Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Great Debate Continues

So here I am at Sunday Brunch on the Danforth with three of my very best sources in the Canadian TV business: a veteran actress, a reliable publicist and one of the most prolific TV producers in the business.
ME: I believe we're witnessing the dismantling of the Canadian TV business.
PRODUCER: Oh, you're so right. Ratings are in decline as everyone stampedes to Netflix which has no Canadian content requirements. That means there are incentives for local broadcasters to drop their requirements as well. So both Rogers and Shaw have shuttered their local community channels. And I'm hearing they want the CRTC to drop all Canadian content requirements for next season.
ACTRESS: The irony is is we're in a bit of a boomlet for Canadian TV dramas. I thought Frances Drake was very watchable and I also like CTV's midseason series Cardinal.  There's always Murdoch Mysteries. Despite all the impediments quality Canadian dramas still appear. But I say "More please!"
'PUBLICIST: One problem is the decline of print outlets to advertise our wares. TV critic Bill Harris of The Toronto Sun was eased into retirement --but for years he was forbidden to write up quality Canadian documentaries.
ACTRESS: There's a lot of work here --many American TV series shoot here as well as U.S. movies and they always treat us well.
ME: What's the biggest failure of Canadian TV right now?
ACTRESS: The failure of never having afternoon Canadian soaps. I see you're laughing but it is a great training ground for younger talent.  We did have Riverdale for a few years but it should have run daily --that was needed to pick up viewers. But it's far cheaper for Canadian networks to buy U.S. soaps at dirt cheap prices.
ME: So far I'm not at all a fan of the new, revamped CBC National news.
PRODUCER: It's a disaster. A bunch of very nice people sitting around chatting. That went out with the advent of CNN which uses panels of critics barking at each other. But CBC doesn't want to provoke controversy so this soft sell approach is used. And ratings have plunged.
PUBLICIST: I'm so old I remember when CBC-TV's dictionary definition of a hit was 1.5 million viewers. Some nights The National is down to under 300,000. For the whole nation!
ME: Did you know at one time CBC wanted to cancel the venerable series The Nature Of Things--on its 50th anniversary--but at the last moment the Corp thought again and reversed that. And NOT is one of the diamonds of the CBC's current shaky weekly programming .
ACTRESS: I get roles in big U.S. movies shot here but I'm always in the background--and I'm always asked why I never went to Hollywood. Well, I did several times, had a few gigs and it gave me an instant cachet with Canadian producers once I came home. Yes, it's very colonial but I got work here because I'd worked there.
PRODUCER:I notice in Britain there are a million disconnects every year as people ditch the TV set tax they pay there and stampede to Netflix and I can see that tipping point starting here today as more viewers just click out Canadian TV and turn to Netflix which has no Canadian shows most of the time.
BAWDEN: I was surprised talking to a Grade 6 class across the street that although they appeared ultra bright they had little knowledge of Canadian history. This year the Brits have given us Darkest Hour and Dunkirk. No such movies exist for Canadian kids to digest.
ACTRESS: I recently suggested CBC revive Front Page Challenge with modern personalities and I was laughed at. But look at the History Channel! Where are the Canadian stories?
ME: People used to ask me if any Canadian TV series spawned foreign shows. And I'd say The Plouffes actually pawned the short lived Viva Valdez on U.S. TV. But now there's an American version of Love It Or Leave It and now there's a U.S. version as well. And the Canadian HGTV series Property Virgins also moved to the U.S.
PRODUCER: Being so close to the U.S. has its disadvantages. My dad bought one of the first TV sets in 1950 in Etobicoke and the antenna was tuned to the Buffalo stations as CBC didn't even some on until 1952. We in Canada lost the TV wars even before we had TV.
ME: When I did a story on Juliette she sent me a stuffed white rat she named :Jim:"--she hated the story. But CBC decided she was getting too big and they had a no-stars policy so they cancelled her for a folksinger.
ME: But Margaret Atwood is the new great nobelist getting TV exposure.
PRODUCER: And more power to her. There have been two TV versions of Jalna --both bombs. I'd like to see more Atwood but also Mazo de la Roche!
ACTRESS: Now that we've solved what ails with Canadian TV let's order desert!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Science Of Magic: Must See TV

