Stephen Fry’s speech at Lord’s

On the night before the Ashes test at Lord’s Stephen Fry gave a speech at a dinner – a wonderfully amusing love-letter to the game . I suppose it’s his copyright – but I’m sure he won’t mind me sharing it with you. As we know he’s pretty relaxed about people downloading his stuff – and fittingly, the text came to me via someone in the music industry..

Thank you ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much indeed. It is an honour to stand before so many cricketing heroes from England and from Australia and at this, my favourite time of year. The time when that magical summer sound comes to our ears and gladdens our old hearts, the welcome sound of leather on Graham Swann.

I have been asked to say a few words – well more than a few. “You’ve twenty minutes to fill,” I was firmly told by the organisers. 20 minutes. Not sure how I’ll use all that time up. Perhaps in about ten minutes or so Andrew Strauss would be kind enough to send on a a physio, that should kill a bit of time.

Now, many of you will be wondering by what right I presume to stand and speak in front of this assembly of all that is high and fine and grand and noble and talented in the world of cricket, and to speak too in this very temple of all that is historic, majestic and ever so slightly preposterous and silly in that world? I certainly can’t lay claim to any great cricketing achievements. I can’t bat, I can’t field, I bowl off the wrong foot. That sounds like a euphemism for something else, doesn’t it? “They say he bowls off the wrong foot, know what I mean? He enters stage left. Let me put it this way, he poles from the Cambridge end of the punt.” Actually as a matter of fact, although it is true in every sense that I have always bowled off the wrong foot. I have decided, since Sunday, to go into the heterosexual breeding business. My first three sons will be called Collingwood Fry, Anderson Fry and Monty Fry. That’s if their mother can ever get them out, of course. But back to the original question you so intelligently, if rhetorically, asked. If I can’t play, what can I do? I can umpire, I suppose, after a fashion. A fashion that went out years ago around the time of those two peerless umpires, perhaps some of you are old enough to remember them, Jack Crapp and Arthur Fagg. I remember them. I remember them every morning, as a matter of fact: Crapp and Fagg. Though now, sadly, the law says we can no longer do it in public places. And I believe that may even apply to smoking too. Anyway. We were on the subject of why I’m speaking to you. I don’t play. I’m not even a cricketing commentator, journalist or writer. I suppose the only right I have to be amongst you, the cricketing élite, might derive from my being said to represent, here in the Long Room, all those who have spent their lives loving the game at a safe distance from the square. It is love for the game that brings me here.

In the forty-five years that I have followed cricket, I have seen it threatened from all sides by the horrors of modern life. The game has been an old-fashioned blushing maiden laid siege by coarse and vulgar suitors. A courtship pattern of defence, acceptance, capitulation and finally absorption has followed. When I started watching, A. R. Lewis played for and captained England as an amateur. The game could never recover surely, from being forced, against the will of many of those who ran this place, being forced to become solely a professional sport? I am just old enough to remember too the Basil D’Oliveira affair in all its unsavoury nastiness: the filth of racism and international politics was beginning to stain the pure white of the flannels. The one-day-game appeared, shyly at first. The balance of bat and ball, essential for cricket to make any sense as a sporting spectacle, became threatened, everyone agreed, by the covering of wickets which would privilege batsman, and then that necessary equipoise was threatened the other way by the arrival of extreme pace and the pitiless bouncer. The look and style of cricketers was apparently forever compromised by helmets and elastic waisted trouserings hideous to behold. Cane and canvas pads were replaced by wipe clean nylon fastened by Velcro. Kerry Packer arrived and sowed his own blend of discord. The continuing rise and mutation of one day cricket caused panic from Windermere to Woking as white balls and coloured pyjamas threatened the sanity of Telegraph readers everywhere. Rogue South African tours caused alarm and frenzy. Pitch invasions marked an end of the days when schoolboys could lie on their tummies by the boundary-rope filling in a green scoring book, until they got bored which they inevitably did, all except the speccy swatty ones who were laughed at and are now running the world. The rest of us were too busy asking the man in the Public Announcement tent to put out a message for our lost friends Ivor Harden, Hugh Janus, Seymour Cox and Mike Hunt. One turbulent decade began with John Snow getting barracked and bombarded with tinnies and ended with batsmen getting bounced and sledged. Cameras and microphones got closer and closer to the action to overhear the insults and demystify the bowling actions. The art of spin had disappeared, for ever, some believed. Cricketers wives wrote books about the overseas tours. Reverse swing seemed to arrive out of nowhere : “Not only does he bowl off the wrong foot. They say he swings it the other way.” Ball tampering became a matter of dinner party chat from Keswick to Canterbury . Clever 3-D images were painted on the grass round about the long stop area advertising power generation companies no one had ever heard of. Advertising was not only to be seen on the grass, but on the clothes, Vodafone and Castlemaine were stitched bigger and brighter on the shirts than the three lions and the wallabies and that mysterious silver feather that Kiwis seem so unaccountably fond of.

