War in the blood

Every so often the BBC produces something that is worth the year’s licence fee alone. War in the blood, first broadcast last Sunday, is one such programme. It’s a truly remarkable 100 minutes of television.

I’d originally decided not to watch it. Somehow, it all felt a bit too close to home. The CAR T-cell therapy covered by the programme shares some similarities with the stem cell transplant I went through last year. Blood cell harvesting, long hospital stays and (ouch) bone marrow biopsies. The emotions you go through as treatment is explained to you and your carer. The periods of relative wellness, followed by total reliance on medical staff. It’s all horribly familiar. But encouraged by friends on one of the MCL forums I belong to, I decided that I needed to see it for myself.

Blood centrifuge
The blood centrifuge I was hooked up to a year ago. You see these being used in the documentary harvesting the blood cells needed for CAR T-cell therapy.

The personal stories of Graham Threader and Mahmoud Kayiizi are at the centre of the documentary. Both had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) which had stopped responding to conventional chemotherapy. The phase 1 CAR T-cell trials they signed up to were their best chance – their last chance – of a long lasting remission. Phase 1 trials are inevitably risky undertakings, as they’re the first time new treatments are tried in people. But as Graham observed, “someone has to go first”.

The science behind CAR T is explained in a straightforward manner using ping-pong balls by Dr Martin Pule. He’s in charge of programming the blood cells used so that they attack the cancer and kill it. His early passion for tinkering with electronics eventually led him into this career. There’s a point in the programme where he talks about the data from the trials being all important. In the midst of the patients’ personal stories this made me gasp, but of course, he’s right. You have to remain objective to make the right design decisions for the patients. You think with the head, not the heart.

Dr Claire Roddie leads the teams administering the trials. The documentary gives a fascinating insight into what motivated her to become a haematologist, and she shares in the patients’ joys and sadnesses. You see the wider NHS at its best as well.

War in the blood is available on the BBC iPlayer for another month. It’s compelling viewing, with a bittersweet conclusion. I’m glad that I watched it. The future of all blood cancer treatment may well be CAR T-cell shaped soon. I’m grateful to the pioneers – the patients and medical professionals – for their selfless commitment.

Shoestring reloaded

Watching television programmes remembered from my childhood can sometimes be a dispiriting experience. ITV3’s endless repeats of On the Buses is a reminder that terrible sitcoms were made long before Mrs Brown’s Boys. Many 1970s drama serials really haven’t stood the test of time either. The Persuaders is cringe-making, sexist tosh. The Professionals seems rather more amateurish than professional. Even Blake’s 7, which I watched religiously through the static on an expiring black and white television, is mostly unwatchable.

However, some real gems were made. Which brings me to Shoestring. I suspect that this series was largely responsible for my later desire to become a radio presenter, a fantasy that I was able to inflict on my university friends courtesy of W963. I recently bought the newly-released 21 episode DVD and book. I’m pleased to report that it’s been an entirely positive experience rediscovering the series. Even though I’d bought the first 11 episodes some years ago on an earlier DVD release, Andrew Pixley’s book alone is almost worth the £40 outlay.

170 pages long, it consists of an in-depth history of the series, plus an episode by episode guide to the cast, music, script quirks, shooting locations … everything you could possibly want to know. The front cover (pictured) is a pastiche of an actual Radio Times cover from October 1980.

Shoestring cover

As I’ve watched the DVD, I’ve inevitably found myself gasping at how much the world has changed since 1979/80 when the programmes were made. For example, all cars seemed to be incredibly badly made. I wince every time someone closes a door as it seems certain that such a rash act will bend the chassis. Computers (such as the CEGB‘s filmed for the Utmost Good Faith episode) had punched cards for input, filled whole air-conditioned rooms, but had less computing power than the Raspberry Pi I’m writing this blog post on.

However, it’s the final episode – The Dangerous Game – which confirms to me that Shoestring really was from an era that is long gone. In it we see:

  • Eddie having a conversation outside a Berni Inn.
  • Re-usable paper Christmas decorations and fake spray-on snow in shop windows.
  • A cafe with a green “We Accept Luncheon Vouchers” sticker in the window.
  • A local radio station that was genuinely local, with a substantial staff of telephonists, DJs and its own newsroom.
  • A dangerous electrical toy race track, shown (in three separate scenes) as requiring a three-pin plug to be wired up before it could be used.
  • A holiday cottage that needed ten pence coins to feed the electricity meter.

