Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Slaves Of Habit: First New Must-See TV of 2014

It's entirely appropriate that the first new TV show I watched for 2014 should be Slaves To Habit.
Look, I knew it would be well made because the director is veteran Andy Blicq and he's directed and produced such fine documentaries as Faking The Grade and The Truth About Shoplifting in recent years.
But the subject matter makes this a virtual must-see.
It's all about kicking our bad habits and why we make New Year's resolutions and then strive mightily to keep them.
Slaves To Habit premieres on CBC-TV's Doc Zone Thursday January 2 at 9 p.m. Got that?
The reasoning for making resolutions goes something like this: the holiday season is for many people one of over indulgence and that engenders guilty feelings.
It seems to easy to make a resolution to be better in some way. The problem lies in keeping that declaration as the months pass by. Basically the New Year gives most of us the opportunity to restructure our lives and get rid of nasty habits and basically rewind our lives.
What Blicq has done very nicely is to personalize this quest.
Yes, there are the talking heads experts and what they say seems so logical. Best of the bunch are psychologist Dr. John Norcross and Pultizer reporter Charles Duhigg.
Duhigg hits gold when explaining the three stages of a habit: a cue jump starts the behavior and then the routine takes over and then there must a a reward so you'll want to do it again.
In this case this constant striving gets personalized by a nifty cross section of three people fighting their addictions.
First up we meet corporate head hunter Marc who lives in a swank partment and is trying to stop smoking any which way he can.
Then there's  student Hallae who is a binge shopper and can spent $3,000 on fashion without blinking an eye just because it makes her feel better.
And what about Tom who feels angry and betrayed because at 325 pounds he is perceived by those around him as morbidly obese.
Blicq gets his three subjects together to talk about what makes their problems seem so common. Then he separates them and we watch to see if they will slide back into bad old habits.
For Kelly it involves a shopping trip to New York city which is already planned.
For Chareles it's working on an old house he must hurry and refurbish even through constant rainstorms are against him.
For Mark it's a weekend with the boys --how can he cope during such a stressful time?
Slaves To Habit follows them over six weeks and their epic struggles to break the very cycles that have made them unhappy.
What is Kelly really shopping for? Does Charles need that next cigaret? Is Mark angry at himself or others for his obesity.
Slaves To Habit (from Merit Motion Pictures)  is completely satisfying seasonal fare. If you've made a resolution you really must watch to test your resolve against the three subjects.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

I Remember Audrey Totter

Audrey Totter remembered the day in the MGM commissary when Lionel Barrymore threw his cane at her and started shouting.
"You're too versatile," the old trouper shouted. "Every picture you're different. Continue in that vein and you'll never be a star. June Allyson is always June Allyson. Lana Turner is always Lana. But you! You're a female Lon Chaney!"
When I first met Totter in 1974 she chuckled over the anecdote and then said "I should have taken his advice. Louis Mayer never quite knew what to make of me."
Totter's death this week at 94 was not unexpected.
I offered to come out and see her at the Motion Picture home a few years ago and she said over the telephone "Please don't. I want to remember happier times with you."
In 1974 when we first met she had been busy in the middle of co-starring in the CBS hit Medical Center which ran from 1969 through 1976. Totter replaced Jayne Meadows in the cast starting in 1972.
"Jaynie said she didn't want to do it anymore. They needed a new veteran nurse to work just one day an episode. I happened to go out for dinner with my husband at Hamburger Hamlet and the producers saw me and hired me right then.
"That's L.A. for you --thank goodness for Hamburger Hamlet."
And so Totter found herself back at MGM's Culver City lot for the first time since the studio had dropped her contract in 1951.
"It was all so different when I arrived there in 1944. Mr. Mayer said he hired me although at 26 I was a bit old to be a starlet. He immediately typed me as a bad girl and my early competition was with a Southern gal named Ava Gardner and another one was Gloria Grahame.
First off she had bit parts in Main Street After Dark (1945) and Dangerous Partners (1945) as well as contributing her voice only to Bewitched (1945).
"I'd gotten my start in radio doing up to six live radio soap operas a day from Manhattan. And that was the reason Bob Montgomery hired me for The Lady In The Lake --he shot it and starred in it but you only saw him in mirrors. The camera took the subjective view meaning we saw the action through Philip Marlowe's perspective. As a radio actress I was unafraid of peering right at the camera which movie actresses would not do."
The film was a minor success and Totter began a great career as a dark dame.
"We didn't call them film noirs. We called them B flicks!"
Next came The Unsuspected  (1947) on loan to Warners. "I was the naughty niece. Claude Rains was the star and he came in the first day wearing enormous elevator shoes. Hurd Hatfield was also on loan to Warners. The star was Lauren Bacall who worked one day and walked, she was that petrified of Claude-- Joan Caulfield was rapidly hired from Paramount. I loved doing that one. Decades later I spotted Claude at Columbia where both of us were doing TV. I reminded him of his fabulous dinners presided over by a much younger wife.
"'My dear that is all so long ago,' he murmured, his eyes filling with tears. Because she had long since left him --he had six wives I believe."
Back at MGM Totter excelled as a psychiatrist in High Wall (1948) trying to discover if Robert Taylor is guilty of murder. "We did one scene until 1 a.m. and neither of us had any supper. The restaurants were all closed so Bob said 'I know where we can find the best scrambled eggs in town!' So he drove me to his home, woke wife Barbara Stanwyck up and Missy scrambled some mighty fine eggs. The fact she had an early cal next day didn't faze her."
Totter's biggest disappointment? "Missing out on The Killers because I was busy making Lady In The Lake. Mr. Mayer told Universal 'I gotta another sexy gal here, can't act, but a real looker.' And they took Ava Gardner and she whizzed to stardom on it."
I told Totter how much I enjoyed her and Ray Milland in Alias Nick Beal (1949).
"It was well set up but they got cold feet and changed the title so it gave away the trick ending that Ray Milland really is the devil. One night at the conclusion of shooting I told Ray I had an appointment with a famous Paramount director about a future part. He said 'X is a notorious womanizer. I shall come with you.' When director X saw I had come with reinforcements he was very curt and I never did get that part."
Then came Totter's favorite movie: 1949's The Set-Up. "Photographed in real time. Bob Wise gave it a superbly gritty texture. As the deteriorating boxer Bob Ryan is terrific. The greatest ever fight picture. But RKO panicked upon hearing Champion with Kirk Douglas was coming out. They released it quickly with out publicity and it just died."
For years Totter was the most dated actress in Hollywood. "Clark Gable asked to marry me and I said no. He was still in love with Carole Lombard who had died in a war time plane crash. And, yes, I did go steady with Ross Hunter until he realized he was gay. Then I met my future husband Dr. Leo Fred and that was that. He was a teaching doctor at UCLA. Had never heard of me --that I loved. At our engagement Mr. Mayer told him 'You are marring the only virgin at Metro!' A lot of famous actresses were in the room and looked really bummed out!"
By 1951 MGM was faltering and Totter's contract was terminated. She went to Columbia on the promise of Harry Cohn that she'd be co-starred in From Here To Eternity. "It didn't happen. Director Fred Zinnemann chose Donna Reed instead. Instead I made stuff like Cruisin' Down The River and Massacre Canyon."
But it didn't matter --now happily married and with a young daughter Totter only acted for the money. She made two  TV series that quickly folded: the western Cimarron City (1958-59) and Our Man Higgins (1962-63) --"that one was quite good with Stanley Holloway as our butler but it opened against a new CBS series The Dick Van Dyke Show."
After Medical Center folded and Totter worked less frequency retiring completely after a 1988 guest appearance on Murder She Wrote.
Fred died in 1995 and when I picked her up at her Westwood apartment in 1998 for dinner she chose a local Italian eatery. At 81 she still looked chic and glamourous in a Chanel pant suit. Leafing throgh the stills I'd brought she joked "Nobody should look that young or that slim!"
But she admitted "Sure, I'm lonely. But I had quite a successful marriage. Do you know whom I'm dating these days? Turhan Bey! We were starlets together and now we are old together! Now I'm known as a cult figure.
At the party for That's Entertainment in 1974 in Vegas Ava Gardner came up to me and said 'Audrey you had what I never had --a successful marriage and a child.' And she was right, I have been blessed."
Audrey Totter died December 12 2013 eight days short of her 95th birthday.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Joan Fontaine: Tough And Temperamental