The county game was rent asunder into leagues and divisions that no one really understands; the politics and governance of cricket, with its contracts and coaches, its bloated fixture lists and auctions of broadcasting rights caused hand-wringing too, though many would rather it were neck-wringing.

Meanwhile, drugs, drinking binges, embarrassing text messages and other scandals continued to erupt like acne on a teenager.

South Africa returned to the fold as other countries entered the club of test playing nations. Kenya, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.

Two of those speccy boys who used to score at the sidelines got their revenge, their names were Mr Lewis and Mr Duckworth.

To the dictionary of acronyms and initials were added ODI, T-20 and IPL. Power plays and baseball style pinch-hitters were swept in. The old lady of cricket was getting a right duffing up.

Yet, amazingly, none of these changes, professionalism, the covered wickets, helmets, day-night games, confirmed the dire prognostications of those who believed each one might hammer a stump into cricket’s fragile heart. For this same period of my cricket watching life saw some of the greatest matches in the game’s history. The 1981 and 2005 Ashes series, the Tied Test; a new aggression and boldness of stroke play that no one could disapprove of. Scoring rates went up and great batsmen emerged: Lara, Tendulkar and Ponting amongst many others. And miraculously, to keep the game balanced, Warne and Murali showed that far from being dead, spin bowling was supremely alive; even providing a new ball in the form of the doozra. Huge crowds and rising popularity in fresh territories confirmed cricket’s health. Levels of fitness and standards of fielding rocketed. And all the while, the game’s greatest expression, the 5 Day Test Match, led the way, providing the greatest entertainment, the most excitement and the deepest commitment from the players. All those mournful predictions had come to nothing. The greatest of games had triumphed again.

But now, now, in the age of the internet, just as the great, great players of the past ten years have one by one started to play their farewell matches and leave the field for ever, hideous new forces have been at work. The newly emerged South Africa became mired in scandal, intrigue and misery as the new disease of spread-betting lived up to its name and spread, spread like cholera through a slum. Grotesque emails from professional umpires hit the headlines; allegations of systematic cheating and match-fixing have become commonplace, a dismal and lamentably organised Shop Window for international cricket, its 2007 World Cup seemed to lay the game low: an incomprehensible and dreadful tragedy in the death of Bob Woolmer its ghastly and unforgettable legacy. As if that weren’t enough we were more recently treated to the embarrassing spectacle of cricket’s governors cosying up to a Texan fraudster with a helicopter and a bigger mouth than wallet.

A new kind of bitterness has entered some quarters of the game as ex-players become commentators, columnists and journalists and begin to turn on their erstwhile teammates, dispraising the current players, pouring scorn on their technique and deprecating their tactical nous. We have video of course and can see that these pundits know what they were talking about: historical archive reveals that Boycott, Botham, Gower, Atherton, Willis, and Hussein were never out playing a false shot, never shuffled across, never missed a captaincy trick, never dropped a catch, never posted a fielder in the wrong place and never bowled off line or off length in the entire course of their careers.

