Monday, March 4, 2019

Where Is Canadian TV?

I just spent Sunday night watching three hours of often brilliant documentary reportage.
And once again I wondered: Where the heck is CBC-TV these days.
First up was Fareed Zachara's one hour look at the very bizarre relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
It made for riveting TV because Fareed does not talk down to his TV audience.
But the best was still to come: the first two hours of a new look at the Bush family's political dynasty.
I immediately thought back to CBC-TV's brilliant series The Tenth Decade which looked at the pounding rivalry between prime ministers John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson.
This  one ran in 1972 and the Sunday night ratings went through the roof for CBC.
There followed a similar look at Pierre Trudeau's decade in politics but Trudeau insisted on so much content control this one seemed fizzled into a series of warm and fuzzy anecdotes.
I do know from a CBC source CBC has another "mini" all ready on Brian Mulroney but a certain scandal postponed it and it has never been seen or heard of since.
But Jean Chretien and Paul Martin are alert and able bodied but CBC doesn't seem to be interested in political documentaries anymore?
Why? Well, CBC does receive %1 billion in public funding after all.
And contrast the way feisty, independent CNN is treating Donald TRump and his scandals with the way CBBC has tip topes all around the first big scandal to have it Justin Trudeau.
It's strange but I never see anything "Canadian" on the HIstory Channel.
Canadian political specials can't be sold abroad because other countries just aren't interested in us.
I still want to see the  Mulroney miniseries which has now been a decade in the making.
Meanwhile I'll be staying home next Sunday night for another chapter of  that remarkable political dynasty --the Bushes.
And this just in: CNN has told me another political mini series Tricky Dick based on guess what U.S. president is coming up starting on March 17.
So what about it CBC?

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

I Remember Fay Wray

I'm supposed to be on bed rest after a major operation but a brand new book arrived in the post and I just couldn't stop reading it until the wee hours.
Titled Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir, the book os from Pantheon Press and written by daughter Victoria Riskin.
And I can report it's a must read for anyone interested in Hollywood history.
And I can also report I was proud to be a friend with Fay Wray the Canadian born "Scream Queen" who starred in such classics as King Kong and Mystery Of The Wax Museum.
I first met Miss Wray at the checout counter at Gelson's Supermarket in June 1972.
I was then on my first trip to L.A. as the kidlet TV critic for The Hamilton Spectatir -=-=it was the first week in June and I arrived at the Century Plaza hotel and immediately went across the street to pick up dsome groceries.
There I was standing in line --I was wearing my Carleton University blazer --and there was a tug on my arm and the smartly dressed brunette lady behind me whispered "I'm a Canadian, too."
It was Fay Wray!
She lived across the plaza in a towering high riser with her third husband, famed neurosurgeon Dr. Samndy Rothen berg who worked just across the street at the Century Plaza hotel.
And we retired to a tea shop and talked all afternoon.
That converasation appeared in Leonard Maltin'smovie mafgazine Film FanMonthly and was thestart of a beautiful friendship.
I remember phoning her up when the remake of King Kong came out and her sharp reply: "I am the one and only Ann Darrow."
Over tea that day and later on she'd regale me with stories of working with the likes of Spencer Tracy and Wallace Beery.
But above all she remained a proud Canadian. The gigantic boulder outside the family ranch Wrayland was later transported to L.A. and rested on the lawn of her son Bobby.
The last rune we met in person was back in L.a.  in 1988 when she (aged 81) was promoting her autobiography On The Other HJand and she roared up to the restaurtanmt in her fancy red convertible.
Wray's life and times has been perfectly recorded by daughter Victoria.
Wrtay's second huisband was writer Robert Riskin who scripted most of the great Framnl Capra movies--Victoria finally gives her dad his due place in history.
The stills are wonderful, the stories ring true.
I' was just lucky to go went shopping for supplies that June day in 1972 or I  never would have met the legendary scream queen Fay WEray.

