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.