Friday, September 6, 2013

Godspeed Sir David Frost

Satirist, journalist, writer, and television personality Sir David Frost died 31 August 2013 at the age of 74. The cause was a heart attack.

Sir David Frost was born on 7 April 1939 in  Tenterden, Kent. As a child his family moved rather often, first from Tenterden to Kempston, Bedford, then to  Gillingham, Kent, and finally to Raunds, Northamptonshire. While young Mr. Frost excelled at both football (or "soccer" as Americans would call it) and cricket in school, he displayed a considerable talent for satire even then. He attended Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. There he met other would play a large role in the genre of satire in the United Kingdom of the Sixties: future comedian John Bird; future comic actress Eleanor Bron; future comedian Peter Cook (he would find fame as part of the comedy team Cook and Moore with Dudley Moore); and future theatrical director and author Jonathan Miller. While at Cambridge he edited the magazine Granata and was a member of the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club (most often simply called "the Footlights"). It was while he was a student at Cambridge that Sir David Frost made his first appearance on television. He appeared in a segment of f Anglia Television's show Town And Gown.

After leaving Cambridge Mr. Frost took a position with t Associated-Rediffusion. He supplemented his income by working in nightclubs. It was while he was doing an impersonation of then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan at the Blue Angel in London that he was discovered by  Ned Sherrin. Mr. Sherrin hired young Mr. Frost as the linkman for his new BBC satire series That Was the Week That Was. That Was the Week That Was debuted on 24 November 1962. That Was the Week That Was proved extremely successful and turned "David Frost" into a household name. When it was cancelled after two years it was not due to declining ratings, but instead to bypass any possible controversy in the months leading up to the 1964 General Election. An American version of That Was the Week That Was aired on NBC from January 1964 to May 1965. While Sir David Frost was not a regular on the American programme, he did write for some editions of the show.

Following That Was the Week That Was Sir David Frost appeared on another Ned Sherrin show, Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life. While the show lasted only a few episodes (cancelled due to sketches deemed to be offensive), Mr. Frost appeared in several more shows throughout the Sixties:  the comedy programme The Frost Report, the talk show The Frost Programme, the talk show Frost on Friday, and the comedy and talk show Frost on Sunday. In 1968 Sir David Frost signed a contract to appear in an American talk show, and The David Frost Show debuted in 1969. He continued to appear on British television for a time on Frost on Saturday.

In the Seventies Sir David Frost appeared in a new version of The Frost Programme. He also interviewed former United States President Richard M. Nixon in a series of specials called David Frost Interviews Richard Nixon. He also hosted the specials David Frost Presents the Guiness Book of World Records and David Frost Salutes the Beatles. In 1978 he was the host of another American television series, Headliners with David Frost.  In the Eighties Sir David Frost hosted the specials This Is Your Life: 30th Anniversary Special, David Frost Presents: The Fourth International Guinness Book of World Records, and That Was the Year That Was (an update of That Was the Week That Was). For only a few weeks he was an anchor on the American tabloid show Inside Edition. He was also the host of the political programme Frost on Sunday. Later retitled Breakfast with Frost, it ran until 2005.

From the Nineties into the Naughts Sir David Frost was the host of another incarnation of The Frost Programme, Talking with David Frost, and Through the Keyhole.

In the entirety of the English speaking world Sir David Frost may well have been unique. As anyone who has seen clips of That Was the Week That Was knows, he was a brilliant satirist. There was very little that was too sacrosanct for his razor sharp wit, so much so that the BBC was sometimes very uncomfortable with his programmes (indeed, it is why Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life was cancelled). Quite simply, Sir David Frost could be very funny while at the same making a point.

