Wednesday, October 18, 2017
I specifically asked to interview the brilliant British character star Alun Armstrong in Toronto to promote the second season of Discovery Channel's first dramatic series Frontier.
You can catch it Wednesday October 18 at 10 p.m. --it's virtually a must-see.
The gritty series has an all star cast besides Armstrong: Jason Monoa (Game Of Thrones), Landon Liboiron (DeGrassi). Zoe Boyle (Downton Abbey), and Alan Hawco (Republic Of Doyle).
The prestigious Telegraph hailed the series with this headline: "Blood and fur is Netflix's Frontier the new Taboo?"
And this: "Since it landed on Netflix this Friday, fans have been quick to spot the many siliarities between these two meaty colonial feasts."
Armstrong tells me on the phone he's "delighted" with the critical reception to the series.'
It turns out Discovery made the audacious move to hire a talented actor (Jason Momoa) as the throat slitting trader Declan Harp --contrast this with Tom Hardy as beardy cannibal James Delaney.
And Armstrong says he shoots his scenes in Newfoundland as well as Cornwall.
"It was my first time acting in Canada. And it was a part I could really get into."
"I just got a call from my agent one day and here was a character without any redeeming features. Dastardly Lord Benton. A bad character! Maybe it's my voice. But I've never been that nasty before. And it is a grand success."
Armstrong had been acting for just over a year when he got his first juicy role opposite star Michael Caine in Get Carter.
In one interview Armstrong acknowledged "I always play very colorful characters, often a bit crazy, despotic, psychotic."
Armstrong is also an accomplished stage actor who spent nine years with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
And he originated the role of Thenardier in the London production of Les Miserables and he also won an Olivier Award for playing the title role in the London production of Sweeney Todd.
Armstrong says the most painful scene he's been involved in on Frontier was a sort of torture sequence which had to go on and on --"and this had to be shot from various directions and filming never seemed to end."
"And now I'm in Toronto. I wanted to see the city --walking around this morning I noticed how many young people were downtown."
Although Armstrong has never worked in Toronto he was in the mammoth eight-hour production of Nicholas Nickleby starring Roger Rees "which as I recall was partly financed by your Ed Mirvish."
Speaking to The Daily Mail in 2014 Armstrong said "My peasant's face has been my fortune."
And I especially liked him as a snooty butler ion the Christmas 2014 special of Downtown Abbey.
Frontier has been such a success it has already been renewed for a third season which is great news for Alun Armstrong fans.'
FRONTIER RETURNS FOR A SECOND SEASON WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 18 AT 10 P.M. ON DISCOVERY.
Monday, October 16, 2017
It's the sheer honesty and deep commitment of two parents that should immediately strike you when watching the brilliant new TVOntario documentary Beyond The Spectrum: A Family's Year Confronting Autism.
The 86-minute production premieres on TVOntario Wednesday Oct. 18 at 9 p.m. and is must-see TV at its best.
Canadian director Steven Suderman is telling me the committed parents contacted him rather than the usual way and after listening to their story he thought it might make a riveting TV documentary. He was right on that point.
"And I had a history with TVOntario," he says over the phone. In 2011 Suderman directed and produced the film To Make A Farm for TVO and won awards for that one.
The resulting film premieres during Autism Aware Month which is entirely appropriate.
First off we are made aware of these very remarkable parents Carly and Stef and their realization that when Oskar is 2 he is diagnosed with autism.
They decide to drop everything else to care for their son for a year to try and give him a head start and make sure he won't get too far behind.
Suderman also was the cameraman on his production and he shot and shot and he's so good at what he does the parents and the other children in the family soon became basically unaware of the camera's presence.
Suderman tells me he never knew what would happen but he wanted to obtain a complete record of this amazing struggle.
We see the anxious parents consulting experts and feeling that what they're being offered may sometimes be contradictory.
So, in effect, they take charge of Oskar's treatment.
For a long time they try various diets --that same philosophy worked when treating an older son who has emerged as a talkative and inquisitive young boy.
"I think we show the couple experienced good days and some not as good," Suderman sayIs. ""The supplements had worked so much better with the other boy."
We also see how all this attention on Oskar affects the other children and how they become vastly supportive to helping their youngest brother.
The approach Suderman uses goes all the way back to Allan King's masterful documentary A Married Couple. Close observation draws the viewer in and we begin rooting for this family.
It worked then and it works here. Under Suderland's masterful direction we get drawn into the struggles of this couple and recognize how far they are determined to go in helping their son.
A few"experts" are plopped in to explain the progress or lack thereof. But basically this is one family's story.
We get to understand why Oskar wants to continually jump in the same place, what frightens him, how he can finally make eye contact with his mother.
These little victories become dramatically compelling.
But at one point the parents ask Suderman to stop filming which he did for almost three months.
There are reasons for this which I can't reveal here but had he not finally be invited back there would only have been half a film.
"They just needed some space," explains director Suderman.
We watch how this family celebrates Christmas --these scenes are dramatically very satisfying.
"Carly had been through this twice," Suderman is telling me."Her patience is amazing as she finds it's nothing the same as with the older boy."
I think the saddest moment comes when the parents ask "How are we going to cope with this?"
But cope they do. And survive. And grow as parents.
Suderman captures all these highs and lows in such a fashion it's impossible to turn away from his compelling family portrait.
There's also a free interactive app titled My Autism Passport (M.A.P.).
Suderman made it for Merit Motion Pictures and Orangeville Road Pictures.
BEYOND THE SPECTRUM PREMIERES ON TVONTARIO WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 18 AT 9 P.M. and MIDNIGHT WITH REPEAT SHOWINGS ON OCTOBER 21 (9 P.M. AND 1:30 A.M.) AND OCTOBER 22 (8 P.M. AND 1 A.M.
Saturday, October 7, 2017
fliIt's that time of the year as four old friends get together: a prominent TV actress, veteran publicist and a famous TV producer. Here are highlights of our luncheon chatter:
ME: The big news is the crash in ratings of the old line US networks as more viewers than ever turn to alternate viewing devices.
ACTRESS: For me it's the disappearance of the Canadian community TV channels. Why should Rogers and Bell finance these local access channels when the hot new viewing tool Netflix has been allowed by the CRTC to do absolutely no Canadian content?
PUBLICIST: The big new TV series I'm crazy about is Ken Burns' incredible Vietnam war series on PBS which is magnificent view but nobody knows what happened to it.
PRODUCER:I can no longer make any Canadian TV movie or series until I have an American co-producer. And Americans are not particularly interested in all things Canadian.
ME: I went to the movies for the first tim e in years to watch the masterful new British movie Dunkirk which will surely win Oscars including the one for best picture.
PRODUCER: My favorite Canadian TV series is Suits --I know its made by and for Americans but because it is shot here I call it Canadian.
PUBLICIST: I was so busy this summer. So many U.S. films and TV things shooting here. The wonderfully low Canadian dollar meant lots of work for yours truly.
ACTRESS: I just saw Victoria And Abdul starring Judi Dench and it was very rewarding. Victoria was Queen and Empress of a quarter of the world's surface and yet she never travelled to any of her loyal dominions or to India where she was empress.
ME: The hottest Canadian writer right now is Margaret Atwood. Her miniseries The Handmaid's Tale was great and shot here. Let's forget the awful movie that I found unwatchable. Let's also agree not to discuss that unwatchable version of her novel Surfacing.
PRODUCER: Maybe Morley Callaghan will be the next great Canadian writer to be rediscovered. After all didn't Edmond Wilson hail him as the "Chekov of the North"?
PUBLICIST: I'm so old I once met Mazo de la Roche. I think she had passed by the time that stinker of a CBC TV series Jalna was released.
ME: There was also a French TV version that shot in Quebec and starred Danielle Darrieux.
ME: Who thinks CBC-TV's revamping of The National with four anchors warring in the bosom of a single jour will be successful?
PRODUCER: I remember when CBC introduced The Journal in 1981 and insisted it be a separate program so at every event there'd be two gigantic TV trucks covering the same event. It didn't work then and it won't work now.
ME: When I retired from The Star Peter Mansbridge was nice enough to come to my farewell bash. I think he wants to go on to other things at the CBC and Lloyd Robertson did --Lloyd moved over to W5 and just kept going. Ratings for CBC and CTV newscasts are way down anyway --Knowlton Nash told me both were on at 11 p.m. because that was the earliest film could be shot in Washington and Ottawa and developed and flown to Toronto.
ACTYRESS: Canadian TV has never had a long running day soap --they are needed to develop young actors. Another big minus is the lack of a late night Canadian talk show --it's just far cheaper to import the American ones rather than making one of our own. Global should have kept Mike Bullard going.
PRODUCER: I have a pal who spent a year in the CBC TV archives in Mississauga. The wealth of material is amazing. She watched the kinescope of Dame Edith Evans in The Importance Of Being Earnest --the only time Ecvans did it was on CBC not BBC. And one wonders why this material remains locked up. One CBC source told me the Corp doesn't want viewers to realize how vital CBC was way back then.
ME: I remember the last time I interviewed great producer Norman Campbell he shared a tiny office with Frank Shuster. Norman told me he'd never directed a production in the Norman Campbell studio because there were no resources left to finance it.
