The interview below took place in 1998, and appeared
on the late and greatly lamented British Theatre website, which
began in 1997 and was eliminated along with hundreds of others,
by its sponsoring organization, About.com, in September 2001.
The British Theatre site had a professional "guide,"
Peter Lathan, who gave it a sparkle and polish,
years of experience in many aspects of theatre, and a very personal
charm. Peter has since revived the pages as The British Theatre Guide, which is now an
independent web resource.
Dateline: 3/9/98: The Alan Bates Archive
Peter is based in the north of
England, and I live and work in Vermont and Boston; the interview
was done via e-mail. I was pleased and flattered to be asked
for my comments. Fourteen years later I might have different
answers to some of the questions, but I offer it as is:
Peter Lathan: One
of the best sites devoted to actors that I have come across is
the Alan Bates Archive, run by Karen Rappaport. It's packed with
information about Bates' career, presented in such a way that
it will interest both the Bates enthusiast and the more general
theatregoer. Knowing the interest so many visitors to the British
Theatre site have in our actors, I thought it would be very illuminating
to interview Karen on your behalf. She agreed to do so, and here's
PL: What led you to create the Alan
Bates Archive in the first place?
Several things came together at a propitious time. Two years
ago I was an art director at a large British-American publishing
house, Addison Wesley Longman. I was interested in online publishing,
and was looking for a project as a personal "tutorial"
so that I could explore the software -- the whole process of
design for the Internet, really -- and then share it with my
staff of designers. I had created a small portfolio site for
my own work, nothing more.
the fall of 1996, Oliver's Travels, a 1994 BBC mini-series
starring Alan Bates and Sinead Cusack, was shown in the US on
PBS. I enjoyed it, and looked up Bates in the Internet Movie
Database, where I found a list of his films, many of which were
unfamiliar to me. But I had lived in London for several years
in the early 1970s, had encountered Bates once at a party, and
had seen several of his West End successes; so I knew that the
IMDb was telling only part of the story, and decided to look
a bit further. The picture soon emerged of a superb and greatly-respected
actor who has, for his entire career, moved effortlessly from
stage to film to television, producing a distinguished body of
work in each medium. I also found that much of his work is by
authors who are important to me, including Harold Pinter, John
Osborne, David Storey, Simon Gray, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy,
The final thread was a sense of
minor outrage. Bates made Oliver's Travels, which is a
romantic mystery, when he was 60. Some online chat occurred that
I found rude, involving hair (is it real, is it a rug, is it
dyed...) and various other age-related personal comments. Even
Oliver's wardrobe was dissected: could that vest be hiding a
little tummy, perhaps? I thought "This man is one of our
great actors; surely he deserves more respect!" And, fearing
that one of those gossips (who were, of course, fans) would decide
to make a website for Bates, and knowing that I could do better,
the Alan Bates Archive was begun. I did some thinking about structure,
drafted a biography, and wrote to Bates telling him what I had
in mind, in late fall, 1996. The Archive went online in February
PL: You have obviously amassed a
terrific amount of material. Where does it all come from? Do
you collect it all yourself or do you have collaborators?
KR: I had nothing more than a couple of old Playbills,
to begin with. By spending several months of rather intense work
with the help of a research librarian, I collected reviews, a
few interviews, and began to track down and enjoy the films.
My academic training -- English Literature, classics minor --
included research, so it was a familiar process. Early on, I
realized that the material I was collecting might well become
a book; so I have been working with that in mind. As the Archive
progressed, I sent a site map and drafts of pages to Mr Bates
and his manager, Ros Chatto, in London.
Once the Archive was online, the
response from fans was gratifying. A number of people have been
generous with material ranging from rare tapes of interviews
and unavailable tv films to photos and reviews, personal anecdotes,
ephemera, and suggestions for the little film-based photo contests
that have become a monthly feature of the front page. More than
one person has actually bought or upgraded a computer in order
to visit the Archive!
PL: Which leads on to the question:
just how much time do you have to devote to the site to keep
it as up to date as it is?
KR: Basic updates take about six to eight hours, once
a month. In the past year, there has always been good news to
share, including a US film release, a new play going to the West
End, and a recently-completed film for American television. Major
redesigns do take more time, and I am always challenging myself
to keep the site visually fresh and technically in a state of
I have learned a lot about file
compression and, if this were a job rather than an avocation,
I would be going back through the older graphic files to improve
their quality and slim them down. I'm a lot better at the technical
aspects of site design than I was a year ago; the Archive continues
to be a great tutorial for me, and I have recently begun to mentor
a couple of newcomers to web design.
PL: What do you think is the function
of a site like yours? I have seen hundreds of fan sites for one
actor or another, and many seem to be the result of an obsession
with the subject. Would that describe you, do you think? or do
you have a different "take" on what such a site should
KR: Some of the fan sites I've looked at do seem to
be a sort of love offering from an obsessed fan with a scanner.
