Tag Archives: Geoff Bamber

What did you say, Mr Bamber?

Writing plays using speech recognition software ought to be even more difficult than writing novels that way.   In this guest post, playwright Geoff Bamber explains how he does it…
Geoff Bamber
Geoff Bamber keeping quiet.

I’d like to say that my use of voice recognition software was due my being my being up-to-speed/ahead of the curve and indeed technologically savvy but no – it was and, to an extent, still is mainly down to pure laziness.

Back in the days when I thought I was a novelist, the notion of typing out a hundred thousand words or more with two slow fingers on a keyboard attached to a steam-driven computer was a bit daunting.  As I never found stream-of-consciousness babble a problem, the idea of not having to physically write it all down was very appealing.  Short of morphing into Barbara Cartland, employing a secretary and dictating to her/him from a reclining position on a chaise longue in a room that looked like the inside of a marshmallow, voice-to-text was as good as it got.

I was enticed to start with IBM Via Voice.  If I remember correctly, the publicity material showed a sharp executive leaning back his chair with his feet up on his desk dictating a business letter which he would not need to check or proof read at all before it was fit to send.  As these were the days when people still sent letters with stamps on them he would probably have to sign it himself but the general tone of the marketing was that the communication would climb into an envelope of its own accord and that was the last he would see of it, thus allowing him to take the afternoon off for a round of golf.

Unfortunately real life isn’t like that.  The software had to be ‘trained’ to be better able to recognise the speaker’s intonation though a heavy regional accent would always be a problem.  Thus my first requirement was to tone down my northern vowels (best achieved by taking the flat cap off and making sure the whippet was in the other room) and speaking slowly in standard English.

I must say my early experiences were not particularly successful but the software has got better and so have I.  I have used two or three other programmes over the years – currently Dragon Naturally Speaking.  Like the original ViaVoice, it does ‘learn’ to follow my dictation but is by no means foolproof.  It seems happier with American pronunciation and thus has trouble with seemingly simple words like ‘ladder’ and ‘daughter’.

There is a tendency to over-compensate to the point where I speak unnaturally slowly and without any expression and end up sounding like Stephen Hawking’s voice synthesiser.  In actual fact ‘normal’ speech certainly fares no worse. Even so when writing scripts, my first draft is always written on paper with a fountain pen(!) before being dictated into the software.  I only normally dictate actual dialogue.  The speaker and any stage directions are typed in by hand afterwards while the various faux pas of the voice recognition system are hopefully being picked out and corrected.

Dictating straight from imagination to screen leaves me dangerously open to reading the material afterwards and having no idea what I said as the software has concocted something that doesn’t make any sense at all.  Things tend to go haywire when I speak too quickly and when the microphone is too far away to pick up dictation clearly.  (I use a call centre-style headset.)

A good typist may well probably not find the process any quicker than typing the whole script in manually but it’s a lot less wear and tear on ageing fingers, shoulders and neck and a similarly ageing keyboard.

Over the years my typing speed has got faster but not a lot more accurate.  For me voice recognition, even with me speaking slowly, sets out text at twice the speed that I can type and makes fewer errors.  At ‘normal’ speed (i.e. how the actors might be expected to deliver the lines) the time can be halved again with only a slightly higher error count.

The major drawback is being interrupted in mid-flow, either by the dog barking, other members of the family coming into the room or me answering the phone while neglecting to switch the mike off.

I would point out that my software programme, though I am quite happy with it, is from the cheaper end of the market and that more sophisticated and presumably more accurate versions are available.

I’m even lazier now than I was when I started using voice recognition software so I’d be reluctant to abandon it and would recommend anyone to give it a try.  Just work on that Californian accent and you can’t go wrong.

[The results, in the form of Geoff’s plays, can be explored here.]

What He Meant Was This

In The Ballad of Jessica James by Geoff Bamber, a comedy play for kids, the heroine works her way around the Wild West using Blueberry and Cinnamon Flapjack as a currency.

