LIVE! The Consumer Electronics Show

© Bob Denton 2019
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I had of course been visiting the American Consumer Electronics Shows (‘CES’) for many years so when I learned that News International planned to launch a UK version, I was well versed to meet up with Robb Mackenzie and pitch for the Event Director’s role.

At the time News International owned the majority of Sky Television, and operated five national newspapers – The Times, Sunday Times, The Sun, Today and News of the World, as well as the Times Educational Supplement (TES). If these could not deliver a consumer audience then no-one could.

I sought and got strong support from Sam Chisolm at Sky, Kelvin Mackenzie at The Sun, Piers Morgan at Today and subsequently the News of the World. Andrew Neil was a little less committed to the notion of involving the Sunday Times. But they each signed up to support the event with supplements and competitions to drive the audience.

ASIDE: At some stage I had made an ill-advised, what I thought was smart, remark in Sam Chisholm’s office. I had likened business to being a game. He bo—–ed me for thirty minutes. Then smiled and said if I thought that this was a bollocking then I had never received one from Mr Murdoch. It was a key part of the NI culture.

LIVE ‘93

4-page supplement, The Sun, featuring STEvies (below) and House-of-the-future
4-page supplement, Today, featuring In-car

Given this central support we were taken seriously by other media like Dennis Publishing, EMAP Images, IPC TV Weeklies (TV Times, What’s on TV, TV & Satellite Week), radio stations including Capital Radio, specialist magazines like ERT magazine, HiFi Choice, Amateur Photographer, Video Camera, Car Stereo & Security… They promoted the event and I negotiated for them to run seminars in their subject areas. We contra’d advertising with each of them in return for their stand at the show.

The major trade associations like BREMA (British Radio & Electronic Equipment Manufacturers’ Association), BPIA (British Photographic and Imaging Association), RETRA (Radio, Electrical and Television Retailers’ Association). BADA (British Audio Dealers Association) … supported the show by advising their members to participate within our five key themes – audio/music, visual, photographic, interactive/software and communication/control.

LIVE’93 logo
LIVE ’93 3D Showscape, a floorplan resembling a circuit-board

BT sponsored a ‘Time Tunnel’ to show the history of consumer electronics, Dolby Laboratories with Haymarket’s audio magazines promoted its ‘Home Cinema Promenade’, and Dolby Laboratories presented a ‘History of Sound in the Cinema’. BADA created a ‘Real HiFi’ feature. Mercury/One-to-One created a series of ‘Rooms of the Future’.

National Youth Rock & Pop Awards flyer

Yamaha ran its National Youth Rock & Pop Awards competition. The notion was Yamaha’s, aware that the UK national curriculum covered the subject of music appreciation and playing music, but it did not cover composing – something in which the UK was prolific.

The TES got the message to the schools and colleges and suggested young composers (16-21), send in three-minute tapes of their compositions (today, my grandkids have little concept of tape recorders!). The winning compositions would be played live at Live ’93.

Phil Collins with Organising team

We received thousands of tapes, the Music Education Council agreed to listen to these and provide a written critique as feedback to each one. They then prepared a shortlist of around thirty that they thought worthy of an award. The Prince’s Trust supported this event and as part of its commitment it arranged for Phil Collins to be our artiste judge. Phil was supported by the BBC Radio One DJ Mark Radcliffe A&M Man Jeremy Silver of Virgin Records, and the impresario Harvey Goldsmith.

STEvies – me presenting one
STEvies ticket

Satellite TV Europe (STE) ran the Pace STEvie awards. Oscar-like awards for satellite television categories hosted by Chris Tarrant.

We had an outside broadcast scanner truck on site to direct material from our Live TV Studio and stages to walls-of-screens around the venue. We had competitions for ‘Camcorder Short Film Awards’, ‘Video Out-takes’ and perhaps the most forward-thinking ‘Create a Videophone Cartoon’. The Sun ran a ‘Gotchas’ promotion in cooperation with Video Camera magazine.

We had a raft of seminars and workshops, perhaps the most memorable by Professor Peter Cochrane of BT’s Research Laboratories, their top Futurologist. He was charged with ignoring anything that could become a product within a decade and instead focus beyond that, out there in the blue sky.

 TES advert for Newspaper Day 1994

TES ran the ‘Newspaper Day’ with hundreds of schools and colleges agreeing to have their pupils cooperate in preparing a school newspaper on a given day. They were fed material from a central editorial team that they could use or sub-edit and interspersed these with their own locally-generated stories. The winning six teams were invited to write and produce the ‘LIVE Daily Show News’ at the venue.

They were briefed on arrival then split into journos, photographers, editors and printers. The journos were supplied with tape machines to record interviews, the photographers were with cameras to take photos and a dark-room to develop film (which sounds very old fashioned today!). The editors had Apple computers with the latest desktop publishing software and the printers had a full-scale Roland printing press to churn out the issue. They wrote and produced the next day’s issue that was printed and distributed around the show.

