Monday, August 8, 2022


Castle Lodge, Castle Green, Taunton, TA1

DURELL SOFTWARE ARE STILL IN BUSINESS! This is almost unreasonably exciting. Sure, there's quite a long list of companies who are still going, Elite, System 3, and Rare spring to mind, but they're often either mining their own past for nostalgia or they've moved on and are essentially unrecognisable. Durell on the other hand are still going, still have a nameplate outside the same building they were in the 1980s, and are still making software. Admittedly it's financial services software which is pretty dull but it feels like there's much more of a direct line to the company's history than there is with, say, Ultimate Play The Game. Robert White, who gave an interview to CRASH in 1986 (February 1986 page 39) is still listed on the Durell website as Founder and Technical Director. 

Higher Coombe, Combe Florey, Taunton, TA4

Durell's was founded in 1983. This is the oldest advert I've been able to track down for the company -at least once I'd manged to start spelling Durell properly- from YOUR COMPUTER (June 1983 page 189). It's a small quarter-page job advertising three pieces of software for the Oric; a games double of Lunar Lander and Asteroids, and an assembler. This advert dates to six months before Durell was registered with Companies House, on 21st November. Coombe Florey is a village nestled between the Quantocks and Exmoor, and Higher Coombe seems to resist my Google searches. Let's leave it in peace because it's almost certainly a residential address judging by Robert White's CRASH interview, "Robert and his wife Veronica moved from Oxfordshire to a house near Taunton." The CRASH interview also goes into a little detail about Durell's early days: "Plan A was to finish the assembler, market it as a utility and then it use to write Harrier Attack. Robert realised that he really needed four or five versions of the game — the home computer market in 1983 had not settled down as much as it has today. He advertised locally for programmers and Mike Richardson and Ron Jeffs joined the fledgling company. With Harrier Attack (which attracted a bit of flak for its scenario — it was the time of the Falklands War), Durell moved to the present premises: a long attic room in an old building facing onto Taunton’s Castle Square.

Castle Lodge, Castle Green, Taunton, TA1

May 2022

Martech advertise Durell games between August 1983 and early 1984; POPULAR COMPUTING WEEKLY advert (4-10 August 1983 page 24) and COMPUTER AND VIDEOGAMES (March 1984 page 62). My best guess, this is the transition period. Durell don't want to run a business from the Higher Coombe address and so Martech temporarily take over distribution while Durell is properly set up as a company and moves into its new address. They are advertising from Castle Lodge by early 1984. PERSONAL COMPUTER GAMES (February 1984) manages to run both adverts. One for Martech/Durell on page 34 and one for Durell on page 4. How or why Durell chose Martech as their partner is lost to time.

Journeys with me have become fraught with hazards. Whether it's unexpectedly pointing at the old K-Tel building while driving down the A40 or suggesting we stop for lunch in Taunton and "go for a walk," friends and colleagues have got used to the idea that at some point in the day they will have to hang around while I take pictures of an office block for no reason; or twice if they are really lucky. I was accompanied on my trip to Taunton which was fortunate because the outskirts were a mass of confusing traffic cones and temporary lanes; they're still rebuilding after the Monmouth Rebellion. Having parked and got mildly lost (a very low-level one by my standards and it meant a chance to see Taunton Minster) we located Castle Square and my accomplice stood by patiently while I learned it's surprisingly difficult to photograph Castle Lodge. The building gets lost from a distance behind the bulk of Mackenzie's Bar & Kitchen, and it's wedged into corner of the square at an angle which makes it difficult to photograph close up. I was an impromptu cabaret for the bar patrons in the side garden who wondered why I was fussing so much over a closed building. I assumed Durell had shut down for the May Bank holiday week, but it appears the company has moved permanently to home working and is looking to sell Castle Lodge; according to this news story from the Somerset County Gazette, 21 August 2021. The Somerset County Gazette new story includes the interesting titbit that, "Castle Lodge was originally bought by Mr White's father-in-law in the late 1960s, when he converted it into offices for his quantity surveying business after winning approval for office use." The photo of the second floor in the news story is clearly the same room which crops up in various articles about Durell, like this one from ZX COMPUTING, Feb/Mar 1984 page 60, or AMSTRAD ACTION, February 1986 page 74. It could be yours for £350,000.

