Saturday, February 28, 2009

Whither CBC?

The CBC is in trouble. Again.
There's all this muttering about the end of the CBC as the Corp battles the downsizing of advertising revenues. And yet when I visited Toronto headquarters on Front St. recently I saw floors of bureaucrats moving around much as they'd always done. Insiders tell me the place is awash with middle managers who have nothing to do with actual programming.
Like every federal government bureaucracy CBC's middle managers keep growing as the Corp keeps canceling programs like Blue Jays baseball and the ratings success Royal Canadian Air Farce. 
CBC president Hubert Lacroix can holler all he wants. He can bluster, he can posture but it's not in the national interest for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his neoconservatives to
add to the bulging national deficit with more cash for the CBC.
The threat is being made that CBC may have to start buying --gasp!-- American programming to shore up its schedule. Well, what's wrong with that? For its first 30years CBC-TV used U.S. imports in an often creative fashion.
If CBC had some U.S. TV blockbusters running at 9 p.m. the flaccid ratings for The National with Peter Mansbridge would surely perk right up. Look at the way CTV cagily uses such 10p.m. American simulcasts as its CSI imports which provide huge audience flows into Lloyd Robertson's top-rated 11 p.m. CTV news.
CBC used to import such favorites as Mary Tyler Moore and Laugh-In (snatched away from CTV) to bolster local grown product. These days it could be showing quality cable fare from Mad Men to The Wire and still get bang for its bucks. 
It was CBC President Pierre Juneau who invented the "all Canadian" programming format but trouble is CBC has never had the resources.
And can anybody show me a public network other than CBC which is all locally made series? PBS imports its Masterpiece Theater fare from Britain. BBC regularly shows quality U.S. series. Already, most of CBC's movie acquisitions are American hits (which lure in top advertising dollars).
I'm hearing from my CBC moles that such respected series as The Nature Of Things (about to celebrate its 50th season) and even the fifth estate may have to be scaled back.
I'm arguing a few genuine American cable hits might actually perk up CBC's image. How to pay for them? All those middle managers might be pared down for starters.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


A few days ago a very nice graduate student phoned with questions about that classic TV series The Hilarious House Of Frightenstein. Turns out he was doing a project on classic Canadian TV comedies.
Well, he certainly came to the right place. The very year Frightenstein was being made I was preparing to relocate via the Gray Coach bus from Toronto (where I'd toiled at The Globe and Mail) to beautiful, downtown Hamilton and my first ever permanent gig: TV critic at The Hamilton Spectator.
One of the first sets I visit was The Hilarious House Of Frightenstein. Imagine that! TV production in Hamilton? You better believe it. Randy Dandy Markowitz was the producer and the budget was so low star Vincent Price roomed at Randy's home during production. The other star was comic genius Billy Van and he was hysterically funny.
In the years that followed I reported from the sets of Party Game (the panelist that day was Bill Shatner), Ein Prosit, The Palace. All were series made right in Steel City by the most profitable TV station in the country.
CHCH, founded by visionary Ken Sobel in 1954, was the world's leading movie channel. That's what I said: the entire world.
The movie buyer wascagey Sam Hebscher who had started in Hamilton as manager of The Capitol and Palace movie theares, branched out to manage the Barton street hockey arena. Finally, he was hired by Sobel and boy did he deliver.
CHCH had the world TV premiere of Gone With The Wind, The Ten Commandments, Lawrence Of Arabia and hundreds of other titles. When ABC ran an ad saying the U.S. network was about to premiere The ten Commandments I phoned the network up and told them to withdraw the ad. Hebscher had beaten them to it.
Hebscher told me the key was a daily perusal of The Spectator's movie listings. "Once I discoverdd a movie was playing its last stop at the drive-ins I knew it was time to pounce." It also helped Hebscher had great contacts based on his contacts in the movie business.
Sobel virtually invented low-cost local programming. Through Screen Gems CHCH had Pierre Berton's half hour daily talk show. On the road Berton had to do up to 7-8 full interviews every day but he thrived in such an atmosphere. By contrast successor Fred Davis barely lasted one season. Unlike Berton he just couldn't be up and ready for so many different people in one day.
The series was made as cheaply as possible with a hotel suite standing in for a TV studio. To save money the video tapres were erased at season's end so they could be reused. You can imagine Berton's fury years later when he learned priceless interviews with the likes of Vivien Leigh had been wiped out.
The day I interviewed Shatner he was lying on the dressing room floor after completing six or seven Party Game interviews.  I'm told only three or four episodes of Party Game still exist. All others were wiped. Co-star Billy Van smuggled several tapes out and the "lost and found" episodes are now available on DVD.
It was only when CHCH got delusions of grandeur that the feisty independent station floundered. One year the station paid Lorimar studios big bucks for all its U.S. network series (outside of Dallas) and wound up with many stinkers and only a few genuine hits (like Knots Landing).
With CHCH reputedly on the auction block isn't it time for Channel 11 to return to its roots. As THE movie station it would surely prosper once again. And I know that Sam Hebscher now  in retirement would be only too glad to help rebuild the station which somehow lost its way.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Oscars Sunday Night

