Saturday, October 27, 2018
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
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.
EQUUS PREMIERES ON THE NATURE OF THINGS SUNDAY SEP EMBER 23 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.
Thursday, August 9, 2018
"The business wanted to kill me."
Alfie Zappacosta is trying to explain the strange up and downs of a career that included working on the Dirty Dancin' album, leads in such hits as Hair, and resurrection as a brilliant singer-songwriter.
This hour long documentary of Zappacosta's weird ride makes for riveting TV.
It answers for me what happened to the brilliant young guy who was on target for a superstardom career before he burned out and disappeared for what seemed like decades.
The hour long profile is accurately titled No Avoiding Cliches and during TV's summer rerun season this new production should garner a strong rating.
The premiere is on CBC-TV's Documentary Channel Sunday August 12 at 8 p.
Director Stephanie Volk and producer Braden Rorke have done outstanding jobs of ferreting out obscure musical sets Alfie made almost four decades.
Stitching all this material together into a seamless whole is quite an achievement.
And Alfie is hardest on himself --he pulls no punches on his mistakes and accepts responsibility for everything.
He came from a very tight and loving Italian family and these roots are still apparent in the way he and his two kids interact with each other.
But with his dazzling good looks and clear bell of a voice he got pushed into an evolving super star status that he loathed from the start.
Staring straight into the camera he talks of the way coke fueled the entire music business in the seventies and eighties.
He also suffered from excruciating bouts of stage fright,. He was playing a character created by the music industry giants who saw him as a great cash generating source if he played the game "the right way".
But success as a music star wasn't what Alfie wanted. I remember a friend seeing him in Hair and saying how dominant he was but Alfie hated the routine even though it generated terrific profits.
Then he did something very unusual --he moved his young family from Toronto to Edmonton and pushed back, determined to reinvent himself.
It was a bold gamble that ultimately worked big time. He was able to write songs from the heart.
For long periods he was inactive, trying to jump start a new career and defy the preconceptions of what the music industry wanted him to be.
The surprise in thje recently filmed concert scenes is how handsome he remains aged 65 with his blaze of stark white hair and how he still has the clear voice of a very young man.
One of his friends accurately says it's not really a reinvention but a maturation and it's about being timeless and not timely.
Of course he's recorded a new album and taped a convert video which go on sale on August 12. And it seems to me he's now singing jazz instead of rock and roll.
You can order a copy on http://zappacopsta.ca or at BlueFrogLive.ca.
This well constructed hour includes candid interviews with his two children and the music industry producers who have seen him mature as both a performer and a very loving father.
No Avoiding Cliches is pretty terrific --it leaves one wanting more.
NO AVOIDING CLICHES PREMIERES ON CBC DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL SUNDAY AUGUST 12 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.
Wednesday, August 8, 2018
A great pal of mine, Dorothy Malone, finally gets her due with a 24-hour salute on Turner Classic Movies Friday.
Guess I'll have to stay home for that one.
Malone died in January of this year at the great age of 94 and she never quite got her due as an actress despite garnering a supporting Oscar for Written On The Wind in 1957.
"I didn't have an outlandish life style" she told me the first time we met. "Deep down I'm very shy and proper. I simply wanted to do the best job I could and get home early enough to tuck my two daughters into bed."
I first met Malone on a sweltering day in Century City in 1977 --I was then attending the Television Critics Association junket and had a rare afternoon off.
It was arranged that I'd slip out the back door of the Century Plaza hotel, cross the pedestrian bridge and enter the Twentieth Century-Fox backlot by the back door and proceed to the commissary for a very quick lunch with Malone then shooting a TV movie titled Murder In Peyton Place.
But Malone's assistant intercepted me and said to proceed to her dressing room where tea and cookies would be available.
Malone explained the change this way :"Our wonderful director Robert Hartford-Davis said goodbye Friday night to the cast and we never saw him again.
"He died of a heart attack at his home Saturday night and Bruce Kessler was immediately hired as substitute.