As soon as I spotted the credits for The Nature Of Things latest documentary The Science Of Magic I knew I had to order a screener.
Because Donna and Daniel Zuckerbrot have produced some pretty magical TV hours from Dai Vernon: The Spirit Of Magic to The Houdini Code.
And I was right --today's TV hour only lasts 42 minutes --the rest gets reserved for commercials--but in that very tinetime frame they've covered many bases regarding modern magicians and their craft.
"The challenge was getting everything in without seeming to be rushed," David Zuckerbrot is telling me on the phone.
The thesis is that magic has become the latest sounding board for investigative scientists in fields of cognition and neurobiology.
We get a tour with one of Canada's master magicians, Julie Eng, as she visit McGill University's Jay
 Olsen who uses magic in experimental psychologyu.
In one bizarre segment patients are taken through hospital caverns and into a non functioning MIR machine where they experience all sorts of tingling --unusual because it all comes from suggestion as the machine no longer works.
UBC professor Ronald Rensink shows us experiments in"change blindness" --how a small distraction can "blind" a driver to an oncoming speeding train.
"Yes, we did a lot of traveling" is how Zuckerbrot describes it --next stop is London England for a meeting of the Science and Magic Association where the magician obligingly  distracts the eye movements of his audience.
Julie Eng remains a star magician as far as I'm concerned --her father ran a magic shiop in Victoria and she directs the society Magicana which is dedicated to the study of magic as a performing art.
I was most impressed when people on the street  were influenced to chose the card the magician wanted --we watch the show to see how.
We're shown that our eyes don't see everything --usually we can only focus on one object at the same time.
Resnick says "Our intelligent brain creates our own version of reality." To me that is the essence of magic.
And The Zuckerbrots are such master film makers (for Reel Time Images) that while they do show trickery there are also genuine moments of contemplation. This was a learning experience for me and I felt almost like a participant.
What I realized is that magic can help us in our lives.
Sure, some of the tricks I've been watching since I used to visit the Magic Room at Eaton's downtown Toronto department store in the 1950s.
And I wondered if the Zuckerbrots used magic in being able to cram so many ideas and venues into their hour --was there magic involved or was it simply seamless editing?
And, finally, The Science Of Magic truly stands as the pilot for a possible short form CBC mini-series on magic --that's what I'm proposing. So how about it CBC?
And in a year of declining ratings for so many favorite Canadian TV series the truly ageless Nature Of Things stands almost alone for staying completely  true to its original mandate of challenging us and never pandering.
MY RATING: ****.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