The benefits and the drawbacks of broadcast technology bewilder us. Hotspots and Hawkeye, referrals and replays, umpires have never been more pressured and exposed and greater more seismically structural questions have never been asked about the meaning and spirit of the game. The rewards are greater, the stakes are higher, the price of failure more public and humiliating.

So a hundred years on from cricket’s Golden Age of C. B. Fry here is another Fry, searching for a way to toast a game that appears to have become … well, toast.

We could choose to believe that and retreat into memories of an apparently innocent and gilded past. We could wash our hands of it all, or we could choose to continue to believe in the game. Not necessarily in its administrators, nor even its players, though most of them in all divisions of the game are proud and gifted. We could choose to have faith in cricket. I for one do truly believe that the game itself, as first played by shepherds in the south of England, the game that spread to every corner of the world, the supreme bat and ball competition, the greatest game ever devised, will continue to provide unimagined pleasures, that true drama will once more come centre stage, booting into the wings the tragedy and farce we have witnessed over the past decade in particular. There will be new scandals of course: that you can depend upon. Undreamt of debacles, imbroglios, furores, brouhahas, crimes, rows, walk-outs and embarrassments are waiting around the corner, quietly slipping the horseshoe into the boxing-glove and preparing to give the goddess Cricketina a sock in the jaw. But new geniuses, new historic last ball climaxes, new unimaginable heights of athletic, tactical and aesthetic pleasure await us too. It is up to the players to believe in the game and the cricketing administrators to believe in the players. But most of all it is up to us to keep the faith and be unashamed, be proud of our love of cricket. Here, in the very place that is so often called cricket’s Mecca, cathedral and temple, is the place for us all to pledge that faith. I do so happily as I raise a glass in toast, on behalf of cricket lovers everywhere to Andrew Strauss in his Benefit Year and his wonderful Team, to Ricky Ponting and his fine tourists and to cricket itself. For, to misappropriate Benjamin Franklin, Cricket is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. So then: raise your glasses, to Strauss, England, Australia and cricket.

Fun with phones

Last week we made a video for the BBC website comparing the two hot new phones – the latest iPhone and the Nokia N97. It was the latest in a series of web videos we’ve made about new gadgets, the first and most successful example being a comparison of the original iPhone with the Nokia N95. On that occasion, Darren Waters had the iPhone, while I used the N95.

This time, with Darren away, I went solo, showing off both phones. So here’s the result:

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So how was this done? Well it was mainly down to the creative efforts of two people – cameraman Neil Drake and producer Jonathan Sumberg. (Though, as I keep telling Jonathan, it was all my idea.) First, we found a photographic studio in the basement of TV Centre with a simple white background. Then Neil set up a locked off shot, and got me to record one set of links on one side of the shot with the iPhone, then another set with the N97 on the other side.

Then came the really difficult part – the edit. Jonatahan spent a whole day – while trying to produce a piece I made about the Digital Britain report – fiddling with Final Cut Express to merge the two shots together and produce a coherent whole. I shouted at him a bit while he was distracted from his main task, but I have to admit that he did a pretty smart job, considering it was his first edit for broadcast – or at least for the web. Here’s a grab from the edit:

Phones Final Cut

The piece got a lot of views online and we were quite pleased with it it. Then 36 hours later, when I was on a ferry to the Isle of Wight for another story, I took a call from the Ten O Clock News. Could I do a piece for that night about the battle of the smartphones? After a bit of head-scratching we managed to cobble something together, using the beginning and end of the smartphone video, plus some material shot on the Isle of Wight ferry. Including this piece to camera, filmed on an iPhone 3GS.

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So what’s interesting about all this? Well this is the kind of video which would not have been made 5 years ago, because the treatment would have been seen as too wacky and the subject too obscure for a mainstream bulletin. But now we can try out slightly off-beam idas online – and then, if they fly, get them on to mass-audience bulletins.

