"Excuse me, old chap, mind if I sit beside you?"
Did I mind!
The speaker was the great British actor Patrick Macnee--yes, that's right John Steed of TV's Avengers.
And the occasion was a lavish 1989 NBC dinner for the premiere of the TV version of Around The World In 80 Days.
Macnee died June 26, aged 93, at his home in Rancho Mirage, California.
Stars Pierce Brosnan, Peter Ustinov, Sir John Mills, Simon Ward and others were in attendance at the grand ballroom of the Universal Hilton hotel (in Los Angeles).
Macnee whisked in late and took the vacant seat next to me and we chatted for hours about his illustrious career.
Turns out I'd only just caught him in Toronto on the stage with a remount of Sleuth opposite Geraint Wyn Davies--it ran to packed housesat the Century playhouse for months.
"We cleaned up on that one," Macnee chuckled. "I mean a two character play and not an empty seat. We all made plenty off of it."
But Macnee had an even closer connection with Canada.
Turns out he was part of a "Britpack" of distinguished British talents (including director David Greene and Barry Morse) called on to set up CBC TV drama way back in 1952 serving as producer on some live TV productions but also as star actor.
"Did a Hamlet there I was particularly proud of. The studio was an old Pierce Arrow car showroom, you could hear traffic on the street. All live. Very terrifying. But it worked, it really worked."
But, of course, that was way before The Avengers which ran on British TV from 1961 to 1969.
Macnee's depiction of debonair Steed made him a household word.
"They offered me the part and I said no way. I'd seen real killing in World War II and so I refused to carry a gun at all.
"They swooned when I said 'Why don't I instead carry an umbrella?' That and my bowler hat made TV audiences sit up."
But Macnee said what made the trendy spy show an instant hit was "Girl power, first Honor Blackman, then Diana Rigg. But when Linda Thorson took over it was, well, uncomfortable."
Macnee contended that treating the women as vigorous and physical beings "marked a blow for equality --they could fight their way out of danger as well as I could."
Born in London in 1922, Macnee attended Eton College and the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art before long service in the Royal Navy during World War II.
A childhood classmate was Christoper Lee "who was scary even back then."
"I did all sorts of iddly diddly small roles before Steed made me a star at the age of 39.
"I left my first wife and two small children to work in Canada where I learned the rudiments of acting.
"I wasn't the nicest of persons back then. I'm nicer now.
"I had to wait for stardom which is why I appreciate it so much."
Films include a bit in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948), the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol and Roger Moore's last outing as James Bond A View To A Kill(1985) and This Is Spinal Tap.
When I asked Macnee why his Steed was so popular he quickly said "He was a gentleman but not posh. He was never a sexist-- unlike James Bond. I simply think people trusted him."
That description might also sum up Macnee's characteristics. "Except I took U.S. citizenship in 1959, old boy. I could never stand that British climate don't you know? I may dress in Saviole Row but acting on Love Boat and Hart To Hart pay the bills."
Saturday, June 20, 2015
"I wasn't so sure this series could ever be made," chuckles executive producer Carlo Massarella who helped create the gigantic Rise Of The Machines.
Part One of this seven part hour series revs up on Discovery Monday June 22 at 7 p.m.
That's right --while other networks go to sleep for the summer with reruns Discovery is premiering one of its most ambitious and I should say costly sTV shows of the year.
"We wanted to show how trulyt gigantic machines are changing the way mega projects around the world are being created and designed," he says on the phone from London, England.
"I mean it's one thing to envisage one hour but it's quite another to have crews ready to film these enormous projects.
"And we didn't want viewers to simply become overwhelmed by it all so we very carefully place the emphasis in each hour on the human factor --the veterans who have seen and done it all and calmly react to crisis after crisis."
The result is frequently enthralling television.
In the first episode "Mega Lift Ship" we see a 50,000 newly designed ship the Dockwise My Treasure which is longer than two football fields and packs the combined power of 80 Hummers.
The assignment of the talented crew: to deliver a 13,000 ton oil rig from Singapore where it has been carefully constructed to the ultimate destination half way around the world in the Gulf of Mexico.
And all along there's a TV crew documenting every twist and turn --the first challenge involves getting the massive ship through traffic congested Singapore harbor and it's like threading a gigantic needle --one mishap and the multimillion dollar enterprise would collapse.
