Friday, December 6, 2013
I've just previewed the new HBO special Six By Sondheim which is a sort of That's Stephen Sondheim as it ranges far and wide through the extraordinary Broadway career of the famed composer.
And I'm prepared to say it is by far the best TV special I've seen this year.
The special debuts on HBO Canada Monday night at 9. Got that?
The method is simplicity itself. Frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine has collected virtually every TV interview Sondheim ever gave from the young and dewey composer on Mike Douglas, David Frost, Dick Cavett to the aging great man to finally today the 83-year old legend.
Lapine organizes the 90-minute batch of reminiscences around six key songs written by Sondheim.
First up there's "Something's Coming" which he wrote on the road for a very young Larry Kert to give the character range near the beginning of West Side Story --or rather Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's music.
Five other songs get highlighted starting with "Opening Doors" from the flop Merrily We Roll Along which get re-staged (unnecessarily I feel) by theee bright young things: Darren Criss, America Ferrera and Jeremy Jordan.
There is amazing archival footage of Dean Jones singing "Being Alive" from the original Broadway cast recording session of Company --Jones really socks it.
Also highlighted is "Send In The Clowns" from A Little Night Music which ends with a masterful refrain of all the performers who have used this bright song including Liz Taylor, Sinatra, Carol Burnett, you name it..
"I'm Still Here" is the song Sondheim chose from Follies which he says he originally wrote based on the career of Joan Crawford.
There's an archival clip of Yvonne De Carlo belting it out and then surprise! it's a newly staged version with a male performer (Jarvis Cocker).
"Sunday" from Sunday In The Park With George finds Bernadette Peters and Mandy Pstinkin in an archival clip.
Weaving everything together are Sondheim's reminiscences --some are newly filmed and then click we're back with the composer chatting up Mike Douglas or Andre Previn.
What emerges is a history of the Broadway musical over the past 50 years starting with West Side Story.
Then comes Gypsy with Ethel Merman who refused permission for Sondheim to wrote the music --she wanted the more established Julie Styne so Sondheim settled for the lyrics.
And footage of the original cast on stage has been unearthed --obviously some fan was shooting home movies in the big Broadway theater and got away with it.
In personal asides Sondheim talks about his parents' unhappy marriage and subsequent divorce and the heartbreaking letter his mother wrote to him before she underwent heart surgery.
He says that starting as a teenager his real father was certainly famed Broadway wroter Oscar Hammerstein who he has always wanted to emulate.
In one anecdote Hammerstein savages a 15-year-old's first musical compositions and Sondheiom today says it was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Because he has never been full of himself but always questioning every line of every lyric.
The anecdotes about writing to Ethel Merman's strengths and weaknesses are choice but I wish more had been made of what a bombshell Company was when it opened.
The skill of editing makes all the interviews seem as one with the composer aging gracefully into the octogenarian eager to share his talents and experiences with younger talent.
As a trip down memory lane Six By Sondheim will have you wanting more. And more.
SIX BY SONDHEIM PREMIERES ON HBO CANADA MONDAY DECEMBER 9 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
The burning question of the day is the future survivability of the CBC.
So I'm asking every one to tune in to this week's Nature Of Things offering, a fantastic hour documentary titled Where Am I?
It revs up on CBC-TV Thursday night (Dec. 5) at 8. Got that?
You'll watch --as I did with a preview copy --and all doubts about the ability of CBC to continue as public TV will surely be resolved.
Where Am I? certainly could not exist on any other network.
It's a long labor of love from director/writer Bruce Mohun and looks at a persistently nagging question I've always had: how do we get from here to there and still know the way.
"Years ago we pitched this idea to Nature Of Things," says Bruce Mohun on the line from his Vancouver office, "and we were told the subject had already been snapped up."
But Mohun is persistent and he asked several years later why the anticipated documentary had never shown up only to be told it was abandoned.
"We snapped it up and here we are," he says with a chuckle.
The broad subject is navigation skills. Some of us have the ability in spades. Others like yours truly can get lost walking down any long, winding street.
Which is what I did the first time I was in London.
I deposited my bags at the Russell Hotel took a walk and found myself going in the wrong direction as night fell. A very nice bus conductor told me the points of reference I was using were just plain wrong and I wound up hailing a cab to get back to Russell Square.
