Friday, December 30, 2011

Ron James Rolls In Another Year on CBC-TV

A very strange thing is happening on New Year's Day on Canadian TV.
There are actually back-to-back new hour long specials and both are 100 % Canadian.
As far as 2011 goes Canadian content virtually disappeared from some so-called Canadian TV networks. Let's hope happier days are ahead.
But CBC-TV has a new RCAF New Year's Day Special on Monday at 8 pm. that's right welcome.
And at 9 p.m. Ron James roars back with his own take in his New Year's Edition.
Both specials normally run on New Year's Eve but would anybody expect CBC-TV to give up top-rated NHL hockey for even one night? Not me!
James has been fabricating these specials for six years now and has got the format down part.
First of all he's resolutely Canadian from his Maritime twang to his insistence on sending up the mundane details of Canadian lives.
I'm honor bound not to give away his best lines but he goes right after the obesity epidemic in the States and especially that heavily sugard breakfast cereal for kids with the vampire on the box.
Michael Ignatieff diesn't get off Scott free --James jokes that after leading the LIberals to their worst ever electoral defeat Iggy is not teaching political science at U of T.
Joining James are two icons of Canadian TV: Sonja Smits whose feat of three hit Canadian TV drama series in a row must be some kind of record: Street Legal, Traders, The Eleventh Hour.
But since Canadian networks ditched Canadian TV movies and most Canadian TV dramas that couldn't be peddled to the U.S. as American fodder she's been rightly concentrating on stage.
Also on the show but not in the same sketch is her Street Legal co-star Eric Peterson who recently finished dazzling us as one of the prairie funsters in Corner Gas.
James gives Peterson some droll moments as Sir John A. Macdonald in an inspired take off on Murdoch Mysteries set in a beautifully oaken paneled room that also presents Sir Wilfrid Laurier in a funny murder mystery with that comic twist.
James stars as nineteenth century detective Mordecai Moncton--this is such a hoot maybe James should spring out this character into a regular series of his own.
After al;l James one starred in the unhistorical adventures of a British fortress titled Blackfly. Anybody remember that one?
Smits is more to the point garbed in dazzling red and looking more than a little like Lisa Laflamme as she reads the riot act against meek and mild James for shooting up a certain jolly, bearded gentleman whose only offense was riding through the sky.
One reason why these skits work so well: there are many quick cuts to the audience with huge close ups of people laughing heartily.
It's like in the radio days when Jack Benny would strategically place hearty laughters in his studio audience.
Watching other people laugh just makes the rest of us giggle.
James doesn't do just one monologue, he does three artfully spliced throughout the hour.
And, yes, there's also a visit from Aunt Vivien who delivers her annual message to the royal family. She does get quite rude when addressing the problem with Princess Kate's sister's "caboose". And there's a requisite "Little Ronnie" animated bit.
And finally comes a big and bright hugely staged musical number to welcome in the New Year.
In short a Canadian TV show for all Canadians. Imagine that.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Alan Park And CBC-TV's RCAF Back With A Bang

