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: ****.
Monday, March 27, 2017
The big news on American TV these days concerns the revival of past series hits.
Gilmore Girls is back for a limited run. and I;m, watchging and enjoying it as I find out what happened to the original characters.
So I'm thinking back on all the Canadian TV sets I was on and wondering which ones could be successfully revived.
The new Anne Of Green Gables is all the ratings rage on CBC-TV these days. So why not revive some other big hits over the years?
One of the first sets I ever attended was up at CFTO studios in Agincourt: Headline Hunters with Charles Templeton.
It was a piece of inexpensive Canadian content and it ran from 1972 through 1983.
And if CTV doesn't want it what about CTV News or even History Channel?
In fact I've already told current CBC programmers Front Page Challenge would be a dandy choice for revival.
I'd use Peter Mansbridge as host and a new gallery of panelists that might include Wendy Crewson, Martin Short, Art Hindle and perhaps one of the stars of Schitt's Creek.
Riverdale was a short lived soap opera on CBC running three years (1997 through 2000).
The reason it failed was simple: lack of money.
Had CBC been able to finance a year of the story instead of just 12 episodes per season the soap would have thrived.
But this one never even came out on .DVD. I'm told some of the sets are still standing and used on the various Degrassi series.
I simply feel an hour revival would make it if heavily promoted and allowed to flourish for a full year of episodes.
A series far older was Quentin Durgens M.P. starring a very young and lean Gordon Pinsent.
The show debuted in 1966 when I was still a student at the University of Toronto and lasted until 1969 in increments of about six episodes a year.
What I'd do is recast the lead with Leah Pinsent, Gordon's talented actress daughter.
Then I'd plop her into the turmoil of the Canadian House of Commons and be immersed in a great political scandal not of her making.
Then I'd plop in Gordon as the aged but politically cagey Quentin who comes to the rescue of his daughter who represents the Ontario riding he once represented 40 years before.
E,N.G. was a popular hourlong drama running on CTV from 1990 through 1994.
I have no idea why this popular series has never come out in a boxed set.
The clerk at HMV Video told me it was one of the most requested Canadian series not on video.
Sara Botsford and Art Hindle were the stars of this newsroom story and I'd bring them back as the station is threatened with foreclosure by failing ratings.
They want to reinvent TV news by giving it a harsher coverage, confident that telling the truth for once on TV will reap big audiences.
Canadian sitcoms that could be reinvented include Maniac Mansion, Frontier Rabbi and Maniac Mansion.
Some Canadian sitcoms did not make it because they needed more work --that's my rationale for reviving In Opposition and Not My Department.
King Of Kensinton starred the gifted Al Waxman --he has passed but I'd recreate the show with his TV partner played so tellingly by Fiona Reid.
One of the first CBC TV events I ever attended was the lavish premiere for Whiteoaks Of Jalna which ran for 12 hours starting in January 1972.
Did you know French TV later tried a version with the great French star Danielle Darrieux?
I say try again --but this time use only the original story by Mazo de la Roache. TV's version added a secondary modern story with the same bunch of actors also playing their ancestors.
Sunday, March 19, 2017
The first time I met Robert Osborne it was 1993 and the genial old movie host was giving interviews at the annual launch for AMC (American Movie Classics).
That's what I said AMC!
Turns out Osborne never did officially join that old movie channel but instead accepted a better bid to become the night time host of TCM ( Turner Classsic Movies).
And for a decade after Osborne joined me in a bid to force the Canadian Radio-television Commission to allow this great haven of film classics to be admitted to the Canadian cablde TV dial.
I remember one CRTC bureaucrat actually telling me TCM was ineligible because there was no Canadian content.
So I got to talk to Osborne on the phone all that time and later when TCM finally hit Canadian TV.
The most important fact: Osborne never did directly program the films shown daily.
"That's a job in itself," he told me. "But there is a lot of give and take. And when I get the lists I get to work researching all films I'll introduce."
