Friday, June 24, 2016

Lawren Harris Receives His Due In New TV Portrait











Film makers Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont faced a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in their new documentary Where The Universe Sings: The Spiritual Journey Of Lawren Harris.
Harris, a Group of Seven Artist died in 1970 aged 85 and all the contemporaries who knew him have died as well.
Harris's grandchildren are interviewed but even they are elderly.
Still,  Harris's remarkable journey springs alive and his odyssey is both dramatic and poignant.
You can see for yourself: Where The Universe Sings premieres on TVOntario Saturday June 25 at 9 p.m.
Lang is a first time director while veteran Raymont won an Emmy for another documentary Shake Hands With The Devil.
The beautifully made portrait is only the latest example of the commitment to quality documentaries TVO is making as compared to the startling drop off at CBC.
Last month TVO's My Millennial Life was the best Canadian made documentary of the month.
This June that mantle passes again to TVO for Where The Universe Sings.
Over 130 of his paintings get showcased here but there are also Harris family home movies including the majestic scenes shot by Harris during his seminal ocean voyage into the High Arctic.
"The film coincides with an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario," Lang says. "But he has always been appreciated here at home."
The story begins with the recent sale of a Harris work and the adulation of comic Steve Martin who mistakenly thought he was discovering a long lost Canadian master.
"He came from a very wealthy Toronto family --they owned Massey Harris," explains Raymont.
Early paintings show what kind of a city Toronto was at the turn of the century --there are even figures seen on the streets --he didn't just paint landscapes.
A 1913 trip to a Buffalo art exhibit showed him  how to move past contemporary constraints of society.
The portrait of Harris is of an inward painter striving to find himself.
Trips to Algoma starting in 1916 opened up his art and together with other Seven artists he threw off the shackles of  nineteen century attitudes.
"No doubt about it he communed with Nature," Lang says. "The trips to northern Ontario opened up his perspective."
Harris was wealthy enough to live in Forest Hill. He had three children but his treatment of his first wife was sexist by our standards. And later he divorced her and married soul mate Bess Housser.
The first Mrs. Harris "lived on in an apartment in north Toronto and never remarried," Lang reports.
The epochal sea trip through Arctic waters produced many stunning canvases. These are triumphs of loneliness and austerity but have incredible emotional power.
I like the way his friendship with Emily Carr is depicted.
Harris's own letters and writings are voiced by Colm Feore and Eric Peterson voices A.Y. Jackson, one of Harris's staunchest supporters.
Also interviewed:  AGO's Andrew Hunter, Vancouver Art Gallery's Ian Thom, curator Sarah Milroy, biographer Peter Larisey, author Dennis Reid.
TVO gets the first window and this brilliant portrait will later be seen on Documentary.
Am I the only one who found Harris's later foray into abstract art underwhelming.
"It's not what makes him famous," laughs Lang. "And he did it when he was at Dartmouth College and later when he was at Santa Fe, He never completely left his mountains behind. him."
There are even extracts from some TV conversations when Harris was white haired and shaky, still searching in his art and continuing his spiritual journey.
Raymont says there's a longer theatrical version he hopes will be shown at TIFF.
This tightly edited hour is satisfying on several levels, a must-see slice of Canadiana.
I see it as a companion documentary to Raymont and Lang's equally propelling documentary West Wind, a 2011 documentary on Tom Thomson.
WHERE THE UNIVERSE SINGS PREMIERES ON TVONTARIO SATURDAY JUNE 25 at 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.








Saturday, June 11, 2016

I Remember Gordie Howe




As a little kid I'd watch Gordie Howe on Hockey Night In Canada in the dear departed Fifties.
Hockey coverage in those days was in black and white and the hockey game only came on at 8 p.m. because the Toronto Maple Leafs feared telecasting a whole game would result in faltering attendance.
Occasionally I'd get to actually go to the Gardens --I was there in 1959 for the very last time Rocket Richard scored a goal on Toronto ice.
Flash forward three decades later --actually it was 1986 --and I'm in Los Angeles at the Century Plaza hotel for the semi-annual Television Critics Association meetings.
That was in the day when newspapers still had TV critics.
And there I was in the vast ballroom during ABC's presentation and it was arranged that for .lunch I'd meet that great Canadian Alan Thicke.
We'd been pals since I interviewed him at the King Edward hotel for his daily CTV interview show.
I saw Thicke waiting at the back and he said he had two house guests who would join us.
And out of the shadows stepped Gordie Howe and his beautiful wife Colleen.
In all the TV tributes to Howe the wonderful Colleen was barely mentioned.
That day we walked across the courtyard and went into the coffee shop.
Gordie Howe was very nice and very shy.
And I noticed Colleen ordered for him.
"I know exactly what Gord wants," she said with a titter.
And when the steak sandwich arrived Colleen cut it into tiny pieces.
"It looks a bit tough," Thicke teased her. "You could chew it a bit for him, too?"
And Colleen laughed again,.
Any question I directed to Gord Colleen answered.
 She was the keeper of the statistics and she did all the deals, kept the books, everything so Gord could concentrate on the game.
At one point Thicke asked Howe how many stitches he'd had on his face.
And Colleen answered right away --I forget the exact figure but it was well over 200.
But she did mention she gave up driving recently and she seemed unsure of herself when we left the restaurant.
She asked where we were going.
Gord was everything I expected a super star to be and Colleen was definitely his full prtmer in every facet of life.
When she died of Alzheimer's in 2009 I'm sure that was a gut wrenching moment for Gordi.
Howe's death days after Muhammad Ali's passing merely reflects the reality that our athletic stars are mortals after all.
Which means we should embrace their extraordinary exploits all the more.



