Sunday, January 22, 2017

Good News: Jennifer Gardy Is Back On Nature Of Things

Big news of the TV week is the return of Jennifer Gardy to CBC-TV's The Nature Of Things with the fifth of her popular Myth Or Science specials.
"The first four were all big ratings hits," reports Dr. Gardy "but I never guessed when we started we'd be doing a fifth installment."
Check it out on CBC-TV Thursday at 8. Got that?
Gardy says the specials have evolved. "But I think we get better with every outing. There's the same director (Jeff Semple) --he's only missed one. And the same camera crew who know what visuals are necessary to sell the story."
And may I add Jennifer Gardy, 37,  is the best looking scientist on TV these days with impeccable credentials to boot --in her day job she functions as assistant professor at the University of British Columbia's School Of Population And Public Health.
Says Gardy "It all starts with an idea. In this case we wanted to look at our senses and see how our brain is wired to adjust to different senses.
"We always start with a basic game plan and our superb research team then goes about compiling as many possible segments as possible. This takes months and then the chosen experiments have to be whittled down to about five or six.
"I mean we have to get just the right images to back each experiment."
Gardy is front and center in each demonstration.
"Yeah, that's right. I'm the guinea pig standing in for the audience. My reactions obviously are not scripted. It's first response and that's fun. Each experiment's filming takes a few days. The challenge is to get these academics fully relaxed in front of the camera.""
So Gardy also gets to travel to other continents to be included in each test as well as pre-interview the researchers and other participants.
"We generally film in May and June because the universities are out by then but the researchers have yet to leave on summer vacation.  So we shoot in Canada as well as Europe and the U.S."
I liked the meeting between Gardy and the English magician turned professor of psychology at Goldsmiths University in London. He shows her sleight of hand tricks which are delightful. In this case seeing is different from believing.
At Oxford University Gardy meets the neuroscientist who uses the potato chip test to determine the freshness of foods. Gardy fails this test is all I can say!
At the University of Leeds Gardy listens in to a faked lecture in which students are shown all sorts of creeping insects. Will they start scratching or what? I know my left arm was itching furiously.
Says Gardy "My favorite was at UCLA's Multisensory Perception Lab where my real arm is placed behind a black curtain and a rubber one substituted. Then the rubber one gets stabbed by a fork. What happens really surprised me.
"It's my favorite test but it wasn't the best in terms of visuals."
In another test passersby are given colored drinks and asked what they are tasting. I felt this one worked best on TV.
Gardy laughs when I tell her when I was at university in the 1960s when one of my professors was told he could no longer be on TV because he was in danger of being too pop.
"I think it's entirely different these days," she laughs. "Universities need all the attention they can get and then some.
"I think here we've done much of what we wanted to do. Boiling everything into an hour always is a real accomplishment. I'm already thinking what else can we do next time."
Myth Or Science was made by Infield Fly Productions (executive producer Dugald Maudsley).

