Day: December 23, 2015

Equinox – Alive and Kicking – tape 1242

First on this tape, Equinox presents The Gambler’s Guide to Winning. It looks at the various ways gamblers have tried to get an edge over games of chance. When talking about horse racing, they talk to Professor Frank George, a professor of cybernetics, who has devised a system based (has says) on statistical analysis. But when he tries to explain the system to Nicholas Coral, fellow of the Institute of Mathematics and scion of the Coral bookmaking family, Coral is rather skeptical.

“I have to say, I’m a mathematician, and what you’re saying to me doesn’t make any sense to me whatsoever.”

“Well you’re not such a good mathematician as I thought you’d be in that case.”

“I think I’d need a more mathematical explanation than you’ve given, which I think is just waffling on the whole.”

Nicholas Coral and Frank George

Professor J Doyne Farmer, when he was a research student, decided to attack the problem of winning at the roulette table. Because of the way the odds are calculated in roulette, the house always has a tiny edge, and always wins over the long term. But Farmer figured that, although the action of a roulette ball bouncing around a table seemed chaotic (and indeed it was) it ought to be possible to figure out the general area where the ball settles with a fair amount of confidence.

So he and a group of other students decided to try to build a device to predict the likely winning numbers on a throw of a roulette wheel. They got hold of a regulation wheel to test their system, and eventually built a small computer that could fit in a shoe, operated by switches at the toe, and with feedback from vibrations of different frequencies in the sole. It was an amazing contraption, especially at the time they did this, when the state of the art was a 1MHz 6502 processor. He tells the story of one trip to the casino where their battery packs, strapped under their arms, got so hot that one of them started to visibly smoke, and she ended up with a nasty scar from the burn.

This is a fascinating story, and it’s a shame that this programme can’t talk more about it. It’s covered in full in a brilliant book, The Newtonian Casino, which I highly recommend. (I don’t know if The Eudaemonic Pie is the same book under a different name, or an updated edition, or a new book which covers some of the same events, but it’s by the same author and covers the same kinds of topics.)

Doyne Farmer

The programme also talks to Ed Thorp, who invented card counting at blackjack.

Ed Thorp

After this programme, recording switches to the end of a news report. Then a trailer for Panorama on the drug Halcion. Weather from Suzanne Charlton and an advert about how BBC programmes have been dubbed into lots of foreign languages.

Then, we have Alive and Kicking, not a frothy Saturday morning children’s entertainment show, but a rather depressing drama about drug addiction starring Lenny Henry and Robbie Coltrane.

Henry plays Smudger, a drug dealer and addict in Birmingham whose wife is having a baby at the start of the programme, while Smudger and his gang pursue a rival gang member for, presumably, being in a rival gang. .There’s an interesting inversion of expectation in the opening scenes, when Henry and his posse stake out the house, and he orders them in over walkie talkie, a signifier that would usually mean he’s part of the police. But when he cuts the thugs face with a broken bottle, it’s clear he’s on the bad side.

Lenny Henry in Alive and Kicking

Henry’s comic persona isn’t a help to him here. Even when he’s mutilating a rival, we’re still expecting a joke or a sight gag, and although he plays it straight, it’s impossible for this viewer to eliminate all traces of his normal persona. So the drama.

Robbie Coltrane has played enough straight drama not to suffer from the same perceptual problems, but his role here is clearly written to be funnier. He plays Liam, a drug counsellor newly arrived in Birmingham, who Henry first meets when Coltrane gets Henry’s wife into a rehab unit, after her baby has been taken away from them because of her addiction.

Imogen Boorman plays Hayley, another counsellor working with Liam, who’s always trying to curb his more maverick tendencies because, of course, he doesn’t play by the rules.

Imogen Boorman

When Henry decides to finally clean himself up, he decides to start a football team for addicts. It doesn’t all go his way, since his rival gangster is still out for revenge, and he still has to persuade his wife to let him have contact with their baby boy.

This was written by Al Hunter, who also wrote The Firm.

If you’re interested in watching this, it’s available in the BBC store.

BBC Genome: BBC One – 13th October 1991 – 21:20

After this, there’s a trailer for Alan Bennett’s play about Anthony Blunt, A Question of Attribution.

Then, an episode of Heart of the Matter about Whistle-blowers. The tape ends after 25 minutes of this programme.


  • trail: Dispatches