When I first met him he'd recently caused some controversy but stating it was TCM's mission to show Congo Maisie as much as it was to show Gone With The Wind."
"Every movie tells us a lot about the times and the people involved in the filming. I guess GWTW is the most shown movie on TCM. But Congo Maisie deserves our attention, too."
AMC was there first and showed the collections of Paramount, Universal, RKO and 20th Century-Fox."
That left Turner with Warners, MGM and RKO (shared with AMC). TCM recently Columbia pictures were added. And now MCA (Paramount and Universal) has also joined.
These days TCM is the last major movie channel around using hosts.
In Canada we had the energetic Elwy Yost in TVOntario for over 20 years. But these days TVO is out of the movie business entirely.
Most people did not know that while Osborne lived in Manhattan he had to fly to TCM headquarters in Atlanta to tape his introductions.
"I started in Hollywood under contract to Lucille Ball as part of a company of aspiring young actors. Lucy trained us in workshops, gave us bit parts in our shows, then told me I should be behind the lights. It was the best career advice ever given to me."
He lived in an apartment in New York called The Osborne. "But it was not named after me! Honest!"
For the past few days TCM has been rerunning all his hour interviews with the likes of Betty Hutton, Debbie Reynolds and Norman Jewison.
In 2011 Osborne was off camera for months recovering from a serious illness and when he returned young Ben Mankiewicz was spelling him off more and more.
Osborne chuckled when I told him Canadian viewers were often perplexed by his introductions. Recently he'd introduced "Claude Rains in a Hitchcockian romance."
Instead Rains appeared in Saturday's Children and not Notorious as Osborne had obviously been publicizing.
"In Canada we have to change seven per cent of titles which we do not own," he admitted. "I dearly wish they'd change the intro, too."
And I'm missing him already.
Thursday, March 2, 2017
On Sunday March 5 at 10 p.m. FX begins showing the new miniseries The Feud : Bette And Joan starring Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis.
Well, I know a lot about that feud, I met both ladies on several occasioned and interviewed many of their co-workers over the decades.
From my archives I've culled the juiciest quotes to illustrate the great hatred that always exiusted between Joan and Bette.:
VINCENT SHERMAN: I directed Bette in Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Joan in The Damned Don't Cry (1950). Bette was the more versatile actress but Joan was a star over a longer period and this irritated Bette.
I also had love affairs with both. On Mr Skeffington (1944) Bette's second husband had just died under mysterious circumstances and she was very needy. She wanted me to leave my wife and children and after I refused we never worked again.
Joan used sex to counter her feelings of loneliness. She always became the character she was playing. In the second film we did together Harriet Craig (1950) I used her compulsive need to dust and clean --she was cleaning away one day during a take when she looked up and said "I'm playing myself, right?" And she was right.
EDWARD DYNTRYK: When I directed Where Love Has Gone (1964) I had to cope with the hatred between Bette and Susan Hayward who was a toughie in her own right.
Bette not only had to take second billing but she was playing Susie's mother and was only a decade older than Susie.
Bette would storm onto the set shouting "Don't worry boys I've rewritten a few lines!"
Whereupon Susie would storm off the set, slam her dressing room shut and refuse to leave until all her lines were properly restored.
After I shot the last scene Bette turned to me and said "Am I finished, Mr. Director?"
I assured her that was so and she took off her white wig and tossed it at Susie and it bounced off her forehead.
"You disgusting old bitch!" shouted Susie as Bette exited Stage Left.
IRVING RAPPER: I had just finished directing The Gay Sisters (1942) with Miss Barbara Stanwyck who everybody loved when Warners announced I'd be directing Bette for the first time in Now, Voyager (1942) and Barbara gifted me with a wreath of black roses. She knew the travails I was going to face!
ANNA LEE: On the set of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (1962) I had the dressing room between Crawford and Davis.
I could feel the great waves of hatred emanating from both dressing rooms. I felt quite noxious at times.
In one Bette had to drag Joan across the living room and Joan claimed Bette had deliberately kicked her in the face.