Friday, January 6, 2017

Good News: Hard Rock Medical Is Back

About this time every TV season I begin lamenting the lack of filmed Canadian drama series.
And I start with the inevitable stats: in 1985 the Canadian TV networks supported 11 quality hour long TV filmed drama series.
That was the year the three private webs petitioned the CRTC to back off its insistence on scripted shows promising they'd prefer doing it on their own.
They lied.
Next season there were only two scripted drama series left --both on CBC.
The drought has continued ever since.
These days TV movies have virtually disappeared, too, although the lowly sitcom seems to be making a comeback with CBC's rip roaring dual hits Kim's Convenience and Schitt's Creek.
Independent producers tell me they won't make any kind of fiction based dramatic series unless they are assured of an American sale.
And then there's the strange and unique case of Hard Rock Medical.
It's a scripted medical show that runs on TVOntario of all places.
Over thew decades I've been covering TV it was always the TV mantra that the publicly funded Ontario weblet simply couldn't afford the costs involved.
The show returns for its new season of nine episodes Sunday nights at 8 on TVO.
It works because the 30-minute dramas are shot like the afternoon soaps: quickly and nothing fancy here with a lot of close-ups and the focus on the acting styles of the talented principals.
First and foremost there's Patrick McKenna.
I used to have to argue with TV viewers that McKenna was the same actor appearing on both Global's Traders and CBC's Red Green at the same time. He's that talented.
Here he's well cast as the heart of the show. I like the description of Hard Rock Medical as a "Kind of Grey's Anatomy for Canucks" (the opinion of The Star's Tony Wong).
I'd add that there's a lot of Northern Exposure in there too with emphasis on quirky character development.
Shot in Sudbury it looks at a medical school dedicated to training prospective doctors to work in the north.
I'm not exactly sure of the budget but it must be miniscule compared to something like an NCIS--there are no expensive stars and the scenes seem seamless and fluid without the cross cuts of a prime time U.S. export.
When Hard Rock Medical first premiered in 2013 I interviewed the cagey creator Derek Dorio --I first met him when he was playing the character Haggis Lamborgini in the TV series hit The Raccoons.
Diorio honed the craft of shooting fast at the French language arm of TVO --TFO which had even less funds than the English arm.
 His first series was called Meteo+ and then he made a second hit Les Bleus De Ramville (2012). And he had perfected the technique of making Canadian TV drama at reasonable costs.
This series is thus well edited, crisp photographed and up to the strict standards of American prime time shows.
Other medical shows seem short on substance. HRM is gritty and realistic and I've liked the whole cast including Mark Coles Smith, Christian Laurin, Kyra Harper and Danielle Bourgon.
NOTE: Since I wrote this I've been informed by TVO that major funding comes from the Northern Ontario Heritage Corporation with additional help from TVO's production partner APTN.
MY RATING: ***1/3.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Funny Times With Ron James

Here I go again --every Christmas season I get to interview Ron James who has a quirky end-of-year TV special that's been a staple of CBC New Year's Eve.
This year I had to telephone James in Halifax where he was tending to the needs of an ailing father.
And as usual the subject started with the simple question : why is James considered such a delightful comic.
"It's the way I see things, I'm guessing," he says with a nervous laugh. "There's a lot of lightness in my comedy but also some very dark stuff. It's where I come from."
Born in Glace Bay, James is rightly proud of his heritage and he says his "Canadianess" plays well wherever he finds himself across this sprawling country.
"I'm about the same I always was," he jokes. "But certainly there's a lot more political issues discussed these days. These politicians are sure targets."
I haven't see the whole hour but James artfully dices and slices  in his usual hilarious monologue..
Donald Trump is a great target and James has one nugget of advice: "Get rid of the tweets."
Says James to the captivated audience: "How else can you figure he wound up in the White House?"
Explaining the Canadian election James says of course the winner would be Justin Trudeau as opposed to Thomas Mulcair :"Looking badly in need of a rabies shot."
Other targets of James's comedic wrath: Samsung 7, Pokemon, Stephen Harper, North Korea.
These days James tells me he plays some 40 dates across Canada every year.
"The smaller town audiences are so enjoyable. They're delighted just to be included, they know what it really means to be a Canadian."
One place James won't want to revisit: comedy clubs. "I honed my talents there but no more. I like bigger audiences and there are some great theaters across Canada. We did this one in Kingston. I like to go some place different every year."
James first came to attention as a member of Toronto's Second City troupe. He learned how to texture routines for the audience and how to play off them. And he finally got the courager to try Hollywood.
There were guest spots on such TV hits as Wings as well as busted pilots before he realized Canada was his home.
For five seasons James reigned supreme on his own CBC TV comedy show which artfully mixed stand up with sketches.
"The sketches got better. I tried at first to do them as part of the running show. When we filmed them separately they became more fluid and funnier, that's all."
His great 1994 docu-comedy Down And Out In Shaky Town is still a delight when viewed on YouTube.
"At the end I discovered Canada is where it's at for me."
Anyone doubting James' acting skills should search out his outstanding dramatic turn in the series Made In Canada which is now out in a boxed set.
And there's also his first TV sitcom the wild and wonderful Blackfly (2001) which initially ran on Global TV.
When I tell James a video store manager said it was one of the most requested items not yet on DVD he's momentarily stunned.
But I have a new role for James and I'd like CBC to seriously consider this.
Apparently CBC is going to get a cash infusion from the admiring Liberal federal government.
Some of that dough should be used to mount a late night talk show.
CBC once had a late nighter starring Peter Gzowski and later Comedy had one with Mike Bullard.
James has the smarts to front such a Canadian TV effort --in university he was a history major--and if you watch this new special you'll see he's a comedic mesmerist who can captivate a very demanding audience for the better part of an hour with his standup genius.
So how about it CBC?