PUBLICIST: The teenagers who live next door are still crazy after CBC-TV's Heartland. That's their favorite Canadian TV show. I went to HMV to buy a box set of The Beachcombers and was told it has never been rteleased on DVD.
ME: CBC-TV's Kim's Convenience is a hit that could build over time to rival the popularity of Corner Gas. American friends are always raving about Schitt's Creek.
ACTRESS: There are Canadian TV stars I always check out.:Wendy Crewson has a new TV series. Art Hindle. Sonja Smits and Nick Campbell are big TV names in what ever they do. I guess I miss the decline and fall of Canadian TV movies. They were vastly popular but hard to sell overseas.
PRODUCER: I miss Brian Linehan. Such a character! I miss Elwy Yost and his gloriously golden oldies on TVOntario.
PUBLICIST: Elwy got those black and white oldies at fire sale prices. Some nights he'd beat the hockey game on CBC. I know other stations started buying up these packages just to keep him form using them. CBC had a secretary watching each episode to make sure he added the educational talks.
ME: The decline and fall of DVD stores is another blow to Canadian TV producers who needed that valuable revenue stream.
ACTRESS: The teens I know watch everything in groups on their cell phones! They'd never be caught in a department store! They never read newspapers. It's a different world out there for sure.
ME: Now that we've solved all the ills of Canadian TV let's be sure to meet again at summer's end!
Monday, October 2, 2017
Way back in 1976 I hailed a taxi at the Century Plaza hotel in Century City and simply said "The Playboy Mansion, Please!"
And there I was at the Tudor style estate, the home of Hugh Hefner and a bevy of scantily clad young beauties.
The occasion was the 1976 premiere of Playboy TV on First Choice, Canada's first Pay-TV service.
That was more than 40 years ago and even then the sprawling Playboy empire was in steep decline.
I remembered a few days earlier I'd been at an NBC party for the new western series The Orgeon Trail and that was held at the Playboy Club in Century City.
I'd thought all these clubs had closed but there were apparently a few stragglers --this one shuttered the very next year.
So I knocked on the ornate door and a scantily clad sweet young thing opened and beamed "Hi! I'm the upstairs maid."
"I just bet you are," I answered and I was shown upstairs to meet Mr, Hefner who was lounging in his bedroom opposite a buxom blonde in a black negligee. And this was at 2 p.m.! A late riser indeed!
He jumped up, put on a robe and took me on a tour of his impressive residence.
There was a huge movie theater and he showed me his collection of films all recorded on Beta which these days no longer exists.
"I had a hundred in last night for a screening of The Garden Of Allah (1936) with Marlene Dietrich" he enthused. "And some day when the copyrights have elapsed I'll be able to release them all on the Playboy label for home consumption.
This has yet to happen as the U.S. government has extended the copyright dates of classical films.
'The boardroom was impressive, the living room huge and expansive but the kitchen to me seemed terribly dated.
We went out into the huge backyard where Hugh kept his own mini-zoo. As we watched his monkeys copulating he shouted "Go for the gold!"
He then clapped as we watched the goldfish making out.
Back in the house we sat around a great table as he amiably answered my questions:
JB: "Are you the godfather of modern pornography?"
HH (Laughing): "No way. I have always celebrated the beauty of the female form."
JB: "How many girl friends have you had?"
HH: "Who's counting?"
JB: "Some people I know actually buy the magazine for the interviews!"
HH: We put them all into a book which still sells like silly.
JB: Talk about your legacy.
'HHL: We've fought the good fight against state censorship. It's not the state's right what you chose to do in your own bedroom."
JB: "Your first cover girl in 1953 was Marilyn Monroe. Why did she wind up so badly?"
HH: "Society puritans had it out for her. She was a darling comedienne and I agree with you she deserved better treatment by American society."
JBL "Why are the Playboy clubs going out of business?"
HH: "Bad business deals. Not by me, I'm out of the daily running of the business."
JB: "Was it inevitable magazines like Hustler would try to topple Playboy's dominance?"
HHL: "You got it. I never dealt in pornography. All the lumps and moles on our models were airbrushed out. Hustler isn;t at all erotic--it's as boring as slides on anatomy, that's all."
JB: "How do you want to be remembered?"
HH (chuckling): "As an innovator who banished Puritanism and favored a liberal society without guilt. And I think I succeeded at that, I really do.."
AS my taxi arrived Hef stood at the door waving goodbye. He was still in his silk pyjamas.
And Playboy TV predictable failed on Canadian TV and eventually even First Choice folded.
Hugh Hefner died on Wednesday September 27. aged 91. He was buried in the Corridor of Memories Mausoleum next to Marilyn Monroe.
Tuesday, September 26, 2017
Last season CBC-TV's new sitcom Kim's Convenience was the surprise hit of the year.
I still think the decision of a past management to fold RCAF was a major mistake --here was a Canadian staple that could have been refreshened with the addition of newer cast members.
But at least Kim's Convenience is coming back for a second season at 9 p.m.
I was lucky at the CBC fall launch to chat a bit with playwright and executive producer Ins Choi, co-creator Kevin White and actors Paul Sun-Hyung and Jean Yoon.
The one I wanted to see wasn't there --executive producer Yvan Fecan but I talked to him the year before.
Fecan at one point was head programmer at CBC-YV and knows how to grow a situation comedy --he had one of the best on the boards with Material World but Fecan didn't have enough money for a full season.
With Kim's Convenience there's 13 episodes --needed in a vastly competitive TV world --as well as the expertise of playwright Choi who first developed her characters as a play.
Hey, it worked the first season establishing Kim's Convenience as a popular new comedy that should if anything improve in the second season. And there were three Canadian Screen Awards : Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Best Performer and Andrew Phung as Best Supporting Performance.
With the right kind of careful care this series might evolve into another Corner Gas --created when Fecan was running CTV.
I've been around so long I remember when CBC's big comedic hit was King Of Kensington.
I'd go to a taping every season at the Yorkville Studios --the same venue for Pierre Berton's shows.
But star Al Waxman left after five seasons because CBC used a closet as his dressing room --he later jumped to another hit --Cagney And Lacey (the pilot was shot in the US.).
CBC then disbanded its sitcom department for awhile and then made some major mistakes with such stinkers as Mosquito Lake and Not My Department.
It's hard to keep that sitcom tradition --after the huge hit of Corner Gas CTV had two stinkers in Dan For Mayor and Hiccups.
I think Kim's Convenience's success has happened because it was first a play.
In Canada we don't have the dough needed for test pilots which are subsequently discarded..
The creator of Malcolm In The Middle told me ABC went through three pilots costing $2 million before hitting the right note.
I'm honor bound not to reveal much of the new season's plots except to state Janet (Andrea Bang) is searching for an apartment.
The situations so far are funny but not outlandish --everything makes sense because the actors already know their characters.
And so right now CBC has the only watchable TV sitcom on Canadian TV. Over to you CTV.
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Don't get distracted by the glut of new and returning TV series popping up all over your TV screens this fall.
Save some time for the brilliant new Canadian made TV documentary Much Too Young which has its world premiere Thursday September 21 at 9 p.m. --which is World Alzheimer's Day.
I was told in advance to expect something special but I wasn't really prepared for my entirely appropriate emotional response.
Co-directors Christopher Wynn and Russell Giernapp made it with total compassion and honesty that I felt emotionally wasted at the end.
This one moves above the sheer scary statistics: 564,000 Canadians currently live with the disease including 16,000 with young onset Alzheimer's who were diagnosed at 65 years, clearly not in the senior citizens category and often caring for young families still at home.
But the major force in this intense group profile are the children who are the force holding their families together and they range from age 13 to 27 --they've had to put their own lives on hold and return to homes where they have assumed the role of parents.
Wynn is telling me on the phone he went through the whole wrenching process when helping hid father in Montreal.
"I moved back to Montreal when my father needed me. So I understand the stresses and pull of family versus career. And I made my first documentary on that titled Forgetful Not Forgotten."
"We wanted a cross section of families because the disease strikes in different ways. And we needed complete cooperation from the families. A few families seemed disinclined to offer so much and we had to drop them. But we travel light --there's just three of us coming into these homes --a director, cinematographer and a sound man. And after a while we just blended in --nobody looked at the camera after the first visit or so."
In Montreal there's Francois Bouliane who was diagnosed with Frontal Temporal Dementia aged 51.
He appears to strangers as withdrawn from life and more eager to work on his gigantic puzzles than conversing.
We follow him to his doctor and find he can still speak fluently in both official languages but his 13-year old daughter who was his pride and joy cannot understand why he doesn't seem to want to play sports with her anymore.
Wife Gloria notes the stillness of the once active sports participant, a strange serenity that suggests he is drifting away.
We also meet Moira Fraschetti, diagnosed with Alzheimer's at 51. Her devoted daughter Kathleen notes friends do not understand the pressures of looking after a parent with the disease. We watch as she takes her mom to medical appointments--she can only work part time these days because her family needs her so much.
It's different again for Peter Wekeles, 57, who studies Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto, a full time occupation to be sure, but he then must drive an hour each way to help his father. The pull of career with family responsibilities is best expressed by his dilemma.