"We all had to take out additional insurance," jokes Massarella.
If the ship actually sank so would the series I'm guessing.
What makes the voyage extra exciting for viewers is the marvelous CVGI animation that deconstructs the innards of the ship --showing how it can be actually lowered in the water to take on the steel giant and how the huge ocean waves can be countered without sinking the ship.
"It was a scary voyage for all concerned," B reports. "Nothing had to be added --those waves are huge, there were times of peril, see how we lasted."
The second week (June 29) there's a look at "Mega Truck" taller than a two-story building--the Liebherr T284 has the pulling power of a freight train.
The third week (July 13) it's "Super Train", the Italo AGV which speeds along at 300 km/hr and is 200 meters long.
The fourth week salutes the "Super Airship", the Aeros Dragon Dream and its first test flight--it can transport cargo around the world at a fraction of the normal cost of airfreight.
The fifth episode "Mega Digger" is about the Komatsu OC8000 is twelve meters tall and weighs more than two jumbo jets.
The sixth episode I also got to preview-- --"Mega Lift Helicopter" --Canada's Erickson Air Crane sports 11 meter blades and can lift loads of over nine tons.
This episode snaps and crackles with tension --one false move by the trained pilot and the gigantic transmission tower would fall to earth.
And yet these guys must carefully place 120 of them across 120 kilometers in only eight days.
All of this is done by profiling the guys who are used to such challenges --they must also deal with unpredictable wind storms and they realize the margin for any error is very tiny indeed.
Massarella says "Obviously the scope means many networks have to be involved from the beginning., The shooting all must be laid out before we start because time is so precious.
"It's an unique series. We focus on the human factor, that personalizes these extraordinary feats.
"It's a co-production between London's Windfall Films and Montreal's Handel Productions. Really, that's the only way to go.
And he praises the superb CGI effects which let us see inside the ship's complicated shell or peer into the helicopter's motor to view all the components. "That's from Montreal's Digital Dimensions and is tops."
Despite several hairy moments Massarella says the film crew is up for more episodes for a second season. "I'm already making a list of subjects."
RISE OF THE MACHINES PREMIERES ON DISCOVERY MONDAY JUNE 22 AT 7 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.
Saturday, June 13, 2015
But how often has a Canadian series moved south?
Well, three Canadian series have gone south in recent years and nobody seems to have noticed it.
First there's the perennial favorite Property Virgins.
For the first 10 seasons and 130 episodes it was filmed in and around Toronto starring Toronto realtor Sandra Rinomato.
Then she quit to make her own series Buy Herself but that one only lasted a series.
Meanwhile Property Virgins moved south with American realtor Egypt Sherrod.
These days she's based in Atlanta --shows I've watched featured homes selling for $150,000 that would go for over 1 million in T.O.
Then there's Property Brothers with the identical twins Drew and Jonathan Scott.
The title seems to change a lot and after shooting a bit in Toronto (the show started in 2011) the venue switched to Vancouver and then Austin and now is in Vegas.
Third example is Love It Or List It which Hilary Clinton once said was among her most favorite TV shows.
This one is an always fun debate between realtor David Visentin and designer Hilary Farr who once made movies as Hilary Labow.
It has always been Toronto based and I can tell because of the outrageously high prices.
But this season LIOLI moved South.
I instantly knew because the prices seemed about 2/3 cheaper from Toronto episodes.
What made the show fascinating was David's knowledge of Toronto neighborhoods and Hilary's interaction with her contractors.
In the new American episodes the two seem at sea.
Hilary is mugging to cover up her confusion, David overacts wildly. The uniqueness of this show has been damaged.
All three series run on American cable TV giant HGTV which also lists another Toronto show Income Property in its ads as "home grown".
And HGTV U.S. has huge ratings compared to the Canadian version of HGTV (W runs LIOLI and PB up here).
I think in all three cases the Canadian version to be better.
And one more point: since all three are now shot in the U.S. can they still count as Canadian content?
I think not.
Tuesday, June 9, 2015
"Are you aware of the series Degrassi?" a mom down the street asked me.
She'd just heard the joyous news Degrassi which was facing cancellation has been saved yet again-- this by Netflicks --a decision that will made our "Canadian" commercial networks as mad as hell.
