Tuesday, January 5, 2021

CBC's Nature Of Things Is Back With A Bang

I well remember the time a CBC head of production told me on the eve of The Nature Of Things's 50th anniversary he was going to cancel the venerable show at season's end.

When I duly reported such nonsense all heck burst forth and that decision was quickly rescinded.

And now? Nature Of Things continues and prospers and this Friday's production titled Searching For  Cleopatara is one of its best in recent seasons.

This hour has a bit of everything: some snippets from very bad Cleopatra movies to the exciting unearthing of an unknown tomb located perhaps in the monument where Cleopatra herself may have been buried.

Can I add  here by stating when I interviewed Claudette Colbert in 1984 (she was 81 and making her only TV miniseries) she confessed how totally frightened she was of snakes when working with Cecil B. DeMille on the suicide scene in. his production of Cleopatra.  This hour promptly disposes of most of the Cleopatra myth: she was actually Greek from the Ptolmey line.

But was she as ravishing a beauty as Elizabeth Taylor? Rare golden coins unearthed near a possible burial site suggest she had quite a nose.  And we're told fairly early on that the queen's actual burial site has yet to be discovered.

One current site that has some prospect is the "City of the Dead" located just outside the city of Alexandria. There's quite some excitement as one tomb gets discovered and two bodies are found, one of them in surprisingly decent condition.

"But this is not the queen." executive producer Alan Handel is telling me on the phone. "Not grand enough but perhaps indicative of other burials nearby. The archeologists are getting closer."

To humanize the story the events are seen through the enthusiastic comments of Kathleen Martinez who has made discovering the queen's tomb almost an obsession. She's aided by British Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley and we share their enthusiasms every time another artifact is discovered.

What emerges is a portrait of a queen who reigned over some seven million subjects right into what is now Syria and was skilled at survival techniques, We learn there was a tsunami in  365 AD which may gave scattered some precious artifacts over a considerable distance and hindered the current quest for her grave.

What emerges is far more exciting than any Claudette Colbert or Elizabeth Taylor epic.

Handel tells me there are various lengths for foreign sales--he has turned it into an historical mystery, beautifully shot and tightly edited, in short another big hit for a venerable CBC  TV series still filled with surprises. Made by Rezolution Pictures and Handel Productions (written and directed by Susan Teskey and Rosalind Bain).


MY RATING: ****.


Thursday, December 31, 2020

E-Mails, I Get E-Mails!

DEAR JIM: Please explain why BBC Canada is going off the air?( Mrs. H. K. (Thunder Bay).

BAWDEN: I say hurrah! The system was operated by Corus Entertainment but BBC kept  its best product to be sold to the highest bidder.

Instead we got chunks of bad thrillers like Shakespeare And Hathaway, The Antiques Roadshow, a very bad variety show with instalments often years old and whatever weak comedies BBC couldn't sell to the highest bidders.

BBC is now going to set up its own streaming service but you'll have to pay of course. That's the way TV is evolving into a chain of pay TV services.

DEAR JIM: Why is CTV clogging the airwaves this past week with entire reruns of such U.S. imports as CSI ?  What happened to Canadian content (R.H, Simcoe).

BAWDEN: I've been watching some of the many episodes of CSI. Would you believe some of its offshoots were financed by Alliance Atlantis and count as Canadian content? The episodes are beautifully shot with many exteriors and the cost would be prohibitive in any Canadian series that chose to be competitive.

DEAR JIM: Why have Canadian TV movies disappeared from the air (D.Y., Oakville).

BAWDEN: As we get more and more channels the quality of TV begins to deteriorate as networks struggle with an ever shrinking audience. The old 10 channel system meant live operas, ballets, adaptations such as Sean Connery in a great CBC-TV production of Macbeth. All gone now because CBCX can't afford such quality stuff anymore.

DEAR JIM: I wanted to buy a city for my class of Getting Married In Buffalo Jump, a great CBC-TV flick starring Paul Gross and I had to pay $80 to a U.S. copy to get one. What's happening?

BAWDEN: I have a friend who spent several years in the CBC-TV archives in Mississauga. She  tells me she watched a superb version of Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider starring Keir Dullea and directed by Eric Till. Masterful! But CBC has no intention of putting such riches out on video and making some money."Do you think we want to remind viewers how wonderful CBC used to be," said one senior bureaucrat. HE acknowledged CBC had a kinescope of Edith Evans doing her only TV version of The Importance Of Being Ernest --but it has been locked up for years. When the late, great Harry Rasky was browsing in Sam The Record Man's one time he came across his documentary on G.B. Shaw which CBC had sold to BBC Video and never even informed him!

