Friday, November 20, 2015

I'll Miss Jim Perry

Part of my decades long job as TV critic was to interview the game show hosts.
And at the top of my favorites list was Jim Perry who has died at 82.
In 1974 I had to venture to CFTO's cavernous studios to report on as new series called Definition which clearly was the bastard child of CHCH's Party Game.
Perry was the amiable host and that day he was taping five half hour episodes with funstress Rose Marie and Richard Deacon.
There was a guy on set with a laugh machine turned up to high volume and every time Perry said something funny the air waves would explode with buckets of canned laughter.
And Definition ran late afternoons on CFTO from 1974 to 1989.
Perry's big gig of the year was hosting the Miss Canada pageant a role he held from 1967 to 1990.
At the end of the broadcast Perry would warble "The Fairest Girl In Canada" to the beaming winner.
He also took over from Charles Templeton as host of the CTV game show Headline Hunters which was a sort of poor man's Front Page Challenge.
"I was born (in Camden, New Jersey," he told me.
 After duty in the Korean War he decided to become a vocalist and his first big gig was replacing Eddie Fisher as staff singer at Grossingers in the Catskill Mountains.
"Then I was straight man to Sid Caesar all over the place--I still used by real name Jim Dooley. When I joined AFTRA there already was a Jim Dooley on the books so I took my mother's name of Perry.
But his first game show hosting appearance was in Canada on Fractured Phrases in 1965.
Back in the U.S. he hosted the game shows Eye Bet and The Money Maskers later called Bingo At Home which ran in syndication from for 13 weeks in 1969.
"My family moved to Canada for a bit --I still have dual citizenship."
He was back in the U.S. as host of Card Sharks and in 1969 was the announcer for the short lived That Show starring Joan Rivers.
When he took over Definition in 1974 "I had no idea it would last 15 years.
"For the first few weeks I was the announcer and when Bob McLean left I replaced him--Dave Devall became the announcer --he was also the weather guy."
In 1978 he was cast as host of NBC's Card Sharks --"I did two pilots but was so busy in Toronto Bob Eubanks did the daytime version and Bill Rafferty the night time edition."
"I even did pilots for two game shows that never made it to TV: Casino and Twisters."
Starting in 1982 Perry fronted the revamped Sale Of The Century which lasted until 1989 --he also fronted a syndicated night time version.
It was inevitable that he would appear in the 1980 TV flick The Great American Traffic Jam opposite fellow hosts Wink Martindale, Jack Clark and Art James.
"I spent a  decade commuting between L.A. and Toronto," he joked. "The total was ten different game shows. Try matching that."
I always found him a swee,t unpretentious guy. One one of the L.A. TV Critics Tours when he was promoting one of these shows I  walked into the interview room and tried to trick him with confusing questions.
"I recognized your Canadian accent," he shouted back.
Te couple celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and both son Sean and daughter Erin worked backstage on various quiz shows.
And as far as I'm concerned nice guys sometimes do finish first.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Bell Media Cuts Only The Beginning


 Canadian TV is in terrible shape and the huge cuts at Bell Media are only the beginning.
Technology is making Canadian TV redundant.
The other day when I was chatting up a Grade Six class I was told by almost all students that they never watched "regular:" TV.
What they meant was they switch their fave TV shows to their phones or tablets and watch later at their own leisure.
The old tyranny of the networks dictating when we coul;d watch programs is gone forever.
Bell is the first network to dispose of some of the most reliable names in the TV biz.
Long time Off The Record host Michael Landsberg has been bumped and will now produce segments for other shows.
Among the other casualties: CTV News Ottawa co-anchor Carol Anne Mehan, Ottawa sports reporter Carolyn Waldo, CTV Morning Licve's Lois Lee, CFRB host Mike Toth, TSN co-host David Basti,
CFTO anchor Bill Hutchinson, CFTO sportscaster Suneel Joshi, CTV News anchor Dan Matheson.
Many were highly respected in their fields.
Waldo twittered her farewell: "It was a wonderful 25 years at CTV."