While Sir David Frost was a gifted satirist, he was also one of the best interviewers of all time. Indeed, Mr. Frost went head to head with such heavyweights as Henry Kissinger and Margaret Thatcher. He even did what many might have thought impossible, eliciting a grudging apology from Richard M. Nixon for the Watergate scandal. As an interviewer Sir David Frost could be friendly and personable, but, just as he was as a satirist, he could be fearless as well. Few trained journalists were as ever as good at interviewing individuals as Sir David Frost was. As a gifted satirist and talented interview, Sir David Frost was an entirely singular individual.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why Twitter Should Ditch the Blue Lines

I use HootSuite to access Twitter and as a result it is rare that I visit the Twitter interface. Yesterday I did so and I noticed something that looked very odd to me: blue lines connecting individual tweets. As it turns out, this is Twitter's new way of viewing conversations. Quite simply, most or all (if it is brief enough) of the tweets in a conversation are displayed together, linked by these blue lines, and in chronological order. It is unclear at the moment whether this is a permanent change or if it is simply an experiment Twitter is performing. Some people had the blue lines, only to have them to disappear and be replaced by the old way of viewing conversations. Others had different coloured lines from blue. Regardless, after reading several news articles on this new way of viewing Twitter conversations as well as doing an advanced search on Twitter, I learned that the vast majority of Twitter users hate the blue lines. I have to count myself among them.

From my standpoint there are two basic problems with Twitter's new way of viewing conversations. The first is that the Twitter has always been displayed in strict reverse chronological order. Twitter's new way of viewing conversations is in chronological order. This means that one will be reading his or stream in the usual reverse chronological order, only to hit groups of tweets (that is, conversations) that are in chronological order every so often. This is confusing enough for an experienced Twitter user such as myself. I can imagine how it would be for someone totally new to Twitter. It could discourage them from using Twitter entirely.

The second problem with Twitter's new way of viewing conversations is that it disrupts the stream. One will be reading one's stream only to have it interrupted by several tweets linked by a blue line. To me this makes the stream harder to read. The old way of viewing conversations, where one could simply click the "View Conversation" link beneath a tweet to do view a conversation, is much more user friendly and does not disrupt the stream at all.

It is for those reasons that I think it would be a mistake for Twitter to go forward with this new way of viewing conversations. While many have theorised that Twitter may see it as a way to attract new users, I think it would have the exact opposite effect. It would only serve to confuse new users and ultimately drive them away. For a company with an IPO coming up, this is hardly desirable. As it is changes to the interface have already driven some experienced users (I have no idea how many) to Twitter clients other than Twitter itself. I started using HootSuite as my Twitter client of choice after Twitter did away with the separate stream for "retweets". I can imagine that many more users would desert the Twitter interface for HootSuite, Twitscoop,Tweetie, and so on if they go forward with this new way of viewing conversations.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Alan Ladd at 100

It was 100 years ago today, on 3 September 1913, that Alan Ladd was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He would become one of the best known and most popular leading men of the late Forties and early Fifties. Indeed, he ranked as one of the top twenty box office stars in the Motion Picture Herald poll from 1943 to 1954, ranking in the top ten three times. He has maintained a following of fans to this day, nearly 50 years after his death on 29 January 1964.

While Alan Ladd would become one of Holllywood's top stars, he did not have a particularly easy time getting there. His father died when he was only four years old and his mother later moved the family to Oklahoma City. In Oklahoma City his mother married a house painter named Jim Beavers. When young Mr. Ladd was eight years old the family moved again, this time to North Hollywood, California. As a child Alan Ladd was not very big and as a result he was called "Tiny". Regardless, he proved a gifted athlete, proving particularly adept at swimming and track. In fact, he had planned on training for the 1932 Olympics, but was sidetracked by an injury. Of course, Mr. Ladd was also interested in acting and while at North Hollywood High School he performed in many of the school's productions. After graduation he pursued acting, working jobs ranging from gas station attendant to lifeguard. He even operated his own hamburger stand called  Tiny's Patio. For a time he was also a grip at Warner Brothers.