I was the first TV critic on the set of Kids Of Degrassi which creators Linda Schuyler and Kit Hood first presented way back in 1979
I was then with The Hamilton Spectator but all the big time TV critics in Toronto simply ignored it.
"I'd never go on the set of a kids' show like that," snapped The Globe And Maik's Blail Kirby when I asked him about it.
Well, I did and I never forgot it.
The first offering consisted of a mere 24 episodes made between 1979 and 1984 -- CBC ran them in the late afternoon children's slot with TVO picking up the repeats.
I remember taking the Queen streetcar over to the Beach area to interview the very pleasant Schuyler who was both creative but also concerned about the well being of her young charges.
My favorite was "Charles Buys A Suit" where the tyke bought a new suit for his father's wedding at Moores.
Later on I met up with Schuyler in Redondo Beach where she was peddling the next series Degrassi Junior High to PBS.
She had three of the "stars" up on stage with her and mentioned one troubled youth was staying with her.
I remember blond Neil Hope was up there along with darkly handsome Pat Mastroianni.
Critics sitting with me said it obviously was Mastroianni but in reality he came from a strong family.
It was Hope who was troubled --he later disappeared for years only to be reported dead in Hamilton a few years ago
Schuyler later kept up a trust fun to get some of her charges into university.
When Degrassi High finally died in 1991 she tried an adult soap opera called LIberty Street and later mounted an hourlong soap opera called Riverdale but CBC only had the funds for 12 episodes the first year.
Degrassi: The Next Generation revved up in 2001. CBC balked because it had no money so the series ran on MTV in the U.S. and CTV up here .
After 14 seasons MTV cancelled out so in stepped Netflix and Family Channel.
Netflix also has Trailer Park Boys --more new Canadian content than you'll see on "Canadian"
Schuyler's Epitome PIctures has morphed into a very rich concern --DHX Media paid $33 million for the library a few years ago.
Now she has her own back lot in East York not the ratty old vet office on Queen Street East.
But I'm warning her --at a recent meeting weith Grade 6 students I asked their favorfite kids series.
And 2 to 1 they picked The Next Step over Degrassi.
Time moves on for all of us.
Monday, June 8, 2015
At first I thought incoming Bell Media president Mary Ann Turcke was jesting when she described her outrage when she discovered her teenaged daughter directly tuning in to the U.S. version of Netflix.
The very idea! Grrrrr!
Turcke knows the entire rickety premise of Canadian TV is founded on several technological ploys which soon will be swept away.
Turcke told her audience that all Canadians who dare use virtual private networks to access U.S. signals are guilty of stealing.
And, no, she wasn't joking at all.
The sad state of Canadian TV these days is based on a technological ploy invented in the early Eighties.
Canadian networks got the CRTC to agree to black out incoming U.S. network signals (via cable TVC) and insert Canadian channels as long as the programs were the same.
In one stroke Canadian networks got double ratings although they were not actually paying for this.
And in that move Canadian content was stalled if not destroyed.
There was no way any Canadian series could compete.
U.S. shows had double ratings. They came with all the hoopla of magazine covers and puff pieces on the entertainment shows.
And just to prove my thesis one year CTV actually ran three Canadian made shows back to back on Saturday nights only to watch them crash and burn in the ratings.
It was the last time in Canadian TV history when Canadian scripted shows actually dominated on a Canadian commercial channel.
But in recent years new technology has allowed Canadians to resist the artificial world of blackouts and simulcasting.
When I told the teenaged geek up the street how I wished I could access "hulu" --a service owned by NBC and Universal but not accessible in Canada he merely yawned.
"Use it all the time. I use a phony U.S. address. And I use another British address to get all the UK specialty shows I want."
Netflix claims to reach almost 40 per cent of Canadian TV subscribers without any aid from the Big Three (Bell Media, Shaw TV, Rogers TV).
Sorry, Ms. Turcke, but I see little commitment in Bell's fall TV schedule to the CRTC rule of 50 per cent content.
On CTV One there's exactly one drama series --the well made Saving Hope, and it consists of reruns on the low rated Saturday night.
CTV Two has reruns of Flashpoint in its schedule.
In 1985 I could count 11 quality hour long Canadian scriptyed dramas.
