Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Divided Brain Divides Me

CBC's Documentary channel sent me a video link to a new 78-minute documentary The Divided Brain.
My left brain said no but my right brain said take a shot and since I'm an impulsive guy I watched and found it tremendously fascinating.
You can check it out on Documentary Sunday Sept. 22 at 9 p.m.
I think there'll be other showings during the next few weeks.
Dr. Iain Gilchrist is our fascinating hosts and he doesn't just stay in a classroom and read from his lecture notes.
We go on a dizzying wild ride from visits with various stroke victims to a fancy rehab centre high in the Swiss mountains to a guest appearance from John Cleese who helps explain why comics are heavily dependent on their right cortex.
For a documentary about such a complex subject the pace is very fast moving from the Egyptian pyramids to physicians who've battled their own brain problems to little kids who rely more on their right brain in early childhood.
Gilchrist originally taught English Lit at Cambridge University and it was there that he first realized our modern world is trapped in some dangerous imbalances.
We go to Maudsley hospital, constructed for Great War veterans, to see how people with strokes cope
We're told in the modern world that left and right hemispheres are constantly in conflict with each other.
I finally learned how my pet pigeon could differentiate between pebbles and grain kernels --so much for the term "bird brands".
Cleese trained as a lawyer but was only able to utilize his right cortex when he switched to comedy.
I feared this might degenerate into "talking heads" documentary but exactly the opposite is true.
The images are truly astonishing although I strongly suspect Gilchrist sometimes romanticizes the past.
In modern society he sees evidence of "a fix" favouring left brain accomplishments.
What he wishes for us all is more a sense of balance instead of our acquiescence in unlimited material growth.
I found the segment with a brain expert who suffered an aneurysm most fascinating--as her brain started to shit down she felt a kind of thrill at witnessing this first hand.
Talking to a group of New York graduate students Gilchrist is himself called out but he handles the dissension with verve.
The theme --our brain is not as mechanical as clockwork--is in itself revolutionary.
The human brain has remained the same in modern times but visits to people in Tahiti and the Amazon show how some peoples have not succumbed to theme to the left.
And talking to a Blackfoot chief Gilchrist sees that almost everything in that culture is animate --cuture produces these biological differences.
This outstanding production was made by Matter Of Fact Media --Vanessa Dylyn produced and the director is Manfred Baker.
I'' try to find out other airdates, I promise.


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

I Remember Rod Coneybeare

So there I was at The Hamilton Spectator in September 1971 and it was my first day on the job as TV critic.
My wonderful first features editor, Alex Beer, said he wanted me to start by surveying the state of children's TV and he even had the headline: "Sunshine Supermen".
And so the next morning I was on the bus to Buffalo to interview Commander Tom whose show for kids ran afternoons on WKBW-TV.
A day or so later I was on another bus --this time to Toronto to interview Bob Homme of CBC's Friendly Giant as well as Ernie Coombs who was Mr. Dressup.
That's my long winded way of saying I first met puppeteer Rod Coneybeare on the set of Mr. Dressup.
First shock: the series shared a studio up Jarvis Street with Knowlton Nash's The National news.
"We have to be out of here by 5 p.m.'' exclaimed Rod with that wry smile of his.
And so I spent a leisurely day on the set of this wonderful show. I saw the castle and the other sets.
I watched an unhurried taping as Homme said the introduction "Look up! Look way up!"
Friendly Giant was one of CBC-TV's greatest ever hits.
And yet Homme resolutely refused any commercialization of the show --there were no dolls or other accoutrements mass produced to sell to the kiddies.
"Guess I'm old fashioned," Homme smiled. "But the show is for kids and not the advertisers. I'll fight any effort at commercialization."
I loved watching the great rapport between Homme and Coneybeare who was the puppeteer and supplied the voices for Jerome the Giraffe andRusty the Rooster.
"I see Jerome as a kind of slow drawling Jimmy Stewart," Coneybeare said with a bit of a smile.
'"One thing we must never do is talk down to the kids. We treat them with kindness and courtesy and it has always worked out very well."
Homme came out of Wisconsin TV in the early 1950 as did his pal Mr. Rogers.
And I was surprised how much rehearsal went into every 15-minute show.
"We teach a little bit, we entertain a bit,"Coneybeare told me that day.
"And it works. By the time they go into Grade One we've lost them as daily viewers. Hopefully we've educated them and sent them on the way to be good and thoughtful to everyone they meet at school."
"I think I have a wonderful rapport with Rod," Homme said with a wide grin. "He's here because he wants to be --it's not for the money."
But the show absolutely had to be finished by 5 p.m.
"After that time they roll off our sets," Coneybeare told me. "And they roll in the set for The National."
Coneybeare also produced a CBC quiz show for a while --Yes, You're Wrong. And in later years he wrote for the Don Adams sitcom Check It Out which was produced in Toronto.
I had one later meeting with Coneybeare in the early1980s.
Toronto's Crest Theatre had been converted into a repertory house for old MGM flicks and I went one  Saturday afternoon to watch The Philadelphia Story.
I found a seat and looked up and there was Coneybeare smiling at me in the next seat.
"You have great taste in old movies," he cracked.
Coneybeare was 85 at his death and leaves his wife and several grown children and grandchildren.