I had three tries at interviewing Joan Fontaine the lovely Oscar winner who died Sunday aged 96.
Told in advance never to mention  the name "Olivia de Havilland" her older (by one year) sister, I  nevertheless got a lot out of the lady who won her Oscar for 1941's Suspicion and was still acting on TV until 1997 when she voluntarily retired.
Here are a few highlights from our conversations:
BAWDEN: "You once danced with Fred Astaire?"
FONTAINE: "Not really, I walked along and he danced around me. The movie was A Damsel In Distress (1937) and his dance partner was supposed to be Jessie Matthjews but she couldn't get over from England in time."
BAWDEN: "Another early credit is Gunga Din (1939)."
FONTAINE: "Mine was a tiny part. But one night as I was leaving RKO I spied Doug Fairbanks Jr. coming out in his tux with Marlene Dietrich on his arm all bejeweled and thought them the most romantic couple. I don't think Doug gave me much thought in our kissing scenes though. He had Marlene on the brain!"
BAWDEN: "You've said your part in The Women (1939) made you."
FONTAINE: I was coached by Norma Shearer, the empress of MGM. My part was tiny but I had one key tlephone scene where my husband pleads with me to leave Reno and come back. And our director George Cukor spent hours on it with many takes until I hit just the right note. David Selznick saw it and asked me for a test."
BAWDEN: "The test was for....?"
FONTAINE: "Gone with The Wind but I didn't want to play Melanie and told him my sister Olivia de Havilland would better and she was! But he then asked me to test for the second wife in Rebecca and I got that instead."
BAWDEN: "It was a huge success."
FONTAINE: "I felt on set nobody wanted me. Alfred Hitchcock had favored Maggie Sullavan but David thought her too American. Laurence Olivier wanted his wife Vivien Leigh who did test but David said she was still playing Scarlett. I got it on the rebound and Larry was very nasty to me and so was Judith Anderson but she was always nasty to everybody. I think only the dog liked me, really."
BAWDEN: "Was Hitch a help to you?"
FONTAINE: "Not really. He was feuding with David. One scene Hitch had Larry and I doing a love scene in the tight hotel elevator. David said to redo it in the breakfast restaurant because he'd spent a fortune on the set. Hitch did it mumbling all the way."
BAWDEN: "How did you get Suspicion (1941)?"
FONTAINE: After Rebecca Selznick owned my contract for seven years. Never used me again but hired me out and collected a fortune. He became a glorified  manager of talent and most of us including Joe Cotten, Greg Peck, Ingrid Bergman, we made him rich while we mostly worked for others. He sold me and Hitch as a package deal to RKO for Suspicion."
BAWDEN: "Do you consider it an inferior film to Rebecca?"
FONTAINE: No, superior. Cary Grant was expertly cast as the lady killer but right at the last minute the RKO head said 'Cary must not kill her at the end'. So we shot a new ending that makes no sense. Up to that point is is psychologically sound."
BAWDEN: "I notice you were not at the AFI salute to Orson Welles.
FONTAINE: "David sold me. the script of Jane Eyre and director  Bob Stevenson to Fox as another package. Orson was cast as Rochester and was already believing his publicity. Tried to take over. Lots of tussling with Bob. The film was a huge hit with wartime audiences, I liked doing it but I wish Orson had stuck to acting. But he couldn't you see, he had to play at being a genius"
.BAWDEN: "Why did you make The Constant Nymph (1943) at Warners?"
FONTAINE: "Well, I should not have have. It was at Olivia's home studio. She had tested for 12-year old Tessa but director Teddy Goulding said she was too womanly, too many curves. I did the test, got it and Olivia cut me off for years. I'd won the Oscar before her. I'd taken this role from her at her home studio. The movie is wonderful but can't be seen these days. Turner gave me a screening and I watched myself at 27 playing a 16-year old and I stumbled into the daylight and demanded a drink. I thought it was very wonderful."
NOTE: The film has since been screened on TCM.
BAWDEN: "What do you think of Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948)?"
FONTAINE: It's so wonderfully perverse. It plays with the audience's expectations. The ending is tragic, the woman is tragic.  Our director Max Ophuls thought it would make him in Hollywood. Instead he was quickly back in Europe because it really flopped."
BAWDEN: "Without Selznick you had problems."
FONTAINE: "We all did. It was that monster child, television. Oh, I thought Ivy (1947) where I poisoned the men in my life was well made but obviously popular.  Born To Be Bad (1950) was just OK.  Ivanhoe (1952) was a huge hit. On Island In The Sun (1957) Harry Belafonte and I were lovers and the censors freaked when we held hands. But no kissing was permitted."
BAWDEN: "You did tons of TV."
FONTAINE: "They give one a tiny trailer and a few sandwiches and lukewarm coffee for lunch. You rehearse and try for a first take and it's all shot at 10 pages a day. The lighting is atrocious. But there are no great producers anymore. I may have fought with selznick but he always spent the money and it showed on the screen. Not today.".
BAWDEN: "Your last big film was Tender Is The Night (1961)."
FONTAINE: I was trying to dial out one day and on a crossed wire overheard Jennifer Jones in the next dressing room talking to Selznick who had sold the property to Fox. He was giving her precise instructions how to do the next scene and when we assembled that's exactly how she played it. Henry King was an old pro who told us 'I'll be d-d if any of my principals will be seen pawing each other in bed.' But that was exactly what the story needed and we deservedly flopped."
BAWDEN: "Future goals?"
FONTAINE: To dance on Broadway with Tommy Tune. Recently I opened my nightclub act at The Plaza and I was really good. I could have been singing and dancing all these years instead of mooning after Olivier and Boyer. I know I would have been much happier.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sheepdogs Are Top Dogs

In recent years Super Channel has been the place to go for top U.S. imports and many fine foreign TV series as well.
Now it's time for the specialty service to shine in the dreaded area of "Cancon".
I'd like to direct you to a delightful rock documentary that premieres on Super Channel Monday December 16 at 8 p.m.
Titled The Sheepdogs Have At It, the group profile from director John Barnard looks at the meteoric rise of the Saskatoon based rockers The Sheepdogs.
Whoops, did I say meteoric?
Actually these guys had been struggling in a friend's basement for years before they hit pay dirt by winning a contest to be on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
They were very lucky to have some experience under their belts as they struggled across the nation opening to crowds that numbered from zero to 15 on a good night.
Too poor to afford a tour bus they made do with a van and frequently would return from gigs with absolutely no money in their pockets.
Barnard's inside story of how success affected them is a tightly edited chronicle of the rise and rise again of a group of veterans who chose to play music their way --or classical rock as they call it
Getting the cover was just the first step. they could have slipped back into anonymity faster than you can say "American Idol".
They quickly had to produce a record album for a major label that had to be a hit or they'd be finished before they ever really started.
Barnard cuts closely from interviews with doting parents to the managers and promoters who control the business tightly.
And we go on a road trip with the four fellas--Ewan Currie, Leot Hanson, Ryan Gullen and Sam Corbett-and we see the momentum as they sell out in Downsview, sell out in Nashville and New Orleans.
The fans discover them and become increasingly enthusiastic about what the foursome mean in terms of good thumping rock music.
If they had been mere beginners they would have been eaten alive by the all demanding biz.
But they have been together for years, they know what they want and that refusal to compromise could keep them professionally active at least over the next few years.
This well made documentary begins in August 2011 as they are among the contestants for RS cover consideration.
It zig zag backs to their roots as one mom takes us on a guided tour of her basement where they hung out for six very long years. Their first album was so rough they only had two microphones but they managed to sell 1,000 copies mainly at gigs and were on their way.
We listen as the booking agent tells what he's doing to keeping the momentum alive. We listen in to the vastly professional recording of their second album. And they even get a gig on Project Runway all dolled up in slightly ridiculous garb.
As an inside peek at the industry this one is tops but it also helps that the guys are articulate about what they want and how they know it's a tough road ahead for them.
Barnard directs effectively aided by cinematographer Dave Gaudet and editor Andrew Wall for Farpoint Films.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I Remember Eleanor Parker