This was such a hands-on process that my son, Matt, who had other duties at the show, ended up supporting the teams for six days. It was a brilliant opportunity for the schools and students. I know the core educational team went on, after several years at Live, to run larger and larger national Newspaper Days.

It was epic, EMAP Images magazines supported a Games Gallery, ERT magazine promoted trade suites, Car Stereo and Security sponsored our In-car Concourse. The Sun ran an ‘All-Time Driving Top Ten’, Computer Shopper supported a PC Village. The News of the World ran its ‘Photo Parade’ feature, to celebrate photo-journalism across its 150 years in print.

Show Brochure promotion piece of LIVE features

The photographic association, the BPIA, proved something of a challenge, because we did not understand their internal beliefs of their market. They had concluded their customers were women, while we initially aimed our messages at hobbyist men. The Sun offered to have their Page Three girls refer to the BPIA feature and attend the show, so that attendees could take pictures of them or with them – selfies and camera phones were still years away! We even suggested that this might be a feature for Polaroid, given that our belief was that most home-users used these for private candid pictures. Both organisations were horrified by our suggestions and we had to recover their faith across the following months, they believed we might do it anyway, we surprised them and did not.

ASIDE: We approached Kodak to participate but they refused. One of the top News International (NI) executives called the top Kodak UK man to a lunch at his table at the Savoy Grill. He explained that if Kodak did not participate then all of their cameras and copiers used by NI, as a partner company, would be thrown out. The guy was stunned, could not see any linkage of these two matters but was disabused of that notion. This was the only such example of NI getting involved in this power-wielding way. But it was pretty uncomfortable when I was subsequently called into meetings with people at Kodak who were clearly unhappy that they had been forced to the table.

The event attracted 140,000 visitors across six days for its inaugural in 1993. This was my first public (rather than trade) show. The main difference was that the real pressures on the operating team happened once the show was opened and the public had been admitted. With trade shows the opening was a turning point where all the rushing about was over and the role proved quite civilised during the open days

One, of many, notable attendees was Michael Caine who just turned up. Tipped off by my floor managers I located him on the aisles and offered to assist his visit. He was a consumer electronics fan and wanted no fuss, and asked to be left to his own devices. Most celebs however were keen to be escorted and photographed, and of course the exhibitors wanted to have them visit their stand.

Jeremy Beadle

One individual who stood out above the rest was Jeremy Beadle, who would become a firm friend of the show. He first came in to the organiser office and asked me which exhibitor was currently fraught, I didn’t understand at first, wanting to suggest of course they were all deliriously happy. He pressed, and I named a few who were bothered about something or other. Jeremy went directly to their stands and created a stir to attract visitors onto their stand, often demming their kit, he was a natural.

It is strange that everyone who saw him on TV tended to be confused about him, but everyone who met him personally soon realised what a great human being he was. I visited his new home after the show to find his basement full of books on outsiders (which he considered included himself). He had copies of every board game and was constantly developing TV game show concepts and electronic pub games (more below).

ASIDE: Jeremy died too soon, at just 50-years-old, his headstone at Highgate Cemetery headstone bears the inscription ‘Writer, Presenter, Curator of Oddities’.

The top man at Sharp Japan was to visit and Robb Mackenzie, knowing I had travelled and worked in Japan, asked me to describe how he should greet him. I explained that we Westerners would never get bowing right, so he should just dip his head politely. I had not considered that a 6’ 5” Robb towering over the Sharp boss, would look threatening as he dipped his head toward this diminutive guy who took several steps backwards.

It got worse. The Sharp team had made clear that their boss had a slight disfigurement to his right ear and was sensitive about it, would I personally ensure no pictures were taken from that side. I had our press team brief all the photographers to only stand on his left-hand side. They all respectfully did so, but we had all reckoned without the Sharp CEO routinely spinning on his heel as he changed direction along his tour. The sight of the photographers falling over each-other to get back on to his right (or in fact, left) side was hilarious. Fortunately, if he noticed, he maintained his Oriental inscrutability on the matter.

Our Silver Wedding anniversary

Closing the venue

We had several live stages and ran into an issue. Sky was broadcasting live its ‘Saturday Sport’ show with Georgie Best and Denis Law on the stage previewing and reviewing that afternoon’s games. On another stage we had the Steve Miller Band (not to be confused with Ed Miliband!), great music but the two stages proved a little too close. Sky complained.

Chris Simpson was running the music stage and he tried to get Steve to stop. As the ‘crisis’ evolved he turned off most of his amps, but they still played on. Eventually I went up on stage and invited them to the bar. They agreed with alacrity and we decamped to a side bar. I bought several bottles of Vodka and sat down with them to assist their consumption. This was the first time I had sat down in eight days, and the first alcohol during open hours.

