James Follett

In 1980 I got thoroughly fed up with my beloved Adler electric typewriter’s repair bills. At this time there were many thin screen electronic typewriters coming onto the market in which one could edit a line of type before committing it to paper. I toyed with the idea of buying one but, having once used a Wang, I was smitten with the idea of having a proper CRT display and the ability to store whole chapters of a novel in RAM and edit them to my heart’s content. Trouble is, IIR, the Wang cost about GBP10K and there was no equivalent wp package that worked using the few microcomputer that were appearing on the market at the time.

Then Simon Dally, an old friend and computer buff (he was co-founder of MUSE — Multiple User Entertainment) mentioned that Tandy Radio Shack had produced a decent wp package for their Model 1 Tandy TRS-80 computer. I goggled at a demo in Guildford Computers Ltd (RIP). Radio Shack’s curiously named Scripsit wp package did everything. I was hooked and placed an immediate order. The bill was horrific:

‘You want the lowercase mod, sir? That’ll be another GBP200. I’d advise two floppy drives — another GBP300 and well worth the extra.’

Six hundred pounds for two 180K floppy drives! The monstrous, back-breaking Daisy Wheel II printer for a mere 1K seemed quite reasonable. The entire bill came to about GBP2300. A packet of ten floppy discs cost GBP30 and all ten were needed for the first novel I wrote using the machine — ‘The Tiptoe Boys’, later filmed as ‘Who Dares Wins.’

That summer I used to hump my computer down to the Dally family home at Graffham, just a few miles down the road from me. Simon had the same TRS-80 and somehow had acquired a huge library of games. We misspent many happy hours playing games and, very naughtily, swapping software. The first graphics-based game I ever played was courtesy of Simon’s library. It was Taipan — a BASIC South China Sea trading game with graphics that looked like animated house bricks.

My literary agent, Jacqui Lyons of Marjacq Scripts Ltd, was intrigued by these damned microcomputers that were taking up so much of our time. I was about to pack myself off to Spain for the whole of September so I agreed to loan her my entire system including the printer. There wasn’t much room on her desk in her London office by the time it was all set up and working.

George Markstein, her partner in the literary agency, wandered in, viewed the great mass of spaghetti in horror, listened with a pained expression as the printer gave a passable impersonation of a machine-gun to produce a test page, and declared that such nonsense would never replace his portable typewriter. This from someone who was largely responsible for the creation of that hi-tech TV series ‘The Prisoner’! (George was the guy sitting at his desk in the opening sequence when Patrick McGoohan bursts in and slams down his resignation).

I returned to Jacqui’s office a month later to collect my TRS-80 and discovered that it had been breeding in my absence — there were now _two_ TRS-80s in her office complete with those barn-size daisywheel printers. Plus, IIR, a Commodore Pet and possibly an Apple or three.

My “Hey, Jacqui! You’ve really been bitten!” reaction as I squeezed passed the printers earned a withering riposte. “There’s a big future in these things.”

It turned out that Jacqui had been hellish busy in the month I’d been away. Like me she’d nearly mastered the TRS-80 after about a week; like me, had played Taipan; like me, she’d spent more time doing so than she cared to admit. Unlike me, and unlike George Markstein, she decided that games software was where a serious future lay. She had placed an advert in one of those embryo computer magazines that were emerging at the beginning of the 1980s in which she offered her services as an agent to software authors. The response was astonishing — she was inundated with replies. She was, I believe, among the very first to recognise that software authors, like novelists and scriptwriters, needed proper representation. Indeed, it was Jacqui Lyons who put the UK’s budding leisure software on a sound business footing. She must’ve spent hours drafting contracts and clauses that covered all rights likely to arise and were fair to clients and their customers. Those contracts were the groundwork of today’s standard contacts.

At the time many games coming her way were horizontal scrolling react to hazard efforts inspired, I believe, by ‘Defender’. I was fond of expounding a theory to Jacqui Lyons that the embryo games industry was following a pattern that started a century earlier when audiences used to queue outside ‘electric’ theatres to watch clips of hurtling trains, the Calgary stampede, military exercises and so forth. Eventually the audiences got bored and cinema looked like it was going to languish until filmmakers had the idea of building their art around a story. Movies such as ‘The Great Train Robbery’ changed attitudes and the audiences came back.

As it happened, my views were shared by Jacqui. She was keen for storytellers to work with software authors. In 1984 she sent me to see Jez San, a bespectacled, personable but slightly mad young man whose bedroom at Mill Hill was crammed full of Amiga and Atari motherboards connected to open keyboards and naked hard disks by a fearsome a tangle of ribbon cables. I don’t think Jez actually owned a complete microcomputer in a case other than a Model III TRS-80 that served as a Prestel terminal. I got the distinct impression that Mrs San didn’t entirely approve of her son’s passion.

(c) Copyright James Follett. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Credentials

James Follett is a well established and very successful author, who has written a number of novels including Sabre, A Cage of Eagles, Ice, Dominator and The Tiptoe Boys (filmed under the title Who Dares Wins).

James has also been involved with TV and radio scripts, including Crown Court, two episodes of BBC TV’s Blake’s 7, BBC Radio’s Earthsearch series, and many other BBC radio plays.

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