Mohun says some people are good at it, others less so.
He also tries to come to grips with the notion men are better at directions than women thinking this goes back ten thousand years when males were the hunters and gatherers.
Some of the studies he looks at say taxi drivers are much better at this than bus drivers as they do not proceed over the same fixed routes all the time.
But since many taxi drivers are now using GPS the actual size of those brain muscles that help them out are expected to shrink to the size of a bus driver's.
I agree this hour could have turned out deadly dull.
Instead it is chock full of exciting visual moments.
One test expertly caught by Mohun looks at veteran Inuit hunters who even in "blowing snow" conditions can find their way home.
I'm not going to ruin your pleasure by explaining how here --just watch and understand it's a technique not always being passed on to the next generation.
Another great scene involves desert ants in a Spanish made game of survivability and navigation skills. Just how do those tiny pin prick brains of theirs always manage to steer them in the right direction?
The talking heads interviewed here really do talk up a storm: University of Calgary's neuroscientist Giuseppe Iaria who ventures into the frozen north, Canadian psychologist Nora Newcombe of Temple University, Roboticist Michael Mangan of the University of Edinburgh, and Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings who constantly immerses himself in maps and when tested is indeed at the head of the class for navigational skills.
Visuals are excellent and there's even the warning that turning off your GPS and trying to solve problems of dislocation could be aids in battling Alzheimer's,
Where Am I? took a long time to make and no other network but CBC would be prepared to run such a challenging hour --and remember Nature Of Things tosses these off effortlessly every week.
Mohun made it for Dreamfilm Productions which has won Geminis in the past and may win more awards with this one.
Cheers also go to the director of photography (John Collins) and the editor (Tim Wanlin) and veteran producer Sue Ridout.
Mohun claims I once reviewed a TV comedy show he'd written "in the 1980s" --that would have to be 1989's Starting From Scratch starring Connie Stevens, right Bruce?
Right then Mohun apologized for ringing off --"we have another one for NOT on allergies coming up in February --we're editing it right now."
WHERE AM I? PREMIERES ON CBC-TV's NATURE OF THINGS THURSDAY DECEMBER 5 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ***1/2.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
In 1970 I started covering TV as the critic for The Globe And Mail replacing an ailing Blaik Kirby.
I sat next to Kirby during my two summers at Canada's "Grey Lady" and enjoyed his wit --he was given the job because he despised the medium and openly boasted he watched less TV than the ordinary Canadian.
In September 1971 I jumped ship to become the kid TV critic for The Hamilton Spectator a middling paper of 140,000 circulation but one which had always had TV coverage.
The TV universe in 1971 was vastly different than it is today.
At first I had only to cover seven stations : Buffalo's Channel 4 (WBEN), 7 (WKBW) and 2 (WGR) as well as PBS's Channel 17.
In the "Golden Horseshoe" one could get these canadian stations: CBLT (Channel 5), CTV's CFTO (Channel 9) and Hamilton feisty independent CHCH-TV.
TVOntario was just about to burst on the horizon as was Toronto's CITY-TV, Channel 79 --when it came on the signal was too weak to hit Hamilton and some people in my apartment building would venture to a Burlington motel on a Friday night to catch the station's raunchy adult movies.
The job just was different in those days.
For one thing there were no cassettes so to preview an upcoming special I'd have to drive into Toronto and watch it unspool in a screening room --CBC has a block of these tiny theaters in its Bay street offices.
In fact there was no CBC headquarters in those days.
The network had grown all over the place.
Up Yonge Street was the studio where Front Page Challenge was taped --also important dramas like the black and white version of Macbeth starring a young Scots named Sean Connery.
It was made by CBC's schools department because Ontario's Grade 13 students were taking Macbeth that year.
Down on Jarvis Street CBC Radio occupied the Victorian premises of an old girls' school. A Victorian house beside it, dunned "The Kremlin" was the headquarters for local station CBLT.
I met this year's Nobel prize winner there, Alice Munro whose book of stories had been made into a CBC-TV movie titled Lives Of Girls And Women.
But when producer Ross McLean tried to get the live feed from the next building into the screening room there was a flash of light and then no signal at all.
The charming Alice Munro simply shrugged her shoulders and got into her car for the drive back to London.
Beside there was a five story TV complex that housed several studios including the one shared by Friendly Giant and The National News.
