Thursday, April 13, 2017

Another TV Luncheon

Had a perfect time at lunch today on the Danforth with three great friends: a veteran TV actress, a publicist I've known since 1970 and a TV producer with dozens of critics.
Here are highlights of our chatter:
ME: The big new CBC TV offering, yet another remake of Anne Of Green Gables, was pretty good although darkish compared with previous versions --the best one remains the one made with Sullivan Films starring Megan Follows.
PUBLICIST: My CBC  sources say the network was taken aback by the low ratings. I think they wanted 2 million viewers but had to settle for over 800,000 at least in the overnights I've seem. It may be just a case of a story being overly familiar.
ACTRESS: The irony at CBC this year has been the strong showing of such long running series as Heartland with the poor results of some of the new shows. I mean Rick Mercer routinely hovers just under 900,000 a week.
PRODUCER: Most in my position will not mount a new drama series for Canadian TV until they get an American producer and a U.S. sale. Having said that I still enjoy Saving Hope which ends this season --cheers to CTV for keeping it going after NBC quickly cancelled it.
ACTRESS: U.S. production in T.O. is very high right now because of the low standing of the Canadian dollar. But it never will revert to the glory days of the Nineties when it seemed that every other U.S. miniseries and TV movie was being shot here. That's because American TV movies are no longer made in such huge amounts.
ME: I liked Kim's Convenience which got very big audiences. I's say that's due to Ivan Fecan the executive producer who ran CTV for years and before that reinvigorated production at CBC.
ACTRESS: When Kevin O'Leary says he wants a downsized CBC where only news would be left I shuddered. But as ratings continue to fall I simply wonder how long any federal government can pour such funds into the CBC entertainment arm.
ME: When I started off in 1970 as TV critic at The Hamilton Spectator CBC's dictionary definition of a hit was 1.5 million for a series and 2 million for a TV movie or miniseries like Laurier. In those days CBC made its own dramas and comedies.
ACTRESS: There is no high arts left on any Canadian TV network. Adrienne Clarkson Presents was CBC's last desperate attempt at making operas and ballets. It's too expensive these days. I remember bumping into Norman Campbell --he still had a tiny office at CBC but never could produce anything in the Norman Campbell Theater on the top floor of CBC's downtown Toronto headquarters because there simply was no money.
ME: I once asked CTV President Murray Chercover why CTV never had a fall launch and he said "Our big entertainment shows are Littlest Hobo and Stars On Ice --you want me to publicize these?" But I did --I went on those sets every year and also I was on Half The George Kirby Comedy Hour and The Pat Paulsen Show both up at CFTO.
PUBLICIST: I remember when I first met you Jim in 1971 --Ed Sullivan was giving a press conference at CBC's "Kremlin" headquarters. He was taping a Christmas special to run on CBC which had Canadian rights but he had to tape it up at CFTO because CBC's facilities were so antiquated.
PRODUCER: My favorite Canadian show right now is Schitt's Creek. It's a perfectly made comedy gem.
ME: I told my CBC contacts the network should revive Front Page Challenge with a new cast of young names. I'm saying this only because the last FPC contestant Betty Kennedy just passed. And CTV should revive Headline Hunters --I visited that set in 1971 when Charles Templeton was the moderator.
ACTRESS: In the late Seventies CBC-TV had a similar revenue problem to today so they took old ballets and operas and repackaged the lot as a Sunday afternoon series called Rearview Mirror. Veronica Tennant was the charming hostess and ratings were sturdy. They should do something like that again to retain the loyalty of the artsy crowd.
ME: Just before HM Video folded I asked the store manager on Yonge Street which Canadian series not yet on DVD he was frequently asked about . He mention the CTV hit ENG, CBC's Beachcombers and Tommy Hunter as being on the top of the list
ACTRESS: My young nieces and nephews never watch conventional TV. They group together and watch everything on their devices. So maybe all TV is going to change?
ME: And my final question: Who's footing this bill?


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Truth Reigns In My First 150 Days