This Is The Perfect Season For Ageless Gardens

Here I am locked in winter with the snowploughs outside and the howling wind  shaking the windows.
I don't mind at all --the power has even been off for several frigid hours.
When everything clicked back on I clicked my DVD to play the three first episodes of the new documentary series Ageless Gardens and this one is a real winner.
You can catch the premiere on Vision TV Monday night at 9.m.
The press release tells us "It is commonly known that gardening is a good for us."
So is the act of watching gardening TV series.
I've virtually given up on seeing anything relating to gardening on the badly titled HGTV.
So I'm turning to Ancient Gardens directed by veteran Ian Toews for Vision TV (or is it Zoomer TV, I'm not certain).
I watched the first three episodes in one go and was ready for more.
In fact, I,think I'll re-watch all three during the next snow storm predicted any day from now.
The three I saw all have imaginative titles: Healing Plants, Therapeutic Gardens, The Wild Garden.
I'm on the cusp of Baby Boomdom and now contemplating the serenities of old agedom.
And my current Toronto garden is a mess although one bush imported with my grandparents from Yorkshire in 1912 still blooms steadily every year.
Visually, this is the most gorgeous series of the new TV season. But it's more than pretty pictures but a rapture about how gardening offers therapeutic factors in health and well being as we age.
In the first half hour gardening doyenne Marjorie Harris shows how important gardening is to one's mental fitness --she shows how she lives off her huge garden simply by looking out her house's gigantic picture window.
We visit with an indigenous medicine woman who knows how nature's herbs can be harvested to help with various ailments.
There's also a visit with a sculptor who has been at the gardening business for 70 years.
And I wish I'd taken down the ingredients for a nature baked cookie guaranteed to solve insomnia.
I found the second episode (premiering Feb. 19) to be even more important.
Therapeutic Gardens takes us to B.C. hospitals where aged patients are encouraged to keep small gardens in and around where they live.
The hospital garden helps them relax and think of the act of producing new plants rather than worrying about their declining energy levels.
The 93-year old retired nurse who uses her garden to combat stress -this is a wonderful portrait.
But I think I liked Episode 3 The Wild Garden best of all.
We follow a restaurant chef and friend who forage for wild mushrooms and find a staggering number of different varieties.
Sisters-in-law look for special plants for the herbal teas they can make.
There's even a champion gardener who rescues wild plants needed to sustain wildlife.
Of course I immediately wanted to toddle off to my back yard and start gardening but the snow drifts art my door just wouldn't go away.
I felt better just watching these three episodes. Think how I'd feel if actually gardening at bit.
Veteran Ian Toews produced  and directed and shot it with his usual care- -he's made a model of a series that moves briskly and is packed with information.
MY RATING: ***1/2.


Saturday, February 10, 2018

No Stone Unturned: A Brilliant Documentary

In the brilliant new documentary No Stone Unturned ace director Alex Gibney tells us he stumbled into this true story while making another film about the World Cup soccer matches in 1994.
The details are precise: on June 18, 1994, in a very small pub in Northern Ireland a group of men were watching the match on the telly when two men came in the front door and shot to death six innocent people.
What Carney has done is not only recreate that event with all its brutality but ruminate on the massacre and why it remains unsolved to this day although the British government believes it knows the identities of the killers.
You can catch this four star production in its North American premiere on TVONTARIO Saturday night at 9.
I couldn't stop watching because Gibney is telling a true story and unraveling layers and layers of concealment.
The killings happened more than 24 years ago but as eye witnesses relate each and every incident the incident seems as vivid as yesterday.
The six victims of the Loughinisland massacre were ordinary folk and simply enjoying a night out when the masked killers sprayed the pub from a Czech-made automatic weapon.
We get what are victim statements from the relatives who calmly relate the state of the country --a civil war was ongoing between militant Catholics and Protestants.
And police had a clear idea who were the killers almost from the outset.
But evidence was either deliberately mislaid or destroyed and no one has ever been charged.
Gibney sets the scene brilliantly giving us a detailed dissection of the state of race relations between the two warring factions.
The Troubles had been bubbling forth for decades and over 3,000 people had been killed. The World Cup might have been a unifying moment after so much bloodshed.
In a strange way Gibney's film is beautiful: the stark images of the green countryside are intersperced with footage of the riots and the random killings.
We see even young children play acting with their toy machine guns and bloody faced spectators being led away by police after senseless bombings.
Gibney sets the scene that fateful night --June 128 1994 as Ireland played Italy at the World Cup and he takes us inside the Heights Bar, a very obscure pub in this County Down village as patrons watched the game live from New Jersey.
Gibney brilliantly mixes archival footage with remembrances of survivors and relatives of the slain pub members --the oldest was a darling old man of 87.
Many have been emotionally scarred for life. But just as shocking is the investigative work showing the British government pretty soon knew the identities of the killers but never acted because of polkitical considerations.
Gbney's reasons for this stonewalling can't be revealed here --you'll understand by watching this densely textured profile of a village that has never quite been the same decades after that fateful night.
MY RATING: ****.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