To retaliate Joan had jockey weights sewn into the hem of her skirt so when Bette had to drag her some more in the next scene the weight was so much Bette's back popped out a d she had to be taken to the hospital.
BETSY PALMER: On every picture Joan had to have a scapegoat and usually it was a young girl just starting out.
On Goodbye, My Fancy it was Janice Rule as the ingenue and Joan barked at her mercilessly.
On the picture I did with her Queen Bee (1955) she latched onto pretty little Lucy Marlowe and in one scene when Lucy forgot her lines because she was frightened Joan sucker punched her just like that!
GERALDINE FITZGERALD: Bette took me under her wing in Dark Victory (1939) which was my first big picture at Warners. I'd been warned by the director she'd try to get me out of focus during my big speech which is why I'm holding onto the piano with all my might. But you see I posed no thereat to her.
But Bette was never collegial. She'd just finished The Old Maid (1939) opposite Miriam Hopkins the greatest scene stealer of them all. Miriam appeared on set the first day wearing one of Bette's dresses from her past hit Jezebel and Bette went crazy.
VINCENT SHERMAN: On Old Acquaintance (1943) Bette and Miriam went on a dizzy field trip of trying to upstage each other. The day I had to photograph Bette slapping Miriam the rafters were filled with employees, Miriam was hated so. And Bette drilled one so hard Miriam's head bobbled up and down.
The next day Miriam phoned in sick saying she was suffering from a huge headache and her absence cost the studio thousands of collars.
GEORGE CUKOR: On The Women (1939) Joan was forced to take second billing to Norma Shearer and she hated this. During line reading rehearsals she'd click her knitting needles every time Norma had to make a speech. Finally I told her to stop at once and Joan fled from the stage in tears and wouldn't return that day.
CURTIS BERNHARDT: I directed Bette Davis as twins in A Stolen Life (1946) and then Joan Crawford in Possessed (1947) which she took over when Bette went on maternity leave. Joan took an Oscar nomination and Bette was not at all happy I can tell you.
They loathed each other because they saw themselves in each other. Both came from poverty. Both had been deserted by their fathers. Joan's childhood was more oppressive but neither had happy memories of their younger days. Joan would be in full makeup at 9 a.m. and nobody worked harder. Bette needed a lot of direction because she had a tendency to go over the top. Their dressing rooms were side by side but they never talked to each other. Joan was a diet freak, she'd nibble carrots at lunch. Bette would pork it on and then go on killer diets. I think they fascinated each other, they never stopped competing.
JOSEPH COTTEN: Joan started HUSH HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) but claimed Bette was harassing her. Crawford had collected IOUs for the female stars up against Davis for the Oscar for Whatever Happened To Baby Jane and when Ann Bancroft won but couldn't make it (she was on Broadway) Joan whisked past Bette backstage and walked out and took the Oscar and made a great speech for Ann. Needless to say Bette was seething.
VINCENT SHERMAN: Joan pretended she had a virus and was in hospital when I visited her. She claimed she was in perfect health but had faked it to "get away from that bitch!" Then she jumped stark naked out of bed and we made furious love on the floor of the hospital room.
GERALDINE FITZGERALD: In 1977 Bette was the first woman to win the AFI award,Koan had just passed and I wonder what she would have made of this! Bette was astonished so many of her co-workers refused to attend including Robert Montgomery, George Brent, Irving Rapper and Vincent Sherman. Bette forgot how viciously she'd fought for her place in the sun.
NOTE: In i977 I interviewed Davis at her Hollywood apartment and told her that I had to leave at 5 p.m. to attend the Joan Crawford Salute at the Academy Awards theater.
BETTE DAVIS: Who'd salute that bitch?
ME: Well, the welcoming committee at the door includes John Wayne, Myrna Loy, Robert Young, Virginia Grey, Steven Spielberg (who'd directed Joan on TV's Night Gallery).
