Friday, December 29, 2017

I Remember Heather Menzies

I first met the wonderful movie and TV actress Heather Menzies on an American Air flight from Toronto to Los Angeles.
I was proceeding to the annual TV Critics convention and she was accompanying her husband actor Bob Urich as he flew down to speak to the TCA on behalf of his latest series  Gavilan.
That would be in the summer of 1982 and Urich was his usual suave self before the TV critics.
But Gavilan folded quickly --a mere 10 episodes as I remember.
It became a standing joke with Heather that she'd bump into me as we boarded flights to L.A.
On one return trip around that time she was with Urich and seating was scarce so their little boy sat beside me.
It was in August but he was all excited about going to Toronto and their cottage in Muskoka because the last time he'd been there it was snowing.
So Heather had to patiently exclaim this was not possible in August.
I  met the Urichs again in Toronto in 1987 when Bob was co-starring in the miniseries Amerika.
Then he really scored in the series Spenser: For Hire which ran for three seasons
Spenser was revived as a series of TV flicks beginning in 1994--it was shot in Toronto..
I was on the set one day to chat with my friend Wendy Crewson and Urich invited me to stay over and chew the fat at lunch.
Urich was always working while Heather had put her acting career on hold to look after the children.
I think the last time I met her was at 20th Century Fox and she was with Robert Wagner and Lew Ayres in a quickly cancelled series titled Lime Street (1985) --but that series was  quickly cancelled and her episode never aired.
The thing is Heather put her career on hold for long periods.
I remember kidding her that she was born in Toronto (in 1949) and Bob was also born in Toronto --Toronto, Ohio.
Her family moved to the U.S. in 1960 when she was 11 and she attended Hollywood High School.
She auditioned for and got the role of Louisa von Trapp in the 1965 classic The Sound Of Music and she dutifully attended all the subsequent reunions.
Then came a change of pace when she romped in the nude in a 1973 Playboy pictorial.
Also in 1973 she was in the trash classic SSssssssss as Strother Martin's daughter.
I was on the set of the 1977 MGM TV series Logan's Run but I have no recollection of meeting her although she was the co-star.
She met Urich when both were making a TV commercial and she appeared in most of his series including Vegas and Spenser For Hire.
When Urich announced in 1996 he had been diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare cancer attacking soft tissue, Menzies stood  by him and he was declared cancer free in 1998.
But he succumbed in 2002 and his ashes were buried on the family farm in Prince Edward County, Ontario.
By this time Heather was battling ovarian cancer and she died on Christmas Eve  2017 surrounded by the three Urich children.
I should have kept in better touch in recent years. But I didn't.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Best Xmas Present: Ron James On CBC-TV

When I told a dear neighbor of mine that Ron James was soon coming back in a new New Year's Eve CBC-TV special she clapped her hands.
She's the one who once suggested to me James was the  Canadian equivalent of Will Rogers.
And she's right except that James is still alive and growing in stature.
Just check out his new hourlong special  on CBC-TV New Year's Eve At 9 p.m.
"It's been a great year for comics," grouses James on the phone. Of course he's kidding. Or is he?
He's talking about the rise of U.S. President Donald Trump whose daily mishaps have given late night TV comics their highest ratings in years.
"His petulance is magnificent," James chuckles but adds :"It has really gone too far. There are gaffes by the hour."
About the difference between President Jimmy Carter and President Trump James tells his audience "One grew nuts instead of the one who is nuts."
That doesn't mean James is any kinder about Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.
"Justin does 600 selfies a day!" jokes James who also comments on those designer suits Trudeau sports.
And about the new Tory leader Andrew Schneer? "His autobiography should be titled 50 Shades Of Beige."
It's been a rough personal year for James whose dad died in Niova Scotia aged 85.
"My Maritime roots are deep," he tells me. But these days his stage is the whole of Canada.
"I had a great 18-city stop in the west at the beginning of the year,." he chuckles.
He drives himself from venue to venue and finds Canadians everywhere supportive of his comedic talents.
"In the hotel room after the show I'll look for Canadian TV but even the Canadian stations run mostly U.S. programs except for those  talk shows in the afternoon where all they do is comment on American entertainment."
After graduation from Acadia University James jumped to Second City in Toronto --his is a craft that has to be learned in front of a demanding audience.,
'Every show is just a little different, James says. "I get to know the audience and I play off them."
After the show they all want to take selfies which takes another hour. It's when they stop asking for selfies that I'll be scared.
These days the legalization of marijuana is one dicey topic.
James snorts Canadians' biggest question these days is "When can we smoke weed legally."
James agrees with me there's a rhythm to his performances. This hour was taped in Guelph before an appreciative audience.
When he had his weekly half hour skit series James says "I had to stay away from political humor because we were taping months in advance. Now it's no holds barred."
Like many would-be stars James drifted down to L.A. and got some work but nothing he couldn't do better back home.
"It's all about me, really," he laughs. "It's what bugs me, what scares me in this life. And brother there's a lot of that pit there. And I find the audience tends to agree with me."
Some of the reasons this hour works so well: executive producers James, Lynn Harvey and Paul Pogue, writers James, Pogue and Scott Montgomery, director Michael Watt,technical director Curt Fuglewicz, lighting designer James Downey.
Too bad we'll have to wait another yerar for the next James special.
MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Dr. Keri: Prairie Vet Is Worth Catching

What's the hottest trend in TV Reality shows these days?
I say it's the slew of series focused on friendly but helpful vets.
It all started with National Geographic's The Incredible Dr. POl which stars a seventysomething  vet way out in the Wisconsin countryside.
Then there's the one I like titled Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet.
And there's one on an Aussie group of vets I've recently  been watching on CBC.
And then there's one on a female vet who specializes in exotic a:Dr. K's Exotic Animal ER.
But I'll still have time in my viewing schedule for Dr. Keri: Prairie Vet which premieres Sunday night at 9 on Animal Planet.
This vet is Canadian and she practices out on the lone prairie in Ashern Manitoba.
I talked to her on the phone the other night --she rang in after a typically hectic day and she's not at all sure she wants to be a TV star.
But she has the personality and the way she carefully explains each procedure makes the show highly watchable.
She also seems to care about each and every patient and that's highly important.
These kind of shows can't be set up in advance --we first see Dr. Keri answering the phone at 3:30 a.m. as a distraught farmer says a heiffer is experiencing poroblems in labor.
DR. Keri Hudson travels in a mobile fashion and she's soon at the farm helping induce labor to save the calf and her mother.
Excellent camerawork helps drive the dramatic tension --obviously one can't as the animal participants for a second take.
Dr. Keri mentions she inherited her talents from her dad, also a vet.
And she lives with husband Calvin on a 600-head cattle ranch so she's in the thick of it always.
Her high-tech mobile clinic is shown to advantage in another segment where a gruff little dog has eaten chocolate and seems out of it --she explains what is probably happening and gets to work saving another life.
We get to know the farmers in the area as well as the animals and they all seem taken with her skills.
And as far as Canadian content goes this is right up there with the best of family TV viewing.
Winnipeg's Merit Pictures made this one --another recent Merit production I admired was Beyond The Spectrum: A Family's Year Confronting Autism.
Dr. Keri shows there's room for another Canadian vet on the Canadian landscape.
"I thought of it as an adventure," she says of her newfound TV experience. "I think it rings true because vets are always on call. Ashern is a small community so I have to do a little bit of everything. And there is no down time believe me."
If the series gets a second season pickup Dr. Keri says "I'm looking forward to it. Nothing much was planned --that's the nature of the job you see."
Looks like the Incredible Dr. Pol will have even more TV competition in the future.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