The Chinese Umbrella Trick – great web video

We spend a lot of time at the moment at the BBC talking about what does and doesn’t work as web video. There’s general agreement that the standard video package – what you would normally see on the main TV news bulletins – isn’t usually ideally suited to the web. It aims to tell the general viewer the basics of a story, whereas we think the web visitor is probably looking for something more.

This piece from James Reynolds, the BBC’s man in Beijing, looks to me exactly what works best on the web. He’s not trying to tell the whole Tiananmen Square story – just illustrating what happens when a Western correspondent tries to get into the square right now. It’s both informative and amusing – and it plays to the strengths of TV, telling a story with pictures.

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From Ullapool to Alston

Last week saw me in two lovely parts of Britain – the town of Ullapool on the far north west coast of Scotland, and Alston in Cumbria, which boasts that it is the highest market town in England. I was in Scotland for a relaxing family holiday – we had rather dodgy weather while the rest of the UK was basking in sunshine, but we did manage to eat some very good fish and chips, spot a seal in the harbour, and climb a small mountain, Ben Mor Coigach. Well, at least one member of the party got to the top.
View from the top

Then it was on to Alston for work – our long-planned broadband notspots story. My colleague Jane Wakefield from the BBC website’s technology section came up with this idea earlier this year, and we decided to make it into a TV, radio and the web extravaganza. I wanted this to be a preview of one of the key issues in the upcoming Digital Britain report – just how many people will have to be covered by the government’s promise of a minimum 2mbps broadband service for all. We asked the website to come up with a figure and a map, which could provide the news peg for our coverage. We’d sold the idea to TV and radio news outlets, so needed to give them some news as well as a feature.

I chose Alston as the place for our live broadcats for two reasons – it has a long-running community broadband network which is now moving up a stage by laying fibre along country roads, and yet there are quite a few nearby homes where they struggle to get any broadband, let alone 2Mbps.

The figure produced by – as many as 3 million homes in the UK unable to get 2Mps – and their map arrived a few days before we set off on our trip. We struggled to make sense of it in TV terms – the researchers at samknows had done a vast amount of work, but the map was slightly confusing. The spots – blue for under 2mbps, red for under 0.5mbps – represented each postcode they had sampled, but as they could not test every postcode in the UK, it meant that in between were vast amounts of white space, where it wasn’t clear to the untutored eye what was happening. Did that represent broadband no-go areas – or places where you could get a fast connection? In fact, all that meant was that we could not say what speeds were like there – we just knew what was happening where there was a dot.

Notspots map

Still we did manage to turn it into a TV graphic, which we took with us to Cumbria. The trip involved myself, Neil Drake, a multi-skilled cameraman, editor and engineer, and Jonathan Sumberg, who is an extraordinarily imaginative producer – also a very stylish dresser, extraordinarily erudite , and a man of the most delicate sensibilities.

We spent Tuesday filming in and around Alston. First, we visited a family twenty miles away, the Shaws, who could only get dial-up and were very frustrated about it. Their comments about the pianful process of spending five minutes to watch Facebook load ended up being the key sequence of our report.
The Shaws - life in the slow lane

Then we headed off to meet Jules Cadie, who lives in a remote farmhouse but can get broadband, beamed to him via wimax from the Cybermoor community network. Then Daniel Heery from Cybermoor took us off to see a house having a mast installed and his team laying fibre on a country road. That’s where we recorded this video, to run on the website.
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Tuesday ended with us in a hotel bedroom, editing our 2’30” television package to run from breakfast the next morning. We got it cut and sent via broadband to London by 2300.

Then at 0500, the alarm went off and we headed to the market square in Alston to begin a long day of live broadcasting for Breakfast, BBC World, the Today programme, 5 Live, and every TV news outlet up until the Ten O Clock News.

