and the one with which I am most familiar. Its crowded broadsheet pages have given way to an elegant application of the Cases i Associats template, though this could do with more polishing. Sadly, the strong lead story about continuing delays in replacing Duchess High School in Alnwick with a new building appears in two different versions, with the front page version ending mid-sentence and a trailing caption 'For more see page 4', but the new story with which the reader is faced on page 4 doesn't pick up on the sentence about sport provision on the possible 'all ages learnng campus'. Likewise a story in the right-hand column about an Alnwick pensioner's flight to hospital in Newcastle is left unfinished. The last incarnation of the Gazette's Gothic masthead has been left behind with the broadsheet and a smart new serif logo adorns the new paper. Its effect is unfortunately compromised by a cut-out of Jessie J, with whom the Gazette and its stablemate the Morpeth Herald have shown some editorial preoccupation over the last few weeks since it was announced she would be performing at Alnwick Castle on 21 July. The Gazette are admittedly running a competition to win four tickets, and both this prize and the stay at Linden Hall (designed by my old acquaintance Sir Charles Monck, which adds to the approbation) are superior to The Bucks Herald's bacon butty or the Harrogate Advertiser's free sausages, which makes one wonder how prizes were sourced and where the budget was allocated.

The Gazette is strong on human interest. The threatened closure of Horsdonside sheltered housing scheme at Wooler is told through 86-year-old Sybil Straughan, and the story tells something of her marriage and children and lost world of Northumberland small railways and how she brings this lived experience to sustaining community life at Horsdonside. A pity, then, that a vital informational point, the name of the housing association who operate Horsdonside, is not mentioned. Almost the other end of the age scale is a picture of Alnwick's finalist at Miss Northumberland, Stephanie Grieve. It's a good third page let down by a question a sub-editor should have asked; and a story about lack of money for housing maintenance shares a page with an advert for Kitson Windows mocking unlikely offers. Another subbing error emerges on page 16, where a story headed 'Staying one step ahead of terrorism' would make more sense without the double dividing line above it which divides it from the report on RAF Boulmer's role in preventing terrorism above.

The Northumberland Gazette follows a different approach on page 2 to the other papers, going for the heading 'Happy Weekend' and mixing information with photographs. I'd have wanted to put Holy Island crossing times, something that visitors to the area are likely to buy a paper for, in a more prominent font. There are two photographs, of small boys at Alnmouth beach and of a cross in a mysterious location, by Gazette photographer Jane Coltman; the latter is the first of a series of 'Where is This...?' pictures where the answer is promised next week. Editor Paul Larkin introduces the new paper on the same page and urges readers to give their feedback 'through whichever channel you prefer - email, letter or telephone, through an online survey on our website, by popping into our Alnwick office or via social media like Twitter and Facebook'. As mentioned in the first part of this review, invitations to scan QR codes are plentiful in the Gazette, though not on a story on page 4 headed 'Revision - there's an app for that' about Northumberland schools' tie-up with course material provider GCSEPod.

The Gazette's unusual angle on the Olympics is the prospect of the Olympic Torch arriving in Alnwick on the 101st anniversary of the maiden voyage of the RMS Olympic, sister to the Titanic. The Olympic's lounge and other fittings were installed in the White Swan, Alnwick, following the break-up of the Olympic on Tyneside in 1935. Where the previous week's retrospective remembered a time when Gazette headlines concerned coal mining, tourism is prominent in the modern Gazette, with a caravan park and a spa on its site both winning awards for staff to display on page 14. There is no property pull-out in the Gazette, and so the centre pages given over to local jubilee listings and a summary of major events with an endorsement of communities' plans by MP Sir Alan Beith.

Where in the Harrogate Advertiser the leisure section was dominated by visiting performers, its equivalent section in the Northumberland Gazette has prominent stories about local artists Francesca Simpson, painter, tying in to Alnmouth Art Festival, and fabric-sculptor and painter Helen Cowans. With Simpson being pictured by the sea, another story noting an award given to a long-serving RNLI man from Craster, and the main story on the sport page being about a golf club and another concerning a charity run in Druridge Bay, there's a definite sense of the Northumberland Gazette's patch as a coastal community. Editor Paul Larkin even chooses to revive the restaurant review column with a review of The Joiner's Arms at Newton-by-the-Sea. Higher ground is represented by a story about dog agility champion Megan Young, who broke her arm while winning third place in a competition (though it's not clear from the text which one). There are livestock market listings, though, but no survey of the farming scene as appeared in Northumberland papers of thirty years ago; instead, emphasising the role of the paper as a leisure accessory, there is a column by a local vet about watching out for pancreatitis in dogs.

And the winner is..?

The Northumberland Gazette is probably my favourite of the three. Although I know its area better, that's not the only reason I find it brings its readership into focus most sharply of my sample. There are no pointless head-and-shoulders vox pops like the Harrogate Advertiser's one on the United Kingdom's continued participation in the Eurovision Song Contest here. It does seem to have fewer inappropriately-sized photographs (the bane of The Bucks Herald in particular) than the others, but is let down by errors in subbing. Nevertheless, it's friendlier than The Bucks Herald, whose business columnist urges Vale of Aylesbury businesses to engage with the battle for global supremacy rather than hide away like hobbits in Tolkien's Shire. In emphasising local creative talent over visiting performers in their events page the Gazette acknowledges that the visitors are probably in need of less publicity than locals and that it's the local events rather than the national and regional tours which need the local weekly press more, though they would not turn down their advertising.