"Hello, Mr. Bawden-- this is Eleanor Parker calling. You know, the recluse."
It was 1988 and I was at my desk as TV critic of the Toronto star when I took the long distance call.
Naturally I jumped when I got it.
Then I shared a laugh with "the recluse" who had just read a recent Star piece I'd written on a CBC-TV tribute that included 10 of her best movies. I'd written that she never gave interviews so she phoned up to prove I was wrong.
We talked for over an hour as Parker provided insights on why her 40-year movie career had produced so many memorable performances.
"I've never been on a talk show," she whispered."And I never will be. Not even Password. My private life is private."
"Let's talk about your movies then "I ventured.
"Fire away!" she laughed.
BAWDEN: "You came to Warners in 1941 as a shy 19-year old. Weren't you originally going to be one of the stars of  the big hit of that year Kings Row?"
PARKER: "How did you know that? I was cast as the terrified Cassie who eventually turns out to be mentally ill and is killed by her father-- played by Claude Rains. I tested with Jeffrey Lynn as Paris. Then he was replaced by Robert Cummings who was hot at the time. Eventually the director Sam Wood told me I didn't have the experience and he went for Betty Field. I cried for days."
BAWDEN: "Your first movie was Busses Roar (1942). What do you remember about that one?"
PARKER "Only that it was a very bad B. But I photographed OK and then in 1943 I had my first real part as Ambassador Davies' daughter Emlen in Mission To Moscow (1943). And the next year I had a big part in Between Two Worlds (1944). Jack Warner said he would promote me because he needed some big new female stars."
BAWDEN: "How did you feel about co-starring with John Garfield in Pride Of The Marines (1954)?"
PARKER: "A wonderfully talented actor but mixed up emotionally. Then I got too big for my britches and was in the remake of Of Human Bondage (1946) --I had the Bette David part and she sent me a sweet note. But it truly bombed and I just wasn't at all good."
BAWDEN: "Then you were opposite Ronnie Reagan in Voice Of The Turtle (1947)?"
PARKER: It had been a great Broadway hit with Margaret Sullavan but she balked at signing a long term Warners contract. They plopped me in and I even was made to look like her right down to the bangs. Ronnie couldn't do comedy. I was lucky to escape alive!"
BAWDEN: "You got your first Oscar nod for Caged (1950)?"
PARKER: "It was written for Joan Crawford as the female convict and Bette Davis as the warden. But Bette left the studio and Jack said Joan was getting too leathery. I put my all into it but the opposition Oscar night was Anne Baxter and Bette Davis for All About Eve, Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday and Gloria Swanson for Sunset Boulevard. I never expected to win and I didn't."
BAWDEN: "A year later you got another nod for Detective Story (1951)."
PARKER:" That threw me as Kirk Douglas had the bigger part as my husband and didn't get one. But I did! I could never figure that out except that Kirk was not popular among his fellow actors. It was my sole film for Willie Wyler and he put me through the emotional ringer and it really worked."
BAWDEN: "The third was for Interrupted Melody in 1955."
PARKER: "It was the story for Marjorie Lawrence who survived polio to become a great opera star. I took the records up to Lake Arrowhead and for three  weeks I just lip synched all day long. MGM had bought it for Greer Garson but hey I'll take mark downs if they come my way."
BAWDEN: "Why leave Warners for MGM?"
PARKER "Better scripts, more choices. My MGM deal meant I could do one for them and then one for freelance. I got to work with Bob Taylor (Above And Beyond), Stew Granger (Scaramouche), Bill Holden( Escape From Fort Bravo) at MGM and outside there was Chuck Heston (Naked Jungle), Frankie Sinatea (The Man with the Golden Gun), Dana Andrews (Madison Avenue)."
BAWDEN" Watching al, those red ants coming at you in Naked Jungle scared me as a kid."
PARKER: "Well, the assistant director actually did say 'Cue the ants!' I was scared and very itchy afterwards.'"
BAWDEN: "Why take the secondary position in The Sound Of Music(1965)?"
PARKER: "Did that one for my children. Something I could take them to without flinching. And it just goes on and on. I still get letters about that one."
BAWDEN: "Now it's TV."
PARKER: "Thank God for The Love Boat, Fantasy Island. Aaron Spelling gives all us old girlies a break or two. And maybe just maybe another great movie role will come up."
An hour later she rang off saying "Goodbye from the recluse."
Eleanor Parker died December 9 2013 aged 92 at a hospital near her home in Palm Springs.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Good Son: TV At Its Best

Three decades ago boxer Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini killed his opponent in the ring.
He hasn't forgotten that stunning moment, an accident to be sure, but something that also ripped apart his life forever.
And now it's all back to haunt him in a must-see documentary The Good Son: The Life Of Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini.
You can catch it on Super Channel Tuesday December 10 at  9 p.m.
In 1982 Macini was fighting South Korean Duk-koo Kim and as the existing footage demonstrates this was a knock-'em-out affair for the World Lightweight title with both opponents blooded and bowed after 14 rounds of sheer brutality.
This new film based on Mark Kriegel's book published last year captures all the emotions of that night as right at the end Kim slumps into unconsciousness --a sudden hematoma of the brain and he was near death until the plug was pulled leaving behind a grieving widow and an unborn son.
This biography of Mancini goes over everything before and after that fateful night.
One of the stars surely is Ian Kerr's atmospheric cinematography which evokes its era so poignantly and is beautifully complimented by Schaun Tozer's musical score (Jesse James Miller directed it ).
The first hour has a rollicking, raucous quality as it bounds all over Mancin's boyhood in blue collar Younghstown, Ohio. We see the deep bond with the father who also was a fighter but he gave it up for duty in World War II.
The son spurned college football scholarships because he wanted to avenge his father's short career and simply become the champion his dad had never been.
Mancini himself guides us through these highs and lows right back to the house where he was born and on to the other houses in the burb where he'd hang out.
And others weight in on his greatness, too, including actors Ed O'Neill and Mickey Rourke.
Then the narrative shifts drastically to the saga of Korean Kim who grew up in the starkest poverty, using his fists to get ahead, finally marrying the prettiest girl around and then being within one fight of being named World Lightweight boxing champeen.
It never happened. A life was destroyed that fateful night, another man's reputation was in tatters. Mancini continued to box for awhile but nothing in his life could ever be the same.
What emerges is a sort of modern Rocky --only this story is all truth and revelations.
The closing of Youngstown's mills meant the struggling city needed a real hero and Mancini fit the bill perfectly.
The real fight that killed Kim is hard to watch --Mancini plummets him with punches to the head. Death seemed inevitable.
And the final scenes while emotional are necessary. Mrs. Kim and son visit the Mancini family. Both sides need answers.
But there are no blinding revelations. Both sides continue  to suffer. Mancini experienced dizzying celebrity, then came the backlash that even affect his children.
Even today with this film he is seeking forgiveness.  The Kims seek memories of a young husband and father they barely knew.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Six By Sondheim: TV's Best For 2013

I've just previewed the new HBO special Six By Sondheim which is a sort of That's Stephen Sondheim as it ranges far and wide through the extraordinary Broadway career of the famed composer.
And I'm prepared to say it is by far the best TV special I've seen this year.
The special debuts on HBO Canada Monday night at 9. Got that?
The method is simplicity itself. Frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine has collected virtually every TV interview Sondheim ever gave from the young and dewey composer on Mike Douglas, David Frost, Dick Cavett to the aging great man to finally today the 83-year old legend.
Lapine organizes the 90-minute batch of reminiscences around six key songs written by Sondheim.

First up there's "Something's Coming" which he wrote on the road for a very young Larry Kert to give the character range near the beginning of West Side Story --or rather Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's music.
Five other songs get highlighted starting with "Opening Doors" from the flop Merrily We Roll Along which get re-staged (unnecessarily I feel) by theee bright young things: Darren Criss, America Ferrera and Jeremy Jordan.
There is amazing archival footage of Dean Jones singing "Being Alive" from the original Broadway cast recording session of Company --Jones really socks it.
Also highlighted is "Send In The Clowns" from A Little Night Music which ends with a masterful refrain of all the performers who have used this bright song including Liz Taylor, Sinatra, Carol Burnett, you name it..
"I'm Still Here" is the song Sondheim chose from Follies which he says he originally wrote based on the career of Joan Crawford.
 There's an archival clip of Yvonne De Carlo belting it out and then surprise! it's a newly staged version with a male performer  (Jarvis Cocker).
"Sunday" from Sunday In The Park With George finds Bernadette Peters and Mandy Pstinkin in an archival clip.
Weaving everything together are Sondheim's reminiscences --some are newly filmed and then click we're back with the composer chatting up Mike Douglas or Andre Previn.
What emerges is a history of the Broadway musical over the past 50 years starting with West Side Story.
Then comes Gypsy with Ethel Merman who refused permission for Sondheim to wrote the music --she wanted the more established Julie Styne so Sondheim settled for the lyrics.
And footage of the original cast on stage has been unearthed --obviously some fan was shooting home movies in the big Broadway theater and got away with it.
In personal asides Sondheim talks about his parents' unhappy marriage and subsequent divorce and the heartbreaking letter his mother wrote to him before she underwent heart surgery.
He says that starting as a teenager his real father was certainly famed Broadway wroter Oscar Hammerstein who he has always wanted to emulate.
In one anecdote Hammerstein savages a 15-year-old's first musical compositions and Sondheiom today says it was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Because he has never been full of himself but always questioning every line of every lyric.
The anecdotes about writing to Ethel Merman's strengths and weaknesses are choice but I wish more had been made of what a bombshell Company was when it opened.
The skill of editing makes all the interviews seem as one with the composer aging gracefully into the octogenarian eager to share his talents and experiences with younger talent.
As a trip down memory lane Six By Sondheim will have you wanting more. And more.
MY RATING: ****.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Where Am I?: Top CBC Fare

