Monday, February 17, 2020
Pat Ferns Exits Canadian TV With A Last Flash Of Brilliance
"This is it --my last TV production," sighs legendary TV producer Pat Ferns from his B.C. headquarters.
"But I couldn't go out with anything more challenging. I've spent the better part of a year finishing the French. German and Canadian versions of Listening To Orcas --all of which are different."
When I first jumped into TV criticism in 1971 at The Hamilton Spectator Ferns was one of the biggest producing names in the business.
The very next year I flew to Montreal and boarded a rented car driven by publicist Pat Bowles to travel deep into the Quebec countryside and the site of the new mini-series The Newcomers.
Imperial Oil pumped millions into this project produced by Ferns and partner Dick Nielsen and each hour dramatized a different era of immigration to Canada.
A New France settlement had been meticulously reconstructed to show how our first settlers depended initially on the aboriginals to sustain themselves through the difficult winters.
Ferns and partner Dick Nielsen seemed to be everywhere in those days with bold, innovative projects that were outside the humdrum boundaries of weekly TV series.
And Ferns agrees with me this tandem worked because each was so very different they complemented each other.
Ferns was quite brilliant but taciturn with a very clear vision of what he hoped to achieve in every production.
And Nielsen was a wild man of ideas forever churning out synopses and challenging the boundaries of ordinary TV landscape.
And they both excelled at a time there were only 10 competing TV channels.
"I just felt CBC had a tremendous responsibility in bringing culture to television that can't be matched today," he says.
Part of the problem lies in the breakup of the huge audiences --in a 100 channel universe there are few outlets with the kind of audience to support cultural productions.
"We had left CBC to form a company (Nielsen Ferns Productions) and were able to do things that a single network couldn't afford to do and we could sell to other markets and that was encouraging."
I remember one NF film I was on was Quebec Canada 2005 which was put together by Nielsen and mostly shot at the King Edward hotel. All the principals were in the Toronto Star newsroom for a shot or two and they included Martha Henry who I chatted up at my desk.
Nielsen Ferns was finally purchased by the Toronto Star (in 1976) as a production company but the federal government was not favourable to having companies owned by media giants.
So these days if a high school teacher wishes to screen a copy of The Wars to show to the class Torstar reluctantly sends out a tattered VHS copy demanding it be returned within days.
So Nielsen andd Ferns founded a second company Primedia and a whole host of sparkling new productions came forth : Glenn Gould's Toronto, the four hour mini-series Glory Enough For All, Heaven On Earth (written by Margaret Atwood) and bought for Masterpiece Theatre.
In 1995 Ferns decamped again to recharge the Banff Television Festival and turned it into an internationally renowned centre which was much admired by talent on all sides.
About the current state of Canadian TV production he says "In British Columbia the TV studios are full but most of the series being made here are American shows."
For the past year Ferns has toiled on his latest production Listening To Orcas premiering on CBC-YV's The Nature Of Things Friday February 21 at 9 p.m.
"It's about the toughest assignment I've had. There is a separate French version and another German one. I somehow feel Michael's English language version the best --they all wanted different angles to the same story."
Michael Allder directed it beautifully and the co-writer is Gail Gallant and Geoff Matheson edited it very tightly.
There are so many memorable scenes.
We see the narrow habitat of the orcas off Vancouver island which is threatened with noise pollution as well as the scarcity of salmon stocks.
We get to know neurologist Lori Marino and zoologist John Ford who are rushing to save the habitat of the orcas who are decreasing .
Sarika Cullis-Suzuki is once again our host and she covers all the basis. The use of drones to track the migration of the orcas provides a novel visual.
I think we come to care about these enigmatic animals particularly the lot of one born here in 1969 but shut up in a mainland aquarium for 50 years.
In retirement should she be taken back to her home?
We see the shots of her reacting to her baby and not knowing how to feed it --that is the saddest moment.
Ferns says he may be finished with productions but wants to mentor students on how to survive in a cut throat business and all the while produce splendid Canadian TV shows and specials.
"After all I've been doing this for a very long time."
LISTENING TO ORCAS PREMIERES ON CBC-TV'S THE NATURE OF THINGS FRIDAY FEBRUARY 21 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.