Friday, April 29, 2011

The Royal Reality Show

So who didn't watch TV's latest reality show, a one off special that could have been titled The Real Housewives Of Windsor Castle?
Well, NBC's Brian Williams for one.
The NBC news anchor spent just three hours in London before deciding the deaths of hundreds of Americans in a night of killer tornadoes was far more important than the carefully pre-planned nuptials of Prince William and his Kate.
And Williams has a point.
Oh, the Royal wedding really was something else, a candied confection of epic proportions but at its heart a rather empty charade.
But Williams heard about the devastation the moment he landed at Heathrow airport, phoned NBC News chief Steve Capus, and was back across the Atlantic that night.
His quick, decisive moves left the other anchors looking rather silly as they oohed and aahed at the tumults of well wishers on the London streets and the rich and famous parading forth at Westminster Cathedral.
CNN's Anderson Cooper looked a bit foolish as he tried to get himself pysched up for the event --eventually he said it was all very cool.
Anderson, it was a lot of things. But definitely not cool.
Barbara Walters at ABC told us once again how many Royals she's interviewed over the years --but surely not the Queen who so far has sidestepped going on The View.
But her ABC "frenemy" Diane Sawyer then could get in she had actually chatted up Prince Charles at the family estate.
And just what were the Canadian anchors doing so far from home?
Hey, Peter and Lloyd, there's a political tsunami due to wash up Monday night with recent polls suggesting the NDP is surging at the polls.
Should you not be back in Ottawa preparing for that contingency?
Malcolm Muggeridge way back in the 1950s predicted that with the waning of Queen Elizabeth's political power there was nothing left for the Royals to do but dress up and parade about.
And we the TV viewers have been suckers every time --I stayed up all night to cover the wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips and that ended in divorce.
And so did the weddings of Princess Margaret, Prince Andrew and Princess Charles.
But at 4:30 a.m. I looked out the window and saw the lights on in a considerable number of my neighbors' houses on the Toronto street where I live.
So, yeah, I bought into the myth. I gasped at some of the hideous fashions, wondered just what Kate would wear, nodded approvingly as the aged Queen arrived all in yellow.
Look, as spectacle it worked.
Then I remembered I'd also stayed up all night to cacth the indescribable, sad funeral of Princess Diana, William's mother.
In those days the crowd were ready to tar and feather those blasted Royals for the way they'd treated the "People's Princess".
Now it's all forgotten. That's in the nature of bread and circuses.
It's just as Muggeridge predicted: royalty as soap opera. Stay tuned for the next, inevitable installment.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Who The Hell Wrote It?

I remember way back when I was on my first TV critics tour in Los Angeles and some nerdy publicist was going on and on about the new sitcom he was promoting.
And the legendary TV critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, Terry O'Flaherty, who'd been covering the beat since 1948, yelled out "Who cares what stars you've got lined up. Who the hell wrote it?"
It was good advice in 1971 and 40 years later it still works.
I was thinking of Terry's line when I read the very scant obituaries for Madelyn Pugh Davis.
She was 90 when she passed and had been out of the business for more than two decades.
Who the hell was she?
Only one of the co-creators of TV's most enduring art form, the sitcom.
Davis, her writing partner from radio Bob Carroll and writing colleague Jess Oppenheimer teamed up to create I Love Lucy in 1951.
The threesome wrote all 39 episodes every year until 1955 when Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf joined them. Then Oppenheimer dropped out in 1956 to go on to other series.
I met Davis and Carroll at a press party at Lucy Ball's house in 1972 I reckon. By that time Lucy had stopped making I Love Lucy in 1957, resumed production in 1962 with The Lucy Show and then started yet another "new" series Here's Lucy in 1968.
And 16 years after I interviewed them they were back at it for the short-lived Life With Lucy, one of the biggest ever TV flops --it lasted all of six weeks.
Davis explained she'd originally met Ball when called to write for the new CBS radio comedy My Favorite Husband in 1947 --the stars were Ball and Richard Denning.
When Lucy decided to jump to TV she wanted real life husband Desi Arnazi to be there with her and the threesome cooked up a new situation that cast the redhead as a Manhattan housewife and Bill Frawley and Viviian Vance as their downstairs neighbors.
"Writing for radio was ever so much fun," Davis sighed. "We could go anywhere --not sets were required just the listeners' imaginations."
Carroll said the TV show was originally going to go live as with all other comedies at the time like two other CBS shows: Burns And Allen and Jack Benny.
Davis said "Lucy insisted on an audience so we had to install bleachers inside the studio. Desi wanted it filmed for the rerun potential and Desilu had to cover the additional cost per episode."
Davis said her forte was the premise with Carroll and Oppenheimer supplying the gags. She was the one who invented such classic situations as the one finding Lucy and Ethel on a chocolates assembly line and to keep up they start swallowing chocolates.
Did she enjoy writing for the most famous sitcom of all time? "No! I was always worrying if I had an idea for the next episode. We only got 13 weeks off and we spent most of that time batting around ideas for the next season."
So the question remains who invented Lucy Ricardo? The writers or the comedienne?
When Ball started up The Lucy Show in 1962 Oppenheimer sued to for earnings claiming he was one of the co-creators of the show and despite the name change it was still Lucy Ricardo as he'd originally envisaged the character.
He won his case and so bitter was the feud Desi Arnaz never even mentioned him in his autobiography A Book which was all about the creation of I Love Lucy.
I later saw Davis and Carroll on another sitcom where they were listed as executive producers but really were fine tuning each script: Alice. It took real skill to change a Martin Scorsese women's picture into a sitcom and the show with Linda Lavin lasted nine seasons.
In later years I much preferred interviewing the creative writers many of whom on TV series were listed as executive producers: Aaron Spelling (although I often hated his shows), Steven Bochco, David E, Kelly right up to today's Matthew Weiner.
And I'm still asking "Who the hell wrote it."