But the private broadcasters beat up on the CRTC and forced it to drop its content regulations concerning scripted drama.
"Trust us," they said and the result was the next season saw just two scripted dramas left
Ms. Turcke must explain why with all the perks on her side subscribers continue to jump to the competition.
Would not an equal outlay of money on Canadian drama entice many back --it would be an area where Netflixs cannot compete.
Thursday, June 4, 2015
That was quite a shindig Bell Media put on at the Sony Center which was overflowing with thousands of giddy media advertising buyers.
And why shouldn't CTV give itself a big party I ask you.
The network is very dominant in its old line network CTV and has invested wisely in its rapidly growing specialty weblets including Discovery, Animal Planet, HGTV, Showcase.
But an ominous air of complacency stalks the CTV executive corridors.
Many of the pickups of very long running shows attract what demographers term "oldsters" --viewers over 55 who repeatedly give the U.S. ratings crown to CBS.
The challenge at CTV is to start refreshing the brand before it wilts away --but that would mean spurning American hits still in the Top 20.
Among the aging dependables returning to CTV: Blue Bloods, Criminal Minds, Castle, Grey's Anatomy.
The only sitcoms I see are Big Bang Theory and The Goldsbergs.
CTV TWO has even more of these staples: Law & Order: SVU, The Voice, Vampire Diaries, plus the sitcoms Mike & Molly and Hot In Cleveland.
For now CTV can babble on about nabbing last year 6 of the Top 10 new U.S. shows: The Flash, Gotham, Marvel's Agent Carter, The Odd Coup[l;e, How To Get Away with Murder.
But only Shonda Rhimes's How To Get Away With Murder has truly emerges as a ratings blockbuster.
And there's another problem: CTV is supposed to have 50 per cent Canadian content in its prime time schedule but I can only spot the excellent made-in-Toronto scripted series Saving Hope series in its fall lineup and these run Saturday nights in reruns against NHL hockey so good luck.
CTV's Fall 2015 new U.S. picks include Quantico starring Priyanka Chopra as part of a diverse new group of FBI recruits at Quantico Base --but she is also suspected of masterminding the biggest attack on New York city since 9/11.
I'm not sure this type of material should count as "entertainment".
Then there's Blindspot starring Sullivan Stapleton as a crack FBI agent investigating the strange case of a heavily tattooed woman who is found naked in Times Square.
Code Black stars respected veteran Marcia Gay Harden as she trains the next batch of ER doctors --and of course there are shocking secrets of her past.
Then there's the Dallas style Blood & Oil with Chace Crawford (Gossip Girl) back on TV and the comeback of Don Johnson in a Big Daddy turn as a ruthless tycoon.
Mid-season debuts are scheduled for DC's Legends Of Tomorrow from the creators of The Flash and Arrow with such characters as The Atom, White Canary and Hawkgirl.
Lucifer stars the fallen angel himself in the person of Tom Ellis (Rush) plus there's Lauren German as a dedicated LAPD detective and D.B. Woodside as God's emissary, the angel Amenadiel.
And aslso there's The Catch, yet another series from Shonda Rhimes starring Mireille Enos (The Killing) as a fraud investigator who becomes the victim of a massive fraud herself.
CTV TWO pickups include the new variety show Best Time With Neil Patrick Harris ands a pickup for Season 3 of Sleepy Hollow.
In spectacular fashion CTV rolled out dozens of American stars as per usual plus some Canadian ones as well.
But there were verbal fire works when CTV tried to maintain its sports network TSN is still number one --this after Rogers bought rights to all NHL games --and Bell also owns the Blue Jays giving it a hammer lock on baseball as well.
In news here's where I say I'm sorry. I didn't think Lisa Laflamme could maintain Lloyd Robertson's ratings when she took over.
But she has quietly and effectively made the news at 11 p.m. her own and ratings are still tops.
I chatted up some of the advertising girls and boys who seemed in complete agreement that Bell is the best buy in town over many platforms.
The most impressive statistic in the Bell arsenal: it has 17 hours of simulcast --more than any other network.
But that is at the expense of developing a Canadian identity.
And the old ways may not work forever as computer kids can think of any number of ways to vault that electronic fence and directly watch American networks.
Tuesday, June 2, 2015
It's still spring but Global and City are already announcing their prime time American acquisitions for the fall.