BETTE DAVIS: Well, I never said she wasn't important. She was old Hollywood, she worked at it harder than anyone I knew, that stardom which she truly believed in. But she was one tough broad is all I'll say.
VINCENT PRICEL: On Bete's last completed picture The Wales Of August (1984) Bette was her usual obstreperous self. She started picking on Lillian Gish and Miss Lillian was 91 for heaven's sake.
Director Lindsay Anderson was lining up a close-up of Miss Lillian when Bette burst in "Oh, fer gawd's sake, that old bitch invented the close-up!" That's Bette! Feuding and fighting and fussing!
Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Best news of the week" CTV's Cardinal is coming back for two more seasons.
And Cardinal may be the wave of the future for Canadian TV drama.
The first season ends tonight at 10 on CTV and ran a short term of just seven hourlong episodes.
But audience reaction was fierce: so CTV has ordered two more "cycles" of six hours each.
In the past a Canadian TV series like the currently running Saving Hope would glide along with 13 hours and try competing against the U.S. imports of 22 hours per season.
I think Cardinal works because it is unrelentingly Canadian --it was photographed in Sudbury and North Bay. Although Billy Campbell (The Killing) is American Karine Vanasse is from Quebec and other key parts are played by Canadians.
Based on Gilles Blunt's 2000 novel Forty Words For Sorrow the story has cops Campbell and Vanasse figuring out that there was a serial killer in their community.I thing what made the story was the beautifully austere landscape which always seemed so threatening, menacing.I thought Campbell finely cast --I first interviewed him on the set of Dynasty way, way back and we reconnected on the set of Once And Again where he blurted out --"I really hate this character!".
Maybe so but he aced that guy and does so again here.
In past years Canadian TV has been too quick to ditch concepts that were not entirely working.
I'm thinking of CBC's attempts to float a series set in the Eastern Townships starring Nathaniel Parker. Iy was abandoned after one TV movie.
The success of Cardinal comes from the immaculate adaptation by Aubrey Nealon and Daniel Grou's sturdy direction.
The series has already been sold to BBC meaning it must be very good indeed.
You can check out the seasonal finale wednesday night at 10 on CTV.
Monday, February 27, 2017
Having Our Baby is the challenging new look at surrogacy that premieres on the Documentary Channel Tuesday night at 10.
It answers many of the basic questions about this boom and there are facets I'd never even thought about.
As soon as I spotted Nick Orchard's name as director/producer I knew I had to preview this one.
Orchard's Vancouver-based credits include The New Beachcombers, Cosmic Highway and Cybersex Addiction.
Thankfully his production isn't a maze of questions as he chooses the personal approach.
We meet couples striving to connect with a surrogate mother and the location even moves abroad.
A look at surrogacy in India is particularly disturbing with women undergoing this procedure simply to make enough money to feed their own families --the racism here is something I'd never considered before.
We meet Edmonton couple Sarah and Jason Geisler as well as male couple Philippe Robert and Philippe Malo. And there is Ontario surrogate Eilise Marten whose story is particularly affecting --she has her own children but finds she is happiest when pregnant.
The state of surrogacy is changing as India and Mexico have banned surrogacy for commercial gain because of widespread abuses.
That portion of the film reminded me of another one from last year looking at poor people in the Philippines selling their kidneys for rich Westerners.
I would have liked to ask the Canadian couples why they just didn't go the adoption route.
And the experiences of these surrogate babies might be another interesting twist --how do they react when told later on about their unusual births.
Orchard is an expert interviewer and he manages to draw from these couples the often complicated reasons why they went the surrogacy route.
The point is made that surrogacy for profit is banned in Canada for what seems to be very sound reasons --in the U.S. the average fee is something like $36,000.
The strangest scenes are a reunion of surrogates and they turn out to be rather ordinary looking and completely sweet women --not at all predatory----I wonder as the years go on if they will ever regret their decisions, that is certainly something to consider.
There is, of course, a huge stigma and much negativity because motherhood cannot be turned on and off like a faucet.
I'm wondering if there is a register so children who grow up can then contact their "real" mothers for whatever reasons.