A smaller studio built on the side later was the place where Adrienne Clarkson and Paul Soles hosted the daily afternoon show Take 30 --when visiting I always could hear the traffic out on Jarvis.
I remember one interview with singer Juliette when she said alarm bells sounded when one episode of her Saturday night music show failed to reach the necessary 3 million viewers.
Wait a minute? Three million!
By 1970 competition had whittled that number way down.
CBC's 1970 dictionary definition of a hit was 1 million for a series and 2 million for a TV special or movie.
Let's flash forward 43 years and once again CBC is in crisis.
From 1970 and the definition of TV as a "Tube of Plenty" we're into a universe of hundreds of networks, stations, specialty channels.
CBC's National now gets an average 400,000 viewers a night at 10 p.m. against CTV news's 1.2 million at 11.
In 1970 CBC produced its own operas, ballets, music specials --all have gone the way of such sparkling kids' series as Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup.
TV movies? One or two a year at best compared to the weekly dosage back then.
And the other day as I visited CBC --this time in a huge white elephant of a plant on Front Street West I once again wondered about the long term fate of the visibly declining public corporation.
I got off at the wrong floor and wandered through long, narrow corridors --when I peered through the doors all I could see was abandoned space for all the shows already shuttered.
On the top floor there are these gigantic but empty studios used for making musicals and comedy spectaculars.
One is named after legendary director Norman Campbell who I'd frequently interview in the old days.
Last time we met (he died in ) he was sitting along in a bleak CBC office telling me he'd never been able to work in the studio named after him "because it would be too expensive."
All the new cable weblets which have sprung up were supposed to pick up the slack.
Instead Canadians are watching more American TV than ever befpre.
When my predecessor at The Toronto Star, Jack Miller, sat down in 1975 with the BBM ratings books fhe estimated the average Torontonian watched less than 10 % Canadian shows during prime time over an average week.
Jack's revelations resulted in questions in parliament.
Today that figure must be lower than 5 % --it's just that nobody cares anymore.
Every year CBC's budgets gets whittled down a little bit more --I've termed it death by a thousand cuts.
With Rogers gobbling up hockey CBC will be deprived of a desperately needed $200 million in revenues.
NHL Hockey provides Rogers with a huge block of Canadian content meaning it no longer has to legally produce much in the way of Canadian dramas and comedy. Rogers already dumped Murdoch Mysteries as too costly (CBC picked it up).
Remember one hour of "Cancom" counts as 90 minutes --there's a special bonus given to the networks to do what they should have been doing all along.
CTV knew that decades ago when it would run world ice skating championships with Johnny Esaw night after night --the network was stockpiling buckets of "Cancom" enabling it to ditch most Canadian shows for the next few months.
Right now it's CBC that has been placed in peril by the sell out of NHL hockey which has been on CBC since TV started in 1952.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
This isn't the way Canadian TV was supposed to evolve.
I should know --during the 1970s as the kid TV critic from The Hamilton Spectator I was obliged to sit through hundreds of CRTC meetings about the future of Canadian TV.
Even then the failure of the private networks and stations to come up with adequate Canadian content. was the big talking point.
CTV for example in those days had such "Canadian" series as Stars On Ice, Half The George Kirby Comedy Hour, Definition and Police Surgeon.
CHCH countered with Ein Prosit, Pierre Berton interviews and The Hilarious House Of Frightenstein.
Not good enough railed powerful CRTC president Pierre Juneau (later head of CBC).
He worried too much power was being placed in the hands of a few broadcasters and that American cheap programming was driving away quality Canadian TV fare.
When cable came along Juneau wanted a diverse landscape. For example the CRTC originally licensed the W network because it promised to be based in Winnipeg.
Similarly CBC Newsworld promised to use Calgary as the hub for all its production.
But these days while the number of cable networks has grown the number of owners has shrunk.
These days the big players are perfectly few: Shaw Media which gobbled the old Global network; Bell Media who owns the old CTV chain; and Rogers which has most of the old CHUMCity stations.
Rogers Media's capture for $5.2 billion of rights to most NHL hockey games is a stunning game changer.
Veteran TV scribe Bill Brioux has the best take on his .com TVFeedsMyFamily --he notices the old Hockey Night In Canada jingle is now owned by CTV but its sister cable weblet TSN will have few occasions to run the song in the futre.