I may be prejudiced but I think the best coverage of Sunday night's Oscar telecast is on Check it out. I've got stories on two Oscar winning pictures: Gone With The Wind (via an interview with Ann Rutherford) and How Green Was My Valley (via an interview with screenwriter Philip Dunne). And I've also included a handy dandy Oscar ballot to help you keep tabs on the winners and losers.

Shelley Saywell's Latest Documentary

Shelley Saywell's latest documentary Running Guns: A Journey Into the Small Arms Trade doesn't surprise me at all. For years Saywell has been crafting a series of often brilliant documentaries on the precarious state of human rights around the world. Here she tackles the illegal global arms trade and her 70-minute production is chock full of insights (Kiefer Sutherland provides the narration). 

Saywell starts at a huge armaments fair where every kind of weapon is on sale. There are megabucks to be made here and it's a surprise to learn the biggest manufacturers these days are Russia and China. Allations are supposed to adhere to an international code of conduct. But Saywell starts with the arrest (in Thailand) of illegal gun lord Viktor Bout. And she interviews others who tell all about the world of armaments smuggling into third world countries. Several pilots freely talk about ferrying supplies from continent to content, stirring up civil wars from Angola to Bosnia to Somalia. One even gave her his home movies of harrowing moments.

One big surprise: the armaments used to stir up unrest in Bosnia were recycled by Bout and others in African hot spots. Saywell has some great footage of the unprotected northern Kenyan border to show how the smuggling works--there is a rusted gate and immigration booth but even goats saunter through without being stopped. In Somalia small boys of eight are seen with their rifles and whole camps of refugees are controlled by marauders.  Now it's Nairobi's turn to experience running gun battles which the police are unable to stop.

Saywell's images are stark and vivid. She won an Emmy for the shattering documentary Crimes Of Honour which examined "femicide:" in the Middle East and she should win a second one for Running Guns, it's that compelling.

Running Guns is part of a double bill about illegal arms sales on HISTORY TELEVISION, SUNDAY MARCH 1 AT 7:30 P.M.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Paul Gross And Passchendaele