Friday, June 10, 2016

Rogers:More Americam Series





Rogers TV has announced a 2016 fall TV schedule full of American imports but low on quality homegrown scripted series.
But is this really news?
Basically the three Canadian networks hustle down to Hollywood in early June and buy virtually all the returning and new U.S. series.
These series are then simulcast with the U.S. networks and any spaces left in the schedules fall to the Canadian entries.
City has a huge block of American returning shows including Scorpion, 2 Broke Girls, Modern Family, Mom, Black-ish, Brooklyn, Hell's Kitchen, New Girl, The Middle and The Mindy Project.
CTV is so mighty it can grab any U..S. series it wants.
Then Global jumps in and finally it's Citytv's turn --meaning Citytv often gets the break out shows as CTV prefers to play ultra safe.
New shows to City include The Odd Couple, Lethal Weapon, Son Of Zorn with such titles as Shots Fired, The Mick and Making History coming on in midseason.
There are no Canadian shows scripted or otherwise I can see until Saturday night rolls around and then it's Hockey Night In Canada yanked from CBC.
Don't forget an hour of Canadian content counts as 90 minutes in the weird world of CRTC calculations.
And then there are the Blue Jays which run on Rogers sports channels to surging ratings.
That huge chunk of Canadian sports must be paid for and that huge expense not only means big profits from Rogers it also means there's no room left for Canadian drama or quality at this time.
The old Citytv did have a proud tradition of making quality home grown scripted dramas including Godiva's and Murdoch Mysteries which has found a new home on CBC.





Wednesday, June 8, 2016

CTV's Fall Programming: New U.S. Shows Dominate





I always enjoy myself at the "CTV Upfronts" held annually at the Sony Center.
Booze and dailies are served with abandon to thousands of potential advertising buyers and CTV also imports bunches of top American TV stars.
But the difference at CTV is a firm commitment to Canadian programming something I find lacking at Globasl and Rogers..
It's supposed to be 50 per cent Canadian content in prime time but no network seems eager to hit that mark.
Instead CTV has plowed its doug into such admirable locally made hour dramas as Flashpoint, Motive, The Listener and the still running Saving Hope which returns mid-season to the schedule.
CTV says it is committed to a new six-part hour drama The Cardinal based on the John Cardinal mysteries by Giles Blunt to star Billy Campbell (The Killing) and Canadian actress Karine Vanasse.
Discovery Channel, a Bell Media subsidiary, will produce its first scripted series Frontier starring Alan Hawco (Republic Of Doyle) and Jason Moma (Game Of Thrones) set in the era of rivalry between the Hudson's Bay Company and New France.
Netflix will pick it up in the U.S. --a first for a CTV series.
CTV is also making in association with CraveTV Russian Peters Is The Indian Dective cast as a Toronto cop who finds himself called on when vacationing in Mumbai.
CTV is saying it needs to attract more female viewers so the network is slowly but surely veering away from comic superheroes and into more touchy feely shows.
So the new series Conviction will star Hayley Atwell as a troubled lawyer and daughter of a U.S. president working on wrongful conviction cases. Co-starring are Eddie Cahill and Canadian actor Shawn Ashmore.
Then there's the new show Notorious starring Piper Perabo as a top female producer.
Also, Toronto's Kiefer Sutherland returns to series TV as an American cabinet minister in Designated Survivor --the cabinet gets blown up and he becomes U.S. president.
Also new: Conviction starring Hayley Atwell and Eddie Cahill, Many Moore and Milo Ventimiglia in This Is Us, a TV spinoff of The Exorcist to headline Geena Davis, and Katy Nixon in American housewife, Kevin Williamson's  time traveling drama Yo,e After Time
Bravo is getting a face lift with such new series as Shooter from the Mark Wahlberg movie to star Ryan Philippe and Omar Epps,'hen there;'s the female centric series Famous In Love starring Belkla Thorne plus Queen Sugar produced by Oprah Winfrey.
CTV continues its stranglehold as Canada's most watched network.
It has the number one newscast starring Lisa LaFlamme and its W5 current affairs show has been on forever.
I also had the chance to catch up with old pal Lloyd Robertson now fronting CTV's W5. I reminded him I was in the audience that day he defected from CBC to CTV right in the middle of the CTV Upfronts.
""Ultimately both networks benefitted," Robertson said. "CBC was able to break the stranglehold of the unions who forbid the CBC anchor from touching the script and with Harvey Kirck CTV finally became a big time news competitor."
But I submit CTV network has stumbled badly by canceling its morning staple Canada AM after 43 years.
Would CBS ever dare cancel 60 MInutes or NBC ditch Today?
Of course not.
These are brands and CTV desperately needs such staplers as Canada AM.
A new morning show will emerge this fall from its downtown studios to star the innocuous Ben Mulroney.
When a grinning Mulroney took the stage another TV critic whispered to me "He's beginning to look and act exactly like Jay Leno."
And I'm also hoping sooner than later CTV will jump start a Canadian late night talk show --it has a bunch of U.S. night time talk imports but there's been nothing Canadian since Mike Bullard's hey days.