Chatted up talented Alan Park of RCAF fame but because of holiday deadline this was before the actual preview DVD for Not The New Year's Eve Special actually arrived for me to review.
With the DVD running I can now report I'm liking a lot of it. But my suspicion continues CBC made a bad mistake in canceling one of its most valuable franchises.
CBC sources told me at the time the series was pink slipped it had nothing to do with ratings which were actually climbing and even surpassed some shows that got pick ups. It had to do with foreign sales: RCAF with its dead on parodies of the like of Stephen Harper proved a tough sell in foreign markets.
Park was part of a foursome of younger comics imported to beef up RCAF. The others: Jessica Holmes, Penelope Corrin and Craig Lauzon.
Only Holmes is missing from this annual edition which runs a day later than New Year's Eve to make way for CBC's NHL Hockey coverage. Back also are veterans Luba Goy and stalwart Don Ferguson.
I had already journeyed down to CBC's cavernous and mostly vacant Front Street studios to watch a Friday night taping that started at 7 p.m. and ambled on to 10:30. leaving the studio audience in a state approaching lethargy.
However, the actual show all spruced up and tightly edited for TV is lively and often hits marks with great malicious glee.
The funniest sketch I saw was a very bizarre parody of Mad Men which had its three players --Park, Corrin and Lauzon--in stitches and they had to stop several times to regroup.
But surprise! It was one of the pieces that got cut!
"Look, I don't edit the show," says Park. "But it was one of the bits that didn't make it for reasons of length.."
Park also does the dandiest impersonation of President Obama --not only does he look like the president when in nutmeg makeup he catches the guy's odd cadence --Obama always seems to lower his voice at the end of each line.
The skit has Oprah Winfrey --impersonated by guest Arnold Pinnock in the Lincoln bedroom as she suggest she should run for president.
The skit starts off terrifically but winds down clumsily and Pinnock in drag needs more padding to approach Winfrey's girth.
Park is plain terrific in a dead-on if highly exaggerated spoof of the way CBC's Ron James talks to his studio audience --I'm remembering it was James who got RCAF's weekly slot so maybe the malice is deserved.
Other highlights: Luba Goy as Ann McMillan interviewing Princess Kate and another Goy bit that has her facing Green Party leader Elizabeth May.
Lauzon shines as a simpering Stephen Harper and as the Blackberry president who offers customers a free iPhone so they can check for outages.
Corrin scores as the distaff side of the Lang and O'Leary report --even her thick red lipstick matches. The real Kevin O'Leary is present and as obnoxious as ever.
RCAF founding father Don Ferguson has fun with the RCAF timeline and as the world's most important man in a fake Mexican beer commercial.
The skits that got cut can still be seen on the RCAF webpage I'm told.
Also guesting on this edition: Ron MacLean, Adam Beach, wrestler Roddy Piper who is really funny.
This special boasts a new directotr Wayne Moss plus new writers in Rob Lindsay, Wayne Testori and Kevin Wallis.
Park told me there was an inevitable whiff of sadness -RCAF founder Roger Abbott died this year--and appears in a stock shot with the late John Morgan. Members of Abbott's family were in the audience.
Park says the Ron James parody was difficult --he wrote it and watched James clips to get the nuances of Maritimer speech.
"It's strange because a lot of our grips also work on his show. When I saw they got it I knew it was working."
I've always thought RCAF should tour in a format that would have them doing one of their radio broadcasts. I first caught the troupe iat Hamilton Place in 1979 doing such a show to an overflow audience..
Park agrees saying "We did talk about it but then Roger became sick and spent summers getting chemotherapy. He was trying to step back a bit you see."
Park says "I'm terrible at auditions"--one reason you don't see him in guest spots on TV drama series shot in Toronto. "So I'm not on Flashpoint --yet."
Aside from his RCAF TV work I wish Park and Corrin would try their own anti-sitcom --as a quarreling couple always trying to top each other at work and in life. I can almost see it now,
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Worst TV Of 2011