But the fact is people are starting to watch TV in different ways.
Part of the problem has been the tendency of the three big Canadian TV networks (Bell, Rogers and Shaw) to rush down to Hollywood in the spring and buy up all the new American shows even the bombs.
This year the Canadian networks forked out almost $700million.
Why? Because it is simply cheaper to buy a new U.S. series for $50,000 an episode rather than make a Canadian one.
And the picks for this season are bombing at an unprecedented rate.
CTV was actually the best of the bunch in promoting Canadian drama series including Motive, Saving Hope and the Listener.
But Bell badly bungled in the sports department letting Rogers run off with most NHL hockey (great Canadian content) as well as the surging Blue Jays.
Over at CBC things are just as tough.
"The fall schedule has bombed," one insider tells me. "The old reliables including Rick Mercer, 22 Minmutes and Heartland have done OK but The Romeo Section attracted less than 200,000 viewers for the entire country.
"All the publicists were dumped and the new bunch refuses to send out tapes for review or to arrange interviews.
"Even the National is under 500,000 many nights of the week.
"Canadian TV may be in a terminal situation."

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Who Watches Canadian TV These Days?

So there I was in a fancy Greek restro on the Danforth once again chatting up a veteran actress, a respected but retired producer and a know-it-all publicist as the conversation turned to the current state of Canadian TV.
ME: I'm trying to watch the new Canadian TV shows but it's hard to find many. I've been catching The Romeo Section since it started on CBC. I think it's great but ratings have been dismal. The show might fare better on a quality cable channel, I think.
ACTRESS: I'm praying for our dollar to keep dropping. It means more U.S. productions come here but as for as Canadian stuff is concerned there's very little going on.
PUBLICIST: CBC fired its veteran publicists a long time ago. Ratings dropped like a stone. The new college age kids they hired had to learn the biz from the bottom up. But they were paid a pittance and many have left as their freelance contracts expired. So the ratings have plummeted again.
ME: I had to tell one new publicist I needed copies of the new shows before they hit the air so I could review them. And she said "Why?" CBC had some Shakespeare plays from Stratford on early this fall and refused to screen them. Virtually nobody watched which is very sad.
PRODUCER: I used to sit with famed TV director Norman Campbell in the cubby hole of an office CBC gave him. On the top of CBC's empty Toronto studios there's the "Norman Campbell Studio" but CBC never had enough money to let Norman direct there. Norman Campbell couldn't work his magic in the studio named for him. All his great shows are locked in CBC archives and have never even been on DVD.
PUBLICIST: The American shows shooting here pay big bucks for the top publicists. The Canadian independents try to nickel and dime us and then wonder why they don't get the press.
ACTRESS: Speaking of the press what's left. I'm told The Sun will never ever review a TV documentary no matter how great it is.  There's no full time TV critic left at The Star. John Doyle at The Glove is the resident curmudgeon. How do we get the message out anymore? It's d-d tough I can tell you.
PRODUCER: I watch a lot of American TV these days. The great U.S. cable channels like HBO are filled with superb dramas. That's where the action is these days. I watch Huul whis is supposedly banned here. A teenaged geek lives nearby and he's getting me phoney American e-mai addresses so I can jump over the artificial border installed by the CRTC. I think Canada cable stinks. What great Canadian dramas are there to watch on Canadian cable?
ACTRESS: I watch Saving Hope on CTV which is Canadian although not in your face. I watched Rookie Blue when it ran on Global, a good but not great show. I acted on Night Heat some 20 years ago and that's about the current state of Canadian TV drama --we're still in the region of Night Heat.
PUBLICIST: City dropped Murdoch Mysteries after Rogers secured rights to NHL hockey which is a huge chunk of Canadian content. MM was simply too pricey which is often the case --Global dropped Combat Hospital which got great numbers because ABC dropped it in the U.S. Canadian webs won't act alone claiming the bottom line rules.
PRODUCER: I now must have a pending U.S. sale before I got into production. The Don Cherry TV movie was only sold to Finnish TV. Americans just aren't interested in Canada at all I'm sorry tio say.
ME: Hey, you guys stop trying to cheer me up! At least the Jays ALMOST got to the World Series!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Lowdown Tracks: The Art Of The TV Documentary