Saturday, April 16, 2011

King Debuts On Showcase

Stick with Showcase's new cops series King which debuts Sunday night at 9.
It's what TV critics like yours truly like to call "a work in progress".
First and foremost a Canadian police series is no longer a novelty.
It was way back when CBC-TV debuted a short lived series called Sidestreet and a crime series called The Collaborators.
Back in those days any fixation on crime like our American neighbors was considered "unCanadian".
These days there's Rookie Blue, The Line, Flashpoint --you see what I mean?
But King which wobbles a bit during its first few episodes comes with impeccable credentials.
First up there's co-executive producer Bernard Zukerman who last gave us the tremendous series This Is Wonderland.
He also produced a TV movie pilot for a cop series about a younger cop (Peter Outerbridge) paired with an older, street savvy female partner (Alberta Watson): Chasing Cain in 2001.
Sound familiar?
I hung out on that set and thought it had real possibilities.
CBC felt otherwise and declined to place a pick-up order.
King's creative partners include David Barlow who created such Canadian hits as Seeing Things and Nothing Too Good For A Cowbpy and co-executive producer Greg Spottiswood who was a hot TV actor 20 years back with TV movies Looking For Miracles and the Anne Of Green Gables sequel before switching to producing (Shattered).
So far King reminds me of that Global TV series Zoe Busiek: Wild Card which wavered and wobbled a bit before the creators discovered the kind of series they wanted it to be.
Amy Price-Francis is impressive as female police offer Jessica King with two shattered marriages behind her --she is completely dedicated to her work. But now she's married to a younger man, Danny (Gabriel Hogan) and they want to start a family before it's too late.
For the past few years she's been hobbled for her outspokenness, exiled to a back office handling public complaints but when the police chief fears a backlash against his force for mishandling the case of a missing young girl he pole vaults King into a leadership position as headed of a special task force handling difficult cases.
That means the former head Det. Sergeant Derek Spears (nicely played by Alan Van Sprang) must not only accept demotion but the leadership of a frequently headstrong woman.
So far the plots are too ambitious with the producers trying to give a little something for every one.
But Jessica's dilemma as a woman who has focused on career to the detriment of her personal life seems to be the big story line. Balancing that with the violence of the cases she's being give produces some awkward moments when levity just isn't called for.
I've watched three episodes and the relationships are better explored as the story line moves forward. Price-Francis is a strong performer and almost deserves the sole star billing accorded her.
But Van Sprang, who I first interviewed on the set of Earth: Final Conflict, is equally compelling and there's more than a hint that Derek is oddly physically attracted to his new boss. And Danny? He needs more to do that babysit Jessica's charges or he could wander away.
Is this a crime show or a soapy relationships thing.?
It can't be both and be dramatically compelling.
On the plus side there's full use of Toronto locations: let's hope the crew doesn't bump into the crews from Flashpoint or Rookie Blue is all I can say.
King which runs for eight episodes might have a big future based on the veteran talent behind the camera.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

