Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Remembering Harry Purvis

There I was way back in 1971, my first week on the job at the Hamilton Spectator as the kid TV critic, unsure of myself and pounding out a column every day
Then the  phone rang and a voice said "Mr. Bawden in the Spec's TV listing yesterday you listed Gunga Din  as running 89 minutes. I always thought it ran 91 minutes. Good night."
The next night there was another call.
"Mr. Bawden referring to Boris Karloff as a former Hamiltonian may be a stretch. I know he farmed in Caledonia which is not part of Hamilton."
And so on and on.
"That's Harry Purvis," whispered Jim Clements from the next desk --he wrote the theater reviews. "Don't encourage him. He thinks he knows everything about old movies."
But Harry did know everything. Born in Hamilton in 1924 he'd resisted every attempt to dislodge him from his family. A very shy man it would take me years before I actually met him.
In his tight circle he was legendary --he'd written for Photoplay magazine starting in 1947, Mad Magazine and he wrote all the movie listings for TV Guide Canada off the top of his head. For American TV Guide he had the hysterically funny Flicker Snickers.
He'd started making cast lists when he was eight and a typical Purvis list had dozens of names not actually on the end credits.
Purvis became a movie maniac at a tender age. Because Hamilton was such a compact city he'd get in up to eight movies on a busy weekend of viewing.
When I asked him what he was doing that day in August 1939 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Steel City he blushed and said "There was a triple bill at the Empire I couldn't give up. I could see the King another time."
His three rooms on the top floor of the family home were jam packed with yellowing newspapers, copies of every movie magazine around , thousands of books and more than 10,000 movie stills.
Now that I think of it Harry would have been a perfect subject for the currently running TV hit Hoarders.
Every once in a while he'd venture forth from his nostalgia aerie for a live confrontation with chat show host Bob Bratina on CHML Radio.
The topic was to try to beat Harry on old movies but I don't recall many people ever did.
So wide spread was his fame that actual old movie stars tried to contact him for information on their careers.
After an hour on the phone with Harry supplying hundreds of lines of dialogue she'd mouthed over the years Ida Lupino shouted into the phone "He's too smart, too smart."
On an open line 1972 show with Harry Ginger Rogers said how happy she was to finally play Hamilton and Purvis interrupted to say "Ginger, you were here in vaudeville in 1927."
I understand Ginger departed that interview in a real rage.
Half way through an interview with Harry, Milton Berle started taking notes.
Harry was a walking encyclopedia of Hamilton history. He knew the guy who has sold the hockey team Hamilton Tigers to New York city to become the New York Americans.
He had even met Evelyn Dick "but I didn't date her of course". He'd watched as a kid as the first building on McMaster's new campus went up.
What I remember about Harry was his niceness. In one epic contest with Elwy Yost for charity Harry was beating the TVO star so badly he later allowed "I let him win a couple of questions."
I set up a radio interview between Harry and Barbara Frum for CBC's As It Happens but Harry blew it when Barbara went off topic. She was supposed to be asking about movie lines that were never actually said.
I think the best article he ever wrote was for The Canadian magazine when he talked about all the awful movie lines relating to Canada. I wish I could find a copy of that story.
The Star's Clyde Gilmour wrote a series of luncheon interviews with Harry I've got to reread --they were hilarious in capturing Purvis's unbelievable memory.
I did survive my years as the kid TV critic for The Spec partly based on the kindness of a stranger named Harry Pirvis.
His death last week aged 89 shocked me --I thought his love of movies would keep him going forever.
One of the last DVD's I sent him was of the 1929 version of The Letter which he'd last seen on his mother's lap at The Century movie palace, aged four. He remembered ever line save for one part --and that happened when little Harry fell asleep for awhile.
In fact I suspect he's still watching his golden oldies up there which would certainly be his definition of heaven.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Remembering Gina Mallet