I Remember Debbie Reynolds

I was lucky to interview the late great Debbie Reynolds twice at length in Toronto when she was in the afterglow of a long career.
The first time was on the set of the CBS TV Movie  Sadie And Son in 1987, a crazy sort of pilot that had Debbie co-starred as a New York city cop with her son (played by Brian McNamara) also on staff.
It was a great stretch to think of our Debbie as a cop because she was petite and far below the normal height requirements.
"Don't worry kid," she laughed in her trailer as she awaited for the shooting call. "This is show biz, we fake everything!"
At the time she was an energetic and bouncy 55-year old and she was still bouncing around at 2 a.m. when director John Llewellyn Moxey was filming deep in the Toronto subway system on the Queen street station which has never been used.
The second time was in 2000 when Deb was then 68 and she suddenly looked older and plumper and she stayed shivering in her trailer waiting to go on the set of a TV movie Virtual Mom.
Here are a few highlights from our chats:
JB: How did you break into the biz?
DR: Well, I'd wanted to be a gym instructor but I didn't have enough money to go to college.  we lived in Burbank where dad was a carpenter worker for the railway. And I somehow got a standard contract at Warner Brothers just a few blocks away which paid me $50 a week. I took lots of lessons --in one class we were even shown the proper way to use a fork and spoon. And I had an extra bit in June Bride (1948) which starred Miss Bette Davis. Eight years later I played her daughter in the movie The Catered Affair and she pretended to remember me. In The Daughter Of Rosie O'Grady I was June Haver's kid sister and then my option was dropped like that.
JB: Then what?
DR: I got another starlet contract at MGM and in my first movie there I sang the Abba Dabba song in Three Little Words(1950) with Carleton Carpenter as my partner.
JB: Your fourth movie at MGM was Singin' In The Rain (1952)?
DR: I was forced on Gene Kelly. He wanted to hire outside the studio but my mentor Louis B. Mayer said no. And for three months we rehearsed those numbers until my feet started to bleed. I was at my wit's end and crying in an alley way when Fred Astaire came by and stopped. He'd been the star of Three Little Words. And he arranged to secretly train me in the next sounstage. We went through all of the moves hundreds of times. When I came to film the scene where we must jump over the sofa Gene was so pleased he put his tongue in my mouth!
JB: That made you?
DR: I did stupid little things like I Love Melvin, The Affairs Of Dobie Gillis, Give A Girl A Break. At RKO I was in my first big comedy opposite Dick Powell who was 50 and I was the girl pursuing him and I was 22.That was Susan Slept Here.
JB: But you survived whereas Jane Powell did not.
DR: We made two films in a row --Athena and Hit The Deck--and then her contract lapsed. Musicals were no longer the rage so I did The Tender Trap opposite Frank Sinatra and I had a whole new career as a comedienne including Tammy And The Bachelor and The Mating Game.
JB: Then came some very big years.
'DFR: When my husband Eddie Fisher left me! It gave my career a weird boost. And I made It Started With A Kiss, The Gazebo and my favorite comedy The Pleasure Of His Company with Mr. Astaire and Lilli Palmer as my parents.
JB: You did go back to MGM for The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 1964.
DFR: That was me. I'm unsinkable. I got the character right away.
JB: Why did your TV series The Debbie Reynolds Show )1964) bomb.
DR: Because they wanted me to be Lucy instead of just Debbie. So It was an imitation kind of show. And The next one Aloha Paradise (1981) that was just a big stinker.
JB: You just stopped making movies around that time?
DR: Because I didn't fit in at all. It was Mr. Mayer who told me "Never show your ass." Best advice I ever got. What he meant was leave something to the imagination of the audience. Today everything is so sordid. I stay at home and watch old movies.
JB: You're also a collector.
DR: I go top all the auctions of movie props. I have a warehouse filled with stuff and someday I'll open my own museum.
JB: Future plans:
I go on the road 20 weeks a year. They loved me in Australia. I do Vegas, many dates with the local symphonies. I'm a brand. Goodness had everything to do with my success.
Then the bells rang and Reynolds ran out dressed as a very tiny New York city cop and just to wake up the sleepy crew she launched into a refrain of "Singin In The Rain."

