|Transcript of an Article on the Career of Michael Frith form the Bermudian Magazine.(Will eventually scan it so as to include the many illustrations).|
|Page 13, The Bermudian magazine, October, 2001.
Profile, by Rosemary Jones
| READING BETWEEN
Bermudian Michael Frith takes his passion for learning to TV.
LIONS ARE RUNNING AMOK ACROSS the television screen. But it's not your standard National Geographic safati special. this pride -a nuclear family called Theo, Cleo, Lionel and Leona- sports pigtails and caps, prowls a city library and plays host to a chorus line of oddball guests partial to monikers like Cliff Hanger, Makeba Mooncycle, Arty Smartypants and the crooning Vowelles. Oh, and something else sets these four felines apart: they seem tom have a ferocious appetite for, well, books.
If it all sounds completely absurd, blame Michael K. Frith. The Bermudian producer, designer, illustrator, editor and author is one of the creators of Between the Lions, the latest brainchild of an award-winning team well-known for similarly silly but landmark TV milestones, including Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock. Now in its second season on PBS, Between the Lions is aimed squarely at kids aged four to seven. But while its innovative puppetry, animation, live action and music add up to heaps of fun, the series also has a very serious mission: to help children to read.
"The idea in most TV these days is to be edgy and have conflict, to make the kids snarky and sarcastic, but we went into this saying, 'This is not who we are, it's not what we want to do and it's not what we want to say to kids,'" says Manhattan-based Frith, 60, in a recent interview at Prudens point, the historic Frith family homestead in Salt Kettle.
"Between the Lions is not sugar and spice, but it's not mean-spirited," he says. "That's one of the reasons (Muppets creator) Jim Henson always gave for the success of the Muppets. He said in everyone, old or young, there is an innocent place. The work we did then-and now-is really designed to reach that place. It doesn't mean you can't be irreverent or silly or blow things up, and all that stuff we did for years on The Muppet Show. But beneath it, there's always a sense of wonder and innocence, an ingenuous quality."
That magic ingredient has already won impressive national audiences and praise for Between the lions. Just a fewfew months out of the starting gate last year, the show was given the Television Critics Award for Outstanding Achievement in Childrens' Programming. That was followed by the Parents' Choice Gold Award, the New York Festivals' Silver World Award-not to mention seven Emmy nominations (of which the show won three). Lions bagged the Television Critics Award again this year. The kudos is gratifying for Frith and his colleagues at their nascent New York-based company, Sirius Thinking Ltd.,which produces the show with WGBH Boston. The early acclaim also points to yet another Juggernaut-in-the-making for Frith, whose passion for succesfully blending education and entertainment has inspired an enviable career that has led him from the Harvard Lampoon to Random House (where he collaborated with Doctor Seuss) to the heights of prime-time television, Disney Studios and Hollywood.
It may all seem a quantum leap from Bermuda's laid-back charms. Yet Frith-a tall, angular man, with the rich tones of a thespian and a penchant for anecdotes peppered with puns and off-the-wall impersonations-says the island has always served him as a touchstone, a timeout, a source of sometimes subliminal creative inspiration.
"On some level, Bermuda influences everything," says Frith, who spent his childhood and teen years here and now tries to return a few times every year. "I think there are places you find yourself in which for no reason you can explain have a kind of presence. I think Venice is like that. New York is like that. And I've always felt Bermuda is one of those places. It saddens me to see so much of it paved over. And I sometimes worry that one of my favourite things about Bermuda-the absolutely endemic sense of humour-is being leached away. But there is something wonderful about this place and its people and I can't imagine anywhere else on earth that has it. It's indefinable but it's definitely present."
On this particular day, Frith, his wife, Kathy-a puppeteer and director in her own right-and his grown son, musician Johnathan, and daughter Callee, a caterer and buisnesswoman, are engaged in a minor family gardening project: landscaping flower beds, clearing debris, planting sod and generally spring-cleaning at the antique-stuffed property that looks clear across the Great Sound. Frith's father, Alexander "Zandy" Frith, was born just 30yards down the road at Clebrig, another Salt Kettle gem.
"This," says Michael Frith happily,"is home."
FRITH'S EARLY CREATIVE URGES TOOK ROOT IN BERMUDA, where he grew up encouraged to pursue art, theatre and music and soon became accomplished at all three. It wasn't long before he parlayed his talents into a panoply of pocket-money jobs-as a newspaper cartoonist, a DJ, a magician's assistant, even a teenage TV show host on ZBM during the summer holidays.
"I've always been very involved in the media world," Frith admits."What I did most as a kid was draw. The first thing I had published was at age 11 : a poster for the summer stock theatre that used to play at the Bermudiana Hotel. I think my brother was in it, and he asked me to do the poster. The smell of that printer's ink never got out of my nose."
Doodles for newspaper ads led to a stint as a fifteen-year old cartoonist specialising in local bigwigs for the Mid Ocean News and Preview magazine. "I remember covering the (1957) Big Two Conference," he says, describing the official motorcade leaving Hamilton for Castle Harbour, carrying a cargo of world leaders. "The motorcade consisted of, the limo with the (U.S.) President (Eisenhower) and (Prime Minister) Macmillan. Then there was a bus full of reporters. And thenthere was me, aged 15, on a motorbike, with a press pass, praying no one would stop me and ask me how old I was."
In the summers, he began hanging out at the ZBM studio, fascinated by the buisness of broadcasting. "In retrospect, why this pesky kid wasn't thrown out, I don't know. Maybe I became a mascot or something,"says Frith with a laugh. "Eventually, they allowed me to spin some records, so I was disc-jockeying. Then I started with television."
By chance, a world-renowned magician, Englishman Bob Harbin, had come to Bermuda. A TV personality who had hosted a popular childrens' show in Britain, Harbin also drifted over to ZBM and soon struck up a freindship with the young Frith.