Global TV Plans A New Season Of U.S. Hits




I stopped going to Global TV's fall TV up fronts years ago,
The reason is simply Global ploughs  most of its money into buying up U.S. imports and never does enough in Canadian TV programming.
I speak as the first TV critic to venture into the new Global Television studios in Don Mills way back in 1972.
Founding president Al Bruner took me on a tour that lasted for hours and I met the two bright new network news anchors Peter Trueman and Peter Desbarats.
And what an exciting array of Canadian series: Pierre Berton contributed his new series My Country.
There was the comedy skit show Shhhh! It's The News with Don Harron and Barbara Hamilton.
Bernie Braden came back from British stardom for a new current affairs show.
And I was on the set of the daily variety series starring Norm Crosby --I remember chatting up the guest of the day Noel Harrison.
Then came the crash within months of sign in --Bruner had unwisely jump started this new network in January when all the TV advertising revenue had already been forked out to competitors CBC, CTV and CHCH.
And I covered the midnight CRTC hearings as the network sank into bankruptcy as the industry vultures hovered around waiting for the kill.
So I know Global inside out.
Today's Global is part of the Shaw Media empire.
And as usual the 2016-17 schedule will include a plethora of U.S. imports.
NCIS star Michael Weatherby will star in the new import Bull.
Montreal actress Kylie Bunbury (Under The Dome) stars as the first major p[itcher to p;lay in the MLB in the series Pitch.
The remake of MacGyver will star Peter Lenkoff and be situated in Hawaii.
Pure Geniusswill star Augiustus Pew as a young Silicon Valley billionaire.
Abigail Spencer (Suits) and Matt Lanter (90210) chase mysterious criminals in Timeless.
New comedies include Kevin James (King Of Queens) in Kevin Can Wait.
Matt LeBlanc (Friends) tries another comeback in Man With A Plan.
Kirsten Bell and Ted Danson will be in The Good Place.
Joel McHale (Community) is back with The Great Indoors.
But where are the Canadian shows?  Global is supposed to have 50 per cent Canadian content in prime time.
Well, there's Ransom which Global is co-producing with France's TFI starring Luke Roberts described as an original suspense drama.
And in production this summer there's Mary Kills People with Caroline Dhavernas as a single mother and emergency doctor.
And let's not forget the fifth season of Big Brother Canada.