Fans of Canadian content are apt to be disappointed at the wall-to-wall U.S. series.
First up there's City which has the following American acquisitions The Muppets, Life In Pieces, Grandfathered starring John Stamos, The Grinder with Rob Lowe and Fred Savage plus all new seasons of Family Guy, Bob's Burgers and The Last Man On Earth.
And weekends it's Hockey Night In Canada providing wall to wall Canadian content.
Other returning U.S. faves include 2 Broke Girls, Modern Family, Black-ish, Brooklyn Nine-Niner and New Girl plus City's highest rated new series of last season: Empire.
Other returnees include The Bachelor, Mike & Molly, Hell's Kitchen, The Middle, World's Funniest Fails plus new titles Rush Hour, Bordertown, Little Big Shots and The Guide To Surviving Life.
The Canadian hit Mr. D is listed as new to City but I can't find much else in the fall lineup that could count as Canadian scripted drama or comedy.
Over at Global there are a ton of new American imports including Supergirl, Minority Report (from the 2011 film with Bradley Cooper), Heroes: Reborn, Angel From Hell with Jane Lynch, People Are Talking with Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Heartbreaker, Chicago Med (with Oliver Platt), Shades Of Blue (Jennifer Lopez as a New York city detective) and Containment.
And Global has nabbed The Late Show with Stephen Colbert which is a big plus.
Returning U.S. hits
Global does have three Canadian series: season 4 of Big Brother Canada, a new drama series The Code with Jason Priestley, and Houdini and Doyle. And returning is Entertainment Tonight Canada.
And returning American imports include Madame Secretary, NCIS: New Orleans, The Blacklist, Elementary, Hawaii Five-0, The Good Wife,Chicago Fire, Chicago PDF, NCIS and NCIS: LA.
Alas, the only good news I have for you on the Canadian content front is the renewal for a fourth season of CTV's hit Vancouver made drama Motive.
Monday, June 1, 2015
So there I was in June 1975 having breakfast in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Wilshire hotel with Anne Meara.
The talented comedy actress died last week aged 85 but as she told me and several other TV critics that morning "I'm not a comedienne. I'm an actress specializing in comedy."
We had to breakfast very early --I think it was 7 a.m. because Meara had to get to the set of her new CBS drama series Kate McShane.
"It's a starring gig for me," she laughed. "Highly dramatic. I'm a feisty lawyer gal. And I love that CBS thought enough of my dramatic talents to offer me this lead?"
In fact CBS had doubts about this one all along and cancelled the whole shebang after a mere 10 episodes.
But it did give Meara a chance to shine and the cast was pretty wonderful: Charles Haid, Christine Belford, Marian Seldes and such guest stars as Michael Anderson Jr., Susan Strasberg, Priscilla Pointer.
I got up early to meet Meara because I remembered her so vividly from her days with husband Jerry Stiller on The Ed Sullivan Show.
"We did 36 of those skits,"she said. "They even wanted to make a sitcom out of the material. Ed was great, he just let us ramble away and the audiences seemed to get our humor."
She'd met Stiller on a date "and when he picked up the check he had me for life. I thought now there's a man!"
The very next year I interviewed Meara again --this time on the set of Rhoda where she had a recurring role as "Sally Gallagher".
"It's not drama but I don't mind getting the laughs. I've been getting them for a very long time."
I kept in intermittent touch --she was great as a co-star on Archie Bunker's Place (1979-82)playing a warm, sweet character named Veronica Rooney.
Heck, she even co-starred on the sitcom ALF --as Dorothy Halligan in 1987--I saw her on the set and we had a great
When I asked for her favorite part she quickly replied: "The Sunset Gang on PBS's American Playhouse --Jerry was also in it. Great plot, great lines, But nobody has ever heard of it."
When I said I had and loved it she clapped her hands and shouted :"Wheeee!".
And then she did the TV rounds as guest star ion Murder, She Wrote (1988), In The Heat Of The Night (1994) ("because Carroll O'Connor asked for me"), Murphy Brown (1994), Will And Grace (2001).
A final burst of activity came as Mary Brady on Sex And The City (2002) and on The King Of Queens (199-2007) opposite husband Jerry Stiller.
I think she would have gotten a great kick out of the headlines that said "Ben Stiller's Mom Dies", too!