It's been quite a year for TV watchers like yours truly.
Canadian TV virtually disappeared from even so-called Canadian netorks during the fall with the compliance of the CRTC which is supposed to regulate these kind of things.
Reality TV sunk to a new low if that is possible --the relentlessly self promoting Kardashians were found out and how.
And Daytime TV sank like a stone with the cancellation of many soap operas that had been running for decades and the exiting of imperious Oprah Winfrey.
Here's my Ten Worst list of the TV disasters of the year.
1. PAN AM: It was rumored to be the big new hit of the year. Trouble is nobody told the TV audience who tuned in once and then tuned right out. One of the most expensive shows in recent years --I guess all the money was squandered on getting the accoutrements of the Fifties just so. Because $10 million was squandered on the plot. But all the intricate irony of Mad Men was gone and instead we got just another vintage soap. Story lines were underwhelming. The four gals were cute and completely unconvincing. What a letdown!
2. THE PLAYBOY CLUB: Another dopey return to the Fifties. But if you were Hugh Hefner's age then just maybe this one was for you. Eddie Cibrian was hired as the lead presumably because he looked a bit like Jon Hamm. But he couldn't act like Hamm, that was the problem. Seeing those busty young things adorned in their bunny outfits incensed the Parents Television Council but nobody else batted an eye. This one sank like a stone proving the Playboy Years are well past us. Who actually reads Playboy these days anyway?
3. PRIME SUSPECT: Mistake number one was snatching the name of the brilliant British show with Helen Mirren and then mucking around with the story. That excellent actress Mario Bello was left to flounder in a part making no sense. All the nuances of the original were junked and what remained was just another procedural thing. Critics fixated on Bello's masculine hats. Some excellent actors were scarcely used. Shooting in New York city did not help. A huge, boring bomb, this was predicted by Global's head programmer to be the big break out hit. But what a flop!
4. TERRA NOVA: Loved the CGI dinos. For about 10 minutes. Then realized there was no money left over for scripts. The look of this one shot in New Zealand was terrific. The family profiled emerged as simply dull and listless. I couldn't have cared less about their fate. Even the children I know stopped watching early on. This stinker proves tossing money at the screen doesn't make for good TV.
5. X FACTOR: So there he was on the talk shows, Simon Cowell I mean, and he was predicting huge numbers for the latest reality effort which he imported from Britain. But these kind of musical competitions have been copied so often boredom has set in. Even with Paula Abdul back at his side Cowell couldn't make it work. And let's face it the best contestants had already been nabbed by the competition. It emerged as simply predictable.
6. CHARLIE'S ANGELS: A real dog. Watching sweet young things racing around in swimwear no longer cuts it. This one flopped because the original producer Aaron Spelling is dead. And Spelling really believed in such trash, he was TV's great schlock meister. He chose Farrah Fawcett and the show went skyward in the ratings. And Aaron never would have chosen any of the latest batch of Angels. His poor taste meter would have given us far worse talent --hence his success.
7. TORCHWOOD: Moving the classy BBC sci fi show to America ruined it. The final British series, Torchwood: Children Of Earth was pretty wonderful. The U.S. follow up Torchwood: Miracle Day just didn't do it for me, a melange of some bold ideas and bad execution. Charismatic John Barrowman was even moved off center stage to make way for such American stars as Mekhi Phifer. So much of what followed was illogical and just plain confusing. After this mess it's unlikely we'll ever see another Torchwood which is too bad.
8. RINGER: Maybe this one wasn't terrible at all. Maybe it was just plain boring. I thought Sarah Michelle Gellar would have gotten a better vehicle for her TV comeback. But this was soap opera territory and not very well written. She simply looked lost. I simply felt disappointed. Everything about it rang false.
9. PIERS MORGAN: Replacing rapidly aging Larry King with this True Brit has been a colossal mistake for CNN. His show biz interviews are vapid. Larry boasted he never did any research before an interview and it showed --he could cut to the quick and Piers is merely fawning. Also, he has no sense of American politics and when King had politicos foisted on him he was blunt and impertinent.
10. 2 BROKE GIRLS: I thought the pilot had potential. But this one has morphed into a weekly remake of Lucy and Ethel. Or even worse Laverne and Shirley. There may be even worse new sitcoms out there but this one had all the makings of a fun show. I've stopped watching because there's only so much I can take.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Watching TV On Christmas Day

You can't spend all day unwrapping presents can you?
For some there's church in the early morning or at midnight on Christmas Eve.
And a hearty family meal at noon or 4 p.n. depending on the custom.
That leaves plenty of time to hunker down in front of the flickering TV set on Christmas day and night.
Among the highlights:
** The strangest marathon seems to be AMC's salute to Duke Wayne. How that ties in with Christmas I'll never know. But there are chances to catch up with such later day epics as El Dorado, Rio Bravo and that's plenty fine with me.
** HGTV counters with a Holmes On Holmes marathon. Every episode seems the same as the last. Gruff Mike enters a shoddily built new home only to discover dozens of discrepancies the homes inspector simply overlooked. Lots of bleak faces as homeowners are told it's gonna be a virtual redo. And at the hour's end Mike plays kissy face and hugs as he departs another holmes perfect.
** The Queen's Palaces is TVO's marathon --the British made series examines all those monstrous wrecks that constitute HM's homes. Most are old and dusty and however does she afford those heating bills? The look at Henry VIII's ruble was fascinating --spiders seemed to pop out of every crook. No wonder HM is always off to other countries --it's must be to get away from all those bill collectors.
** CBC plays it ultra safe with yet another rerun of Miracle On 34th Street (1947) showing us what a wonderfully civilized city New York was back in 1947 and a rerun of the 2010 TV special A Heartland Christmas.
** CTV dumps three Shrek movies in its prime time package with nothing Canadian about the lineup which is disappointing.
** Global has the 2006 flick Christmas On Chestnut Street but there's a conversation with Premier McGuinty at midnight.
** A&E which was once a real Arts and Entertainment channel has a Parking Wars marathon which really tickles me. See owners fight for the right to get their cars back despite the acres of (U.S.) government red tape.
** Not to be outdone History Channel has a Pawn stars marathon. Hey, this is one of the few reality shows I rather like, at least a bit of history gets mixed in there.
** Comedy has a Big Bang Theory marathon which is all right by me although I'd much prefer a Corner Gas marathon or a King Of Kensington one.
** Space has a Doctor Who marathon --I'm not sure which series this one is all about but it seems to be the latest edition.
** Outdoor L
** National Geographic has a Python Hunters marathon --if you like snakes.
** BBC Canada's marathon is one devoted to Property Virgins which is great but why a Canadian series getting pride of place on our sole British channel.
** But the winner of the best marathon programming is Discovery World HD with has a great marathon --all six hours of the flawless series Human Planet. I started watching the preview DVD and couldn't stop. The first hour, Life At The Extremes, looks at a whale hunter in Indonesia, the Dorobo hunters of Kenya who dare steal meat from a pride of lions, a little girl traveling 50 miles through the frozen mountains to school in Tibet. The photography is outstanding. Why not chose this one to watch?

