Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Famous Mister Ed

The first fantasy television series of the Sixties was a situation comedy with a most unusual premise. Quite simply, the star of the show was a talking horse. Mister Ed proved rather successful, running for five seasons and going onto a highly successful syndication run. Indeed, reruns of Mister Ed are still on various television stations to this day.

Mister Ed centred on Wilbur Post (Alan Young) and his palomino, the horse of the title (played by Bamboo Harvester). Mister Ed, or '"Ed" as he was affectionately known, was no ordinary horse, however, as Ed could talk. The only problem was that Ed would only talk to Wilbur. This often caused trouble for Wilbur, especially with his wife Carol (Connie Hines), who did not understand Wilbur's attachment to the palomino.

The character of Mister Ed was the creation of writer Walter R. Brooks, who wrote some twenty eight stories about the talking horse, published in Liberty and The Saturday Evening Post in the Thirties and Forties. Walter R. Brooks' stories differed somewhat from the TV series. Wilbur and Carol Post were named Wilbur and Carlotta Pope instead. Rather than living in Hollywood, California, the Popes lived in Mount Kisco, New York. In the television series Wilbur Post was a self employed architect, but in the original short stories he worked for the firm of  Lamson, Camphire, Leatherbee & Wallet. The change was made in the TV series so as to keep Wilbur close to home and hence to Mister Ed. In personality the original Mister Ed of the stories resembled his television counterpart to a large degree. Both recited Hamlet, both claimed to speak Latin, both were overly patriotic, and both would only talk to Wilbur. A major difference between the two is that the Mister Ed of the short stories drank heavily and often got drunk, while the Mister Ed of television drank nothing heavier than carrot juice.

The "Mister Ed" short stories may well have inspired an imitator in the form of the novel Francis by David Stern. The novel concerned a talking mule named Francis who befriends Second Lieutenant Peter Stirling. Francis the Talking Mule resembled the Mister Ed of Brooks' short stories in many ways. Both had one human companion to whom they primarily associated (Peter for Francis, Wilbur for Ed). Similarly, both Francis and the original Mister Ed were both drunks. Beyond the fact that Francis was a mule and Mister Ed was a horse, there was one significant difference between the two. The original Mister Ed, like his television counterpart, would only speak to Wilbur, except for the occasional practical joke of mouthing off to authority figures, such as police officers, at which time he was careful not to be seen talking. On the other hand, Francis would talk to other human being when his human companion Peter was in dire straits. Still, the novel Francis resembled the Mister Ed stories enough that it seems possible that Franics was inspired by them. Even if it was not, the similarities between the two are remarkable.

In 1946 director Arthur Lubin discovered the novel Francis and thought that it would make a good movie. As he would be for the rest of his career, at the time Arthur Lubin was best known for his fantasy films (1940's Black Friday, 1942's Ali Baba & the Forty Thieves, 1943's The Phantom of the Opera) and the early Abbott & Costello films (Buck Privates, Hold That Ghost, In the Navy). A talking mule was then a natural choice for Mr. Lubin as movie fodder. Unfortunately, most of Hollywood was very resistant to the idea of a talking mule. Finally in 1950, Universal produced Francis, directed by Arthur Lubin. Francis starred Donald O'Connor as Peter Strling and four different mules as Francis. Francis proved to be a smash hit, to be followed by five more "Francis the Talking Mule" movies with Arthur Lubin and Donald O'Connor and a final film in 1956 with director Charles Lamont (who had also directed the "Ma and Pa Kettle" movies) as director and Mickey Rooney as Francis' new human companion David Prescott. The "Francis" movies, cheaply made and short in length, helped save the failing Universal Studios from bankruptcy.

It was in 1957 that Arthur Lubin was introduced to Walter R. Brooks' "Mister Ed" stories by a friend, Sonia Chernus, a secretary at CBS. Mr. Lubin decided that the stories could provide a basis for a television series and purchased an option on the "Mister Ed" stories from the agency representing Walter R. Brooks, Brandt and Brandt. After the TV show Mister Ed had debuted Arthur Lubin would eventually purchase the rights to the short stories. Sonia Chernus received a small percentage of the show's royalties and the credit "Format Developed by..." on screen as a reward for introducing Arthur Lubin to the "Mister Ed" stories.

Mr. Lubin's agent took the Mister Ed project to several different studios until he sparked interest at George Burns' production company, McCadden Productions in 1958.  McCadden's interest in the project apparently stemmed from two different sources. Maurice Morton, an executive there, had a genuine love for horses and owned several himself. In turn he recommended the project to Gorge Burns. George Burns' interest in the project was sparked by the success Arhtur Lubin had seen at Universal with the success of the "Francis the Talking Mule" series. Mr. Burns invested $75,000 in the Mister Ed pilot, which was credited to McCadden Productions-Lubin Pictures.

The first Mister Ed pilot (titled "The Wonderful World of Wilbur Pope"), made in 1958, cast Scott McKay as Wilbur Pope and Sandy White as his wife Carlotta. Scott McKay had previously played on two short lived CBS series in the early Fifties, The Stage Door and Honestly Celeste. Sandy White did not yet have any credits of real importance. The horse who played Ed was a quarter horse owned personally by trainer Les Hilton. He was a darker palomino than Bamboo Harvester, who world assume the role on the TV series. Beyond the cast, the original pilot differed from the regular TV series in other ways as well. As can be seen above, the characters retained their names from Walter R. Brooks' stories. The pilot departed from both the original short stories and the TV series in that Wilbur was a lawyer rather than an architect. Carlotta Pope, played by Sandy White, had coal black hair, a marked contrast to Carol Post's blonde hair.

One thing that was the same in the first pilot as the regular TV series was the voice of Mister Ed. Former cowboy actor Allan "Rocky" Lane voiced the horse in both the initial pilot and the TV show. Several different voices were auditioned for the part, but allw ere rejected by George Burns because "Horses wouldn't talk like that!" The job eventually fell to Rocky Lane, whose deep voice seemed perfectly suited to the horse. Indeed, Rocky Lane truly believed he knew how a horse would talk. As the star of several Republic Pictures Westerns, among them the "Red Ryder" series, he probably did. During the Mister Ed series, Rocky Lane's lines were recorded on stage as the series was filmed. Lane stood off to a side, carefully hidden so that Bamboo Harvester could not see him. Of course, this involved a good deal of coordination. between Mr. Lane and horse trainer Les Hilton. Mr. Lane would even occasionally improvise lines that truly sounded as if they might come from a horse.

