The Phil South interview

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Photo credit: Jude Elliott

Phil South wrote for Commodore Format from its first issue, and is mostly known for his year-long programming tutorial Back To BASIC. But he’s also famed for his time on the mighty Your Sinclair, working on the iconic title before it became part of Future. “It’s hazy”, he tells us,  “because we used to drink a lot at YS but EGAD they drank a lot down at Future then.” 

Phil! Great to catch up with you. Can you tell us a bit about how you got started in writing about games, and the early days of Your Sinclair? You don’t get started writing about games, it’s more you kind of fall into it like it’s a hole someone left unattended.

Actually how it happened was in about 1984 a friend of mine John Molloy, a musician, knew I wanted to be a writer. God bless him through his contacts in the computer games biz (he was a friends of the Magnetic Scrolls team and that’s how we wrote the game Fish!, a much longer story) he introduced me to Kevin Cox. Kevin was working on computer games mags for Argus Specialist Press in Golden Square. I wrote about games without having a computer on a typewriter, I think I just looked at the box and guessed what it might be like. I realised this couldn’t continue, so I made friends with the guy who ran the local college computer room, a lovely guy called Neil Davey, where I lived in Hemel Hempstead. I let them have games but I reviewed them first and typed them up on their computers.

This was wonderful but then Kevin (along with co-worker Alison Hjul) got new jobs at this outfit called Bunch Books over in Rathbone Place leaving me writing game reviews for a bad tempered Irish woman who smoked too much. When I wasn’t writing game reviews I was cleaning labs at the British Standards Institute.

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The original Your Spectrum was more serious and very different to the Smash Hits inspired YS.

Then Kevin called and asked if I’d like to write for this magazine he’d been put in charge of, Your Spectrum, and I joined the happy crew at Bunch Books. Bunch was founded by Felix Dennis, a spinoff of his ’70s Kung Fu and page 3 girl poster magazine empire. They changed their name to Sportscene Specialist Press and later to Dennis Publishing. Felix and MD Steve England deserve full credit for letting the YS team loose.

Your Spectrum was a slightly more techie mag than YS would eventually become, and its competitors were Crash and Sinclair User. Crash outsold us both I think at that point. But Kevin wanted to take on Crash, I think he had history with the Ludlow folks, some of whom later joined us at Dennis, the late lamented Graeme Kidd in particular.

The magazine launched as Your Sinclair with a snappy new design that was more like the Smash Hits pop magazine. Alison Hujl was editing a new sister magazine called Your 64 and I enjoyed the benefits of being in the small partitioned offices from time to time when someone wanted a game reviewing. I was in the office about once or twice a week but wrote at home. In the evenings I was back to work at BSI with my mop.

One night in about ’86 Kevin said
“we’re all going to the pub, you wanna come?”
I said no, I got to work.
“Where do you work.”
I clean labs at the BSI.
He stared at me slack jawed. “You’re joking.”
No, I’m really not. I need the money. I think he thought I was earning money writing for other people.
After long pause he said cryptically “Leave it with me.”

A week or so later I got a slightly odd and somewhat reserved call from Kevin asking me to come in for a chat. I thought FUCK he’s going to fire my ass. I got the bus up to London and all the way smoking furiously (you could do that then) and got to the office, and Kevin came down to reception and swept me wordlessly out to the pub, minimal small talk style. I thought FUCK he’s going to fire me.

We ordered food and he said I’ll buy what do you want. I thought FUCK he’s buttering me up, he’s totally going to fucking fire me. FUCK!

“So, how would you feel about being the staff writer on Your Sinclair?”

FUUUUUUUUUUCK.

So from the following Monday I quit the BSI and started rising at 6am, getting a bus at 7am, arriving in Oxford Street around 8am and being the first in the office for two amazing blissful years at Your Sinclair. So many stories. Alison become the editor of Mac User, Graeme started Computer Shopper and that was that really. I was a professional writer and have been on and off for 30 years this year.

 

You went freelance in 1988/89 and ended up writing for about a zillion mags at a very young Future Publishing. That seems like it was an incredibly exciting time for the industry…Yeah, so I freelanced and I’m pretty sure it was Graeme Kidd that took me down to Future initially. They were in a pokey little office in Queen Street, Bath, a few doors down from Hatchetts pub. Chris Anderson was still the MD and publisher with probably Greg Ingham. Kevin left Dennis to be there too I recall at some point, but my memory on when that happened is hazy.