TV Soaps Are Fading To Black

Gasp! I've already stopped searching for tomorrow.
My guiding light was snuffed out. And as far as the world turns --it stopped.
I'm thinking of the gigantic cultural tsunami that is killing off the last TV soaps.
On Thursday ABC announced it will no longer carry All My Children and One Life To Live leaving only four afternoon soapers on the air.
I remember once in 1976 spending an entire week on the set of the New York soaps and witnessing the huge amount of talent behind as well as in front of the cameras.
I spent one of my days on the set of CBS's venerable Love Of Life which kicked off each weekday's agony at 11:30 a.m.
The day I was there I hung out with the great Canadian soap star Tudi Wiggins and on the living room set she showed me her stage son sleeping --he had a day job on LOL and at night flew into Boston to appear opposite Katharine Hepburn in the play A Matter Of Gravity.
The actor's name? It was a very young Christopher Reeve.
LOL still went live in those days and at 11:25 a little man dressed in a tux stepped forth and began the organ music to the day's dramatic proceedings. What class!
On another day it was over to Search For Tomorrow to chat up Mary Stuart who'd been doing the same character since 1951.
I called her "Mary Queen Of Soaps" and she loved that and would invite me to tea on the times she was visiting in Toronto.
One afternoon in Manhattan I was summoned to interview writer-producer Agnes Nixon at her apartment in the Wyndham hotel.
I feared she might be imperious but she was full of fun and gave great anecdotes.
She'd been trained in the craft of soaps by the grande dame herself, Irna Phillips, who created The Brighter Day and The Guiding Light as 15-minute radio soaps and then created the first half hour soap for CBS, As The World Turns which was running right as Walter Cronkite came on live to interrupt and announce the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
ATWT had been one of Nixon's first writing gigs. She learned her craft well and then created the first hour daily drama in Another World.
All My Children was set in a fictional town as most soaps were --in this case it was Pine Vallety and it premiered live on ABC on Jan. 5, 1970.
Only last year it was moved from, New York city to Los Angeles to save costs.
Nixon created One Life To Live in 1968 and it became an hour show in 1978 --it has always been shot in New York.
What Nixon stressed to me was her insistence on injecting contemporary problems into the usual mix. She used black actors before the other soaps and was hammered by the right in 1992 for her story about a persecuted gay teenager (played by Ryan Phillippe).
There are many reasons for the impending demise of daytime serials.
First, the audience is disappearing as more and more housewives opt for a job.
But if the networks wanted to save the soaps they could have rerun them after midnight and garnered a huge new audience.
Another factor is Reality TV which presents its stories in a serial form --only we're supposed to be believing what we watch is actually true (it isn't).
One Fact: before its demise Guiding Light stars were only given talking points and asked to make up their own dialogue. But the soap expired anyway.
Two new ABC series The Chew and The Revolution will take up the slack.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

TV Debates: Is There Ever A Winner?

It's strange how TV debates have crept into the Canadian political landscape.
There I was a Carleton U J-School student and I was in former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker's Commons office asking him about the value of media debates.
"Don't believe in them," he snapped and glared at me. In his world the very notion of televised debates was somehow "unCanadian". Remember in those days --it was 1970 --even debates in the House of Commons were not televised.
Of course as Diefenbaker noted with a wink debates had gotten Abraham Lincoln elected president but the actual crowds at these events were relatively small compared to the majority of Americans who had to read all about them in local newspapers.
The great contemporary U/S. presidents tended not to debate --for F.D.R. or Dwight Eisenhower to even acknowledge the opposition would have been something.
Then came the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 which I certainly watched livea nd in blazing black and white.
Kennedy's tan won the debates or so it was said. Nixon's five o'clock shaddow gave him a sinister hue.
But it really was Kennedy's wit and sparkle whereas Nixon had to spend his time defending the flagging Eisenhower administration.
Kennedy's successor Lyndon Johnson simply would not debate at all. I can't remember Nixon and Humphrey debating in 1968.
But these days U.S. leaders have to have a series of debates --if one pulled out there'd be political hell to pay.
In today's very changed media circles I don't think debates have much of an impact.
Or do they? When Mulroney shot at John Turner "You could have said no" regarding pork barrel appointments I think he zoomed into the political lead.
But we now see our leaders in action every day in the Commons. They're familiar faces, we know their platform. Today debates seem a case of once is too many.
All three leaders had been rehearsed, puffed and fluffed--I don't think John Diefenbaker ever wore makeup--until they seemed like waxwork dummies.
Harper looked at the camera the whole time and never said anything original. Ignatieff played the Harvard don, too smart by half. Layton got in the best digs but he has zilch chance of forming a government.
It was boring, predictable TV.
But. hey, it's democracy even if John Diefenbaker had it right 40 years ago: if we watched TV's House of Commons intently ever day as we should be doing there'd be no reason for a TV debate at all.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Roger Abbott Is Remembered

I'm glad I went to Monday night's heartfelt tribute to Royal Canadian Air Farce's founding father Roger Abbott.
I gained insight into Abbott's character from the reminiscences of fellow workers and friends.
they made me realize how much Abbott was a product of public television --in this case CBC.
If CBC hadn't existed we would never would have had Abbott's comic artistry all these years.
Around 500 people gathered at Toronto's Wychwood Christie Barns for the event. The general public were not invited --it would have taken a ballpark to accommodate all his fans.
Familiar faces? You betcha! I spotted Don Harron, May Lou Finlay, The Journal's creator Mark Starowicz, Veronica Tennant, cadres of backstage crew members, publicists, even a few print critics like yours truly.
The word I'm hearing from them is regret CBC is veering away from its role to serve the public and becoming fixated on getting just the right audience.
That's why RCAF got the boot two seasons back --its ratings remained sturdy but it wasn't satisfying enough of those all important young viewers.
One veteran producer said the chase for numbers had dumbed down The National newscasts and seen the move of the fifth estate to low rated Friday nights.
Why CBC cancelled RCAF in the first place still beats me.
Doesn't anybody at CBC know anything about branding?
CBC had a great brand in The Beachcombers and lost that when the series was cancelled. When CBC tried to revive it as TV movies the viewers just were not there because the series had been off for so long.
CBC's failure to produce DVD releases of its classic programming from Telescope to Front Page Challenge also disturbs me.
When NBC's SAturday Night LIve lagged in ratings NBC did not cancel the series. It knew it had a profitable franchise and began replacing members with a fresher cast.
Why didn't CBC try something similar with RCAF? In fact Abbott was quietly bringing in younger talent and the show had perked up in numbers.
When people told me about his valiant fight against leukemia I finally understood why he had acquiesced in CBC's decision to stop his series two years ago and concentrate on a few specials. He simply had health issues that needed most of his attention.
A lot of fine people told me what they thought of him: critic Bill Brioux, friend Vicki Gabereau, associates Don Ferguson, Luba Goy, Patrick Conlon.
It was a sad evening but many present simply felt enriched by being part of Abbott's life and work.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Chris Plummer Shines In The Tempest

How many times have I seen The Tempest?
I just finished watching a 1960 TV version on You Tube with Maurice Evans (Prospero), Richard Burton (Caliban) and Roddy McDowall (Ariel).
And, of course, there was Bill Hutt's turn at Stratford just a few years ago.
Even Helen Mirren has gotten into the act by turning Prospero into a woman. Next up I'm sure she'll be tackling Queen Lear.
And now from Canada's Stratford there's 80-years young Christopher Plummerin a magical version smartly directed by Des McAnuff.
It's on Bravo Monday night art 9.
Yes, Bravo! That's what I just wrote. Not CBC which has ditched its commitment tp high art in favor of Jeopardy, Wheel Of Fortune and reruns of Ghost Whisperer.
At one time taping a Stratford production every season was a firm CBC commitment.
These immaculate productions were considered part of CBC's public TV mandate and although expensive were quite popular.
Indeed at one time CBC was even taping Shaw Festival productions.
In those dear, dead days CBC commissioned its own operas and ballets always directed with finesse by Norman Campbell --CBC even named one of its great TV studios after him.
Then the fiscal crunch came and Campbell never did get to direct a sinigle production in the Norman Campbell studio.
Bravo! picks up the fallen baton with a super quick (110 minutes) production of Chris Plummer's latest Stratford triumph. Watching these kind of shows always makes me want to be right there.
And all the actors here, Plummer included, at times delightfully overact to the last row rather than scaling down the theatricals for the probing TV cameras. But that's all right, too, we are in the midst of the Festival theater along with an overflow audience and we want to be part of the experience, too.
And this one seems to work better artistically than last season's filmed production of Plummer in Antony And Cleopatra.
Because even on the Festival stage McAnuff's production was thoroughly cinematic from the wafting in of the music to the brilliance of the magic.
The wonder is that at 80 Plummer gives up nothing physically to portray the stranded Duke. Here he can give full bent to his mellifluous voice, his grand patrician airs, his very command of the stage. TV's relentless battery of close ups only add to his undoubted star power.
You'll also notice Trish Lindstrom as daughter Miranda, Julyana Soelistyo as a very tiny and blue tinged Ariel, Dion Johnstone as a reptilian Caliban and Geraint Wyn Davies as Stephano complete with broad Scottish accent.
In fact even PBS these days is staying away from the filmed drama we'd once have seen on American Playhouse or Theater In America.
So Bravo! deserves full marks for stepping in where public TV now fears to tread.
MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Upstairs, Downstairs And Me