I Remember David Cassidy

As a summer student at The Globe And Mail my assignment was to seek out the newest teen sensation David Cassidy for a "tell all".
It must have been the summer of 1971 when "Cassidymania" was at its height.
I found the fretting teen sensation holed up in his Royal York hotel room preparing to go on that night at the CNE Stadium before 35,000 rapturous fans.
Cassidy was just as perplexed as the next teen sensation about hids rapid move from obscurity to teen mania.
He was the star of a bubble gum TV series The Partridge Family where his real stepmom Shirley Jones was playing his TV mom.
He was very handsome and unthreatening and aged 20 --the perfect age for teen girls to swoon over him from a safe distance.
But when he returned to the CNE the next summer attendance was down by half.
And he did not return for a third year --the fate of most bubblegum sensations.
I even interviewed him on the set of his TV series in 1972 when ratings were dipping.
His fans were growing into womanhood and a bit astonished they'd ever given their hearts to such a nice, assuming guy.
And a few years after that his brother Shaun took over the mantle for a few years before becoming a TV producer.
David Cassidy still worked --he was a Vegas staple and I interviewed him again on the se-t of David Cassidy ---Man Undercover--which ran on NBC for a mere 10 episodes in 1978.
Cassidy demanded his name be in the title and NBC obliged him thinking he was still a popular TV staple.
By contrast The Partridge Family ran for 96 episodes and four seasons.
The fate of the other kids on that show was also unkind.
Susan Dey who played David's TV sister Laurie Partridge had a second career as an adult in Law And Order and Love And War but has not acted by choice since 2004.
Danny Bonaduce has been hosting a morning talk radio show in Seattle since  2011.
At one point Cassidy claimed the merchandising from Partridge Family had netted $500 million but he only got $5,000.
I remember asking him decades later if reports of a TV reunion series were serious and he nodded yes.
But he insisted creator Bernie Slade be brought back to write it and it never appeared.
In 1994 he wrote a book about  being Keith Partridge but it never sold.
But he returned to Vegas multiple times for successful gigs.
He was always soft spoken and sincere and I was sad to learn of convictions for drunken driving in later years.
He also battled the same form of dementia that took his mother.
I'm also thinking of other teen idols and whatever happened to them.Like Bobby Sherman who was a wow on Here Come The Brides --he retired from singing to become a paramedic and police officer.
And just the other night I caught a rerun of a 2013 CSI episode starring Cassidy as a drug lord and his acting was impeccable. although he was much aged.
Perhaps a future as a character actor might have been next.

Friday, November 24, 2017

A Better Man: The TV Documentary At Its Finest

It's entirely appropriate that at one screening of the new documentary A Better Man there were therapists stationed in the lobby available for counseling.
The vivid film directed by Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman depicts a violent relationship between two teenagers --Attiya and Steve (last name withheld) that led to years of brutality.
The TV premiere is on TVOntario Saturday November 25 at 9 p.m.
Arriya sent me a message about the making of her film. An advocate and counselor for women she writes "I had been continuing running into my abusive ex-partner Steve for years. Over these years I had begun to feel more safe during our encounters, and during one of our run-ins he began to apologize profusely--although he never said what he was sorry for. But I knew instinctively that there might be more to his conversation."'
It was Attiya's idea to talk with her on camera and after some months of hesitation Steve agreed and the first of their conversations was recorded.
It was surprising to me that "Steve" agreed to participate in this double profile but he certainly has courage.
It cannot have been easy for either of them.
When they revisit the apartment building where they once lived Attiya suddenly has the urge to throw up, the emotions of the moment are simply too much for her. She is certainly surprised Steve has come to reminisce about a romantic relationship that began and faltered when both were high school teens.
At another point she tells the accompanying therapist who is sometimes included that the strangling from Steve almost caused her to lose consciousness.
Steve who is mostly silent and contemplative cannot sometimes remember whole incidents as if he has desperately tried to expung them from his memory bank.
Only slowly do ugly incidents seem to bring back his memory --at other times details remain very fuzzy.
The scenes of the former couple revisiting the scxhool halls and spotting their old lawyers show that teachers knew something was wrong --one told Attiya she always spotted bruises on her arms .
Steve is silent much of the time, overwhelmed by the mass of details, but he is never quite sure why his violence erupted against the girlfriend he clearly loved.
In her e-mail Attiya tells me people who have seen it reflect on instances of violence in their communities.
We see Attiya in her new relationship that includes a loving husband and delightful toddler.
But some of Steve's short bursts of sentences clearly surprise her with the revelations.
I think the film was made in Montreal but that's never made clear.
We see other friends from that time drift in and out --some were aware of the situation while others clearly are caught off guard.
Viewers expecting cathartic moments and a clear resolution mayl be disappointed. This is life not melodrama.
As Attiya writes :"It had been 20 years and while I felt much stronger and I had a wonderful family and a job I enjoyed and incredibly supportive friendships, I was not healing.
"Sharing my memories with Steve and watching him acknowledge the truth about his violence, I felt myself healing in real time."
I admired the film for that very aspect --this is  how real life functions.
It seems to me Attiya and Steve are still scarred but for different reasons.
The fact Styeve was willing to re-connecr makes the film worthwhile viewing.
In a TV movie there might be a resolution but that would be melodramatic.
A better Man shows us Attiya and Steve are still trying to explain and understand that great void 20 years later.
MY RATING: ***1/2

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Secrets From The Ice Proves Of Things Still Thriving

I well remember a conversation not so long ago when a head CBC programmer mused about canceling The Nature Of Things after its 50th season on air.
Well, that programmer has long departed while NOT is enjoying one of its best ever seasons ever.
And if you don't believe me tune in Sunday night at 8 for Secrets From The Ice.
The key player here is an indigenous hunter almost 500 years old who was trapped in the Yukon ice for five centuries.
Only with climate change was his hunter discovered and tests of his DNA indicate he was related to at least 15 ancestors living today.
Producer Andrew Gregg says in an interview he's been fascinated by the North since he first visited  in 1983 --in March 1986 he moved to Whitehorse as a photographer for the Whitehouse Star and then became a producer with Northern Native Broadcasting Yukon.
I remember his more recent documentary on finding ships of the lost Franklin expedition.
In his latest production Gregg also went to Lillehammer, Norway where climate change has resulted in finds of the Viking civilization.
"Both societies hunter reindeer or caribou--Viking sold meat to other European peoples as well."
Gregg is such an accomplished filmmaker he can make the discovery of an arrowhead exciting.
And as he points out  it was special for the indigenous inhabitants of the area --they are discovering they are part of a complex society that was relevant then as today.
So is this the plus side of climate change?
Gregg suspects there are other secrets out there waiting to be discovered.
These artifacts lie in the ice patches of the Yukon mountains --and not the moving glaciers. What are emerging are ancient tools used by hunters --they emerge from the melting ice in pristine shape.
The ancient hand-tooled weapons would have eroded away decades ago but the ice has perfectly preserved them for modern generations.
Gregg might agree with me that the Yukon was hardly a "hot" spot for archeology but now that situation seems completely reversed.
I ask him if the conditions are the same in Norway? What about the mountains of Siberia --another potential site in the future.
With the hunter lost for 500 years and now found one wonders why was he traveling there --was he injured or did the elements get him? It's an historical puzzle that completely fascinates.
For First Nation observers of today he became a cherished ancestor and even got a name: Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi or Long Ago Man Found.
A link to the past has finally come home. Gregg directed, wrote and produced this  great historical puzzle for 90th Parallel Productions.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

I Remember Monty Hall

So there I was in the Beverly Hills living room of one of Canada's Biggest Ever TV stars.
Lorne Greene?
Gisele Mackenzie?
Morley Safer?
I said TV star of stars!
It was Monty Hall
Let's Make A Deal ran continuously on ABC from 1963 through 1977. and then was syndicated for the next 15 years.
Contestants were picked at random from the audience and dressed in wild costumes and had to chose between Doors 1, 2 and 3.
"It was a big hot the first week," Monty told me. "And audiences grew and grew. We did a nigh time version. We even made it into a home game like Monopoly."
Monty was born in Winnipeg in 1921 of Orthodox Jewish parents --dad Maurice ran a slaughterhouse.
"I attended Lord Selkirk School and then St. John;'s High School and took a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from the University of Manitoba.
"I had great marks but didn't get into Medicine because there was a quota against Jewish students.:"
After a brief stint with the Canadian Wheat Board he moved to Toronto (in 1948) and got a job as an announcer at CHUM.
"They had me change my name because Toronto was a WASP paradise ."
"I did a radio series Who Am I and then in 1955 moved to New York city because there were few opportunities for guys like me.]"I could have done Let's Make A Deal for CBC --I was turned down by horrified executives --CBC run a quiz show that was actually popular?"
I did local TV where I introduced cartoons for kids and then I guested on Strike It Rich and Twenty-One on NBC.
In 1959 I was hired to co-host live broadcasts of the New York Rangers in Manhattan --I got the job because I was Canadian.
In 1963 he started Let's Make A Deal; in Los Angeles. "The rest is history. We ran until 1968 on NBC then ABC picked us up. It aired in syndication for a decade starting in 1971.
"I also hosted Split Second, Chain Letter, Masquerade Party, Three For The Money, Anybody's Guess --all with my production partner Stefan Hatos."
There's a philosophical problem named after him --The Monty Hall Problem, a thought experiment involving three doors, two goats and, yes, the inevitable prize.
I'd meet up with Hall every year in Toronto for decades as he journeyed to help out during the annual telethons for Variety Village.
"I'll always be a proud Canadian" he told me.
Sure, he lived on a street of multimillionaire movie stars but my heart has always been in Winnipeg. In my mind's eye I'll always be Monte Halparin."
He married childhood sweetheart Barbara in 1947 and they had three "adorables" -his words: actress Joanna Gleason, TV executive Sharon Hall and TV producer Richard Hall.
It was Sharon who tried unsuccessfully to remake the brand as a new quiz show but Monty told me "That was then and this is now."
I once asked Hall how much he'd raised for charity. I'd heard the figure was a cool billion dollars.
So I asked Hall and he nodded.
"It's in that vicinity but keep it quiet. I want to raise another billion before I die."
Monty Hall died of heart disease, aged 96.
And I already miss the guy.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

CBC's National: Can It Be Saved?

