If you grew up in Canada in the Sixties, Patrick Watson was as distinctive a figure as Gordon Lightfoot, Jean Beliveau and Pierre Trudeau. His acute features and dry, slightly nasal voice illuminated the most important CBC show of that era, This Hour Has Seven Days. Even today, his “bear pit” interviews with Orson Welles, Pete Seeger and convicted murderer Nathan Leopold bristle with integrity. An audience of over three million watched Seven Days, a miraculous amount for a program that was pitched at the highest level of journalistic and documentary practice.
When CBC infamously pulled the plug on Seven Days, Watson was effectively blacklisted for years. But he returned as an anchorman for New York’s public broadcasting show, The Fifty-First State and then, in Ottawa, as the titular head of The Watson Report. Eventually, he came all the way back, becoming a controversial Chair of the CBC in the late 80s.
More and more,Watson has become enmeshed in history. He interviewed actors playing legendary figures in Witness to Yesterday and The Titans. Watson created the epic ten part series The Struggle for Democracy. And he has written the majority of the wonderfully dramatic Heritage Minutes.
Patrick Watson is many things: a brilliant interviewer, an actor, a flyer, a magician, a poet, a novelist, a bass player, a documentarist and a marvelous raconteur. This interview is a partial look at a complex and important figure in Canadian media history. For a more complete picture,Watson’s new autobiography This Hour Has Seven Decades, published by McArthur and Company is heartily recommended.
Early Days at the CBC—1955-1964
POV: What attracted you to television?
PW: I came into CBC-TV in 1955, first as a host in Children’s Programming. What really seduced me into television was the putting together of images. All of the out-of-studio stuff in those days was done on 16mm film. Early on in the process of learning how to be a program host, I got invited—maybe through doing narrations—into the cutting room to see how stuff was put together. I fell in love with the cutting room and soon after with the camera.
Pretty soon, under the supervision and encouragement of a great producer named Ross McLean, writing for television became a large part of the appeal. Ross had that lovely producer/editor knack of being able to point to something and say, ‘here’s why this doesn’t work’ or ‘look at that, do more of that.’ That was really exciting. Can you imagine, I was 26 years old and in with all this incredible equipment.
POV: What was it like at the CBC in those days?
PW: There were two aspects of the social dynamic of those years that were extraordinary. One was the courtesy with which the professionals regarded the kids like me. The other was that management was willing to take chances, to try things that nobody had thought of before, that were pushing the envelope.
POV: How did you start working with Public Affairs and McLean?
PW: Ross watched everything on CBC, even the trivial things, like the live Saturday afternoon show, Mr. FixIt, a 15-minute program that I produced. It was a visual joke I created on that program involving a leaky faucet that fills up the studio with water that interested Ross. He asked how I’d done it—the trick came out of an old piece of magic I knew— and that opened a conversation between us. When he and Davidson Dunton conceived the idea of Close-Up, a television magazine show, ‘like a Life magazine,’ Ross came and asked me to join him as a lieutenant, although he called it co-producer. It was really to be his line producer while he had the overall authority and in fact in those days did most of the directing, although happily left a fair amount of the directing to me.
My real job was to get the show ready for air every week and to have hands-on pieces that were sub-let and to go out into the field and do a fair amount myself. It was a terrific learning experience, driven by a guy who was totally professional. Ross had no other life. He had this profound conviction that public broadcasting was all about service, and giving the audience something that would enrich their lives. Not just keep them glued to the set but, whether through laughter or insight, leave them richer at the end of the half-hour. He insisted upon that. That became for a number of us the morality of broadcasting. Ross increasingly gave me my head, and even yielded to me in arguments. He had a daily show, Tabloid, which was later renamed 7:01; it was a live early evening interview show, and he began to ask me to take it over for a week if he was tired.
That was a wonderful experience, working with Joyce Davidson and John O’Leary and the late Dick McDougall and Percy Saltzman, who was one of the great interviewers. Percy was the one who taught me that the most important thing in doing interviews is to listen. If you really listen, and make it your job to detect lines and openings, you can go into an interview very ill prepared and still have a wonderful encounter with somebody who has a story to tell.
POV: Was it a much freer atmosphere back then?
PW: People would come along and say, ‘gee so-and-so is off sick, can you take Country Calendar? Or the afternoon show, Take 30?’ Another thing of course: you were doing everything. It was not unusual for a producer in Current Affairs to write his own programs, and we all directed our own programs. Somebody would came along with an Arnold Edinborough script like The Political Generals that combined drama and documentary. It entailed producing and directing some dramatized segments around documentary inserts. So there I was working up in Studio 4, where Arthur Hiller and Norman Jewison had worked with actors doing live drama. Wonderful.
POV: You then moved to Ottawa to start your own show, Inqui’ry. What was that like?
PW: Inqui’ry was the first national affairs show to come out of the capitol. CBC allowed an extraordinary amount of authority to be vested in a single person! I was producing, directing and largely writing the show but with enough budget to hire good people to go out and do some of that stuff for me. