Friday, March 14, 2014

Ron James: "I'm Done"

I was supposed to phone up Ron James for our annual chat about his CBC-TV series.
I couldn't do it in person this year since I'm still recovering from triple bypass surgery but as soon as I got on the line James practically  shouted: "You know I'm done?"
Turns out CBC had declined to renew his five-year comedy series for another season.
"They told me in a telephone call. Typical."
The reason for this year's poor ratings?
I submit it was the roller coaster ride of time slots that began when James replaced RCAF on Friday nights.
In a supreme example of network indifference he got moved around ever season from Fridays to Mondays to Wednesdays and this season back to Mondays at 9:30.
A weak lead in from Mr. D didn't help and James was forced to defend himself against such heavy weight U.S. competition as The Following and The Voice.
The irony is the show itself has never been better.
This year with support from executive producer Lynn Harvey James practically moved his monologues into the audience producing a new found intimacy that really works.
And his comedy took a sharp, acerbic turn with frequent assaults on the Harper Tories because James sensed the government's unpopularity.
" I can tell you at the Canadian Screen awards I was offended the so called Heritage minister handed out awards. Never has a government so hated the arts."
In a way James knew this was going to be a difficult season when his episode order was scaled back to just eight episodes and his highly rated New Year's Eve show dumped.
The loss of CBC head programmer Kristine Stewart to Twitter Canada didn't help matters at all.
Some of James's sketches this year have been among his best.
There was the parody of the Somali kidnappers "which I've wanted to do since I was in Second City and at that time I thought why not make the chief pirate the cute kid I once helped as a foster parent? Oh, I had that idea well before the movie Captain Philips!"
This week it's a sketch on Zombie Vaccine which I can't explain --I'll just ask you to watch it.
And among James's best creations there's the CBC character Elroy Faber who he describes as "a bit" of a cross between Elwy Yost --and can I add Elwood Glover --in giving us tripe from the CBC vaults.
"CBC is always trying to make shows that are good for us," James laughs.
"This season we were able to get such seasoned performers as Rick Roberts and Patrick McKenna. And mostly it worked."
With the move back to Mondays and the lack of CBC publicity James cracks "It's a wonder anybody at all could find us."
As partial compensation CBC has offered a comedy special --James has done several which found ratings gold and says he's considering the offer.
"We're going out on a high note. I'm grateful for five seasons. Our budget was minuscule and yet we were able to attract the biggest Canadian actors around --Peter Keleghan, Linda Kash, Jayne Eastwood."
James own future is certain --he can play anywhere in Canada with his one man shows and draw SRO audiences. "TV has made me even more popular out there, there's the irony."
In the near future he wants to take a canoe trip in the Yukon with his daughter and ruminate about the future of Canadian TV comedy.
But does any solely Canadian series have any chance of survival against the onslaught of imported American fare appearing on all sorts of platforms?
CBC insiders say even more drastic cuts are to be anticipated. "Most scripted series are in danger!" warns one veteran producer who says this death by a hundred cuts now threatens CBC-TV's very existence.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

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