Wednesday, July 23, 2014

TV Critics: An Endangered Species?

When I started out as a young and callow TV critic at the Hamilton Spectator in 1971 every self respecting newspaper had at least one TV critic.
I knew from the get-go that I just had to get on the Television Critics tour organized twice yearly by the Big Three U.S. networks.
But that was in the days when the American webs catered only to American scribes --so I cagily got the three Buffalo TV affiliates to wrote me letters of introduction saying Hamilton was part of their coverage.
And presto I was in --the only Canuck on the tour for almost the next decade.
In June of that year I boarded a flight for L.A. An NBC press rep met me at the airport, sent my bags directly to the Century Plaza hotel and drove me at break neck speed to Thousand Oaks where I enjoyed a catered lunch with Julie London at her home --she was then starring in the series Emergency.
In those days the TV dial consisted of just 10 channels --nobody had cable as yet.
So the tour consisted of nine days --three devoted to each major network.
PBS was so poor I remember a guy from Masterpiece Theater organizing a "secret" press interview with Anthony Hopkins to promote his PBS special Kean --it was done during a writing break so the three networks never knew about it.
My biggest surprise was to discover almost all the 100 TV critics were on the network tit --they willingly let the webs pay their hotel bills, entertainment expenses.
Some even brought their wives who were bussed out to the luxury shopping malls every afternoon with prepaid charge cards given them by the networks.
When the scribe from a Pittsburgh paper brought his drapes and then had them cleaned by the hotel and then charged the network, why, that was going too far --he was never asked back.
One night early on CBS bussed 100 critics to the Malibu home of Larry Hagman whose living room was a gigantic hot tub.
Scribes had to jump in to get the interview but later in the night Hagman went upstairs to his bedroom to discover a New York critic counting the boxer shorts in his drawers.
Enraged, Hagman kicked him out and that particular writer also disappeared from the trip.
The second year I remember one night CBS PR was near tears --CBS had organized an optional dinner at Lucy Ball's but nobody had signed on-- Lucy's series was faltering in the ratings and writers wanted younger, sexier subjects to write about.
I dutifully attended as did Kay Gardella from the New York News and Lucy retained us regally in her gazebo and at one point neighbor Jimmy Stewart poked his head over to say hi.
The very next year I was at Stewart's home and noticed his beloved dogs had scratched up all his furniture. A second session five years later merely disclosed how badly he'd aged.
I took tea with Roz Russell at her swank Hombly Hills home in 1972. One day that year I spent the morning on the set of Mission: Impossible and the afternoon on the set of Mannix. These two CBS ratings winners shot on the same Paramount backlot --in the middle was a small soundstage for The Brady Bunch.
In those days long before computers we had to file our stories by FAX.
One afternoon I went up to the press department and saw NBC flack Virginia Holden blacking out lines in some copy because she disagreed with the writers' opinions.
When I asked her about it she snapped "After all we're paying for it."
Perhaps networks and critics had become too cozy?
We took an extended trip of several days to San Diego with ABC footing the bill and critics were so frustrated by being cooped up that fisticuffs broke out.
During one interview session battle axe Marilyn Beck accused producer Jimmy Komack of giving Freddie Prinze drugs and he jumped on

top of  her and they rolled out the door.
Also, by the late Seventies the Big three's virtual monopoly was eroding. Cable webs were sprouting up everywhere and eventually  took pride of pace. And younger TV critics incensed by the payola organized the Television Critics Association.
These days TV critics no longer rule.
Because there are so very few of us left on the old legitimate papers which are shedding circulation.
The bloggers now rule TCA and their comments have become so nasty some networks are threatening to pull the plug on the whole thing.
These days the antics at Comic Com which closely follows from San Diego get bigger headlines than the pallid antics of TCA.
I was glad to be there during the Glory Days when I could meet and greet with the likes of Bette Davis,  Irene Dunne, George Cukor and even Robert Young.
And I met such youngsters as John Travolta, Brad Pitt (on the Dallas set), Michele Pfeiffer (On the set of San Pedro Beach Bums).
It was a pretty good way to cover the TV beat as far as I'm concerned.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