I Remember Donnelly Rhodes

It was always a joy interviewing the Canadian TV star Donnelly Rhodes.
The Canadian TV star died Monday after a brave battle with pancreatic cancer.
We first met up  in 1973 when I was TV critic for The Spectator on the set of a fine but short lived CBC cop show  titled Sidestreet --Rhodes starred opposite a friend of mine Jonathan Welsh.
But there he was back in Canada because "I like to eat and I'm still bullish on Canadian TV. One of these days we'll get it right."
But  Rhodes and Welsh only lasted the first year--in typical CBC fashion the series got monthly makeovers before expiring two seasons later.
Rhodes was already a TV veteran--in the Sixties he'd been what he termed "a male starlet" on the Universal lot where he guested on such hit series as Marcus Welby, The New Perry Mason, Here Come The Brides.
"I even had a bit in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, blink and you miss me," he jokingly told me.
Rhodes, born in Winnipeg in 1937, had started his acting career at Canada's National Theatre School where he met and married the actress Martha Kathleen Buhs who took Rhodes' last name Henry.
"I then decided to use my middle name name Rhodes to further complicate matters. My brother Tim Henry is also an actor but he kept the original name..
Rhodes' biggest hit show was Danger Bay which ran for 122 episodes over five seasons (1985-1990).
"I enjoyed it tremendously. Loved those kids --Christopher Crabb and Ocean Helman. And we taught valuable ecological lessons. And it was always the number one rated series on the Disney channel."
There are rumors from time to time that the series may be rebooted as The New Danger Bay.
Other shows Rhodes starred in include The Heights (1992), Street Legal (as R.J. Williams), Da Vinci's Inquest (as Leo Shannon), Battlestar Galactica (Dr. Sherman Cottle).
The last credit I have for Rhodes is the TV series Legends Of Tomorrow in 2016.
 I remember Rhodes once telling me: "I prefer working in my own country.  But sometimes this is not possible. I deliberately left The Young And The Restless because I feared I'd get lazy playing the same character day after day.
In recent years Rhodes battled cancer and died at Baillie Hospice in Maple Ridge, British Columbia.
"To be a working actor you must accept a lot of inferior assignments.," he told me. "But I treated each assignment with the same enthusiasm and intensity.  Then along will come a Danger Bay or a Soap and everything seems worthwhile again. I never courted stardom. To be part of an successful ensemble cast was always my goal."