It was there that Hall Management caught up with me to advise that we had to close the doors as we had exceeded the venue’s capacity. They wanted us to limit entry to one-out, one-in. I agreed promptly. When I walked across to the Organiser Office to follow through, Robb Mackenzie remonstrated with me, focused on the revenues that we might lose. I had to remind him that the fact that we had to close the doors made our show legendary! We then arranged for Capital Radio to advise visitors they should not come today – reverse psychology!

Robb and I went outside to see what was occurring. Six-carriage LU Tube units were arriving in the surface station beside the halls, each delivering another 600+ people. Fire engines were arriving, every hour or two, because the BT stand had installed a whole raft of phones that visitors could use – and they had failed to block calling 999 – London Fire Brigade could not ignore any such call to such a populated venue.

I used our radio to ask Jane, back in the organiser office, to call London Underground, and ask them to hold the trains at Earls Court until we could calm things down. One of the sales team, Kit Brinkley, one of life’s last true gentlemen, promptly called me on the radio. He said I couldn’t stop the Tube because there was another show in Olympia 2 and some of the travellers might be coming for that. It didn’t help much that this was Exclusively Housewares

This was the show that I had co-habited with in St Albans for my PropBus earn-out year. Earlier that week I had received a complaint from its team about our noise levels. I went over to their area to find this was fully justified, because all the pots and pans on their stands were shuddering from our sound systems and some were falling from the fixtures. We hung several layers of thick carpet underfelt in front of the shutters between the shows to deaden the transmission. Now, I felt I had worried enough about them already, and they were currently nowhere on my agenda.

Robb read the signs on my face during Kit’s radio message and grabbed my radio. He raised each finger in turn to count to ten, then handed it back, by then I was calm enough to say, ‘Thanks for sharing that with us Kit’ and got back to managing the two main entrances.

FULHAM – 1994

In the middle of all of the LIVE fun we had decided to move into London.

24 Greswell Street, Fulham, London SW6 6PP

This was a typical Fulham terraced house; no front garden and a relatively small rear one, the only access was through the house.  It had an enormously long and attractive kitchen (picture) and features which made it very similar in feel to Bedford but at half its width.

Almost as soon as we moved in we walked to the bottom of our road to Bishop’s Park on the Thames and looked over the railings to see the Boat Race crews preparing for that day’s race – stunning to see it up close and personal after years of watching BBC broadcasts – we watched them start and went back home to see the finish on television.

We were also just along the road from Craven Cottage. At the time Fulham had yet to become a Premiership team, its small fan-base on a Saturday relied on reminiscing about the good old days.  Not sure I would be keen to live there now that they attract real crowds.

My Blenheim office (more later) was just five miles away in Chiswick but one night it took me eighty minutes to drive home!  However, for nights out, theatre etc, we were inside the city and getting to and from theatres and restaurants was a dream. Jane found a teaching role just across the bridge in Putney.

We had a great loft conversion done here. The builder was brilliant, perhaps the most organised we ever used.  We moved up to the new floor and through our Velux windows could see a dozen planes lining up on approach to Heathrow.  They were too high to be a sound hazard, except for the daily Concorde flight – but as three of our four parents had worked at BAe on that project, we felt a special pride at its unique look and sound.

When I later left Fulham we weren’t tired of life, or of London, but with Jane’s father having recently died we felt we should move back to Redland in Bristol, near her mother.

ASIDE: I had followed Chelsea FC ever since my Sweda days, sparked by watching that FA Cup match in Rome. One of our LIVE! exhibitors was Commodore, CFC’s sponsors at the time, and invited me into the Directors’ Box on several occasions.

On one of these I was selected to give the home prize for man-of-the-match to the winning player. It had been declared to be between Frank Sinclair and Dennis Wise, and they were both ushered into the Directors’ Box after the match. When formally handing the prize bottle to Dennis Wise, I rather unwisely mentioned I had personally voted for Frank. The look that Wise gave me was withering!

I also got invited to the FA Cup Final 1994, still the only FA Cup Final I have ever attended. They met Man Utd and it could have all been really rewarding. There was a large group of us and the Commodore guy had relieved us all of cash to forecast the time of the first goal and in a separate draw the first scorer. At my selected first-goal time, my randomly-drawn player, Gavin Peacock, hit a long shot on the half-volley that was goal-bound. I am still convinced that as the ball disappeared behind one of the old Wembley pillars it proved enough to divert it a tad, and he hit the cross-bar. Had it not, I would have been almost £1,000 richer, and Chelsea, which was the better side in the first half, would have been 1-0 up.