I remember boarding the Gray Coach bus at Hamilton's ratty bus terminal and heading off for Buffalo on a cold and rainy day in October 1974.
There I was, the TV critic for Canada's most profitable newspaper, The Hamilton Spectator, and I was on my way to WNED-TV in beautiful, downtown Buffalo to interview actress-writer Jean Marsh.
Marsh had created a TV sensation in the U.K. with her saga Upstairs, Downstairs which PBS hastily picked up for Masterpiece Theater and she had chosen Buffalo as the first stop on a tour of PBS affiliates across America,
We had a jolly lunch and Marsh cheerfully admitted one of the inspirations for her serial was Noel Coward's west End hit Cavalcade.
Along with Eileen Atkins Marsh conjured up the Edwardian Era. specifically the upper crust who owned London's 165 Eaton Place and the lower classes who lived in the basement and worked day and night for m'lord and m'lady.
Everybody loved UD on PBS and treated it as a sort of sequel to the equally popular The Forsyte Saga.
Marsh played the maid Rose and other notables included Angela Baddeley as Mrs. Bridges, David Langton and Rachel Gurney as Sir Richard and Lady Marjorie Bellamy, Simon Williams as their wandering son Major James Bellamy, Gordon Jackson as Mr. Hudson, the butler, plus such up and comers as Lesley-Anne Down, Pauline Collins, John Alderton.
In fact later that year when Simon Williams arrived in T.O. for a British farce at the Royal Alex theater I took tea with him as I'd later take tea with Langton when he was at Canada's Stratford Festival. And I later met up with Williams again in Toronto in 1985 when when he was guesting in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock.
In 1975 I found myself on the New York set of Beacon Hill --a show CBS had cloned from UD but it never caught on --although set in Boston its vision of an America dominated by classes seemed alien.
At dinner that night I sat with the stars Nancy Marchand. David Dukes. Beatrice Straight and Kathryn Walker.
The show was cancelled within months enabling Straight to jump into a role in the movie Network (1976) and nab an Oscar as best supporting actress.
I always though UD would have made a dandy Broadway musical but what do I know.
When the series gets revived Sunday night at 9 on PBS it will be without most of the original cast --many have died including Baddeley, Jackson, Langton and Gurney. Jean Marsh will still be front and center as the indomitable Rose.
But is reviving UD a good thing at all for PBS? Sure it's an excuse to crow about past glories. But if PBS is truly serious about grabbing a younger, hipper audiernce such a return to yesterday could prove disappointing.

Top Chef Canada Premieres Monday Night

"I'm ready. It will certainly be a good series."
Toronto star chef Mark McEwan is on the line to promote his latest series Top Chef Canada which starts Monday April 11 at 9 p.m. on the food network.
I've seen a clips compilation and it certainly looks exciting as 16 chefs from across Canada battle it out for prizes that include $100,000, a GE Monogram kitchen valued at $30,000. Plus, of course, all the acclaim accorded Canada's official Top Chef.
How did McEwan get the gig --he's already super busy at his Toronto restaurants.
"Well, they asked and I liked the concept." One article quotes him as saying he won't become a culinary Simon Cowell.
But he insists he won't be a patsy either.
"First thing we separate the real chefs from the actors. All submitted videos and there was some acting, yes, but I was also impressed by others."
The Canadian spin off sticks closely to the American original although there may be some uniquely Canadian dishes.
I'm reminded of the time I asked Julia Child her favorite Canadian dish and she blurted out "Pea soup I guess!"
I have this feeling Canadian dishes as served by these young chjefs will be above that!
The clips I watched showed the arrival of the chefs from all parts of the country --from Calgary there arrived two female chefs who knew what to expect of each other.
In true Reality TV tradition we saw them at work in their local surroundings and heard what motivated them to want to venture to T.O. and go against the nation's best.
First up McEwan pulls a fast one by ask all to fillet a fish in five minutes and the results veer from satisfactory to simply awful.
Then it's on to see how many artichokes they can pare in five minutes --the look on some faces is priceless.
Another highlight: they must all ruin off to the latest Loblaws and get the ingredients needed for their signature dish --then back in the studio they have half an hour to cook everything to perfection.
"Good people are always hard to find," McEwan says."Training is the most important, everything adds up. And it must work on television."
McEwan laughs when I suggest he throw a few pots and pans around for effect but I know that's so unlike his image.
"We have a shortage of good cooks right now. Some are just not very good. They must be honest, that's important. A good cook can always find a great job even in this market."
In the elimination process 100 were initially chosen and then it was winnowed down. McEwan was in on the final selection. Filming concluded months ago --it's the intense editing that seemed to take forever.
"Ego is a great thing but it's more than that. I'm pretty touch." In one scene McEwan complains swallowing the portion "is hard to do".
"I call it as I see it. That's basically the show, delivering at the end."
As head judge McEwan tried for the utmost professionalism, keeping individual histrionics to a minimum. "The format was something we tried to keep at all times. But there are some great surprises."
McEwan owns and runs North 44, Bymark and ONE restaurants and acquired his TV experience as host of Food Network's The Heat.
"It's simply a showcase of good cooking, it works and is exciting."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Remembering Wayne Robson