The burning question of the day is the future survivability of the CBC.
So I'm asking every one to tune in to this week's Nature Of Things offering, a fantastic hour documentary titled Where Am I?
It revs up on CBC-TV Thursday night (Dec. 5)  at 8. Got that?
You'll watch --as I did with a preview copy --and all doubts about the ability of CBC to continue as public TV will surely be resolved.
Where Am I? certainly could not exist on any other network.
It's a long labor of love from director/writer Bruce Mohun and looks at a persistently nagging question I've always had: how do we get from here to there and still know the way.
"Years ago we pitched this idea to Nature Of Things," says Bruce Mohun on the line from his Vancouver office, "and we were told the subject had already been snapped up."
But Mohun is persistent and he asked several years later why the anticipated documentary had never shown up only to be told it was abandoned.
"We snapped it up and here we are," he says with a chuckle.
The broad subject is navigation skills. Some of us have the ability in spades. Others like yours truly can get lost walking down any long, winding street.
Which is what I did the first time I was in London.
I deposited my bags at the Russell Hotel took a walk and found myself going in the wrong direction as night fell. A very nice bus conductor told me the points of reference I was using were just plain wrong and I wound up hailing a cab to get back to Russell Square.
Mohun says some people are good at it, others less so.
He also tries to come to grips with the notion men are better at directions than women thinking this goes back ten thousand years when males were the hunters and gatherers.
Some of the studies he looks at say taxi drivers are much better at this than bus drivers as they do not proceed over the same fixed routes all the time.
But since many taxi drivers are now using GPS the actual size of those brain muscles that help them out are expected to shrink to the size of a bus driver's.
I agree this hour could have turned out deadly dull.
Instead it is chock full of exciting visual moments.
One test expertly caught by Mohun looks at veteran Inuit hunters who even in "blowing snow" conditions can find their way home.
I'm not going to ruin your pleasure by explaining how here --just watch and understand it's a technique not always being passed on to the next generation.
Another great scene involves desert ants in a Spanish made game of survivability and navigation skills. Just how do those tiny pin prick brains of theirs always manage to steer them in the right direction?
The talking heads interviewed here really do talk up a storm: University of Calgary's neuroscientist Giuseppe Iaria who ventures into the frozen north, Canadian psychologist Nora Newcombe of Temple University, Roboticist Michael Mangan of the University of Edinburgh, and Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings who constantly immerses himself in maps and when tested is indeed at the head of the class for navigational skills.
Visuals are excellent and there's even the warning that turning off your GPS and trying to solve problems of dislocation could be aids in battling Alzheimer's,
Where Am I? took a long time to make and no other network but CBC would be prepared to run such a challenging hour --and remember Nature Of Things tosses these off effortlessly every week.
Mohun made it for Dreamfilm Productions which has won Geminis in the past and may win more awards with this one.
Cheers also go to the director of photography (John Collins) and the editor (Tim Wanlin) and veteran producer Sue Ridout.
Mohun claims I once reviewed a TV comedy show he'd written "in the 1980s" --that would have to be 1989's Starting From Scratch starring Connie Stevens, right Bruce?
Right then Mohun apologized for ringing off --"we have another one for NOT on allergies coming up in February --we're editing it right now."
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

CBC In Crisis: Then and Now

In 1970 I started covering TV as the critic for The Globe And Mail replacing an ailing Blaik Kirby.
I sat next to Kirby during my two summers at Canada's "Grey Lady" and enjoyed his wit --he was given the job because he despised the medium and openly boasted he watched less TV than the ordinary Canadian.
In September 1971 I jumped ship to become the kid TV critic for The Hamilton Spectator a middling paper of 140,000 circulation but one which had always had TV coverage.
The TV universe in 1971 was vastly different than it is today.
At first I had only to cover seven stations : Buffalo's Channel 4 (WBEN), 7 (WKBW) and 2 (WGR) as well as PBS's Channel 17.
In the "Golden Horseshoe" one could get these canadian stations: CBLT (Channel 5), CTV's CFTO (Channel 9) and Hamilton feisty independent CHCH-TV.
TVOntario was just about to burst on the horizon as was Toronto's CITY-TV, Channel 79 --when it came on the signal was too weak to hit Hamilton and some people in my apartment building would venture to a Burlington motel on a Friday night to catch the station's raunchy adult movies.
The job just was different in those days.
For one thing there were no cassettes so to preview an upcoming special I'd have to drive into Toronto and watch it unspool in a screening room --CBC has a block of these tiny theaters in its Bay street offices.
In fact there was no CBC headquarters in those days.
The network had grown all over the place.
Up Yonge Street was the studio where Front Page Challenge was taped --also important dramas like the black and white version of Macbeth starring a young Scots named Sean Connery.
It was made by CBC's schools department because Ontario's Grade 13 students were taking Macbeth that year.
Down on Jarvis Street CBC Radio occupied the Victorian premises of an old girls' school. A Victorian house beside it, dunned "The Kremlin" was the headquarters for local station CBLT.
I met this year's Nobel prize winner there, Alice Munro whose book of stories had been made into a CBC-TV movie titled Lives Of Girls And Women.
But when producer Ross McLean tried to get the live feed from the next building into the screening room there was a flash of light and then no signal at all.
The charming Alice Munro simply shrugged her shoulders and got into her car for the drive back to London.
Beside there was a five story TV complex that housed  several studios including the one shared by Friendly Giant and The National News.
A smaller studio built on the side later was the place where Adrienne Clarkson and Paul Soles hosted the daily afternoon show Take 30 --when visiting I always could hear the traffic out on Jarvis.
I remember one interview with singer Juliette when she said alarm bells sounded when one episode of her Saturday night music show failed to reach the necessary 3 million viewers.
Wait a minute? Three million!
By 1970 competition had whittled that number way down.
CBC's 1970 dictionary definition of a hit was 1 million for a series and 2 million for a TV special or movie.
Let's flash forward 43 years and once again CBC is in crisis.
From 1970 and the definition of TV as a "Tube of Plenty" we're into a universe of hundreds of networks, stations, specialty channels.
CBC's National now gets an average 400,000 viewers a night at 10 p.m. against CTV news's 1.2 million at 11.
In 1970 CBC produced its own operas, ballets, music specials --all have gone the way of such sparkling kids' series as Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup.
TV movies? One or two a year at best compared to the weekly dosage back then.
And the other day as I visited CBC --this time in a huge white elephant of a plant on Front Street West I once again wondered about the long term fate of the visibly declining public corporation.
I got off at the wrong floor and wandered through long, narrow corridors --when I peered through the doors all I could see was abandoned space for all the shows already shuttered.
On the top floor there are these gigantic but empty studios used for making musicals and comedy spectaculars.
One is named after legendary director Norman Campbell who I'd frequently interview in the old days.
Last time we met (he died in ) he was sitting along in a bleak CBC office telling me he'd never been able to work in the studio named after him "because it would be too expensive."
All the new cable weblets which have sprung up were supposed to pick up the slack.
Instead Canadians are watching more American TV than ever befpre.
When my predecessor at The Toronto Star, Jack Miller, sat down in 1975 with the BBM ratings books fhe estimated the average Torontonian watched less than 10 % Canadian shows during prime time over an average week.
Jack's revelations resulted in questions in parliament.
Today that figure must be lower than 5 % --it's just that nobody cares anymore.
Every year CBC's budgets gets whittled down a little bit more --I've termed it death by a thousand cuts.
With Rogers gobbling up hockey CBC will be deprived of a desperately needed $200 million in revenues.
NHL Hockey provides Rogers with a huge block of Canadian content meaning it no longer has to legally produce much in the way of Canadian dramas and comedy. Rogers already dumped Murdoch Mysteries as too costly (CBC picked it up).
Remember one hour of "Cancom" counts as 90 minutes --there's a special bonus given to the networks to do what they should have been doing all along.
CTV knew that decades ago when it would run world ice skating championships with Johnny Esaw night after night --the network was stockpiling buckets of "Cancom" enabling it to ditch most Canadian shows for the next few months.
Right now it's CBC that has been placed in peril by the sell out of NHL hockey which has been on CBC since TV started in 1952.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Canadian TV Now Controlled By the Very Few

This isn't the way Canadian TV was supposed to evolve.
I should know --during the 1970s as the kid TV critic from The Hamilton Spectator I was obliged to sit through hundreds of CRTC meetings about the future of Canadian TV.
Even then the failure of the private networks and stations to come up with adequate Canadian content. was the big talking point.
CTV for example in those days had such "Canadian" series as Stars On Ice, Half The George Kirby Comedy Hour, Definition and Police Surgeon.
CHCH countered with Ein Prosit, Pierre Berton interviews and The Hilarious House Of Frightenstein.
Not good enough railed powerful CRTC president Pierre Juneau (later head of CBC).
He worried too much power was being placed in the hands of a few broadcasters and that American cheap programming was driving away quality Canadian TV fare.
When cable came along Juneau wanted a diverse landscape. For example the CRTC originally licensed the W network because it promised to be based in Winnipeg.
Similarly CBC Newsworld promised to use Calgary as the hub for all its production.
But these days while the number of cable networks has grown the number of owners has shrunk.
These days the big players are perfectly few: Shaw Media which gobbled the old Global network; Bell Media who owns the old CTV chain; and Rogers which has most of the old CHUMCity stations.
Rogers Media's capture for $5.2 billion of rights to most NHL hockey games is a stunning game changer.
Veteran TV scribe Bill Brioux has the best take on his .com TVFeedsMyFamily --he notices the old Hockey Night In Canada jingle is now owned by CTV but its sister cable weblet TSN will have few occasions to run the song in the futre.
CBC gets the rights to four more years of Saturday Night hockey but in a form where the production and the profit is controlled by Rogers.
That's a whole lot of change and makes me fearful Rogers may make future cuts in its Canadian content shows. to pay all for this.
Remember Rogers already dumped Murdoch Mysteries as too expensive and currently has very little scripted Canadian drama at all --it's simply cheaper to import inane Canadian fare.
In this latest round of acquisitions it's you the customer who might suffer the most --the options are dwindling to just a few players at best.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Canadian Crossover