But it wasn’t to be, two penalties were awarded and converted by Eric Cantona. The referee is on record as saying he regretted giving the second penalty, stating ‘It was my big game and I made a disappointing decision’ – tell me about it! Then Frank Sinclair slipped and allowed Mark Hughes in to score the third, and to think I almost helped him to a prior ‘Man-of-the-Match award’! We lost 4-0 in the end and I skulked out of Wembley, walking through drizzle back to the Tube station and rattled back to Fulham on the world’s worst carriage.

Moving house

While Matt was at college in London, he and Ruth decided to set up home in Bethnal Green and of course both sets of parents offered to help with their move. While I was on my knees helping to assemble their futon, Stuart, Ruth’s father must have felt surplus to requirements and went for a walk in the neighbourhood. He is a super-bright guy who held many senior medical appointments, but just occasionally appears a tad other-worldly. When he returned, he mused, ‘Interesting people around here, sort of working-class peasants.’ We said we hoped he hadn’t actually called them this to their face. It has since become a family term we still often use, as in ‘He looks like a WCP’ and so on.

ASIDE: Before Ruth had moved down to join Matt in Bethnal Green he had lived in halls. One afternoon he and a pal (later to become his best man) had been at the Uni Bar. While queueing for a bus to run them back to their halls, the police pulled up and arrested his mate, Brad, as a suspect for robbing the pub – directly across from the bus stop. Their reasoning was that the suspect was fair-haired, tall and Northern, and this fitted Brad perfectly. Though why the actual criminal would stand on a bus stop opposite the scene of the crime was never explained. He was taken to the station, locked up, questioned and later put in an identity parade. His father, a solicitor in Leeds, got him released and the whole thing petered out subsequently.

But Matt and Brad were in their East End local, the Durham Arms, and explained what had happened to the barman. He leant across the bar and said the same thing had happened to him some years back, then paused and added ‘But I did it!’ Clearly part of the area’s WCPs – of course this was very much on the Kray Twins’ manor.

Matt and Ruth

LIVE ‘94

LIVE94 mailer

For 1994 we moved the show across to Earls Court, filling all levels of EC1 and EC2 and in many of the forgotten rooms spread along the Mezzanine level of the main hall.

We had a very strange occurrence at this venue. WordStar had booked a large stand in the centre of the hall and were very happy with their slot until the stand was being finished off. As they connected up their CRT displays to demo their software they found the on-screen images wobbled which was pretty disturbing given their product was all about the detail happening on the screens. The hall management only then admitted that this location was where the hall electrical system had sited a series of power bus-bars. Had we known this we could have avoided WordStar being there, if they had known then they could have put some heavy insulation beneath their plinth, but by now the stand was built.

WordStar was going to pull their participation and my son kept interrupting our discussion much to my annoyance, couldn’t he see how important and potentially costly this might be. When I finally let him butt in, he suggested we might try Sharp’s new LCD screens. We did, and they solved the problem. As the organiser we paid at mate’s rates to hire enough screens to resolve WordStar’s issue. A belated thanks to Matt, he saved us embarrassment and cost. I later had the halls repay us for the hire charges, so all worked out OK.

LIVE94 poster

ASIDE: Talking money, it was around this time that I heard of an NI budget meeting where some line manager made the mistake of dismissing a questioned budget item as ‘just peanuts’. Rupert Murdoch reached across the table to the individual, and thumping his hand against its surface, he beat out, ‘But they’re my peanuts!’

For this second year we began to have an issue with our sister newspapers. The editors had changed and began to display a ‘not invented here’ attitude, needing to be reconvinced to offer their support. Yet, still across six days, we attracted over 170,000 visitors.

In 1994 the TES/Yamaha National Youth Rock & Pop Awards was again judged by Phil Collins, Jeremy Silver and Harvey Goldsmith, but the DJ became Richard Skinner from Virgin 1215 (then still AM!). I was again invited to Phil’s home for his segment of the judging. He was in the middle of recording an album in the studio he had there, and he gave up recording time to listen to the short-list.

But this year he was targeted by the News of the World, who knowing I was working with him, tried to get me embroiled into the worst side of their business. Phil was reported as having advised his wife of their break-up by telex or fax. The NotW first asked me to call the Prince’s Trust to see if they still wanted Phil to represent them for our event. They explained they hoped they would withdraw him, and they had already drafted a piece that Prince Charles, in the midst of his break-up with Diana, had dumped Phil for similar infidelities. I refused. I was hauled before someone high-up in NI’s team and told I should take a NotW reporter with me to the judging session, but again I respectfully refused. Imagine my surprise then, when I had been at Phil’s for half-an-hour when the doorbell rang, it was a NotW reporter. I was all for sending him off with a flea in his ear, but Phil invited him in.