Mister Ed's first pilot was represented by MCA, at the time one of the largest agencies in the world. Even that giant among agencies could not sell the pilot, however, as none  of the networks nor sponsors were interested in the project To this day the original pilot has never aired on television.

Shortly after the completion of the first Mister Ed pilot in 1958, an event took place in 1959 that would both insure Mister Ed a place on the small screen as well as change television history forever. During the Fifties Filmways had emerged as one of the most successful producers of commercials in the field. In 1959 CEO Monty Ransohoff decided to expand the company's empire into television shows as well. Mr. Ransohoff founded a television division, Filmways Television, in Hollywood and hired Al Simons as president of the new company. Mr. Simon had been an associate producer on both I Love Lucy and I Married Joan. Afterwards he moved to McFadden Productions where he was an associate producer on both The Burns & Allen Show and The Bob Cummings Show. Herb Browar, who became associate producer on Mister Ed, and John Nicolaides, who would become Vice President in Charge of Business Affairs at Filmways, moved with Mr. Simon from McCadden to Filmways.

The formation of Filmways Television proved fortunate for Mister Ed. "The Wonderful World of Wilbur Pope" had been filmed at General Service Studios. Its owner, George Nasser, thought it would be a good film short to show in the theatres he owned. One day he asked Al Simon to look at the pilot so as to get advice on how it might be improved. Mr. Simon felt that he show featured too little of Mister Ed and that the characters were dull. Despite this, he also thought that there was potential in the pilot for what could be a very funny sitcom. Filmways then entered into a deal with McCadden Production and Lubin Pictures to produce a new pilot for Mister Ed. Together the three formed The Mister Ed Company.

Filmways immediately set to work looking for a buyer for Mister Ed. Unfortunately all three networks turned the series down. It seems that they saw no future in a sitcom about a talking horse. Marty Ransohoff heard that the Studebaker Corporation (a major manufacturer of automobiles at the time) was seeking a show with which the company could be identified in the same way that Alcoa was identified with Alcoa Presents and Chevrolet with The Dinah Shore Chevy Show. Ransohoff pitched Mister Ed to Studebaker, who expressed interest in sponsoring the show. The only hurdle that had to be cleared was convincing Sudebaker dealers across the country to help finance the show.

In the meantime Filmways set about casting the show. George Burns suggested casting Alan Young as Wilbur Pope, soon to be renamed "Wilbur Post", at a Filmways story conference. Mr. Young was a Canadian comedian who had been one of the rising young stars of television in its early years. In 1950 The Alan Young Show was one of CBS's hits. Alan Young himself would become the first comic to receive an Emmy. Unfortunately, Mr. Young made the suggestion that show go from live to film. CBS not only rejected the idea, but suspended Mr. Young as well. Shortly thereafter his show was cancelled. Afterwards he played various bit parts in films and guest appearances on television shows. As Carol they cast attractive, blonde Carol Hines. Miss Hines had made several guest appearances on various shows, including The Millionaire, Sea Hunt, and Perry Mason.

Filmways continued to hold meetings with Studebaker throughout the first half of 1960. It was decided that Filmways would prepare a presentation film for Studebaker's annual sale conference in Chicago. Filmways filmed a three minute short in which George Burns introduced Alan Young, Connie Hines, and yet another horse as Mister Ed. This was added to an edited version of the original pilot, consisting of its twelve best minutes. The presentation film was successful enough to convince Steve Mudge, Studebaker's account executive at the advertising agency the D'Arcy Company, that Mister Ed was a worthwhile project. He personally travelled across the country for the next few months selling Mister Ed to the individual Studebaker dealers. Eventually Mr. Mudge arranged a deal whereby every Studebaker dealer would contribute twenty five dollars for every car sold towards the production of Mister Ed, which would be matched by Studebaker's home office. This meant Studebaker contributed fifty dollars for very car it sold in 1960 to producing Mister Ed.

In the meantime the process of casting continued. The horse used in the presentation film had been sold by horse trainer Les Hilton, which meant that Filmways had to find a new star with only five weeks before shooting commenced. Mr. Hilton searched California, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington for the right horse before finding him in San Fernando Valley, not far from his own home. Mr. Hiton took Al Simon and Herb Browar to see the horse, a palomino gelding named Bamboo Harvester. He stood fifteen hands high, weighed 1100 pounds, and was eight years old at the time. Filmways paid $1500 for him.

Larry Keating was cast as the Posts' neighbour, Roger Addison, the archetypal sitcom snob. Mr. Keating had played the role of Harry Morton, George and Gracie's neighbour on The Burns & Allen Show, as well as a number of character parts in various films and TV shows. Edna Skinner played Roger's wife Kay, the stereotypical spendthrift of a wife. Later in the first season Jack Alberston was added in the recurring role of Paul Fenton, Kay's brother and Roger's brother in law. Fenton was a record producer and a bit of a slacker, as well as Roger Addison's least favourite person. Jack Albertson was already well established as an actor by the time of Mister Ed. He had appeared in such film as Miracle on 34th Street and Top Banana, and he had guest starred on such shows as I Love Lucy and The Phil Silvers Show.

While Mister Ed featured some very experienced actors in its cast, newcomer Bamboo Harvester numbed among its most talented members. While four different mules played Francis the Talking Mule at any given time, Bamboo Harvester was the only horse to play Mister Ed. While Bamboo Harvester had a stand in, an identical palomino of four years in age named Punkin, Punkin was only used once in the entire six year run of the series. In the episode "TV or Not TV" in 1965, a shot required that Ed be sitting and facing Wilbur. At the time Ed was thirteen years old, so that sitting down and getting back up was no easy feat for him to accomplish. Younger and stronger, Punkin was used for the Punkin. Punkin was used by the lighting director and cinematographer in technical rehearsal to lay out shots.

Les Hilton was both Bamboo Harvester's trainer and primary caretaker. Mr. Hilton's philosophy in training the horse was to provide him with both food and love so that Bamboo Harveser would try hard to learn his moves. Mr. Hilton never struck Bamboo Harvester. To discipline Bamboo Harvester, Mr. Hilton would either either hold a long whip across Ed's forelegs so he could not walk away or tap him on his hooves. Despite the fact that Bamboo Harvester was not a trick horse, he learned swiftly. Mr. Hilton could teach Bamboo Harvester what he had to do in only fifteen minutes, and the horse almost always did it in one take.