I am utterly devastated by the news critic extraordinaire Gina Mallet has died of bile duct cancer, aged 75.
When I was head hunted by The Toronto Star to be the new TV critic in 1980 I was given the desk next to Mallet because as it was explained to me "nobody else wants to sit next to her".
She could shout out her disdain for the entire newsroom to listen as she berated editors and colleagues alike over our shared short comings.
The Star management didn't quite know what to make of her.
She joined The Star from Time magazine in 1977 and immediately let it be known she would not lower her standards just because a certain production was Canadian.
One enraged  theater nationalist even stormed into the newsroom determined to slap her in the face.
Instead he got his bearings mixed up and lunged at entertainment editor Shelley Chusid before security guards led him from the building.
The more enraged the nationalists became the more tightly The Star clung to Mallet who truly relished her role as a promoter of quality theater.
Her background included stints at Oxford University and the Sorbonne and her knowledge often surprised people.
When Jeremy Brett (TV's Sherlock Holmes) casually mentioned he had been married to Anna Massey Mallet interjected :"Oh, yes, we shared the same nanny as children."
When she profiled Maggie Smith the actress stated it was just abour the best piece she'd ever read.
Lunching with Ralph Richardson at his London home and the grand old trouper was so taken with her he offered a ride back to her hotel --on the handlebars of his motor scooter which Mallet gratefully declined.
She had the dazzling ability to see a new play and be back in her Star cubicle by 11 p.m. pounding out a masterful critique of what was right and what was wrong.
I sometimes felt sorry for Star assistant editor Archie Williamson who bore the full brunt of her fury if he didn't deliver an adequate lay out for her review.
One evening staffers on the night desk looked over and saw Mallet punching Williamson in fury and shouting "I want the front page...I want the front page."
At her best Mallet produced just as exciting a read as her famous predecessors Nathan Cohen and Urjo Karda had in their prime.
Mallet eventually tired of the stress and went on to a career freelancing for The Globe and Mail until she was named restaurant critic of The National Post.
I never went to a single restaurant she wrote about but I always read the reviews as examples of great food literature.
I also enjoyed many lunches with Mallet and The Star's former film critic Ron Base where her opinions were as forceful as ever.
I was also delighted her great book Last Chance To Eat won the James Beard award for food writing.
In recent years she'd slowed down somewhat but remained as opinionated as ever.
Her death shocked me because it was so out of character.
I thought she'd be shouting and fighting to the end but she finally just slipped away ever so peacefully.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Suits Back For Third Season

So there I was at a fancy dress dinner and all the lawyers present wanted to know when Suits was coming back for its third season.
Well, now I know--Suits returns Wednesday July 17 at 10 p.m. on Bravo.
I've been watching this one from the beginning and I'm hooked on this stylish, sometimes brilliant look at Manhattan lawyers.
The show is actually filmed in Toronto although you'd never know it although I did spot a Beck taxi in the background in one scene shot out on Bay street.
First of all what impresses me about Suits is its look -- courtesy of production designer Tamara Deverell and director of photography Daniel Stoloff.
Suits doesn't look at all like a cable series --the photography gleams and the sets are as lavish as any on TV.
Of course I don't tune in for the sets. It's the smartness of the dialogue and the well chosen cast headed by Gabriel Macht and Patrick J. Adams.
As the story opens it's just two days from the end of Season 2.
Mike  (Adams) is struggling through a nightmare because mentor Harvey  (Macht) now seems to hate him and wants him to leave the firm.
Suits has always seemed to me a bromance between Mike and Harvey and to see them at continual odds for the first episode at least is , well, different.
I guess I'm allowed to say both Rachel  (Meghan Markle) and Donna (Sarah Rafferty) have continuing problems with Mike who is being advised to quit the firm.
But the highlight for me was the weird and wacky comedic journey of Louis who must even battle to retain his bran bars in the new corporate set up. Just listening to Louis (Rick Hoffman) complain about the firm refusing to supply him with Uniballs made the episode for me.
Also Louis and Donna get the best lines:
Donna: "Wait, is this the story from the breakfast club?"
Louis: "Im not familiar with that group."
On Suits everything has changed but everything seems the same.
First of all there's been a merger with a British firm as Jessica (Gina Torres) takes on a new partnership and essentially passes over Harvey.
But Mike now has a steady and ongoing relationship with Rachel  --remember at the end of Season two he told her the dark secret he really isn't a Harvard graduate.
I think the series is now at high water mark --the actors now know their characters and know how to say that unique crackling dialogue (scripted by creator Aaron Korsh).
And Suits is that rarity --a summer series that would be great any time of the year.
MY RATING: ****.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Super Channel's Prisoners Of War : Deja Viewing

