In issue 137 of Retro Gamer I wrote an archives feature detailing the rise and fall of the idiosyncratic Automata UK. One of the boxouts featured a lady by the name of Carol Ann Wright, which contained a mere fraction of the extensive reply that Carol Ann sent me. Below is her full reply which details the time she spent with the wild and crazy guys of Automata...
AUTOMATA - The Magical Years.
As I wrote in the book DEUS EX MACHINA, my arrival at Automata in the Spring of 1982, was a surprise to me. I had recently been divorced and had 2 daughters and a mortgage so needed a job. The advert said ‘Girl Friday’ and as Mel put so eloquently in his book, unlike previous applicants, I was ‘no school leaver’. During the interview in their offices in Elm Grove, I was astonished to find that one of the duties would be to ‘sort’ their accounts. They were a strange couple, Christian slightly overweight and a real extrovert and Mel, unconventionally dressed, with bright intelligent eyes and a soft voice. Opposites I learned quite quickly. The ‘sorting’ of their accounts wasn’t as straight forward as it sounded. They had no accounts! They had never kept books but, as Christian excitedly told me, they had kept every receipt. To prove this he dragged over a large tea chest. Yes, everything from rail tickets to chocolate wrappers was in the box. Sort wasn’t the word I would have chosen! I tried to say no to their job offer but succumbed to the pleas of these young men who were to become my friends.
I knew nothing about computer games, I had two daughters who were ‘into horses and ponies’ so I had never actually seen or used a computer and really wasn’t interested. I thought at least it was a job and perhaps I could ‘sort’ the accounts and then leave and find a real job with ‘real people’. Never happened. My role was to do everything in the office, orders, accounts, telephone etc and take the many parcels that were growing in number to the local post office. I had only an IBM typewriter to do all of this including advertisements, publicity, storyboards, letters and those endless labels! I shared my space in the office with Mel’s companion Rory, a red setter. Not the bravest of dogs, when left with me if the others went out and told to ‘look after’ me, it was often the other way round. As business increased Mel bought a machine to duplicate tapes and let me loose on it. That was his first mistake. After that machines were kept away from me.
It was Robin (Grenville Evans) the artist friend of Mel’s who gave us all our names, he called me Lady Claire Sinclive, (anagram of sorts, of Sir Clive Sinclair). I think the ‘naming’ was for our ‘appearances’ at Microfairs at the Alexandra Palace. We would go dressed either as characters in our games or in the dress that was suited to the current game. I remember having some lovely outfits and being dressed as characters and not going as ourselves, we really had some fun. Christian would always wear a much-too-tight pink all-in-one suit with PIMAN written in red on the front. Onesies had nothing on that! Our fans would queue for hours, arriving very early in the morning of the first day and rush past all the other stands to reach us. Very flattering and exciting. Automata games were all peaceful and full of fun, we never made violent games, Mel and I were and still are, very opposed to these, for obvious reasons. It didn’t stop our ‘fan club’ growing and growing over the time and being top games in the charts.
The fans, the Pimaniacs’ who had followed us since the first big game PIMANIA hit the streets, wanted more so we created the Piman Bugle just for them. This was a little magazine, pink of course, for our group members. I wrote an ‘agony' column and the Bugle was my baby. It had cartoons written by Mel, adverts by Christian and drawing by Robin. I still have a copy in my ‘souvenir’ box. I also received many letters, some proposals of marriage! I am sure they were just jokes but I often wondered what would have happened if I had accepted. Where would I be now I ask! So I was involved in the promotional escapades of Automata and did almost anything asked of me, within reason, for these two young men I had grown so fond of. We were a happy little ‘family during this time.
Christian was the clown, the lovable rogue, he would tell it as it was, no matter what the consequences. I really don’t think he realised that sometimes the truth wasn’t what people wanted to hear. There was no side to him, what you saw was what he was. He could be rough, loud, bawdy and earned the name of the Ally Pally Wally, in his pink Piman suit stretched over his too many ‘pi’s’ tum. But Christian could also be kind, caring warm and vulnerable. When Automata as we knew it closed, leaving him to make it his own, I felt great sympathy for him as he seemed lost.
Robin, our artist, was scruffy, eccentric to the letter, kind, funny and a brilliant artist. We got along very well and became firm friends, he did all the drawings for my own creation Wozwell the Womas in a book I published a few years after Automata. We stay in touch over the Internet.
Then there is Mel. What can I say about this brilliant man. Full of ideas and born much too early for most of the human race. His velvety voice won me over in many a disagreement and we continued to work together for a while after Automata days. Unlike he and Christian, we held the same beliefs, the same hopes and dreams as each other. He changed my life in many ways. He gave me confidence, belief in myself after a very rough period in my life, as I said in Mel’s book, the Automata experience was one of the most influential in my entire life. It brought me alive.