We were a lttle nervous because we were trying something pretty tricky – broadcasting live over the Cybermoor community broadband network, rather than using a BBC satellite truck. Daniel Heery from Cybermoor and Hugo Raddon, his technical whizz, had done us proud, putting up a wifi mast on the market square to gather the signal from another mast on a hill and beam it to us. But it was Neil who had to make it work, and he went about it in his usual calm and professional manner.
Neil Drake - making it happen

Using a piece of software called vPoint – more commonly used in war zones – we got on air without a hitch all morning. And as long as I didn’t move too rapidly, the picture looked pretty good on air. Midway through the day, I recorded this little snippet of video showing the cast of thousands involved in this live broadcast:

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We spent weeks planning this broadband day, which also included contributions from reporters around the world. You can see some of their work here on an interactive map on the BBC website. And Jane Wakefield, who is now one of Britain’s leading experts on broadband , has put out a whole lot more interesting material, including this piece on a place very near to London where people still can’t get a decent connection.

There is always a danger when you plan something weeks in advance that it gets swept away by some breaking news story. Luckily for us, Wednesday turned out be a quiet news day in the UK, so our story ran all day and made plenty of impact. The notspots story was the most-read item on the BBC website, and the research we commissioned was quoted by a whole range of people, from the Lib Dem MP for Inverness to the Country Landownsers Association. So, all in all, a successful week out of the office. But Jonathan thinks we’ve done the Broadband Britain story now – he has set his sights on something more ambitious. He’s volunteered to go and recce Broadband Bermuda – and has said he’s happy for me to check out Broadband Baghdad. He’ll be right behind me – in the office.

The art of editing

I wrote here a week or so back about making a technology story into television and stressed just how important picture editors are these days in making television news pieces . In my view, they are becoming the key creative forces in television news, with digital editing setting them free to try out all sorts of ideas.

When I took that post, slightly adapted, and put it on the dot life blog there were plenty of comments from people who seemed to think that the last thing you needed in television was decent pictures and clever ways of illustrating complex stories.

Perhaps I didn’t explain myself very well – but here’s a video which might do it better. It is an insight into what a picture editor does by an award-winning craftsman Bill McKenna. I particularly like what he says about the distractions of having a correspondent and a producer gossiping in the background.

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Turning tech into telly

You will often hear these days that television news ain’t what it used to be, that there was a golden age, say twenty years ago, when it was a much more intelligent and useful medium – and of course far more people watched it. Well as someone who’s been in the TV news trade for more than two decades, I say don’t believe it – yes the audiences have declined but the standard of the product is much improved.

I’ve had occasion recently to haul out of the archive some old TV news pieces to show to journalism students. They were, quite frankly, lame – as the students themselves pointed out. One in particular, about a major economic crisis of the early 90s, was hopeless in telling a complex but important story. It consisted of long swathes of what’s known in the trade as wallpaper – meaningless shots of Westminster and ministerial cars driving past – covered with commentary and interspersed with clips of politicians.

Economics was a subject I used to cover and I must admit that many of my reports were as bad, or worse, than what I showed the students. Economics and business stories have always been a challenge to turn into television. I have on occasion told one of our senior editors who trains newcomers to the newsroom that he needs to tell them less about using pictures to describe wars, earthquakes and other dramatic events and more about how you turn the demise of the final salary pension-scheme into a compelling TV news report..

Anyway, all that is a preamble for some thoughts on my current preoccupation – turning technology into television, which is, believe it or not, almost as big a challenge. Mobile phones, computer screens and endless shots of websites make for very dull pictures – and then you have the problem of getting techie people to talk in terms that will mean something to a mass audience.

But the advantage I have today is that while I may not have moved on that far, the creative people I work with – producers, camera operators and picture editors – certainly have. So here’s an example.
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Last week I decided to try to sell a story to the TV news bulletins on the future of web search, linked to the upcoming launch of the Wolfram Alpha “computational knowledge engine”. This was obviously going to be extremely hard both to sell to editors during a busy news period, and to film. I wanted both Wolfram and Google in the piece, and while both are fascinating subjects, each is in picture terms very dull.