CBC gets the rights to four more years of Saturday Night hockey but in a form where the production and the profit is controlled by Rogers.
That's a whole lot of change and makes me fearful Rogers may make future cuts in its Canadian content shows. to pay all for this.
Remember Rogers already dumped Murdoch Mysteries as too expensive and currently has very little scripted Canadian drama at all --it's simply cheaper to import inane Canadian fare.
In this latest round of acquisitions it's you the customer who might suffer the most --the options are dwindling to just a few players at best.
Monday, November 25, 2013
So there I was the other day watching the very first episode of The Lucy-Desi comedy Hour, the hour long sequel to CBS's much loved I Love Lucy show.
And I caught what seemed to be one of TV's first crossovers in the episode titled Lucy Takes A Cruise
There was Lucy as Lucy and Ann Sothern as her TV character Susie McNamara--the date was 1957.
When Lucy repaid the favor a year later Ann Sothern had switched to a new character and a new series --in 1959 she was no Katy O'Connor and it was The Ann Sothern Show,
All of this is a long winded way of explaining that "crossovers" have been a TV staple for decades.
Except on Canadian TV.
I once tried to interest Yvan Fecan in one when he was programming czar at CBC.
I suggested Fecan's show Street Legal be crossed with CTV's ENG to perk up ratings.
But it was pointed out to me that crossovers only work on the same network --and usually it has to be the same production studio as well.
So I'm ready to welcome that great Canadian TV rarity --a crossover as Allan Hawco of Republic Of Doyle makes an extra special guest appearance on CBC-TV Monday night at 9 on Murdoch Mysteries.
Both shows run on CBC, both are huge Canadian hits but the question is does Hawco have to time travel to be present as Jake Doyle.
He plays Jake's great-great-grandfather and the episode is even titled "Republic of Murdoch" and Hawco has been saying he'd be crazy to have passed it up.
The well written script is by Peter Mitchell and Paul Aitken and begins in Toronto where Yannick Bisson's Murdoch discover a dead man with an ancient map.
The clues lead to Newfoundland which at the turn of the century was a British dominion of its own and Jacob Diyle becomes a prime murder suspect.
And Yannick Bisson returns the favor by playing his character's great-great grandson in an episode of Republic Of Doyle to run in January.
Which means the bachelor detective of 1900 must marry at some time in the future --are we talking here about a lavish TV wedding --another sure fire ratings getter.
At one time crossovers were all the rage on U.S. prime time TV.
I can remember covering the epic TV meeting between Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote) and Tom Sellecks's Thomas Magnum from Magnum, P.I.
In another crossover I wrote about the TV story began on Marcus Welby and ended on Owen Marshall. Both shows were made by Universal for ABC.
Buddy Ebsen once told me the only episode of his long running series Barnaby Jones not in syndication was a crossover --again with Murder She Wrote (I think).
Nobody could figure who owned those two episodes so they've been deliberately with held.
In recent years NBC's Crossing Jordan did several crossovers.
And when the spin off CSI: NY came into being there was the inevitable crossover with CSI:Miami.
Other Canadian crossovers may be harder to arrange.
Did CBC's Friendly Giant ever do a guest turn on Mr. Dressup --their studios were close by.
Or could CTV's Lisa LaFlamme suddenly turn up one day beside CBC's Peter Mansbridge as they arm wrestle for the anchor chair?
Rick Mercer is spoofing Murdoch on the actual set Tuesday at 9 on CBC --does that count as well ?
Saturday, November 23, 2013
Watching Meet The Sloths is just about the slowest and most soothing TV experience I've ever had.
The eight part series from the U.K. has its Canadian premiere Saturday November 23 at 8 p.m. on Animal Planet.
All the "action" takes place at Costa Rica's Sloth Sanctuary where a hardy band of slothaholics tend to the needs of over 150 sloths.
They've been placed here after suffering accidents in the wild and without human care and attention they'd surely perish.
The half hour episodes are filled with insights about slothdom. I always thought the furry critters cute and lazy.
Turns out they're cute and the perpetual slumber comes from the amount of energy needed to digest their primary sources of food which are chock full of toxins --one test shows it takes a whopping 31 days for an adult sloth to digest one of his meals.