I was totally surprised by the superficial coverage of the death of Wayne Robson, one of Canada's top TV and movie actors. He died on April 4, aged 64, leaving a substantial body of memorable performances.
Or maybe I wasn't that surprised at all as local arts coverage has diminished on all the old print publications as their circulation teeters and totters.
Look, maybe you don't know the name.
But you certainly remember that unique face and those idiosynratic performances.
For years he was one of the brightest spots on The Red Green Show as Mike Hamar.
And let's not forget his recurring comedic skill as as Tuffy Wilson on CBC's Little Mosque On The Prairie.
His movie roles go way back --in fact I think I first noticed him in 1971's McCabe And Mrs. Miller which I reviewed as a summer student for The Globe And Mail.
The regular movie critic, Martin Knelman, was on vacation at the time and when he returned wrote his own critique of the film because he so disagreed with mine.
I last saw Robson walking with his family along Danforth Ave. in Toronto a summer or two ago. We waved but didn't stop to chat that day.
One time we did chat at length was on the set of the very quirky movie Interstate 60 which starred James Marsden, Michael J. Fox, Kurt Russell, Chris Cooper, Chris Lloyd. What a cast for a film that barely got released.
I definitely remember hanging out with Wayne on the set of that remarkable crime drama And Then You Die which co-starred Robson along with Kenneth Welsh, R.H. Thomson, George Bloomfield.
And Robson's film work lingers in my memory from The Grey Fox where he was Genie nominated as best actor, Popeye, Dolores Clairborne as well as his TV work on Wind At My Back, Road To Avonlea, Due South, right back to Maniac Mansion.
When a talented performer defects to the U.S. the Canadian press goes all colonial with puff pieces but when somebody like Robson or Gordon Pinsent or Wendy Crewson deliberately seek to work in their home country there's this very strange silence.
And Robson was only one of an amazing cadre of character stars I've always enjoyed seeing again and again.
Put the late great Jackie Burroughs in that category. Also Martha Henry when she chooses to defect from her stage work.
Others in my Local Hall Of Fame: Jayne Eastwood (who I first interviewed on the set of Goin' Down The Road), the late and totally wonderful Bud Knapp, Peter Donat, Gordon Pinsent, Sonja Smits, Rick Roberts, David Hewlett, Bruce Gray, David Gardner, Janet-Laine Green, Art Hindle, Kate Trotter, hey I could go on all night about Canadian talent.
And near the top of any of my best lists there'll always be room for Wayne Robson.

So What Happened To Television?

A few months back a charming university student stopped me in the frozen foods section of our neighborhood market to pose this provocative question
"So Whatever Happened To Television," she said.
I knew exactly where she was heading.A few weeks earlier she'd asked me if there was a quick way to understand the cultural history of TV.
And I told her to use You Tube to call up all the mystery guests on that old CBS game show What's My Line which ran on CBS Sunday nights at 10:30 from 1950 to 1967 when it was cancelled --it survived in syndication for years afterward.
And she did just that, becoming addicted to these fuzzy clips (only kinescopes survive because the program was live).
She watched the passing parade in complete astonishment: Eleanor Roosevelt, Bishop Sheen, Salvatore Dali, Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Cabot Lodge, Louis Armstrong, Bette Davis, Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante, Ava Gardner, Jane Russell, Fabian, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Cagney, Fredric March. Gary Cooper, Talullah Bankhead, Margaret Sullavan and hundreds more were among the luminaries who tried to trick the panelists.
The panelists included regulars Arlene Francis, Dorothy Kilgallen and Bennett Cerf plus semi-regulars Fred Allen, Steve Allen, Orson Welles, Tony Perkins and Tony Randall.
The conversation was literate, always witty and often stimulating.
I wish she could see CBC's Front Page Challenge the same way but CBC keeps those old shows under lock and key. I just feel the Corp is embarassed how great Canadan TV once was.
Celebrities in those days dressed up. They could actually talk in complete sentences.
So what happened?
Well, in those days not everybody owned a TV set. So the networks deliberately put on fare ranging from live dramas to concerts to get people to buy their first set.
And after she was finished the student tuned io the fare of today. Reality shows starring numbskulls nobody has even heard of. News programs where racist remarks are screamed out.
The more channels there are the lower the form of entertainment offered.
Back in TV's Live Era there were no reruns which were considered an insult to the average TV watcher.
No network would dare run something as literate and sophisticated as What's My Line these days.
TV has become junk food for the masses, she said.
And do you know what? Sadly she's right.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Kennedys: History Lite