Then there was arranging an interview with the main protagonist, Stephen Wolfram. He was in Illinois, and I didn’t think our World News department would think it was worth the cost of sending a crew there.
Instead, after long discussions with Wolfram’s PR people, we arranged to chat with him over the internet, which gave us some pictures as we filmed the call from our end. The problem with an internet video call is always the quality – of the audio more than the video. But Wolfram Research agreed to record the interview at their end, and then send it to me, as a thirty minute 1.8Gb file. Luckily, I was working with Doug Dalgleish, a cameraman who is also a technical whizz, and he managed to make everything work.

Stephen Wolfram is a brilliant and enthusiastic evangelist for his vision of the future of search – but getting a 15 second clip from our interview to use in a two minute TV news piece was a bit of a struggle. (We did make more of the interview available on the web).

Google was somewhat easier – we were able to go long to their funky London offices and interview a senior executive Mario Queiroz about where search was heading. Still desperate for pictures, we shot a sequence of him using the new Google Squared product and me using Wolfram Alpha to answer the same queries. In the Google lobby the most popular search terms currently being entered by its global users are projected onto a wall – so that made a nifty location for my piece to camera, linking between the two sections of the report.

But when on Monday we came to edit the piece, we were still faced with a desperate dearth of interesting pictures. Riding to the rescue came Nick Tulip, our picture editor. Cutting film and later video together has always been a skilful activity, but the arrival of digital editing, allowing all sorts of effects, has transformed the craft and Nick is amongst the very best and most inventive of the new breed.

I decided that we shoud illustrate the type of question that Google found hard to answer – how far is the earth from the sun at this moment, how is the population of India growing compared with that of China, how far is it from London to Glasgow? Nick pulled some pictures out of our digital archive, and superimposed a Google search box image over them. He then set about making two rather dull websites somehow look interesting, with the aid of some of Doug’s imaginative shots of the Google offices.

The result was by no means a masterpiece and, like all TV news reports, could only scratch at the surface of a complex subject but Nick, Doug and I were all pretty satisfied with our work. But here’s the irony. Monday was a very busy news day in the UK with all sorts of stories – the Speaker row, the conflict in Sri Lanka , England’s World Cup bid – and our report did not make it onto the domestic news bulletins, though it was shown on BBC World.

So in my view we are now able to tell complicated stories much more effectively on television. But, in a busy world, where politics, business and sport are vieing for viewers’ attention, getting them broadcast is another matter. Luckily we now have something that was not available to TV journalists two decades ago, the web, so even something that doesn’t make it to air can find a lasting home online.

Fry at Bletchley

On Monday this week I went to Bletchley Park, invited by the Trust that runs it to come along and meet Stephen Fry, who was there for lunch and a private visit.
It turned into a big social media event – which I blogged about on dot life the following day.

The Trust had also invited Dr Sue Black, who has done so much to promote awareness of the wartime coding and the need to preserve it properly for the nation, and Christian Payne (aka @documentally) an insanely keen exponent and apostle of social networking and everything new tech. Christian had been so impressed on a vist at the end of last year that he set about showing Bletchley how to strut its social media stuff – and he put that in to action suring Stephen Fry’s visit. In fact, the whole event turned into an online extravaganza – @stephenfry, @Dr_Black, @documentally, @ruskin147 and @bletchleypark were all tweeting. Both Christian and I were also recording AudioBoos. Here are a few of them.

I recorded Tony Sale talking to Stephen Fry about Tunny – the machine used by the Germans to send high-level messages.

And Christian recorded me interviewing Stephen towards the end of his tour.

Christian has put a set of his excellently shot photos
on Flickr.

One Enigma examines another

I have put three or four completely rubbishy, iphone pix up as well, the best of which is shown above – but far better to go and look at Christan’s.

But I also shot some video as we were goiing round, which is much better. It’s right here.

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t to Ble