I had just moved to The Toronto Star in 1981 when the new, improved National news debuted --attached to The Journal.
I saw it as two separate shows warring within the bosom of one hour and I predicted that with two hosts --News; Knowlton Nash and Journal's Barbara Frum --it would never last like that.
It took some years but I was right --The Journal eventually disappeared into The National and there was one host.
Well, everything old is new again at The Journal.
Peter Mansbridge has retired and there's no sole anchor up there to actually read the news.
That's because by 9 p.m. when the revamped National debuts on CBC News (and an hour later on CBC) everybody already knows what has happened thanks to 24 news channels.
Way back in 1981 The National was attracting 1.5 million viewers a night.
These days it is way, way down.
Years ago I sat down with the venerable Knowlton Nash to chat about the way TV news had evolved.
Nash told me CBC's news was at 11 p.m. for decades "because that was the earliest film could be flown from Washington and Ottawa and processed to go on the air".
Nash looked askance at the way anchoring had changed. He said in his day he couldn't voice his own opinions no matter what.
In fact his predecessor LLoyd Robertson left the CBC anchor spot for CTV because he was not allowed to change a comma in his script --he was paid as an announcer/
Under Peter Mansbridge the newscast has been evolving --there are now panels which Nash would never have allowed.
But the idea of running The National at 10 p.m. still seems suspect to me --after all it competes against the top rated TV dramas on the U.S. competition.
Look, evening newspapers have already disappeared and the remaining ones may soon only be available online.
But CBC deserves credit for at least trying to save The National.
But I'm a little suspect about having four anchors: Adrienne Arsenault and Ian Hanomansing in Toronto, Rosemary Barton in Ottawa and Andrew Chang in Vancouver.
I don't think this can work but may inspire chaos --we'll just have to see.
I'd rather see Hanomansing as chief anchor.
Ironically, for years CBC had been trying to lure Hanomansing from Vancouver to Toronto but he always resisted it. So what changed I wonder.
I want the new National to succeed. On the first night Arsenault delivered a terrific piece about wandering through the city of Raqqua where she showed us torture chambers and bottles of drugs and even infant strollers left by mothers deserting the ruins.
We''ll just have to see. CTV news at 11 is a quick fox of a  half hour which may appeal to younger viewers.
Stay tuned.UPDATE: I've been watching for a week and The National just isn't making it.
First, get rid of the four anchors and have one host in Ian Hanomansing.
Second, stop the meandering tone and start each newscast with short, crisp updates.
Some of the long pieces have been so fine but may well belong in a newsmagazine show. The National at 10 is up against a whole host of top-rated American dramas--these are just a click away.
Ratings are a problem --the new show started at 700,000 a night and has been deteriorating ever since.
It's time for an instant update I would think.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Into The Fire Burns With Intensity

When I spotted the name Leora Eisen I just knew I'd be watching her brilliant new documentary Into The Fire which premieres on CBC-TV's The Nature Of Things Sunday November 5 at 8 p.m.
Over the years I've admired such TV productions from this talented director including Beauty Quest (2005) and Think Like An Animal (2016).
I guess the last one I caught was a beautifully modulated docu-biography of her deep relationship with her identical twin sister Linda: Two Of A Kind.
Her latest documentary (for 90th Parallel Productions) is , well, literally on fire.
It follows in the wake of the devastation of a whole Canadian city: Fort McMurray.
And I was just on the phone with friends who've moved to Bellingham, Washington who notice the smog in the air caused by gigantic wild fires in British Columbia.
"I'd started the research and then the B.C. wildfires raged. There had been Fort McMurray --an entire city of 90,000 evacuated.
"I also wanted to hook into the people who spend their lives studying fires," Eisen says ". And there are a lot of them out there.
"The fires are getting bigger. It's important to understand the science. I was told each rise in temperature of just 1 degree means a 12 per cent increase in lightning."
Eisen got her big break making mini-documentaries for CTV's Canada AM and here she's able to squeeze into 44 minutes a whole heck a lot of information without making the story seem hurried.
Now that's a real advantage--you can't turn away from it for a minute.
And she also has the knack of interviewing the fire watchers who emerge not so much as strange but really dedicated to their rare craft.
And Eisen can relate to a shared fear of fire --she was 21 and living in a high rise when a fire broke out  and she had to struggle to get down the staircase with smoke burning her eyes.
You'll be fascinated by wildfire expert Mike Flannigan who explains how one spark can ignite a gigantic forest fire.
Says Eisen: "In some cases a huge amount of rain in the spring will cause grasses to grow and grow and later during hot summer these can explode into huge fires."
Consultant Alan Westhaver takes us on a tour of burned out blocks of Fort McMurray.
Some houses have burned into nothingness yet right next door a perfectly preserved home sits intact.
Houses that resist fire might have features like a non-flammable roof or vegetation in the backyard less prone to ignition.
Eisen was on location with scientists and firefighters as they carry out a "test burn" on a living room.
"I know it sounds strange,"Eisen tells me "but modern homes are far more inflammable than a house built a century ago."
I like the philosophy of  veteran fire fighter Josh Johnston that we have to respect the ferocity of fire and work much better as this planet continues to warm up.
And I think IntoThe Fire would be of interest to American TV viewers suffering through dozens of uncontrollable California fires and Australian viewers concerned about the ferocity of fires on their parched continent.
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Alun Armstrong Shines In Discovery's Frontier

I specifically asked to interview the brilliant British character star Alun Armstrong in Toronto to promote the second season of Discovery Channel's first dramatic series Frontier.
You can catch it Wednesday October 18 at 10 p.m. --it's virtually a must-see.
The gritty series has an all star cast besides Armstrong: Jason Monoa (Game Of Thrones), Landon Liboiron (DeGrassi). Zoe Boyle (Downton Abbey), and Alan Hawco (Republic Of Doyle).
The prestigious Telegraph hailed the series with this headline: "Blood and fur is Netflix's Frontier the new Taboo?"
And this: "Since it landed on Netflix this Friday, fans have been quick to spot the many siliarities between these two meaty colonial feasts."
Armstrong tells me on the phone he's "delighted" with the critical reception to the series.'
It turns out Discovery made the audacious move to hire a talented actor (Jason Momoa) as the throat slitting trader Declan Harp --contrast this with Tom Hardy as beardy cannibal James Delaney.
And Armstrong says he shoots his scenes in Newfoundland as well as Cornwall.
"It was my first time acting in Canada. And it was a part I could really get into."
"I just got a call from my agent one day and here was a character without any redeeming features.  Dastardly Lord Benton. A bad character! Maybe it's my voice. But I've never been that nasty before. And it is a grand success."
Armstrong had been acting for just over a year when he got his first juicy role opposite star Michael Caine in Get Carter.
In one interview Armstrong acknowledged "I always play very colorful characters, often a bit crazy, despotic, psychotic."
Armstrong is also an accomplished stage actor who spent nine years with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
And he originated the role of Thenardier in the London production of Les Miserables and he also won an Olivier Award for playing the title role in the London production of Sweeney Todd.
Armstrong says the most painful scene he's been involved in on Frontier was a sort of torture sequence which had to go on and on --"and this had to be shot from various directions and filming never seemed to end."
"And now I'm in Toronto. I wanted to see the city --walking around this morning I noticed how many young people were downtown."
Although Armstrong has never worked in Toronto he was in the mammoth eight-hour production of Nicholas Nickleby starring Roger Rees "which as I recall was partly financed by your Ed Mirvish."
Speaking to The Daily Mail in 2014 Armstrong said "My peasant's face has been my fortune."
And I especially liked him as a snooty butler ion the Christmas 2014 special of Downtown Abbey.
Frontier has been such a success it has already been renewed for a third season which is great news for Alun Armstrong fans.'