Those are the sites that tend to be incomplete, and that languish
after a few months. Then there are the pages that turn intelligent
actors into sex objects (I've been looking in vain for good Helen
Mirren and Jamie Lee Curtis pages recently, since Bates has current
projects with both women.)
Others, equally unsuccessful,
are commercial ventures, such as the new Laurence Olivier site,
which is quite cold, and shows little understanding of his place
in the history of theatre -- in its way, it seems even emptier
than an inept fan page. Still others (several of the many Kenneth
Branagh sites come to mind) actively probe the personal affairs
of the celebrity, focus on marital status and other personal
gossip. The best sites clearly have a connection, a sympathy,
some sort of chemistry or bond with the subject, though it seems
to me (in the case of the Bates Archive) more like personal interest
and affinity than obsession. As with a friendship arising from
common interests, the more familiar I have become with Alan Bates's
career -- not only his body of work, but also the choices he
has made, his spirit and integrity -- the more I like and respect
I think that the function of a
serious site such as the Bates Archive is similar to that of
a documentary film, or biography: it's homage, certainly, but
it's also history, a good story, and it should reflect the character,
the life and times, of its subject. It was clear to me from the
beginning that Alan Bates has chosen not to share his personal
life with interviewers; so the tone of the Archive is formal,
and there is no information about his private life, unless it
comes from him, in interviews. Also, in spite of many requests,
no chat rooms, which seem often to become gossipy and trivial.
PL: You say that you are now in contact
with Alan Bates. How did this come about?
KR: As I mentioned earlier, I met him briefly years
ago. I re-introduced myself when I began to think about the website,
and last summer met with him in Richmond, Surrey, during the
preview tour of his most recent play, Simon Gray's Life Support.
we met, Bates admitted to a certain ambivalence about having
a web presence, undoubtedly fed by the fact that he doesn't much
like reading about himself, and doesn't have access to the Internet:
it's something going on behind his back, in effect. I think he
understands that the Archive does not exist for him, but rather
for Bates fans all over the world who have previously had nowhere
to turn if they were looking for hard-to-find films or other
information about his career. Recently his secretary, Rosemary
Geddes, has agreed to fill in some gaps in the theatre archive,
and Bates is also suggesting some alterations. I would say that
we are at the beginning of what I hope will be a long and amiable
association. [Photo: Rosemary, Alan, Karen and her family
in Windsor, August, 2001.]
PL: How important is the design of
the site? Obviously ease of navigation is important (although
some site authors don't seem to share this view!), but what about
KR: Ah, my soapbox, please! As a designer, I think
that good visual and structural design is essential to every
web page! As with our own physical appearance, there's the matter
of the essential "self" of a site; its character, its
structure. The site's appearance -- its clothing -- is another
matter, and can be changed without altering the essence of the
site. In fact, a bit of variety is important.
Here I admit to an advantage:
I have years of experience designing books of all sorts, so I
know how to navigate successfully through visual information
on paper, and have found it easy to adapt this experience to
site design, though books are linear, and web design is not.
Like good architecture, I believe that a website should give
the visitor some hints about where to go, but also allow the
freedom to move about easily, to explore without getting lost.
The greatest design is of no use if it's too cumbersome; the
best-planned site becomes boring quickly if it never changes.
I am quite impatient and simply leave sites that take too long
to appear. And, frankly, I no longer design for the low-end user
who connects with less than 28.8 modem speed, or has a tiny monitor.
A site like the Bates Archive
will always be graphics-heavy, since one wants to include lots
of photos. But I keep them small, or link from thumbnails to
larger photos, or use slide shows (animated gifs) for variety.
On the other hand, I feel that visitors to a specialized site
such as this will be patient and tolerate a brief wait as, for
instance, the little photos on the film page appear: it's great
fun to see all those characters -- over 30 years' worth -- side
by side; I've had no complaints about the speed. (If the site
were selling a product, such a page would be far too long and
that, I have tried to design with sympathy for Alan Bates's own
style: he has great flair, favors waist coats, scarves, turns
up his collars. It's throwaway, casual, understated elegance
-- he seems completely at ease with himself, a warm and attractive
man. So I have given much thought to the typography that runs
throughout the pages, keeping it strong, simple, understated,
but with flourishes of a friendly cursive font. I depend upon
soft shadows, the occasional black background, for variety and
emphasis, but good photographs of Bates are the most important
visual element of the site.
You can see the first-generation
Bates Archive front page on my own portfolio site, it's fussier
than the present design. I like it quite well, but prefer the
present simplicity, and also came to feel that the previous typography
really didn't reflect the subject. I'm sure that there will be
further evolution: the "wrapper" I've just added is
an innovation with a purpose. As you're reading the quote from
a review, graphics for the next page are loading. Now there's
little or no wait on that page before the little photo slide-show
begins to play. It's a simple but great trick.