During the judging Phil asked us the age of one of the composers, the Yamaha guy had the data. Phil turned to his PR, Annie, and asked her to get him the name and phone number of the entrant. He wanted to phone her, because her lyrics about bullying, at her age, suggested what she was writing about was something that had happened to her, not a fiction. In discussion it came out that he had had a similar situation where a young female fan had written to him threatening suicide. He had called her and extracted the promise that she would not do so until she was twenty-one, in return he promised to regularly call her. Fortunately, the NotW guy had scruples and none of this came out in his report.

National Youth Rock & Pop Awards final

ASIDE: We had a problem with the Rock & Pop final event which was held on the top floor of Earls Court and was due to end at 21:30. Our problem was that we had to get all 500+ attendees and the organising team off site before 22:00. Adjacent irate residents had clearly moved in while Earls Court was self-evidently next door, yet were militant, using cameras and videos if any vehicle moved on site after 22:00.

We had coaches for the school groups to load and despatch. I recall almost pushing the attendees into the two lifts. Seeing them all stand there and wait for it to start, exasperatedly I took to calling out ‘would one of you gifted folk please push the down button?’ It was frantic, but we got them all off-site before the curfew.

TV Times supplement – LIVE TV Studio

Given our issues with noise and live broadcasts at the 1993 event, we custom-built a LIVE TV Studio and Jeremy Beadle agreed to run his ‘Fingers on Buzzers’ quiz each day. We also hired two young presenters to run the studio events – Julia Bradbury and Cash Peters. The whole was directed by Tony Orsten, who later was a key executive for various TV channels.

ASIDE: Behind the studio was a series of small rooms. They had notably been used as the stockman’s bedrooms during the Royal Smithfield show. The stock was kept where we built our studio and the stockmen had to stay all night to tend them. One of the rooms had seven baths in it for sociable communal bath-times, and the beds were big blocks of sponge rubber.

We wanted to make these the ‘green rooms’ for those appearing on the stage. We asked hall management to freshen them up, to paint them. The person who had to follow through was quite new and thought we meant to have them painted green, fortunately we found out her misunderstanding before she did – amusingly her surname was Green!

I had learned that Rick Wakeman (keyboard-player for Yes rock band and solo artist) was a particular mate of Jeremy’s. I arranged to smuggle him into the show, then have him walk out as Jeremy was running his quiz. This all worked well but I was shocked when I later took Rick up to the Capital Radio Stage (where they had a whole raft of pop stars appearing) and presented him to the rather snooty girl running it. Initially she tried to make out she didn’t know who Rick was, when he’s perhaps one of the most recognisable of artists, then admitted she did. But she added that, as he wasn’t on their play list, he could not go onto their stage. I was furious, but Rick took it all in good spirits.

I got my own back later. A smartly-dressed well-spoken woman arrived in the organiser office and asked me where the interactive radio was on show. I admitted to knowing of interactive television, but not radio. She asked me to describe interactive TV, but said that wasn’t it. When I pressed, she said over the last month or so, she had realised she could talk to radio presenters and they would answer her. Duhduh, duhduh. Duh-duh, duhduh – you are entering the Twilight Zone. I promptly gave her the name, description and whereabouts of that Capital girl, assuring the woman that she might deny it, but she should press her because it was Capital that had developed interactive radio – do persevere!

Our video games feature became something of a problem when a gang of local scallywags determinedly tried to steal them despite our bolting much of it down and staffing the area heavily. On one occasion I saw two lads trying to pull a console from its fixture and called out for them to stop. One of the guys turned to me and pulled out a CS-gas cannister saying ‘Try and stop us’.

I called for support by radio and was relieved when our two main men arrived Big Garry, whose sobriquet was not ironic (who I still see from time-to-time as part of Luton Airport’s security detail), and a guy whose name has gone from my memory. This second guy had been a world Karate champion, he was not tall like Garry, probably only around 5’ 10” tall, but he was just as wide as he was tall, and solid with it. On arrival at site he had taken one of our posters and rolled it up tightly. All he needed to do was tap these lads with his rolled-up poster and when they turned angrily, and took in his dimensions, they quickly departed.

ASIDE: Jane ran our Organiser Office and given her experience from 1993 had come equipped with colouring books and felt-tip pens to keep the inevitable raft of lost children occupied. But the very first ‘lost child’ stole them all!

LIVE ‘95

The LIVE direct team had fewer than six people throughout the year, but at site the team grew – temp staff, floor managers, H&S, noise boys, stewards, security… I always felt it valuable to get the team comfortable with other members before going to site and asked one of our floor managers, John, to run one of his other activities – a Jack the Ripper guided tour of the East End. We had a full coach for the evening. Jeremy Beadle had also been a guide for these sorts of tours and was keen to join up with us.