 Just when it seemed the Canadian TV documentary had seen better days along comes Shelley Saywell's positively brilliant new group profile Lowdown Tracks.
Watch it Saturday night November 14 at 9 on TVOntario to see if you agree with me.
Saywell examines the lives of five buskers in the Toronto subway who join together with Lorraine Segato to make great music.
"It seems we were filming forever," laughs veteran producer-director Shelley Saywell. "But we really started in August 2013 --it certainly was over two very brutal winters and we were out there with our subjects for all that."
"It all started when I was at one of Lorraine Segato's concerts with some of these street musicians. And I joked to her I should have brought my camera because this was a pretty important story."
For some time Saywell had noticed the large number of homeless in a city as affluent as Toronto. But how to tell their story in a way that would not demean them --that was the challenge.
"I chose five buskers. They tell their stories through their songs. And all are enormously talented."
Saywell says it was "relatively easy" filming their acts --some hesitated balked at telling their stories which are often filled with great pain.attributes.
"I started with more studies but some dropped out. At times I'd stop filming if it got too personal. 
Their shockingly low standards are exemplified by the man who sleeps rolled up under a picnic table in a park --in the middle of winter.
Another participant shows the hole in the wall where she made her life until authorities chained it off.
Another guy shows the reality of sleeping in a shelter --the men are roused at 6 a.m. to fend for themselves out on the street no matter how cold it is out there.
"All of them have similar backgrounds," Saywell says. She's referring to positively brutal childhoods which often involved sexual abuse.
How they coped was to withdraw into themselves. They became needy adults who often could not cope with normal society.
Says Saywell: "They all talked. They knew what we wanted. And they are very self aware, that's the point.":
They had withdrawn into themselves using their music as mission statements.
Saywell films them everywhere.
There's the guy putting up his tent in the wooded area of a Toronto park.
There's another who tells her "I've been talking to the dead since I was a child."
Chances are you've brushed by some of them as they sang in the subway.
The way social workers tend to marginalize them is another shocker but Saywell says "With budget cuts the case loads are huge. "
If most seem to have some form of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) so what? Their humanity shines forth and we get to know them and their peculiar situations.
Saywell who also wrote the script has masterfully jumped back and forth from the subjects and finds common threads. The images often sum up what we're thinking, wondering about them.
In short here is a great group profile and I'm sure you'll pause the next time you meet one of them in the subway.
So the art of the TV documentary is alive and kicking in Lowdown Tracks.
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

I Remember Marty Milner

I'm finally getting around to saluting Martin Milner --the talented TV star died of heart failure September 15, 2015.
In a business filled with bruised egos Marty was a standout --he was well educated and read, quiet and introspective with one wife he adored and a slew of kids none of whom followed him into the acting business.
The first time we met was in a penthouse suite at the Century Plaza hotel in 1971 where Milner was tub thumping for his long running series Adam-12.
We chatted first about his upbringing."I had a normal childhood until my family moved to Los Angeles and I pestered them if I could go to acting school. Instead they got me an agent who arranged a test as the youngest boy in thje 1947 flick Life With Father.
"I played John Day and Bill Powell and Irene Dunne were my parents and a cutie Liz Taylor was my 15-year old cousin. I thought I had it made and then two weeks later I contracted polio and was out until I got a bit in the 1949 John Wayne flick Sands Of Two Jima and then I graduated from Hollywood High School.
I said I'd recently seen him on TV in Mister Roberts (12955) opposite Hank Fonda and Jimmy Cagney.
"Yup, that was a thrill. On another war flick Halls Of Montezuma I met one of the stars Jack Webb and he used me a lot on his radio series Dragnet which he later took to TV as a series."