The method here is keen observation. The participants do not appear to be aware of the film crew most of the times.
The group profile documents the everyday experiences which are spiraling out of control. One of the women can't quite figure how to walk down stairs anymore. One of the husbands had left home when his children were quite young--he has returned to look after a wife who may not always recognize him.
Says Wynn: "We think Alzheimer's strikes very old people. But our subjects are middle aged. The families want them to stay in their homes as long as possible and bed spaces are hard to come by and very expensive."
I was amazed the caregivers seemed so determined, rarely losing their tempers, such compassion is amazing but is being done on a daily basis. As a group snapshot the theme surely must be that families stick together through some terrible situations.
Nomad Films has been a Toronto fixture for two decades but long form documentaries are a disappearing breed on TV --An hour on CBC or CTV means 42 minutes plus commercials.
The best thing about Much Too young is its measured stance that allows us to watch and be amazed at the dedication of families who want to stick together.It Runs 88 minutes and you won't be able to turn away.
MUCH TOO YOUNG PREMIERES ON TVONTARIO THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 21 AT 9 P.M. AND MIDNIGHT. THERE ARE REPEATS SAT. SEPT.23 at 9 PM AND MIDNIGHT AND WED. SEPT. 27 AT 9 P.M. AND MIDNIGHT.
BEGINNING SEPT. 22 IT CAN BE STREAMED ON WWW.TVO.ORG.
MY RATING: ****.
Monday, July 31, 2017
In ye olden days --say about a decade or so ago --every major TV network would sport summer series worth watching.
So three cheers to CBC-TV for trying to revive that tradition with the Montreal made 21 Thunder. which premieres Monday night at 9 on CBC-TV.
At one time every section of Canada got to make its own dramatic series.
CBC Montreal gave us Urban Angel which I thought deserved a bigger run.
And before that there even was an English language talk show out of Montreal fronted by Al Hamel.
CTV countered in 1974 with a sitcom about English French tensions called Excuse My French . Remember that one?
And, of course, way way back there was The Plouffe Family with the same cast doing the French version one night and the English the next --and it was live!
Montreal, of course, Montreal also fronted as the sdite for many U.S. made productions.
Does anybody else out there remember Connie Stevens in the 1988 sitcom Starting From Scratch made in MOntreal.
21 Thunder is set in Montreal starring as --Montreal.
The dramatics center around the farm team U21 which feeds players into Montreal Thunder.
Other Canadian shows like Saving Hope or Rookie Blue simply do not mention what city they are dramatizing.
Some Canadian producers tell me they simply won't make a series up here if they're not guaranteed a U.S. sale in advance.
Stephanie Bennett plays Christy Cook who was an Olympics star and is hirted to coach a male soccer team.
Montreal is front and center here which I truly like although it may make for difficulties in peddling the show to the U.S. market.
The creators of the show Kenneth Hirsch and Adrian Wills (plus Riley adams) have created an unabashedly quality Canadian product.
So three cheers!
This is also a show I wanted to watch. And I previewed the first two episodes which ran smoothly.
Some Canadian series I dutifully must watch but this one is terrific and should go into regular fall prime time on its second season.
Highlights? There's a greatish Scottish soccer star Davey Gunn played by real life Scottish soccer ace Ryan Pierce.
Emmanuel Kabongo plays a dazzling talent from Ivory Coast called Junior Lolo--this is a star turn as far as I'm concerned
Historically, series about sports team do not play well with audiences.
I was on the set of the Jim Bouton sitcom Ball Four which lasted for four episodes in 1976.
Even the great producer Steven Bochco tried valiantly with the baseball saga Bay City Blues (1983) but it only lasted eight episodes.
I was on the set, thought it wonderful, but it sank like a stone in the ratings.
And more recently there was Sports Night created but Aaron Sorkin which won many awards but female viewers stayed away from --it ran 32 episodes in 1998-99).
CBC once had the hockey saga He Shoots, He Scores and it ran from 1986 through 1989
with high ratings --and it was shot in Montreal.
21 Thunder needs careful handling and starting it in the summer where competition is less fierce is a great idea.
CBC is cagily marketing it as "Sex, guns and gangs" which should attract all kinds of fans.
21 THUNDER PREMIERES ON CBC-TV MONDAY JULY 31 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ***1/2.
Saturday, July 15, 2017
Did I really want to preview the new documentary The Tea Explorer? I wasn't sure but since it was directed by Andrew Gregg I figured it had to be of high quality.
Well, I brewed a big pot of Scottish Breakfast tea and I couldn't stop watching,it's that extraordinary.The premiere is on the Documentary Channel premiering Sunday July 23 at 9 p.m.
The real subject matter is one man's obsession with all facets of tea.
That man is Jeff Fuchs from Manotick, Ontario, who has spent more than a decade pursuing all aspects of the tea culture that still predominates across China and into Nepal and Tibet.
"I was completely fascinated by him," says filmmaker Andrew Gregg. "A mutual friend introduced us originally. I could see a film right away. And the camera certainly does favor him --he was a model for a bit."
Fuchs gives us a complete course in how tea should be brewed, where it is cultivated, how it affects these ancient civilizations.
And this is not the tea you and I consume in tea bags in smartly packaged tea cases.
We see how the ancient Chinese way of treating tea as more than a drink --it's almost a meal in itself, a sort of stew that Tibetans consume as their main breakfast and sold in large hard blocks where portions are chiseled off.
Gregg was his own cinematographer and the images captured are stark and gorgeous --the rocky trails he, Fuch and travel guides take us have been used for thousands of years but are not much used since China invaded Tibet.
"We shot it in October and November 2015," Gregg tells me. "You can see the first snows in some scenes. We weren't afraid of avalanches. But it was such a journey."
The "ground zero" of the tea culture is China's Yunnan Province --in one shot Fuchs shows a tea tree still producing tea leaves after 750 years.
The tea craze spread out from Yunnan although these days there are more regional coffee houses than tea stores --Gregg thinks this might be due to the feeling coffee is more "western".
Fuchs is the perfect presenter --he talks tea with tea house proprietors whose family run businesses go back through many generations.
So now I know the proper way the leaves must be harvested, how they get "fried and dried" and then the various ways the tea houses treat them and serve them.
Fuchs says he started hearing about the Tea Horse Road which lasted thousands of years and so we're off on a dazzling journey through very disparate cultures.
Gregg says to make that arduous journey which included time in Tibet he was accompanied by a Chinese "minder", actually a girl educated in the West, who became enthusiastic about a subject she knew little.
We also get to know the indigenous people, many worked in the tea trade until the 1960s when the trade routes were completely closed by the invading Chinese.
There are a few hardy survivors of those days and they have stories to tell.
There is also a gentleness of demeanor which I think may be a result of their religious training.
And they also had to be supremely physical --carrying huge packs and one false step would send them spiraling down and into treacherous gorges.
Fuchs is such a great interviewer he gets these characters to talk freely about their lives and it makes for wonderful TV.
Gregg thinks there may be a glimpse of a red panda on the wild in one scene --I also spotted a herd of what looked like black oxen being driven up one mountain slope.
"These are yaks being driven to winter quarters," Gregg tells me.
This was one of the few recent TV documentaries I've watched where I could have watched for at least another half hour.
On Tuesday July 18 The Tea Explorer premieres with a special screening at the Wolf Performance Hall, 251 Dundas St. London Ontario. at 7 p.m. Admission is free -- sponsored by The Tea Lounge of London.
Andrew Gregg will be there in person and Jeff Fuchs will be there vis Skype.
The Tea Explorer comes from 90th Parallel Productions and runs 74 minutes without commercials --the time just whizzed by and I hoped it could be longer it's that well made.
THE TEA EXPLORER PREMIERES ON THE DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL SUNDAY JULY 23 AT 9 P.M. E.T.
MY RATING: ****.
Thursday, June 29, 2017
It's entirely appropriate for the brilliant new documentary Little India: Village Of Dreams to premiere on Canada Day --it runs Saturday July 1 at 9 p.m. on TVOntario.
Filmmaker Nina Beveridge tells me on the phone the ambitious film took a year and a half to plan and make --and that included multiple shooting days in the neighborhood.
I well know the location in east end Toronto along Gerrard St. East just before Coxwell--I attended Riverdale College at Gerrard and Jones, graduating in 1964, when Riverdale was an all white Protestant bastion.
Today all that is changed and Little India has become an important hub of South Asian commerce--in the 1980's and 1990's on a Saturday night Gerrard was so packed with tourists the Carlton streetcar often got stuck.
"I wasn't exactly sure of the focus at the beginning," Beveridge says. "It was always going to be a group portrait of the two generations of immigrants who have made it such a vibrant area to visit."
"I live only a few blocks away so I can walk there in 5 minutes."
Says Beveridge "The street is changing all the time. It has to for survival. There are other India concentrations out in suburban malls.
"In the summer weekends crowds will still gather. I thought I knew the area but it became a voyage of exploration for the whole crew."
Beveridge's method closely resembles the best work of master documentary maker Frederick Wiseman.
She concentrates on the people who live and work there and how they have changed while still cherishing their vital culture.
"It's about two generations --the immigrant parents and their Canadian raised offspring."