Indeed, eventually Bamboo Harvester figured out that the only time a scene was actually being filmed was when a clapstick was "clapped" to synchronise the sound. As a result he would not perform unless he heard a clapstick. The crew was then forced to use a clapstick even in rehearsal. Similar, Bamboo Harvester refused to urinate or defecate on the set. In the beginning Bamboo Harvester relieved himself whenever he pleased, even if it was in the middle of a scene. During the shooting of "The Bashful Clipper" Bamboo Harvester was to walk over to Larry Keating, who was lying on a cot, and give him a blanket. During the scene Bamboo Harvester urinated. He then noticed the negative reactions he was getting from the cast and crew. Afterwards Bamboo Harvester waited until he could get outside to do his business. Luckily, Les Hilton could tell when the horse had to use the great outdoors.

Mr. Hilton was overly protective of Bamboo Harvester. He even insisted that special, rubberised horseshoes be designed to prevent the horse from slipping when he went through a car wash in "Horse Wash". The types of publicity stunts Bamboo Harvester was allowed to do was similarly limited. Les Hilton would not let Bamboo Harvester be in either the Hollywood Christmas Parade or the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for fear that the crowds might frighten him.

While Mister Ed was on the air precisely how Bamboo Harvester was made to talk was a closely guarded secret. A popular theory was that peanut butter was applied to the horse's gums. Naturally, he would try to dislodge the peanut butter by moving his lips. In a 2004 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, however, Alan Young revealed that he had invented the story about peanut butter being used to make Mister Ed talk himself. In a later interview with the Archive of American Television, Alan Young said a string was attached to Bamboo Harvester's halter and a loose end of the string placed under his lip to make him talk. Mr. Young further said that eventually Bamboo Harvester learned to move his lips whenever Alan Young stopped talking. The string was no longer needed to make Mister Ed "talk" after the first season--he simply did so when it came to time for his dialogue!

Rocky Lane remained as the voice of Mister Ed throughout the series. Mr. Lane was ideal for the role of Mister Ed's voice in that he was unemployed at the time the show began. The "B" Westerns had died in the early Fifties, leaving Mr. Lane with little employment beyond sporadic guest shots on such television shows as Gunsmoke, Cheyenne, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. As the voice of Mister Ed was required to work late hours throughout most of the week, an actor was needed who had no other jobs at the time. Being out of work, Mr. Lane had the necessary time to devote to Mister Ed.

Originally Rocky Lane wanted no credit for Mister Ed, somewhat embarrassed at being reduced from playing cowboys to playing the voice of a horse. Throughout the show's run, then, Mister Ed was simply billed as "himself". The result was that many children, and perhaps some adults as well, actually believed Ed could talk. Filmways continued to bill Mister Ed as himself while keeping the identity of his voice top secret. Eventually, once Mister Ed became a success, Rocky Lane wanted credit for the role. Filmways held Mr. Lane to his contract, however, giving him a large increase in pay instead. Mr. Lane happily accepted the increase in wages, and the identity of Mister Ed's voice remained a secret for years.

To compose the theme song to Mister Ed Arthur Lubin hired the songwriting team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. Messrs. Livingston and Evans were Academy Award winning songwriters, having written "Buttons and Bows" (From The Paleface), "Silver Bells" (from The Lemon Drop Kid), "Mona Lisa" (from Captain Carey, U.S.A.), Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)" (from The Man Who Knew Too Much), and many others. For television they had written the theme to Bonanza. For the first six episodes an instrumental version of the theme was used. Afterwards the familiar version in which the theme's lyrics are sung was used for the remainder of the show's run. It was composer Jay Livingston himself who sung the theme song. Initially he had agreed to do so until a professional singer could be found, but Filmways liked Mr. Livingston's rendition of the song so well that they kept it.

Mister Ed entered production in October 1960 and made its debut in first run syndication on 5 January 1961. The television industry was rather shocked and even embarrassed by the thought of a show about a talking horse. Of Mister Ed's entrance into syndication, Variety called it "...the freak sale of the month." Once Mister Ed had debuted, the critics were not kind. In a United Press International article published around 17 January 1961, Fred Danzig described the show as, "...a non-controversial, non-violent, ho-hum programme." Variety said of Mister Ed, "Maybe a talking horse is commercial, but there has to be more than an idea to put it across."Despite the industry's scepticism and the critics' derision, however, Mister Ed prove very successful in syndication. In nearly every market that showed it, Mister Ed regularly won its time slot.

The episodes of the first season set the pace for the five seasons to follow. A shift in Mister Ed's character took place within the first few episodes. Originally a crotchety old nag, Mister Ed was changed to a spoiled brat, the personality the horse would have for the rest of the show's run. Most episodes were then based around Mister Ed's misbehaviour (he eats Carol's vegetable garden in "Stable for Three"), placing Ed in an unusual situation (Ed becomes a football mascot in "Sorority Horse"), misunderstandings or disagreements between the characters (Ed becomes jealous of a stray poodle adopted by the Posts in "Ed the Stool Pigeon"), and Ed's various neuroses (Ed is scared of heights in "Psychoanalyst Show" and has numerous crushes throughout the show's run). In the show's first season various schticks were also established. Just as George Burns did on The Burns & Allen Show, Mister Ed breaks the fourth wall and makes asides directly to the audience. Sometimes Ed simply shares his opinion with the audience, other times he reveals his motives for some particular scheme, and yet other times he appears to be all knowing. Indeed, often Mister Ed appears to know that he is on a sitcom!

Ed also uses various signs to communicate with Wilbur, which he hanged on his stall door (an example is "Out to Lunch"). Mister Ed also had a phone in the stable, which he would use to communicate with the outside world (never letting them know he was a horse, of course). Finally, a recurring plot device was the means by which Carol would "punish" Wilbur when she was angry with him. She would send him to sleep in the stable or, if the matter was serious enough, she would go home to mother. Needless to say, Wilbur spent a lot of time in the stable.

After the end of its first season Mister Ed found itself in a bit of a quandary. Studebaker did not want to finance the show alone for another season. Naturally, Filmways turned to the networks, who proved as resistant to the series as they had before. This changed when CBS President James Aubrey expressed an interest in the series. Having researched the show and watched Mister Ed himself, Mr. Aubrey knew it consistently won its time slot in various markets around the country. Mister Ed was a show the general public seemed to like. Of course, it must also be pointed out that Mister Ed fit Mr. Aubrey's programming philosophy, which was generally towards escapist television shows. While James Aubrey was the network's president, CBS debuted The Beverly Hillbillies (1962), My Favourite Martian (1963), Gilligan's Island (1964), and various other escapist comedies. Of course, another reason for Mr. Aubrey's interest in Mister Ed may have been because CBS needed a show that would attract both children and adults in the 6:30 Eastern Time Sunday night slot.