I asked him if I could ask a few questions about Route 66 the sensational CBS drama show he had headlined from 1960 toc1964.
"Why not!" he grinned. "It's just about the best TV series of its time. Stirling Silliphant created it and wrote most of the scripts and I auditioned and won the role of Tod Stiles.
"I wasn't a complete unknown. Stirling had seen me in the 1959 movie Compulsion where I was Diane Varsi's beau.
"The movie of that era I'm still asked about is Sweet Smell Of Success (1957) as the jazz musician Steve Dallas. If you know the movie you'll remember the fabulous work of Burt Lancaster."
I was sure I'd seen him, on a lot of various TV shows.
"Oh, I did everything--lots of live TV shows then Desilu Playhouse, The Life Of Riley where I had a recurring part, The West Point Story, Twilight Zone. I took everything because I was young and wanted to learn the business."
The star of Route 66 was Tod;'s Chevrolet Corvette and Milner said there were several substitutes in case the main car wasn't working.
"We filmed in 40 states and often pretty far from the real Route 66. The producers were always after unusual locations.
"Some pretty big stars guested. They were usually billeted at the local motel. Guest star Joan Crawford was furious her room lacked a full scale mirror."
Milner's co-star was George Maharis who played Buz Murdoch.
"Physically we were different. Mentally George was an intense Method actor while I was all American. The contrast was played up in stories."
Milner says he took his wife and kids along on the extended shoots. "I certainly got to know the country. Also yours --several episodes were filmed in western Canada."
Maharis left in the third season to be replaced by Glenn Corbett but the show only lasted another season and a half expiring in 1964.
In 1968 Milner was at it again as LAPD officer Pete Malloy opposite Kent McCord.
"Jack Webb was the creator and this was a reworking of Dragnet. I'd worked with him before but he took me out to the parking lot to make sure I could really drive. I'd been driving for four years on Route 66 --of course I drove every working day for the next seven years!"
The last time I met Milner was  in 1975 on the set of Swiss Family Robinson filmed on the 20th Century Fox lot. Irwin Allen who made all those disaster flicks showed me the fake volcano constructed at one end of a gigantic sound stage.
He told me to press a button which I did and fake lava started bubbling forth.
Milner later blamed the failure of SFR on the amount of money spent on special effects and the lack of investment in scripts.
He kept acting but also co-hosted a morning radio show in San Diego.
I talked to him on the phone when he was making the ABC series Life Goes On for ABC in 1992. "I'm the geezer," he laughed. "You can't miss me."
He last acted on an episode of Diagnosis: Murder in 1997 and publicly groused he'd never been asked to do Murder, She Wrote.
A fine actor and friend without the usual egotistical trappings, Marty died at his Carlsbad, California, home, aged 83, September 6, 2015.


Monday, November 9, 2015

Against All Odds: A Canadian Success Story


 I've always found it passing strange that some of the best Canadian TV programming of the season always comes on Remembrance Day.
And that's because Canadian networks can't import this content --it must be home grown.
Consider the very fine new documentary Against All Odds: The RCAF Flyers which debuts on November 11 at 11 a.m. on Sportsnet.
I thought I knew my Canadian hockey history but this one celebrates the stunning gold medal winners of Canada's hockey team at the 1948 Olympics against all odds.
I compulsively watched this one and I'm still at how good it is.
And I also got to speak on the phone with one of the three surviving principals Murray Dowey who as Flyers goalie racked up a string of Olympic shut outs which may never be equaled.
"I don't quite know why Canada later forgot all about us," he says with a chuckle. "But it was a different time. And the media had been calling us the misfits. Some misfits if you ask me."

George Stroumboulopoulos narrates unobtrusively making these fantastic "misfits" the heroes front and center.
Writer/director P.J. Naworynski (for Infield Fly Productions)has done an impressive job of setting the stage and surprisingly enough discovering rare footage of the actual games played in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
"For one thing," Dowey tells me. "There had been the decision not to even send a team.  Then we assembled just three months before the event."
It certainly was a weird bunch of mostly war veterans Most had played pick up hockey but were hardly anywhere near professional caliber.
The director introduces them in breezy character sketches.
Dowey jokes he was recruited only after the scheduled goalie was judged not up to scratch.
"I'd played some hockey with Turk Broda who was the Leafs goalie. Remember there were only six NHL teams at the time. That meant six professional goalies --the teams in those days only suited up one man."
Dowey remembers he was phoned up and given 15 minutes to make his mind up. "I said OK, of course no money was involved. Had a day to get to Ottawa from Toronto where I worked for the TTC.
"Downsview airport was fogged in so I had to take the milk train --the worst ride I ever had."
The guys sailed on the Queen Elizabeth in steerage with the American team bunked in posh quarters.
"The Yanks thought they'd have it all over us. What arrogance! Canada invented hockey not the United States."
A brilliant mixture of rarely seen newsreel footage intermixed with the memories of the three survivors gets us rooting for the under dog team which usually lost games by wide margins.
"We were terrible at first," remembers Dowey.
One press comment :"There's no hope for this team" summed up the dismal prospects.
Dowey also remembers meeting the gold medalist Barbara Ann Scott who won in figure skating. He also remembers a photographer asking team mates to hoist her on her shoulders.
"That shot made the papers everywhere."
Dowey says the team played defense "like there was no tomorrow. You know in the first game I got a penalty for catching the puck and tossing it in front of me. Had to go to the penalty box.
"But the Swedes still couldn't score."