The original store keepers emigrated from South Asia starting in the early Seventies and built their businesses along Gerrard Street --the historic Naaz cinema was surely the backbone of the community.
"But now it has gone --a victim of changing times."
And the last time I took a streetcar ride I noticed the street seemed depopulated with many key shops shuttered --the next generation have moved out to Brampton and no longer live over their stores.
"The culture is still there. But gentrification is happening. Those who own their stores seem to be better off than the renters. The traditional fashion stores are still there and the beauty parlors but the next generation want more modern facilities.
"But even the culture back in India is changing."
Beveridge's challenge was to get these normally reticent people to open up. Her interviewing skills really shine forth.
"I had to get them used to the camera. In a very early shot I had two boys talk about their late father --they showed me the memory box they'd collected with things like his socks. It's a great moment, it just happened spontaneously.
"Really, it was a matter of trust, getting people to talk personally about their way of life and how it may be changing.
"The basic theme is what happens next. Two of the second generational girls aim for careers in criminology. Some accept the traditional arranged marriages, others do not."
Little moments illuminate this group profile
Like the joyous woman finally planning to movein the 1980s and 1990's into her own home in Brampton after living in a huge home as part of an extended family. Her feeling of liberation at this is brilliantly captured.
The two brothers who lost their hard working father to a sudden heart attack seem conflicted --keeping his restaurant has been their goal working with the mother. But the older brother now goes to Upper Canada College and could have a brilliant future in other professions.
We get to visit the Forever Young Beauty Salon and Spa which peddles traditional Pakistani beauty secrets and cosmetician Yasmeen Zulfiqar-Khan is passionate about her great successes but her daughters seem rather ambivalent.
One daughter has stated her own event company which is already heavily booked while the pert teenager thinks policing might be her future.
While Indian themed business drift away other cultures are being featured in the new stores.
"Ethnic awareness is an basic theme. These people have survived and thrived and we should celebrate their uniqueness. I think the city should be proud of being so inclusive."
Beveridge says boiling the TVO print down to 58 minutes was "very rough. There'll be a longer version. And there are other materials including web shorts coming up on the TVO website."
LITTLE INDIA: VILLAGE OF DREAMS PREMIERES ON TVONTARIO SATURDAY JULY 1 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.
Monday, June 26, 2017
It's entirely appropriate Documentary Channel is presenting the brilliant new TV biography titled The River Of My Dreams : A Portrait Of Gordon Pinsent on Canada Day at 8 p.m.
Because there never has been a more commanding Canadian icon than Gordon Pinsent.
Sure, there are other Canadian superstars out there but Chris Plummer and Donald Sutherland went away to gain their fame and fortune.
Pinsent stubbornly stayed behind except for a strange sojourn in Los Angeles making appearances on such TV series as Cannon and such flicks as Blacula.
Pinsent functions as his own tour guide of his life as he looks way backwards and reflects on the key players in his life.
There's the Dickensian poverty of his upbringing in Grand Falls, Newfoundland, and an education that did not get past Grade 8, an early interest in drawing and the determination to get off "the Rock" and find a better way of life.
Acting as the host of his own life there's Pinsent providing a running commentary and looking quite fit at age 86.
Pinsent's anecdotes are priceless from the moment he convinced a Canadian immigration officer he had a job (he didn't) to his time in a Winnipeg dance studio as as instructor (who couldn't really dance).
In Winnipeg Pinsent learned the fundamentals of acting from the great John Hirtsch but moved to Toronto because it provided a bigger platform.
In Winnipeg Pinsent had married and had two small children who he left behind.
One of the best parts of this biography is meeting them as adults and seeing how that desertion affected them for years --but today they have reconciled with their wandering father.
In Toronto Pinsent met the incredibly talented actress Charmion King --I remember some of her dazzling turns at the Crest theater and I still think in terms of pure talent she was more than a match for Pinsent's easy going charm.
Contemporaries offering anecdotes include Chris Plummer, director Norman Jewison, R.H. Thomson and Mary Walsh among the younger generation affected by Pinsent's presence.
One of the best things about this filmed portrait is its leisurely 88 minutes length that enables us to get deep into the Pinsent psyche.
I first met and interviewed him on the set of his CBC series A Gift To Last where the imported guest star Melvyn Douglas thanked Pinsent for treating him so well. But that's the way Pinsent treated all the actors working for him.
But I've always had this idea about a sequel to Pinsent's first series Quentin Durgens which nicely cast him as a Canadian M.P. I'd cast daughter Leah Pinsent as Durgens's daughter who takes over the seat and
gets involved in scandal which can only be resolved by her father rushing to the rescue.
Pinsent's own stories abnout encounters with Plummer at Stratford and Marlon Brando in the hills of Hollywood are rich.
Berman has stitched everything together seamlessly. The breadth of Pinsent's career is indeed remarkable.
But I wish there were a bit more details about the making of such Pinsent classic movies as The Rowdfyman and John And The Missus.
The finished film sports all the quality characteristics of those choice CBC-TV "Raskymentaries" --those long form profiles by Harry Rasky which used to flourish on CBC.
It does show that in so many ways Pinsent's journey was well worth all the emotional turmoil and heartaches.
Director Brigitte Berman has dedicated this remarkable profile to her husband Victor Solnicki who produced it and passed away on the day of the film's premiere at TIFF.
THE RIVER OF MY DREAMS PREMIERES ON DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL SATURDAY JULY 1 AT 8 P.M. REPEATED SUNDAY JULY 2 AT 1 P.M. ON CBC-TV AND AT 9 P.M. ON DOCUMENTARY.
MY RATING: ****.
Sunday, June 25, 2017
So there I was was covering CBC-TV's fall launch in September 1976 when the head of CBC news Knowlton Nash marched to the podium to exclaim "I've just lost my Mr. Clean!"
CBC news anchor Lloyd Robertson had just jumped to CTV as co-anchor with Harvey Kirck.
An hour later we all were up at CTV headquarters on Charles St. for an impromptu press conference and in dashed Harvey Kirck who had been on a promotional tour of CTV western affiliates and was dubious from the star the idea of two anchors would fly.
Two anchors! Now that was new!
And now all these years later Peter Mansbridge who replaced Nash who replaced Peter Kent who replaced Lloyd Robertson will bid adieu to the daily grind of anchoring the news on July 1. But he'll stick around the CBC for special assignments.
And I'm thinking Mansbridge may well be the last white guy to read thew news at CBC.
Don't forget Mansbridge succeeded Nash as The National anchor 29 years ago and the TV news landscape is vastly changed since then.
Back in Robertson's day that's all the anchor did --read the news.
It was written by others and if Robertson veered from the text the unions hollered --after all Robertson was in the announcer's union and not considered a journalist.
CBC's The National back then was the leader in ratings and prestige.
Indeed I remember once when The Toronto Star'sTV guide Starweek was going to run a cover on all the competing news anchors and CBCrefused to let Mansbridge pose with his competitors saying CBC was that far ahead of the pack.
Starweek had the others including Robertson and Global's Peter Trueman pose in front of a TV set and a standard shot of Mansbridge was pasted into the picture.
When CBC moved The National from 11 p.m. where it daily outstripped CTV to 10 p.m. I argued this was a mistake and I still think was right.
At 10 p.m. CBC faced a plethora of top rated American hour long dramas and ratings never bounced back to the highs at 11 p.m.
I also argued CBC made a bad mistake in having two separate shows --The National followed by The Journal with separate hosts and separate teams that often covered the same events.
Several CBC vice presidents from Ottawa stormed into the office of The Star's managing editor to argue that I was anti-CBC but in the long run I think I was proved right.
Peter Mansbridge is still there but after Barbara Frum's untimely passing her replacements at The Journal including Pam Wallin and Hana Gardner were both found wanting and Mansbridge emerged as the sole anchor for the entire hour.
Of course back in 1980 there were no all day TV newscasts.
I once asked Nash why the two national newscasts had always been at 11 p.m.
And he answered "Because that was the earliest film from Ottawa and Washington could be flown to Toronto headquarters to be processed.There were no live feeds until well into the 1980s. Anchors could only read the news --we were not allowed to voice opinions."
In recent years The National's traditional viewers on the old line CBC have been tanking.
Younger viewers now catch the broadcast on Facebook or the CBC News channel.
That's why CBC is saying three anchors may replace Mansbridge and they may be stationed throughout the country rather than at CBC's Toronto headquarters.
When Robertson left CTV News he stayed at the network as host of W5. Similarly Nash hosted various TV series on CBC News Channel.
Mansbridge at 68 is the kid of that group and he's a valuable asset for CBC in whatever he choses to do.
And he doesn't hold grudges.
When I retired as TV critic at The Toronto Star Peter even popped into my retirement party and said some nice things.
And as I told him that night retirement is only part of a grand new adventure.
Friday, June 23, 2017
You can celebrate Canada Day early with Jonathan Torrens in the exceptional new CBC-TV special Your Special Canada.
It premieres on CBC Sunday June 25 at 9 p.m. with a repeat on July 1 at 7 p.m. on CBC-TV. Got all that?
"It's a comedic valentine to the joys of being Canadian," Torrens is saying on the phone from his Nova Scotia home.