Monday, February 11, 2019

I Answer Your Em-Mails

At the Toronto Star I used to get a flood of letters regarding my columns on TV.
These days there are no letters but emails instead.
So here's a sampling of what's bothering viewers these days:
Dear Jim: I love watching CBB for its extensive coverage of American politics. My question is simply this:" why is CBC News so timid about covering Canadian politics? Mrs. H.K., Thornhill.
This is an easy one. CBC gets a grant of $1 billion a year so why would the Corp try to antagonize Justin Trudeau. The only sparky Canadian TV news show is CTV's nightly news at 11 p.m. hosted by the determined Lisa LaFlamme who knows just when to pop the tough questions.
Dear Jim: When I was growing up I feasted on such CBC kids shows as Mr. Dressup, Friendly Giant and Chez Helene. Now that I'm a mom I cant find anything left? Am I wrong or right? D.J., Hamilton,Ontario.
Dear D.J.: Absolutely right. I remember interviewing Friendly alias Bob Homme and he was adamant he'd never allow any toys to be made in his image. He took his educational duties very seriously.
Dear Jim: I've been trying for years to see CBC's 1962 version  of Pale Horse, Pale Rider directed by Eric Till and starring Keir Dullea. Why is it never shown on TV these days. R.S., Niagara Falls.
Dear R.S.: CBC has a warehouse in Mississauga filled to the overbrimming with classic TV shows it claims can't be shown these days because the copyright has lapsed. In terms of Pale Horses, Pale Rider the dramas pecial can only be shown at TV festivals where it gets standing  ovations. CBC has dozens of such shows and one veteran producer told me CBC is afraid of showing how great it once was compared to its contemporary fare. Biggest CBC hit of all times Beachcombers has never even been out in boxed DVD sets
Dear Jim: I'm sick of watching such American series as CSI on CTV's "E" Channel which are used as filler. Why can't we see such top CTV series as ENG instead of this constant flow of American fare? G.T., Vancouver.
Dear G.T: But CSI counts as 100% Canadian content. Because the series and spinoffs were financed by Alliance Atlantis! I agree ENG was a top show but it never even went out as DVD boxed sets. CBC is currently reviving Street Legal but that one has been in the vaults for so long few people remember it., I fear.
Dear Jim: What happened to Canadian TV movies? R.H., Simcoe.
Dear R.H.: All gone. CTV used to have 10 of these great TV movies a year but found the shows didn't do well in reruns and few of these ever went out on DVD. CBC has also virtually withdrawn from the TV movie field claiming they are too expensive. But some old CBC TV movie  titles do show up on Vision from time to time.
Dear Jim: Can CBC be saved? S.S., Toronto.
Dear S.S.: I say yes but only drastically revised as a northern version of PBS. Young people are completely intolerant of commercials, you see. CBC needs additional funding to become competitive once again.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Is Canadian TV Finished?