Monday, October 16, 2017

Beyond The Spectrum Is Must-See TV

It's the sheer honesty and deep commitment of two parents that should immediately strike you when watching the brilliant new TVOntario documentary Beyond The Spectrum: A Family's Year Confronting Autism.
The 86-minute production premieres on TVOntario Wednesday Oct. 18 at 9 p.m. and is must-see TV at its best.
Canadian director Steven Suderman is telling me the committed parents contacted him rather than the usual way and after listening to their story he thought it might make a riveting TV documentary. He was right on that point.
"And I had a history with TVOntario," he says over the phone. In 2011 Suderman directed and produced  the film To Make A Farm for TVO and won awards for that one.
The resulting film premieres during Autism Aware Month which is entirely appropriate.
First off we are made aware of these very remarkable parents Carly and Stef and their realization that when Oskar is 2 he is diagnosed with autism.
They decide to drop everything else to care for their son for a year to try and give him a head start and make sure he won't get too far behind.
Suderman also was the cameraman on his production and he shot and shot and he's so good at what he does the parents and the other children in the family soon became basically unaware of the camera's presence.
Suderman tells me he never knew what would happen but he wanted to obtain a complete record of this amazing struggle.
We see the anxious parents consulting experts and feeling that what they're being offered may sometimes be contradictory.
So, in effect, they take charge of Oskar's treatment.
For a long time they try various diets --that same philosophy worked when treating an older son who has emerged as a talkative and inquisitive young boy.
"I think we show the couple experienced good days and some not as good," Suderman sayIs. ""The supplements had worked so much better with the other boy."
We also see how all this attention on Oskar affects the other children and how they become vastly supportive to helping their youngest brother.
The approach Suderman uses goes all the way back to Allan King's masterful documentary A Married Couple. Close observation draws the viewer in and we begin rooting for this family.
It worked then and it works here. Under Suderland's masterful direction we get drawn into the struggles of this couple and recognize how far they are determined to go in helping their son.
A few"experts" are plopped in to explain the progress or lack thereof. But basically this is one family's story.
We get to understand why Oskar wants to continually jump in the same place, what frightens him, how he can finally make eye contact with his mother.
These little victories become dramatically compelling.
But at one point the parents ask Suderman to stop filming which he did for almost three months.
There are reasons for this which I can't reveal here but had he not finally be invited back there would only have been half a film.
"They just needed some space," explains director Suderman.
We watch how this family celebrates Christmas --these scenes are dramatically very satisfying.
"Carly had been through this twice," Suderman is telling me."Her patience is amazing as she finds  it's nothing the same as with the older boy."
I think the saddest moment comes when the parents ask "How are we going to cope with this?"
But cope they do. And survive. And grow as parents.
Suderman captures all these highs and lows in such a fashion it's impossible to turn away from his compelling family portrait.
There's also a free interactive app titled My Autism Passport (M.A.P.).
Suderman made it for Merit Motion Pictures and Orangeville Road Pictures.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Old Friends Get Together

fliIt's that time of the year as four old friends get together: a prominent TV actress, veteran publicist and a famous TV producer. Here are highlights of our luncheon chatter:
ME: The big news is the crash in ratings of the old line US networks as more viewers than ever turn to alternate viewing devices.
ACTRESS: For me it's the disappearance of the Canadian community TV channels. Why should Rogers and Bell finance these local access channels when the hot new viewing tool Netflix has been allowed by the CRTC to do absolutely no Canadian content?
PUBLICIST: The big new TV series I'm crazy about is Ken Burns' incredible Vietnam war series on PBS which is magnificent view but nobody knows what happened to it.
PRODUCER:I can no longer make any Canadian TV movie or series until I have an American co-producer. And Americans are not particularly interested in all things Canadian.
ME: I went to the movies for the first tim e in years to watch the masterful new British movie Dunkirk which will surely win Oscars including the one for best picture.
PRODUCER: My favorite Canadian TV series is Suits --I know its made by and for Americans but because it is shot here I call it Canadian.
PUBLICIST: I was so busy this summer. So many U.S. films and TV things shooting here. The wonderfully low Canadian dollar meant lots of work for yours truly.
ACTRESS: I just saw Victoria And Abdul starring Judi Dench and it was very rewarding. Victoria was Queen and Empress of a quarter of the world's surface and yet she never travelled to any of her loyal dominions or to India where she was empress.
ME: The hottest Canadian writer right now is Margaret Atwood. Her miniseries The Handmaid's Tale was great and shot here. Let's forget the awful movie that I found unwatchable. Let's also agree not to discuss that unwatchable version of her novel Surfacing.
PRODUCER: Maybe Morley Callaghan will be the next great Canadian writer to be rediscovered. After all didn't Edmond Wilson hail him as the "Chekov of the North"?
PUBLICIST: I'm so old I once met Mazo de la Roche. I think she had passed by the time that stinker of a CBC TV series Jalna was released.
ME: There was also a French TV version that shot in Quebec and starred Danielle Darrieux.
ME: Who thinks CBC-TV's revamping of The National with four anchors warring in the bosom of a single jour will be successful?
PRODUCER: I remember when CBC introduced The Journal in 1981 and insisted it be a separate program so at every event there'd be two gigantic TV trucks covering the same event. It didn't work then and it won't work now.
ME: When I retired from The Star Peter Mansbridge was nice enough to come to my farewell bash. I think he wants to go on to other things at the CBC and Lloyd Robertson did --Lloyd moved over to W5 and just kept going. Ratings for CBC and CTV newscasts are way down anyway --Knowlton Nash told me both were on at 11 p.m. because that was the earliest film could be shot in Washington and Ottawa and developed and flown to Toronto.
ACTYRESS: Canadian TV has never had a long running day soap --they are needed to develop young actors. Another big minus is the lack of a late night Canadian talk show --it's just far cheaper to import the American ones rather than making one of our own. Global should have kept Mike Bullard going.
PRODUCER: I have a pal who spent a year in the CBC TV archives in Mississauga. The wealth of material is amazing. She watched the kinescope of Dame Edith Evans in The Importance Of Being Earnest --the only time Ecvans did it was on CBC not BBC. And one wonders why this material remains locked up. One CBC source told me the Corp doesn't want viewers to realize how vital CBC was way back then.
ME: I remember the last time I interviewed great producer Norman Campbell he shared a tiny office with Frank Shuster. Norman told me he'd never directed a production in the Norman Campbell studio because there were no resources left to finance it.
PUBLICIST: The teenagers who live next door are still crazy after CBC-TV's Heartland. That's their favorite Canadian TV show. I went to HMV to buy a box set of The Beachcombers and was told it has never been rteleased on DVD.
ME: CBC-TV's Kim's Convenience is a hit that could build over time to rival the popularity of Corner Gas. American friends are always raving about Schitt's Creek.
ACTRESS: There are Canadian TV stars I always check out.:Wendy Crewson has a new TV series. Art Hindle. Sonja Smits and Nick Campbell are big TV names in what ever they do. I guess I miss the decline and fall of Canadian TV movies. They were vastly popular but hard to sell overseas.
PRODUCER: I miss Brian Linehan. Such a character! I miss Elwy Yost and his gloriously golden oldies on TVOntario.
PUBLICIST: Elwy got those black and white oldies at fire sale prices. Some nights he'd beat the hockey game on CBC. I know other stations started buying up these packages just to keep him form using them. CBC had a secretary watching each episode to make sure he added the educational talks.
ME: The decline and fall of DVD stores is another blow to Canadian TV producers who needed that valuable revenue stream.
ACTRESS: The teens I know watch everything in groups on their cell phones! They'd never be caught in a department store! They never read newspapers. It's a different world out there for sure.
ME: Now that we've solved all the ills of Canadian TV let's be sure to meet again at summer's end!