Monday, September 9, 2019

The Nature Of Things Continues To Fascinate

So here I am at Ryerson University for the retirement of eminent teacher and filmmaker David Tucker who in his day contributed several outstanding films for CBC's The Nature Of Things.
And gathered around Tucker are other NOT alumnae who are in complete agreement with me that this is one CBC series which has lost none of its lustre.
Just to prove my point I'm telling them I've just previewed another NOT gem which runs on CBC Friday Oct. 25 at 9 p.m. --First Animals, the title alone is intriguing.
This magnificent example of a pioneering NOT documentary was written and co-produced by veteran Andrew Gregg whose work I have been reviewing since his days on CBC's The Journal.
What really excites me about First Animals is that it introduces a possible new CBC star in evolutionary biologist Dr. Maydianne Andrade who teaches at Scarborough College.
The show is introduced as ever by the legendary geneticist Dr. David Suzuki who once posed nude for a cover of Starweek TV guide and at 83 seems as evergreen and vital as ever.
But this one depends on Dr. Andrade's agility as she sprints up a rock formation in B.C., the Burgess  Shale deposit that has been revealing clues to earth's past since the first Smithsonian expedition there in 1909.
We watch the way shale deposits are cracked open to reveal the very first animals who populated this sea 500 million years Ago.
Trapped in the sediment these creatures were perfectly preserved and they are indeed very odd --looking more like willowy plants than actual animals.
Through Dr. Maydiane Andrade's questions to the soft spoken Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron we become involved in this mystery hunt for the very first animals and with one crack a new species is discovered.
I liked Dr. Caron's line "They are staring at us after 500 million years."
It looks huge compared to the other finds --a sort of space ship with a gigantic shell and eyes at the bottom as it plowed the ocean floor for nutrients but also able to peer above for possible predators.
"Filming conditions were arduous," Gregg reports on the phone. "We weren't sure what if anything could be discovered during our shoot but instead we came away with a major finds."
Gregg's approach is to get to know these biologists and become fascinated by their laborious searching.
"We literally hit pay dirt," Gregg reports."It could be a major find as we track the evolution of  first animals."
This one is so well edited and presented it will have you wanting more.
"Well, there is a longer version, 10 more minutes of info," Gregg says.
But the CBC version is masterfully put together. we get to know just enough about Andrade and the senior researcher on the mountain cliff, softly spoken and humorous Jean-Bernard Caron.
Host Andrade is a natural for TV. She knows how to ask the right questions and Gregg admits "Getting those shots is a matter of luck, too, and we were really lucky this time."
There's a side visit to another site in Newfoundland and its even older --some 565 million years ago this was the sea bed. Some of these specimens lack eyes and a gut but they are not plants.
We're then transported to the back research rooms of ROM never penetrated by the public. We see  artists tracing out how this "Spaceship" creature must have navigated through the water.
Through the magic of animation the creatures live again, we see how they could speed through water, how they must have dominated their watery environment."
"It's quite a journey, I agree," laughed Gregg.
The hour also introduces us to a potential new star for future NOT episodes. Dr. Andrade knows how to ask questions and how to involve viewers in her search.
And the best thing about? First Animals?
There isn't a boring second-- it's so expertly and tight edited it will have you wishing for more.
MY RATING: ****.