I Remember James Garner

It was very early in the morning, June 1976, and I was dashing into my hotel room at the Century Plaza hotel.
I could hear the phone ringing and on the line was the determined publicist for MCA, his name was Zane Bair,  that I remember.
"You have a luncheon date with Jim Garner on the set of Rockford Files, on the Universal lot at 1 p.m. Please be on time. I'm sending down a pass for you to get in through the main gate."
I'd been trying for an interview with Garner but always got turned down with the added message "Please try next time you're in L.A."
This time it worked and precisely at 1:05 I arrived at his massive trailer to find Garner and producer Meta Rosenberg already munching on their salmon salad sandwiches.
At the same time a studio nurse was dressing a bruised knee. Garner loved to do his own stunts --later he had to have both knees replaced and underwent quintuple bypass surgery after decades as a chain smoker.
That lunch marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Because Garner approved of the first story I got to interview him again --this time in the Toronto Star news room where he was filming the 1984 CBS TV movie Heartsounds co-starring Mary Tyer Moore.
"Hey, Mare, you come over here and meet this young chap," Garner yelled when Moore got skittish.
In fact as I recall she agreed to be photographed opposite The Star's managing editor Lou Clancy. And the front page headline the next day was right on: "Mary? Lou?"
In 1985 Garner and I hid out on a vast soundstage for the press party for the TV series Space. "I did agree to be interviewed but I never said how many reporter that entailed," he quipped.
And in 1993 I interviewed him on the phone for the last time for his latest TV flick Barbarians At The Gate.
Yes, Garner could be very open and amiable --just so long as you didn't cross him. Then his famous temper would explode and how.
After Rockford Files went off the air in 1980 Garner discovered to his intense annoyance the series was listed in the studio books as having made no profit because every possible service was downloaded as expenses including garbage delivery.
He never talked to Rosenberg again just as he broke off with Mariette Hartley although they had made a series of pleasing commercials for Polaroid.
Garner's big claim to fame was his position as one of the first TV super stars to jump successfully into movies.
That day in his star trailer he reflected on the theory that "I was told a TV star cannot become a movie star. Vince Edwards didn't make it. Mary Tyler Moore tried and failed. Richard Chamberlain is a wonderful actor but not a movie name. Then along came Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and yours truly and that barrier got broken down."
Garner's first claim to fame was the western TV hit Maverick --he made 60 hour episodes between 1957 and 1960. "Each took so long they had to bring in other actors. Sometimes they'd be shooting three episodes at once. Jack Kelly played my brother and for awhile Roger Moore was the English cousin Beau. I started out at $400 weekly and eventually made $800. Chicken feed but I was learning the ropes."
During his summer hiatus Garner made modestly budgeted actioners for theatrical release: Darby's Rangers (1958), Up Periscope (1959), and Cash McCall (1960) opposite Natalie Wood.
What changed his status? "The Great Escape in '63. A huge hit. Then I did two with Doris Day (The Thrill Of It All and Move OIver, Darling) --she did her own pratfalls, we had a blast. Then came my favorite picture The Americanization Of Emily. "
In 1971 he jumped back to TV with the western Nichols. "Oh, so you're the one person who watched it. I thought it was great but we only lasted 24 episodes."
The Rockford Files lasted 1974-1980 or 122 episodes although Garner reluctantly returned to the character in six TV flicks made in the 1990s.
Then came more TV series: Bret Maverick (1981-82), Man Of The People (1991-92), God, The Devil And Bob (2000-01), First Monday (2002) and his last-- 8 Simple Rules (2003-05).
I happen to think his best performance came in Murphy's Romance (1995) but he also shone in The Notebook (2004).
His strangest credit? He made half a movie in Canada in the 1980s and then departed when financing ran out telling me years later "It's been so long I don't even look like that anymore so it can't be finished."
Asked how he'd like to be remembered Garner grinned and said "As an actor who loved to work with smart people I could learn from. On the other hand Sally Field says to this day I'm her favorite kisser and that's quite a compliment."
In later years Garner battled back after a stroke and arthritis attacks. He died at his L.A. home July 19 2014 aged 86 leaving behind wife Lois and one daughter.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Kim Cattrall Excels In Sensitive Skin