The plot turns on the last two points. Because of this, it’s a story that couldn’t be told the same way in 2017. So I’m stopping now to set myself up a Shoestring playlist on my cloud-based, wireless music centre that came with a moulded three-pin plug. Sadly, I won’t be needing any punched cards.


Inspired by the Post40Bloggers writing prompt #38 – The Good Old Days.

You’re fired! Why “The Apprentice” wasn’t all about negotiation this week

One of my guilty pleasures is watching “The Apprentice”. It’s back on our screens at the moment and this week’s episode featured one of my favourite tasks – the scavenger hunt. The teams were asked to source nine different items, at the lowest possible cost, and deliver them back to the boardroom. This year’s twist was that some members of each team were sent to France, with the others remaining in Kent.

One of the things that always strikes me about the scavenger hunt is the claim often made by the contestants (and sometimes by the people in the boardroom who really should know better) is that the heart of the task is all about negotiation. However, that’s not really the case.

Firstly, this task is about good research and planning. Lord Sugar rightly lambasted the teams for not doing this well enough, even though (unusually) they had been given several hours to think this through before being let loose on unsuspecting sellers. You need a ‘plan A’ for each item, but having a ‘plan B’ (and even a plan C or D) is useful too. Psychological flexibility – having the courage to dump plan A when it doesn’t work out – is really important here. But of course, in an artificial environment like The Apprentice where everyone is out for themselves (it’s a zero sum game after all, as there can only be one winner); flexibility is often constructed as weakness.

Secondly, it’s about thinking rationally. While there’s a fixed penalty of £50 for each item missed, there’s a variable penalty added on depending on the market value of the item too. So it’s worthwhile investing more time in finding the higher value items. It’s usually the case that the lower value items are easier to source anyway – a quick trip to any market or supermarket in France would have rapidly netted 3 of the 9 this time around (mussels, snails and cheese). And if you’re going to spend time haggling over the cost of an item, it’s better to spend that time doing it well for a few percentage points off something costing £250, than failing to get a discount off something sold for €15. Especially if the person making the purchase doesn’t speak French very well!

Thirdly, the contestants usually mistake haggling for negotiation. They sometimes remember to ask for a discount, but they’re not in a position to make concessions on the quality of the item (who will ever forget the paper skeleton saga from last year’s show), when it can be delivered to them (they have an immovable deadline), what publicity they might give the seller (the BBC has editorial control) the form of payment offered (it’s cash now, take it or leave it) and so on. They don’t really have anything to negotiate with. Business negotiations are invariably more flexible and complex affairs that provide lasting value to both parties. Once you’ve recognised that you’re actually haggling, rather than negotiating, the best thing to do is to politely ask for a ridiculously large discount to start off with and then cajole the seller into revealing their hand. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Ultimately however, successful candidates on The Apprentice understand how language can be used to justify their own actions and blame others, in the context of the expectations that Lord Sugar and his team have. This week’s unsuccessful project manager understood this only too well (Lord Sugar has often said that he detests non-triers), so although she failed on most aspects of planning, flexibility and rationality during the task, she successfully positioned herself as a trier. The contestant Lord Sugar eventually fired was positioned as the non-trier, and so lost.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 23rd October 2015.

Post-40 Bloggers

Woomerang Boomerang – It’s Tingha and Tucker

I happened across my Tingha and Tucker membership pack while I was sorting through my parents’ house this afternoon. Here’s the signed picture it contained of Jean Morton with them and their friends.

Tingha and TuckerThe pack dates from 1967 according to the postmark on the envelope it was in. As well as the photograph and badge, it also contains a membership card – almost certainly the first one I ever had. However, I doubt that I had any say in whether I wanted to join, unlike when joining another organisation that had membership cards a few years later.

Membership card - front and backThe inside of the card details the club rules, which are, to say the least, interesting in their scope. The 1960s somehow don’t seem all that rock and roll when you read them. The show was cancelled in 1970, after having run for eight years.

Membership card - insideATV was, of course, the television station that brought us Tiswas just a few years later. Somehow, I don’t think Jean Morton would have been all that impressed.




Michael Murray on power:

It’s great being someone Frankie, that’s a fact. D’you know, I can never remember a time when I didn’t want to be someone. When you’re someone you’ve got the power to do nearly anything you want. Better still, you can get people to do nearly anything you want them to do. Like tonight, with that girl. I mean, actually I didn’t have to do anything at all. I just got a waiter to go over to her table with a bottle of sparkling white wine and a note. “Michael Murray would like you to join him”. But you have to be someone first – it doesn’t work otherwise. I know that much. I tried it last year when I was almost someone. I can still hear the laughter. But not now. No, no – not now.