How all this is playing out in Third World countries became for me the highlight of the film --the exploitation seems so callous and so very commercial.
I think the term used here is "reproductive tourism".
And the famous case of a western couple paying for a surrogate who had twins --the couple would only accept the "normal" one --the other baby with Down's syndrome was turned down.
The point is made very vigorously that in some cases the baby becomes a "thing" or a product,.
Multi-textured and completely challenging Having Our Baby (from Soapbox Productions) is compulsively viewable, a hit on many levels. Well done!
HAVING OUR BABY PREMIERES ON DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL TUESDAY FEBRUARY 28 AT 10 P.M. AND 1 A.M.
MY RATING: ^^^^.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
The future of Canadian TV is bright --I make this statement after watching the brilliant new homegrown documentary Cracking Cancer which premieres on CBC-TV's Nature Of Things Thursday night at 8 on CBC TV.
The subject is daunting enough --the advent of POG or Personalized OncoGenomics but this new technique in battling cancer is personalized by the true tales of patients.
We first get to know and admire Zuri who is 33 and a new mother.
She battled breast cancer shortly after giving birth and endured a mastectomy, radiation, chemo and hormone therapy.
But 18 months later her cancer came back with a vengeance spreading to the liver and lymph nodes.
Her long term prospects seemed bleak until she was given a standard drug for diabetes --it was hardly a new drug--but because of POG Zuri is currently cancer free and thriving.
The director of Cracking Cancer , Judith Pyke, says the personalized approach was used to define what a breakthrough POG is for cancer survivors.
"We started in December 2015," Pyke tells me on the phone from Vancouver.
"Originally a letter was sent out to patients we wanted to film. It was a lot to ask but we found people who did want to tell about their condition. We filmed ten but only use seven here --we were looking for different aspects you see."
Pyke and her camera crew filmed the patients not only during hospital visits but also at home with families..
"And we also filmed the oncologists specifically Dr. Janessa Laskin who is co-founder of the trial at Vancouver's BC Cancer Agency."
The documentary opens with Zuri who Pyke salutes as "quite a fighter, so optimistic. And she has fared the best."
Nori's cancer came from a mutation that caused rapid growth.
The POG team used decades worth of scientific discovery --the goal was to isolate drugs which might block the growth of Zuri's cancer.
Zuri was given a diabetes medicine combined with hormonal treatment and five months later her cancer seemed to have become virtually undetectable.
We also meet Trish who is battling colorectal cancer and has multiple nymph nodes--she needs an eight-hour operation to eliminate a tumor on her spine.
Katya is in Styage Four for breast cancer and needs help quickly.
Then there's Marcy who is battling lung cancer and thinks she has found the right drug for her condition.
Karl has liver cancer. which was diagnosed very late.
And there is a wonderful little boy Sagar who has a unique condition which mimics cancer.
"Of course we didn't know in adevance what would happen to any of them," Pyke explains. "Of course you get emotionally involved. It was an incredible journey."
But how to explain all this to the average viewer?
Luckily NOT's long time host. Dr. David Suzuki joins the team to do exactly that. Now based in Vancouver Suzuki more often these days fronts the weekly hours. But here he uses his experience as a geneticist to ask the tough questions.
Suzuki interviews Dr. Marco Marrra, one of the leading genome scientists, who explains the procedure in terms anyone can understand.
Pyke thinks the hour is basically a study in courage. The outcomes can't be revealed here but there's sorrow as well as triumph.
Today's TV hour is actually 42 minutes--meaning heroic editing was needed to preserve the content but keep the pacing.
Pyke credits ace editing (Alan Flett) and her director of photography (Todd Craddock). Pyke wrote it with Helen Singer and Sue Ridout produced for Dreamfilm Productions.
The result is a model of how to engage viewers without sacrificing quality.
CRACKING CANCER PREMIERES ON CBC-TV'S THE NATURE OF THINGS THURSDAY FEBRUARY 23 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.