PC 237 “Next Slide Please”

Here in the United Kingdom we were not used to the ‘Briefing Room’ presentations so loved by, for instance, the Americans. If the monarch or Prime Minister (PM) want to address the Nation, they do it from a chair or from behind a desk, with a certain informality guaranteed; that is the British way, understated but no less important. That changed for politicians at the beginning of the Covid pandemic last year, when the PM needed moral support in the form of specialist advisors to help field the inevitable questions …… that he couldn’t answer.

We became used to a daily briefing, with the scientists demonstrating through complex graphs the various indications of where the virus and therefore the crisis was going. You remember the dreaded R Number? Anything above 1 was not good. Sure, we got inured to the scale and complexity of Covid but if you didn’t know someone who had it, there was a little of the ‘it’s not going to happen to me, I’m fit and healthy’. That view no longer holds any water as the virus has raged indiscriminately across all ages, genders and societal levels!

The fluctuating number of Covid cases in the UK

As the pandemic continued, so the briefings became more formal and a brand new ‘briefing suite’ was created – at the cost of some £2.6million. Then the government got cold feet, not wanting to emulate the White House Press conferences where the Press Corp is always looking to ask a more poignant question, and reverted to the three individuals. The PM has generally been in the chair, actually standing behind a podium (!), except of course when he was in hospital himself, seriously ill. The top team is the PM, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Advisor. The choice of three individuals invariably gives rise to parallels with the three monkeys, one who is deaf, one who is blind and one who is dumb, but I can never work out which description applies to who.

Occasionally other members of the Cabinet have been in the PM’s spot. The Home Secretary, Ms Priti Patel, has chaired a few but at 5ft 3” (160cms) she is vertically challenged and has to have a step behind the podium to give her a lift! During the pandemic and lockdown their interrogators have appeared on a large screen.

I haven’t watched many of these briefings, but the other evening’s was running late and I caught the tail end. Professor Chris Whitty, the government’s Chief Medical Officer, not to be confused with Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Advisor, was speaking, re-enforcing his comments with some illustrations. These days they are obviously digitally produced and show up on a large television screen. There are many things I see or hear that make my jaw drop in amazement; maybe this is because standards have slipped or perhaps I have got more fuddy-duddy. My mouth hit the floor when I heard, for the fifth time, Chris Whitty say: “Next Slide Please”. Of course he would say ‘please’ as he’s a quiet and cultured individual but was he really instructing someone out of sight to change the graph? Didn’t he have a button beneath his finger? Very mid-C20th!

I started these scribbles at the beginning of this week, so you can imagine my surprise when, in The Times on Wednesday 30th June, the cartoonist Peter Brookes picked up Whitty’s phraseology as well:

Two mindless individuals had hassled Chris Whitty for a selfie in St James’ Park!

Hearing ‘Next Slide Please’ immediately took me back to when I first started giving presentations. You remember the vufoil projector?

You scribbled on a piece of acetate with some form of marker pen, then asked someone to put the vufoils on the projector in order.

An illustration of how individuals end up stuck in their careers

Invariably some were back to front, or upside down: some choice of colour made the words or diagrams difficult to read. Giving scripted presentations about the air threat to ground forces in my time as an instructor at the Royal School of Artillery required a copy of what I was saying. This was annotated with ‘vufoil on’ and ‘vufoil off’ for the person next to the projector.

All this reminds me of a general who was well known for giving excellent presentations, but never thanked his team who worked hard to produce the script and supporting visuals. Eventually they had had enough: at the start of one presentation, armed with twenty sheets of script and lots of slides, the general launched into his polished delivery. Finishing page two, he turned the page to start Page Three. Covering the whole page were five words: “You are on you own!” The remaining pages were blank.

I left the Army and joined Short Brothers’ Missile Systems Division’s Sales Team. After a year trudging around Europe I was given ‘India and the Far East’ as my patch. My presentation changed depending on the audience and their security clearance, but my briefcase contained a large circular carousel of slides, one development up from the printed vufoil. By this time the slide projector could normally be operated by a remote control.

One presentation was to a team at the Japanese Defence Contractor Kawasaki Heavy Industries, in a suburb of Tokyo. The slide projector should have been in a museum and only took a linear slide box. From the lectern I was able to advance the slides, so no ‘tsugi no suraido o onegaishimasu’, but the box was on an angle and the slides kept falling out! Not my best moment and not theirs either! (Note 1)

Writing these thoughts reminds me of using a vufoil to create a large painting for a summer ball in Lippstadt in 1973. The theme had been ‘Paris in the summer’ so I drew an outline around the important details of ‘A Bar at the Folies’ by Edouard Manet onto a vufoil. Then glued some butcher’s paper together and projected the image to give me a reproduction 2m by 1.5m. Then out came the paints for ‘painting by numbers’!

Next slide please?

Richard 2nd July 2021


PS Out of the UK adult population of 53.5 million, 85% have had one vaccine dose and 62% two. A real success story.

Note 1 This isn’t a case of ‘bad workman blames his tools’, really!

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