He explored Sherwood Forest ... and now explores the world (sort of)

When I first started writing about the iffy concept of cable-TV, some of the first stories were about "Explorer."

The show began in 1981, at a time when made-for-cable shows were rare and cheap; at first, it simply bought and packaged world documentaries. It went from TBS to Nickelodeon (a couple of the earliest channels, created in 1976 and '77) to MSNBC and then found its natural home, on the National Geographic Channel.

The show vanished for five years, returned ... and is now making an ambitious transformation. The new version debuts Monday (Nov. 14) and reruns Friday. Here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

If you grow up in
Robin Hood turf, you might start to think anything is possible.

For Richard Bacon,
it has been. After a string of successes (and one scandal) in England
and some sputtering in the U.S., he now has his big moment – taking
over as the host of “Explorer.”

“I think this has
turned out to be the best thing in my career,” he said.

Here is a show that
began three decades ago. It's been hosted by an actor (Robert Urich),
singer (Tom Chapin), filmmaker (Lisa Ling) and even an actual
explorer (Bob Ballard, who found the Titanic).

And now it returns
with the best spot the National Geographic Channel has – 10 p.m.
Mondays, with the first six weeks tucked neatly after the epic “Mars”

“Explorer” will
go from here to Timbuktu ... literally. In the opener, stories range
from a Timbuktu librarian (who rescued books and artifacts from the
al-Quaida) to funerals in a town in Indonesia.

The latter custom
“involves keeping their dead around for a number of years before
they bury them,” Billie Mintz said. Then “they have a ritual in
which they sacrifice lots of animals for the funeral.”

For Mintz, reporting
the story involved a 52-hour journey (three planes and a tricky
mountain drive) and other obstacles. “I've never had the fear of
slipping on blood before.”

Coming up are some
stories that are thoroughly serious, including the harsh training of
British teachers to spot terrorists. “You've got a 4-year-old who
said the word 'cucumber' wrong,” Francesca Fiorentini said. The
“teacher thought he said 'cooker boom' and the kid gets
interrogated for an hour.”

And some stories
that aren't nearly as serious, including a beer pipeline in Belguim,
leading to less-dire fears. “If there's a spill,” reporter Jena
Friedman said, “a couple ducks will get drunk.”

Bacon's reaction to
that story? “Any facility that gets beer to people quicker, I'm all
in favor of.”

That's part of his
function, to be serious when the story calls for it – including
interviewing activist Erin Brockovich in the opener – and light
when it doesn't. His background prepared him for both.

Robin Hood was
fictional, but “Sherwood Forest is very real,” Bacon said. He
grew up in Mansfield, alongside it. Just down the road were
Nottingham and a 12th-century castle of King John; in the forest,
kids would imagine that an ancient tree was one where Robin Hood

This was a place
where they could dream big things; “I just found it intoxicating,”
Bacon said. As a teen-ager, he was on BBC Radio Nottingham; at 21, he
became host of “Blue Peter,” a kids' TV show ... then was fired
18 months later, when a tabloid paper showed him using cocaine and

That was almost half
his life ago. At 40, Bacon comes across as a stable chap – married
for eight years, with two kids, ages 5 and 2 – who also has a
strong sense of fun. He's hosted a huge list of TV and radio shows in
England and moved with his family to California.

That's the same
risky move that's been made by other Englishmen, including James
Corden. “James and I came in the same week,” Bacon said.

Corden promptly did
movies and became CBS' late-night hot; Bacon merely scrambled.

He landed an
on-location interview show right away, he said, “but it took me a
lot longer to get my (work) visa straightened out than I thought.”
The show vanished.

Mostly, he kept
landing work back home. “I was commuting from Los Angeles to

Now he commutes from
L.A. to NewYork. In a new studio, he has a new version of an old

One of the first big
cable shows, “Explorer” began in 1985, 15 years before the
National Geographic Channel was born. It's been on five channels,
disappeared for a five-year stretch, returned last year, and now has
transformed into a hugely ambitious, weekly show. “It has a bit of
everything,” Bacon said.

Hosting it seems to
be almost as much fun as Robin Hood's job ... and, perhaps, a lot
less dangerous.

-- “Explorer,”
10 p.m. Mondays, National Geographic; opener (actually at 10:01 p.m.,
Nov. 14) reruns at 1:01 a.m. and then Friday at 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.

-- Each of those
hours is preceded by the “Mars” opener (9 p.m. Monday) and its



These are the people who (sometimes) turn music into magic

What does a record producer do? Well, sometimes Phil Spector would be a commanding general, creating his "wall of sound" ... or Linda Perry would be trying to convince Christina Aguilera that raw-and-simple is best. Sometimes George Martin would let the Beatles blast; and sometimes he'd let them toy around for days.

It's all part of the producing world, featured in a new PBS series.At a couple Television Critics Association sessions, the music masters talked about it; here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

Sure, it seems like
everyone wants to be a rock star. But many people – including rock
stars – want to be something else ... a record producer.

“Being in a
studio, making records, is about the coolest place you can be,”
said Don Was, one of the people featured in PBS' sprawling
“Soundbreaking” series.

Peter Asher agreed:
“The first time I went into the studio, .... I knew this is what I
wanted to do.”

That was around 1963
and the studio (later renamed Abbey Road) only had four-track tapes.
But to teenaged Asher (then half of Peter and Gordon) it was
“super-high-tech .... The fact that you could hire musicians much
better than yourself and tell them what to do -- I thought that was
unbelievably cool.”

And at the core was
a distinguished-looking producer. “I would see shots of George
Martin,” Linda Perry recalled. “I didn't know who he was, but for
some reason, I knew that was an important guy.”