The shock of the truth.
It's all there in the brilliant new documentary My First 150 Days  premiering on TVOntario Wednesday April 12 at 9 p.m.
Because "Reality TV" these days is all the rage but it's actually Un-Reality TV where forced situations and staged moments predominate.
Not so with My First 150 Days which documents the highs and lows of a new family arriving at Pearson Airport to lives they never quite anticipated.
The 58-minute documentary was commissioned by TVO to mark Canada's 150th year as a nation and looks at the cultural adjustments made by a family struggling to learn new ways in a new land.
Producers Stuart Henderson and Romilla Karnick chose the family, explains director Diana Dai, before she was selected to direct.
I ask if the film was being commissioned today would it have focused on Syrian immigrants?
"No!" says Dai  on the phone. "Because it is not about refugees but the larger world of immigrants. No doubt I was asked to direct because I, too, am an immigrant. We connected when I met them at the airport. I knew what they were going through, I surely did."
Dai's accomplished group profile is filled with small moments of recognition not melodramatic staged events.
"Of course I didn't know what we all were getting into," she explains. "It was after all a film about them and not me."
"I filmed about every five days. It was very early into this when I learned the children of the mother, Melona who was already in Canada were having great difficulties. They finally said they did not want to be filmed anymore."
Canada just wasn't what they thought it would be. They'd journeyed from rural Philippines to an urban Canadian environment. They scarcely knew their mother who had preceded them eight years earlier.
Dai expertly captures these tension filled encounters as the newcomers seriously think of returning to a more leisurely lifestyle in their native country.
"I could understand all those conflicting emotions,"Dai  admits."I was born in China, took my M.A. in film at Leeds University in England and later emigrated to Canada. I knew how difficult the adjustment process could be. In their cases they were unskilled, that meant very tough jobs and long hours.
"What we are showing is the initial cultural shock which can last for many months. Some newcomers decide it is not worthwhile and want to return home to a land where they feel safe."
Dai is such an accomplished film maker that the family seem unaware of the cameras most of the time. The newcomers emerge as caring, feeling people without the usual cultural cliches.
Dai makes us feel for these people and we become interested in their struggles. It turns into an emotional roller coaster ride for viewers as well.
The production was shot between January and July 2016 but Dai notes "It is a difficult adjustment for everybody going to a new country"--she remembers meeting an Indian-born cabbie at Pearson who had university degrees and expected something better as an immigrant.
But how has the family fared since Dai stopped filming?
"I keep in touch. I still care. They are doing better. They are getting to know each other again. It's a long climb. My heart goes out to them. Their struggles are the struggles of all newcomers."
The film will be shown at a later date on CBC Documentary channel.
MY RATING: ****.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Secrets Of Survival Among the Year's Best

I wonder if Malka Rosenbaum and Juergen Ulloth have ever met?
Because they are the dual subjects of one of the best Canadian documentaries I've seen in years: Secrets Of Survival.
Malka was a student at the University of Toronto when she told her mother about the difficulties of being an only child.
And her mother then told her that she had an older sister who had been given to Polish neighbors during the height of the Holocaust.
Juergen Ullroth found out about his past when he went to the Kassel Municipality in west Germany to retrieve his birth certificate for his marriage license.
And the municipal clerk told a shocked young Juergen that his family name was actually Raenold, his mother's maiden name.
Juergen's mother had married Mr. Ullroth in 1951 four years after his birth.
"And that was the beginning of this dual profile," says veteran film masker Martin Himel on the line from Tel Aviv.
You can check out Secrets Of Survival for yourself --it premieres on the CBC Documentary Channel Sunday April 9 at 9 p.m.
"Originally I chose three subjects," Himel tells me. "But the first two worked out so well I could drop the third."
"Both Malka and Juergen were affected by World War II more than they had ever imagined. And our search for closure for these two extraordinary people turned out so much better than I had ever imagined."
Himel's odyssey took him and his two subjects "all over the place. On several continents.  Part of it depended on good luck, part on the dogged research of people who cared about this theme.It turned out better than I could ever have hoped for."
In Juergen's case Himel and his camera crew follow the resolute German right across the Atlantic where he learns his father was an 18-year old American soldier who very much wanted to marry his 16-year old German girlfriend.
"Juergen told me he didn't think his mother would ever consent to be on camera but just before we were preparing to leave he phoned and said she was ready. First surprise was how well she speaks English. But she also gives us the perspective of a scared teenager --Americans in 1946 were still very much considered to be the enemy."
The scenes of Juergen slowly researching his ancestry in America constitute highs and lows. His father Malcolm continued to visit until Juergen was three and then left forever.
Juergen's voyage of discovery takes him to relatives in North Carolina he never knew existed and one scene finds him in an evangelical church embraced by parishioners.
" An uptight European man suddenly found what it is to be treated as an American," laughs Hiimel.
Forty-five years after hearing of her sister's existence Malka is stunned to learn from an aged aunt that her sibling might indeed have survived the war.
Using extraordinary detection a young researcher in Poland is able to track down some valuable information about the sister.  Malka and her family visit the isolated farm deep in the Polish woods where the baby was secreted.
And what they discover is heart warming and heart breaking --you'll have to watch the entire film to learn more.
Himel says agrees these are only two of thousands of unresolved family secrets --a war that ended 72 years ago still reverberates.
"In both cases the survivors merely wanted to go on with their lives as best as they could," he tells me. "All became victims in some way or another. Juergen and Malka are more closely related than they could ever know."
MY RATING: ****.