So there I was the other day watching the very first episode of The Lucy-Desi comedy Hour, the hour long sequel to CBS's much loved I Love Lucy show.
And I caught what seemed to be one of TV's first crossovers in the episode titled Lucy Takes A Cruise
 To Havana.
There was Lucy as Lucy and Ann Sothern as her TV character Susie McNamara--the date was 1957.
When Lucy repaid the favor a year later Ann Sothern had switched to a new character and a new series --in 1959 she was no Katy O'Connor and it was The Ann Sothern Show,
All of this is a long winded way of explaining that "crossovers" have been a TV staple for decades.
Except on Canadian TV.
I once tried to interest Yvan Fecan in one when he was programming czar at CBC.
I suggested Fecan's show Street Legal be crossed with CTV's ENG to perk up ratings.
But it was pointed out to me that crossovers only work on the same network --and usually it has to be the same production studio as well.
So I'm ready to welcome that great Canadian TV rarity --a crossover as Allan Hawco of Republic Of Doyle makes an extra special guest appearance on CBC-TV Monday night  at 9 on Murdoch Mysteries.
Both shows run on CBC, both are huge Canadian hits but the question is does Hawco have to time travel to be present as Jake Doyle.
Not exactly.
He plays Jake's great-great-grandfather and the episode is even titled "Republic of Murdoch" and Hawco has been saying he'd be crazy to have passed it up.
The well written script is by Peter Mitchell and Paul Aitken and begins in Toronto where Yannick Bisson's Murdoch discover a dead man with an ancient map.
The clues lead to Newfoundland which at the turn of the century was a British dominion of its own and Jacob Diyle becomes a prime murder suspect.
And Yannick Bisson returns the favor by playing his character's great-great grandson in an episode of Republic Of Doyle to run in January.
Which means the bachelor detective of 1900 must marry at some time in the future --are we talking here about a lavish TV wedding --another sure fire ratings getter.
At one time crossovers were all the rage on U.S. prime time TV.
I can remember covering the epic TV  meeting between Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote) and  Tom Sellecks's Thomas Magnum from Magnum, P.I.
In another crossover I wrote about the TV story began on Marcus Welby and ended on  Owen Marshall. Both shows were made by Universal for ABC.
Buddy Ebsen once told me the only episode of his long running series Barnaby Jones not in syndication was a crossover --again with Murder She Wrote (I think).
Nobody could figure who owned those two episodes so they've been deliberately with held.
In recent years NBC's Crossing Jordan did several crossovers.
And when the spin off CSI: NY came into being there was the inevitable crossover with CSI:Miami.
Other Canadian crossovers may be harder to arrange.
Did CBC's Friendly Giant ever do a guest turn on Mr. Dressup --their studios were close by.
Or could CTV's Lisa LaFlamme suddenly turn up one day beside CBC's Peter Mansbridge as they arm wrestle for the anchor chair?
Rick Mercer is spoofing Murdoch on the actual set Tuesday at 9 on CBC --does that count as well ?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Meet The Sloths Is Soothing TV

Watching Meet The Sloths is just about the slowest and most soothing TV experience I've ever had.
The eight part series from the U.K.  has its Canadian premiere Saturday November 23 at 8 p.m. on Animal Planet.
All the "action" takes place at Costa Rica's Sloth Sanctuary where a hardy band of slothaholics tend to the needs of over 150 sloths.
They've been placed here after suffering accidents in the wild and without human care and attention they'd surely perish.
The half hour episodes are filled with insights about slothdom. I always thought the furry critters cute and lazy.
Turns out they're cute and the perpetual slumber comes from the amount of energy needed to digest their primary sources of food which are chock full of toxins --one test shows it takes a whopping 31 days for an adult sloth to digest one of his meals.
Besides the sloths the program also salutes the remarkable women who tend to the needs of the dozing sloths: British sloth expert Becky, Claire the manager of the compound and owner Judy.
Judy set up the sanctuary 20 years ago and has since saved hundreds of sloths from the jaws of death.
Sloths are found in the rain forests of Central and Southern america --they can grow to about two feet long and their life span can actually reach 40 years.
We get to meet the senior citizen of the compound Buttercup who is a stately matron of 20 years.
But we also go out on a rescue mission where a baby abandoned by its mother is clinging to life in a tall tree.
We learn about the various infections that can  threaten the life of young sloths.
But the theory all soths are slow is challenged in a race between two sloths for food --the winner travels three meters in less than a minute.
'The sloth is perfectly adapted to life in the highest branches of the rain forest. Placed on the ground and it is  subject to various predators.
Living their lives upside down makes for all kinds of problems discussed in varying shades of details here.
There's even a menage a trois sloth style in episode two.
But just watch the varying efforts to save the life of little Jesse and try not shedding a tear or two.
The half hours are a perfect length for younger viewer I'm thinking.
So give Meet The Sloths a chance and don't be too slow about it or you'll miss the series.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

CBC-TV's Winter Schedule: A Winner

CBCTV unveiled its 2014 winter schedule at a low keyed party deep within the bowels of the Corp's flagship building on Toronto's Front Street West.
The network should certainly emerge as the ratings winner during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Returning hit, Mr. D starring Gerry Dee include Ron James and the third season of Arctic Air.
There'll be a new prime time satire The Best Laid Plans, a cooking competition called Recipe To Riches and something called Four Rooms starring collectibles authorities.
CBC will also be broadcasting in partnership with the NHL the seven-part series NHL Revealed: A Season Like No Other to premiere Thursday January 23.
The six-part  political satire The Best Laid Plans premieres Sunday January 5 and stars Kenneth Welsh and Jonas Chernick.
I had a chance to chat up the reinvigorated stars of Arctic Air Adam Beach and Pascale Hutton.
I told them just a few weeks ago I'd met for the first time the real life stars of Ice Pilots --Arctic Air is the fictionalized saga of the originals.
"Highly fictionalized," joked Beach. "We're still filming but the conditions are getting tougher by the day. Those guys are doing the real thing right through those winter blizzards."
Hutton told me her character Krista will return  after months abroad and determined to try to forget the overseas romance with Tag Cummins (Niall Matter).
"She'll be trying to assume more responsibilities with the airline, it's her turn to shine. I think stories will be more personal this year --we did perhaps too many adventure tales last season. Now it's time to focus on the characters."
One casting note: series hunk Adam DiMarco who shines in Rogers TV commercials is out as Kirby Nystoruk.
Beach says "I fought to keep him, he's that good but his character didn't fit into the story any more."
Beach also told me "The warmer the country the more receptive the viewers there are to Arctic Air. We get fan mail from many countries where snow is never seen. And even some fans turn up at the set because they want to see where it's all put together."
I also had a reunion of sorts with Yannick Bisson whose show Murdoch Mysteries is now in its record breaking seventh season.
And it's now on three different Canadian networks: reruns still turn up on Citytv as well as FX Canada and new episodes continue on CBC.
Bisson agrees with me his interpretation is far different from the first Murdoch, played in several TV movies as brooding and defiantly Catholic (in a Protestant city) by Peter Outerbridge.
When Bisson took over and the concept turned into a TV series he adopted a far lighter tone turning the detective into a sort of Victorian matinee idol.
"We give viewers a little comedy, the mystery for sure, a historical turn of the Victorian era. It's a little bit of several genres."
I've been interviewing Bisson since I first noticed him aged 15 in the TV movie Hockey Night with Megan Follows. Unlike some of his contemporaries he always knew where he was going in terms of his career and he has blossomed into a certifiable TV leading man.
I also chatted up Carlo Rota (Little Mosque On The Prairie) of the new series Recipe For Riches, a reality competition pitting amateur cooks against each other with weekly winners finally competing for a $250,000 prize from President's Choice.
In February come the Sochi games a sure fire bet for CBC ratings supremacy with more than 1,500 broadcast hours in Fench and English.
Clearly it's a winter season for CBC to shine.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Ford Nation: Sitcom Or Farce?