So  there I was at a luxury Christmas lunch in Toronto where many eminent Canadians were eating, drinking and being merry.
I hadn't been in this section of northern Rosedale for decades --in fact in the Sixties I'd deliver parcels for Eatons --I remember one day at a bus stop munching my lunch and talking up a moist and garrulous old timer who I later learned was out most successful novelist --Morley Callaghan.
But, alas, times have changed.
When I started out at the Toronto Star in 1979 circulation was booming and had just hit 640,000 daily plus 950,000 on Saturdays/.
But at this particular party the talk was all about the fadingof Canadian TV.
Here are some of the notes I jotted down:
NOVELIST NUMBER 1: CBC is finished. All the high arts have vanished. In the Fifties I'd watch live ballets and operas commissioned by the Corp. Now I like so many others must tune to PBS for cultural fulfillment.
NOVELIST 2: CBC doesn't even own Hockey Night In Canada any more. Those revenues now go to Rogers. In the past plush ads from all those beer commercials could be used for arts programming.
ME: Thelast time I interviewed the great director of these specials --Norman Campbell --he was sharing a tiny office with Frank Shuster who was doing a best of special that reaped big numbers. But this was his last ever CBC special.
TV WRITER: THese days all production is assigned to outside producers. They are going to do the reboot of Street Legal but SL hasn't been om TV in a decade so who remembers it?
PRODUCER: I keep asking CTV why they re-run CSI episodes on their E channel and in such volume. Does anybody know?
ME: Since it was financed by Alliance Atlantis it is considered Canadian content--believe it or not.
LIBRARIAN: If I could pick one golden oldie from the CBC archives to re-watch I'd pick the drama special; Pale Horse, Pale Rider which starred Keir Dullea and 9090909090.
BAWDEN: There's a print in the CBC Mississauga archives. A friend recently saw it and it truly stands up. Me, I'd pick Dame Edith Evans in the live CBC TV production of The Importance Of Being Ernest
--it's the only time she did it for TV. Right here in Toronto!
NEIGHBOR: Will the private Canadian networks last longer than CBC I wonder?
BAWDEN: No, because they mainly pick up American fare and run these shows the same time as the U.S. stations. They have no identity to begin with.
DIRECTOR: But I like CTV News at 11 --it's speedy and well put together whereas The National now seems a disaster.
ACTRESS: Why is CBC so vicious to Donald Trump and why does CBC let Justin Trudeau get away with so much.
ME:: Because CBC is heavily dependent on the $1 million annual subsidy paid out by the federal government.
ACTOR: Can Canadian TV be saved?
BAWDEN: BBC now has a new service BRIT BOX which recycles the great past hits. I haven't seen CBC's counter GEM as yet but various head producers told me over the years the reason for refusing to rerun past hits was simple: they didn't want Canadians to be so nostalgic over the Corp
s past hits.
AUTHORESS: But Canadian books are also in crisis. There are fewer newspaopers. I see young people on the subway with their tablets whereas in the good old days they'd be reading the paper. Bookstores are an endangered species.
MELA teem down the street told me she'd gotten through high school without reading a single novel.
AUTHOR: Well, they've taken To Kill A Mockimnhbird out of the curriculum. Considered racist!
BAWDEN: Now that we've solved all of life's confusion join me in toasting the man Edmiund Wilson called The Chekov of the North: Morley Callaghan!


Saturday, October 27, 2018

Another Power Lunch

I always enjoy my long, lingering power lunches with a top Canadian TV actress, a veteran opublicist and one of TV's most prolific producers.
Here are highlights of our conversation last week at a top Danforth eatery.
ME: I need your input about the new Canadian TV season.
PRODUCER: What, there is a new season? Every year the pickings seem slimmer. There are no TV movies left. Many greast Canadian TV series have never even been on DVD --the biggest example is Beachcombers. Now CBC is trying to relaunch Street Legal but that one has been off TV for so long its audience has petered away.
ACTRESS: BBC has collected all of their old TV hits and is plopping them into a new streaming service called Brit Box. Why can't CBC do something like that?
ME: CBC tells me it doesn't want to invite comparisons with the golden years and today's lean times.
PR: I remember the last time I met CBC's greatest director Norman Campbell and he had a cubbyhole of an office and wasn't working at all. Those lavish ballets and operas he'd once produced are no longer part of CBC's service.
ME: In the 1970s CBC had a budget crunch much like today's. So they came up with a Sunday afternoon TV series Rear-View Mirror whgich consisted of choice repeats from the archives. Veronica Tenant hosted and it was a big hit and satisfied the artsy crowd.
PRODUCER: I can't start a new drama series without an American co-producer. Economically --I just can't do it. And Americans want a certain type of show that really is alien to Canadian values.
ACTRESS: I'm busy as all heck right now. Can't complain. But I'm getting most of my work on American based dramas filmed in Toronto. But sometimes I just wish I could tackle a Canadian project.
ME: The biggest threat to Canadian TV? It's all the U.S. streaming services which are eating away at the ratings of the traditional Canadian TV channels. The tipping point will be coming within a few more seasons.
PRODUCER: Canadian TV has always relied on cheap U.S. imports to finance its Canadian shows. I was at CBC when the network bought The Mary Tyler Moore Show --the cost was $2,500 an episode. Can you bel;ieve it? There was no way any Canadian producer could finance a Canadian series with that small a fee. So the Canadian networks would gorge on new American hits and plop in cheape Canadian shows into the schedule holes.
ME: That's correct. There never has been a long running Canadian soap opera. The only night tal;k shows I can think of are Gzowski and Mike Bullard.
ACTRESS: And yet The Handmaiden's Tale is Canadian and terrific I also liked the CTV drama Motive. If the funds are available Canadian TV can come through with fully competitive. series.
ME: I have a friend who went down to the video stores with a long list of Canadian TV series and movies. She wanted to get her students interested in these shows. She was shocked her favorite ever Canadian TV drama ENG never made it to DVD. The Beachcombers was also unavailable. She did buy a copy of the wonderful Wendy Crewson TV flick Getting Married In Buffalo Jump --it is out via an American source and sells for $74.99!
PRODUCER: I'd love to remount Front Page Challenge and get Canadian stars like Martin Short onboard as panelists. I notice there's almost no Canadian history on the History Channel.
ACTRESS: I say bring back Luncheon Date! You laugh but it was a great showcase for Canadian talent.
ME: And now that we've solved all the problems of Canadian TV who is picking up the cheque?