It was then on 22 June 1961 that CBS officially announced that Mister Ed was moving to its network effective with the fall season. It would be sponsored by Studebaker and Dow Chemical. Mister Ed debuted on CBS on 1 October 1961 with an impressive 20 Nielsen share. For its second season it also received better reviews. It was considered "...a cute show in the family entertainment scheme" by TV Guide.

Aside from now airing on a network rather than in syndication, Mister Ed saw only one change in its second season. Barry Kelly joined the show in the recurring role of Carol's father and Wilbur's father in law, Mr. Higgins. An insufferable curmudgeon, Mr. Higgins believed his son in law to be a "kook" and constantly begged Carol to come home. He was also apparently quite wealthy. Curiously, even though Carol sometimes does "go home to mother," we never see Mrs. Higgins throughout the entire run of the show.

The second season saw a number of notable guest stars on the show. In "George Burns Meets Mister Ed," George Burns offers $25,000 to the person who can come up with an original novelty act for his show. Naturally Wilbur tries to convince Ed to try out for it. Zsa Zsa Gabor appeared as herself in the episode "Zsa Zsa", an episode also notable for receiving a 47 Nielsen share,the best that Mister Ed would ever do (it aired opposite an FCC hearing on NBC). Clint Eastwood, then the star of the CBS Western Rawhide, appeared as himself in "Clint Eastwood Meets Mister Ed", in which Mister Ed interferes with Mr. Eastwood's career after the star's horse steals Ed's fillie. Both Alan Hale Jr. and Donna Douglas, soon to star in CBS sitcoms of their own (Gilligan's Island and The Beverly Hillbillies, respectively), appeared in "Ed the Jumper".

Mister Ed proved to be a popular series on CBS, particularly with children. As a result Mister Ed saw some merchandising. Nineteen sixty two saw the manufacture of a Mister Ed Halloween costume, a Mister Ed Talking Hand Puppet from Mattel, another Mister Ed hand puppet (this one did not talk) from Knickerbocker, and a Mister Ed record album (which included the theme). Between them Dell and Gold Key published seven issues of a comic book entitled Mister Ed the Talking Horse. In 1962 there was also a Mister Ed Little Golden Book and from Whitman a Mister Ed colouring book. In 1963 Bantam collected the original Walter Brooks stories into a paperback anthology.

For its third season CBS moved Mister Ed to Thursday nights at 7:30 Eastern. The show itself changed very little from its first two seasons. One significant development was the first of many fantasy episodes in which Ed relates some moment in history from his point of view. In "Ed the Pilgrim", Ed tells the "real" story of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth. The series also continued the use of dream sequences, albeit sparingly. In "Dr. Ed", Ed dreams that he is a famous brain surgeon. The other roles in the dream were filled by Wilbur (Dr. Post) and Carol (Nuse Carol).

On 24 March 1963 CBS moved Mister Ed again, this time to Sunday evening at 6:30 Eastern. It remained there for its fourth season. The fourth season saw the biggest change in the show's entire run. Larry Keating (who played Roger Addision) died on 26 August 1963 from leukaemia. Edna Skinner continued to play Kay Addison for nine more episodes, teamed with Jack Albertson as her brother Paul in two episodes. Afterwards, Miss Skinner left the series. The Addisons were replaced by Gordon and Winnie Kirkwood, played by Leon Ames and Florence MacMichael. Gordon Kirkwood was a former Air Force colonel who acted as severe and orderly as if he was still in the military. Winnie was his none too bright and overly forgiving wife. Unlike Carol Post, she would never make her husband sleep in a stable. Leon Ames was the veteran of many films, among them Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), Meet Me in St. Louis. and The Absent Minded Professor. Florence MacMichael was a radio veteran who had acted with Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason. On television she had appeared on The Andy Griffith Show, Bonanza, My Three Sons, and many other shows.

The fourth season would feature more big name guest stars. By far the biggest was Mae West, whom Ed tricks into adopting him in "Mae West Meets Mister Ed". Magician Harry Blackstone appeared in "Ed the Shish Kebab", in which Wilbur attends a magician's convention.  Leo Durocher and Los Angeles Dodgers  Sandy Koufax, Johnny Roseboro, and Willy Davis appeared in the first episode of the fourth season, "Leo Durocher meets Mister Ed".

For Mister Ed's fifth season the show remained on Sunday evenings at 6:30 Eastern. Unfortunately this meant that Mister Ed was pre-empted for the whole of November by sports coverage. The show returned in December on Wednesday nights at 7:30 Eastern.

The fifth season also featured more notable guest stars. Abigail Van Buren apppeared in "Ed Writes Dear Abby," in which Ed asks Abby's advice about getting his own "bachelor's pad". Harold Gold appeared as a psychiatrist in "Ed the Pilot". Sebastian Cabot played the arrogant Professor Thorndyke in "Whiskers and Tails". Jon Provost of Lassie fame guest starred in "Jon Provost Meets Mister Ed".

For its sixth and final season CBS moved Mister Ed to 5:00 Eastern Sunday evenings. Of course, this meant that the show would be pre-empted much of November by sports coverage. It also meant that the show aired at a time when families were either sitting down for diner or participating in the usual Sunday, family activities (such as picnics, Sunday drives, et. al.). The sixth season also saw more changes in the show's cast. Leon Ames and Florence MacMichael left Mister Ed, so that the Kirkwoods no longer appeared. For the last five episodes Barry Kelly as Wilbur's father in law, Mr. Higgins, appeared in the role of gadfly to Wilbur and Ed. Had the show been renewed, it seems possible that Mr. Higgins would have become a regular member of the cast.

CBS cancelled Mister Ed during its sixth season, after only twelve episodes had aired. The last original episode, "Mister Ed Goes to College", aired on 6 February 1966. CBS continued to air reruns of Mister Ed in the 5:00 PM Eastern Sunday time slot until 4 September 1966. The cancellation of Mister Ed resulted simply from low ratings. In its early days Mister Ed received respectable, but moderate, ratings. It never ranked in the top twenty. These ratings dropped as a result of CBS's scheduling. First, CBS preferred to place Mister Ed in late afternoon, early evening, Sunday time slots, periods where it would often be pre-empted by football throughout November. Needless to say, this was not conducive to building an audience. Second, Mister Ed rarely kept the same time slot from season to season, sometimes changing time slots in mid-season. For example, in March 1963 Mister Ed moved from 7:30 PM Eastern on Thursday to 6:30 PM Eastern on Sunday. In December 1964 Mister Ed moved from that time slot to 7:30 PM Eastern on Wednesday. Finally, Mister Ed moved from that time slot to 5:00 PM Eastern on Sunday, perhaps the worst time slot for any series at the time. Not only was the show sometimes pre-empted by sports, but it aired a time when most Americans were engaged in other activities than watching television.