Perhaps this is what Mayor Rob Ford has wanted all along.
I mean his own TV Show.
Granted the only venue open was on little watched SUN TV which is way. way up my cable dial --Channel 163 to be exact.
But there Monday night at 8 was new TV star chubby Rob interfacing with his far more belligerent brother Doug.
Hence the title of their mew weekly TV outing Ford Nation --don't forget they just got bumped off  Newstalk 1010.
And it occurred to me that this is what Ford Nation has been all along --a sitcom.
But I heard no canned laughter.
The lines were very familiar to one who has watched this unfolding farce.
The Fords looked a bit intimidated under those hot klieg lights but Hizzoner sweats a lot anyway.
The big moment came when people on the street asked timid questions.
There was a fair amount of "actuality" involving all the key moments so far.
And various SUN TV anchor had their say --they continually gripped about how conservatives are he;d to a higher standard than liberals which I'm convinced is not exactly true.
The hourlong shows will  be taped Sundays and run Mondays at 8 p.m. At least the Fords get choice  prime time.
I'm sure SUN TV's ratings shot up 1,000 per cent with this coup.
How can the Ford circus eep us watching week after week unless there are  continuing major revelations?
By the way Hizzoner looked natty in a blue suit and studio makeup made him seem less sweaty than usual.
Biggest coup came with the stats saying Ford is currently getting a 44 percent approval rating.
That's higher than Harper, higher than Obama and triple what the U.S. Congress gets.
But if Ford for all his gaucheries gets his own series why not old CTV pros Pam Wallin and Mike Duffy.
I mean those two really know how to stage themselves for the cameras.
Oh, I forget, they're liberals and thus not deemed suitable candidates for a SUN TV gig.
Look, I have to watch Ford Nation. It's part of my job.
But what about ordinary viewers?
How soon will they tire and switch back to a real sitcom?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lost Girl Finally Back for Season 4

One of the big successes of Canadian TV is the quirky sci fi opus Lost Girl which has returned for Season 4.
For a Canadian drama to last that long is amazing and yet LG gets very little press coverage compared to the equally amazing Murdoch Mysteries.
Why the continual thumbs down from critics?
Because sci fi is supposed to be bullet proof where criticism is concerned --that's what I'm guessing.
Or maybe it's because its very audience wouldn't dare read a TV critic like yours truly in the first place.
I was busy fighting off the flu when LG actually returned last week.
I'm always a bit confused when I tune in a preview for this home grown effort.
What I've noticed from the get go is that LG doesn't look at all Canadian.
Meaning sets, photography and stunts are all excellent. The pacing of the first new episode was tightly edited and star Ksenia Solo looked loverly in her party girl outfit.
Well cast as Kenzi  Solo shone in the early moments as she demonstrated that she's not at all human --she did this by conjuring up fireworks from her hands --see what I mean by special special effects?
When Dyson took Kenzi home we saw her tattered clubhouse which was emblazened with tongs tossed all over the place.
I never felt any sense of danger among the particpants. Partly this is due to Solo's way with a sarcastic crack or two. In fact right off the top she quips "This is so Raiders."
Every situation was played out for chuckles not terror. Even the appearance of George Takei as a gigantic snake was , well, humorous.
I can't believe it's been more than a decade since I first interviewed Kris Holden-Reid  (Dyson) on the set of that long forgotten Canadian soap Riverdale.
I probably did the first print interview with him --today he commands presence as a reliable series lead.
If there was a real star in the first new episode it had to be Mark Ahee who is the special effects cooordinator. If not him then production designer  Ian Brooks or even cinematographer Craig Wright.
Made in Toronto by Prodigy Pictures and just as popular abroad Lost Girl shows what sells Canadian TV series product is simply this: quality.
More please!

Murder She Wrote Revival A Big Mistake

MEMO TO NBC: Stop talking about rebooting that old CBS hit Murder She Wrote, will ya?
Angela Lansbury herself says the decision to mount a revival and call it by the same name is "a big mistake."
And you know what? Lansbury is right on.
Lansbury just got an honorary Academy Award this week.
I've interviewed her several times --both on the MSW set as well as once in Oshawa when she was making the TV mini-series Little Gloria Happy At Last.
The 88-year old legend confirms it was her stint as Jessica Fletcher that made her into a gigantic super star --this after decades in the flickers including an astonishing turn in The Manchurian Candidate and such Broadway triumphs as Mame.
Lansbury says she knows about Octavia Spencer who'll replace her and wishes her well.
But she's right --there will only be one Jessica Fletcher.
In fact NBC should have learned from its mistakes.
Right now there's NBC's dog awful reboot of Ironside that is languishing at the bottom of the ratings and destined for swift cancellation.
And then there was the 2011 remake of that sparkling British hit than ran on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre
re: it  Prime Suspect  starring iconic Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison.
The American version with Maria Bello went through multiple rewrites and was so different from the original it might have fared better with a different title.
The fact is most TV remakes bomb because the public has strong memories of the first version.
Oh, I know CBS is currently peddling a new version of Hawaii 5-0 but it has only succeeded in a half fashion and may not last much longer.
I know all about Charlie's Angels, the original one I mean which ran 1976 through 1981. I was on the set five times, once to interview the legendary Barbara Stanwyck.
well, in 2011 there predictably rolled out a TV remake starring Annie Ilonzeh, Minka Kelly and Rachael Taylor. Who? Who? Who? That was my first reaction,
Only four episodes ever ran due to negative public opinion.
My old pal Bob Wagner was scheduled to co-star as Charlie but he left early --presumably after reading a few of the rotten scripts.
Then there was 2007's re-imagining of Bionic Woman --a whole eight episodes aired before the Writers Strike rolled around and ABC used it as pretext for cancellation.
I always thought Michelle Ryan was passable as Jaime Sommers but viewers thought otherwise.
As far as remakes of classic sitcoms it just never happens.
I mean a remake of I Love Lucy without Lucy Ball? See what I mean.
I remember once sitting in the living room of producer Gail Patrick who personally produced the Perry Mason series for CBS (1957-66).
Patrick declined to have anything to do with CBS's 1973 remake because her version was still playing in reruns all over the dial.
But later on there was a successful revival --with the original cast headed by Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale --this time in TV movies which successfully preserved the zest of the original.
So that's the way to treat Murder She Wrote --as a new series of TV flicks starring, of course, Angela Lansbury.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Kevin Newman Wants To Reinvent TV News

How long have I been covering Kevin Newman, lately the amiable host of CTV's Question Period?
I remember covering the stink when Newman left CBC's Midday (dubbed "the baby Journal") in 1994 as he jumped to ABC News.
Turns out CBC management got their signals crossed because he really wanted to stay if given the choice.
From 1994 to 1996 he diligently hosted the graveyard shift known as World News Now on ABC.
And then came time on Good Morning America especially on weekend editions until 1997.
In those years whenever I'd chat up ABC anchor Peter Jennings the amiable Canadian would praise the efforts of Newman and predict big things were coming.
Strangest factoid I can remember from that time came when Newman referred on air to a child's "Christmas sleigh" and the producer on duty that day blew up saying "He should have called it a sled!"
Back in Canada he hosted Global News Hour first from Vancouver --that didn't treally work--and then moved with the show to Ottawa.
Then he jumped again to CTV for Question Period, W5 assignments and occasional news reading substitutions on CTV News at 11 p.m.
In other words Newman doesn't crave long stretches of doing the same thing.
And now he's been handed his most intriguing assignment --to reinvent that strange entity TV news.
Starting Monday At 9 p.m. there's a new news hour coming on CTV News Channel.
Of course it's titled Kevin Newman Live. But Newman is better at saying what it will not be rather than what it is.
"We're evolving," he says over the phone from the brand news studio which is located in downtown Toronto's City building.
Will he in any way be modeling himself on CNN's Anderson Cooper?
"Nope, too old," he jokes.
In fact Newman is only 54 to Cooper's 46. But he lacks the white hair.
And judging from the PR photos released he won't even be wearing a suit coat or tie.
"We figure that by 9 at night audiences already know the top stories of the day. Our challenge is to find a different way to interpret what has happened that day."
In fact Newman took a year off after leaving Global to specifically study the phenomena of social media and how it affects the younger generations.
I think he'd agree with me today's twentysomethings wouldn't normally be caught dead watching a traditional news cast.
When I ask if maybe Kevin Newman Live isn't coming on a few weeks too late he laughs.
"You mean mayor Ford. Well, we're using that story in our dry runs --we have been doing these for three weeks.
"You'll notice the way that story broke and how it quickly became the lead all over the place. It took on a life of its own, that's the way stories develop these days.
"But, yeah, opening the show with this story would really have gotten us noticed."
Will Newman be concentrating on the news junkies? "Them and anybody else interested in that day's news. We will have some panels like on Fridays with books.
"But there will be a lot of input from viewers and back and forward conversations."
Hmmm, seems to me CTV once had an entire cable channel dedicated to that sort of thing termed Talk TV and it bombed mightily despite the presence of such youthful chatterboxes as Ben Mulroney.
Let's hope Newman's solid professionalism can keep the talk on a much more interesting level.
The fact CTV management is ready to experiment with such a project speaks volumes about the way news networks are heading --remember Lisa LaFlamme taking over from Lloyd Robertson on CTV News at 11 has kept ratings high at 11 p.m.
And her newscast is as traditional as they come.
The studio set is up and Newman expects quick fixes in the early months.
The challenge simple stated is to get  a young audience who spend their days twittering to sit down and watch TV news in any form.
But this veteran anchor sees seen the future of TV news as  Kevin Newman Live.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Brave New TV: Stephen Hawking On The Future