Everybody is going to be tuning in The Kennedys on History Television for the juicy bits.
Trouble is there aren't any.
So far. I've watched the first two installments which present a fairly standardized version of America's First Family.
Controversy erupted way back in January when U.S. TV's History Channel (not seen in Canada) cancelled the miniseries before it ever got to air.
Influential members of The Kennedys including Caroline Kennedy were said to be against this version with all the warts exposed.
But that's nothing new: a few years back CBS cancelled its two-parter titled The Reagans after Nancy Reagan was said to be offended with the portrait her husband who was then in the late stages of Alzheimer's.
The Reagans finally ran on a CBS subsidiary, Showtime and is forgotten these days it was so innocuous.
And that could be the fate of the Kennedys.
It bounced all over the place until landing up on the U.S. cable weblet ReelzChannel.
In Canada it was always meant for History Television because it counts as Canadian content having been filmed in Ontario and Quebec.
Look! Spot the Toronto landmarks standing in for Boston and Washington D.C.
When old Joe Kenned goes into the Boston Roman Catholic cathedral he's really going into St. James Anglican Cathedral.
But we're not there to spot the landmarks. Peddled as a steamy side of history it emerges as a very bland once-over-lightly treatment of a well known family and their ups and downs
Watching the first two hours I was reminded of the 1980s soapera Dallas. It's like taking an entire year of As The World Turns and boiling it down to highlights.
It's Comic Books Illustrated for political buffs as great moments in history get explained away by great clunks of silly dialogue.
Old Joe thundering after being fired as U.S. ambassador to England: "This family is not going to disappear!"
Young Joe going off to war: "Save my clippings. Start planning my campaign."
Young Jack as a war hero: "It was accidental. I sank my boat."
Jack to old Joe: "You want me to be Joe and I'm not."
Ethel Kennedy on touch football: "I rarely bunt."
Old Joe on Jack's narrow presidential win: ""I was going to pay for a landslide."
Press reports that the miniseries is something of a train wreck are just not true. It's prosaic. It's sometimes dull. But it does obey most of the goalposts of the Kennedy mystique.
It shows in its own plodding way why these historical miniseries are now out of fashion. Everything that had to be said has already been said. And better.
One JFK TV movie I thought pretty fine had the president played by James Franciscus and Jaclyn Smith as the picture-perfect Jackie.The title: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (1981).
There was TheWomen Of Camelot (2001) shot in Ontario. Earlier on there was The Missiles Of October (1974), Young Joe (1977) and Kennedy (1983) with Martin Sheen.
The hokey premise starts on election night in November, 1960, with the family bunkered down at Hyannisport as election returns dribble in --remember Kennedy won the popular vote by only a few thousand.
In the first two hours acting honors go to British character star Tom Wilkinson as horny old Joe. History gets lightly airbushed here. The books say he openly grappled with his sons girlfriends. Here he is seen smooching his young secretary very late one night while an irate Rose (Diana Hardcastle, married to Wilkinson in real life) watches on.
Greg Kinnear is the lightweight Jack who inherits the leadership mantle once brother Joe dies in the war. Kinnear plays Jack as riddled with pain and resorting to medications to keep going --in one scene he must be laced into a tight corset.
Oldest sister Kathleen who died in a flaming 1948 plane crash (earlier she was disinherited by Rose after marrying an English Protestant) is missing. Other siblings missing in action include Jean Shriver and brother Teddy who became a U.S. senator.
Katie Holmes is pretty enough as Jackie in early scenes and portrays Jackie's mental anguish at her husband's numerous infidelities but her accent comes and goes and she never get that little girl tone in the voice exactly right.
The most chilling scene has old Joe promise to deposit a cool million in a bank account provided she stays with Jack until he wins the White House. Then papa Kennedy figures she'll so love being First Lady she'll want to stay on.
But the best performance comes from Canadian actor Barry Pepper well cast as the ambivalent and deeply religious Bobby--he is well aware what kind of a character old Joe really is and how Jack's philandering if revealed by the press would bring the whole family down.
Made by Canada's Muse Entertainment along with producer Joel Surnow's company, the Canadian actors include Kirtsen Booth as Ethel and &*&*&* as Young Joe.
Look --as Canadians we're fascinated by American history. We don't make miniseries about our own political leaders do we?
So The Kennedys will have to do until we're politically mature enough to make The Trudeaus or The Mulroneys, right?