Martin produced for
the Beatles and others. He had 23 No. 1 singles in the U.S., 30 in
England. And he helped launch work on the “Soundbreaking” series,
almost a decade ago.

“It's not going to
be boring,” Martin told the Television Critics Association in 2008.
“It's going to be entertaining. It's going to be fun; PBS is like

He died in April, at
90. Four months later, producers talked about the series. They've
molded music for Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones
(Was); James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and Cher (Asher); Pink, Christina
Aguilera and Gwen Stefani (Perry); and Public Enemy (Hank Shocklee).

Yes, styles differ.
At one extreme, said series director Jeff Dupre, are the auteurs:
“Someone like Phil Spector has this dictatorial vision .... There
are some artists like Joni Mitchell who's like, 'I'm producing
myself.' There's a story that she hired David Crosby just to stay at
the door, to tell people to go away.”

But those are
exceptions, Was said. “The beauty of making records ... lies in the
collaborative nature.”

Especially if it's a
collaboration of opposites. Johnny Cash thrived when he linked with
rock producer Rick Rubin; Public Enemy soared with Shocklee. “I
grew up on jazz,” he said. “Having that background allowed the
hip-hop producton ... staking it from various Motown records or even
doing some arrangements that were from the George Martin and Beatles

And the Beatles
themselves benefitted from a mismatch. “George Martin, with his
classical background .... They needed that,” Perry said.

Martin had spent
three years in music school, where he was a fan of Ravel, Rachmaninov
and Cole Porter. He contrasted with Paul McCartney, who couldn't read

Still, he told the
TCA, they all got along. “We respected each other. We worked as a
team .... Working with John and Paul and Ringo and George was
challenging, because they were four such strong individual
characters. We had a wonderful time.”

That approach
transformed, Asher said. “George Martin started when they made
their first album in a day, He was totally in charge, ran the whole
session – do a few takes, thank you very much, next song.”

the men often worked separately, trying studio tricks. To get an odd
sound in “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Martin said he had 16 loops on
eight playback machines. “George felt the best thing to do was to
leave them alone ... and see if it worked,” Asher said. “That was
part of his genius.”

Still, that can go
too far. “Sergeant Pepper” and “Pet Sounds” were great, Was
said, but then “a whole bunch of people (made) records that relied
on technology and were void of any emotional value.”

simple is best. Perry recalls Aguilera's first “Beautiful” take.
“I heard the vulnerability; I heard this whole thing happening. And
I was like, 'That's it.' .... Seven months, (she) tried to redo

And then that first,
simple take – lots of soul, little studio – became a classic.

-- “Soundbreaking:
Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music”

-- 10 p.m. weekdays,
PBS; Nov. 14-18, 21-23


Escaping the election (intermittently)

In this political season, we're happy when anyone even partially keeps a promise. That's what the Weather Channel is doing today (Election Day), until midnight ET,.

The channel promised a "election escape"; for nine hours, it would have nothing but pretty nature pictures and soft music.

Well, sort of, It still has the "local on the 8's" weather reports... and packs lots of commercials around that. But the rest of the time does, indeed, having nothing but soothing sights and sounds. As this nasty election ends, we really need that.


Election Day -- a cheery thought

It's Election Day now, a time for optimism to return and a cloud of campaign rage to fade. My own spirits were boosted on Friday, when I cast my absentee ballot.

Sitting in the spot next to me was a woman who is 99-and-a-half years old. I don't know how she voted, but I do know this: During the first 4 years of her life, women didn't have the right to vote; now she had a ballot in front of her that included a woman as a major-party candidate for president.

What I do know is that the person at the township clerk's office asked her, as required, if she is 60 or older. She seemed quite pleased with the question; also, it was the first time in a while that she's been required to show some ID.



Silenced? What doesn't kill you makes this "Stronger"

By Mike Hughes

Fate suddenly
introduced Jasmine Spiess to the notion of silence.

That's not her
natural state. Still, she said it helped her acting. “It makes you
a better listener.”

Proof of that comes
with “Stronger,” a beautifully acted short at the East Lansing
Film Festival. One actress (Juliet O'Brien) talks furiously, the
other (Spiess) says nothing; both project passionately.

Actors often fall
into two extremes – quick and personable or quiet and inward.
Spiess clearly is the former, as she demonstrated at a film-festival

She grew up in a
small Wisconsin town near Janesville and tried a musical-theater
career. “Then New York just happened to me,” she said.

And the music? “I
still sing,” she said. “I dieo a lot of opera; I do Venezuelan folk
songs – don't ask.” Twice, she was even in a group singing David
Letterman's top-10.

Then vocal surgery
left her with two weeks of silence ... which could have complicated
her acting-class exercises. A classmate, Juliet O'Brien, suggestes
“The Stronger,” a one-scene play.

That was written in
1889 by August Strindberg. (“So you know it's going to be a
feel-good story,” Spiess jokes.) Accidentally meeting at a cafe are
two women who have had a past and a romance in common. One ranges
from charm to rage; the other has increasingly pained silence.

The story has become
an opera, several filmed shorts and a portion of Ingmar Bergman's
“Persona.” And after the class went well, the actresses decided
to film it again.

Victor Kaufold, a
playwright married to O'Brien, created the 12-minute adaptaton; Chris
Coats directed skillfully. The actresses returned to their extreme
characters. “Between scenes, I would be talking all the time,”
Spiess said. “She was the opposite, very quiet.”

Well, it's a taxing
role, leaving you wondering which character is really the stronger.

-- “Stronger,”
one of eight shorts shown at 9 p.m. Monday (Nov. 7) at Studio C in

-- Another package
of eight shorts is at 4 p.m. Monday.

-- This is the
second showing for both at the East Lansing Film Festival, which
continues through Thursday; see previous blog for more details and a
glance at documentaries