I have to confess I hung back with Jeremy during the tour. He did nothing to upstage John’s presentation, but quietly added further facts for the few who were close. It was interesting to see him with those who recognised him. Outside one pub a motley crew of children, presumably their parents were inside, Jeremy knelt down and chatted with them all. It was a good evening and the larger at-site team had relaxed in each other’s company so that there was a lot of goodwill for when things would inevitably become tense at site.

 LIVE95 Tube Poster

ASIDE: We came up with deal with the Tube’s District Line that gave us poster sites in all 270 station ticket halls and they offered to sell admission to the show for the first time ever. So travellers could buy their tube ticket and entry to Live! To help promote this further we were allowed to apply stickers on every turnstile, in the location just below the ticket insertion slot, that much later became where Oyster Cards are swiped.

This third event had a strange beginning at site. On the first day of tenancy we only invited in those who were erecting steelworks and otherwise spent the day getting our facilities, banners and signage set up. But the new CEO of Earls Court, Doug Littlejohn, was lying in wait for me and his first words were ‘I will need you to certificate all your stands are safe, or else I won’t let you open in six days’ time’ – he had not even offered a ‘Welcome to site’.

He was a Navy ex-submariner who privately claimed to have sunk the Belgrano, but Kit on my team had been a subaltern for the SAS, and established that Doug had been nowhere near that sinking. However, Doug’s advice to Tom Clancy on The Hunt for Red October had him enjoined in a court case in the States suggesting secrets had been divulged in the book. This was never proven, and Doug would later work directly for Clancy as an advisor. But at Earls Court he became known as a bit of a panicker.

At the show prior to ours, Doug had walked around it with the Licensing Officer for the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. Shows need a certificate from the licensing officer before they can open, and this show had been issued with one. Doug unwisely said to the officer that he was surprised he had approved the show, one triple-decker stand in particular looked a little ‘naively’ constructed. The officer pointed out that he had not approved anything, he pulled out his copy of the certificate that clearly stated he had ‘raised no objection to the stands’, no hint of approval, certainly no suggestion of responsibility.

I palmed Doug off, saying I would come and see him later and we set a time. I wonder what might have happened to our industry if he had encountered an inexperienced organiser at this show, who might have signed off on something as requested. Instead I argued against his demand by saying how was I in any position to make any assessment of what was safe – and anyway how do you define safe? Had he asked me two or three decades earlier I might have said they are all made of asbestos, they are safe, and how stupid would I look today. We had a series of meetings across the early days of the build without reaching agreement.

Eventually we pulled out the Yellow Pages and looked up a local structural engineering firm. We quizzed them about the extent of their professional insurance and asked them to come and certificate our show. For future events they would get to see plans before arrival at site, but in this instance, they had to do their best with stands half-built. They agreed, and this meant we could all hide behind their professional insurance. I note that this same firm enjoyed a deal with most large shows for decades after this, they never once approached me to say thank, buy me a meal or give me a bottle or three of malt whisky. Still time!

Crowds at LIVE95

Exhibition health

The whole point of an event team is their time at site, by the end of each LIVE I would have lost seven-to-eight pounds in weight and lost my voice. The latter usually termed ‘Earls Court throat’ and blamed on carpet tile fibres, in my case it was a dozen days shouting at people. Your lips get dry and chapped – lip salve is essential. You eat all the wrong things at the wrong times, sometimes having dinner as late as 11pm and then try to sleep – indigestion tablets are vital too. Your feet are a mess and guys often develop an exhibition crutch, similar to jogger’s nipple, but further south.

But the adrenalin carries you through. I only ever met one individual, from my sales team, who called in sick to the venue. I was so incensed, and it was his misfortune that his wife was involved with the show so that I could seek her out. I must have still had a voice because I told her that I wanted to see her husband crawl into the organiser office that afternoon, on his bleeding stumps for legs and arms, for that could be his only viable excuse. He did turn up and walked around like a whipped dog for several days, usually out at the edge of my vision. You may read this and think this was harsh, but you spend a whole year putting the show together, if you can’t get yourself up and motivated during the show then I think there is a fundamental flaw in you, and Show Business is just not for you!

Build challenges

Earls Court had a large elevator that enabled trucks to reach Level Two to transport stand fixtures and equipment to a point directly adjacent to the exhibitor’s stand. This required careful planning so that trucks could get in and out without something being built behind them. We had done quite well with this jigsaw-like planning until the elevator came off its cables and jammed while we still had several trucks still up on the floor.

The hall called the elevator service organisation who advised they couldn’t get to us for three days, we opened in two. To have any sort of vehicle in a show has a series of requirements, the fuel tank should be as empty as practicable, the fuel cap must be locked, the battery must be disconnected so there is no chance of starting it up, and so on. This would have been a disaster, not to mention very unsightly. We had a superb contractor who dealt with our storage and transportation, one of their guys used a fork lift to raise the elevator and get it back onto its cable. The hall management was unhappy that we had done this – but needs must!