DEAR JIM: Why don't they bring back Peter Mansbridge as anchor of CBC'TV's National? The current newsreaders lack gravitas?

BAWDEN: An excellent idea!

DEAR: Why did CTV cancel Canada AM? I thought it was one of the top quality shows on CTV. (P.B., Ottawa).

BAWDEN: I heartily agree. It was the first early morning  news show on Canadian TV and Helen Hutchinson and Norm Perry were supreme. To knock it off for a silly lifestyle show was indeed craziness.

DEAR JIM: If you could revive one quality series from the dustbin of history what would it be? (C.C.,Hamilton)

BAWDEN: How about two: Friendly Giant and Chez Helene?


Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Here's Where I get Interviewed!

 A quite brilliant graduate student dropped by the other day to interview me about my strange career as a Canadian TV Critic. Some of her questions were so brilliant I volunteered to pass comments on to readers:

SHE: How did you get started as a TV critic?

ME: It was a Toal accident. I was a summer student at The Globe And Mail and the TV critic, the wonderfully acerbic Black Kirby fell ill and I took over for a bit. I worked next to him in the tiny M&D Department --that means "Music and Drama:"/

The theatre critic, the imposing Herbert Whittaker had been at it since 1935. He had to file his copy by midnight and wrote his reviews on slips of paper which were sent down the chute and by 11:45 the full page would come up and he'd have 15 minutes to correct names.

John Kraglund was the classical music writer and he was there, too, most nights although his reviews were usually brief.

I remember coming into the department at noon one day and Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy were waiting for Herbie to take him to lunch.

On another day Katharine Hepburn's chauffeur was there waiting to drive Great Kate to Lunch.

Also in the department: Martin Knelman (movies), Barbara Gail Rowe (dance) and Urjo Kareda (features) and the art critic who wrote a full page every Saturday ----

And I was there for two summers and then The Spectator phoned and offered me the TV critic job --the venerable Jack Miller had just left for The Toronto Star and I followed him there in 1980 when he jumped to the science beat.

SHE: HOW difficult was it covering TC from Hamilton?

ME: Miller told me to ditch my cart and take the bus in every few days to Toronto for screenings and interviews. There were no cassettes at first so I'd go into tiny screening rooms and watch a rough cut of whatever program I had requested.

SHE: Was nothing being done in Hamilton?.

ME: CHCH was an independent station. Sam Hebscher bought the movies for the station and CHCH had the world TV premieres of such hits as Gone With The Wind, The Ten Commandments, Ben-our. They also made such series as Party Game, --I remember interviewing Bill Shatner on that tiny set--he did eight episodes in one day --he was paid per episode. I was also on the set of Ein Prosit, Hilarious House Of Frankenstein,  hey, CHCH had some great Canadian content and syndicated these shows including Pierre Berton to the rest of the nation's TV stations.

SHE: What did you doin Toronto?

ME: More screenings. At TVOntario I interviewed old movie buff Elwy Yost multiple times---

SHE: Do you think this Saturday Night At The Movies and those old films --could he be a hit in today's market?

ME: I doubt it. Because Elwy was the only game in town showing old black and white movies. Some Saturday nights he was beating CBC's Hockey Night In Canada. So CBC and other networks bought up whole collections to keep him from running them.

SHE: What about CBC?

ME:I was on the set of such CBC spectaculars as ballets directed for TV by Norman Campbell. Harry Rasky produced one Raskymentary a season --dazzling TV portraits of the likes of Raymond Massey, Christopher Plummer, Bernard Shaw. And Rasky and Campbell won Emmys for CBC. Today all that has disappeared.


ME: As we get more channels the quality of the old line networks has dipped because of lower ratings.  CBC needs more money than the government is willing to give. So quality programming has dropped precariously.

SHE: What about the old commercial nets?

ME: I think CTV made a bad mistake cancelling Canada AM because it was too expensive to produce.  Some of CTV and Global's hour dramas were just fine: ENG, Traders but they are too expensive what with falling ratings.

SHE: Who is hurting, do you think?

ME: Canadian actors and writers who have stories to dramatize but the money is no longer there. There are the quality documentaries? The more channels we get the lower the quality of the product unless you are willing to pay a fortune for speciality channels. The federal government has got to get involved. Canadian TV movies have virtually disappeared.  Arts programming from opera to ballet has gone.