"I thought it would be fun to re-visit Charlottetown where I was born and where Canada was born in 1864."
Along the way Torrens invites a certain jaded politician named Sir John A. Macdonald to comment on the proceedings as he visits a maple syrup bunker in Quebec, soldiers stationed in the northernmost Canadian base of Nunavut (closer to Stockholm than Ottawa) and even dives into a gigantic butter tart for a socko finish,
"I think we covered a lot of territory --the intention was to show Canadian diversity," Torrens is saying. "There's a lot to be proud of in this country."
The last time I remember hearing about Torrens he was announcing farewell to a remarkable 10-year stint on the TV series hit Trailer Park Boys.
Torrens was nicely cast as the white rapper J-Roc. He says leaving was hard particularly since the series shows no signs of dipping in popularity.
"It's one of those Canadian TV hits that keeps on going" he says and certainly to be placed in the same category as Red Green, Corner Gas and the current comedy hit Schitt's Creek.
Torrens' work on TPB includes 10 seasons of TV episodes, three movies and two specials.
He also toiled as a director and writer on the series --it won a deserved Gemini as best ensemble performance in a comedy.
"I couldn't do anything more with the character," Torrens tells me. "But it was always a pleasure to be part of that company."
I first interviewed Torrens when he was fronting a talk show called Jonovision --I'm reminding him of the time the arranged for the first reunion of the cast of Degrassi.
It was the great reception these grown ups received that spurred interest in the revival of the series which lasted far longer than the original series.
I tell Torrens he should get an agent's fee for setting the groundwork.
Torrens' salute to the uniqueness of Canada ranges from a Zamboni race to a salute to the world's oldest drag queen all done in a light comedy style that's fresh and funny.
One of the highlights is a sweet and touching salute to aging drag queen, Russell Alldread (as Michelle DuBarry), a proud Canadian, that shows how talented Torrens is as an interviewer.
The visit to the maple syrup vaults is amazing --all that liquid gold held in a gigantic bunker just in case there's another world wide shortage.
"Then we have a race between ice resurfacers --as they prefer to be called and what could be more Canadian than that."
At Toronto's Harbourfront Torrens asks such daring questions as who is the sexier Canadian-- Pamela Wallin or Pamela Anderson? A wrong answer gets a beaver tail in the face.
"We got in and out of Nunavut in 36 hours. It's the most amazing place."
And there's a cute Anne of Green Gables parody with Torrens as Jonathanne.
Mention must also be made of producer Lynn Harvey who was integral to the special right along.
Next Torrens is off to shoot the fourth season of Mr. D --he plays vice principal Robert Cheeley.
But I'm suggesting CBC look at Your Special Canada as a possible pilot for a new comedy series showing the breadth of Torrens's talent.
It's been a long time since CBC had a decent late night talk and comedy show. How about it CBC?
YOUR SPECIAL CANADA PREMIERES ON CBC-TV SUNDAY JUNE 25 AT 9 P.M. On CBC (REPEATED JULY 1 AT 7 P.M._
MY RATING: ****.
Sunday, June 18, 2017
So there I was at the local street bash in my Toronto neighborhood and a neighbor from several blocks away is telling me she never watches Canadian TV drama series.
"But you've just said you're a loyal fan of Orphan Black," I told her. "And it's made right here in Toronto."
And boy did she look surprised and chagrined!
I'm always getting that kind of guff from people addicted to American serialized TV dramas.
So it pains me a bit to report this is the last season for Orphan Black which certainly blew back on a lot of stereotypes.
Here is a Canadian series that is beautifully made in all departments and lead Tatiana Maslany has soared to super stardom --and even won an Emmy as best series actress which I think must be a first for a Canadian TV show.
But this isn't all a rave --I felt the death of a beloved clone on last week's episode went far too far.
One could hear the crunching of the bones and the scene was far too violent for other fans, too, judging from reactions on the fan base.
"Clonicide" was the word used.
Star Tatiana says the staged death scene was "awful"and she had a sort of rig installed as the character got stomped to death.
Co-creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson say the death scene was planned for last year's Season Four but delayed until the final outing to make maximum dramatic impact.
I found the first few episodes of Season 5 to be a bit disappointing and that's because on all serialized drama cliffhangers have to be resolved or explained away.
But what has always distinguished this show is the sheer professionalism, call it "the look" of each episode.
Production designer John Dondertman deserves a lot of credit along with his whole staff and the same goes with costume designer Debra Hanson and director of photographer Aaron Morton.
And then there are the Canadian directors: Helen Shaver, David Wellington, Grant Harvey, David Frazee, and Morton again.
I visited with Maslany at the end of the first batch of shooting --I'd long admired her for her guest work on such other series as Heartland.
She didn't seem to believe me when I told her her career would be changed --for the better --and was off to New York for the first batch of publicity.
Garnering an Emmy was big news --I'm trying to remember other actors on Canadian series who were similarly noticed.
Indeed when the Toronto version of Queer As Folk was running the executive producers told me it would garner no acting Emmy nominations because the voters were U.S. based and not likely to nominate "runaway productions".
Anyhow I'm determined to watch the last batch of Orphan Black and wonder what's next for Canadian TV series drama --what will be the next great show or is it already in the works?
Thursday, June 15, 2017
Familiar with all those doomsayers out there predicting the decline and fall of Canadian TV?
I say tune into the brilliant new Canadian made TV documentary The Taming Of The Queue premiering Sunday night at 9 on the documentary channel.
It's worth lining up to watch.
Montreal Josh Freed has got it almost perfect in his funny and sad quest to show why most of us spend about two years of our lives lining up.
I naively assumed the subject matter would look at long lineups in the grocery stands as well lineups for concert tickets --and it does all that.
But there are also examinations of the traffic lineups that bedevil us if we live in a big downtown city.
And what about waiting on the phone for access to a bank manager? That's a lineup, too.
And the more I watched of this great documentary the more I realized I seem to spend a great deal of my day in lineups.
Getting a new passport was a hellish adventure in lineup waiting.
Then I waited in the subway to buy seniors tickets and there was another line to get on the crowded subway car.
Then I waited in Loblaws with my produce.
And I can't figure out why it has taken so long for a committed filmmaker like Josh Freed to tackle the subject.
Freed tells me on the phone he took about 18 filming days "because I basically knew what I wanted at the beginning."
But he had to travel to New York, London, Paris and even Mumbai to show us how lining up is very different in different cultures.
"I blame it all on the French Revolution," Freed tells me and he's not entirely kidding.
Freed says queues first formed in revolutionary France because it was the egalitarian way to show all citizens of the republic were equal --no more special privileges for the aristocracy.
"But what truly surprised me was how the British seem to actually like queuing"
Again, it might be history --Britishers survived Dunkirk and the Blitz by queuing up --it became asmuch apart of the national culture as stiff upper lips.
Freed visits stolid Britons who queue up for leftover tickets at Wimbledon --one lady and her sister say they like camping out for days and would just hate it if the tickets were instead offered online.
Freed's interview with MIT professor Richard Larson is priceless --Larson's expertise has resulted in a nickname as "Dr. Queue".
Dr. Queue notes cases of "lineup rage" which have resulted in murder convictions.
Russians thought the line-ups outside Lenin's Tomb were awful --until the first Mcdonald's opened in Moscow causing day long queues for that Big Mac.
We visit with people who'll spend 48 hours trying to nab tickets for the next Saturday Live TV show.
Some nerds boast of waiting 18 days to get the first new iPhones --I wonder how they had eaten and slept?
Then Freed and his camera crew visited Mumbai an "we nearly got crushed" trying to bard the railway.
"After a half dozen attempts I concluded it was impossible. And yet Indian friends do it every day, it's perseverance and experience."
About supermarket queues Freed discovers those who chose the "self service" line find it is slower than waiting in line for a trained teller who can really whiz through items.
And Freed thinks queues may be disappearing --you'll have to watch to see what he thinks is a big trend.
Freed's novel became the hit movie Ticket To Heaven (1981) "but I discovered Los Angeles was not for me. I wanted to do personal projects which are mostly is impossible on American TV.
"That's where the documentary channel comes in. It's one of the special parts of Canadian TV."
THE WORLD PREMIERE OF THE TAMING OF THE QUEUE IS ON DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL SUNDAY JUNE 18 AT 9 P.M. (REPEATED WED. JUNE 28 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
I was shocked that Canadian character star Chris Wiggins's passing got such little attention in the local press.
Wggins died in Elora after struggling with Alzheimer's disease --he was 87 and always seemed to be working in his heyday.
I remember in 1972 being driven out to his spacious home in Unionville by CBC publicist Don Vautour --the occasion was to write a profile for The Hamilton Spectator.
It was a long afternoon and so long ago that there were many farm fields before we arrived at the Wiggins homestead --we sat around the farm table in the kitchen as the pet Irish wolfhound lay her head on the side and seemed to be listening in.
At the time Wiggins was acing it in the CBC daily soapera Dr. Paul Bernard.
Later, in 1976, I was off to another Wiggins set --he was playing the patriarch in a well written Canadian series version of Swiss Family Robinson.