"Bruce is busy today viewing completed rushed and will pick up everything tomorrow so we can talk as long as you're prepared to listen."
I remember asking Malone why she was such a little known big star?
"I think it's because I don't take the business seriously. But I take my work most seriously."
She was born in Texas in 1924 "but I did high school in Seattle. Texas remains my roots --I'd do a western every year if I had that oppotunity."
She started out, aged 19, as an RKO starlet in such masterpieces as Gildersleeve On Broadway and The Falcon And The Co-Eds.
"If you blink you'll miss me. I guess I had a line or three."
It was her short, sexy appearance as a book clerk in The Big Sleep (1946) opposite Humphrey Bogart that really got her career going.
"It was shot right after To Have And Have Not, the end of 1944. And our director Howard Hawks was such a stickler he was still reshooting scenes two years later including my bit --he wanted me to literally take my hair down as I close the store and look knowingly at Bogey."
Malone then settled into a rut as a Warners starlet in such stuff as Janie Gets Married (1946), Two Guys From Texas (1048) and Flaxy Martin (`949).
"I completed that one and Jack Warner dropped me saying contract players were too expensive."
"I went home to Texas determined to learn the insurance business. Then Randy Scott located me and offered the female lead in his latest oater The Nevadan. I thrived in westerns. I did Saddle Legion (1951) which was a real B with Tim Holt. I did Jack Slade (1951) with Mark Stevens. I did The Lone Gun (1954) with George Montgomery.
"I also went back to WB as Doris Day's older sister in Young At Heart (1954). Jack Warner came on set and didn't remember he'd once fired he. I was the oldest sister on the screen but youngest in real time which seemed to irritate Doris when I mentioned it."
In 1956 Malone won her Oscar for Wrrtten On The Wind "because I did things I normally would be uncomfortable doing but Douglas Sirk was a great woman's director. He quickly reunited Rock Hudson ,Bob Stack and yours truly in Tarnished Angel;s which I feel a better movie all around,."
But winning an Oscar?
"It was a bummer. My price went up and parts I wanted to play were now out of reach."
In 1965 Malone starred in Pthe TV soaper Peyton Place --she made 430 of the 514 episodes, eventually complaining her part was diminished as the parts of Ryan O'Neal and Mia Farrow grew.
"This hit could have gone on forever. But it started as two half hours a week. ABC got greedy and demanded a third hour. Meaning audiences would have to slot three separate days to watch us and the ratings just died.
"But I have no regrets. I'm here aren't I --back as Constance Mackenzue."
I later had grand reunions with Malone in Toronto when she guested on the daily TV soap High Hopes (1978) and later on Littlest Hobo (1980).
I just think Malone would be proud to be honored by TCM. It's a case of better late than never.
Monday, August 6, 2018
I don't wrote much in the summer because TV is all reruns these days.
But one full day of reruns is something I'm looking forward to --Monday on Turner Classic Movies it's Audrey Totter day.
There will now be a moment's silence for you to ask "Who the heck is Audrey Totter?"
I first met the great Totter on the set of her MGM series Medical Center in 1974 and we set a day for lunch the next week --I was in Los Angeles at the TV Crirtics' Convention.
I'd been fascinated by Totter's acting skills ever since I'd watched the 1046 MGM classic Lady In The Lake on Elwy Yost'\s TVOntario show.
"I got the part because I was from radio and in this one I had to look straight at the camera for most of the movie. The camera stood in for our leading man Bob Montgomery and it was called the subjective manner. Bob was behind the camera and added the dialogue but we saw everything through his eyes."
Totter was so busy maki g LITL that when Universal offered to borrow her for The Killers opposite Burt Lancaster "MGM said I was too busy and sent over Ava Gardner instead and that part made her a super star."
Lady In The Lake is on at midnight but at 1:30 there's Any Number Can Play (1949) with Totter vo-starring with Alexis Smith and Clark Gable.
