Sunday, July 22, 2012

Canadian TV's Downton Abbey

People keep asking me why Canadian TV has never attempted a similar historical tale to rival the wonderful British TV serial Downton Abbey?
And I have to remind them that we certainly tried, oh how we tried.
I was the kid TV critic for The Hamilton Spectator way back in 1971 when CBC-TV began filming Mazo de la Roche's The Whiteoaks Of Jalna.
CBC made a big mistake in keeping it all secret --no reporters were allowed near the set although from time to time publicity photos dribbled out --like the day a Great War bombing campaign was filmed at brickyards 40 miles northwest of Toronto.
I still can't figure out why CBC botched the opportunity for such great publicity. I blame the producer, brilliant, mercurial Fletcher Markle for letting all the glory go to his head.
CBC first had to buy rights to the 1935 movie Jalna and suppress it.
Markle then hired Timothy Findley no less to adapt the book --also contributing were writers Claude Harz and Graeme Woods.
At some point the fatal decision was made to add a contemporary story and flashback to the story generations had grown up with.
The same actors would play the characters in both sequences which was completely confusing.
After several false starts William Hutt who had been cast as Rennie  suddenly left the production. I later asked him if he had contracted a "diplomatic illness" and he roared with laughter and nodded his head.
He was replaced by Paul Harding.
Great Kate Reid was Old Adeline, Don Scardino Ernest and others included Blair Brown (Pheasant). Amelia Hall (Meg),  Toby Tarnow (Ruth), Linda Goranson (Victoria).
Decades later I bumped into Blair on the set of a 1985 U.S. miniseries titled Space  and reminded her we'd met on Jalna and she frowned and walked away.
Although a CBC production CBC ordered the miniseries be blacked out on Windsor's CKLW-TV (partially owned by CBC) as CBC was hoping all along for an American sale which never happened.
Jalna was supposed to mark CBC's first big foray into PBS Masterpiece Theater company.
In fact CBC even tried to sell it to PBS. MP executive producer Joan Wilson later recalled the "horrible day" she was forced to sit in a darkened screening room and watch the first two episodes with Markle beside her.
She politely refused to buy the miniseries at all.
CBC spent over $2 million on its effort --a big sum for 1971. The Whiteoaks house actually existed right outside Whitby.
For the vaudeville sequences the long closed Winter Garden theatre atop Loew's downtown cinema was re-opened and refurbished at great cost.
I attended the lavish premiere held at the St. Lawrence Center and noticed the audience was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.
When the lights went on Reid and Hall bolted for the bar and began belting back malt whiskies. Markle's legendary cool demeanor had disappeared. And days later when the critical reviews appeared it was apparent: Jalna was a bomb.
It premiered in January 1972 but the repeat in 1974 was significantly altered with many of the modern day scenes completely cut out. And CBC's Jalna has never been seen since --no VHS or DVD boxed sets, nothing.
But I submit the experience was worthwhile and out of that debacle sprang such historical series as Pierre Berton's The Last Spike and later on Road To Avonlea.
CBC's Jalna disappeared but Jalna did not.
In 1994 French TV presented its own miniseries adaptation of Jalna headed by veteran star Danielle Darrieux --it was filmed in Quebec--and Global TV later presented a version dubbed in English that I thought adequate.
So perhaps based on the Downton Abbey success Jalna will rise again --maybe Sullivan Films which presented Road To Avonlea is up to the challenge?


Cathy Garside said...

Hi, I have loved The Whiteoaks of Jalna since I first saw the original broadcast episodes --- especially, Paul Harding as Renny. I've emailed CBC many times to see is they will release the series in dvd, but have never had a reply and am dearly hoping that they will reconsider, as the series is one of the best. I've also been trying to find out whether Paul Harding is still appearing in theatre or film, but have had no luck online. My mother met him at Pearson International many years ago and he was a wonderfully gracious man. I do hope that CBC will realize the error of its ways and release the series to those of us who love it. Cathy Garside

Cathy Garside said...

Hi again, I feel like I'm the only one who loved this Canadian Classic, other than James Bawden. I remember there being tributes to Amelia Hall (Meggie) and Kate Reid as the wonderful Gran/Adelaide but am still trying to find out information about Paul Harding and my other favourite, Gillie Fenwick as Uncle Ernest. I've tried every venue/website/contact I know of and no-one seems to know where they are or have any information about them. I would be very grateful to anyone who was or is their agent/friend/relative for any information on any of them as they are wonderful actors and need to be recognized and remembered for their incredible work.

Mir in Van said...

Cathy, I LOVE the Whiteoaks of Jalna series. I watched it on TV as a kid, and was entranced by it. I too have written the CBC and begged for a DVD, and like you have never had a reply. I've heard Whiteoaks derided and be the butt of jokes. I just don't get it. The acting, the sets, the script - all were amazing, top notch. Canadians are so set on being Britain' or the USA's poor cousin, they can't even recognize success when it's aired on their own damn network.

Red Queen Productions said...

All true - The Whiteoak Chronicles are ripe for re-adaption on tv. Rumors were afloat of a new series but nothing has transpired. We could only wish the CBC would have the vision to mount something like this. A recent documentary about her life and work, The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche (co-produced with Red Queen Productions & the NFB ) was broadcast on Bravo and Knowledge Network and will be airing on TVOntario on March 6, 2014. Her work lives on.