Whose disease is cat skin?

Many, many, many years ago, when I was a sixth former, we had a record player in our common room. One person was a big fan of The Skids. He played their records so often that the sarcastic remark “Oh, The Skids – that makes a change” became a ubiquitous complaint.

I could never understand their lyrics – a problem that the cassette tape manufacturers Maxell picked up on. The advertisement is great fun and I stumbled across it again today by the wonders of t’internet. However, I’m not convinced that even if I heard it on a Maxell I’d be able to work out what they’re really singing.

The Occupational Psychology of Open All Hours

One of the more enjoyable television highlights this Christmas was watching David Jason reprise his role as Granville in Still Open All Hours, which aired Boxing Day on BBC One.

Open All Hours, with the much-missed Ronnie Barker in the role of Arkwright, the tight-fisted grocer, first appeared on our screens in 1976. Judging by the appearance of the shop, little changed (except the prices) in the intervening 37 years. However, Granville the errand boy had become Granville the shop owner and was now displaying the money-grasping traits that had been associated with his former boss, rather than dreaming of romance with the milk-lady.

In the context of my Occupational Psychology masters, a few things about Still Open All Hours struck me as interesting. Firstly, Granville had spent his entire working life with a single employer. That’s unusual, as although research findings differ, people working in the UK today are more likely to have anywhere between 6 and 15 different employers during their working life. Looking back over my career, I’ve had five different full-time employers (I’ve worked for one of those twice, so you could argue that I’ve had six) and two part-time employers. On average, you’re also likely to change job (if not employer) every four and a half years or so.

Secondly, although Granville is now the shop owner, his job doesn’t seem to have changed very much over the last 37 years – even to the extent that falling off the shop’s delivery bicycle still seems to be part of his job description. However, the pressures on most modern workplaces from new technologies, globalisation, competition and acquisitions mean that change is inevitable. Some occupational psychologists now recommend that rather than simply performing a static job analysis as the basis for recruitment, effort must be put into determining how, and how much, a role may change over time if an organisation wants to recruit the best people. The ability to recruit talent, rather than just people with specific skills, will therefore become ever more important to organisational success.

Thirdly, Granville’s personality appears to have undergone a radical change. He’s taken on the traits (and comically, the appearance) of Arkwright and is no longer the naive dreamer from the original series. While we’re talking fiction of course, I believe that this illustration makes an important point.

For me, the balance of evidence is that personality is primarily and perhaps even entirely shaped by the situation someone finds themself in, rather than being an inherent and stable characteristic of that individual. In other words, if you peel the layers off the onion of an individual’s personality, you will never reach a central core – the ‘real’ person – because there isn’t one to find. While the research suggests that there is some predictive validity between personality inventory scores and subsequent job performance, for me the probability is that the work situation someone finds themself in is going to influence their effectiveness and behaviour far more than any supposed internal personality traits. I believe that the most successful organisations in the coming decades will recognise this and find ways for employees to become better leaders – and better followers – rather than simply suggesting that an individual’s personality is either right or wrong for a particular role.

So there you have it. The occupational psychology of Open All Hours in less than 600 words! But as always, I’d be really interested to hear what you think. The comments form is just a click or two away … and while I’m in a festive mood, may I wish you all a peaceful and prosperous 2014.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 28th December 2013.

Should Adam Crozier resign?

After all, it is wrong to tempt others when you can reasonably avoid doing so. And ITV, of which Mr. Crozier is the chief executive, has tempted Nadine Dorries away from serving the interests of her constituents in Mid Bedfordshire to take part in a freak show in the Australian jungle.

In the current climate where resignation appears to be the answer to everything, I’m amazed that no-one has already called for his head!

DD307 – Attitudes

I’ve been catching up with a bit of note making today by finishing off my scribbles on the attitudes chapter of the critical readings book. As I was reading it, I was reminded of an old episode of “Yes Minister” where Sir Humphrey demonstrates that depending on the sequence of questions being asked (or the context, as Potter and Wetherell might call it), the same person can appear to have an entirely different and contradictory attitude in response to the same question “are you in favour of reintroducing national service?”


1-0 to the discursive psychologists I think!