Friday, January 12, 2018

Canadian TV Is Alive And Thriving: The Caregivers' Club

"There have been several touching documentaries on Alzheimer's victims," filmmaker Cynthia Banks is telling me on the phone.
But she wanted to look at the people who have to look after them often for long periods of time.
"My mother, Phyllis, started the ball rolling in 2016 when she phoned me for help. When I got to the hospital my dad was tied down to the bed and extremely agitated. And for the first time I watched this strong woman crying. She'd always been the most resilient in my family."
Thus began the journey that filmmaker Banks turned into the remarkable personal account The Caregivers' Club which premieres on CBC-TV POV Sunday night at 9pm.
Says Banks "We live in an increasingly aged population. More and more of us will wind up needing care but there just isn't the support system available.And the funding? Where will to come from?"
I first met Banks when she was a producer at The Journal.
And later she series produced that fine CBC-TV series Life And Times which I wish were still running, it was a fine piece of Canadiana.
Her last TV documentary was one of the year's best: 2015's Reefer Riches which accurately forecast the current Canadian debate over the legal marijuana issue.
"We should have sold that everywhere but documentaries about marijuana were a glut on the market right then. but people still want to talk to me about it."
Now comes the long anticipated The Caregivers' Club.
"You know I got frustrated thinking I'll have to get another mortgage on my house to finance it," she laughs. "But that's the harsh reality of the system."
As Banks studied the situation she found there are 25,000 new cases of dementia reported each year--there'll be a 66 per cent increase over the next decade or so.
"I know I was completely unprepared for my new role as caregiver. How mom had coped for a decade I simply do not know --she was amazingly resilient."
And Banks like all caregivers had to learn there was no turning back --the course of the illness is slow and resilient.
I'm not giving away too much by saying one of the primary caregivers dies during a much needed vacation.
That scene affected me most because until then there was hope in that particular story line.
Banks said it took her a long time to film the varying story lines. "I certainly didn't want to be intrusive. But the more I explored the topic the more I felt the need to continue filming.
"I can't think of a moment when I was asked to turn the camera off. Because by then the people I was profiling trusted me to do the right thing."
In The Caregivers Club we become friends with three outstanding caregivers--Dominic. Karen and Barbara.
"All three are connected to Baycrest Health Services in Toronto and the outstanding occupational therapist Nira Rittenberg is always there to offer her professional support. It's a remarkable program but not available to the many dementia cases in rural areas.
"My idea was to profile these stories over a year so I never knew what was going to happen. I was the observer--I simply hoped these people would mostly forget I was there.
The story of Welland caregiver Karen Gillespie and her husband Jack is remarkable--he was diagnosed with dementia in 2009--but it was Karen's resiliency that I found outstanding.
"I'm not sure this is the best one I've done. That's for you critics to decide, but it was the most personal and emotional.
"It was important to respect all these families and show their collective courage. And I hope I've done that."
And I want to add this personal plea from Banks: "Why aren't the political decision makers listening to the constituents and professionals who know that money has to be put into home care relief? We are in a caregiving crisis in this country. We must demand public policy that makes politicians listen to what is needed."
MY RATING: ****.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Ice Bridge Is Worth Watching

"I suppose more people will be watching," laughs veteran director Robin Bicknell whose compelling new documentary Ice Bridge premieres on CBC-TV's The Nature Of Things Sunday night at 8.
Bicknell spent 25 days over a longer period filming on location veteran archeologists trying to determine whether Ice Age peoples came to North America from Europe via a land bridge.
I watched the hour just before controversy enveloped the project via an incendiary story in The National Post.
"Actually. it's not very controversial at all," says Bicknell whose recent credits include the 2015 series
 Battle Factory and the 2012 documentary Curse Of The Axe.
With Ice Bridge Bicknell merely follows the archeological evidence that highly trained Ice Age hunters termed Solutreans may well have migrated across a gigantic ice bridge from Europe to North America.
Solutrean tribes inhabited much of France and Spain 20,000 years ago and were responsible for the daring cave paintings that documented their way of life.
Whether or not they were an advanced sea faring people who could traverse the northern Atlantic  with its gigantic storm situations is another problem altogether.
"We show both sides of the argument," says Bicknell. Indeed, she gives the dissenters ample time to argue impassionately.
The thesis has been advanced for 20 years by American anthropologists Bruce Bradley and Dennis  Stanford.
We visit them on a monumental dig at Chesapeake Bay --nothing they've so far discovered has been demonstrated to the entire satisfaction of the academic community.
On this particular day we see them finding implements that could only have been made by Solutreans --the cure of the blade and the thinness are remarkably similar.
The archeological community has long been incensed by these rogue researchers ---we all know that there was a migration from Asia across a land/ice bridge during the last Ice Age of about 14,000 years ago.
Does that mean that Solutreans couldn't have reached North America's eastern shores?
"We cover those who are proper skeptic," Bicknell tells me. "Their opposition remains the dominant position.
She very deliberately did not give any time to any white racist theories emanating from the Solutrean theory.  She says the issue of racism is completely ignored which belongs to another documentary.
Bicknell's story is an developing detective saga --there's the discovery of charcoal fragments in the top soil which is carbon dated to about 20.000 years ago.
"We got there just in time as a big chunk of the cliff goes into the sea. Soon erosion will have entirely wiped out this important site."
Bicknell says the idea Solutreans were European is in itself flawed --their ancestors came from the Middle East.
One highlight has an elder in the Huron-Wendat people who brings 40 teeth to be analyzed and the marker haplogroup X was found in three of 40 samples.
Whether this proves they have Solutrean ancestors as against those who crossed the Bering Srrait  remains open for more debate.
Bicknell's documentary is filled with beautiful and dynamic images and has already caused robust debate. ahead of its premiere.
It may have provoked more controversy than she could ever have imagined.
But within the space of a TV hour it's jam packed with  enough human drama and academic passion to keep us all watching--and wondering.
MY RATING: ****.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