It’s hazy because we used to drink a lot at YS but EGAD they drank a lot down at Future then. The mountain bike mags were all healthy avocado smoothy types but the techie mags were dipsomaniacal. And Bath’s such a pretty town to be drunk in.

Somewhere along the line they moved to Monmouth Street and this is where the techie mag business really kicked into high gear.

One thing that struck me is that writers all seemed to live together, it was like living in student accommodation. I guess being a big college town, there’s lots of student lets, but it was really where a lot of the company culture came from I think. I remember a World Cup year I was in a house with Steve Jarratt, Damien Noonan and a handful of other people and we’d be at the office all day, then home for food and beer and football. Weirdly we never played games out of the office, what’s up with that?

One of the guys in the house owned all the Epic Comics English translation editions of the Akira comics and he lent them to me to read, so for me that time is flavoured being one of a house full of silly boys, manga and football. As I missed out on the University experience I really loved it.

 

What do you think it was about Future’s magazines that gave them the edge over everyone else? They pretty much stormed every market they decided to have a crack at back then…My ancestral home (where I was born and raised) was Dennis Publishing and it was old school libertarians turned capitalists letting a bunch of wacky artists and writers do what they wanted within reason, Future was a HOTHOUSE of drive, talent and smarts. It didn’t surprise me at all when Chris [Anderson, Future’s founder] started TED. He always liked getting the smartest people he knew together in a room.

Where old school Dennis succeeded by structured anarchy, Future was new school and focussed. The culture of Dennis was very different, like the office of a ’70s fanzine but with a budget. Future was like a University of Gaming. They both had a definite and distinct culture which made them great.

Both companies have since become corporate and sleek, tall glass buildings full of men in suits having meetings. Luckily they don’t need game geek jokesmiths like me anymore, because frankly I want no part of it. The arrangement suits us both. 🙂

 

Do you remember much about your work for CF or the team of Steve Jarratt, Andy Dyer and Sean Masterson? Most of your stuff was techie articles…You tapped on a whole swathe of my work I’d mostly forgotten about but when you reminded me it all came flooding back. I worked for a number of mags at Future and CF came in the middle at one of the busiest times, I want to say just before Amiga / ST Format.

Clearly looking back on it the design of the mag was heavily influenced by YS, but then I would say that. Interestingly looking at the “flannel panel” Mark Salmon was the ad man and he was our ad man at YS during the original Scooby Gang years. A number of other names cropped up. Damien Noonan was on ACE I think when I started, but I may be wrong about that.

Anyway, I always really liked Steve Jarratt, he was a really genuinely talented editor and writer and had that quality of all the good editors I’ve worked with before or since, huge bandwidth. If he asked you to do something he could do it, he knew what you should put in it, and he could coach you in how to do it. He knew everything that was going on, in both the office and in the wider world. I was and still am a total idiot savant. I know nothing that is going on and yet I still manage to keep up with everything good that’s going on. Steve knew all the good stuff and he managed to keep track of everything else as well. Plus he’s enormous fun to be around, and not in that dickbag way some fun people are. He has great humour but also very generous with it. He liked to share credit, which for a talented but unstructure nutbag like me was a godsend. My career wouldn’t have been half as good or satisfying without his generosity of credit for jobs well done. 🙂 And I will be eternally grateful for him letting me into the Edge team, albeit briefly. Travelling about the country with a photographer doing the Edge interviews was one of the best times of my life.

It’s one of the regrets of my life I haven’t spent more time with him over the years. He’s the real deal.

Sean Masterson was a nut, in a good way, and god bless him for it. He knew such obscure facts it boggled my mind and I am known for knowing some weird stuff but he always managed to know things I was unaware of. I wish I had recordings of me, him and Steve in Hatchetts from that time. Now it would probably sounds like incoherent bibble, but at the time it was comedy gold.

Andy Dyer was a mate from the start and he and I managed to work on many different titles together over the years. He’s a class act, great writer, funny guy, and I always felt like a clueless noob in the shadow of his knowledge of the industry or what was coming along. He was young but a real pro. First time I ever felt like an old guy was watching him work.

As for the articles, and I thank you for bringing the archive to my attention (links at the bottom of this interview – Ed), like all the stuff I wrote back then I’m amazed that I seem like a pretty decent and competent writer. I wasn’t hired by anyone because of my technical ability or journalistic precision. I was hired for my jokes and my passion for gaming. I liked to think I was also fun to have around in the office, but you’d have to tap the opinions of others to get the real story on that. I suspect my ADD puppyish enthusiasm and punning was probably a bit annoying when work needed to be done.