Kim Cattrall was supposed to phone me to chat about her new HBO Canada series Sensitive Skin.
But she was momentarily lost for words when I explained I'd interviewed her once before.
"It was in 1979 and you were co-starring with Brent Carver in the CBC TV movie Crossbar, a wonderful film for adolescents about a teenager who loses a leg but still wants to be a high jumper.
"I remember the day I was on set also chatting up Kate Reid and John Ireland and director John Trent who I'd first met on the set of Jalna."
There was another awkward moment of stillness and then Cattrall said "Fine. Thanks. Now let's talk about Sensitive Skin."
In the six-part miniseries Sensitive Skin Cattrall is still out there shining away in a brilliant piece of Canadiana.
"It only took me nine years to get to this TV premiere," she says with a nervous laugh.
Nine years ago Cattrall was co-starring in a London play when she met British screen writer Hugo Blick who had written Sensitive Skin as a British TV vehicle for Joanna Lumley and Jonathan Miller.
"We talked about me doing something of his. I kept going back to this very dark series which I thought could translate to North America very well.
"But the way things proceeded it took this long."
To shepherd the Canadian production veteran Don McKellar stepped in both as director and co-star and his frequent writing partner Bob Martin rewrote the scripts (for Rhombus Media).
"It's considerably changed," Cattrall says. "Friends who have seen it call it a dramady. I'm skeptical. There's too much comedy. But it's certainly not a sitcom either."
Everyone in SS is slightly disfunctional but in a comedic way. Cattrall, 57, is Davina who has been married for 30 years to steadfast hypochondriac Al who writes a trivial sort of column for the Toronto Reporter.
Feeling hemmed in they have sold their comfortable Forest Hill home for a brand new condo in downtown Toronto --the interior is all spanking white and Davina's first purchase is the most uncomfortable white sofa anybody can imagine.
In March 2011 Cattrall made headlines when she lashed out at a New York Post reporter at the premiere of her new film Meet Monica Velours.
"Ask me what it's like to be 54 and marginalized. It doesn't get easier as you get older."
Cattrall praises the Toronto centricity of the series --for once T.O. does not stand in for some vague American city.
"People have told me they feel like this couple. They moved downtown because Toronto is all condos these days. And it's not what they imagined. Transportation is iffy, there's noise, street people, it can be dangerous at nights."
All this gets dramatized in Sensitive Skin and Cattrall reports "It was truly satisfying being Davina. She has a lot of layers."
Cattrall says "It's not like we had a ton of money to spend. Don keeps the same crew and they work on a sort of short hand. I'd break for tea and they were all ready for the next set up. We'd do a few takes and then move on again. It's all on film --that explains the sheen.
"And yet the look is luxurious. Their apartment was the only big set, it is a character in itself. No wait! The couch is truly a real character."
Other characters include their 30-year old son who remains a perpetual adolescent and blames his low sperm count on his impending divorce.
Then there's brother-in-paw Rogers (Colm Feore), impossibly successful at high finance until he seems to begin flirting with Davina.
Davina plays out her midlife crisis with a piano teacher cum amateur archaeologist Grey (Marc-Andre Grodin).
In one episode both Davina and Al have encounters with friends from long ago.
Davina meets a girl who hero worshipped her in high school and always thought she's emerge as a big movie star. Turns out the ugly high school friend has morphed into one of Toronto's top neurologists.
Al meets an old flame wonderfully overplayed by Mary Walsh who invites him on her radio program where he over prepares and winds up berating her on air.
In several sessions Al is both comforted and teased by his neurotic doctor played wonderfully by Elliott Gould.
"In the original it was  Jonathan Miller and he was far more dark and menacing."
Also outstanding: Joanne Gleason as Davina's older sister Veronica and Cle bennett as erudite drug dealer Theodore.
Cattrall says "We felt at the end we'd made the equivalent of several feature films."
To economize block shooting was used --all the scenes in the apartment were shot one after the other --it was the same with the visits to Davina's art gallery or the doctor's office.
"You had to be on your toes," is the way Cattrall sums it up.
"We wanted the characters to be entirely recognizable. The humor comes through in the brilliant writing."
Cattrall is right in thinking Sensitive Skin is so different it takes some time to get used to its gentleness and sense of perspective.
But the full season will be available to subscribers following the broadcast premiere --a first for Canadian TV.
Subscribers will also be able to watch Season 1 of Sensitive Skin on TMN GO, Shaw Go Movie Central app, Bell TV app, Telus Optik on the go and via on demand platforms.
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Apocalypse: World War 1: Must See TV