2017: I Remember, I Remember

We lost a lot of great talents I'd interviewed in 2017. Here's my personal salute to some of them:
MARY TYLER MOORE I first encountered at the MTM Studios in 1972 during a rehearsal break on her award winning CBS sitcom. She said I could interview her as long as I did the ballet stretching exercises she did every lunch break! She died after decades of battling diabetes at 80.
RICHARD HATCH I first met on his series Streets Of San Francisco. And later I re-interviewed him on the set of Battlestar Galactica. He was 71.
BARBARA HALE I met in Toronto when she and co-star were making the first Perry Mason TV movie. She was 89.
RONY ROSATO I first knew in his SCTV days and later on Saturday Night Live. He was 62.
ADAM WEST I knew from TV guest appearances. He was far more than Batman, a great comedic actor, He was 89.
DELLA REESE I knew from various TV appearances. She said her life threatening aneurysm had been successfully operated on in London, Ontario. She was 86.
HEATHER MENZIES I knew from her TV series work but also as the wife of Robert Urich. She was 67.
MONTY HALL I met every time he came to Toronto for his Variety Village telethons but also at his Beverly Hills home. He was 96.
PEGGY CUMMINS I interviewed over the phone to promote the DVD rerelease of her terrific film noir classic Gun Crazy. She was 92.
ROSE MARIE I first met up at CFTO studios when she was a contestant on Definition. She was 94.
BRUCE GRAY I interviewed often--he was terrific in Traders and also Queer As Folk. He was 81.
JOHN HILLERMAN I met on a CBS press tour where he was promoting his star turn on Magnum PI. He was 81.
JIM NABORS I met at a winery in St. Catharines- he was headlining a variety show at Hamilton Place. He was 87.
ROBERT GUILLAUME I met on the terrific sitcom Sports Night. He was 89.
JOHN DUNSWORTH I interviewed for his terrific comedic turn on Trailer Park Boys. He was 71.
HUGH HEFNER I met and interviewed at the Playboy mansion where he showed me his vault of old movie classics. He was 91.
ANNE JEFFREYS I saw at an L.A.  party dancing with Cesar Romero when both were over 80. The star of Topper was 94.
I interviewed master character HARRY DEAN STANTON several times. He was 91.
DON OLMEYER I several times in his NBC production office where he showed TV critics the first preview of Seinfeld. He was 92.
JERRY LEWIS I interviewed at the CNE in 1971. He was 91.
DICK GEGORY I interviewed in 1970 as a summer student for The Globe And Mail while he was on a starvation campaign fighting racism. He was 84.
GLEN CAMPBELL I met on the set of The Tommy Hunter Show in 1972. He was 81.
EOBERT HARDY I interviewed several times most notably at CFTO STudios where he was starring in a drama about Winston Churchill.  He claimed he loved being in Agincourt. He was 91.
STEPHEN FURST I interviewed on the set of St. Elsewhere. He died at 63 of complications from diabetes.
ROGER MOORE I met when he was starring in the TV series The Persuaders. He was 89.
SKIP HOMEIER I met on a CBS drama and told him of his brilliance aged 12 in starring in the 1944 firilm Tomorrow THe World. He was 86.
MARTIN LANDAU I first met on the set of Mission: Impossible. He was 89.
I first  ROBERT OSBORNE. TCM host,  at an L.A. and we talked old movies on the phone several times. He was 84.
And I remember interviewing Shelley Berman on the set of a CHCH game show way back in 1971. He was 92.