Doug was a nice enough guy but rather than supporting his customer (me) he did cause problems routinely. I got to site early one build-day and learned from the Traffic team that overnight a truck had moved after the 22:00 curfew, that Doug was threatening to fine one of the stand-building companies that he assumed was the guilty party. His assumption was based on the fact that this company that regularly flouted his rules. But I went to see the head of Traffic and watched the overnight CCTV footage, it was not the organisation Doug had assumed. I found him arguing with the contractor and had to halt the squabble.

As we were finishing the build, we hit a snag. Nintendo had a large trailer that arrived late into the build. Another exhibitor who we had told to wait on building their stand until Nintendo had arrived, had ignored us and built their plinth and walls. The Nintendo truck had to be driven across the completed stand to get into an aisle and then drive the length of Earls Court 1. They parked up, then the driver was promptly ill and admitted to hospital.

The next day, hall management decided the truck itself had to be removed from the hall, despite us ensuring all of the usual precautions had been taken. We had no approved HGV driver this late in the build, but one of our security guards said he could and would do it for us. The aisle carpets had been laid by this point and TC, the guard, uncoupled the truck from its trailer and moved it right through the show without disturbing a single carpet tile.

But, as he emerged, he had to park up on the adjacent parking area. One of the hall security team said he’d see him back into a slot. He called out ‘Keep coming, keep coming, Oh shit!’ and had guided him into hitting a parked car. It turned out to be a friend visiting the Finance Director of Earls Court. Doug kept asking me who had been at the wheel and I said I wouldn’t tell him, that it was my fault. He agreed to back-off during the show and meet up after. I parked on the front of Earls Court for this post-show kangaroo court. It was late starting because the Finance Director’s car had broken down and he was towed to the venue by an Earls Court vehicle. As they unhooked his car at site it rolled off down the slope and smashed into the back of my car. Doug had to apologise and withdraw his complaint.

A mighty tumble

The second-in-command at Sony Japan was a visitor, he had come to see Sony UK’s 1700 sq. metre triple-decker stand. We greeted him at the entrance and escorted him through the show. My security detail went a little over-the-top with sunglasses and ear pieces, looking more like the Presidential Secret Service. We had escorted him up through their stand to its top floor, when I received a radio message (I used a headset, so this was privately heard).

The message told me that a girl had fallen the length of the Earls Court wooden escalator at the venue front. This was a steep and extremely long escalator that spanned from Level Two to the Ground – and I was told she was dead!

Venue escalators – the one at the front was twice this size!

I excused myself from the Sony party leaving them with the security detail in their own space. I sprinted the length of Earls Court through the busy aisles – I was younger then! I got to the lobby to find to my great relief that she was in fact alive. She had a friend with her who pointed at someone going out through the turnstiles and said that he had pushed her friend down the escalator. I vaulted the turnstile and rugby-tackled him to the ground – the adrenalin and testosterone were certainly flowing!

The security team took over and escorted the guy to their office, while I went to the First Aid post to check on the girl. She had been wheel-chaired there and was behind a curtain in a cubicle, so I was reduced to hovering outside. Eventually I lost patience and called out that I needed to see her, I was promptly admitted and asked her what had happened. She said, ‘Pissed mate, I fell’, I said her friend had said she was pushed, she said, ‘She’s pissed too’. I left and got on the radio to call the security team, visions of them beating a confession out of this innocent guy. We apologised profusely, got him some free kit from an exhibitor and that panic was laid to rest.

Fishy business

Not all incidents were this serious. The Sharp stand had a huge fish tank on it, providing their Viewcams with colourful images. But the stand lighting or perhaps just the weight of the structure of the large tank, suddenly cracked and started to vent the water. Backing on to the rear of the tank was a row of Sharp microwaves so the water was a real concern.

Everyone was called to the scene – hall management, the safety officer, the fire team, my floor managers, electricians, cleaners – you name it they were all gathered around the fish tank. Someone had been despatched to get rope-and-posts to limit access, the cleaners had got a specialist vacuum cleaner that sucked up water. The crack did not penetrate to the bottom of the tank, the venting stopped at a point that left plenty of water for the fish.

Trying to settle things down and disperse the crowd I asked each in turn if they were content with the solution, they all agreed until I got to the Sparks, who said ‘Has anyone asked the fish?’.

Buffalo Bill

ASIDE: Earls Court had a wonderful history before it was pulled down in 2015 – such a shame! In 1887 Buffalo Bill gave a series of performances of his Wild West Show, two of these to Queen Victoria.

In 1895 a forerunner of the London Eye was built in Earls Court, a 91m high big wheel with forty cabins. In WWI it became home to many thousands of Belgian refugees.