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The first part of Phil’s BASIC tutorial series. There are links to all ten parts at the bottom of this interview.

The BASIC series was something I’d totally forgot about but thinking about it now I was living in a cottage in the middle of nowhere outside Frome by that time, with a proper office set off at the side from the main house full of VHS cassettes of old cheesy sci-fi movies and desks full of discs. The internet was around but the web had yet to kick in, the first browser I used was Cello and there were about 200 pages of nothing much on the web so it wasn’t the time sink it now is.

I wrote on Word Perfect on a PC I seem to recall, graduating to an Amiga later on. In those days you would print out your stuff and either post it or if you lived close to Bath like I did in Frome you could drive it to the office. Usually you would turn up once a month to deliver your copy if you were working on a piece like the BASIC series, but if you were reviewing sometimes you’d do it in the office because often they were prerelease games and they didn’t want them getting out into the wild. As far as I remember I was never on staff at Future except for holiday cover on Sega Power once when Steve Jarratt went on holiday. I didn’t do a very good job as I put the magazine to bed and reviewed a game they’d already reviewed a few months previously. Pretty sure Andy Dyer pointed this out to me. (This might have been the moment I alluded to earlier.)

Although I loved the games reviews I was soon to be a family man and man cannot live (or raise a family) on bread alone so I was at the time transitioning into being a columnist rather than a jobbing reviewer. That was the way after that, writing articles rather than reviews. Plus I think I became slightly jaded then and I’d said everything you could possibly say in a game review. I marked way too high too, ask anyone.

After my time at Future, I freelanced for a bit more in the 90s, working for Microsoft Developer Network Journal, Computer Shopper etc. But my writing days were coming to a close. I started making web sites for people and got a break doing web stuff and animation for Disney Chanel UK. After that in 2003 I wrangled computers and taught beginners film making at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School for 7 years. After a ten year layover I found myself back writing for a living which is where I still am one way or another, either blogging or research. I do a lot of graphics and video, I even came up with a few inventions, and after moving from Hemel to Frome I’ve continued West and now live in South Wales.

When I started writing I was 24, and last birthday I was 56.

I didn’t play games after I left Future and only really picked them back up when my kids got me back into it when they became grownups. I used to have a PS3 but it got struck by lightning and so for a few years I had nothing till the Raspberry Pi came into my life. I now have one for music and one for Retro Gaming and have every game I ever owned or wanted to own on a little TF card the size of a fingernail. How Star Trek is modern life, eh? CF


  • Phil’s BASIC tutorial series is a great way to start learning the, er, basics! It ran between issues 5 and 15. Links to each part are below.

BACK TO BASICS: part 1 https://archive.org/stream/commodore-format-magazine-05/Commodore_Format_Issue_05_1991_02#page/n55/mode/2up
BACK TO BASICS part 2 https://archive.org/stream/commodore-format-magazine-06/Commodore_Format_Issue_06_1991_03#page/n71/mode/2up
BACK TO BASICS part 3 https://archive.org/stream/commodore-format-magazine-07/Commodore_Format_Issue_07_1991_04#page/n67/mode/2up
BACK TO BASICS part 4 https://archive.org/stream/commodore-format-magazine-08/Commodore_Format_Issue_08_1991_05#page/n59/mode/2up
BACK TO BASICS part 5 https://archive.org/stream/commodore-format-magazine-09/Commodore_Format_Issue_09_1991_06#page/n49/mode/2up
BACK TO BASICS part 6 https://archive.org/stream/commodore-format-magazine-10/Commodore_Format_Issue_10_1991_07#page/n51/mode/2up
BACK TO BASICS part 7 https://archive.org/stream/commodore-format-magazine-12/Commodore_Format_Issue_12_1991_09#page/n43/mode/2up
BACK TO BASICS part 8 https://archive.org/stream/commodore-format-magazine-13/Commodore_Format_Issue_13_1991_10#page/n55/mode/2up
BACK TO BASICS part 9 https://archive.org/stream/commodore-format-magazine-14/Commodore_Format_Issue_14_1991_11#page/n51/mode/2up
BACK TO BASICS (final part) https://archive.org/stream/commodore-format-magazine-15/Commodore_Format_Issue_15_1991_12#page/n69/mode/2up

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