Let me see, just when did I start writing stories about Paul Gross. Now I remember: it was in a newly designed TV studio CBC had constructed in Scarborough for the network's first ever DVD miniseries titled Chasing Rainbows. That was way back in the summer of 1988.
For some wacky reason the producer had decreed no TV critics would be allowed on set. So cast and crew were toiling in anonymity for almost a year and no word had trickled out to the public.  The Toronto Star where I worked had story after story about the latest American TV hits. But nothing about CBC's costliest ever TV venture.
As the release date loomed CBC  executives started panicking and veteran network publicists  began sneaking people like yours truly onto the set. That's where I first met the prenatally calm Gross. All around him there were tantrums and threats and he simply stayed cool and stole many of his scenes.
Who would have thought this kid would emerge as Canadian TV's biggest ever dramatic star? The other co-stars, equally unknown, have also enjoyed thriving careers: Michael Riley and Julie Stewart.
I interviewed Gross again when he was promoting the charming 1990 TV movie Getting Married In Buffalo Jump (co-starring Wendy Crewson) and met him in 1994 when he made the theatrical film Paint Cans, a marvelous satire of the infant Canadian film industry.
Which takes us up to Gross's break out performance as Mountie Benton Fraser in Due South (1994-99). It's one of the very few Canadian made series to gain a U.S. network berth. Gross told me at the time he was astonished by the CBS publicity juggernaut which poured millions into advertising and interviews and made this sleeper a huge success.
Gross could then have been expected to jump to the U.S. and he did for a very short time. He made a bomb of a Disney movie (*(*(*(*() and  the terrible TV movie 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea opposite Richard Crenna.
Thankfully, he returned home for such Canadian TV fare as  the miniseries Slings And Arrows and H20, two miniseries which were picked up by some American stations. While he was promoting Sling And Arrows he mentioned a script he was working on, a World War I drama but one that was go grand in scope it probably could not be achieved.
So now comes Passchendaele,  a decade later, at $20 million the highest budgeted Canadian movie of all time (which isn't really saying much). It enjoyed a theatrical release which is where I caught it at one of Toronto's last neighborhood cinemas, Mt. Pleasant. The movie certainly deserves to be seen on a big screen.  Reconstruction of the actual battle has been done with painstaking care. Unlike bravura American war movies this one shows the rats, the misery and the rotting carcasses all over the battle plain.
I re-watched parts on my tiny TV set and it looked so mundane.  Detailing was lost and the epic nature of the story just wasn't there. Most people will catch it on DVD or subsequent network showings. The DVD also contains a "making of" documentary that is a must-see.
Gross in true Orson Welles fashion write, directed and acted in it. Still dashing at 49, he plays a character named after his own grandfather. As long as the battle field scenes are up there the movie soars.
Shots of Calgary when it was a frontier town are far more prosaic despite the meticulous reconstruction. Gross as Mike Dunne enjoys a conventional romance with  war nurse  Sarah played by Caroline Dhavernas although little is made of the difference in  their ages.
It's strange but Passchendaele is almost alone among Canadian movies of the Great War. There have been some splendid documentary series like For King And Empire. The only competition comes from Robin Phillips' little seen 1979 drama The Wars with Brent Carver, Martha Henry and William Hutt.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Name Your Favorite TV Shows, Please!

At a swell cocktail party I went around the room asking people what new series they made a habit of never missing.
First up I'll give my own season faves. I'm back to watching Private Practice because this once predictable medical series is finally finding its own style. By contrast Gray's Anatomy from the same production team is failing fast. I also watch CSI when I can remember to tune in. But I've almost given up on any of the Law & Order franchises. Canadian content: I was a devotee of RCAF until CBC pulled the plug, a mistake the publically funded web will regret. And it's strange but since CTV announced this would be the last for Corner Gas I haven't wanted to watch. Guilty pleasures include 90210 because it's so very over the top.
A svelte female executive named CSI, Law & Order, Mad Men and The Border (a Canadian entry!).
Another executive (male) said Hockey Night In Canada was must see TV. And he regretted CBS lacked funds to buy Blue Jays baseball. "And I hear curling is gone from CBC," he said said with a slight sob.
A much younger type --early twenties I would guess--mentioned The Hills, Bromance, the daily MTV talk thing, and surprisingly enough The View.
A dear old thing --mid-seventies-- asked what had happened to Masterpiece Theater this season. She positively hated the sleek British intelligence series that opened the season. Asked to name a Canadian fave, she blurted out "The National!"
A university lecturer said she waited until a series came out on DVD. Then she would rent a boxed set for the weekend and watch all the episodes without commercial interruptions on her huge flat screen.
So give me your imput. What series are you watching this season?

Anybody Remember Elwy Yost ?

Doesn't anybody out there remember genial Elwy Yost? It's hard to believe but the retired host of Saturday Night At The Movies  will be 84 come July. Now happily retired in British Columbia, Yost was TVOntario's most recognizable face for over a quarter of a century. Every Saturday night at 8 on TVO the chuckling Yost --he once told me he'd never seen a movie he really disliked-- would introduce two "Golden Oldies" and include a bunch of Hollywood interviews.
To everybody's surprise (including TVO's) Yost's show became one of the staples of Saturday evenings and at times drew almost even with Saturday NHL hockey. So popular did he become that rivals deliberately bought away huge blocks of movies to keep Yost from getting them.
Yost always told me his biggest disappointment was never being able to run old Warner Bros. titles because CBC owned the rights.
After Yost retired TVO repackaged his interviews into a "new" series called Film 101. It's passing strange to me but Uncle Elwy's name nowhere appears in the credits. Also overlooked is his long standing producing partner Risa Shuman who continued to run Saturday Night years after his own retirement.
Elwy's absence is in name only. You can still spot his distinctive voice and "Gosh Gee" interviewing style in a majority of interviews. Is TVO embarrassed or what by his continuing fame?