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

I Remember, I Remember

I lost a lot of friends in the entertainment industry in 2016.
Here's my personal list of the ones I remember most fondly:
Earl Hamner Jr: I met the personable writer on the set of The Waltons at Warner Bros. studios before the series had premiered on CBS.
Doris Roberts: I interviewed the great TV comedienne when she was in Toronto tub thumping for her hit Everyone Loves Raymond.
Robert Vaughan: My interview with the star of The Man From U.N.C.L.E took place in his limo parked in North York --he was making a TV movie with Karen Black that never aired.
Florence Henderson: She was as sweet as her image the day we met on the L.A. set of The Brady Brides.
Agnes Nixon: I had lunch with the soap opera maven at New York city's Hotel Carlyle before going on the set of her greatest soap hit Another World.
Zsa Zsa Gabor: I had to go out to Toronto's Pearson Airport to meet the Hungarian extrovert who was flying back from Switzerland after co-starring in the "Canadian" series George.
Hugh O'Brian: The former Wyatt Earp was as nice as his image when I interviewed him in Toronto.
George Kennedy: I met him on the set of one of those Airport disaster movies where he confessed his fear of flying.
Morley Safer: I met him in his CBS office in New York city and we watched the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter.
Alan Young: The Canadian actor was well into his Eighties and co-starring with Glynis Johns in a new CBS sitcom when I shared a lunch in the Universal commissary.
Alan Thicke: A constant source of interviews for my TV column he was as multi-talented as they get,
Brian Befords: I met BB up at Canada's Stratford where he was a constant jewel.
Marnie Nixon: She warbled the songs in such movie hits as The King And I and My Fair Lady but never got a movie hit of her own,
Arthur Hiuller: I Met the great Canadian director in the Academy Awards library--he was researching his next movie hit.
Garry Marshall: I was first introduced to GM on the set of  Happy Days --he was as likable as they come.
Ken Howard: I met him on the set of The White Shadow and he kept in touch even after his kidney transplant.
Gordie Tapp: I had many conversations with this Canadian great and I treasure his friendship.
Dave Broadfoot: A sort of Canadian Will Rogers his humor was uniquely Canadian.
Grant Tinker: Interviews in his MTM corner office were among the best I ever conducted.
Gordie Howe: Met him at Alan Thicke's home in L.A. And he was wry and humble,the greatest of the hockey greats.
Don Francks:I met him in Toronto's Hollywood Canteen.What a surprise!