Scott MacGillvray: How TV Made Him A Star

Most TV series have one new season a year.
Scott McGillivray and his Income Property have rushed through a second season.
"They wanted it," he says with aw-shucks delivery. "They" being HGTV Canada where Scott's series is now rated among the Top 3.
It wasn't always like this.
Three years ago when Income Property debuted it was considered a one season wonder. The series came in under the radar and its prospects seemed definitely limited.
McGillivray had designed the series to help first time homeowners pay off their often crippling mortgages by converting basements into apartments that could be rented out.
MacGillivray's good looks were immediately noticeable but so was his lack of on air TV experience.
All that has changed and the series and its star matured into a show everyone seems to be talking about.
When I first profiled the building contractor last fall I expected some reader response.
And I'm still getting it --Americans who watch on the U.S. version of HGTV are still commenting, an indication many are just tuning in for the first time to the series which has always aimed to provide solid information.
MacGillivray says it's always difficult to turn down potential guests but he has to do this all the time if he feels renovations simply won't improve a couple's financial situation.
Just the other day he had to tell a young couple that expensive renovations "did not make any sense. They didn't have the money and they'd still be up to here in debt. So I advised selling their home. They couldn't afford to keep it going."
And that's the difference between the Canadian shows on HGTV (including Property Virgins and Holmes Inspection) and the U.S. shows which frequently sport a buy-buy mentality, that same mentality which provoked the American housing crisis.
"We get a lot of requests to be on the show," concedes McGillivray. "Many don't fit the show's needs but I'm always there to offer them advice on what to do next."
To kick off the new season within a season there's an hourlong special Reno To Riches in which Scott goes back to past clients to see how they've fared with his renovations and to catch up on personal details. Not everyone has positive stories to tell --there's one classic tale of the renter from hell.
And next Monday he's back with the first new half hour --a visit with Martha and Darryl. Their back story is intriguing: the couple started renovating on their own but then spent over $30,000 at a fertility clicic in an attempt to have a child.
This is one of the times as Scott admits when he wished he had more than 21 minutes an episode to tell the story. "That's frustrating sometimes, sure."
Scott is also working with Mike Holmes on a new New York-based series All American Handyman. He said he'll return the day after we spoke to film two more episodes. It's a neat touch: two Canadian HGTV stars working with an American gang of handymen.
Now that Scott is getting the right kind of publicity his ratings and his popularity have predictably soared.
"In Canada when I'm recognized people are very respectful. In the U.S. they're more than friendly --they'll take photos, it's a different culture, I guess"

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Remembering Farley Granger

I remember as an impressionable 16-year old standing in the rain at the stage door of Toronto's Royal Alex theater to get Farley Granger's autograph.
The Hollywood star was starring in a 1961 bus and truck company production of Advise And Consent opposite Chester Morris and both were very good in it.
Or so thought this budding teenaged critic.
Granger willingly obliged when a fan told him to stand still for a photo and then was on his way. And when I watched the movie version of Advise And Consent a year later I had to admit I still preferred the play.
Seventeen years later later I met up with a greying but still slim Granger on the New York set of One Life To Live --I was spending a week on the set of Manhattan soapers. Unlike other former movie stars Granger offered no apologies for his daytime work --he'd already been on The Edge Of Night and would later jump to Another World.
"The work is steady, the paycheck is huge and the fan base very large. An actor goes where the work is."
In fact Granger had a huge second career on TV in almost every series going as a guest star: Wagon Train, Ironside, Hondo, Get Smart even Love Boat.
"Farley was one of the best ever actors to work with," Julie Harris once told me. "Bu his problem was simply his beauty. Male stars that good looking like Ty Power or Farley , their acting skills are often over looked."
Granger was discovered while still in high school in San Jose by an agent for producer Sam Goldwyn. In 1943, aged 18, he had a small but noticed part in The North star, a saga of the Russians fighting the invading Nazis.
After war duty he mad the classic film noir They Drive By Night with Cathy O'Donnell. "And then Goldwyn signed me to a five-year contract."
Goldywn tried to turn hin into a bobby soxer's delight in movies like Roseanna McCoy and I Want You.
Alfred Hitchcock saw something else and Granger brilliantly played off his handsomeness first in Rope (1948), an audacious reworking of the Loeb-Leopold killing and then again opposite Robert Walker in Strangers In A Train (1951).
Granger then made a series of light films as a romantic lead: Full House, Hans Christian Anderson, Small Town Girl before making his best ever film, 1954's Senso opposite Allida Valli.
TV offered him work through out the Sixties and Seventies after movies deserted him.
And then came his autobiography in 2007 Include Me Out.
For decades he lived in a New York apartment right beside Shelley Winters but they never married.
His death at 85 on March 27 was from "natural causes" --he was 85.
I still search for his work on the late show and I still have my autographed copy of Advise And Consent.
Nice guys sometimes do finish first.