Monday, December 19, 2011

The 10 Worst Christmas Movies On TV

I accepted a freelance assignment to view every single Christmas movie running on TV this season.
And it's getting me down already.
I've had to sit through some terrible stinkers let me tell you.
And here are the worst ones so far.
1. White Christmas (1954) is just plain awful. Oh, there are a few great Irving Berlin ditties along the way including the title song. But Bing Crosby looks mighty bored and no wonder --he'd done the same story as Holiday Inn just 12 years before. Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen are cute when warbling Sisters. But Danny Kaye is completely unfunny and he mugs terribly. The sets are so artificial --like the corn flakes for snow. I liked this one when it played at Toronto's Imperial theater way back when I was just eight. But I wasn't a TV critic then.
2. The Bishop's Wife (1947) has Cary Grant returning to earth as an angel to mend the fractured marriage of Loretta Young and David Niven who is an Episcopalian bishop who wants to construct a new cathedral. When I mentioned it once to Grant he made a face and called it "Among the worst films I ever made." And he wasn't exaggerating one bit.
3. Susan Slept Here (1954) --the title was considered so salacious in 1964 that the Ontario censor balked a bit. Dick Powell's last movie and I can completely understand --he's a Hollywood writer saddled with teenage delinquent Debbie Reynolds for the Christmas holidays. Debbie as a delinquent? She's as phoney as Powell's hairpiece and the movie isn't one bit suggestive. This was 1954 after all.
4. Miracle On 34th Street (1947) like most commercial Christmas flicks contains no references to the "J-" word at all. Edmund Gwenn is a puckish Saint Nick everyone thinks crackers and Natalie Wood aged 8 is a very knowing daughter with divorcee Maureen O'Hara as her mom. Shots of what New York city looked like in 1947 are the only redeeming features.
5. The Man Who Came To Dinner (1942) has some nasty zingers from Monty Wooley but as a celebration of Christmas it's a bust. Joan Rivers was once going to do a modern version and said after viewing it she had to walk away. "These days the patient would be air lifted to a hospital and not spend weeks in the family's living room living high off the hog."
6. Remember The Night (1940) presents Fred MacMurray as an ambitious D.A. who takes shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck home for the holidays where she meets an unbelievable family right out of Norman Rockwell. It just doesn't make sense and the dialogue is pure corn.
7. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) is a cult classic, I'm told. The cult of Satan I'm guessing. Kid sees a guy in a Santa Suit going on a killing spree and after growing up in a Catholic orphanage tries to ape the killer. Released during the holiday season it's pretty terrible on all counts.
8. We're No Angels (1955) casts Humphrey Bogart as a Devil's Island convict who helps a shopkeeper and family in the true Christmas season. Bogey's worst ever film which is saying quite a liot.
9. The Night They Saved Chreistmas (1984) has Jaclyn Smith and Art Carney in something about a mining company threatening to blow up the North Pole in search of an oil field. I watched this mind numbing fantasy almost until the bitter end.
10. Scrooge (1970) is a singin' and dancin' edition of A Christmas Carol with Albert Finney as Scrooge in an over the top characterization. Eleven totally forgettable songs and no relief for the poor viewer. Blah!
I submit the best Christmas movie remains It's A Wonderful Life (1946) because it's very scary and not at all cheerful like most holiday films I've been watching.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Canadian TV Drama Needs A Makeover