Monday, October 2, 2017


Way back in 1976 I hailed a taxi at the Century Plaza hotel in Century City and simply said "The Playboy Mansion, Please!"
And there I was at the Tudor style estate, the home of Hugh Hefner and a bevy of scantily clad young beauties.
The occasion was the 1976 premiere of Playboy TV on First Choice, Canada's first Pay-TV service.
That was more than 40 years ago and even then the sprawling Playboy empire was in steep decline.
I remembered a few days earlier I'd been at an NBC party for the new western series The Orgeon Trail and that was held at the Playboy Club in Century City.
I'd thought all these clubs had closed but there were apparently a few stragglers --this one shuttered the very next year.
So I knocked on the ornate door and a scantily clad sweet young thing opened and beamed "Hi! I'm the upstairs maid."
"I just bet you are," I answered and I was shown upstairs to meet Mr, Hefner who was lounging in his bedroom opposite a buxom blonde in a black negligee. And this was at 2 p.m.! A late riser indeed!
He jumped up, put on a robe and took me on a tour of his impressive residence.
There was a huge movie theater and he showed me his collection of films all recorded on Beta which these days no longer exists.
"I had a hundred in last night for a screening of The Garden Of Allah (1936) with Marlene Dietrich" he enthused. "And some day when the copyrights have elapsed I'll be able to release them all on the Playboy label for home consumption.
This has yet to happen as the U.S. government has extended the copyright dates of classical films.
'The boardroom was impressive, the living room huge and expansive but the kitchen to me seemed terribly dated.
We went out into the huge backyard where Hugh kept his own mini-zoo. As we watched his monkeys copulating he shouted "Go for the gold!"
He then clapped as we watched the goldfish making out.
Back in the house we sat around a great table as he amiably answered my questions:
JB: "Are you the godfather of modern  pornography?"
HH (Laughing): "No way. I have always celebrated the beauty of the female form."
JB: "How many girl friends have you had?"
HH: "Who's counting?"
JB: "Some people I know actually buy the magazine for the interviews!"
HH: We put them all into a book which still sells like silly.
JB: Talk about your legacy.
'HHL:  We've fought the good fight against state censorship. It's not the state's right what you chose to do in your own bedroom."
JB: "Your first cover girl in 1953 was Marilyn Monroe. Why did she wind up so badly?"
HH: "Society puritans had it out for her. She was a darling comedienne and I agree with you she deserved better treatment by American society."
JBL "Why are the Playboy clubs going out of business?"
HH: "Bad business deals. Not by me, I'm out of the daily running of the business."
JB: "Was it inevitable magazines like Hustler would try to topple Playboy's dominance?"
HHL: "You got it. I never dealt in pornography. All the lumps and moles on our models were airbrushed out. Hustler isn;t at all erotic--it's as boring as slides on anatomy, that's all."
JB: "How do you want to be remembered?"
HH (chuckling): "As an innovator who banished Puritanism and favored a liberal society without guilt. And I think I succeeded at that, I really do.."
AS my taxi arrived Hef stood at the door waving goodbye. He was still in his silk pyjamas.
And Playboy TV predictable failed on Canadian TV and eventually even First Choice folded.
Hugh Hefner died on Wednesday September 27. aged 91. He was buried  in the Corridor of Memories Mausoleum next to Marilyn Monroe.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017


Last season CBC-TV's new sitcom Kim's Convenience was the surprise hit of the year.

I still think the decision of a past management to fold RCAF was a major mistake --here was a Canadian staple that could have been refreshened with the addition of newer cast members.
But at least Kim's Convenience is coming back for a second season at 9 p.m.
I was lucky at the CBC fall launch to chat a bit with playwright and executive producer Ins Choi, co-creator Kevin White and actors Paul Sun-Hyung and Jean Yoon.
The one I wanted to see wasn't there --executive producer Yvan Fecan but I talked to him the year before.
Fecan at one point was head programmer at CBC-YV and knows how to grow a situation comedy --he had one of the best on the boards with Material World but Fecan didn't have enough money for a full season.
With Kim's Convenience there's 13 episodes --needed in a vastly competitive TV world --as well as the expertise of playwright Choi who first developed her characters as a play.
Hey, it worked the first season establishing Kim's Convenience as a popular new comedy that should if anything improve in the second season. And there were three Canadian Screen Awards : Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Best Performer and Andrew Phung as Best Supporting Performance.
With the right kind of careful care this series might evolve into another Corner Gas --created when Fecan was running CTV.
I've been around so long I remember when CBC's big comedic hit was King Of Kensington.
I'd go to a taping every season at the Yorkville Studios --the same venue for Pierre Berton's shows.
But star Al Waxman left after five seasons because CBC used a closet as his dressing room --he later jumped to another hit --Cagney And Lacey (the pilot was shot in the US.).
CBC then disbanded its sitcom department for awhile and then made some major mistakes with such stinkers as Mosquito Lake and Not My Department.
It's hard to keep that sitcom tradition --after the huge hit of Corner Gas CTV had two stinkers in Dan For Mayor and Hiccups.
I think Kim's Convenience's success has happened because it was first a play.
In Canada we don't have the dough needed for test pilots which are subsequently discarded..
The creator of Malcolm In The Middle told me ABC went through three pilots costing $2 million before hitting the right note.
I'm honor bound not to reveal much of the new season's plots except to state Janet (Andrea Bang) is searching for an apartment.
The situations so far are funny but not outlandish --everything makes sense because the actors already know their characters.
And so right now CBC has the only watchable TV sitcom on Canadian TV. Over to you CTV.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Much Too Young: Must-See Canadian TV

Don't get distracted by the glut of new and returning TV series  popping up all over your TV screens this fall.
Save some time for the brilliant new Canadian made TV documentary Much Too Young which has its world premiere Thursday September 21 at 9 p.m. --which is World Alzheimer's Day.
I was told in advance to expect something special but I wasn't really prepared for my entirely appropriate emotional response.
Co-directors Christopher Wynn and Russell Giernapp made it with total compassion and honesty that I felt emotionally wasted at the end.
This one moves above the sheer scary statistics: 564,000 Canadians currently live with the disease including 16,000 with young onset Alzheimer's who were diagnosed at 65 years, clearly not in the senior citizens category and often caring for young families still at home.
But the major force in this intense group profile are the children who are the force holding their families together and they range from age 13 to 27 --they've had to put their own lives on hold and return to homes where they have assumed the role of parents.
Wynn is telling me on the phone he went through the whole wrenching process when helping hid father in Montreal.
"I moved back to Montreal when my father needed me. So I understand the stresses and pull of family versus career. And I made my first documentary on that titled Forgetful Not Forgotten."
"We wanted a cross section of families because the disease strikes in different ways. And we needed complete cooperation from the families. A few families seemed disinclined to offer so much and we had to drop them. But we travel light --there's just three of us coming into these homes --a director, cinematographer and a sound man. And after a while we just blended in --nobody looked at the camera after the first visit or so."
In Montreal there's Francois Bouliane who was diagnosed with Frontal Temporal Dementia aged 51.
He appears to strangers as withdrawn from life and more eager to work on his gigantic puzzles than conversing.
We follow him to his doctor and find he can still speak fluently in both official languages but his 13-year old daughter who was his pride and joy cannot understand why he doesn't seem to want to play sports with her anymore.
Wife Gloria notes the stillness of the once active sports participant, a strange serenity that suggests he is drifting away.
We also meet Moira Fraschetti, diagnosed with Alzheimer's at 51. Her devoted daughter Kathleen notes friends do not understand the pressures of looking after a parent with the disease. We watch as she takes her mom to medical appointments--she can only work part time these days because her family needs her so much.
It's different again for Peter Wekeles, 57, who studies Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto, a full time occupation to be sure, but he then must drive an hour each way to help his father. The pull of career with family responsibilities is best expressed by his dilemma.
The method here is keen observation. The participants do not appear to be aware of the film crew most of the times.
The group profile documents the everyday experiences which are spiraling out of control. One of the women can't quite figure how to walk down stairs anymore. One of the husbands had left home when his children were quite young--he has returned to look after a wife who may not always recognize him.
Says Wynn: "We think Alzheimer's strikes very old people. But our subjects are middle aged. The families want them to stay in their homes as long as possible and bed spaces are hard to come by and very expensive."
I was amazed the caregivers seemed so determined, rarely losing their tempers, such compassion is amazing but is being done on a daily basis. As a group snapshot the theme surely must be that families stick together through some terrible situations.
Nomad Films has been a Toronto fixture for two decades but long form documentaries are a disappearing breed on TV --An hour on CBC or CTV means 42 minutes plus commercials.
The best thing about Much Too young is its measured stance that allows us to watch and be amazed at the dedication of families who want to stick together.It Runs 88 minutes and you won't be able to turn away.
MY RATING: ****.

Monday, July 31, 2017

CBC-TV's 21 Thunder Is Promising

In ye olden days --say about a decade or so ago --every major TV network would sport summer series worth watching.
So three cheers to CBC-TV for trying to revive that tradition with the Montreal made 21 Thunder. which premieres Monday night at 9 on CBC-TV.
At one time every section of Canada got to make its own dramatic series.
CBC Montreal gave us Urban Angel which I thought deserved a bigger run.
And before that there even was an English language talk show out of Montreal fronted by Al Hamel.
CTV countered in 1974 with a sitcom about English French tensions called Excuse My French . Remember that one?
And, of course, way way back there was The Plouffe Family with the same cast doing the French version one night and the English the next --and it was live!
Montreal, of course, Montreal also fronted as the sdite for many U.S. made productions.
Does anybody else out there remember Connie Stevens in the 1988 sitcom Starting From Scratch made in MOntreal.
21 Thunder is set in Montreal starring as --Montreal.
The dramatics center around the farm team U21 which feeds players into Montreal Thunder.
Other Canadian shows like Saving Hope or Rookie Blue simply do not mention what city they are dramatizing.
Some Canadian producers tell me they simply won't make a series up here if they're not guaranteed a U.S. sale in advance.
Stephanie Bennett plays Christy Cook who was an Olympics star and is hirted to coach a male soccer team.
Montreal is front and center here which I truly like although it may make for difficulties in peddling the show to the U.S. market.
The creators of the show Kenneth Hirsch and Adrian Wills (plus Riley adams) have created an unabashedly  quality Canadian product.
So three cheers!
This is also a show I wanted to watch. And I previewed the first two episodes which ran smoothly.
Some Canadian series I dutifully must watch but this one is terrific and should go into regular fall prime time on its second season.
Highlights? There's a greatish Scottish soccer star Davey Gunn played by real life Scottish soccer ace Ryan Pierce.
Emmanuel Kabongo plays a dazzling talent from Ivory Coast called Junior Lolo--this is a star turn as far as I'm concerned
Historically, series about sports team do not play well with audiences.
I was on the set of the Jim Bouton sitcom Ball Four which lasted for four episodes in 1976.
Even the great  producer  Steven Bochco tried valiantly with  the baseball saga Bay City Blues (1983) but it only lasted eight episodes.
I was on the set, thought it wonderful, but it sank like a stone in the ratings.
And more recently there was  Sports Night created but Aaron Sorkin which won many awards but female viewers stayed away from --it ran 32 episodes in 1998-99).
CBC once had the hockey saga He Shoots, He Scores and it ran from 1986 through 1989
with high ratings --and it was shot in Montreal.
21 Thunder needs careful handling and starting it in the summer where  competition is less fierce is a great idea.
CBC is cagily marketing it as "Sex, guns and gangs" which should attract all kinds of fans.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Tea Explorer May Be The Year's Best TV Documentary