"Why am I always working?" laughed Wiggins. "I think I can do many types of acting. I'm adaptable. I only wish there was more weork out there for all the Canadian talent that I know."
He was born in Blackpool. England, in 1931 and moved to Canada, aged 22 after a false start in banking.
Wiggins where he worked himself up fro small parts to leads --he was prominently featured in the 1957 Canadian made series Hawkeye.
"Lon Chaney Jr. was the nominal star and a darling man in the morning but by 5 p.m. he was totally drunk and we'd have to shoot around him."
In 1960 Wiggins joined the Stratford Festival "where I discovered Shakespeare was not for me. But I learned discipline and I'd go back in a moment if ever asked."
In 1969 Wiggins won a Canadian Film award as best actor for starring in The Best Damn Fiddler From Calabogie To Kaladar--"my co-star was a sweet young thing named Marghot Kidder with a great future ahead of her."
How tough was it to be a full time actor in the Sixties?
"It was damned tough. Americans were frequently imported even by the CBC. One had to do it all just to survive. But it also meant Canadian actors had more experience because we had to excel in all fields. "My hero was always Barry Morse who showed me that versatility does have its own rewards. I couldn't have lasted without CBC Radio, none of us could have existed without that support."
Wiggins loved making Paul Bernard, Psychiatrist which was a Canadian TV hit that travelled all over the place.
The plot had mostly female patients plopping onto the good doctor's couch and in a steam of consciousness would relate their stories.
"I'd just sit there and occasionally interject things and I got to listen every day to such great actresses as Dawn Greenhalgh, Anna Cameron, Nuala Fitzgerald, Gake Garnett,,Diane Polley, Tudi Wiggins, Micki Moore."
Eventually 139 episodes were filmed over a two-year period and sold everywhere.--CBS bought the U.S. rights for its affiliates.
Wiggins's description was priceless: "It was a one set soap opera!"
In 1975 Wiggins starred in the Canadian version of Swiss Family Robinson which ran for two seasons and 26 episodes on CTV stations/
"We're up against a very fancy American version," Wiggins told me on the set.
"And yet I think ours is better because it emphasizes the tightness of the family unit."
Other TV series that starred Wiggins included Hangin In (1981), Mariah (1987), Friday's Curse (1987-90), which ran for 65 episodes, By Way Of The Stars (1992).
He also voiced such series as The Care Bear Family (1986), Babar (1989), Rupert (1991) and Redwall (1999).
In short here was a lovely man and a fine Canadian TV star.
Wednesday, June 7, 2017
I always enjoy going to the CTV "Upfront" where the largest private network gets to strut its stuff.
But oh my how times have changed.
My first CTV launch it was stale sandwiches and cold coffee in President Murray Chercover's board room at CTV headquarters on 42 Charles St. East in Toronto circa 1972.
"My Canadian shows are Littlest Hobo and Stars On Ice," Murray groused to me.
"You expect me to promote that?"
But that was then and this is now.
Now it's the Sony Center filled to the brimming with thousands of advertising executives all eager to spend millions on new CTV fare.
I always judge these festivities by the food.
And after diligent research I can assure you CTV still has the best booze 'n dainties in town.
Ad executives chowed down teeny weeny hamburgers and delicious slices of grilled cheese sanwichlets and drank champagne and white wine and all seemed delighted by the chow.
As well as all the new U.S. shows CTV grabbed up.
That's because CTV's reach is so much bigger than rivals Rogers or Shaw.
That means CTV executives swing it to Los Angeles and after a week of sitting in darkened screening rooms they get to pick whatever they want.
They've got the reach, they've got the money --it's still as simple as that.
A steady stream of CTV executives came forth to the Sony stage to extol the beauties of CTV production all different platforms.
CTV now stands as the numero uno Canadian network for the 16th season.
CTV is "refreshing" (its term) with new series on 6 of 7 nights.
Five new hour dramas are on deck plus three new comedies --all American imports, of course.
New acquisitions include Me, Myself And I starring Bobby Moynihan and John Larroquette (Night Court).
It is followed by a new Marvel franchise The Gifted with Stephen Moyer and Amy Acker.And David Shore has a new hospital drama The Good Doctor starring Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel).
On Tuesdays the new U.S. import is The Gospel Of Kevin starring Jason Ritter who was present. Should I have mentioned to him I first interviewed farther John on the set of Three's Company in 1976?
On Thursdays its the new sitcom Young Sheldon a prequel to Big Bang Theory.
On Fridays Marvel's InHumans will star Anson Mount and Canadian Serinda Swan.
Saturdays it's the new sitcom The Mayor starring Lea Michele and newcomer Brandon Michael Hall.
On Sundays there'll be a four-part miniseries The Indian Detective starring Russell Peters --it is considered a Canadian entry.
Also on Sundays there's Ten Days In The Valley starring Kyra Sedgwick.
Midseason pickups will include a Grey's Anatomy spinoff, a revival of Roseanne,the new series The Crossing (described as Lost 2.0), a Canadian music series The Launch, Aden Young in the six parter The Disappearance and three female detectives (headed by Wendy Crewsaon) in the new dewtective series The Detail.
CTV announced major expansion of local news with newscasts at 5 p.m.
CTV's greatest brand W5 returns for its 52nd season but I still say the network made a major mistake in ditching its great brand Canada AM for the innocuous Your Morning.
And don;t forget CTV2 is a completely separate network --it will have NFL football. twice weekly and on Saturday nights choice episodes of two fine Canadian dramatic hits Motive and Saving Hope.
I'd like to see CTV getting back into the TV movie game with two or three Canadian themed stories a year.
And some day if CTV is very flush might we even get a late night Canadian talk show?
Oh, and I forgot the best news of all: CTV's animated series based on Corner Gas is coming soon.
With all the gloom and doom talk about the future of TV it was quite a surprise to discover Rogers Media is fighting back --and how!
I ventured forth to the Metropolitan Toronto Convention Centre to partake of some goodies and a whole lot of talk about where Roger Media is going.
First the good news: traditional Rogers TV networks posted a sturdy six per cent increase in prime time viewership during the past season.
And why not! Rogers' Sportsnet currently has a hammer lock on NHL hockey and the Blue Jays.
Think what ratings might be next season if Edmonton goes up against Ottawa in the Stanley Cup finals!
An all-Canadian triumph--ratings would go through the roof.
Anyway Rogers Media president Rick Brace and senior vice president Colette Watson were as up beat as possible in noting the progression of Rogers on all fronts.
And despite all the current chatter about Netflix standard television still attracts ten times the viewing hours among Canadian customers.
The fall season sees Rogers gobbling up the Canadian rights to 12 new titles.
Last year City stations had eight of the top 10 imported U.S. comedies.
Clips showed Seth MacFarlane in the new sci fi comedy The Orville which seemed funny enough.
Then there's Ghosted starring Craig Robinson from The Office who investigates paranormal activity in Los Angeles.
A canadian cult fave Fubar joins the schedule and there'll be a Minnie Driver sitcom Speechless at midseason.
City has snagged Dancing With The Stars which is big news. And there;ll be a live musical event A Christmas Story plus a live presentation of the Tony winning broadway musical Rent.
City has also grabbed one of the best recurring dramas The Blacklist.
And a new Canadian series sounds promising: Blad Blood looks at a Montreal crime family with a host of familiar TV names.
Coming later there's Versailles, another Canadian entry, about Sun King Louis XIV.
And The Resident stars Canadians Emily Van Camp and Bruce Greenwood --it's all about a young doctor's ethics.
Returning U.S. imports include Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve, the 60th Annual Grammy Awards and the 51st Annual Country Awards.
Rogers also plans to replicate its CityNews suppertime newscast at stations in Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg.
U still miss the presence of Gord Martineau in Toronto --he was an important TV news star for decades.
I know Canadian content supporters will be hollering but I'd prefer a few quality shows well financed and publicized and putting Canadian series on the air in the fall is often a recipe for ratings failure.
I have an idea for a Canadian series that would be inexpensive and a huge ratings hit: why not remount Headline Hunters as a contemporary show stacked with present day Canadian TV stars and featuring mystery guests who featured heavily in Canada;s glorious past? O think it would be an instant hit.
Meanwhile the vast audience of advertising executives seemed to be having a good time as they munched on canapes and gobbled down the bubbly.
So, yes, it was a good news day for Rogers.
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
That's the response of the beleaguered CBC as it struggles to hold its audience while still trying to fiull all roles as the country's public broadcaster.
At a star studded affair at CBC's downtown Toronto studios the mood seemed positively upbeat after years of budget cuts and constraints.There's even going to be a new summer drama series 21 Thunder set in Montreal and starring Christy Cook (Sephanie Bennett from The Romeo Section).
I thoroughly enjoyed chatting her up and Michael Levine (Republic Of Doyle).
It's been a bit since CBC had a hit Montreal series and this could be the one.
And coming on the heels of The Handmaiden's Tale there's going to be a new miniseries titled Alias Grace written and produced by Sarah Polley starring Sarah Gadon as a young, poor Irish immigrant and co-starring Paul Gross, Anna Paquin and Kerr Logan.
I also got to cat up Allan Hawco whose new drama series Caught is set in 1978.