Friday, September 21, 2018

Equus Opens New Season of Nature Of Things Quite Brilliantly

These are dark days for Canadian TV as viewership shrinks and other platforms compete for viewers.
And then along comes a miniseries as brilliant as Equus and just maybe I'm thinking there is a future for Canadian TV providing the highest standards are observed.
Equus will run three consecutive weeks on The Nature Of Things starting Sunday September 23 at 8 p.m. on CBC-TV. Got that?
This is a mighty impressive undertaking three years in the making and with a cast of thousands ----horses that is plus the requisite humans.
It certainly is a labor of love for Edmonton filmmaker Niobe Thompson who says at more than $1 million an episode it is one of the most expensive documentary projects in CBC's history.
Cambridge educated but with a penchant for explaining complex subjects Thompson tells me on the phone from his Edmonton base that he wanted to tell the complete story of man's best friend.
"I knew the broad outlines --some 6,000 years ago horses were domesticated and changed the course of human history. It resulted in a huge change in human civilization and this was quite rapid. "
So we get to visit Kazakhstan where domestication first occurred on the steppes of Asia. It's here Thompson gets to milk a horse and he says the milk tastes delicious.
But how to document all this?
"Getting the right images to fit our story was the real challenge. We're in Siberia where horses still thrive in the coldest climate of earth.
"We also go to Saudi Arabia and one of the hottest climates and we show how the Arabian horses can exist and thrive in such a hot climate."
In Siberia Thompson worked as part of a crew of three --the images he gets with the indigenous peoples are marvelous--I just think these people delighted in showing how horses continue to enrich their existence. We worked  there with two cameramen and no sound man and I think we got some pretty remarkable stuff."
Thompson showcases the work of German anthropologist Martin Fisher who takes us on an animated tour of how horses evolved from tiny creatures able to climb trees to the noble animals of today.
Says Thompson "Fisher was able to show how these tiny forest dwellers evolved as the gigantic forests dwindled and gave way to savannah where the modern horses could truly thrive.
Besides director-producer Thompson the other ace cinematographers are Daron Donahue, Aaron Munson,and Darren Fung's soundtrack is another plus.
The images are sweeping, the editing is very tight but after watching all three hours in one go I was left wishing for more.
For me the recreation of ancient warfare was one highlight --the Egyptian sketches show mighty kings who could race chariots and mow down competitors with bow and arrow --Thompson shows how that was possible up to a certain point. Chariots are even built to the ancient specifications.
There's the obligatory visit to Kentucky and the world of thoroughbred racing.
One outstanding sequence shows how modern First Nations riders celebrate their culture that includes horse races.
I learned horses do have a wide range of facial expressions, sport 360 degree vision but for me there's a sadness at the end. Few young people in cities get to interact with horses and celebrate the uniqueness of this animal.
Thompson says financing this huge project was an undertaking in itself. There'll be a different version delivered to PBS, another cut for BBC.
I'd like to see the three hours presented in a box set for sale.
Another first: Nature Of Things host David Suzuki does not narrate this miniseries.
At a time when Canadian TV seems to be cutting back the three-hour Equus shows us how spectacular Canadian TV can still be with the right material.
MY RATING: ****.