With the cancellation of the show, Bamboo Harvester officially retired. He was kept in the care of Les Hilton, and Filmways paid for his upkeep. There are two stories regarding his death in 1970. One is that he had developed arthritis and kidney problems, conditions which his vet said would only worsen with time. Another is that he broke his leg. Either way, Les Hilton consulted with Filmways president Al Simon and the horse's former owner Carol Ward and the three men agreed that Bamboo Harvester should be euthanised. At the time Bamboo Harvester was nineteen years old. As Mister Ed was still a very popular rerun in syndication, news of his death was not released to the press. Filmways realised that children across American would deeply grieve if they knew Mister Ed had died.

Ironically it was later reported that Mister Ed had died on 28 February 1979 in Oklahoma. In truth, this horse was not Mister Ed. Alan Young believes that the horse who died in 1979 might have been another palomino used by Filmways for publicity shots. Days later Janie Nicolaides, wife of Filmways Vice President John Nicolaidies and a friend of Bamboo Harvester all his life, set the record straight. Unfortunately the rumour that Mister Ed died in 1979 has persisted ever since.

While Bamboo Harvester died in 1970, the television show in which he starred has continued to air on television. In 1966 Mister Ed entered syndication as a rerun, where it has thrived ever since. By 1990 it was seen in fifty two countries and heard in eight different languages. Starting in 1985 Mister Ed aired for a time as part of the Nick at Nite line up. Currently Mister Ed can be seen on the Hallmark Movie Channel. Shout Factory has released the first five seasons of the show on DVD.

While Mister Ed was on Nick at Nite there emerged new Mister Ed merchandise. In 1987 Nick at Nite issued a Nick at Nite/Mister Ed t-shirt with the horse saying, "I want cable in my stable." In 1988 Nick at Nite issued a a Mister Ed Glue Holder. Nineteen ninety saw both Mister Ed coasters and postcards. Nick at Nite also developed several commercial parodies to promote the show, featuing such fictional products and services as "Mister Ed's After Shave", "Mister Ed's Salad Bar", and "Mister Ed Hoof Shaped Slippers".

Mister Ed's new upsurge in popularity due to Nick at Nite may have resulted in one of the strangest news stories of the Eighties. In April 1985 Jim Brown and Greg Hudson, two Fundamentalists from Ohio, claimed that the Mister Ed theme contained subliminal messages. In specific, the two preachers claimed that when the theme was played backwards the messages "The source is Satan" and "Someone sung this song for Satan," could be heard. Composer Jay Livingston said of the two ministers' claims, "The whole thing is complete nonsense. What they're saying is impossible. It's an innocuous little song."As might be expected, the very idea that the theme to Mister Ed contained any sort of subliminal messages was widely mocked in the press at the time and has been treated as something of a joke ever since.

The continued popularity of Mister Ed would result in a pilot based on Walter R. Brooks' stories, simply titled Mr. Ed, for the Fox Network in 2004. The pilot was written and produced by Drake Sather, who had also produced NewsRadio. Rather than using the names from the television show, this new pilot used the names from Walter R. Brooks' stories, Wilbur and Carlotta Pope. David Alan Basche was cast as Wilbur, while Sherilynn Fenn (perhaps best known for Twin Peaks) was cast as Carlotta. Sherman Hemsley, best known as George Jefferson on The Jeffersons, provided the voice of Mr. Ed. Fox did not pick up Mr. Ed for its fall schedule.

On 21 September 2012 Waterman Entertainment announced that they were developing a feature film based on Mister Ed. It planned to make the film using a combination of CGI and live action, so that an actual horse would not be cast as Mister Ed.

Beyond its initial success and its continued popularity, on the surface Mister Ed might not seem to be a very important show in the over all scheme of American television. After all, just how important could a show about a talking horse be? In truth, however, Mister Ed played a pivotal role in American television in the Sixties. It was one of the first shows to debut on CBS with James Aubrey as its president, and one of the first to exemplify his formula of purely escapist television. Mister Ed then paved the way for similarly escapist shows, such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, and Green Acres. The success that Mr. Aubrey had with escapist programming would result in rival networks NBC and ABC following suit with their own escapist fare. Much of the Sixties would then be dominated by escapist shows with little to no basis in reality. It was the decade of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Lost in Space, Batman, and The Monkees.

Not only was Mister Ed one of the first shows in the new breed of escapism that would dominate the Sixties, but it was the first fantasy sitcom of the Sixties, a decade that may have produced more fantasy sitcoms than any other. Mister Ed was then the forerunner of comedies ranging from My Favourite Martian to The Addams Family to Get Smart. Essentially, Mister Ed established that viewers were willing to watch a sitcom even when its premise was as outlandish as they come.

Not only was Mister Ed the first fantasy sitcom of the Sixties, but it could be argued that it was the first sitcom of the decade to utilise the premise of an ordinary person living with an individual who has extraordinary abilities. This particular type of sitcom was fairly common in the Sixties and included such comedies as My Favourite Martian, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie. While Ed's ability to talk may not have been as impressive as the witchcraft of Samantha on Bewitched or the magic of Jeannie on I Dream of Jeannie, it served much the same purpose on the show. In most episodes it was Mister Ed's ability to talk, something most unusual for a horse, that got Wilbur into and out of trouble. Along with the show Topper, then, Mister Ed can be considered the forerunner of Sixties sitcoms from Bewitched to Nanny & the Professor.

While at a cursory glance Mister Ed may not appear that important to television history, it actually was. It was among the first in a number of escapist shows that came to dominate television in the Sixties. It was also the first fantasy sitcom of the decade. Finally, it is arguably the same type of sitcom as My Favourite Martian and Bewitched, a sitcom in which an unusual individual turns the life of an ordinary individual upside down. While the premise of a talking horse might have seemed bizarre in 1961, it would not seem so for long.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Wet She Was a Star: The Late Esther Williams

Esther Williams, champion swimmer and movie star, died yesterday at the age of 91.