Hawco told me it was a mighty difficult decision to close down the phenomenally popular The Republic Of Doyle but "I'm an actor. I had to move on as hard as that was for me."
Co-starring are Paul Gross, Tori Anderson, Eric Johnson, Charlotte Sullivan.
The Frankie Drake Mysteries comes from executive producer Christina Jennings --she is currently responsible for the long running Murdoch Mysteries.
This time out we'll follow the adventures of two female detectives in the Toronto of the 1920s. Starring are Lauren Lee Smith and Chantal Riley.
I suggested importing the cast of Murdoch in a mystery that starts in Toronto in 1900 and gets solved 20 years later.Hey, I really like that idea.
A new CBC drama series premiering in winter 2018 stars Canadian TV star Kristin Kreuk(Smallville) as an attorney returning to her small town roots.
I had a long conversation with Ilana Frank whose fine series records includes The 11th Hour, Rookie Blue and Saving Hope.
Returning CBC hour series hits include the venerable Heartland, Murdoch Mysteries and When Calls The Heart,
I finally met the great comedy talents responsible for Baroness Von Sketch Show which returns Tuesday June 27 at 9 p.m. for seven new half hours.
I think it deserves a fall prime time slot next.
And I re-met the creative team behind Kim's Convenience which returns for 13 new half hours in the fall. I think it's almost as funny as Schitt's Creek.
One new inexpensive series and all most certain success will be The Great Canadian Baking Show which gets paired Wednesday nights with the original The Great British Baking Show.
Also returning Mr. D, Rick Mercer Report, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Workin' Moms.
CBC is also investing in 15 original digital series.
There was a lot of talk at the opening meeting of using different platforms and how to fight back.
And there was one nostalgic note as Peter Mansbridge made his last appearance to TV critics --he's been anchoring The National for decades and retires from front line duty this summer.
And I'm still hearing one replacement could well be Ian Hanomansing.
There seemed to be more CBC employees in attendance this year--I'm told the Liberal government is promising more money for programming which is the best news of all.
What is immediately needed are av few miniseries on Canadian history like such pas successes as Pierre Berton's The Last Spike amnd the one with Riel.
CBC needs to win back the artsy crowd who have drifted over to PBS.
I remember in 1979 when CBC was in a similar financial bind the archives were opened and a "new" series Rearview Mirror created to run several Sundays with host Veronica Tennant.
Reruns of great opera and ballet specials were run plus choice episodes of such hits as Front Page Challenge and even an old Telescope interview with Charles Templeton quizzing Somerset Maugham.
In fact I think CBC should revive Front Page Challene and stock it with current Canadian stars and add Peter Mansbridge as host and for relatively little money have yet another hit.
How about it?
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
I almost gave up on the brilliant new documentary Sonita --the first 15 minutes are hard going as we are introduced to an introverted Afghan refugee struggling to survive in Iran.
But I stuck with it and so should you --this profile touches most of the emotional bases and emerges as a must see profile of a young girl determined to survive in a male dominated culture.
You can catch it on TVOntario Wednesday May 18 at 9 p.m. --it's a North American premiere.
What an incredible character Sonita turns out to be.
If she had her way Michael Jackson would be her father and she'd be a rapper commenting on the violence in her society and the way women are disrespected.
We first see Sonita performing for her mates in a Tehran shelter --they are refugees from the civil war in Afghanistan.
The pert teen was originally into rock music but has turned to rap because it allows her to comment on the ways society has turned against her generation.
And we get to know her and love her for her courage.
Director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami bonds with her 18-year old subject and builds up a portrait of survival and identity in a region of the world perpetually at war.
This film took three years of shooting as we see the plight of Afghan refugee in Iranian society.
In fact the 40-year old Maghami became completely involved in the life and goals of this courageous teen to the point she put up $2,000 to ensure Sonita's future.
You see under Afghan law Sonita is expected to return home and marry someone she does not even know so her dowry of $9,000 can go to her brother so he can purchase a wife of his own.
At the beginning it is taken for granted that Sonita's story will not have a happy ending --everything is so stacked against her.
A refugee, she lacks a passport and it seems a music scholarship in the U.S. will be out of her reach.
The director has said that she only interviewed Sonita as a favor to a cousin who worked at a hostel for child laborers.
At first Sonita was sullen and uncommunicative but there was something about her inner strength that was oddly appealing.
Sonita wanted to be a rapper although Iranian society bans female singers.
Sonita is but one of three million Afghan refugees struggling to survive in an often hostile environment.
Only 18 per cent of Afghan women are literate compared to 45 per cent of men, The girls marry as soon as possible as protection.
Sonita's journey becomes our journey. We see her blossom under tutelage and her songs are courageous laments about the problems of her people.
From timidity she evolves to bold rapper and the "happy ending" is wondrous to behold.
So Sonita becomes must see TV.
SONITA PREMIERES ON TVONTARIO WEDNESDAY MAY 17 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.
Friday, May 12, 2017
It's that time of the year for the ailing U.S. networks to cancel all the series which they figure aren't working.
FOX surprised us all by dumping Sleepy Hollow after four seasons--the wonderful period drama with Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane lost a quarter of its audience this season.
Just as surprising was the axing of the police procedural Rosewood after a mere two seasons--it lost fully half its first year viewers.
It was three strikes and you're out for Pitch about the first female MLB player --trouble was sports fans simply were not interested.
The Live Action CGI Son Of Zorn starring Jason Sudekis lost fully half its fans over its first season and is out.
Also cancelled: Making History and APB.
I was surprised ABC dumped Last Man Standing but the web says the Tim Allen starrer had lost its punch after six seasons.
After only five episodes ABC pulled Time After Time with Freddie Stroman as H.G. Wells.
ABC also canned Conviction with Hayley Atwell as a wrongly convicted former First Daughter.
ABC also canned American Crime with Felicity Huffman and Regina King after three years.
Also gone: Secrets And Lies, Imaginary Mary, Dr. Ken, The Catch and The Real O'Neals.
NBC's time travel drama Timeless was dumped after a mere season.
Emerald City set in Oz expired after one year. Powerless all about superheroes isn't coming back. And the spinoff The Blacklist: Redemption lasted but a season.
CW pulled Frequency as well as No Tomorrow.
CBS axed Doubt with Katherine Heigl after only two episodes.
CBS's medical drama Pure Genius with Dermot Mulroney is also out.
Disney cancelled Girl Meets World-the spinoff of Boy Meets World--after three years.
That's all I know but it's a pretty damning indictment of the way old form network TV is slowly but surely unraveling.
Friday, May 5, 2017
From Elwy Yost to Frederick Wiseman --that's the saga of TVOntartio on Saturday night.
What once was TVO's old movies nights with Elwy Yost now becomes the place to watch Wiseman's very long but completely affecting take on a choice New York city neighborhood in In Jackson Heights.
You can check it out Saturday night at 9 on TVO.
My advice is to make a big pot of tea and have a tray of sandwiches on a side table because Wiseman's films are very long --and very compelling.
Made in 2015 On Jackson Heights makes its world TV premiere which is certainly a coup,
The Wiseman style is present here --there are no voiceovers and scenes stay lovingly focused on the people being presented without any resort to editing or even close-ups.
I always find it difficult to get into a Wiseman film --the movement is so very slow but the longer I watch the more mesmerized I become.
I get the feeling here that I am right there in the room with these various citizens who are always treated so very reverently.
Here Wiseman focuses on a peoples' profile of a distinct neighborhood of New York city that is undergoing tremendous changes.
The film starts and ends with a discussion of how a gay man Julio Rivera was brutally murdered in 1990.
From this flow a series of vignettes showing how diverse cultures mix so freely --the area seems ripe for gentrification which is opposed by many residents who fear their relaxed way of live us being threatened.
Some highlights: the Muslim prayer meeting, LGBT members forming a boycott against ugly discriminatory projects, elderly women in a knitting bee talking about such favorite movie stars as Tyrone power, going out of business in a small shopping mall slated for demolition, a tattoo parlor's clientele, a delightful seniors resident telling us "I was happy until I was 98.", how chickens are decapitated before being broiled, a beauty parlor filled with older women, a belly dancing school, Tibetan monks chanting.
The underlying fear is that Jackson Heights is under threat as big box stores move in and destroy its very bohemian cultural roots.
I think my favorite scene is a driving school for potential taxi drivers as various cultural forces meet and clash..
Wiseman treats all his subjects reverentially --the way he treats older people made this film for me such as the dinner scene for an icon of the neighborhood who had spent his time helping others.
The movie has a poetical quality --it celebrates all kinds of residents without making any judgmental calls.
Wiseman gives as much time to all his people profiled . You see Wiseman cares about everyone, salutes their individuality, and shows us what living in Jackson Heights is all about.
And the result is a minor masterpiece of humanism.
IN JACKSON HEIGHTS PREMIERES ON TVONTARIO SATURDAY MAY 6 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.
Thursday, April 13, 2017
Had a perfect time at lunch today on the Danforth with three great friends: a veteran TV actress, a publicist I've known since 1970 and a TV producer with dozens of critics.
