Most people here in the UK would probably name Barry Norman as the only film critic they know (I said critic, Jonathan, not just a presenter). Few could go further than that, and no film writer seems to have reached the status here of, say, Kenneth Tynan in theatre criticism. It's always been a different story in the USA, and perhaps their best-known critic, certainly their most highly respected, is Roger Ebert. He is the only film critic ever to have won a Pulitzer prize, and is probably the most recognisable film reviewer in the United States, a sort of American Barry Norman. His two best-known catchphrases — “two thumbs-up” and “your movie sucks” have both been trademarked and copyrighted. He first became known for his film review column appearing in the Chicago Sun-Times (for whom I worked, ultimately, at one time) since 1967, and later online. Then came the television programmes Sneak Previews, At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and Siskel and Ebert and The Movies, all of which he co-hosted for a combined 23 years. Then followed Ebert & Roeper & the Movies, which began broadcasting in 2000. Ebert's film reviews are syndicated to more than 200 newspapers worldwide, and he has written nearly 20 books.
Eight years ago, Ebert contracted thyroid cancer, but he recovered quickly from the surgery and was soon back writing reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times and appearing on TV. A year later, in 2003, he returned to work after his salivary glands had to be partially removed, although that and a series of aggressive radiation treatments opened the first cracks in his voice. In 2006, the cancer surfaced yet again, this time in his jaw. A section of his lower jaw was removed. Two weeks later, his carotid artery, invisibly damaged by the earlier radiation and the most recent jaw surgery, burst. Then he underwent more operations, including a tracheostomy, and when Ebert woke up from the last one, he could no longer eat or drink, and he had lost his voice entirely. That was four years ago. Then, last year, Ebert found Edinburgh speech synthesis company Cereproc on the internet. The firm specialises in creating voices with accents for call centres, and Ebert gave them the challenge of helping him. Not only had Ebert spent all those years on TV, he had also recorded four or five DVD commentaries in crystal-clear digital audio, including for one of my favourites, Casablanca. CereProc has been using Ebert's TV tapes and DVD commentaries for those words, and the words it cannot find, it has been piecing together syllable by syllable. The company's Chief Technical Officer, Matthew Aylett said, "People are used to synthesised voices being disembodied. It was great to work on a project where the voice actually was someone's voice. It shows you the power of this technology and what it can be used for." The recordings were painstakingly broken down into individual sounds, transcribed and put together again, and Ebert can now reproduce his voice by typing what he wants to say on computer.
He has just used his new voice for the first time on the Oprah Winfrey Show, in the pre-Oscars Special. 'It still needs improvement, but at least it still sounds like me," he said. It's a remarkable turn of events for a man who made his name with his voice.
I first posted this article in March, 2010. Roger Ebert sadly succumbed to his cancer and died in April, 2013, aged 70.