In his pursuit of an acting career Alan Ladd applied to Universal Pictures' acting school. He was thought both too blond and too short, but Carl Laemmle approved him for a "provisional trial contract" to study acting at the school. It was during this period with Universal that he made his film debut, in an uncredited bit part in Tom Brown of Culver (1932). Unfortunately, in the end Universal dropped him. Alan Ladd appeared in bit parts for the next few years, including a chorus boy in Murder at the Vanities (1934) and the Chief Quartermaster  in Hold 'Em Navy (1937). He found work in radio, working on the soap opera Jerry at Fair Oaks and Lux Radio Theatre.  He continued to play small parts in film in the early Forties, including a student pilot in the serial The Green Hornet, a storyboard artist in Disney's The Reluctant Dragon, and perhaps his most famous bit part of them all, a reporter in Citizen Kane. At the same time, however, his career was on the rise. His big break came in the form of agent Sue Carol, who signed him after hearing him on the radio.  With the 1939 film Rulers of the Sea, starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Margaret Lockwood, he had a somewhat more substantial role than he had in previous films.

It was with the film noir This Gun for Hire that Alan Ladd finally achieved stardom. In the film Mr. Ladd played one of film's first anti-heroes, the hit man Raven. Playing opposite Mr. Ladd was another actor of short stature, Veronica Lake. The two proved to be a good team, appearing together again  in The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946). Following This Gun for Hire the man that Universal had thought was too blond and too short would be one Hollywood's top stars. He made a number of successful films between the years 1943 and 1954, including The Glass Key (1942), The Blue Dahlia (1946),  Whispering Smith (1948), Captain Carey, U.S.A. (1950), and Shane (1953). As mentioned above, he was in the top twenty of the Motion Picture Herald poll of top box office stars every year from 1943 to 1954. What is more, he was a popular star outside the United States as well. From 1946 to 1951 he ranked in the top ten most popular stars in the United Kingdom. In 1954 he ranked #1 on the list.

Alan Ladd's status as a top box office star for eleven years can perhaps be best explained by his flexibility as an actor. Then as now, actors often played one sort of role and rarely strayed from it. Even at the height of his career however, Alan Ladd played a wide variety of roles. Raven in This Gun For Hire was an amoral hit man. In And Now Tomorrow (1944) he played Dr. Merek Vance, a physician who helps the poor. While Alan Ladd is well known for his films noir of the Forties, later in his career he began to appear more in Westerns. He played the railroad detective of the title in Whispering Smith (1948).  And, of course, his most famous film may well be Shane, in which he played the title character. Mr. Ladd even played Jay Gatsby in the 1948 version of The Great Gatsby and did rather well in the part. Alan Ladd could play nearly any role, from a U.S. Postal Inspector (Appointment with Danger) to a spy (O.S.S.) to a commoner posing as a knight (The Black Knight). What is remarkable is that he was convincing in nearly all of these roles. As an actor Alan Ladd was truly a chameleon.

Sadly, after leaving the studio where he had made his best known films, Paramount, Alan Ladd's career went into decline. The late Fifties and early Sixties he appeared in rather undistinguished films, such as The Proud Rebel (1958) and One Foot in Hell (1960). His role as Nevada Smith in The Carpetbaggers in 1964 could have led to a comeback, but sadly it was not to be. On 29 January 1964 Alan Ladd was found dead at the age of 50. The cause was a cerebral oedema brought on by alcohol and a mixture of three other drugs.

 While Alan Ladd has been dead for nearly fifty years now, he remains remembered for the many films made at the height of his career. As mentioned above, he was a talented actor capable of playing a wide variety of roles, everything from a hit man to Jay Gatsby. Mr. Ladd possessed a charisma that often carried over to his characters, making audiences often sympathise with characters who would not have been necessarily sympathetic otherwise.  On a personal note, I have to confess I have always liked Alan Ladd because he was a short man in a career where height is a valued commodity. While reports of his height vary,  5 foot six appears to be the most commonly cited. Regardless, he stood below the average height for men of the era, and yet he played gangsters, spies, and Western heroes. While this may not seem important to many, for young men self conscious about their height, it is something that is very good to know. Regardless, Alan Ladd was a remarkable actor of considerable talent. It should be little wonder that he had the success that he did and that he is still remembered today.