Sunday, June 5, 2016

I Remember Muhammad Ali






The day last week when Muhammad Ali passed I casually mentioned to a friend "Oh, I Met Him Twice".
My friend stopped eating lunch and glared at me.
"You must be awfully proud?"
And I answered  truthfully "I never really thought about those two casual encounters."
The first was in June 1974 at the Century Plaza hotel, venue for the twice annual Television Critics Association  junkets.
And there I was in the ballroom of the hotel lunching with --now get this --Howard Cosell.
Cosell liked me and remembered me from the 1972 junket to Pebble Beach where we had sort of played golf.
I had let him win easily which he boasted about all day.
So two years later he spotted my name on the list of TV invitees and I got to sit beside the Great One.
 Up close and personal Cosell was something else.
His toupee looked pasted on, he wore heavy TV makeup because he said he had come from an ABC-TV taping.
We chatted about this and that and then the doors flew open and who should stride in but Muhammad Ali.
The TV critics stopped chattering. Silence ensued.
And Ali walked right over to Cosell's table and started playfully shouting.
"Cosell, I made you and I'm gonna break you.
"Cosell I'm prettier than you are."
Cosell : "Heck anybody is prettier than me."
Ali: "Cosell who is the greatest in the world?"
Cosell" "Frazier."
Ali: "Cosell your day is done."
Cosell":"My soup is cold."
And then Ali exited the other set of doors shouting "Cosell, my hair is real."
Cosell sat there grinning like a Cheshire cat.
And then he said "Ali is right. I made him and he made me."
When Cassius Clay changed his name to Muijammad Ali other broadcasters refused to address him as such.
"I respected what he was standing for and I always called him Ali after that," Cosell told me.
"When he refused to fight in Vietnam I understood completely."
"TYherte is always a sparkle in his eyes when we meet. He knows I'll always give him a fair shake."
In 1992 a visibly aged Cosell came out of retirement to salute Ali on his 50th birthday and Ali smiled for the first time that night.
Together they constituted the oddest couple in TV history and both knew it.
Imagine my shock a short five years later in 1979 when ushered into Ali's suite at again the Century Plaza hotel.
Ali had switched to acting and was starring in a TV movie opposite Kris Kristofferson titled Freedom Road. Based on the Howard Fast book it was intended by ABC to be the next Roots.
But what U.S.  TV critics and I saw was a very different man.
He spoke so slowly he could scarcely be heard.
One hand visibly shook.
There were stories somebody had dubbed large swathes of dialogue because it was so hard to understand him..
Was it Rich Lyttle who had also dubbed Jimmy Cagney and David Niven?
Ali said a few pleasantries but was visibly shrunken and shuffled like an old man.
I felt terribly sad and did not mention his diminished appearance in the column I filed.
And that was that.
So there you have it --my two encounters with Muhammad Ali.
And I remember both 40 years on --my contacts with one of the truly greats of our age.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Farewell To Canada AM.






CTV is making a terrible mistake in canceling Canada AM after 43 years.
The show's understandably confused hosts switched off Friday morning with tears.
The pioneering morning TV show was one of the few Canadian brand names left on CTV and its loss is pretty awful.
Before Canada AM Canadian viewers had to watch NBC's Today or the CBS Morning News.
With Canada AM CTV finally had a flagship morning news show and a very popular one at that.
Ask your next door neighbor what CTV shows they watch and you just might get a blank stare these days.
That's because the very Canadian nature of the network is fast fading.
The Canadian Radio-television Commission is to blame --those yahoos at the CRTC cut back the number of hours of Canadian content needed on Canadian networks during the daytime.
The cancellation of Canada AM is one of the first casualties of this misguided new policy.
I well remember in 1985 the private networks got together and demanded the CRTC relax its strict rules about the number of scripted dramatic series they had to provide every season.
"Trust us! We'll do this on our own!" they promised at CRTC meetings and the wacky Commissioners actually  believed them and abolished the drama regulation altogether.
In 1985 there were 12 quality scripted Canadian TV series.
The next season only two were left.
I hold the CRTC directly responsible for the declining quality of Canadian TV these days.
I know in 1972 my colleague Jack Miller then TV critic at the Toronto Star caused an uproar in Parliament when he sat down to read the entire briefing books of the Bureau Of Broadcast Measurement which calculated ratings in the Toronto area.
And Jack wrote a scahting story saying the average Toronto viewer spent less than 10 per cent of his prime time viewing on Canadian fare.
Today with CBC's continuing decline and the absolute lack of Canadian prime time series on Global and Rogers I'm estimating that figure must be down to 2 or 3 per cent.
The CRTC should be demanding more Canadian content and not less.
Was I the first TV critic to ever visit the Canada AM set?
In September 1971 I ventured up to Agin court to check out CFTO studios and the Canada AM cast which then consisted of anchors Carole Taylor and Percy Saltzman.
Saltzman wasn't talking much to Carole which made it difficult for me to write my column.
I went back when Helen Hutchinson took over and back again for a profile of Norm Perry.
CTV is hinting a new show to star Ben Mulroney may be unveiled at next week's TV critics meeting in downtown Toronto.
If CBC wanted a serious new show they'd make Kevin Donovan in as chair.
All I'm saying is Canada is a powerful CTV brand as powerful as 60 Minutes is to CBS or Today is to NBC.
Change it, move it downtown, but please keep the name.
It only took 43 TV seasons for Canada AM to become an important part of the CanadianTV landscape.

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