Encouragement for Creators: A Mother’s Influence

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Sherlock’s Mum: Wanda Ventham in the 70’s.

As we head into Mother’s Day weekend, we thought we’d once again tip our hats to mums everywhere, with a special Encouragement for Creators. One thing many writers, artists and actors often agree on: their mothers were among their biggest supporters, encouragers, fans, and inspirations! One amazingly talented creator who’s frequently stated that his mother had a tremendous influence on both his professional and personal life, is British actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

Cumberbatch, one of Britain’s biggest and fastest rising stars, currently portrays a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, in the BBC mega-hit Sherlock. He’s played both heroes and villains: as the military genius Kahn, he was more than a match for Captain Kirk, in the latest Star Trek movie; and he also created the voice of the sinister fire-breathing dragon Smaug, in the recent Hobbit  trilogy. Most recently, Cumberbatch was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Whatever role he pursues, Cumberbatch pours himself into it. He’s been described by the critics as brilliant, he’s in great demand with movie directors, and he has legions of adoring fans; and yet, he remains surprisingly modest and unassuming! For all this creative drive and humility, the actor credits his mother.

When Cumberbatch was growing up, his mother, Wanda Ventham, was an extremely talented actress working on the British stage, as well as in TV. She had appeared in the Carry On cinematic comedies, and co-starred in the science fiction cult-favorite series UFO. Many critics believed she was destined for bigger and better parts in Hollywood movies, but as much as Ms. Ventham was dedicated to her craft, she was even more devoted to her husband, successful actor Timothy Carlton, and to their growing family. In those days, the rising actress often turned down roles that would take too much time away from her family. She also gave up more prestigious stage roles for lesser but better-paying television parts, to help finance her son’s schooling. According to Cumberbatch, because his mother frequently put the needs of others above her own, she probably missed some golden opportunities.

Sounds like a model mom, right? And, like most moms, Ms. Ventham wanted her son to pursue a career that would guarantee him a secure income — hence, she discouraged him from being an actor. But Cumberbatch was too busy following her example (as well as his father’s) to pay heed to that one piece of motherly advice! Thank goodness, we’d miss the Sherlock star! But apparently, the actor did pay attention to his mother’s warnings about the pitfalls of showbiz life: he tends to avoid the limelight and is rarely seen at celebrity parties.

Cumberbatch (as the logical detective) and his mom Wanda Ventham (as Holmes’ “mummy”) in the BBC’s SHERLOCK.

Benedict Cumberbatch recently stated he’s also inspired by his parent’s 38 years of happy marriage — a rarity among celebrity couples — acknowledging that his mother and father are as much in love today as they were 42 years ago. And much to his mother’s delight, Cumberbatch, formerly one of Britain’s most eligible bachelors, just tied the knot with actress and theater director Sophie Hunter. The Sherlock star states his mum is looking forward to grandmothering lots of little “Cumberbabies”!

Today, at age 79, Ms. Ventham is mostly retired from acting, but she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play the mother of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes in two or three episodes of her son’s popular show. And of course, she’s a natural in the part!

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Encouragement for Creators: Love and the Rejected Pilot

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Sometimes a creator can have a great idea or produce a masterpiece, but still encounter rejection. Perhaps the timing isn’t right, or the wrong people are considering the material or, as in the case we’re about to share, the right people are considering your work but they just don’t get it or are too blind to see its merits. This is often true of television production. In fact, when it comes to programming for television, there’s often a good reason the TV is called the boob tube, and no, it’s not a reference to the viewers.

In 1970, successful comedy writer/producer Garry Marshall had a great idea for a new television series — at least, that’s what he thought at the time — about life and love in an innocent bygone time. Miller-Milkis Productions filmed a pilot for the new show, calling it New Family in Town. The parent studio, Paramount Pictures was unimpressed, and the ABC network totally passed on the idea. No one at the time thought Garry Marshall would be able to sustain a comedy series so immersed in nostalgia for more than a season or two, at best; and besides, the decision-makers at ABC didn’t particularly care for the young man Miller-Milkis had cast as the lead. The idea for a series was shelved, and the network “burned off” the pilot episode as an installment of its anthology show Love, American Style, retitling the segment, somewhat ironically, “Love and the Television Set”! (Remember all those anthology shows that proliferated the airwaves from about 1954 through the early ’80s? Well, think Twilight Zone; except that during the last couple minutes of each episode of Love, American Style, instead of one of Rod Serling’s shocking twist endings, there’s just a lot of smooching and blushing.)