The hall had a 60m x 30m swimming pool that was used for a number of years by the Boat Show. Johnny Weißmüller, the 1930s/40s Tarzan, held the length-sprint record for this pool for many years, many subsequent pretenders were defeated because it was so very cold. When not in use a ceiling slid across, which was strong enough for the royal Tournament vehicles and equipment.

A Daily Mail article reported that Earls Court was the place where the Queen Mother exchanged nods with a complete stranger sitting in a warm bath – shock, horror! It was also where Princess Margaret allegedly took cocaine with the Rolling Stones at a concert, and where a young Cliff Richard announced he had found Christ at a Billy Graham “crusade”.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of LIVE was when we held a marriage ceremony. Across all three shows we had a special arrangement with an exhibitor, Rare Records, a vinyl specialist. The owner confessed he could not afford our stand charges, so we agreed a share of revenue achieved. Each evening he would arrive in the organiser office with an envelope with our share of the day’s sales, it worked out to at least wash its face and more often delivered us a small profit for what was an stand that generated much interest.

Rare Records (an American company using the same name)

He approached me in 1995 and explained that he and his long-term partner were unmarried, and they loved their time at the show so much each year, that they wanted to get married at the show. Kit Brinkley had long been involved with the Holy Trinity Brompton and had become a lay preacher there, so he agreed to provide a ceremony of sorts for them. It was not a formal marriage ceremony but then the Rare Records couple were pretty unconventional too. I’m aware of many Wedding exhibitions but believe we were the first to have a wedding take place during an exhibition.

ASIDE: I took Robb Mackenzie and Kit Brinkley with me to Vegas for the CES which became more notable for two R&R events. We met up with Kit’s son who lived and worked in LA and drove up together to Vegas. One night we went for a drink to a club and I saw Kit’s son pay for a lap dancer for his Dad. I swore that if my son ever did that to me, I would either top myself – or him.

But the really interesting event might have served as a case study for the University of Vegas-ology (there must be one!). Robb and Kit decided to attend a school run by the hotel/casino to introduce new players to some of the gambling games. I had passed on my enthusiasm to them for Craps, and they were taught a system for it (I must admit that I laughed at the thought of that), each returned sporting a big badge that said, ‘Please be nice to me, it’s my first time!’

Robb applied the system and started to win. He had amassed several hundred dollars and I suggested he quit while he was ahead, but he believed he was on a roll. Here’s where the case study began. As he continued to win the pit boss promptly changed the croupiers, something they did as a knee-jerk in case there was any collusion.

Still winning, a small group of fans appeared around him shouting encouragement, ‘Go Shooter Go’ and the like. Then a pretty little Brazilian girl, turned up under his left arm (Robb was tall!) revealing an attractively curvaceous embonpoint. She kept looking up at him adoringly and asking for his advice (Oh, great guru, help me).

As I was stood back, I could see all this unfolding it was casino choreography, plain and simple. If his run had continued, he would soon be offered a big-winner’s suite and so on, everything to ensure he would give back his winnings to the house, eventually. But he started to lose, the Brazilian was the first to fade away, then his support group wavered, and he was back where he had started. But he had enjoyed the ride.

Sale of LIVE

LIVE was doing well but News International Exhibitions failed to develop another event that was as fruitful, so unbeknown to me NI decided to sell it.

I caught a hint of something while talking to the legal department, but I innocently used the term ‘play the white man’ and was slapped down for this being a racist comment. The guy said that no action would be taken this time, but I was given a verbal warning. The strong feelings provoked effectively stopped me pursuing that hint.

I was called to see Robb and was told that a deal had been done and that the buyers were enthusiastic that they were getting me too. It was Blenheim again, where one of my PropBus sales guys was by now the event director for a number of events, another I had known while there was now its Managing Director.

I had not been involved in the negotiations and soon realised Blenheim’s error, there was no ongoing contractual commitment with the NI newspapers or Sky. On joining them I was therefore relieved when they appointed someone else to take LIVE forward.  Sadly, the guy who became event director was a computer magazine publisher with no experience of shows, he had probably visited several but never organised one. He made the unilateral decision to shift LIVE’s emphasis towards computing rather than its more generic consumer electronics.

New role

I pointed out that he should not jump to that conclusion and instead let exhibitors fight out whether it would be black-boxes or computers that moved the market forward. But he persevered, and I tried not to interfere. Sharp called me to say he had turned up with a lengthy PowerPoint presentation and spent the whole meeting reading it out, never once looking them in the eye or picking up on their increasingly frustrated body language.

The 1996 event was half the size of 1995 in terms of both stand space and visitor count and the show died thereafter. The guy left and went back to publishing. Sad, because I had always assumed I would be able to dandle my grandkids and say that I had launched LIVE!

© Bob Denton 2019
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