Did I really want to preview the new documentary The Tea Explorer? I wasn't sure but since it was directed by Andrew Gregg I figured it had to be of high quality.
Well, I brewed a big pot of Scottish Breakfast tea and I couldn't stop watching,it's that extraordinary.
The premiere is on the Documentary Channel premiering Sunday July 23 at 9 p.m.
The real subject matter is one man's obsession with all facets of tea.
That man is Jeff Fuchs from Manotick, Ontario, who has spent more than a decade pursuing all aspects of the tea culture that still predominates across China and into Nepal and Tibet.
"I was completely fascinated by him," says filmmaker Andrew Gregg. "A mutual friend introduced us originally. I could see a film right away. And the camera certainly does favor him --he was a model for a bit."
Fuchs gives us a complete course in how tea should be brewed, where it is cultivated, how it affects these ancient civilizations.
And this is not the tea you and I consume in tea bags in smartly packaged  tea cases.
We see how the ancient Chinese way of treating tea as more than a drink --it's almost a meal in itself, a sort of stew that Tibetans consume as their main breakfast and sold in large hard blocks where portions are chiseled off.
Gregg was his own cinematographer and the images captured are stark and gorgeous --the rocky trails he, Fuch and travel guides take us have been used for thousands of years but are not much used since China invaded Tibet.
"We shot it in October and November 2015," Gregg tells me. "You can see the first snows in some scenes. We weren't afraid of avalanches. But it was  such a journey."
The "ground zero" of the tea culture is China's Yunnan Province --in one shot Fuchs shows a tea tree still producing tea leaves  after 750 years.
The tea craze spread out from Yunnan although these days there are more regional coffee houses than tea stores --Gregg thinks this might be due to the feeling coffee is more "western".
Fuchs is the perfect presenter --he talks tea with tea house proprietors whose family run businesses go back through many generations.
So now I know the proper way the leaves must be harvested, how they get "fried and dried" and then the various ways the tea houses treat them and serve them.
Fuchs says he started hearing about the Tea Horse Road which lasted thousands of years and so we're off on a dazzling journey through very disparate cultures.
Gregg says to make that arduous journey which included time in Tibet he was accompanied by a Chinese "minder", actually a girl educated in the West, who became enthusiastic about a subject she knew little.
We also get to know the indigenous people, many worked in the tea trade until the 1960s when the trade routes were completely closed by the invading Chinese.
There are a few hardy survivors of those days and they have stories to tell.
There is also a gentleness of demeanor which I think may be a result of their religious training.
And they also had to be supremely physical --carrying huge packs and one false step would send them spiraling down and into treacherous gorges.
Fuchs is such a great interviewer he gets these characters to talk freely about their lives and it makes for wonderful TV.
Gregg thinks there may be a glimpse of a red panda on the wild in one scene --I also spotted a herd of what looked like black oxen being driven up one mountain slope.
"These are yaks being driven to winter quarters," Gregg tells me.
This was one of the few recent TV documentaries I've watched where I could have watched for at least another half hour.
On Tuesday July 18 The Tea Explorer premieres with a special screening at the Wolf Performance Hall, 251 Dundas St. London Ontario. at 7 p.m. Admission is free -- sponsored by The Tea Lounge of London.
Andrew Gregg will be there in person and Jeff Fuchs will be there vis Skype.
The Tea Explorer comes from 90th Parallel Productions and runs 74 minutes without commercials --the time just whizzed by and I hoped it could be longer it's that well made.
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Little India: Village Of Dreams A Must See

It's entirely appropriate for the brilliant new documentary Little India: Village Of Dreams to premiere on Canada Day --it runs Saturday July 1 at 9 p.m. on TVOntario.
Filmmaker Nina Beveridge tells me on the phone the ambitious film took a year and a half to plan and make --and that included multiple shooting days in the neighborhood.
I well know the location in east end Toronto along Gerrard St. East just before Coxwell--I attended Riverdale College at Gerrard and Jones, graduating in 1964, when Riverdale was an all white Protestant bastion.
Today all that is changed and Little India has become an important hub of South Asian commerce--in the 1980's and 1990's on a Saturday night Gerrard was so packed with tourists the Carlton streetcar often got stuck.
"I wasn't exactly sure of the focus at the beginning," Beveridge says. "It was always going to be a group portrait of the two generations of immigrants who have made it such a vibrant area to visit."
"I live only a few blocks away so I can walk there in 5 minutes."
Says Beveridge "The street is changing all the time. It has to for survival. There are other India concentrations out in suburban malls.
"In the summer weekends crowds will still gather. I thought I knew the area but it became a voyage of exploration for the whole crew."
Beveridge's method closely resembles the best work of master documentary maker Frederick Wiseman.
She concentrates on the people who live and work there and how they have changed while still cherishing their vital culture.
"It's about two generations --the immigrant parents and their Canadian raised offspring."
The original store keepers emigrated from South Asia starting in the early Seventies and built their businesses along Gerrard Street --the historic Naaz cinema was surely the backbone of the community.
"But now it has gone --a victim of changing times."
And the last time I took a streetcar ride I noticed the street seemed depopulated with many key shops shuttered --the next generation have moved out to Brampton and no longer live over their stores.
"The culture is still there. But gentrification is happening. Those who own their stores seem to be better off than the renters. The traditional fashion stores are still there and the beauty parlors but the next generation want more modern facilities.
"But even the culture back in India is changing."
Beveridge's challenge was to get these normally reticent people to open up. Her interviewing skills really shine forth.
"I had to get them used to the camera. In a very early shot I had two boys talk about their late father --they showed me the memory box they'd collected with things like his socks. It's a great moment, it just happened spontaneously.
"Really, it was a matter of trust, getting people to talk personally about their way of life and how it may be changing.
"The basic theme is what happens next. Two of the second generational girls aim for careers in criminology. Some accept the traditional arranged marriages, others do not."
Little moments illuminate this group profile
Like the joyous woman finally planning to movein the 1980s and 1990's into her own home in Brampton  after living in a huge home as part of an extended family. Her feeling of liberation at this is brilliantly captured.
The two brothers who lost their hard working father to a sudden heart attack seem conflicted --keeping his restaurant has been their goal working with the mother. But the older brother now goes to Upper Canada College and could have a brilliant future in other professions.
We get to visit the Forever Young Beauty Salon and Spa which peddles traditional Pakistani beauty secrets and cosmetician Yasmeen Zulfiqar-Khan is passionate about her great successes but her daughters seem rather ambivalent.
One daughter has stated her own event company which is already heavily booked while the pert teenager thinks policing might be her future.
While Indian themed business drift away other cultures are being featured in the new stores.
"Ethnic awareness is an basic theme. These people have survived and thrived and we should celebrate their uniqueness. I think the city should be proud of being so inclusive."
Beveridge says boiling the TVO print down to 58 minutes was "very rough. There'll be a longer version. And there are other materials including web shorts  coming up on the TVO website."
MY RATING: ****.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The River Of My Dreams: A Portrait Of Gordon Pinsent