Here are highlights of our chatter:
ME: The big new CBC TV offering, yet another remake of Anne Of Green Gables, was pretty good although darkish compared with previous versions --the best one remains the one made with Sullivan Films starring Megan Follows.
PUBLICIST: My CBC sources say the network was taken aback by the low ratings. I think they wanted 2 million viewers but had to settle for over 800,000 at least in the overnights I've seem. It may be just a case of a story being overly familiar.
ACTRESS: The irony at CBC this year has been the strong showing of such long running series as Heartland with the poor results of some of the new shows. I mean Rick Mercer routinely hovers just under 900,000 a week.
PRODUCER: Most in my position will not mount a new drama series for Canadian TV until they get an American producer and a U.S. sale. Having said that I still enjoy Saving Hope which ends this season --cheers to CTV for keeping it going after NBC quickly cancelled it.
ACTRESS: U.S. production in T.O. is very high right now because of the low standing of the Canadian dollar. But it never will revert to the glory days of the Nineties when it seemed that every other U.S. miniseries and TV movie was being shot here. That's because American TV movies are no longer made in such huge amounts.
ME: I liked Kim's Convenience which got very big audiences. I's say that's due to Ivan Fecan the executive producer who ran CTV for years and before that reinvigorated production at CBC.
ACTRESS: When Kevin O'Leary says he wants a downsized CBC where only news would be left I shuddered. But as ratings continue to fall I simply wonder how long any federal government can pour such funds into the CBC entertainment arm.
ME: When I started off in 1970 as TV critic at The Hamilton Spectator CBC's dictionary definition of a hit was 1.5 million for a series and 2 million for a TV movie or miniseries like Laurier. In those days CBC made its own dramas and comedies.
ACTRESS: There is no high arts left on any Canadian TV network. Adrienne Clarkson Presents was CBC's last desperate attempt at making operas and ballets. It's too expensive these days. I remember bumping into Norman Campbell --he still had a tiny office at CBC but never could produce anything in the Norman Campbell Theater on the top floor of CBC's downtown Toronto headquarters because there simply was no money.
ME: I once asked CTV President Murray Chercover why CTV never had a fall launch and he said "Our big entertainment shows are Littlest Hobo and Stars On Ice --you want me to publicize these?" But I did --I went on those sets every year and also I was on Half The George Kirby Comedy Hour and The Pat Paulsen Show both up at CFTO.
PUBLICIST: I remember when I first met you Jim in 1971 --Ed Sullivan was giving a press conference at CBC's "Kremlin" headquarters. He was taping a Christmas special to run on CBC which had Canadian rights but he had to tape it up at CFTO because CBC's facilities were so antiquated.
PRODUCER: My favorite Canadian show right now is Schitt's Creek. It's a perfectly made comedy gem.
ME: I told my CBC contacts the network should revive Front Page Challenge with a new cast of young names. I'm saying this only because the last FPC contestant Betty Kennedy just passed. And CTV should revive Headline Hunters --I visited that set in 1971 when Charles Templeton was the moderator.
ACTRESS: In the late Seventies CBC-TV had a similar revenue problem to today so they took old ballets and operas and repackaged the lot as a Sunday afternoon series called Rearview Mirror. Veronica Tennant was the charming hostess and ratings were sturdy. They should do something like that again to retain the loyalty of the artsy crowd.
ME: Just before HM Video folded I asked the store manager on Yonge Street which Canadian series not yet on DVD he was frequently asked about . He mention the CTV hit ENG, CBC's Beachcombers and Tommy Hunter as being on the top of the list
ACTRESS: My young nieces and nephews never watch conventional TV. They group together and watch everything on their devices. So maybe all TV is going to change?
ME: And my final question: Who's footing this bill?
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
The shock of the truth.
It's all there in the brilliant new documentary My First 150 Days premiering on TVOntario Wednesday April 12 at 9 p.m.
Because "Reality TV" these days is all the rage but it's actually Un-Reality TV where forced situations and staged moments predominate.
Not so with My First 150 Days which documents the highs and lows of a new family arriving at Pearson Airport to lives they never quite anticipated.
The 58-minute documentary was commissioned by TVO to mark Canada's 150th year as a nation and looks at the cultural adjustments made by a family struggling to learn new ways in a new land.
Producers Stuart Henderson and Romilla Karnick chose the family, explains director Diana Dai, before she was selected to direct.
I ask if the film was being commissioned today would it have focused on Syrian immigrants?
"No!" says Dai on the phone. "Because it is not about refugees but the larger world of immigrants. No doubt I was asked to direct because I, too, am an immigrant. We connected when I met them at the airport. I knew what they were going through, I surely did."
Dai's accomplished group profile is filled with small moments of recognition not melodramatic staged events.
"Of course I didn't know what we all were getting into," she explains. "It was after all a film about them and not me."
"I filmed about every five days. It was very early into this when I learned the children of the mother, Melona who was already in Canada were having great difficulties. They finally said they did not want to be filmed anymore."
Canada just wasn't what they thought it would be. They'd journeyed from rural Philippines to an urban Canadian environment. They scarcely knew their mother who had preceded them eight years earlier.
Dai expertly captures these tension filled encounters as the newcomers seriously think of returning to a more leisurely lifestyle in their native country.
"I could understand all those conflicting emotions,"Dai admits."I was born in China, took my M.A. in film at Leeds University in England and later emigrated to Canada. I knew how difficult the adjustment process could be. In their cases they were unskilled, that meant very tough jobs and long hours.
"What we are showing is the initial cultural shock which can last for many months. Some newcomers decide it is not worthwhile and want to return home to a land where they feel safe."
Dai is such an accomplished film maker that the family seem unaware of the cameras most of the time. The newcomers emerge as caring, feeling people without the usual cultural cliches.
Dai makes us feel for these people and we become interested in their struggles. It turns into an emotional roller coaster ride for viewers as well.
The production was shot between January and July 2016 but Dai notes "It is a difficult adjustment for everybody going to a new country"--she remembers meeting an Indian-born cabbie at Pearson who had university degrees and expected something better as an immigrant.
But how has the family fared since Dai stopped filming?
"I keep in touch. I still care. They are doing better. They are getting to know each other again. It's a long climb. My heart goes out to them. Their struggles are the struggles of all newcomers."
The film will be shown at a later date on CBC Documentary channel.
MY FIRST 150 DAYS PREMIERES ON TVONTARIO WEDNESDAY APRIL 12 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.
Friday, April 7, 2017
I wonder if Malka Rosenbaum and Juergen Ulloth have ever met?
Because they are the dual subjects of one of the best Canadian documentaries I've seen in years: Secrets Of Survival.
Malka was a student at the University of Toronto when she told her mother about the difficulties of being an only child.
And her mother then told her that she had an older sister who had been given to Polish neighbors during the height of the Holocaust.
Juergen Ullroth found out about his past when he went to the Kassel Municipality in west Germany to retrieve his birth certificate for his marriage license.
And the municipal clerk told a shocked young Juergen that his family name was actually Raenold, his mother's maiden name.
Juergen's mother had married Mr. Ullroth in 1951 four years after his birth.
"And that was the beginning of this dual profile," says veteran film masker Martin Himel on the line from Tel Aviv.
You can check out Secrets Of Survival for yourself --it premieres on the CBC Documentary Channel Sunday April 9 at 9 p.m.
"Originally I chose three subjects," Himel tells me. "But the first two worked out so well I could drop the third."
"Both Malka and Juergen were affected by World War II more than they had ever imagined. And our search for closure for these two extraordinary people turned out so much better than I had ever imagined."
Himel's odyssey took him and his two subjects "all over the place. On several continents. Part of it depended on good luck, part on the dogged research of people who cared about this theme.It turned out better than I could ever have hoped for."
In Juergen's case Himel and his camera crew follow the resolute German right across the Atlantic where he learns his father was an 18-year old American soldier who very much wanted to marry his 16-year old German girlfriend.
"Juergen told me he didn't think his mother would ever consent to be on camera but just before we were preparing to leave he phoned and said she was ready. First surprise was how well she speaks English. But she also gives us the perspective of a scared teenager --Americans in 1946 were still very much considered to be the enemy."
The scenes of Juergen slowly researching his ancestry in America constitute highs and lows. His father Malcolm continued to visit until Juergen was three and then left forever.
Juergen's voyage of discovery takes him to relatives in North Carolina he never knew existed and one scene finds him in an evangelical church embraced by parishioners.
" An uptight European man suddenly found what it is to be treated as an American," laughs Hiimel.
Forty-five years after hearing of her sister's existence Malka is stunned to learn from an aged aunt that her sibling might indeed have survived the war.
Using extraordinary detection a young researcher in Poland is able to track down some valuable information about the sister. Malka and her family visit the isolated farm deep in the Polish woods where the baby was secreted.
And what they discover is heart warming and heart breaking --you'll have to watch the entire film to learn more.
Himel says agrees these are only two of thousands of unresolved family secrets --a war that ended 72 years ago still reverberates.
"In both cases the survivors merely wanted to go on with their lives as best as they could," he tells me. "All became victims in some way or another. Juergen and Malka are more closely related than they could ever know."
SECRETS OF SURVIVAL PREMIERES ON CBC DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL SUNDAY APRIL 9 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.