I didn't know what to expect when I tuned into my preview copy of Stephen Hawking's Brave New World.
After all the internationally famous host is virtually paralyzed and speechless because of ALS.
And yet here he sits rather impassively using his new electronic voice which  as one British critic wrote seems to be borrowed from that old series Knight Rider.
I don't know about that but the whole experience seems very futuristic to anyone who  tunes in Friday November 15 at 8 p.m. on Discovery World.
In Hawkin's optimistic view of the future gadgets rule.
And the scientists we see here aren't the old bunch of male gray hairs but a diverse selection of young, fit, eager futurists who have already eagerly adapted to the demands of TV.
This crack team includes two youthful and photogenic Canadian presenters --Dr. Carin Bondar and Professor Chris Eliasmith.
Joining them are American import Dr. Daniel Kraft plus Professor Jim Al-Khalili and Dr. Arathi Prasad from the U.K.
Take a very close look at Dr. Bondar who I'm sure is very close to getting her own TV show.
She is pretty comfortable in the cool medium of TV science. She can simplify the complex without turning it into a cartoon.
The day when TV science was magnificently served by the likes of Dr. David Suzuki and David Attenborough is , alas, coming to a close --old age catches up with all of us, I'm afraid.
Bondar says she has yet to meet Hawking or even chat him up on Skype.
"Handel Productions does all that so far."
And understandably she's not entirely sold on the idea that science can completely resolve many of today's problems. Some futurists believe science is to blame partly at least for such phenomena as global warming.
"I guess I got contacted through my work for Scientific American," Bondar says from her Chilliwack, B.C. home..
But she also appears on Discovery's Daily Planet with some regularity.
"Every segment I did took at least a full day to shoot and prepare. I was in San Diego for one, anther was done in Pittsburgh."
"The idea is to shoot everything. Editors then guarantee it all gets put into place. Because we can't afford to return and reshoot."
She doesn't think it at at all odd for a woman to anchor difficult subjects. "I've got the goods --my PhD."
But her emphasis on content makes her anything but a TV bio-starlet.
"I'm not overly optimistic about where we're headed. The planet today is not what it once was, But maybe with our scientific capabilities we can stem this degradation. You know there's a garbage patch in the ocean the size of Texas. But how to arouse people to the problem?
"We never seem to tackle these issues until we're in a state of  crisis. People would much rather watch fluorescent frogs in the Amazon."
In the first new episode the game changing inventions are inspired by nature itself.
There are attempts to imitate the sticky traction of geckos with man made adhesive qualities --think how this might help window cleaners 30 stories up.
Or there's new gaming technology guaranteed to change the gambling industry plus a 3D printer that can generate live tissue (Hawking is most enthusiastic about this one) and also a Canadian innovation that substitutes small submarines for deep space training.
And Bondar looks at new ways of generating electricity in a completely wireless way.
Brave New World , an expensive, challenging slice of TV, is described as a "co-operative" project between Montreal based Handel Productions and UK's IWC and runs for five weeks.
MY RATING: ****.

Friday, November 8, 2013

At Least History Television Remembers

Talking to a group of smart Grade Sixers recently I was surprised more than half did not know what countries we were fighting in World War II.
Any knowledge of the Korean Conflict? Forget it!
So I'd like to salute History Television which has two exceptional new documentaries on this weekend to help us all get up to scratch with Canada's military history.
First up there's the matchless documentary Sector Sarajevo which tells the story brilliantly of the experiences of Canadian soldiers during one critical month in the besieged Yugoslavian town and how they coped at the time and how they are faring today.
Toronto film makers Barry Stevens and David York have made one one of the best Canadian TV documentaries of the year. It touches all the bases in its examination of the unique role the Canadians played smack dab in the middle of a civil war.
The Canadian contingent was sent by the United Nations in July 1992 to deliver much needed food and medical supplies without which thousands of people would surely have starved to death.
Their existence in between two combatants is well explained. Stevens and York get eye witness accounts from both sides as well as the reminiscences of the Canadians who were fired at during their daily humanitarian operations.
Commentary from the Canadian head, major general Lewis Mackenzie quite succinctly documents how he managed to get his troops through harrowing experiences --both sides feared the Canadians were running guns to the others.
Canadian troops were restricted by "Chapter 6" which forbade them from firing unless fired upon. About the rules MacKenzie jokes "I rewrote" them --he calls his regulations "Chapter Six and-a-half" because the Canadians could not help but get involved.
Through TV newsreels we see the anguish of one bunch of civilians cowering behind trees as snipers shoot away at them and the heroic efforts of one Canadian soldier who crawls from his vehicle to rescue a woman shot in the hip.
We then hear from that woman today as well as her savior. TV doesn't get any better than this in terms of human drama
Much of the terrific texture of the story comes from BBC journalist Martin Bell who takes us through the episodes where both sides hammered at each other with the Canadian stuck in the middle.
Watching pregnant women get hid and small children gunned down did affect some soldiers. One interviewed today says when he left the military he lost his family and became homeless as he fought back from those images of violence.
I can't think of a better film to demonstrate what Remembrance Day is all about. With great skill  Stevens and York expertly stitch together the past and present in a seamless story of what war can do over decades to the survivors.
Wait! There's more!
I'm just as excited about 28 Heroes, another new Canadian documentary on History the very next night.
Once again the subject is an unknown battle that involved Canadian forces.
In this case the date is November 2, 1951, and finds our army in the Korean conflict and fighting bitterly along the 38th parallel against an incoming attack from the Communist Chinese.
Called the Jamestown front, it was formerly occupied by the Chinese who realize there are only 28 Canadians that night defending a ridge that seems vulnerable.
Two Canadian veterans Lt. Ed Mastronardi and Pte. Pete Butler give their reminiscences of the 2nd platoon. But what is astounding is  film maker Paul Kilback discovered a Chinese survivor Li Yinjun the Communist company commander who vigorously recounts the other side in great detail.
As Mastronardi says he remembers hearing the cry "Canada boy, tonight you die!"
But exactly the opposite happened. Hundreds of Chinese perished but only one Canadian soldier died.
And the key moments of the battle are brilliantly recreated using CGI techniques as well as extras for both sides.
It's as thrilling as watching any Hollywood war movie --but in this case it's all true!
You probably never heard of the battle for "Song-gok Spur" but you won't be able to turn away.
The battle summed up all the fighting qualities of the Canadian boys An ambitious production with superb special effects from Max MacDonald , here is another of TV's best of the year.
MY RATING: ****.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Pop Quiz Debuts On E!

ere has to be a reason why the new Canadian TV series called Pop Quiz is debuting this time of the season.
I'm still trying to figure that one out.
But Pop Quiz which will run weeknights at 9 on E! starting Monday Nov. 4 has been tailored as a vehicle for the evolving talents of Devon Soltendieck.

You first caught him aged only 18 on various MuchMusic outings.
Then he jumped to anchoring CP24 News  still looking like a teenager but a very self possessed one --his reading skills were immaculate. He just got "promoted" to reporter on eTalk.
My CTV insiders are hinting Soltendieck is being rapidly advanced by CTV just in case Ben Mulroney jumps to a better paid position on U.S. TV.
Soltendiecks's first starring vehicle, Pop Quiz, is very craftily assembled to take advantage of a young audience whose familiarity with modern culture is assured.
I saw Episode Nine --I'm not entirely sure in what order the episodes will run.
The studio set ressembles a forum --there are 10 contestants stationed around a gigantic circular set and they try to answer a wide variety of questions --some of them were easy, others I had no clue about the correct answer.
There are bleachers with an overly enthusiastic audience and as judge comedienne Emma Hunter cattily notices Devon's hair has been sprayed into an odd shaped cone.
He's dressed in a casual grey suit without a tie to make him seem more mod.  I'd say the tie should come back and his method needs to be toned down just a bit. But at least he gets things moving at a rapid pace.
Other than that this is a standard quiz show. I'm not sure why quizzes faded out but this one has been carefully structured to appeal to a very young audience.
There are Three Rounds called Eliminations, Connections and Definitions and some of the preselected conterstants were quite dire while others  were far more knowledgeable.
All the contestants were in the age range of under 30 I'm guessing. In the Semi-Finals there's a Face-Off followed by Finals or Winner's Circle.
Devon at 28 is already a seasoned TV performer. Let's all hope he never becomes as unctuous as Ryan Seacrest. Nut I think that is improbable.
Pop Quiz is made by Pixcom Productions and Incendo.
There is no emphasis on Canadian content leading me to conclude it can be easily exportable to the U.S.
The time of the night may be a little late for this sort of thing. I'd be more inclined to watch on a regular basis at 7 or 7:30 p.m.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Darknet: A TV Series Not On TV