So from beginning very afraid, as their girl Friday, I soon became a third member of a little company that became a huge force in the early Computer games industry. We were the subject of a cartoon on the back page, the whole page of the magazine Popular Computing Weekly where we would use current events in a fun way using our characters. There was many a time, on this page, Lady Claire carried on in a way that this Lady Claire did not approve! Sometimes, on a Friday afternoon when the artwork had to be dispatched and it was too late to change it, I would see the drawings and be horrified at her antics. Especially the time she became pregnant and didn’t know who the father was. Was it the Piman or another character? Not my idea as you probably, after reading this, can believe.
Although I was never part of the creation of the games, I like to think that when Mel shut himself in his office at the top of our building with nothing but Vodka at his disposal, the many cups of coffee, the sandwiches and the reprimands for working too hard, played a part in DEUS being created. But seriously DEUS was Mel. It was his baby and I had every belief in it being a success. I just think that the first time round it was too early, the world wasn’t ready for it. It was too clever and brilliant for the average gamer but this time I am hoping it will be different.
I have a few memories among the thousands of my time at Automata that stand out.
During the time of the Piman Bugle, I received many little gifts from fans. There was one time when I received a gold chain, a small one but pretty. The young boy who had sent it had said how much he loved me, Lady Claire, having met me at a Microfair and this gave me a dilemma. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Mel and Christian said, just send it back. That would have been a horrid thing to do so I wrote back and asked him if he had someone else he could give it too as I wasn’t allowed to accept gifts. He wrote back and said he understood but still wanted me to keep it, not wanting to hurt him, I kept it and I still have it to this day.
Neither of my colleagues, Mel or Christian were exactly models of fashion or tidy in any shape or form. There was a time when Waddingtons the Games company, took us to court for copyright or something. I never really understood the ins and outs of this case. We didn’t hire a brief, Mel wanted to do this himself. I wasn’t too sure of this knowing how powerful this company could be at that time. The morning of the court case,Mel came into the office before he went to London, dressed in a smart, yes smart white suit. I knew from that moment, that with his articulate speaking voice, his use of words delivered in a calm but knowledgeable manner, as only he could, Waddingtons didn’t stand a chance. I was right, we won the case, or rather Mel won the case.
When Deus was finished Mel wanted to have a particular face on the cover. We were downstairs in the front office and shop when he suddenly saw a young girl who had passed the shop many times on her way home and almost grabbed her asking if he could photograph her. Thank goodness for the morals of a mum! I quickly explained that wouldn’t it be a good idea if she were to ask her parents? Reluctantly he agreed and I wrote a letter hurriedly for her to take home. As I said before, sometimes, neither of them thought ahead.
When I first joined this happy couple, the language was a bit, how can I say, bad. This is something I don’t tolerate well and one of my claims to fame of this time, is making AUTOMATA offices free of swearing. I know that might not sound much but it is a claim to fame I am proud of. I am not naïve enough to think they stopped their bad language but it stopped in front of Lady Claire.
When DEUS was being programmed, Mel, gave this ‘job’ to a young programmer Andrew Stagg and this was his step to fame as a programmer of repute. This is the kind of generosity that Mel was known for. As the sales came in we were so busy that a big order had to be out over –night; so we all worked over night. When I say all, Andrew, having ‘done his bit’ didn’t turn up. When I rang home his mum answered and said he was in bed. I was furious and asked her to get him up and send him to work. He came to the phone, Lady Claire read him the riot act and low and behold he arrived and worked as hard as all of us. I don’t know whether he remembers that but I hope he does.
There are many other memories, I could go all day but I won’t.
I would never have left Automata I don’t think, but as Mel says in his book, it disbanded and we went our separate ways. I worked with Mel for a while, on a new venture, Interactive ‘movies’ but circumstances and life made it impossible for me to remain with his new company. I had a family and was now a different person from the one who had walked into those offices in Elm Grove. I like to think of this as a turning point in my life and it, or rather Mel, equipped me with the tools to begin a new life.
After leaving I eventually moved away and became a writer of children’s stories, the first of which I created one evening at a Microfair. I wanted my book published as my brother had a terminal illness and I wanted him to see it in print. He did. After a few years I remarried and we moved to Wales and I became very ill. It was a matter of sink or swim. Mel once said to me ‘You can do anything if you really want to, just believe in you’. I could just sit back and let myself become worse or I could fight. With the support and encouragement of my family, I fought and retrained as a Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist and gained a Masters in Counselling. After this I wrote my autobiography and have just had my second book published. My first book became a Sunday Times bestseller and is still selling. I have to write these under a pseudonym for legal reasons, something I never wanted to do, having found my courage I wanted the world to know. But a pseudonym it is. A third book is in the making.
So my time at Automata was fun, magical and life changing and I am so glad that Carol Ann became a Lady, if only for a short time.