A year later, a pre-Star Wars George Lucas was casting American Graffiti, his humorous, uber-nostalgic film based on his experiences with fast cars and adolescence circa 1962. Lucas viewed Marshall’s unsold pilot and immediately decided to cast its star (what’s-his-name, the guy the ABC executives weren’t particularly impressed with) in the lead role of his new movie. When released in 1973, American Graffiti became an instant classic and proved itself to be box office gold! (So the actor, what’s-his-name, was vindicated. Yes, but that’s not our point here, nor is it the end of our story.)

Over at ABC, the suits were salivating. Legend has it that one of them remarked to an underling that the network should come up with a new nostalgic comedy to capitalize on the success of American Graffiti. “Run out and get someone to create a pilot,” he snapped.

The underling carefully told his boss that the network already had a pilot for just such a series: “And it even stars what’s-his-name from the movie!”

“Why haven’t I seen it, then?” barked his boss.

“But you did, your greatness! [Okay, yes, we’re exaggerating here … a little.] Don’t you remember? You shelved the project!”

We’re not sure if the poor underling kept his job, but ABC hurried the series into production, and a few months later, the ABC comedy Happy Days, starring Ron Howard, premiered in January 1974. The show was an immediate success and Creator Garry Marshall kept us laughing through 11 seasons. So much for being able to sustain a show about love set in the 1950s! Throughout the rest of the ’70s, the show was consistently ranked among the top 20 most-watched shows. Yes, it’s a silly sitcom, but if you were growing up around that time, you probably know how popular and influential it was. ABC spun off seven other series from Happy Days, two of which were also ratings successes. There also were books, comics, toys, and lunch boxes. (Now doesn’t every creator want to see his or her stuff plastered on a kid’s lunch box?!) And lest we forget, Happy Days is responsible for a few well-known idioms, such as “jumped the shark”!

Moral of the above anecdote: Often, rejection is far from being the end of a creator’s journey! Wrong time, wrong place, wrong response; consider such things as just speed-bumps on the road to success!

Hey, St. Valentine’s Day is tomorrow, and we promised you more on that. Here ya go: The Feast of Saint Valentine, as it’s known in the Anglican Church, honors by name a 3rd-Century Christian who was martyred for his faith. (There’s at least one other Saint Valentine, perhaps even two, also variously remembered every February 14, but we’ve chosen to tell the traditional story of the aforementioned martyr, Valentinus.)

The Roman emperor Claudius II passed a law forbidding Christian worship. Breaking this law was punishable by death, but Valentinus refused to stop following and practicing the teachings of Jesus Christ. So he was arrested and given a death sentence. While imprisoned and awaiting for his sentence to be carried out, Valentinus found favor with his jailer. Realizing that Valentinus was a man of learning, the jailer asked the Christian if he would tutor his daughter, Julia, who had been blind since birth. Valentinus quickly agreed and soon discovered his pretty young pupil had a sharp mind. He read her stories, taught her arithmetic, and told her about his God.

Julia was able to see the world through the eyes of Valentinus. She trusted in his wisdom and found comfort for her blindness in the man’s quiet strength. One day she asked Valentinus, “Does God really hear our prayers?”

“Yes, my child,” replied Valentinus, “He hears each one.”

Julia then explained how she prayed for sight every morning, asking Valentinus if he believed God would answer her prayers. He replied, “God does what is best for us if we only believe in Him.”

That day, Julia knelt and grasped her tutor’s hands. Together they prayed, and Julia accepted Christ as her Lord and Savior. Legend teaches that at that moment a brilliant light flooded the tiny prison cell, and Julia received her sight! A happy ending? For Julia, yes; but the story’s ultimate ending is bittersweet. Late one evening, Saint Valentinus wrote Julia a letter, urging her to stay close to God. He signed it “from Your Valentine.” The next morning, on February 14, 270 A.D., he was taken from prison to his place of execution, a spot now called Porta Valentini in his honor. He was buried at what is today the Church of Praxedes in Rome.

According to legend, Julia often visited his grave, and nearby she planted a pink-blossomed almond tree. Today, the almond tree remains a symbol of abiding love and friendship!

If you’ve been regularly following our posts, you may realize this is our longest one yet. Please consider this our Valentine to you. We’ve had the pleasure of knowing and chatting with a few of our readers, but the rest of you…. No, you’re not strangers! “There are no strangers here; Only friends (we) haven’t yet met.” (—William Butler Yeats, Irish Poet, 1865-1939)  Happy Valentine’s Day, dear friends!

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