So here I am watching the first episode of the totally compelling Israeli TV series Prisoners Of War.
When TV came along 60 years ago it was supposed to act as a window on the world for viewers.
But rather the opposite developed --Canadian networks prefer gobbling up U.S. series with some Canadian content tossed in every once in a while.
In fact I can't recall the last Israeli TV series I watched before Prisoners Of War.
And, yes, POW is brilliant on many levels. Super Channels is running the first two episodes back to back starting Wednesday July 10 at 8 p.m.
It's also somewhat familiar.
Because the equally fine U.S. series Homeland is actually based on it.
To really savour all the qualities of Prisoners Of War one must first be aware of all that Homeland is.
The two shows are vastly similar but also vastly different.
It's the difference between the American gloss and insistence on star turns by Mandy Patinkin and Clare Danes.
By contrast the Israeli original has very fine actors but they are totally unknown to me --and surely will be to most North American viewers.
The differences are totally cultural I should like to submit.
Because the problems with Palestinians are everyday occurrences to many Israelis.
Americans have only lately been tuned in to the horrors of terrorists operating on American soil.
The story of POW involves two Israeli soldiers coming home after years of confinement with the enemy.
In Homeland just one American returns --remember.
In POW  Nimrode (Yoran Tolledano) is back with a wonderful wife and two very young kids. Also returning is Uri (Ishai Golan) who finds his fiancee has married his brother.
The biggest difference is the complete lack of a character who in Homeland is Clare Danes playing Carrie Mathison.
I like POW because it is made on the proverbial shoe string budget --actual locations and a complete absence of gloss make it even more compelling for me.
The returning captives have been away for 17 years rather than the eight on Homeland. Their adjustments are far more dramatically cohesive without the melodramatic turns of Homeland.
So I'd say watch POW after Homeland and you'll come to admire both series for what both are.
But I think you'll agree that POW is superior fare and somehow much more authentic.
MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Super Channel's Line Of Duty A Hit

All this week I've been watching new British miniseries and rather enjoying the experience.
First up there was Super Channel's U.K. remake of the old hit A Very British Coup titled Secret State.
My verdict: a big juicy hit.
Then Bravo unveiled its Brit acquisition with The Fall starring Gillian Anderson.
Again it made for compulsive viewing.
And now comes another Super Channel addition: the BBC2 five parter Line Of Duty and it just might be the best of the bunch. Part One is on Munday July 8 at 10 p.m.
This kind of challenging material would never make it to U.S. TV where crimes on CSI or Criminal Minds are always solved within the standard 42 minutes.
But Line Of Duty, superbly written by Jed Mercurio, looks inside a British police force and the deep levels of corruption that permeates this unit.
The details are fairly grisly even for British TV.
There is no her to root for. the deeply flawed head of the unit is played by the charismatic actor Lennie James and he is always compulsively watchable.
James plays DCI Tony Gates --he's a black cop who has made it to the top and he is deeply proud of his achievements.
But Gates knows how to get around the bureaucratic bungling and the massive amount of paper work needed to execute even the most mundane order.
Because his crime fighting stats are simply too perfect and he's being hunted relentlessly by the anti-corruption unit.
Head of this investigation is the boyish Steve Arnott --played by Martin Compston with the kind of zeal a young Gates would once have envied.
Gates has a lot to hide. He has a beautiful wife and darling daughters at home. But he also sports a deliciously devious mistress played to the hilt by Gina McKee.
Suspecting something is Tony's second, prickly DC Kate Fleming played by Vicky McClure. Whose side is she on? How about both sides?
The whole story hinges on James making us want to keep watching to see if Gate can extricate himself. Or will this lady of multiple crimes be his undertaking?
I'm not the only critic who was reminded of Richard Gere in that fine flick Internal Affairs.
There's the band of cronies Tony has assembled around him. surely they would know what is going on. But their success in the unit depends on his success.
And I like the recurring story thesis that nobody out there is completely bad or good.
Tony is being investigated because of his superior statistics. It's called "laddering" --meaning he tackles many minor crimes easily solved. It makes for great stats.
I like the way James is always the coolest guy around even when he's being followed all over the place by Arnott.
I watched the first three hours and only wish the other two had been available.
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Bravo's The Fall: Must-See TV