The crises in Canadian TV always start with drama.
Consider the evidence: this fall Global TV had zero hours a week of filmed Canadian drama while CTV had a mere hour.
Remember the CRTC dictates that Canadian networks in prime time should have 50 per cent Canadian content which isn't happening right now.
And now on his most excellent TV website TVFeedsMyFamily veteran critic Bill Brioux reveals that Global's high rated but pricey locally made drama series Combat Hospital is probably kaput.
In Canada the summer series notched huge ratings even higher than Rookie Blue.
But ABC-TV has passed on ordering a second season and Global apparently doesn't have the resources to make it without that all important sale to an American network.
This isn't the first time a Canadian show fared well on Canadian TV but got dumped because the American co-producer pulled the plug.
Consider the fate of Falcon Beach (2005-07) which ran for two seasons also on Global but perished when Disney declined to finance a third year.
And Citytv's ratings wow Godiva's (2005-06)--all about life in a trendy Vancouver restaurant--=collapsed after two years because there was no U.S. sale.
It's true CBC's DaVinci's Inquest (1998-2005) lasted for seven seasons and 91 episodes completely without U.S. money although the entire package was later sold to CBS's affiliates for late night showings.
But another CBC Vancouver series Intelligence (2005-07) didn't make it to a third year despite superb reviews because of American disinterest --although both Fox and CBS tried and failed to make an American spinoff.
CBC's Being Erica currently runs on the American Soap weblet and that sale was a factor in CBC continuing to order new episodes of the ratings weak dramatic serial.
I visited the Combat Hospital set out in Etobicoke in the summer along with a gaggle of veteran scribes and later enthusiastically reviewed the series.
But if this means only shows that can be sold to the U.S. will survive on Canadian TV then we have a huge problem.
Flashpoint kept going on CTV because of the CBS commitment which is apparently now over. CTV's The Listener bombed mightily on NBC but CTV is apparently thinking of a later syndication deal on American TV.
It seems only CBC has the financial resources to make Canadian shows that are not set in some kind of hazy never land.
In January Global premieres a new ultra Canadian drama series in Bomb Girl starring Meg Tilly and shot in Toronto's Distillery District. And by the way I think it's smashing.
And then along comes The Firm which is shot in Toronto but stars American import Josh Lucas. It's also on Global.
Canadian TV movies and miniseries have virtually disappeared over the past few years.
And it all makes me wonder if Canadian TV as a separate entity has any fuutre at all.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Beyond Disaster Worth Catching On Citytv

So here we are almost at the half way point in the 2011-12 TV season.
And everybody I'm meeting up with keeps asks me what's happened to Canadian TV.
It's disappeared that's what has happened: fewer dramas and comedies than I can even remember and even the news specials seem to have ceased.
That's why Citytv's new documentary Beyond Disaster seems so very special. It ditches the false bonhommie of the season to deftly examine the cracks and fissures on our foreign aid.
The compelling hour is part of an irregular series of specials titled Tough Choices With Gord Martineau and with the departure of Lloyd Robertson from reportage Martineau has become Canadian TV news's new iron man.
Citytv plans three more specials co-written and co-produced by Martineau to highlight his expertise in reporting.
And Martineu wisely chose as his first project a look at the Canadian relief organization GlobalMedic which ferries in life sustaining supplies to regions devastated by earthquakes or tsunamis or armed conflicts.
He shows footage from his earlier expedition to Haiti where the devastation was complete and returns to find the conditions still appalling.
These scenes get so scary the crew is advised to stay inside their vehicles. An old woman has died on a dusty main street and nobody bothers to stop and attend to the body.
His tour guide is Toronto paramedic Rahul Singh who first took him around years ago. Nothing on the surface seems to have changed although Singh keeps reiterating it has gotten --slightly --better.
Says Singh on the phone:"I think Gord was startled by how bad it still is. It's quite a sight --sad. Government agencies do not seem to have the means to turn it around."
Martineau and Singh also travelled to Cambodia where the challenges are completely different. A civil war 30 years ago left the countryside pockmarked with land mines. There are hundreds of thousands of them still hidden underground to go off and maim innocent young children.
But Singh also shows how a very simple solution --involving the most primitive technology can be used to clean the dirty river water and make it drinkable for youngsters who are perishing from cholera. The cost is about $50 a family and involves a combination of gravel, sand, some chemicals and cheesecloth..
The theme is that small is better, it can put the initiatives in the hands of the villagers and let them chart their future.
"When Gord asked me to be in this film I wasn't sure," Singh says. "It's difficult walking around with a cameraman following you. It took me some time to adjust to that."
In Haiti hundreds of million of dollars have been pledged but little has been done so far.
"We're saying give us less money than that and we can show you the results. We can cut corners to get things done," Singh says.
Another project underway: "Buying $100 winter coats for the children of the Attawapisket reserve. We're not about to tie up more money but approaching problems from a different perspective."
Maineau (scarcely changed from the guy I first interviewed at CFTO in the Seventies) surely knows what makes an hour of TV riveting and what questions to ask. Beyond Disaster challenges viewers and offers some small solutions and it's a must see especially at this time of the year.
Beyond Disaster was directed expertly by Karen PInker who produced and wrote it with Martineau.--all for 90th Parallel Productions.
It's an impressive start for the occasional new series of specials..
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Harry Morgan: TV's Best Ever Character Star