SHE: Sounds like you want a return to the good old days?

ME: No, that's impossible. I just want Canadiasns to become concerned about the shrinkage of quality Canadian TV programs --that's all. 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Alex Trebek And I

I first interviewed Alex Trebek in the fall of 1971/ at the old CBC Radio building on Toronto's Jarvis Street.

It was a former private girls school but had been the home of CBC Radio for decades.

I was then the kid radio/TV critic for The Hamilton Spectator, newly installed as I replaced the venerable Jack Miller/

One of my first assignments was to do a story on CBC announcers and how they read the Queen's English. I'd already chatted up Lloyd Robertson who was the gold standard and then I got to meet and greet Alex Trebek who sounded almost the same as Lloyd.

I learned CBC anchors underwent rigorous testing so they all sounded  the same. No females were then allowed.

For example when I chatted up the venerable CBC News announcer Earl Cameron he told me he couldn't change a word without calling on a writer --it was for this very reason that Lloyd Robertson finally had enough and defected to CTV News where he could write his own news script.

Any how I found Trebek to be young and vigorous. He was still doing a lot of CBC radio as well as hosting such CBC TV quiz hsows as Reach For The Top.

I like quiz shows best," he told me. Which probably explains why he lasted for decades on TB's Jeopardy.

At the time Trebek was married to announcer Elaine Callei of CHCH-TV whose online cast show titled Call Callei was one of the best for information and gossip.

Even way back then Alex was crazy about quiz shows. He hosted CBC's Reach For The Top for years which featured high school students duelling for prizes to donate back to their collegiate/

and he also refereed Music Hop which ran weekdays on CBC-TV and was a sort of Canadian rejoinder to Dick Clark's afternoon teen TV shows.

When Alex jumped to American TV he wondered if he'd make it in the more tempestuous world of L.A.

Back then quiz shows were the staple of morning TV. I was on the set of Concentration with Ed McMahon. Dick Clark's $10,000 Pyramid ran for decades. There was Tic Tac Dough which I likes,

On Canadian TV I'd watch Definition taped at CFTO and also Party Game at CHCH-TV where I first interviewed Bill Shatner.

Jeopardy seemed to run forever in syndication. Trebek told me it offered solid information and that was the reason for survival when the competition faltered.

When I asked him why Wheel Of Fortune also survived? He laughed and said "Damned if I know."

These dayss age only daily quiz show still on U.S,. TV is The Price Is Right which blares for an hour every weekday.

You see quiz shows are taped one day a week --that's the only way they ca be financially successful.

Trebek told me "we do have breaks between shows but it's a bit hard keeping the concentration going on the fifth episode. But we some how IN  always get through it."

In March 2019 he revealed on YouTube his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer which is almost always considered deadly.

He fought on and said he'd lie down between shows to conserve his strength. He even came out with a fine memoir titled The Answer Is...

Treatments caused him to lose his hair --he bought several toupees that looked exactly fine.

He battled bouts of depression and fatigue. In 2014 he guess estimated he'd hosted 6,800 episodes.-I imagine he must have hit 8,000 episodes by the end.

'"My first U.S. quiz show was The Wizard Of Odds. :

The last time we chatted on the phone he was looking forward to hosting the all time three biggest winners.

Asked to define his success he told me "I'm, just a kid from Sudbury who never forgot his roots and where he came from. I would have flunked out as a contestant. I could only answer about 60 per cent of questions and I've gotten worse as pop culture questions currently abound."

"Ive had a great life. Why should I be afraid of what's to come?"