Esther Williams was born on 8 August 1921 in Inglewood, California. Her older brother, Stanton Willliams, acted in silent films as a child. He died in 1929 from a twisted intestine. It was that same year that Esther Williams, then eight years old, learned to swim. She counted towels at the local pool to get the nickel a day it cost to swim there. The male lifeguards at the pool taught her swimming strokes, such as the "butterfly stroke", then generally taught to only men. As a teenager she competed as part of the Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team. In 1939 she won the Women's Outdoor Nationals title for the 100 metre freestyle and also set the record for the 100 metre breaststroke. It would have been more or less guaranteed that Esther Williams would have competed in the 1940 summer Olympics had the games not been cancelled due to the ongoing World War II.

Miss Williams was working at  I. Magnin department store when showman and impresario Billy Rose hired her for his Aquacade show, then part of the Golden Gate International Exposition. She remained with Billy Rose's Aquacade until it closed on 29 September 1940. It was while Miss Williams was performing with the Aquacade that she was discovered by MGM. It was in 1936 that 20th Century Fox had signed Norwegian ice skater Sonja Henie and turned the three time Olympic gold medallist into a film star. Wanting their own athletic star in order to compete with Fox, MGM offered her a movie contract in 1941.

Once signed to MGM Miss Williams was required to undergo nine months of diction, singing, acting, and dancing lessons. Miss Williams made her film debut in 1942 in Inflation. Like many starlets signed to MGM she was given a role in one of the "Andy Hardy" films starring Mickey Rooney to test audience reaction to her. MGM received an overwhelmingly positive response to their new star. Esther Williams appeared in a small role in A Guy Named Joe (1943) before she received her first starring role in Bathing Beauty (1944).  For the remainder of the Forties she appeared in such films as The Hoodlum Saint (1946), Easy to Wed (1946), Fiesta (1947), This Time for Keeps (1947), On an Island with You (1948), Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), Neptune's Daughter (1949), Duchess of Idaho (1950), and Pagan Love Song (1950). She also appeared in the water ballet segment of Ziegfeld Follies (1945). During World War II she was one of the most popular pin up girls

The Fifties saw Esther Williams' career at its peak. During the decade she made some of her best known films, including Texas Carnival (1951), Skirts Ahoy! (1952), Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), Dangerous When Wet (1953), Easy to Love (1953), Jupiter's Darling (1955), and Raw Wind in Eden (1958). She also appeared on television, in such shows as Lux Video Theatre, The Donna Reed Show, and Zane Grey Theatre. In the Sixties she appeared in the films The Big Show (1961) and La fuente mágica (1963), and on television in The Bob Hope Show.

Following her marriage to Fernando Lamas Esther Williams retired from film. She would later introduce a line of swimwear, as well as give her name to a line of above ground swimming pools.

Comedienne Fanny Brice once said, "Esther Williams? Wet, she's a star. Dry, she ain't."And while there are many who would disagree with Miss Brice's  assessment of Miss Williams when she was dry, there can be no doubt that it was in the water where Esther Williams really shined. No one could swim like Esther Williams could. It was not a simple case that she could swim faster and farther than the vast majority of people. Esther Williams could do so with such grace that few dancers could manage on dry land. Indeed, it was Esther Williams' skill and talent as a swimmer that would lead to the creation of a whole new genre of film, the aquatic musical. The centrepiece of these musicals was always Esther Williams, who was featured in elaborate water ballet sequences, some of which were conceived by the legendary Busby Berkeley.

Of course, if Esther Williams had merely been a great swimmer, even as great as she was, it is doubtful she would remain well known today. Other athletes also had successful careers in Hollywood, but have long since been largely forgotten. The fact is that Esther Williams was not simply a great swimmer, but she exuded the same sparkle and charm as many of the other great stars of the Golden Age. It was this, in combination with her swimming skill, that allowed her to have a career that lasted nearly two decades and has allowed her to be remembered to this day. Quite simply Esther Williams was a singular star, an incredibly talented swimmer could also light up the movie screen.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The 80th Anniversary of the Drive-In Theatre

Today drive-in theatres are relatively rare. In fact, there are a few entire states that do not have even one drive-in theatre. Those that still do have only a few. This was not always the case. For a time in the 20th Centuries most Americans lived near at least one drive-in theatre, and often more than one. For a time drive-in theatres were a popular choice for entertainment for families and even those going on dates. It was 80 years ago today that the first drive-in theatre opened.

The drive-in theatre was the brain child of Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. of Camden, New Jersey. It was in the early Thirties that he started experimenting with showing films outside. He nailed a screen between two trees in his yard and placed a radio behind the screen. He then placed a a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car. After several such experiments he developed an idea that would make drive-in theatres feasible. It was 6 August 1932 that he applied for a patent for his idea of a drive-in theatre. It was on 16 May 1933 that he was awarded the patent,  U.S. Patent 1,909,537.

 The Automobile Movie Theatre opened on 6 May 1933 at  Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey.  The screen was 40 by 50 foot and the theatre could fit 400 cars. The first film shown at the first ever drive-in theatre was the 1932 Adolph Menjou feature Wife Beware. Although it was the first drive-in theatre, the Automobile Movie Theatre would not last. It closed after three years of operation. Despite this the idea of the drive-in theatre quickly caught on. In 1934 several more drive-in theatres opened in such diverse places as Orefield, Pennsylvania; Gavelston, Texas; Los Angeles, California; and Weymouth, Massachusetts. Even more drive-in theatres would open in coming years.

These early drive-ins did not necessarily provide an ideal viewing experience. At the original drive-in, the Automobile Movie Theatre, the speakers were mounted right beside the screen. The end result is that often those at the back of the theatre would have difficulty hearing anything, not to mention the fact that anyone living near the theatre could hear it as well. Fortunately, in 1941 RCA came out with the in-car speaker with individual volume control. It would not be long before other companies would follow suit. Needless to say,t his greatly improved the drive-in theatre experience.

It would be following World War II that drive-in theatres really began to take off. In 1958 alone there were over 4000 drive-in theatres across the United States. At their height drive-in theatres often offered things that one would never find in an indoor cinema. Many drive-in theatres had full fledged restaurants that offered more than usual movie concessions, serving up hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, and other food as well. Many drive-in theatres also had playgrounds complete with swing sets, slides, and merry-go-rounds. A very few even had petting zoos.

In the mid to late 20th Century most drive-in theatres showed somewhat different fare than many indoor cinemas did. In fact, B-movies comprised so much of what they typical drive-in theatre showed that the terms "drive-in movie" and "B-movie" became nearly synonymous. In 1956 it would have been highly unlikely for one to see The Ten Commandments at a drive-in, although one probably could see Hot Rod Girl or The Gamma People. Although for many today the words "drive-in theatre" bring to mind sci-fi monster movies and biker films, the types of movies shown by drive-in theatres did change over time. As the audiences for drive-in theatres shrank in the Seventies, many drive-ins took to showing outright exploitation films and even pornographic movies to remain afloat.