"We had a hot romance for a bit but I could see he still loved his dead wife--Carole Lombard. :
At 6:30 there's Totter's master piece The Set Up (1949) opposite Robert Ryan.
"It's considered the best ever boxing film and was made in real time. But it came out after another boxing sagas called Champion and bombed at the box office."
At 6:30 there's High Wall (1948) with Totter a psychiatrist trying to solve Robert Taylor as a psychotic war veteran.
"We filmed late one night --no supper --and all the restros were closed by the time we finished. So Bob drove me to his home and hollered for his wife (Barbara Stanwyck) to get out of bed and fix us some bacon and scrambled eggs. "
Totter's favorite film The Unsuspected (1947) comes on at 1 a.m. --and stars Claude Rains as a murderous radio star and Totter as his lascivious niece.
"Claude was 5 feet two inches and I towered over him so the next day he comes in wearing shoes with lifts and I still towered over him."
Totter was making Medical Center when MGM's That's Entertainment was released in 1974 amd she was invited to the premiere although she never made musicals.
"At the reception Ava Gardner ran up to me and said 'You have everything I ever wanted --a husband and a child.' And she's right --try sleeping with a career."
The last time I visited with her she was at the Motion Picture home battling old age and boasting "I had one husband and my family came first. But I still made half a dozen greatish pictures."
Audrey Totter died in 2013 aged 95 but I think she'd be tickled pink TCM has finally saluted her.
Friday, June 8, 2018
I just have this feeling that among Canadian TV's three private network it's CTV which will survive.
The first CTV fall launch I ever attended was in 1971 when then president Murray Chercover announced such big Canadian hits as The Littlest Hobo, Headline Hunters, Stars On Ice and Half The George Kirby Comedy hour.
But these days CTV takes its Canadian content requirements more seriously and besides as the most profitable network can pick and chose the big new U.S. shows.
The location was Toronto's Sony Center and the event was packed with thousands of advertising types all eager to buy spots on the new and returning shows all the while feating on booze on dainties.
On Mondays CTV has snapped up the sophomore season of The Resident a medical drama with Matt Czuchry and Canadian Emily Van Camp at 8 p.m.
At 9 p.m. there's the reboot of the classic Magnum P.I. but without Tom Selleck and featuring newly cast Jay Hernandez plus there's a female Higgins played by Perdita Weeks.
Tuesdays at 8:30 comes a 1970s comedy The Kids Are Allright all about an IrishCatholic family.
At 10 p.m. comes the hourlong The Rookie with Nathan Fillion as a fortyish guy who dreams of joining the LAPD.
On Sundays at 8 p.m. there's Brandon Michael Hall in the religious drama God Friended Me.
And then at 10 p.m. there's The Alec Baldwin Show with the three-time Emmy Award Winner caught in conversations with friends and fellow actors.
Midseason debuts will include Jann starring Jann Arden as a Canadian singer trying to make herself relevant again.
Then there's the legal drama The Fix about a high profile lawyer --Marcia Clark will executive produce it.
The Red Line stars veteran Noah Wyle and comes from executive producers Ava DuVernay and Greg Berlani.
The Enemy Within will star Jennifer Carpenter as a CIA operative hired by the FBI to hunt spies.
'The Village looks at thee denizens of an apartment complex in Brooklyn.
Grand Hotel is set in Miami Beach and is executive produced by Eva Longoria.
And then there's America's Got Talent: The Champions --the title says it all.
And for Canadian content freaks how about the 40th anniversary of SCTV: Reunion Special produced by Martin Scorsese and fronted by Jimmy Kimmel.
Big news has CTV buying a majority share in Toronto's busy Pinewood Studios as one indication the network remains very serious about mounting first class Canadian content series.
Star Trek: Discovery already shoots there and is one of the highest priced series ever shot in Canada.'
Is CTV aiming to become a veritable Canadian version of Disney?
That's one idea and so is the insistence CTV needs different plat forms to highlight its wares.
And Whiskey Cavalier stars Scott Foley from Scandal heading an agency of flawed spies.
