Jackanory ran on BBC television from 1965 until 1996, and was a cornerstone of childhood for anyone raised in the UK between those years. The format was simple: an actor would read a book in fifteen-minute episodes, broadcast daily over the course of a week. Occasionally, still illustrations would be displayed alongside the reading. The programme became hugely popular with children and parents alike, and attracted an enormous range of acting talent.
In its early days, the programme encapsulated the core Reithian remit to “inform, educate and entertain”, though over the years it gave way to changing attitudes and loosened its style and range of readers.
Algonory uses Jackanory as inspiration for a series of manufactured episodes from the past, written by the algorithms of 2019. The three episodes are placed in 1968, 1974 and 1985, and aim to capture the evolving style of the programme. In addition, I employed my talented daughters to illustrate two of the stories, creating images inspired by their own interpretations of the text.
Like some sort of hotly anticipated NetFlix miniseries, I have decided to release all three episodes at once.
For Episode One, I chose to set the networks on the works of Enid Blyton – in many ways the archetypal English children’s author. Time has not been kind to her racist, sexist views but her unmistakable tone of upper-middle-class whimsy seemed perfect for the first episode.
Algornory (1968) – The Faraway Chair, by Algo Blyton.
Episode Two is set in 1974, and uses the works of Lewis Carroll. These stories, of course, already have a lysergic quality which suits the absurdist prose generated by the network. I have no idea why the frog and the mock turtle wander off into a philosophical discussion about the nature of the self, but it seems to work.
Algonory (1974) – Alice through the Scrying Glass, by Algo Carroll
Episode Three uses a range of Roald Dahl’s children’s books as sources, and features many familiar characters blended into a single story. I styled myself, unapologetically, as the greatest Jackanory reader of the 80s, Rik Mayall
Algonory (1985) – Mr Fox’s Marvellous Medicine, by Algo Dahl
One of the joys of printing physical copies of my previous GPT-2 experiment, AlgoHiggs, has been the opportunity to hear passages read out loud.
Bringing the book into physical existence transforms the meaning of the text. The words are consumed and judged in an entirely different way than words-on-a-screen.
Inspired by this, I turned my networks towards children’s stories – the archetypal conduit between written word and the human imagination. By partially retraining the GPT-2 network with specific authors, I was able to generate new works in their style, whilst still maintaining some of the underlying language and knowledge from its original model. This comes through in delightfully absurd, and sometimes profane, form. For example, this section from the Algo Dahl network:
“I don’t want to talk about it,” my father said, not even listening.
“Pheasants are more in my line than most children are.
Not only are they more in line than most,
but you and I are equally guilty of lewdness.”
He undressed and put on his trunks.
“I can’t go into details,” he said.
Imagine suffering amnesia and being nursed back to health in a sanatorium populated only by nurses reading Roald Dahl. But the amnesia is incomplete, and past memories occasionally bubble up into consciousness.
The resulting stories are nonsense, but they are dressed in the clothes of the original author. Reading them inevitably produces memories and feelings associated with the original texts.
Reading them aloud, with conviction, enhances the illusion.
Much of my work involves what I call ‘manufactured authenticity’ – shrouding generative systems in the trappings of normality, precisely to highlight their limitations.
When an AI fails, it exposes the holes in the magickal veil that the algorithm has drawn over the world. When we see the holes, we see the limits of the trick.