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

I Remember Joyce Davidson

I first interviewed Canadian TV star Joyce Davidson when I was a cub reporter for The Globe And Mail in 1970.
When I walked into her suite at Toronto's Park Plaza hotel her husband David Susskind interjected "What is this? The B Squad?"
I found Davidson a warm and still splendid TVstar to interview.
I remember her laughing "I give good quotes so ask away !"
At one point I asked about her famous quote on Canadian TV that Canadians were just a little bored when Queen Elizabeth passed through on one of her tours.
"Well, it is true," she laughed. "But the papers blew that one into a big front page story. It became a learning experience for me. Best to keep my mouth shut on such matters."
"You never keep your mouth shut," interjected Susskind to intense laughter from his wife.
A few years later --it was 1972-- and Davidson had jumped to a weekly hourlong interview show up at CFTO.
 She'd fly in from her New York home to interview the likes of Truman Capote and Pierre Berton.
Capote thought she'd captured him as never befopre and said it was the best interview he'd ever granted.
You let me be me," he said sadly and for once his famous mannerisms were toned down.
"Actually, I'm doing this show just to prove I'm still around," she laughed in the limousine taking her back to the Prince hotel.
Davidson had started her TV career in 1954 as the maid on a cooking show for CHCH.
"I'd clean up but had to be so pert and sassy the cook demanded  I tone down my mannerisms."
She jumped in 1956 to Tabloid CBC's early evening show loaded with interviews and talk and all live.
"I was still living in Hamilton so I'd commute back and forth every day. on the train."
"Why not ask me about the night in 1854 we said it was going to be a lovely evening and then Hurricane Hazel hit. Our weather caster Percy Saltzman came home to find his basement flooded and his wife shouting "Percy!"
Eventually Davidson had the urge to go to New York where she excelled as co-host with Dave Garoway on NBC's Today Show.
"Dave was very territorial. After all he'd started it. I did all the women's inserts from cooking to fashions. Dave banned me from ever chatting up a politician. But it was three hours live every weekday starting at 6 a.m. and that meant I had to get up at 4 a.m. I've had insomnia ever since."
Then came The Jack Benny Show "where I did all the commercials for Lux and other sponsors and I'd do a bit of banter with Jack who was such a lovely guy. Years later I met him at a party and thanked him for being so nice to this newcomer and he burst into tears."
Then I jumped to The George Gobel Show and he was less kind."
Then came stint as a rotating host of the live daily U.S. information show PM East, PM West.
"The only segment extant is my interview with Boris Karloff. The rest was shredded by the producers years later."
"When I'm at CFTO doing an hour long profile my job is to make the subject look at great as possible. I'm not there to tear anybody down. So maybe the show is a bit old fashioned.
Later on Davidson interviewed authors on CBC for Toronto's yearly Book Festival.
She lived for years in a swank apartment on Bay Street and I'd occasionally ask her out for lunch but she always declined.
"Baby, I want you to remember me as I was and not an old lady."
And what about writing a memoir.
"I'd have to tell the truth and that has always gotten me in hot water. So the answer is no."
Jpyce Davidson was 89 when she died last month, still a Canadian treasure.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Pat Ferns Exits Canadian TV With A Last Flash Of Brilliance

"This is it --my last TV production," sighs legendary TV producer Pat Ferns from his B.C. headquarters.
"But I couldn't go out with anything more challenging.  I've spent the better part of a year finishing the French. German and Canadian versions  of Listening To Orcas --all of which are different."
When I first jumped into TV criticism in 1971 at The Hamilton Spectator Ferns was one of the biggest producing names in the business.
The very next year I flew to Montreal and boarded a rented car driven by publicist Pat Bowles to travel deep into the Quebec countryside and the site of the new mini-series The Newcomers.
Imperial Oil pumped millions into this project produced by Ferns and partner Dick Nielsen and each hour dramatized a different era of immigration to Canada.
A New France settlement had been meticulously reconstructed to show how our first settlers depended initially on the aboriginals to sustain themselves through the difficult winters.
Ferns and partner Dick Nielsen seemed to be everywhere in those days with bold, innovative projects that were outside the humdrum boundaries of weekly TV series.
And Ferns agrees with me this tandem worked because each was so very different they complemented each other.
Ferns was quite brilliant but taciturn with a very clear vision of what he hoped to achieve in every production.
And Nielsen was a wild man of ideas forever churning out synopses and challenging the boundaries of ordinary TV landscape.
And they both excelled at a time there were only 10 competing TV channels.
"I just felt CBC had a tremendous responsibility in bringing culture to television that can't be matched today," he says.
Part of the problem lies in the breakup of the huge audiences --in a 100 channel universe there are few outlets with the kind of audience to support cultural productions.
"We had left CBC to form a company (Nielsen Ferns Productions) and were able to do things that a single network couldn't afford to do and we could sell to other markets and that was encouraging."
I remember one NF film I was on was Quebec Canada 2005 which was put together by Nielsen and mostly shot at the King Edward hotel.  All the principals were in the Toronto Star newsroom for a shot or two and they included Martha Henry who I chatted up at my desk.
Nielsen Ferns was finally purchased by the Toronto Star (in 1976) as a production company but the federal government was not favourable to having companies owned by media giants.
So these days if a high school teacher wishes to screen a copy of The Wars to show to the class Torstar reluctantly sends out a tattered VHS copy demanding it be returned within days.
So Nielsen andd Ferns founded a second company Primedia and a whole host of sparkling new productions came forth : Glenn Gould's Toronto, the four hour mini-series Glory Enough For All, Heaven On Earth (written by Margaret Atwood) and bought for Masterpiece Theatre.
In 1995 Ferns decamped again to recharge the Banff Television Festival and turned it into an internationally renowned centre which was much admired by talent on all sides.
About the current state of Canadian TV production he says "In British Columbia the TV studios are full but most of the series being made here are American shows."
For the past year Ferns has toiled on his latest production Listening To Orcas premiering on CBC-YV's The Nature Of Things Friday February 21 at 9 p.m.
"It's about the toughest assignment I've had. There is a separate French version and another German one. I somehow feel Michael's English language version the best --they all wanted different angles to the same story."
Michael Allder directed it beautifully and the co-writer is Gail Gallant and Geoff Matheson edited it very tightly.
There are so many memorable scenes.
We see the narrow habitat of the orcas off Vancouver island which is threatened with noise pollution as well as the scarcity of salmon stocks.
We get to know neurologist Lori Marino and zoologist John Ford who are rushing to save the habitat of the orcas who are decreasing .
Sarika Cullis-Suzuki is once again our host and she covers all the basis. The use of drones to track the migration of the orcas provides a novel visual.
I think we come to care about these enigmatic animals particularly the lot of one born here in 1969 but shut up in a mainland  aquarium for 50 years.
In retirement should she be taken back to her home?
We see the shots of her reacting to her baby and not knowing how to feed it --that is the saddest moment.
Ferns says he may be finished with productions but wants to mentor students on how to survive in a cut throat business and all the while produce splendid Canadian TV shows and specials.
"After all I've been doing this for a very long time."
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