TV is supposed to wind down in the lazy, hazy days of summer into a sea of endless reruns.
But all of a sudden TVOntario presents an epic series and one that's certain to be labelled must-see TV.
It's the five hour five part documentary account Apocalypse: World War 1.
The title may seem more than vaguely familiar because it's a sort of prequel to Apocalypse: World War II  which keeps popping up on History at odd times.
This one is also a French-Canadian co-production but one that TVOntario has brilliantly snagged.
It revs up with the first episode on Monday July 14 at 10 p.m. (repeated Tuesday night at 8:30).
It will be available across Canada on starting July 15.
The first episode which ran in March on French TV snagged 22.5 per cent of total viewers, a sensational figure.
Directors Isabelle Clarke and Daniel Costelle started off with 500 hours of archival material.
Like their previous World War II project they supervised the cleaning of the films and the coloring of them which is done so expertly most of the time you forget the standard faded prints of Great War documentaries.
Part One should really get you addicted. It presents a placid portrait of Europe in the summer of 1914 --a continent which had largely avoided war since Napoleon.
Then the images become stark: the assassinations in Sarajevo of the heir to the Austrian throne and his wife --the newsreel footage is clear and could just have been shot.
But we also see the strangely tepid reaction of the Austrian emperor out on a hunting expedition --after all he had already seen his wife assassinated and his son a suicide.
Gradually we are introduced to the main characters --most of the film is new to me and some of it is brilliantly chosen: German emperor Wilhelm II  always trying to hide his withered arm by clutching a sword.
King George V and Russian czar Nicholas II Look like twins --but one would be shot in a cellar after the other refused to come to his aid.
We see how excited the crowds were in the European capitals as war came --everyone expected to be home for Christmas. Much of the feeling of doom comes from the home movies of one typical upper class French family who never realized their world would soon come crashing down.
Episode 2 titled "Fear" looks at how the trench warfare came to dominate the campaign and how the horrendous casualty count mounted until both sides had literally run out of fresh recruits.
The titles of the episodes deepen: "Hell", "Rage", then "Deliverance" as centuries old empires crumble away and dangerous new societies are born.
But this is more than a military account of campaigns waged --we look at the horrendous destruction of the French countryside, how horses were killed at record rates, the booming business in artificial limbs, the determination of English girls to get married at any costs because they feared with all the men gone they'd be doomed to old maids.
Of course young viewers will get the most out of it --it's too bad high school is out for the summer because Apocalypse should be required viewing for them.
A lot of familiar faces pop through the story from young Ernest Hemingway in the Italian campaign to Adolf Hitler stuck in trench warfare to Lenin being secreted by the Germans into Russia to preach revolution.
Apocalypse: World War 1 even has time to show Canada's participation and how the war changed the British Empire forever.
It runs over five Mondays to August 11.
And I'm hoping later on TVO will run all five episodes as a block one night --next year's Canada Day would be a great time and opportunity.
MY RATING: ****.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Australian TV Hit Reaches CBC