These three examples of relaunched Johnston Press papers leave me with mixed impressions of the future of the local weekly press. The Bucks Herald seems most impatient to shepherd its readers online, though as yet the group's websites are still disappointing and there is an emphasis on the latest fashionable interfaces which doesn't leave one confident that the group has a clear internet strategy. Of the three titles, the Northumberland Gazette presently has 2781 Facebook likes and 1186 Twitter followers; the Harrogate Advertiser 81 Facebook likes and 3221 Twitter followers (being fronted online by a dog, Harrogate Hound, evidently has some benefits) and The Bucks Herald 447 Facebook likes and 2967 Twitter followers, though whether anyone can gather anything useful from these statistics is questionable. Urging readers to go online to access extra illustrations and longer reports is acceptable but if taken to extremes can leave one to feel shortchanged if the online edition isn't yet taking fullest advantage of the format, which is difficult when a company has as much debt as Johnston Press has. The internet might be the future but print is by no means dead. The newspapers need to be solid and distinctive products which serve their niche within the collective audience of what I gather we must now call the 'news brand'. The reader of the Northumberland Gazette who said on Facebook that there was no need to turn the paper into The Times might have a point if the new designs are widely felt to be more remote. In this age of communication, though, it is welcome that the relaunched papers all emphasise bylines and give portraits (in the case of the Gazette) and individual contact details across platforms for their staff; though given pressures on their time in these understaffed days this might be tempting fate.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Ponteland Diamond Jubilee Exhibition: Ponteland in Print

Ponteland has been commemorating the Diamond Jubilee weekend with an exhibition in the Memorial Hall where several local organisations are represented. These include the Ponteland Local History Society, whose panels include a section on Ponteland in Print. There's a reproduction of the front page and first editorial from the Ponteland Observer, as well as the enigmatic but apparently short-lived Ponteland Gazette of 1946, and a couple of Ponteland High School newspapers from my era, as well as several other publications including Ponteland Local History Society's own Pont Island News. The oldest newspaper on display, though, was Welle 69, typed in German as it was published by the German prisoners of war at Darras Hall POW camp. This later became a civil defence training establishment and was only closed and demolished in 1961; the display commemorating it commemorated some of the prisoners and later displaced persons who resided there in the 1940s.

Three Johnston relaunches, part one

The turmoil at Johnston Press continues to reignite my interest in newsprint. This week saw the first wave of redesigns within the company's stable of local newspapers, with most attention being devoted to the conversion of five daily titles to weekly ones. Several existing weeklies from different Johnston Press subsidiaries were redesigned too, with the three titles I picked up all apparently being moulded to the same template, one of five designed for Johnston Press by Cases i Associats.

The new looks are familiar ones. Cases i Associats designed The Independent titles, including the i, and headline, byline and text fonts in the three Johnston papers resemble those used or formerly used by the Lebedev stable. Both The Bucks Herald (Aylesbury, Premier Newspapers) and the Harrogate Advertiser (Harrogate, Ackrill Newspapers) run in their new compact formats to over a hundred pages, 152 in the first case and 180 in the second. Despite the editor of the Advertiser saying that research shows that readers prefer their papers in single sections, this reader finds his 200+ page Oxford Times (a Newsquest publication rather than Johnston) unwieldy and suggests that compact newspapers which reach that size follow the example of the Lincolnshire Echo which has become a multi-section newspaper. The final relaunched Johnston paper I've seen, the Northumberland Gazette (Alnwick, Northeast Press) reached a less weighty 64 pages.

Looking back...

I live on the western fringe of the Bucks Herald circulation area and picked up its last broadsheet issue last week; its look suggested a recent redesign with uncluttered broadsheet pages and white space. The Harrogate Advertiser seems from internet records of its front pages to have gone down a similar route, though I remember it having had a busier look in the not-too-distant past. The broadsheet Northumberland Gazette was a weekly of more traditional appearance, with a busy front page and births, marriages and deaths on page two. The last Gazette in its old format was little changed to my eye from its last major redesign in the early 1990s, save for evolutionary changes brought by changes in technology such as colour printing. Both The Bucks Herald and the Northumberland Gazette included commemorative features on their histories in their final broadsheet numbers, the Aylesbury paper emphasising headlines in the last thirty years as well as early history - though their front page claim that the black-and-white group photograph of Herald staff showed the founding team of 1832 was extremely unlikely on the grounds of the late Victorian fashion displayed, quite apart from the underdevelopment of photography in the early 1830s. The Gazette raced through the history of periodical publishing in Alnwick, recalling long-lost early nineteenth-century attempts before the establishment of the Alnwick Mercury, the oldest title in the Gazette family tree. A montage of headlines and profiles of editors suggested the Gazette's place in social, business and cultural history in mid- and north Northumberland. With both the Northumberland Gazette and The Bucks Herald, one did wonder if the opportunity to commemorate the paper's role was being taken now in case the banks baying around the Johnston Press campfire decide an end should come to them with no warning.