Besides the sloths the program also salutes the remarkable women who tend to the needs of the dozing sloths: British sloth expert Becky, Claire the manager of the compound and owner Judy.
Judy set up the sanctuary 20 years ago and has since saved hundreds of sloths from the jaws of death.
Sloths are found in the rain forests of Central and Southern america --they can grow to about two feet long and their life span can actually reach 40 years.
We get to meet the senior citizen of the compound Buttercup who is a stately matron of 20 years.
But we also go out on a rescue mission where a baby abandoned by its mother is clinging to life in a tall tree.
We learn about the various infections that can threaten the life of young sloths.
But the theory all soths are slow is challenged in a race between two sloths for food --the winner travels three meters in less than a minute.
'The sloth is perfectly adapted to life in the highest branches of the rain forest. Placed on the ground and it is subject to various predators.
Living their lives upside down makes for all kinds of problems discussed in varying shades of details here.
There's even a menage a trois sloth style in episode two.
But just watch the varying efforts to save the life of little Jesse and try not shedding a tear or two.
The half hours are a perfect length for younger viewer I'm thinking.
So give Meet The Sloths a chance and don't be too slow about it or you'll miss the series.
MEET THE SLOTHS PREMIERES ON ANIMAL PLANET SATURDAY NOVEMBER 23 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ***1/2.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
CBCTV unveiled its 2014 winter schedule at a low keyed party deep within the bowels of the Corp's flagship building on Toronto's Front Street West.
The network should certainly emerge as the ratings winner during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Returning hit, Mr. D starring Gerry Dee include Ron James and the third season of Arctic Air.
There'll be a new prime time satire The Best Laid Plans, a cooking competition called Recipe To Riches and something called Four Rooms starring collectibles authorities.
CBC will also be broadcasting in partnership with the NHL the seven-part series NHL Revealed: A Season Like No Other to premiere Thursday January 23.
The six-part political satire The Best Laid Plans premieres Sunday January 5 and stars Kenneth Welsh and Jonas Chernick.
I had a chance to chat up the reinvigorated stars of Arctic Air Adam Beach and Pascale Hutton.
I told them just a few weeks ago I'd met for the first time the real life stars of Ice Pilots --Arctic Air is the fictionalized saga of the originals.
"Highly fictionalized," joked Beach. "We're still filming but the conditions are getting tougher by the day. Those guys are doing the real thing right through those winter blizzards."
Hutton told me her character Krista will return after months abroad and determined to try to forget the overseas romance with Tag Cummins (Niall Matter).
"She'll be trying to assume more responsibilities with the airline, it's her turn to shine. I think stories will be more personal this year --we did perhaps too many adventure tales last season. Now it's time to focus on the characters."
One casting note: series hunk Adam DiMarco who shines in Rogers TV commercials is out as Kirby Nystoruk.
Beach says "I fought to keep him, he's that good but his character didn't fit into the story any more."
Beach also told me "The warmer the country the more receptive the viewers there are to Arctic Air. We get fan mail from many countries where snow is never seen. And even some fans turn up at the set because they want to see where it's all put together."
I also had a reunion of sorts with Yannick Bisson whose show Murdoch Mysteries is now in its record breaking seventh season.
And it's now on three different Canadian networks: reruns still turn up on Citytv as well as FX Canada and new episodes continue on CBC.
Bisson agrees with me his interpretation is far different from the first Murdoch, played in several TV movies as brooding and defiantly Catholic (in a Protestant city) by Peter Outerbridge.
When Bisson took over and the concept turned into a TV series he adopted a far lighter tone turning the detective into a sort of Victorian matinee idol.
"We give viewers a little comedy, the mystery for sure, a historical turn of the Victorian era. It's a little bit of several genres."
I've been interviewing Bisson since I first noticed him aged 15 in the TV movie Hockey Night with Megan Follows. Unlike some of his contemporaries he always knew where he was going in terms of his career and he has blossomed into a certifiable TV leading man.
I also chatted up Carlo Rota (Little Mosque On The Prairie) of the new series Recipe For Riches, a reality competition pitting amateur cooks against each other with weekly winners finally competing for a $250,000 prize from President's Choice.
In February come the Sochi games a sure fire bet for CBC ratings supremacy with more than 1,500 broadcast hours in Fench and English.
Clearly it's a winter season for CBC to shine.