Sunday, December 25, 2016

I Remember Dave Broadfoot

I wasn't entirely surprised to learn of the passing of Canadian comic icon Dacve Broadfoot.
For years he'd been declining luncheon invitations saying he just wasn;'t up to it.
But his passing in November saddened me immensely.
Starting in 1973 he was the steady comedic rock for 15 seasons of CBC's Royal Canadian Air Face.
'I first met him in person in 1975 when RCAF was performing two radio specials taped at Hamilton Place --I was then The Spectator's TV/Radio Critic.
The other cast members --Roger Abbott, Don Ferguson, John Morgan and Luba Goy clearly revered this great figure and in rehearsals he was meticulous in his craftsmanship.
Just a year or two later I met Broadfoot on King Street in Hamilton --dressed as the honorable member for Kicking Horse Pass--he was headed to the Royal Connaught hotel to address a luncheon convention.
One old lady had already accosted him on the street shouting "You're a sorry example of a member of Parliament"--and Broadfoot was grinning from ear to ear.
Other famed characters included Sergeant Renfrew of the RCMP and hockey player Big Bobby Clobber.
Broadent got his start on CBC Radio on such favorites as the Big Revue and Wayne And Shuster.
"Everything I knew about TV comedy I learned from Wayne and Shuster," he once told me.
 "They simply assumed a degree of intelligence among the audience and their comedy skits were glacially paced compared with today. They put characterization first."
I remember interviewing him in 1995 for his CBC TV special.
 He said at one point in the show "What is our culture? It's gathering up every useless thing you've acquired throughout your life, putting it on tables on your front lawn and making other people pay for it."
I would have though CBC would dig out that TV special and show it as a testament to Broadfoot's comedic genius.
One of the gems from that show had Broadfoot contemplating on the peace and tranquility he always found on Canada Day in Quebec.
He was born in Vancouver in 1925 and served in the Royal Canadian navy during World War II.
He looked startled when I told him as a teenager in the early 1960s I'd saved up my allowance and got into a cabaret performance given by Broadfoot and his equally talented wife comedienne Jean Templeton.
When he joined Air Farce in 1973 "I was considered the old geezer of the bunch. I'd say during rehearsals 'Mo--that won't work. We tried that in 1955 on stage.'"
One of his biggest admirers was British legend John Cleese who had seen Broadfoot in Britain in the 1950s in a revue titled Clap Hands.
'Other revues he starred in during his toronto years: Take A Beaver To Lunch and, of course, Spring Thaw.
"I was on Ed Sullivan as early as 1955," he smiled.' "But I never wanted to ditch my country for American stardom. Never!"
His wonderful autobiography Old Enough To Say What I want was published in 2003. I treasure my copy.
He was named to the order of Canada in 1983 and in 2003 was presented with the Governor General's Performing Arts Award.
One of his biggest thrills he told me was appearing at a gala Royal Benefit in Winnipeg as the honorable member for Kicking Horse Pass and looking up to the box seats to find both Prince Philip and Her Majesty doubled over with laughter.
And I miss him already.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

I Remember Gordie Tapp

What a thrill it was meeting Gordie Tapp on the set of the CBC TV series The Tommy Hunter in 1972.
My dad was an original fan when Tapp was headlining Main Street Jamboree out of radio station CHML in beautiful, downtown Hamilton.
'"When I told Gordie he laughed and said 'Your dad has great taste, son!'"
After Hamilton stardom he moved over to CBC-TV and nine seasons of the live country series Country Hoedown.
Two youngsters Tapp mentored on CBC-TV were Tommy Junter and Tommy Common.
As Tapp told me "When CBC had to chose one for a new hourlong variety series Hunter was chosen although Common was better looking and had the greater voice. Tommy Hunter was chosen because of his great personality and the way he connected with TV viewers."
Tapp then ventured south to co-star for CBS in a new country music series Hee Haw.
"It was number one in ratings but CBS cancelled it after two seasons (in 1971). It then went on for 20 more years in syndication. CBS cancelled all those corn pone series like Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and Jim Nabors.
"Sure the show was pure corn. We'd tape a full series in a couple of weeks working nonstop in Nashville TV studios. Then the blackout sketches, comedy routines and songs would be pieced together in the editing suites.
Two great Canadian producers Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth were the creators and our cast included Buck Owens, Roy Clark and such staples as Junior Samples, Jeannine Riley,  Minnie Pearl and even Barbi Benton."
Tapp wasn't the only Canadian present: Don Harron was also onboard as Charlie Farquarhson.
That day on the CBC set I noticed how pleasant Tapp was --he blended right in and never asked for special favors because of his star status. The crews even laughed at his bad jokes.
And Hee Haw finally faded in 1992 but I'm sure somewhere out there somebody is watching the boxed DVD set even as I write this.
As For Tapp he retired to his farm in North Burlington although he made TV commercials for Ultrasonic Beds and tub thumped for the March of Dimes and Ester Seals Society.
'I can only report that he completely lived up to his image as one of country music's ace gentlemen.