The Bucks Herald

The Bucks Herald was the first to reach its compact form, on Wednesday; the paper opted for an upbeat look forward to the Diamond Jubilee weekend with the headline 'We're going to party like it was 1952!' Turnovers include a special offer for a bacon butty and coffee at the Bell in Aylesbury - "one of our Fabulous five offers to celebrate the launch of your new Bucks Herald" - with the news story treated as a hook being 'Prisoners involved in hostage drama' on page 5 (though the story itself turns out to be small), and the lead sport story being the appointment of Craig Faulconbridge as player-manager of Aylesbury FC. Inside the paper page 2 becomes 'Your Week...' with a horizontal strap offering a cheery '5 things to do this week' above a 'Picture of the week' showing children from Brill brandishing the hobbyhorses they were to display during the village's jubilee celebrations. MP for Buckingham John Bercow greets the new Bucks Herald in his column 'Speakers' Corner'. Small print on the bottom right of the page promises readers that 'The court list and planning applications will return next week.'

There is some good use of pictures: page 3's lead, 'Phil protests against pricey parking permits', shows Conservative councillor Phil Yerby reflected in his rear view mirror clutching his torn-up Aylesbury Vale District Council parking permit, in a populist attack on councillors' free parking perk. The picture spreads on pages 18-19 and 24-25 largely speak for themselves though some demand reproduction at a larger size. Some individual images could be better-used too, such as the allegedly 'towering' jubilee cake being raffled layer-by-layer on page 9, but which appears little bigger than a postage stamp. On the other hand if readers have a tractor obsession the gallery of Geoff Jarvis's vintage farm machinery on page 27 is worth the 55p cover price. The impression of a team used to being able to make an impact with photographs on broadsheet spreads fighting on with grim determination in the face of an unforgivingly rigid new template.

There are a few other teething troubles - the 'Princes Risborough' subheading in the healthy 'Town & village news' section appears twice, the second time in the middle of a piece on a Jubilee street party, but this gives the impression of a paper with a good relationship with its village correspondents. A pity perhaps that they are shunted towards the back of the paper, next to the bland and generic Diamond Jubilee 'supplement', unsurprisingly similar to the one which appears in the Harrogate Advertiser. The appearance of the May edition of Going for Gold: Countdown to the Olympics within The Bucks Herald as well, placed before the central property section, leaves the centre of the paper something of a swamp, and it's unfortunate that this Olympic feature doesn't fit well in design terms with the rest of the paper, though it seems to have attracted plenty of advertising.

Ashley writes! Few QRs in Harrogate...

Of the three newspapers I've seen, The Bucks Herald is the only one to have a message from Johnston chief executive Ashley Highfield, leading the OpEd double spread (though its heading is 'Letters to the Editor' there is one from the editor to readers there too, as well as from his boss). Highfield promises 'more improvements to come including integration with Facebook and Twitter', remarks on his Buckinghamshire upbringing, and reiterates that he wants to keep the paper 'relevant and useful, across all media - print, web and mobile, and additionally bring in a new audience.' The Bucks Herald and the Northumberland Gazette are now both littered with QR codes throughout their pages. These promise maps of the Olympic torch relay, entry forms for local events, external website links (with the actual addresses buried unnoticeably in text) or - particularly in the case of the Northumberland Gazette - just 'more news' or an extended version of the paper's interview with local MP Sir Alan Beith.

The Harrogate Advertiser hasn't been as enthusiastic for QR codes, and where the Herald and the Gazette have gone for a headline font which is a relative of Bodoni, the Harrogate Advertiser and its close siblings in North and West Yorkshire - who also made the tabloid switch this week - have adopted a warmer kinsfont of Century. A similar but harder-edged font appears in the new masthead, which sensibly emphasises the locality over the noun in the paper's title. Readers are invited to study the 'Essential Guide' to the Jubilee weekend and are promised free sausages from Fodder, who have the advertisement across the foot of the page. The lead story is harder than that in The Bucks Herald, announcing the rebuilding of Harrogate High School; Canon-designate Revd Francis Wainaina gives his blessing to the new paper, of which he holds a dummy, in the front page photograph. Editor Jean MacQuarrie welcomes readers to the new Advertiser in the rightmost column, mentioning her Meet the Editor forum on publication day - early in the paper's shelf life - and attributing the change entirely to readers' requests and making no mention of Johnston Press or the need to adapt to the internet age. Like The Bucks Herald page 2 is given over to a contents-themed miscellany, with an opinion piece and two strong pictures, one large and well-positioned of the staff of Flying Colours flagmakers in Knaresborough anticipating the Diamond Jubilee weekend, and one smaller and less meaningful of pupils from Harrogate visiting Auschwitz. Both link to features later in the paper, and throughout the new-look Harrogate Advertiser makes better use of the new template in terms the balance between copy and communicative images, both editorial and advertising, than does The Bucks Herald.

Continued in part two!