It's entirely appropriate Documentary Channel is presenting the brilliant new TV biography  titled The River Of My Dreams : A Portrait Of Gordon Pinsent on Canada Day at 8 p.m.
Because there never has been a more commanding Canadian icon than Gordon Pinsent.
Sure, there are other Canadian superstars out there but Chris Plummer and Donald Sutherland went away to gain their fame and fortune.
Pinsent stubbornly stayed behind except for a strange sojourn in Los Angeles making appearances on such TV series as Cannon and such flicks as Blacula.
Pinsent functions as his own tour guide of his life as he looks way backwards and reflects on the key players in his life.
There's the Dickensian poverty of his upbringing in Grand Falls, Newfoundland, and an education that did not get past Grade 8, an early interest in drawing and the determination to get off "the Rock" and find a better way of life.
Acting as the host of his own life there's Pinsent providing a running commentary and looking quite fit  at age 86.
Pinsent's anecdotes are priceless from the moment he convinced a Canadian immigration officer he had a job (he didn't) to his time in a Winnipeg dance studio as as instructor (who couldn't really dance).
In Winnipeg Pinsent learned the fundamentals of acting from the great John Hirtsch but moved to Toronto because it provided a bigger platform.
In Winnipeg Pinsent had married and had two small children who he left behind.
One of the best parts of this biography is meeting them as adults and seeing how that desertion affected them for years --but today they have reconciled with their wandering father.
In Toronto Pinsent met the incredibly talented actress Charmion King --I remember some of her dazzling turns at the Crest theater and I still think in terms of pure talent she was more than a match for Pinsent's easy going charm.
Contemporaries offering anecdotes include Chris Plummer, director Norman Jewison, R.H. Thomson and Mary Walsh among the younger generation affected by  Pinsent's presence.
One of the best things about this filmed portrait is its leisurely 88 minutes length that enables us to get deep into the Pinsent psyche.
I first met and interviewed him on the set of his CBC series A Gift To Last where the imported guest star Melvyn Douglas thanked Pinsent for treating him so well. But that's the way Pinsent treated all the actors working for him.
But I've always had this idea about a sequel to Pinsent's first series Quentin Durgens which nicely cast him as a Canadian M.P. I'd cast daughter Leah Pinsent as Durgens's daughter who takes over the seat and
gets involved in scandal which can only be resolved by her father rushing to the rescue.
Pinsent's own stories abnout encounters with Plummer at Stratford and Marlon Brando in the hills of Hollywood are rich.
Berman has stitched everything together seamlessly. The breadth of Pinsent's career is indeed remarkable.
But I wish there were a bit more details about the making of such Pinsent classic movies as The Rowdfyman and John And The Missus.
The finished film sports all the quality characteristics of those choice CBC-TV "Raskymentaries" --those long form profiles by Harry Rasky which used to flourish on CBC.
It does show that in so many ways Pinsent's journey was well worth all the emotional turmoil and heartaches.
Director Brigitte Berman has dedicated this remarkable profile to her husband Victor Solnicki who produced it and passed away on the day of the film's premiere at TIFF.
MY RATING: ****.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Farewell To Peter Mansbridsge

So there I was  was covering CBC-TV's fall launch in  September 1976 when the head of CBC news Knowlton Nash marched to the podium to exclaim "I've just lost my Mr. Clean!"
CBC news anchor Lloyd Robertson had just jumped to CTV as co-anchor with Harvey Kirck.
An hour later we all were up at CTV headquarters on Charles St.  for an impromptu press conference and in dashed Harvey Kirck who had been on a promotional tour of CTV western affiliates and was dubious from the star the idea of two anchors would fly.
Two anchors! Now that was new!
And now all these years later Peter Mansbridge who replaced Nash who replaced  Peter Kent who replaced Lloyd Robertson will bid adieu to the daily grind of anchoring the news on July 1. But he'll stick around the CBC for special assignments.
And I'm thinking Mansbridge may well be the last white guy to read thew news at CBC.
Don't forget Mansbridge succeeded Nash as The National anchor 29 years ago and the TV news landscape is vastly changed since then.
Back in Robertson's day that's all the anchor did --read the news.
It was written by others and if Robertson veered from the text the  unions hollered --after all Robertson was in the announcer's union and not considered a journalist.
CBC's The National back then was the leader in ratings and prestige.
Indeed I remember once when The Toronto Star'sTV guide Starweek was going to run a cover on all the competing news anchors and CBCrefused to let Mansbridge pose with his competitors saying CBC was that far ahead of the pack.
Starweek had the others including Robertson and Global's Peter Trueman pose in front of a TV set and a standard shot of Mansbridge was pasted into the picture.
When CBC moved The National from 11 p.m. where it daily outstripped CTV to 10 p.m. I argued this was a mistake and I still think was right.
At 10 p.m. CBC faced a plethora of top rated American hour long dramas and ratings never bounced back to the highs at 11 p.m.
I also argued CBC made a bad mistake in having two separate shows --The National followed by The Journal with separate hosts and separate teams that often covered the same events.
Several CBC vice presidents from Ottawa stormed into the office of The Star's managing editor to argue that I was anti-CBC but in the long run I think I was proved right.
Peter Mansbridge is still there but after Barbara Frum's untimely passing her replacements at The Journal including  Pam Wallin and Hana Gardner were both found wanting and Mansbridge emerged as the sole anchor for the entire hour.
Of course back in 1980 there were no all day TV newscasts.
I once asked Nash why the two national newscasts had always been at 11 p.m.
And he answered "Because that was the earliest film from Ottawa and Washington could be flown to Toronto headquarters to be processed.There were no live feeds until well into the 1980s. Anchors could only read the news --we were not allowed to voice opinions."
In recent years The National's traditional viewers on the old line CBC have been tanking.
Younger viewers now catch the broadcast on Facebook  or the CBC News channel.
That's why CBC is saying three anchors may replace Mansbridge and they may be stationed throughout the country rather than at CBC's Toronto headquarters.
When Robertson left CTV News he stayed at the network as host of W5. Similarly Nash hosted various TV series on CBC News Channel.
Mansbridge at 68 is the kid of that group and he's a valuable asset for CBC in whatever he choses to do.
And he doesn't hold grudges.
When I retired as TV critic at The Toronto Star Peter even popped into my retirement party and said some nice things.
And as I told him that night retirement is only part of a grand new adventure.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Celebrate Canada Day Early With Jonathan Torrens

You can celebrate Canada Day early with Jonathan Torrens in the exceptional new CBC-TV  special Your Special Canada.
It premieres on CBC Sunday June 25 at 9 p.m. with a repeat on July 1 at 7 p.m. on CBC-TV. Got all that?
"It's a comedic valentine to the joys of being Canadian," Torrens is saying on the phone from his Nova Scotia home.
"I thought it would be fun to re-visit Charlottetown where I was born and where Canada was born in 1864."
Along the way Torrens invites a certain jaded politician named Sir John A. Macdonald to comment on the proceedings as he visits a maple syrup bunker in Quebec, soldiers stationed in the northernmost Canadian base of Nunavut (closer to Stockholm than Ottawa) and even dives into a gigantic butter tart for a socko finish,
"I think we covered a lot of territory --the intention was to show Canadian diversity," Torrens is saying. "There's a lot to be proud of in this country."
The last time I remember hearing about Torrens he was announcing farewell to a remarkable 10-year stint on the TV series hit Trailer Park Boys.
Torrens was nicely cast as the white rapper J-Roc. He says leaving was hard particularly since the series shows no signs of dipping in popularity.
"It's one of those Canadian TV hits that keeps on going" he says and certainly to be placed in the same category as Red Green, Corner Gas and the current comedy hit Schitt's Creek.
Torrens' work on TPB includes 10 seasons of TV episodes, three movies and two specials.
He also toiled as a director and writer on the series --it won a deserved Gemini as best ensemble performance in a comedy.
"I couldn't do anything more with the character," Torrens tells me. "But it was always a pleasure to be part of that company."
I first interviewed Torrens when he was fronting a talk show called Jonovision --I'm reminding him of the time the arranged for the first reunion of the cast of Degrassi.
It was the great reception these grown ups received that spurred interest in the revival of the series which lasted far longer than the original series.
I tell Torrens he should get an agent's fee for setting the groundwork.
Torrens' salute to the uniqueness of Canada ranges from a Zamboni race to a salute to the world's oldest drag queen all done in a light comedy style that's fresh and funny.
One of the highlights is a sweet and touching salute to aging drag queen, Russell Alldread (as Michelle DuBarry),  a proud Canadian, that shows how talented Torrens is as an interviewer.
The visit to the maple syrup vaults is amazing --all that liquid gold held in a gigantic bunker just in case there's another world wide shortage.
"Then we have a race between ice resurfacers --as they prefer to be called and what could be more Canadian than that."
At Toronto's Harbourfront Torrens asks such daring questions as who is the sexier Canadian-- Pamela Wallin or Pamela Anderson? A wrong answer gets a beaver tail in the face.
"We got in and out of Nunavut in 36 hours. It's the most amazing place."
And there's a cute Anne of Green Gables parody with Torrens as Jonathanne.
Mention must also be made of producer Lynn Harvey who was integral to the special right along.
Next Torrens is off to shoot the fourth season of Mr. D --he plays vice principal Robert Cheeley.
But I'm suggesting CBC look at Your Special Canada as a possible pilot for a new comedy series showing the breadth of Torrens's talent.
It's been a long time since CBC had a decent late night talk and comedy show. How about it CBC?
MY RATING: ****.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Time To Bid Adieu To Orphan Black