One would think these winners would be talked about forever. But this is Canada where modesty prevails.
"It didn't happen," Dowey tells me. "I went back to the TTC. Oh, we'd have reunions every few years in Ottawa."
Asked to summarize he says "It was a great victory for Canada. I guess because most of the guys were from Ottawa it really never registered here in Toronto."
And regrets?"I just wish they'd had face masks in my day. I wish I'd had a glove as big as those mitts today.
"I also wish they'd let us keep our uniforms. We had to hand them in. I gave what I had to a London museum-- my glove for one.  Wish I had more to give but that's it."
Against All Odds quite successfully recreates a great time in recent history when Canadian hockey stars ruled the world. What a fantastic triumph for the nation!

MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

If The Poet: A True Success Story

First of all I had never heard of Ian French.
And I was completely unaware of Slam Poetry.
So why did I find the new CBC-TV documentary If The Poet so compulsively watchable?
I think the secret lies in the success story it portrays and these true tales of achievement always intrigue me.
Also, I watched because I'm trying to see how CBC-TV's new documentary series  Firsthand is evolving --so far I thought last week's entry Reefer Riches excellent.
You can check for yourself Thursday November 12 at 9 p.m. on CBC-TV.

The saga in If The Poet captures a bald guy aged 54 who has become a sensation in the art of Slam Poetry.
I can only describe "slam" as a form of rap but without the music.
It's in your face and when done correctly the results can be pretty wonderful.
I think this hour artfully directed by Kim Saltarski (World's Worst Drivers) succeeds because it is utterly unpretentious --French made his Slam debut at age 50 and we watch as he sets off to win the World Cup of Slam Poetry in Paris.
Who knew watching a guy recite could be so exciting.
This true story rewrites The Odd Couple by pairing French with 29-year-old Ghanaian-Canadian poet Ian Keteku who is the trainer trying to get this dude up to scratch.
All the signs seem against French because for the most part his competitors are ambitious twentysomethings who really know how to play to their audiences.
"It owes a lot to standup comedy," director Saltarski tells me on the phone. "I mean you have to be fearless to even try to attempt it. Ian adds a lot of relevant social commentary, he gets it all out there."
Saltarski says his ideas for a TV portrait "started about 2 1/23 years ago. I got funding from Bravo for a 15 minute short and the subject kept expanding and I knew I was onto something bigger.
"I got to know his story and it made sense to keep filming. For one thing Ian had a troubled youth, his brain was wired differently. High school was a real downer but he's so talented he channels all that in to his poetry.,"
So Sakltarski approached First Hand about an hour profile. "And I was told arts coverage was going to be part of their menu so we were on board."
The hour goes deep down into French's early 20s and brushes with the law.
"We had collaborated on a few songs,that's how I got to know and appreciate his talent. And he used that beat to segue into slam."
Says Saltarsaki "That partnership with Keteku is essential to what French is today. "I think . Keteku showed  him how to transform those demons into dazzling, challenging poetry which he performs fearlessly. It's quite a dramatic development and I couldn't have caught it in a short shoot. I just kept filming and filming."
Slam poetry is a sort of contest where challengers have three minutes and ten seconds to win over an oftren difficult audience.
"There are all kinds of contestants. Some participants do the same routine time and time again. Ian is forever changing, that's what makes his ascendancy so amazing."
IF The Poet tracks French's ascent from an embarrassing debut to success in 2013 on the National Championship Toronto Slam Team to winning 2014's Canadian Individual Poetry Slam Championship (in Vancouver).
Then comes World Slam Poetry --Slam's World Series--and it's all high moments of tension dramatic but the results won't be revealed here --you'll have to watch the whole hour.
IF The Poet It personalizes the World of Slam by honing in one one of the art's older practitioners.
MY RATING: ***1/2.