I don't use graphics to link to
other pages, or the logos for awards and associations that are
so readily available. The Bates Archive is a noncommercial site;
its links are functional, meant to enrich its usefulness for
visitors, not to advertise other websites. I have also begun
to do a regular check to see who is linking to the Bates Archive,
and have already found a handful of what is rather grossly called
"cyber-gutters:" other websites which create an uncredited
link to an internal Bates Archive page, thus implying that the
page is part of the other site (our film reviews and spotlights,
with their screen captures, seem particularly popular).
There are so many amateurs running
fan websites that most of this unauthorized borrowing is probably
innocent; but it's still undesirable, and I firmly discourage
it. I have also placed a link back to the Bates Archive on every
PL: Have any particular sites influenced
you, in any way?
KR: As a designer, my aim is always to create something
fresh. But also, as a designer, everything I see influences me.
To my daughter's amusement, even when we are stalled in traffic
I am commenting on the typefaces (not to mention the letter spacing)
used on the vehicle in front of us.
In terms of general design, I have been influenced by these
* WORD, an online literary magazine that is a leader in fresh,
exciting web design.
* Entropy 8, elegant eye candy and visual inspiration.
* Armani Exchange, the first retailer to do photo shoots for
its website, which is simple, elegant and delightful.
* Mr Showbiz has always had great individuality, though for my
taste, its opening page has become rather cluttered. But its
backgrounds and small graphics are both functional and stylish.
* Bean, the Movie. I found this page awesome in its abundance
of high-quality yet super-slim graphic files. I copied lots of
them and picked them apart in Photoshop to see how it was done.
For a while, my screen was hopping with little Rowan Atkinsons.
It was quite alarming.
I knew the instant I saw the Mining
Company [later, about.com] site that it was well thought out
and professional, and, Peter, you give the British Theatre section
a pleasing and personal face and voice. It was a brilliant move
on the part of the Mining Company to provide site guides! I bookmarked
you immediately and soon felt comfortable emailing a comment
about something in your newsletter. I hope that the Bates Archive
has the same approachable character. I think it does -- I get
a considerable amount of mail, and so does Mr Bates.
PL: Is there anything you would like
to add, either about the ABA, or about theatre websites in general?
KR: There's the huge topic of copyright, far too much
to discuss in any depth. But, like most such sites, the Bates
Archive contains copyright protected material. I do request permission
to post reviews, interviews, etc., and it is often given. But
sometimes there is simply no response. Further, since Bates reviews
go back decades, it is not within my means to trace the copyright
for publications that no longer exist. I have made a decision
that I am comfortable with in terms of ethics, but that (as the
wife of a lawyer) I know is not legally sound: I go ahead and
put the article or photo online with as complete a credit as
possible. My rationale is that visitors to the Archive are much
like visitors to a library. Nothing is being sold; the only purpose
of the material is education, appreciation. Nothing is gained
by omitting material where the copyright is obscure; much is
gained by including it. If a book emerges out of the contents
of the Archive, the necessary permissions will, of course, be
In this regard, I'd like to add
one more notable website: that of The Times (London).
Its design, like that of the newspaper itself, is functional
and classic. In its generosity, it is a model of what a great
daily newspaper can offer the Internet. I depend on the Times
and the Telegraph for news and an important personal link
to London (I read the Times over my morning coffee, not
the Boston Globe). To my delight, when I requested permission
to reprint some reviews and photos last summer, I had a positive
response within hours, along with a generous compliment from
the online managing editor, who had personally visited the Archive.
PL: When you "surf" (God!
I hate that word!), what are you looking for? What attracts you?
What turns you off?
KR: I don't surf all that much any more, though I do
explore links from sites that interest me. I read reviews in
all sorts of publications and check sites when I have spare time.
Among the proliferation of theatre sites, I gravitate to those
with frequent news updates, previews of upcoming productions,
and early cast announcements. I use the Net to shop for books,
computer, camera and video equipment. I'm always looking online
for Bates-related Playbills and film pressbooks. I'm drawn to
commercial sites that have good search tools and are without
complex graphics that slow the site. The most annoying page I've
visited in some time is the enormous CBS site. It is well-designed
and quite easy to navigate, but there seems to be no way to reach
CBS from the website. That, to me, is a violation of the spirit
of the Internet, which is at heart, two-way communication. If
the Times can provide easy access, so can CBS!
Peter, thanks for this opportunity to talk with you about
things that are important to me. The single best thing about
the Net is the ability it gives us to connect with colleagues
and kindred spirits that we would never otherwise know.
PL: Amen to that! |||