So there I was in the summer of 1976 taking a tour of the 20th Century-Fox backlot with Harry Morgan of TV's M*A*S*H. as my guide.
"See that soundstage over there," he said as he pointed. " We shot a lot of State Fair (1945) there. And that New York street --we shot Orchestra Wives (1942) along it. And over there at the M*A*S*H soundstage I worked with Hank Fonda on the western classic The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).
Harry Morgan who passed this week at the age of 96 had started on the lot in 1942 in the Randolph Scott actioner To the Shores Of Tripoli (1942).
"Played a character called Mouthy," he laughed. "I never forget the character's names.
"I was Ebenezer Burling in The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe (1942) and I was Henchman Nat in The Oregon trail (1942). I was the bath attendant in Somewhere In The Night (1946) --my part was so small I didn't have a name or even billing.
" In The Big Clock (1948) I was Charles Laughton's masseur and my assignment was to kill off Ray Milland."
Morgan chuckled as he toddled off to his dressing room and we had a pleasant lunch and he kept inviting me back to the M*A*S*H set every summer when I was attending the TV Critics' convention.
It just so happened the Century Plaza hotel had been constructed on part of the old Fox back lot and all I had to do was skip out during a boring mass interview and head for the back doors that opened onto the modern Fox studios.
And I did this every year until the final press conference announcing the end of Fox which was held in 1983. The normally taciturn Morgan was teary eyed on the occasion.
And I met up again with Morgan when he was filming an episode of The twilight Zone in Toronto in 1988 co-starring Canadians Cedric Smith, Barbara Chilcott and Robin Ward.
He talked about retirement then but whispered "But I'm a mere tad of 75."
In terms of TV series Morgan could well boast he'd been co-starred in more than any other actor around.
"I was busy in movies until 1954 when I jumped into December Bride on CBS opposite Spring Byington and it lasted five seasons. We shot before an audience until the last season when Spring and Verna Felton could no longer remember their lines so we had to do it on a soundstage in bits and pieces.
"Then CBS had the idea of a spin off called Pete And Gladys. I had been the next door neighbor who was always talking about his wife in comical turns. But when audiences actually got to see her it wasn't so much fun anymore.
"Then I co-starred in The Richard Boone Show (1963-64) which was NBC's idea for a TV repertory show --same bunch of actors every week but different stories. Audiences just didn't understand that at all.
"Kentucky Jones (1964-65) had Dennis weaver as a vet who adopts an orphan and I was his assistant and it lasted one season. It was full of the cutes.
"I then spent three seasons opposite Jack Webb on the revised Dragnet (1967-70). Jack was a strange character, very protective of his formula but very creative. He wanted me to talk in that staccato style of his and sometimes I just couldn't say the stuff.
"Hec Ramsey (1972-74) was one that Webb specifically hired me to be in..Webb told me it was Dragnet meets John Wayne and the critics picked that up. Richard Boone was the star but he was so cantankerous NBC cancelled us after two seasons.
"After M*A*S*H I did one called AfterMASH (1983-84) but viewers wondered where Alda and Swit were and it lasted one season only.
"I didn't learn my lesson, I was back at it with Blacke's Magic (1986) with Hal Linden from the guy who created Murder She Wrote. NBC panicked after initially bad ratings and we got cancelled too quickly."
Morgan then played Judge Bell in two TV movies opposite Walter Matthau (Against Her Will and Incident In A Small Town) and told me "He is an actor's actor. Listens! How many young actors do that?"
Harry Morgan listened intently every time I interviewed him.
For me and for millions of others he'll always be Col. Sherman Potter.
And I'm missing him already.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Autism Enigma: Must See Canadian TV