Way back when --in the early 1970s when I was the boyish TV critic of The Hamilton Spectator --CBC-TV used to show buckets of Australian and British TV.
Back in those days an hour of Commonwealth TV counted as a half hour of Canadian content but eventually CRTC changed the rules and Commonwealth TV fare quickly disappeared from Canadian TV screens.
So it's surprising to catch the new Australian mystery import Secret And LIes which debuts on CBC Monday July 7 at 9 p.m.
As I watched the opening hour I was reminded of the recent British hit Broadchurch which already has been made into a U.S. mini-series.
And I'm pleased to report Secret And Lies has been bought by ABC for its own instant remake --I don't have a release date as yet.
Martin Henderson stars as Ben Gunderlach who is on his early morning run in an a leafy suburb  of Brisbane--it is so early that he can barely see where he is going.
And then he comes across the murder of a young boy who lived on the same street --Thom Murnane.
The acting is nothing sort of exceptional including Henderson, Adrienne Pickering as the boy's distraught mother and Damon Gameau as Ben's slacker mate.
Because much to Ben's amazement the police immediately figure him as the probable killer.
The details of how he came upon the body keep changing a bit.
And he and his wife have determined to separate after the Christmas break even though they still share the same bed.
The Brisbane location is unusual enough to hold the interest --just down the street from Ben's house is a gully that seems part of a jungle.
Set in December the atmosphere is undoubtedly human --everybody seems to be perspiring profusely.
Stephen M. Irwin wrote the script which works on various levels --there are a number of people who clearly could have killed the boy.
With Ben there is simply a lack of motive unless something is being hidden from viewers. And the narrative is seen through his eyes --in Broadchurch there was the visiting detective (so well played by David Tennant) who unravelled that mystery.
Secrets And Lies indicates Australian TV is reaching out to fashion some mysteries of its own rather than always buying abroad.
Canadian TV has made a few attempts over the years notably Wendy Crewson in a CTV movie series about investigator Joanne Kilbourn and farther back on CBC Saul Rubinek starred as St. Catharines detective Benny Cooperman.
Perhaps CBC should have stuck with Cracked which was coming along quite nicely after a rocky start?
And maybe the CRTC should think about re-jiggling its Canadian content quotas again to let in more quality Commonwealth fare?
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Great Canadian TV Documentaries Still Being Made

As soon as I spotted Ric Esther Bienstock as the director of the disquieting new documentary Tales From the Organ Trade I requested a screener.
This brilliant 82-minute look at a highly controversial subject manages to successfully portray most sides of the issue.
It debuts Monday July 7 at 9 p.m. on History and ranks as a must-see Canadian documentary.
It will have you thinking for days afterward and you'll also be completely upset by the current state of organ donations.
Bienstock's name may mean nothing to you but for me she exemplifies the highest order of the lonely TV documentary film maker.
She has a U.S. Emmy, two Geminis, a Genie, you name it she's got it and deservedly so.
The titles I remember are: AIDS In Africa (1990), Ebola: Inside An Outbreak (1996), Sex Slaves (2006), The Lost Tomb Of Jesus (2007), The Age Of Anxiety (2012).
I reviewed them all at release, four star productions all the way.
Tales From The Organ Trade which premiered on U.S. HBO in April has already garnered her a fistful of new awards.
What is amazing is the people she has managed to interview on camera and the world wide filming that looks at the patients, the poor donors and a few doctors reaping millions in profits.
Although she arouses our indignation I think she also finds common threads with both sides. There are people who are about to die within a few years unless they get a new kidney --and the waiting list is up to 10 years.
We become acquainted with a beautiful working mother in her 30s who shows us the dialysis she must perform at home every other day --her mother also has kidney disease and is shrinking away and now her brother must also undergo dialysis.
In Denver we meet Walter nervously waiting for a kidney to come his way --an awkward encounter has his daughter refusing to help simply because it is too frightening for her.
And we share time with Raul who paid $100,000 for his successful transplant.
Bienstock handles all these scenes in a poignant manner. But she also looks at the actions of several Israeli doctors who have moved first to Turkey and then again to Kosovo to evade authorities.
What is amazing is Bienstock's ability to get both these doctors to appear on camera and plead their cases. They do not emerge as monsters but brilliant practitioners determined to keep their patients alive.
And what they are saying is that payment for kidneys may be the only way to proceed. Currently people are expected to donate on an altruistic basis and this simply isn't working.
Scenes shot in the Philippines  break one's heart --we see desperately poor young men --one lives in a crawl space under another hut --and each has sold one kidney so they can get on with life.
One donor, however , is having pains --an ultrasound indicates the renal failure that is now plaguing his lone kidney --soon he will need a transplant for himself.
We also learn there are kidney brokers who take a commission for each kidney they sell.
The personalized stories make us understand how people will do almost anything to get a new kidney.
The affluent can afford to buy a new kidney --those selling them are dirt poor.
Who is using who in this trade? I'm not sure after watching this well edited documentary which is filled with superb moments that linger in the memory.
Will kidney lottaries become the new normal? Or will we simply continue to tolerate this black market in human parts?
Tales From The Organ Trade is just the best Canadian documentary I've seen in recent months.
But I already knew it would be as soon as I spotted the credit "directed by Ric Esther Bienstock".
MY RATING: ****.