The best TV series on Halloween night isn't even on TV.
Have I got your attention yet?
It's called Darknet and if I have to explain that term to you you'd better turn to something else.
The highly anticipated horror anthology series from executive producers Vincenzo Natali and Steven Hoban will actually premiere on Showcase on January 24 2014.
In yee olden days which was just last week a TV network would never allow such a prerelease but at 12:01 on Friday November 1 Darknet will actually premiere on www.darknetfiles.com.
The current thinking is for multi-platform,s to rev up excitement in a new series.
and I'm thinking a lot of young viewers have to be coaxed to watch any "regular" TV at all.
I just watched the first episode which is predictably terrific given that it was written and directed by Natali. himself.
I remember once at least 10 years ago my assignment from The Toronto Star was to meet and interview Natali  then in town for the Toronto Film Festival.
He'd directed Cube (1997) to great acclaim and was then stuck in development hell.
I teased him he could stay busy by directing such Canadian TV fare as Degrassi and Ready Or Not.
He looked genuinely shocked until I hastened to admit I was only kidding.
After watching the first full episode of Darknet I though of its U.S. equivalent American Horror Story.
There are a number of intertwining stories all set in the trendy parts of downtown Toronto.
Indeed the city is one of the main characters.
The story starts with a young girl reading her emails on the subway. She gets off and sits at a bus bench unaware the other passengers have fled because a slasher is loose in the neighborhood.
The second story with its intimations of Hitchcock's Psycho finds a modern Marion Crane (newcomer Michelle Alexander)  coming home late after a yoga class and discovering her toilet seat has been pushed up --something she would never do.
The next day with a girl friend over for dinner she opens the fridge and discovers a veggie wrap has been half eaten.
Looking out the window she thinks she sees a stalker and looks again and he is gone.
Another vignette finds Natali's favorite actor David Hewlett  (he has been in at least six Natali features) cast as a businessman  who goes down to open his locker and finds one key to another locker containing a bag of $50,000 and another key to a bicycle locker in the basement containing the body  of a young guy with drug paraphernalia.
The press release says Darknet contains "bite sized servings of fear". Bite sized? I was watching in the dark and had this urge to turn on every light in the house.
As usual Natali shoots everything in a flowing style that here only ups the creepy factor.
There are six half hours that seemingly interweave into each other.
If the preview idea was to get potential viewers hooked early on then it should be a big success.
More please.
MY RATING: ****.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Steven Page Becomes A TV Foodie

I couldn't figure out why I was so nervous meeting Steven Page.
One of the founding fathers of Barenaked Ladies, he's reinventing himself as a traveling food  critic in the new series The Illegal Eater premiering on Travel + Escape Tuesday October 22 at 9 p.m.
And he's very charming.  ingratiating, comical and thoroughly at ease.
Was it because my taxi driver deposited me at the Drake instead of Gladstone hotel and I had to high tail it down Queen street West to make the appointment?
Or was I trying to figure out how to get Page to open up about his very public split from Barenaked Ladies four years back.
But there was Page with his signature bow tie and natty suit sitting placidly in the bar and looking more like a TV interviewer and less the music star he was for almost 20 years.
"It's not such a big stretch," he told me.
"I like food and when we were touring I'd try to take in places off the beaten track to dine. Foodie is actually not the right word because while I like food I'm hardly an obsessed expert."
But how did Page become so relaxed before camera. I guess I was expecting some early season jitters.
"I had a summer interview series with CBC Radio a few years back," he says. "I learned there how to interview people and get them to talk. And all the times I did TV talk shows there'd always be a pre-interview."
Page says he jumped at the chance to host the new show which runs 13 weeks and includes two segments per every half hour.
"We look at out-of-the-way places. We learned about them through gossip, friends, it was an exciting way. Illicit sometimes means illegal or just plain underground.
"Besides the food stuff I get to talk to the chefs and they are an eclectic mix. "We started off shooting more than we could ever use on air. Sometimes I have to calm the subject but most are just plain eager to talk about their cooking. We were looking for the unusual but it also had to be good stuff."
In the first episode Page starts off in Los Angeles accompanied by old buddy (and fellow Canadian) Jason Priestly and they go to the Green Bar Collective which serves organic liquor that can only operate because of state regulations at special occasions.
Then it's on to a chef who prepares Indian food called Uncurry not in a restro setting but for large parties in individual homes. Her aim is to show Indian cooking is far more than curried dishes.
Page discusses the food but also gets to clown around with a gigantic Jerome giraffe for the patrons.
The second segment is set in Charleston described by Page as "where ugly and beauty meet." The ugly is the location of the old slave market where human beings were bought and sold. The beauty is the amazing architecture.
The guerilla cuisine here is composed equally of pork bellies and moonshine plus guns.
Forced to brandish a revolver for the first time in his life and Page bleats "This is freaking me out."
There are just as many comedy moments as cooking moments and Page even sings here.
Page says when he was traveling with the band "I got to know the places to eat everywhere.  It's one way of surviving the monotony of the road. It sort of kept me sane."
Page says he was up for most of the sight gags although he looks pretty uncomfortable shooting off that gun and refuses outright to fire a repeating rifle.
"Not all segments were shot in sequence and I had to be careful not to soil the suit. We couldn't afford a wardrobe person."
I carefully asked Page who very publicly disengaged himself from Barenaked Ladies in 2009 if it was a truism that all bands eventually break up.
"Unless you're a Rolling Stone," he laughed. "But the dynamic seems to be always there."
Page has since followed a successful solo singing career and even has plans for  recording a new album.
I point out that being highlighted on the boutique network Travel + Escape is a plus because the network can carefully publicize the series and grow the ratings week by week.
"We traveled light, two cameras and a sound man. I think I got better at it. We didn't stage anything, that kept me on my toes. I enjoyed it. I think a second batch would be even better."
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Ice Pilots NWT: True North TV, Eh?

Canadian TV producers have definitely demonstrated that ice sells.
As in Ice Pilots NWT which returns for its fifth season of frigid fare Wednesday Octtober 23 at 10 p.m. on History.
Now don't you dare confuse this one with Ice Truckers or Highway To Hell, eh?
"I'm not going to comment on the competition," laughs Mikey McBryan, the loquacious son who has it all figured out why his series is such a hit.
"My dad and I are here in Toronto and for us that's an adventure. Just as for you in Toronto all that ice must be something new."
Mikey was relaxing in a board room at Shaw Media along with his father who doesn't talk as much but sports a gigantic presence: "Buffalo Joe" McBryan.
Says Mikey: "We are completely surprised to have hit 65 episodes this new season. And maybe 20 years from now we'll sit down and watch them all and remember."
Together the McBryans are front and center of  every episode.
"But we tend to ignore the cameras and sometimes I don't even know when they're filming me," says "Buffalo Joe".
"We got used to all that very quickly," Mikey says. "So we're comfortable just being ourselves. What's hard for me are the interview segments where I'm plopped down and I have to look directly at the camera. Now that's difficult."
Mikey swears nothing is made up. "They just film and film and send all the material back to the editors marked 'Stuff Happens'".
I'm honor bound not to give away much new plot but in the first new episode a fierce storm threatens to ground the air carrier and then there are mechanical problems which seem very threatening.
"Something like that couldn't be planned," Mikey says. "We had all kinds of problems including human. You know how close we were to not flying --you've seen the first episode.
"The chief mechanic felt terrible about what happened.There was no faking his emotions."
"Buffalo Joe" says the airline gets as many as 100 British visitors a year.
"They come to see the planes. We fly DC-3s and these fans want to look at the serial numbers. They'll say 'that one flew in the Berlin airlift'. Or 'That one got refugees out of Hungary during the 1956 revolution.'"
In fact Buffalo Airlines is just about the only company left still flying DC-3s.
"One thing is the dependability. They were used by the U.S. air force and I bought up as many parts as I could when I knew the air force was easing them out. We became our own Walmart.
"But, sure, the time will come when we simply can't fly them. But for dependability in our conditions they still are number one. In 1978 there were still 115 registered. Now I figure we're the last batch flying. regularly.
"We're lost in time, we never moved on."
This year "Buffalo Joe" will go on a buying mission looking for modern planes. He'll also take his first ever helicopter lesson.
As far as the future of Buffalo Airways goes Joe says "We could have become a corporation. I'd be upped to chairman. It just wouldn't be fun anymore."
What keeps us watching are the very human elements -- the young pilot who brought his family to such an isolated place, the outbursts of "Buffalo Joe", the daunting problems eery time a plane creaks off.
"You people complain if you have to travel two blocks to get a Starbucks," jokes Mikey.
The series is a hit in the oddest places.
"They love it in Ireland because it's not American," Mikey explains. "Our hard core audience is in Alberta because every one has a cousin up here. Australians love it because they never get to experience such winters."
"Buffalo Joe" says he gets few fan letters these days. "It's all emails. Do I know a brother in Whitehorse?  People searching for long lost relatives. And questions about the planes, a lot of those."
Says Joe : "We're the lifeline for a dozen tiny communities. I keep thinking of that every time we have to fly in -40 weather."
In Episode Two some NHL stars drop by for a hockey game --they were on strike when this was filmed. And Joe rides along in a CT-114 Tutor jet. He also glides along Great Slave Lake in a 1940s "snowplane" --a prototype of the snowmobile.
And , yes, you are correct --the fictional Arctic Air is loosely based on Ice Pilots (and also made by Omnifilm Entertainment).
A sixth season seems just as likely as the next winter's  cold front.
MY RATING: ***1/2.