Monday, September 2, 2019

I Remember Valerie Harper

News that my friend Valerie Harper had died from cancer aged 80 was disturbing but not unexpected.
Harper was battling the strange illness of cancer of the membrane of the brain lining and had several reprieves when she was declared cancer free.
But it reminded me of the wonderful times I had interviewed her at ,length and the warmth and friendship she had always shown me.
Here are highlights of our conversations:
BAWDEN: Here we are at a 1980 dinner at the Century Plaza hotel and you're with your husband fitness expert Tony Cacciotti.  People forget youre an accomplished dramatic actress and the TV movie Shadow Box (1980) must be one of your personal favorites.
HARPER:: It was directed by Paul Newman and looked at thee couples copping with terminal cancer at a hospital retreat. Joanne Woodward and Chris Plummer were one couple, IOIOIOI and Sylvia Sidney were the second and Jimmy Broderick and I played the third. He was a marvellous dramatic actor  (and star of Family) and he succumbed shortly afterwards to cancer and he never told me about it. It must have been so hard for him to be playing sick and actually have cancer but denying it for fear of being fired.
BAWDEN: These opportunities come to you because of your fame as TV's Rhoda.
HAPER: I completely realize that. It's the power of TV. It washes away everything else you've ever done. It's scary but also challenging. I was an unknown before I joined the MTM stock company.
BAWDEN: So how were you hired?
HAPER: By a sage casting director Ethel Winant who had spotted me at Second City improv outings. She called me in. I read for various people with the intent of becoming an eccentric sidekick to Mary Tyler Moore in her new 1970 sitcom and I got it. I wanted to shed few pounds but I was told "Stay large. you can play off that." So I didn't lose weight until the break before the second season.
We already had filmed a batch before we came on the air. The front seats were filled with CBS executives and their wives and everything seemed to point rot a hit from the first taping.
We'd shoot one show at 7 and a second show at 9:30 and from the first episode nothing much was changed. The writers and producers headed by Jim Brooks wrote so well that we didn't have to change a comma. The audiences were enthusiastic but they were invitees so one couldn't be quite sure.
BAWDEN: Remember your first lines?
HARPER: In the premiere episode I  flounce into Mary's apartment where she's unpacking and say "I have to lose 10 pounds by 8:30." And the audience screamed. I thought it was funny in rehearsal but not that funny.
HARPER: Tell me how the structure or hierarchy of the show worked.
'HARPER: Well, it was Mary's show but she never got tough with us on the set. I'm sure she had talks behind the scenes as to what she wanted to achieve. Mary Richards was a transitional figure. She was over 30 but she was unmarried and not divorced --the CBS censor said "No divorcee"! Mary just shrugged, she told me on her first (The Dick Van Dyke Show) the censor had initially balked her wearing  slacks so much.
BAWDEN: Did that make her TV's first feminist?
HAZRPER: Well, the character didn't want to marry at that stage in her life. She wanted a career. Whether or not any of the boyfriends slept over wasn't quite clear.
BAWDEN: How did the week progress?
HARPER: There was a table read on Mondays. Very few lines were cut. Something might be sharpened a bit. Then on Tuesday there was a dress rehearsal, that sort of thing. It became very leisurely with blocking starting on Wednesday and first rehearsals Thursday and we'd do the show on Friday. The success of MTM meant the company boughtt out the old  Republic studios and turned many of the stages into mini theatres for TV sitcoms.
BAWDEN: I remember one MTM party that took place for TV critics and the entire top floor of Chasen's was filled with a star at every take. I got Paul Sands from Friends And Lover, a rare MTM sitcom that didn't ,make it.
BAWDEN: I was listening in to the pre-dinner conversation at this gala and one of my fellow critics was pissed off you really weren't Jewish.