Sometimes a promising documentary gets vaulted into the must see category by events that can only be described as serendipitous.
The hour long The Autism Enigma falls into this category . The explosion of autism in very young children began as a Nature Of Things project co-directed by Marion Gruner and Christopher Sumpton.
Guleph based Gruner is a new mother who was only beginning to hone in on the subject when she interviewed the remarkable 90-year old Dr. Sydney Finegold, the world's leading authority on bowel flora.
In 1998 Feingold had a call from a Chicago gastroenterologist who knew a mother Ellen Bolte with a young son who she figured out might have had some form of bacterial infection.
"And we went to Chicago area to see her,"Gruner reports. "And she's a remarkable woman with a background that enabled her to know where to dig for facts and who to contact.
Her theory went something like this: the baby had to have huge doses of antibiotics which seemed to change his very demeanor and she wondered if it had somehow impacted on his central nervous system.
Interviewed on the hour Feingold says that was entirely possible and that when treated with Vancomycin the baby dramatically improved for the six weeks he was on the drug only to regress later.
"It turns out Mrs. Bolte photographed this period extensively and we see how much improved the boy is. And then we see the shocking regression," Gruner adds..
Bolte's remarkable documentation vaults The Autism Enigma into the category of must see TV.
And being able to personalize the story should make all the difference to many viewers. It provides an instant connection.
"It is a vastly complicated subject,"Gruner says.
And to further personalize the story the experiences of Somali children in Canada are documented --many experience similar symptoms when exposed to Western food traditions.
Then we get to know the leading researchers in the field: Dr. Derrick MacFabe, director of autism research at the University of Western Ontario, Laurie Mawlam of Autism Canada, Hassan and Idman Roble of the Somali Parent Support Group, Dr. Emma Allen-Vercoe and Dr. Emma Allen-Vercoe at the University of Toronto, Dr. Stephen Scherer of the Hospital For Sick Children, Biologist Jeremy Nicholson at London's Imperial College.
As absortbing as all their shared knowledge is it isn't pitched over the heads of an average viewer. And it's not presented in a scarey way either but logically.
Biggest problem Gruner faced was assembling a 44-minute print for NOT but she's done a splendid job here. A longer version has already been sold to French and German TV." It contained a whole segment on the situation in Norway which had to be deleted here for time."
I'd say a sale to U.S. TV should occur sooner than later because of the timeliness of the subject.
The Autism Enigma is the latest first rate documentary running on NOT this season making it one of the venerable series' best.
MY RATING: ****.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

"Yes, I Am Clark Gable's Daughter"