What Geoff meant by that was something that looks pretty much like this:

Blueberry and cinnamon flapjack
Blueberry and Cinnamon Flapjack as it appears in The Ballad of Jessica James

However, that’s not what the word would bring to mind in the USA.  In America, the comestibles above might be described as oat bars or (with a little variation) granola bars.  The term Flapjack is generally used in the USA for a small pancake – approximately what I should call a drop scone and, I think, the Scots might call a griddle cake.  So, which is right?  Well, obviously, both.  To channel Lewis Carroll, flapjack is the name of whatever you use the word to mean.  A better question would be “why are there different meanings?”

The name Flapjack has been around since the 17th century.  Shakespeare used it (of all places, it’s in Pericles, Prince of Tyre).  He meant some sort of cooked dessert and, in all probability, a pan cake or griddle cake.  Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable suggests that the “flap” has a meaning similar to flip, suggestive of the process of flipping the pancake to cook both sides.  (Indeed, Brewer’s only definition of Flapjack is the American one.)

But what about the “jack”?  In my opinion, the most likely meaning was the one I found (amongst dozens of uses of jack) in Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Historical Slang which suggests that between 1500 and 1650 jack was used to mean “the least bit” – so something small or of little significance.  A flapjack would then be a small flipped pancake.
One could further speculate that “jack” in this sense might have been borrowed from Flemish, being very similar to the Dutch diminutive “tje”.  (In modern Dutch, “tje” can be stuck on the end of almost any noun.  Commonly, for example “biertje” which should mean small beer, but usually just means beer.)  So, in the Netherlands, we find “flapje” which has a similar, but distinct meaning:

Take a square of pastry (ideally puff pastry).
Put a dollop of stewed apple onto it.
Fold along a diagonal and seal the edges.
Glaze with egg and, possibly sugar.
Bake it.
That’s an appel flapje.  (In English that flap would be an apple turnover.)

So the American use of flapjack has preserved the older definition. How about the modern British usage?  It seems to have achieved the current meaning in the 1930s, but I have yet to find anyone who knows more than that.  (If there are specialists in the history of flapjack, they are well hidden.)  My guess – pure speculation – is that someone created a recipe for the confection of oats and syrup and wanted a name by which to market the recipe.  (I would not be surprised to find that marketing on the side of an ancient syrup tin.)  “Oatcakes” was already taken (at least in Scotland and – for a rather different item, a soft pancake made from oats and flour – in Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire), so the marketers repurposed “flapjack” on the grounds that we have plenty of other words for the previous meaning(s).

All of which seems to say that Geoff’s use of the word is an anachronism, but at least I knew what he meant.  (There’s a recipe in the Producer’s Copy of the script.)

What’s In A Name?

That which we call – well, anything, really…

Moab Is My Washpot paperback coverWhen Stephen Fry was asked why he had called his autobiography Moab is My Washpot, he replied that people didn’t remember ISBNs.
Things need names; preferably memorable names (not necessarily metaphors from the Book of Psalms) but do they need to be tied to the content?

I got into a discussion about this a long time ago with folk singer Andrew Cronshaw.  He had an album  (yes, I’m back to the days of vinyl again) called Earthed in Cloud Valley.  That title sounds like some form of mysticism unless you know that it’s a line from a Cheshire hunting song.  (The Cloud in question is Bosley Cloud, a hill on the Cheshire-Staffordshire border – and the point of the line Earthed in Cloud Valley - Andrew Cronshaw album cover“earthed in Cloud Valley” is that the fox had gone to ground and evaded the hunters.)  The song itself was not part of Cronshaw’s repertoire; he took the view that his collection of songs needed a title, but it didn’t need to be – and indeed he preferred that it was not – a title that had anything to do with the songs.

Geoff Bamber has form in this respect.  The title of his farce for adults, How Does Your Garden Grow has, arguably, nothing to do with the content.  More recently, I challenged Geoff about the title of one of his new youth theatre plays.  He had called it The Prince’s Tale, and a prince was integral to the plot, but his role was accomplished without ever setting foot on the stage; he was talked about, but neither seen nor heard.  Geoff’s response was that his original conception was along the lines of a Canterbury Tale, but that idea got ditched somewhere in the development process, and the plot mutated into something completely different (about a rather petulant princess).  Retaining the original title was, in this case, an oversight.  I gave him a list of suggestions, of which my favourite was The Old Sulk Road, but in the end he chose a title of his own.  Thus whilst we reviewed and edited The Prince’s Tale, we published Courting Aurora.