HARPER: I know! I told him it was great acting!I was born in a small town in upstate New York. I'm really not an urban creature at all. And by the way my mom isCanadian. born in Calgary. In fact we're thinking of getting her back there for the 50th anniversary of her graduation from the Calgary School of Nursing. I'm getting excited about that.
BAWDEN: What about your personal relationship with Mary Yyler Moore?
HARPER: What about it? She was my  boss, I'm the employee. Look, we're acting associates and friends. But there's a distancing around Mary. I'd never bother her with trivial matters.
BAWDEN: When they proposed a spin off what was your reaction?
HARPER: I was stunned. Why leave a surefire hit? But they kept pushing and finally in 1974 Rhoda came about and Mary even made an early appearance to help boost the show. You know Rhoda's wedding attracted a near record audiemce. But I was always leery, I thought she was funnier as a single. We ran four years and 110 episodes but spin offs are almost always less popular than the original.
CBS started us off Mondays at 9:30 hammock between Maude and Meduical Center and up against ABC football and NBC Monday night movies and it was a rough slot.
We barely survived--it was too late so CBS plopped us Mondays at 8 before Rhoda and All In The Family and we started to grow.
In 1977 we went Sundays at 8 after 60 Minutes and had high audiences. In 1978 we went on Saturday nights at 8 which was becoming the lowest rated night of the week and we died, just died there.
BAWDEN: But your wedding became a real TV event.
HARPER: I think it got something g like 50 million viewers.But people did not want to see Rhoda happily married. She lost her zing.So I gradually separated from Joe and finally got a divorce and all this was painful and not helpful. And I hated hurting David Groh who is such an accomplished actor. We brought back Nancy Walker as my ma but laughs were infrequent.  All those chefs at CBS had destroyed a sound comedic character and I was relieved it got cancelled. Mary had already closed down her show in 1977.
BAWDEN: But Mary and Rhoda were reunited?
HARPER: In 1980 we joined up for a reunion thingy which was an adult TV movie and not comedy. Not a great idea. People did not like these two as serious. It was a stark reminder they were getting old as we were. It was a bad idea I felt from the first day  of filming. Nobody cares to remember that dud but you.
BAWDEN: Tell me about Valerie.
HARPER:  Here's your scoop for tomorrow's edition. I'm not coming back. I'm not playing second fiddle to a bunch of teenaged boys. No, I won't do it. NBC put us up against the second half hour of Murder She Wrote. So we're a semi-success. But not with this girl. Not now. Not any time.
NOTE: As it turned out Harper came back for one episode and then walked again to be replaced by Sandy Duncan as a new character and with a new title Valerie Family.
Then in 1990 my phone at The Toronto Star was ringing an d Valerie Harper was cooing:"I'm back."
HARPER: It's called The Office and we're on CBS directly opposite guess what show --Valerie's Family. And on my show I have a grand gal LuAnne Ponce and she's the sister of Danny Ponce who I worked with before leaving. So the talks over breakfast in that house must be very interesting. I'm the secretary for packaging company and I've been there for 19 yearns Dakin Matthews is my inept boss and comedy ensues.
But both series crashed in the ratings fairly quickly.
I had one more phone call when Harper guested on Hot In Cleveland in 1990
HARPER: It's as close to a reunion show as we'll ever get, Mary is battling illness but she's still super disciplined. It was so wonderful just to see her and Cloris and Betty White and the whole thing was shot very quickly because we're veterans after all.
My disease is in remission. I'm a fighter first and foremost. In 2010 I played Talullah Bankhead on Broadway. I've done Dancing With The Stars --I started as a dancer. I'm grateful for the friends I've made and the TV shows I've been in. Rhoda I think of as my best friend, she's helped me get a slice of the acting pie and I ran with it and I'm still running as fast as I can.