Monday, June 23, 2014

What CBC-TV Documentary Unit?

The Globe And Mail's intrepid reporter Simon Houpt has gotten his hands on a letter sent to CBC management about the future of CBC-TV's documentary unit.
The letter signed by the likes of Peter Mansbridge, David Suzuki and Anna Maria Tremonti plus 30 other news and current affairs biggies hopes management will not free lance more of its documentaries.
Excuse me but this has been going on for the past decade.
Suzuki's once flagship series The Nature of Things uses almost all freelance contributions these days --in the old days under executive editor Jim Murray CBC made most of its shows on its own.
On CBC-TV's big weekly series Hot Docs almost all contributions are from freelancers who are expected to sell their products to other broadcasters around the world to break even.
When I started as TV critic of The Hamilton Spectator in 1970 I'd go into CBC headquarters on College street once a year to interview the great Harry Rasky.
His productions were so fine the New York Times dubbed them "Raskymentaries" and they won Emmy for CBC --sparkling life portraits of Raymond Massey, Chris Plummer, the Durants --all were made by Rasky one a year for the CBC.
And then about 10 years ago the pendulum swung and Rasky publicly complained to me his wonderful stuff was no longer appreciated --his very last called Nobody Swings On Sundays languished on the shelf for more than a year before being dumped sans publicity.
Then one day while browsing at Sam The Record Mans Rasky noticed two of his greatest TV profiles --on Tennessee Williams and G.B . Shaw --were included in various BBC Video collections.
CBC had sold off the rights without even informing him in advance!
Another big CBC series that I covered early on was the almost perfect history chronicle --The Tenth Decade --which examined the Canadian political landscape between 1957 and 1967 --years prime ministers Diefenbaker and Pearson battled each other.
It ran to rapturous praise in 1971.
Of course a sequel was ordered up but prime minister Pierre Trudeau refused to cooperate. The Eleventh Decade was never made.
Instead an insipid look at the Trudeau Years that featured P.E.T. lounging with rival Ed Broadbent ran once and was promptly forgotten.
A look at the Mulroney Years was started and then stopped because of enveloping "scandals". I don't think one on Jean Chretien has ever been attempted.
But veteran executive editor Mark Starowicz did make a memorable one on the second Quebec referendum on independence --I'd love to see Breaking Point (1995) again..
But the truth is CBC has outsourced most documentaries just as it rarely makes dramas on its own any more.
This past season I simply feel TVOntario had a better slate of commissioned documentaries than CBC.
And more cuts are coming I hear.