"Yes, I am Clark Gable's daughter. My mother is Loretta Young."
That was the explosive way Judy Lewis introduced herself to me in 1994 when she was on a promotional tour for her autobiography.
The thing was in 1986 I'd scored a major scoop in Toronto by being the only Canadian reporter allowed on the set of Loretta Young's TV movie comeback called Christmas Eve.
Getting Young to agree to a one-on-one interview had been difficult but on the very last day of shooting she relented.
The head of NBC International which was making the movie simply told her the film had not yet been sold to a Canadian network "because people don't know who you are anymore."
At first Young said she'd give me 15 minutes but seven hours later she was still talking and reminiscing about her great career.
At 73 she was indeed still gorgeous and enviably wrinkle free.
And finally as she prepared for her last scene of the movie I took my leave but not before she offered this compliment: "Thank you for not asking the usual question."
And I said "If I had what would your answer have been?"
Young: "That if true it was the most romantic moment in Hollywood history."
The story was that Young and Clark Gable had an affair on the set of Call Of The Wild (1935). When the deeply religious Young learned she was pregnant she refused to use the studio abortionist but instead went to Europe for months returning anonymously on a ship that docked at Montreal.
From there she proceeded by train via Toronto and Chicago and then had what turned out to be a lovely daughter who was born in a private home in Venice, California. She then arranged to formally adopt the daughter so no one in Hollywood would ever suspect.
To be an unwed mother in 1935 Hollywood would have meant banishment by the studios all of whom had morality clauses in their contracts.
Gable offered to divorce his wife and marry her but Young simply refused.
When I told all this to Judy Lewis, her daughter, eight years later she briefly burst into tears.
Lewis had been told she was adopted and lived with her mother who subsequently married producer Tom Lewis. Young subsequently had two sons by Lewis.
"Growing up I longed to find my real mother. Little did I know she was right beside me."
Judy Lewis talked about the loneliness of growing up thinking she was adopted. But one day in 1949 when she came home from school there was Clark Gable waiting for her in the living room.
"He held my hand, asked all kinds of questions for over an hour. And then he left and kissed me on the forehead. I never saw my father again."
But Lewis joked "I had his dumbo ears, so big I later had to have an operation to reduce them."
Only when she was about to be married did Judy Lewis learn "from my husband" that she indeed was the daughter of Loretta Young and Clark Gable.
"My mother would not admit it to me until 1966. She called me a mortal sin which truly angered me."
In 1994 Judy Lewis was already 59 and had been through several careers as an actress and later soap opera producer. She was studying to be a therapist dealing with traumas of adopted children, she said.
Her book titled Uncommon Knowledge caused a three year rift in her relationship with her mother. They were reconciled before Loretta Young's death from cancer at the age of 87 in 2000.
But when I asked Young for another interview when she was back in Toronto in 1987 making another TV movie she defiantly said "Never!" That movie had already been pre-sold to CTV and she turned down all interview requests.
Judy Lewis died on Nov. 25e of lymphoma at her Pennsylvania home.
She was 76 and is survived by a daughter and grand children.
I remember her saying "Sometimes the real stories of Hollywood are far more interesting than the movies." And how right she was.

Friday, December 2, 2011

TV Talkers See Ratings Drip Away

The November Sweep ratings are in and the news isn't great for tsome of TV's biggest talkers.
First, Piers Morgan who was plopped into Larry King's coveted CNN talk slot after King's ratings began a downward slide.
Well, it turns out Morgan's numbers are even worse.
Morgan is crazy about himself but few American viewers seem to be.
The November ratings give him an average of just 154,000 viewers a night in the 9 p.m. slot.
Far from stemming the slide Morgan has started his own avalanche.
He's down 4 per cent among the key demographic of viewers 25 to 54.
By contrast MSNBC's Ed Schultz averages 201,000 nightly although he has dropped 35 per cent over the year.
I just don't think Americans cotton on to Morgan's Britishness. His interviews with American politicians have been all over the place. Arts interviews seem a whole lot better.
King thrived for 20 years because he was the voice of the people and took pride in the fact he never studied up for an interview.
Also, Morgan's shows are taped and look it --he apparently didn't have the experience to go llve as King did after decades as a radio talk show host.
Morgan has stepped down from America's Got Talent in order to better prep for each night's CNN show. That's an indication he knows he's in serious trouble.
There's a similar trouble with Anderson Cooper's day job.
The personable CNN news host also has a daytime chatter show plagued with low ratings since its fall debut.
I'm thinking Anderson is just too serious for the fans of daytime who much prefer hyped, confrontational shows than the low wattage discussions his show projects.
As is typical on a show in trouble there's been movement at the top: executive producers Cathy Chermol and Lisa Morin are departing and Terence Noon who did a great job in rebooting Dr. Oz into a TV celebrity is coming in.
Apparently things came to a head during an edition on the Penn State scandals when the executive producer asked the audience no to hold back and Cooper disagreed with her. Tempers flared.
Good for Cooper not wanting to be exploitative but such seriousness does not grow ratings.
And then there's the strange case of Rosie O'Donnell now installed as the celebrity talker on Oprah Winfrey's new TV weblet OWN.
So far ratings have been disastrous --there's been a 49 per cent drop since Rosie's debut in October.
Look, I liked "Rosie Lite" when she had her daytime syndicated talk show and did mostly show bizzy interviews.
Then she got all feisty as part of The View and finally left in a huff --but let's face it veteran Barbara Walters was not going to be sideswiped by anybody.
Here she's a disappointment. The other night she snagged Phytllis Diller and incredibly the show just sagged --Diller in her 90s was quite funny.
Rosie isn't getting the big, competitive guests most nights because her ratings are so low. Like Conan she's been relegated to a network few peopled know exists.
Update: I just caught Rosie with stand up Brett Butler and it was a terrific show. Maybe Rosie is going to turn her show around.

I'd predict a quick cancellation here.