Remember the days not so very long ago when TV networks switched to reruns until September's new season came rolling around?
No longer. Earlier this week the terrific new short form series Secret State debuted on Super Channel.
And Saturday night it's Bravo's turn with the new five-part psychological thriller The Fall starring Gillian Anderson (X Files).
I remember when Bravo debuted and used to devote a weeknight to British TV only to veer away when ratings proved disappointing.
Well, both State Secret and The Fall are British made. And both are must see this summer.
Anderson persuasively plays a kind of Jane Tennison detective despatched to Northern Ireland to help police unravel a series of disturbing murders --the killer slowly tortured and strangled his victims over several hours.
Unlike Criminal Minds which hunts sadists weekly and always comes up with a capture The Fall is far denser and creepier in tone.
For one thing we get to know who the killer is right in the first few minutes -- as played by Jamie Dornan, Paul is a handsome social worker, great dad and handsome and educated to boot.
But he loves torturing and murdering upscale brunette woman. First he learns out all he can about then and then calmly and cautiously sets upon a method of entrapment.
Anderson's British accent might quaver a bit but she aces her part, too, an often immoral detective who on one of her first nights on the job beds a handsome detective she fancies only to boot him out at dawn.
As Stella Gibson she's spectacularly successful in a profession still dominated by older men who initially dismiss her thesis all the murders have been committed by one man.
The veteran detectives on the beat (the location is Northern Ireland) don't know what to make of her deductive theories.
They've also been on the hunt for the wrong kind of male.
As the killer Paul Spector (played by Jamie Dornan from ABC's Once Upon A Time) is thoughtful, a good husband and loving father. But his mind is always elsewhere. In other words in this case his cover does not march his deep, murderous actions.
Fine acting dominates every scene.  There's John Lynch as Gibson's superior who once had an affair with her (but who didn't).
The pathologist is aced by Archie Panjabi, the young lesbian officer who is Gibson's chief investigator is played by Niamh McGrady . Also, Bronagh Waugh is outstanding as Spector's completely unsuspecting wife.
Allan Cubitt created it and his biggest credit is Prime Suspect so it's no wonder the investigation looks like an update of PS at times. But some reviewers have called it a British take on the Killing.
I think Anderson is very successful but Dornan even more so as he gradually reveals the coiled killer behind his boy next door looks. this kind of casting against type is super creepy.
as he kills Gibson must up her game iof she wants to entrap him. A very demanding professional, she understands failure would blur the luster of her career.
And she very much needs the satisfaction of an arrest.
So the story becomes two pronged --Spector stalking victims and Gibson stalking him.
BBC has already announced a second season for the miniseries that is cool, creepy and oh so very slow compared with American TV's fast paced but facile police shows.
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Super Channel's Secret State Worth Searching Out

I was going to take a pass on Super Channel's latest British import  Secret State because the preview DVDs arrived late.
But my curiosity got the better of me, I liked what I saw and I now think you should try ferreting it out because it's that good.
The second episode is on Tuesday July 9 at 10 p.m. but I'm thinking Episode One must be out there somewhere on Super Channel.
It's a four-part mystery that pulls out all the whistles and bells in its linkage of various conspiracy theories all boiled into one definite threat to the British state.
And the cast is a virtual who's who of British TV stars: Gabriel Byrne as downtrodden deputy British prime minister Tom Dawkins, Charles Dance as the always present Chief Whip  John Hodder, Stephen Dillane as the influential head of gigantic energy company Petro Fex, Sylvestra Le Touzel and Rupert Graves as the combative ministers jockeying to replace the prime minister.
The opening scenes are of Dawkins strolling through the devastation of Scarrow Park, a British backwater where something terrible has happened --the buildings are razed, the inhabitants all dead and somehow Petro Fex is involved.
Turns out a blast at the Petro Fex chemical plant has killed many people and left the Prime Minister scrambling to gain compensation for the victims.
Dawkins must meet with the survivors who boo him and demand vengeance.
Shot brilliantly, the whole plot unravels with dark thoughts and many hints that today's modern government is listening into virtually every conversation made by politicians and their sources.
I can't give away too much plot except to say something very bad happens to the prime minister. Instantly Dawkins is seen as a possible replacement. His is a dour, haggard look on life and Byrne plays the character perfectly, all rumpled countenance --in fact he looks remarkably like former  British PM Gordon Brown.
The plot is brilliantly complex --something is always about to happen to once again take us by surprise.
We find out what is happening along with Dawkins and we then see how this affects him as a man.
In fact the publicity handouts say it is a remake of the fondly remembered A Very British Coup starring the late great Ray McAnally.
But so much has changed in 20 years and the opportunities for state spying have truly multiplied. Add in such themes as destruction of the ecosystem, foreign wars from Afghanistan to Iraq,  plus banking scandals and the influence of America on every aspect of modern democracies and you have a completely different set up.
Of course MI5 is monitoring Dawkins every conversation even when he's out on a park bench interviewing a crusading journalist played persuasively by Gina McKee.
Shot mostly in and around Manchester Secret State will have you hopping to keep up with its convoluted plotting. But it's so well done the journey over four hours is surely worth while.