So there I was at the local street bash in my Toronto neighborhood and a neighbor from several blocks away is telling me she never watches Canadian TV drama series.
"But you've just said you're a loyal fan of Orphan Black," I told her. "And it's made right here in Toronto."
And boy did she look surprised and chagrined!
I'm always getting that kind of guff from people addicted to American serialized TV dramas.
So it pains me a bit to report this is the last season for Orphan Black which certainly blew back on a lot of stereotypes.
Here is a Canadian series that is beautifully made in all departments and lead Tatiana Maslany has soared to super stardom --and even won an Emmy as best series actress which I think must be a first for a Canadian TV show.
But this isn't all a rave --I felt the death of a beloved clone on last week's episode went far too far.
One could hear the crunching of the bones and the scene was far too violent for other fans, too, judging from reactions on the fan base.
"Clonicide" was the word used.
Star Tatiana says the staged death scene was "awful"and she had a sort of rig installed as the character got stomped to death.
Co-creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson say the death scene was planned for last year's Season Four but delayed until the final outing to make maximum dramatic impact.
I found the first few episodes of Season 5 to be a bit disappointing and that's because on all serialized drama cliffhangers have to be resolved or explained away.
But what has always distinguished this show is the sheer professionalism, call it "the look" of each episode.
Production designer John Dondertman deserves a lot of credit along with his whole staff and the same goes with costume designer Debra Hanson and director of photographer Aaron Morton.
And then there are the Canadian directors: Helen Shaver, David Wellington, Grant Harvey, David Frazee, and Morton again.
I visited with Maslany at the end of the first batch of shooting --I'd long admired her for her guest work on such other series as Heartland.
She didn't seem to believe me when I told her her career would be changed --for the better --and was off to New York for the first batch of publicity.
Garnering an Emmy was big news --I'm trying to remember other actors on Canadian series who were similarly noticed.
Indeed when the Toronto version of Queer As Folk was running the executive producers told me it would garner no acting Emmy nominations because the voters were U.S. based and not likely to nominate "runaway productions".
Anyhow I'm determined to watch the last batch of Orphan Black and wonder what's next for Canadian TV series drama --what will be the next great show or is it already in the works?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Line Up To Watch The Taming Of The Queue

Familiar with all  those doomsayers out there predicting the decline and fall of Canadian TV?
I say tune into the brilliant new Canadian made TV documentary The Taming Of The Queue premiering Sunday night at 9 on the documentary channel.
It's worth lining up to watch.
Montreal Josh Freed has got it almost perfect in his funny and sad quest to show why most of us spend about two years of our lives lining up.
I naively assumed the subject matter would look at long lineups in the grocery stands as well lineups for concert tickets --and it does all that.
But there are also examinations of the traffic lineups that bedevil us if we live in a big downtown city.
And what about waiting on the phone for access to a bank manager? That's a lineup, too.
And the more I watched of this great documentary the more I realized I seem to spend a great deal of my day in lineups.
Getting a new passport was a hellish adventure in lineup waiting.
Then I waited in the subway to buy seniors tickets and there was another line to get on the crowded subway car.
Then I waited in Loblaws with my produce.
And I can't figure out why it has taken so long for a committed filmmaker like Josh Freed to tackle the subject.
Freed tells me on the phone he took about 18 filming days "because I basically knew what I wanted at the beginning."
But he had to travel to New York, London, Paris and even Mumbai  to show us how lining up is very different in different cultures.
"I blame it all on the French Revolution," Freed tells me and he's not entirely kidding.
Freed says queues first formed in revolutionary France because it was the egalitarian way to show all citizens of the republic were equal --no more special privileges for the aristocracy.
"But what truly surprised me was how the British seem to actually like queuing"
Again, it might be history --Britishers survived Dunkirk and the Blitz by queuing up --it became asmuch apart of the national culture as stiff upper lips.
Freed visits stolid Britons who queue up for leftover tickets at Wimbledon --one lady and her sister say they like camping out for days and would just hate it if the tickets were instead offered online.
Freed's interview with MIT professor Richard Larson is priceless --Larson's expertise has resulted in a nickname as "Dr. Queue".
Dr. Queue notes cases of "lineup rage" which have resulted in murder convictions.
Russians thought the line-ups outside Lenin's Tomb were awful --until the first Mcdonald's opened in Moscow causing day long queues for that Big Mac.
We visit with people who'll spend 48 hours trying to nab tickets for the next Saturday Live TV show.
Some nerds boast of waiting 18 days to get the first new iPhones --I wonder how they had eaten and slept?
Then Freed and his camera crew visited Mumbai an  "we nearly got crushed" trying to bard the railway.
"After a half dozen attempts I concluded it was impossible. And yet Indian friends do it every day, it's perseverance and experience."
About supermarket queues Freed discovers those who chose the "self service" line find it is slower than waiting in line for a trained teller who can really whiz through items.
And Freed thinks queues may be disappearing --you'll have to watch to see what he thinks is a big trend.
Freed's novel became the hit movie Ticket To Heaven (1981) "but I discovered Los Angeles was not for me. I wanted to do personal projects which are mostly is impossible on American TV.
"That's where the documentary channel comes in. It's one of the special parts of Canadian TV."
MY RATING: ****.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

I Remember Chris Wiggins

I was shocked that Canadian character star Chris Wiggins's passing got such little attention in the local press.
Wggins died in Elora after struggling with Alzheimer's disease --he was 87 and always seemed to be working in his heyday.
I remember in 1972 being driven out to his spacious home in Unionville by CBC publicist Don Vautour --the occasion was to write a profile for The Hamilton Spectator.
It was a long afternoon and so long ago that there were many farm fields before we arrived at the Wiggins homestead --we sat around the farm table in the kitchen as the pet Irish wolfhound lay her head on the side and seemed to be listening in.
At the time Wiggins was acing it in the CBC daily soapera Dr. Paul Bernard.
Later, in 1976, I was off to another Wiggins set --he was playing the patriarch in a well written Canadian series version of Swiss Family Robinson.
"Why am I always working?" laughed Wiggins. "I think I can do many types of acting. I'm adaptable. I only wish there was more weork out there for all the Canadian talent that I know."
He was born in Blackpool. England, in 1931 and moved to Canada, aged 22  after a false start in  banking.
Wiggins where he worked himself up fro  small parts to leads --he was prominently featured in the 1957 Canadian made series Hawkeye.
"Lon Chaney Jr. was the nominal star and a darling man in the morning but by 5 p.m. he was totally drunk and we'd have to shoot around him."
In 1960 Wiggins joined the Stratford Festival "where I discovered Shakespeare was not for me. But I learned discipline and I'd go back in a moment if ever asked."
In 1969 Wiggins won a Canadian Film award as best actor for starring in The Best Damn Fiddler From Calabogie To Kaladar--"my co-star was a sweet young thing named Marghot Kidder with a great future ahead of her."
How tough was it to be a full time actor in the Sixties?
"It was damned tough. Americans were frequently imported even by the CBC. One had to do it all just to survive. But it also meant Canadian actors had more experience because we had to excel in all fields. "My hero was always Barry Morse who showed me that versatility does have its own rewards. I couldn't have lasted without CBC Radio, none of us could have existed without that support."
Wiggins loved making Paul Bernard, Psychiatrist which was a Canadian TV hit that travelled all over the place.
The plot had mostly female patients plopping onto the good doctor's couch and in a steam of consciousness would relate their stories.
"I'd just sit there and occasionally interject things and I got to listen every day to such great actresses as Dawn Greenhalgh, Anna Cameron, Nuala Fitzgerald, Gake Garnett,,Diane Polley, Tudi Wiggins, Micki Moore."
Eventually 139 episodes were filmed over a two-year period and sold everywhere.--CBS bought the U.S. rights for its affiliates.
Wiggins's description was priceless: "It was a one set soap opera!"
In 1975 Wiggins starred in the Canadian version of Swiss Family Robinson which ran for two seasons and 26 episodes on CTV stations/
"We're up against a very fancy American version," Wiggins told me on the set.
"And yet I think ours is better because it emphasizes the tightness of the family unit."
Other TV series that starred Wiggins included Hangin In (1981), Mariah (1987), Friday's Curse (1987-90), which ran for 65 episodes, By Way Of The Stars (1992).
He also voiced such series as The Care Bear Family (1986),  Babar (1989), Rupert (1991) and Redwall (1999).
In short here was a lovely man and a fine Canadian TV star.