There were several reasons for the drive-in theatre's decline. The gas crises of the Seventies would reduce car usage in the United States, which naturally had an adverse effect on attendance at drive-in theatres. The growth of cable television and VCR ownership in the late Seventies and well into the Eighties would take a further toll on drive-in theatres. Drive-in theatres would further be hurt by the emergences of cineplexes and mall cinemas. By 1997 there were only around 825 drive-in theatres in the United States. In 2011 that number would be down to around 606 drive-in theatres.

Today only a few communities have a drive-in theatre relatively nearby. I am lucky enough to live near one, the Moberly Five and Drive located in Moberly, Missouri.  The Moberly Drive-In is actually historic in a way. It had actually closed in 1985 due to declining audiences. In the late Nineties not only was the drive-in reopened, but a cineplex was built on the site as well. Not only is the Moberly Five and Drive then one of the few drive-in theatres to come back from the dead, but it is also the first instance of a cineplex being built with the drive-in theatre as it focus.

The drive-in theatre offered a unique experience for movie goers, one that was very different from that to be found at an indoor cinema. At many drive-in theatres one could practically eat dinner while watching the movie, ordering hamburgers, fries, and drinks at the drive-in's restaurant. Drive-in also offered viewers a bit more freedom in their behaviour. Things that might be considered unacceptable in an indoor cinema (such as heckling the movie) were somewhat more acceptable at a drive-in theatre. What is more, because of the in-car speakers, one would not be disturbed by such behaviour on the part of one's neighbours as he or she would in an indoor theatre.

Sadly, America's remaining drive-in theatres are currently facing another crisis. Most theatres are converting from traditional movie projection to digital projection, a move which is very costly to make. Those drive-in theatres that cannot make the transition will most likely close in the coming years. As few drive-in theatres as there are now, there will likely be even fewer in 2023. Regardless, for many the drive-in theatre will remain a fond memory and for many others one of the defining phenomena of the mid to late 20th Century.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The 9th Anniversary of A Shroud of Thoughts

It was 9 years ago today that I started this blog, A Shroud of Thoughts. In the years 2004 to 2005 blogs had become a bit of a fad. While blogs had been around since the mid-Nineties (and, in fact, the word blog was coined in 1997), it was in those years that the media really began to take notice of them. In fact, the cover story of the 19 December 2004 issue of Time was "10 Things We Learned About Blogs". In the years 2004 to 2005 it seemed as if everyone was starting their own blog, including myself.

 A Shroud of Thoughts largely owes its existence to a lady friend of mine who had her own blog. It looked like fun, so I decided to start my own. At that time it seemed as if most blogs were titled with some variation on the word "Thoughts." I then took the phrase "A Shroud of Thoughts" as the tile of this blog. It comes from Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage canto iii stanza 113:

I have not loved the world, nor the world me;
I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bow'd
To its idolatries a patient knee,
Nor coin'd my cheek to smiles, nor cried aloud
In worship of an echo; in the crowd
They could not deem me one of such; I stood
Among them, but not of them; in a shroud
Of thoughts which were not their thoughts, and still could,
Had I not filed my mind, which thus itself subdued.

I have to confess that at the time I really did not know what the primary focus of my blog would be. In fact, in the early days I did sometimes write about things of a more personal nature. It was in the first few months that A Shroud of Thoughts took shape as a blog devoted to pop culture and nostalgia, and I stopped writing anything of a terribly personal nature almost altogether (aside from being a very private individual, I suspect people don't find my life that terribly interesting).

Over the years I cannot say that A Shroud of Thoughts has changed terribly much. At one time I reviewed recent films on a regular basis, although I made a conscious decision to cease doing so with a few exceptions. My thought is that A Shroud of Thoughts is at its best when dealing with nostalgia, and it's not as if there aren't plenty of blogs that do cover modern films. Another change is in the number of eulogies I write in this blog. Eulogies of recently deceased celebrities have been a part of A Shroud of Thoughts since the beginning, but sadly it seems as if they have increased greatly in the last several years as more and more legendary celebrities have died. While I know people like my eulogies, I'd actually be happy if I never had to write another one again!

As is usual on this blog's anniversary, I have compiled a list of what I think are its best posts from the past year.

120 Years Ago Basil Rathbone Was Born 13 June 2012

Hedy Lamarr, Geek Sex Symbol 12 July 2012

Why Norma Shearer is Significant 10 August 2012

Naming Names: The Rise & Fall of Confidential Magazine Part One  19 August 2012

Naming Names: The Rise & Fall of Confidential Magazine Part Two 20 August 2012

The Week of 09/16 to 09/23 (includes The 10th Anniversary of Firefly, Chuck Jones' 100th Birthday, and What a Character: Eddie Anderson)
The Great Gatsby on Film--They're Always Miscasting Daisy 25 September 2012

The Beatles & James Bond: 5 October 1962 5 October 2012

Bela Lugosi's 130th Birthday 20 October 1912

Ben Cooper & Its Competitors: The Folks Who Sold Halloween 24 October 2012 

The Gimmicks of William Castle 27 October 2012

The Golden Age of Christmas Movies? 21 December 2012

Perry Mason: The Case of the Disappearing Defence Attorney 11 January 2013

The Week of 01/13 to 01/20 (Contains A Tribute to Newton Minow on His Birthday, 121 Years Ago Today Oliver Hardy was Born, and Danny Kate at 100)

America in Monochrome: The Lack of Ethnic Diversity on American Television in the Sixties 30 January 2013

Who Was That Masked Man?: The Lone Ranger Turns 80 31 January 2013

The Week of 02/24 to 03/03 (contains The 70th Anniversary of George Harrison's Birth, Jim Backus' 100th Birthday, and The 80th Anniversary of King Kong)

The 75th Anniversary of Superman 18 April 2013

Harold Lloyd's 120th Birthday 20 April 2013

What Killed Bonanza? 25 April 2013

The 110th Birthday of Bing Crosby 2 May 2013

Bob Clampett's 100th Birthday 8 May 2013

The Loved One: The Motion Picture With Something to Offend Everyone 25 May 2013

Peter Cushing's 100th Birthday 26 May 2013

An Interview with Lyndsy Spence, Author of The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life 2 June 2013

Sunday, June 2, 2013

An Interview with Lyndsy Spence, Author of The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life

Few sets of sisters have ever attained the notoriety that the Mitford Sisters did. The daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and Sydney Bowles, they included a famous novelist (Nancy Mitford, author of the books The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, among others); an eccentric scientist's wife who preferred a quiet, rural life (Pamela Mitford); the controversial wife of a noted Fascist (Diana Mitford, a leader in the 30's social scene who married Bryan Guinness, 2nd Baron Moyne and left him for and later married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists); a Nazi sympathiser (Unity Mitford, best known for her friendship with Adolph Hitler); a muckracking journalist (Jessica Mitford, commonly known as Decca, whose book The American Way of Death shook up the American funeral industry); and a duchess (Deborah Mitford, the only surviving Mitford Sister, who married Lord Andrew Cavendish, later to become the 10th Duke of Devonshire). Always intersting and often provocative and even controversial, the Mitford Sisters remain famous to this day.