Durell succeeded in walking the fine line that eluded some of their contemporaries and balanced success against expansion. The number of people needed to develop a game, and keep titles coming at regular intervals, kept increasing and so did development time. Mike Richardson told RETRO GAMER (issue 73 page 40): "He wrote the Spectrum version of Harrier Attack in two and a half weeks, while his next game, Scuba Dive, took three months. This was followed by Combat Lynx which was eight months of work, and then he devoted ten months to Turbo Esprit." Durell released software across all the major formats, and employed an internal development team and outside contractors. They preferred their own original ideas which meant they didn't make free with other people's intellectual property or release licenced games. "We'd never do a licencing deal," Robert told AMSTRAD ACTION, "you've got to do your own thing. At some point brand name will not be enough. You have to have quality." Saboteur! is probably their most memorable game but there are plenty of other gems lurking in the back catalogue; Turbo Esprit, Fat Worm Blows a Sparky, and Thanatos; a personal favourite in which you play as a dragon and get to fly around breathing fire, picking people, dropping them, and generally behaving in a very socially unacceptable way.

And then in 1987, Durell stopped releasing games although it wasn't widely noticed at the time. Robert told RETRO GAMER: "It had become an incredibly risky business... It soon became that every game we launched was an £80,000 gamble... by the time we got to 1987, the financial rollercoaster was just way to scary. It got to the point where I just couldn't sleep at night, so I made the decision to move into business software." In 2012 Robert spoke to website MONEY MARKETING: "We sold the rights for our games to Elite Software for about £100,000 and reinvested that writing Insurance Master, which is what Durell is today."

Except Durell came back, briefly. NEW COMPUTER EXPRESS wrote: "Eighteen months after dipping out of the games industry Durell Software has re-emerged. This time, the firm which brought you Saboteur and Combat Lynx is keeping a low profile and sticking to simply developing games for other companies. For the moment, Durell is working exclusively for Again Again on Saboteur 3 and Operation Hormuz." Jan 7 1989 page 5. Sadly the return wasn't a success. Operation Hormuz, was poorly received and Saboteur 3 never arrived, and Durell was lost to the business software world for a second time.

I thought it might be fun to track down the photo locations used in CRASH's issue 25 interview. I tried to explain this to my travelling companion who just nodded patiently at my inarticulate attempt and let me get on with it -at one point he went and stood behind a tree; this might have been to avoid getting caught in one of my pictures or it might have been out of general embarrassment. Fortunately all the locations were just round the corner from Castle Lodge, in the grounds of the castle itself. The main background to the interview is the rear wall of the castle/museum of Somerset. Just out of shot at the bottom of my picture is a replica of Excalibur which has been installed for reasons which never became clear. We both had several minutes of fun posing and pretending to pull the sword out of the stone. Those pictures will not be published.

The location of picture two is a metal bridge over the river Tone. Stand facing the castle and it's right behind you, on the same path you can see in the modern picture above. The bridge was such a popular location for Durell photos it crops up twice. Once in CRASH (top left) and also AMSTRAD ACTION (top right). The CRASH photo has a small drone drawn in -all the pictures in the profile had little artistic additions. Getting the picture of the bridge wasn't as easy as I hoped. A couple of people had stopped on it for a natter, and they talked, and talked, and talked. The conversation ended just as I was considering photographing the bridge anyway and blanking out the faces of the two people, and making it look like a seedy blackmail photo. 

Photo 3 is of car lover and Critical Mass programmer Simon Frances. It was clearly taken in the Durell car park.

Photo 4 shows the car park wall, and Saboteur author Clive Townsend. But, was it taken on the Castle Lodge side of the wall or round the back? We may never know. All I can say for sure is that the vegetation has grown a lot in the intervening thirty six years. Fortunately I've learned from my mistake when I tried tracking down the location for CRASH's team photos of Odin. This time I remembered to take nice wide shots. I'm smarter than the average bear.

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