A New Suzuki Shines On The Nature Of Things

Here's where I admit my age as I remember the time not too long ago when two fine CBC-TV series were battling for ascendancy. In one corner there was the great This Land and in the other long running Nature Of Things.
And as NOT's executive producer Jim Murray explained to me with upcoming budget cuts only one could survive.
"So I've decided to personalize the series with David Suzuki as host and he'll bring in his followers every week."
This Land elected to stay host-less and was the one CBC-TV eventually dropped because of slightly weaker ratings.
And then only a few years ago the new CBC programming chief told me he intended to drop TNOT on its 50th year on CBC-TV.
I broke the story in The Toronto Star,  all hell broke loose and The Nature Of Things still survives and the programmer in question is long gone.
All of which serves as a reminder that the more things change the more they remain the same.
Now I'm promoting the latest Nature Of Things hour and welcoming a new face to the perennial favourite.
She's Sarika Cullis-Suzuki and, yes, she's the daughter of guess what world famous environmentalist turned CBC-TV host.
Her first hour long program Kingdom Of The Tides is pretty terrific in its own right.
"It started out with my fascination as a little girl in the summers I spent in B.C. by the ocean. Looking at the many creatures who lived at the edge of the sea or in the tides. So this was a sort of reunion for me to help better understand how these original creatures could actually adapt and thrive there."
The hour is actually two stories in one.
"We also go to the Bay of Fundy which has an entirely different set of creatures and mud flats that stretch forever. This I wasn't used to --we have to slide along the mud flats or we'll wind up getting stuck out there."
There are some great shots --like the hermit crabs who exist living in the discarded shells of other creatures.
"And the sea stars making meals of the mussels."
One theme is the fragility of these two very different but similar ecosystems, how climate change or pollution could spoil these sites irrevocably.
"We try to show how they all exist on each other. but these creatures are all masters of adaptation. They depend on each other. I felt a sense of wonder when there."
Cullis-Suzuki says she asked her father for advice in her first hosting role --she's a marine biologist by profession-- and he simply told her to be herself.
She has a fine, instinctive way of appearing before the camera and her enthusiasm for the subject really comes across.
She does give us some facts but is not at all pedantic.
And Cullis-Suzuki has already made a second TOT documentary on orca whales to run pn Feb, 2!1.
Kingdom Of The Tiide was expertly written directed by veteran  Christine Nielsen----- and photographed beautifully by Stefan Randstrom for Infield Fly Productions.
And yes, its virtually a must see.
MY RATING: ****.