On 1 August 2013 in the United Kingdom and Europe and on 1 November 2013 in the United States The History Press Ltd is publishing a new book on the Mitford Sisters, The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life. It is the first book by author Lyndsy Spence. Miss Spence operates The Mitford Society, an online community devoted to the famous sisters, and the Margaret Lockwood Society, an online community dedicated to the legendary British film actress. With Adam D. Harris she wrote the screenplay for the film short "The Flower Girl", set to make its debut later this year. Following is an interview I conducted with Lyndsy Spence.

How does the Mitford Girls' Guide to Life differ from books on the Mitford Sisters published in the past?

First of all I will tell you how the idea came about, as that really is the basis of how the book came to be written. My friend had just read Letters Between Six Sisters and was full of Mitford lingo. I said, wouldn't it be great if somebody was to write a book in their language, i.e. 'I die for you', 'How Non-U' etc but do it like a Mitford A-Z of modern life. We laughed about it. And then as I read more and more about the girls, not just their own works but books by their friends and contemporaries I realised the Mitfords really were a unique project. I don't know anyone else who behaved like them. I think, maybe Daphne du Maurier and her sisters were quite similar in the way they had nicknames for everyone and lived in a sort of dream world, but the Mitfords really were unique. So I started reading more and more about them and I discovered how relevant their individuals stories were. I mean, you have all of the elements of modern life...and I looked at their individual lives in terms of the trivial aspects i.e. love, jobs, money, etc and decided I would write my own version of their life but divided into sections. So that is how my book differs. The original title was A Formidable Tease, but my editor persuaded me to change it to The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life.

How did you come to be interested in the Mitford Sisters?

I was about 16 and Love in a Cold Climate was on the telly. The original 1980s version. I watched it and immediately ordered Nancy's book. I read it and was sort of hooked, but at that time I had so many interests, mainly old film stars. A short time later Hitler's British Girl was on TV and I became interested again. Especially in Diana, she seemed so intriguing. I really only knew about Nancy and Diana. Until I watched The Lady & The Revamp, I really had little knowledge of the others, but after seeing Debo on the channel 4 documentary I was smitten. I've been trying to find out everything about them ever since!

Do you have a favourite Mitford Sister?

I like them all for different reasons. Of course, they have maddening traits but they also have moments of sheer genius. I have to say Unity annoys me, I found her letters to be very irritating, but I think we all have a Unity character in the family. I really became fond of Pam, the more I learned about her the more I thought she was terrific. Nancy is good for a laugh but I imagine she'd be quite a bad friend, but of those people who riles you but you can't help but like. I'm most interested in Diana, she's the most complex and causes the most discussion when her name is mentioned. I am interested in her 'behind the scenes' story.

How did you go about researching the book?

I read everything about them, I scoured their letters for small details and elaborated on that. I then made notes of what I wanted to discuss and filled in the blanks from their letters, essays...I wanted it to be in their own words. I then contacted Leslie Brody (author of Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford) who put me in touch with Dinky (Decca's daughter). My good friend Ste also did a lot of detective work which resulted in his friend telling me personal stories about Pam. Once people realised I was working on the book they started to come forward. It's a celebration of the girls, so info was fairly easy to come by. I also owe Fiona Guinness, whose father Bryan was married to Diana, a great deal. She gave me the bulk of the photos which are used in the book.

In your research did you learn anything new about the Mitfords that you did not already know?

Yes, I learned a lot about Sir Oswald Mosley and Diana, and that perhaps it wasn't a great love story. I can't help but feel she made a massive error in leaving Bryan. However, she was so restless and extremely young. Younger than me in fact when she ran off to be with him. Judging from the sociological aspects of the time, I can't help but feel she knew fairly early on it had to be all or nothing, so she chose to throw herself completely into Mosley's life. I also wonder if it hadn't been Mosley it would have been someone else. I also learned of Nancy's kinder side when she helped Jewish refugees during the war, and of Decca's real political leanings. I discovered that Unity was in fact barmy, and I also found out how loyal Farve could be to his daughters. I've used a lot of 1930s and early 1940s newspaper articles and interviews to highlight this.

Have you observed any differences between the American perception of the Mitford Sisters and the way they are perceived in the United Kingdom?

There are more Americans in The Mitford Society than British people. I think the Americans really go in for the aristocratic side of their story, but at the same time they have the same perception as British people on Diana. I can't help but feel Diana has been misquoted and vilified in the press. I am not defending her meetings with Hitler, but I have it on good authority that she did not say half of those infamous quotes about being unrepentant. I have it on tape from an archived interview where she said she was sorry for her actions and in hindsight she was foolish. It's in the book.

Why do you think the Mitford Sisters continue to fascinate people to this day?

I think it is because they are one part mythology (a media creation) and one part human. Nobody, who has not researched their lives in depth, will know the truth about them. They're so caught up in the trivia and media stories. And given their vast age difference, two different generations really, Nancy born in 1904 and Debo in 1920, they lived through every important event in the 20th century, had an opinion it, often a first hand experience, and as Joseph Dumas (friend of Decca and author of the foreword to my book) says, every event of the past century can be approached through the girls.

Are you working on any projects at the moment?

Yes. I now have an agent. I am represented by Diane Banks Associates and they're guiding my career. I have a first draft of a Margaret Lockwood bio but my agent has advised me to begin my latest project Mrs Guinness: The Rise & Fall of a Socialite which we both agree is a great follow up to The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life and then follow that up with the Lockwood biography. I would like to write fiction based in the 30s, that's something my agent is also anticipating.

The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life is available for pre-order on Amazon UK and Amazon U.S.