CTV is planning different platforms for its content as conventional networks see younger viewers tricking away.
Space becomes CTV-Sci-Fi while Comedy becomes CTV-Comedy and Bravo becomes CTV-Drama
and Gusto becomes CTV-Life which it was some 15 years ago.
The ad executives I chatted up seemed impressed with the CTV brand and some of the new shows and thought the rebranding necessary as old line networks sail into the sunset.
So I'm bullish on CTV more than I am with Rogers or Shaw.
And by the way the food is always better--those miniature hamburgers were very tasty indeed.
Thursday, May 24, 2018
Let's see --the first CBC-TV fall preview I attended (as the summer student at The Globe And Mail) was in 1970 when the public network was riding high.
In those dear dead days there was a 10 channel TV universe and that was it.
Thirty-five print TV critics from across Canada flew in for several days of interviews with such CBC stars as Juliette, Friendly Giant and Knowlton Nash and CBC redesigned its cavernous studio up Yonge Street (the home of Front Page Challenge) for a gala party that drew thousands of advertisers and hangers on.
That was then. This is now.
This year's CBC TV launch was a muted affair held at 192 Spadina Avenue in very close quarters.
But the message was rather upbeat.
Like all Canadian TV networks CBC is watching the slow dripping away of its core audience to other platforms.
But be aware --CBC remains the last great repositiory of Canadian TV culture.
And the publicly funded network has decided to fight back.
The network still has some huge hits :Murdoch Mysteries and Heartland have been around forever and still draw strong ratings.
And there are other, newer hits: Schitt's Creek, the re-versioned Anne Of Green Gables, Kim's Convenience.
The last time I checked the fine new mystery series Frankie Drake was only drawing 560,000 viewers weekly on CBC TV.
Back in 1970 I was told CBC-TV's definition of a hit was a million for a series and 1.5 million for a miniseries or special.
Those numbers are rarely reached today as Canadians increasingly turn to different platforms.
Still, CBC has several new series which look promising.
I enjoyed chatting up veteran producer Bernie Zuckerman charged with the revival of Street Legal which will star Jennifer Dale. Zuckerman said the order is for eight episodes "which is the standard these days" but other Street veterans may make a guest appearance or two.
Cavendish, a new comedy series ,will benefit from its creators Mark Little and Andrew Bush and will be filmed on location and in Halifax studios.
Coroner with its order for eight hours has great potential considering Morwyn Brebner's last series was Saving Hope---Adrienne Mitchell will be lead director (she made Bomb Girls).
Northern Rescue will be shot in Parry Sound with David Cormican as creator and Bradley Walsh as executive producer and I also met Billy Baldwin who has enthusiastically signed up as lead.
And I should also mention the new series Diggstown with Floyd Kane and Amos Adetuyi as executive producer.
Now I get my say about how to "fix" some of CBC-TV's ailments.
I'd start by abolishing commercials during prime time.
I know the cost would be horrendous but well worth it as the competition these days is with commercial free services such as Netflix.
Many former CBC fans have defected to PBS which still provides arts programming which CBC has mostly ditched.
I have a solution: bring back a Seventies series called RearView Mirror which took gems from the CBC archives--ballets starring Rudolf Nureyev and Veronica Tennant, superb dramas like the 1960 Macbeth starring Sean Connery and Zoe Caldwell.
When RearView Mirror first ran during another CBC budget crunch the ratings were sky high.
And I also feel CBC's National needs an instant face lift.
Ratings have plunged with four anchors --the snappy patter over at CNN is attracting record numbers of Canadian viewers.
Another proposal: bring back a few historical TV movies every season.
Zuckerman who produced some of the best TV movies ever made by CBC says there's the argument the cost is too heavy for a two hour TV movie
But I think CBC needs a few of these --Zuckerman's version of the Road to Confederation remains a must see.
But with its close adherence to all things Canadian I feel CBC still has a better chance at long term survival than rivals CTV or Global TV.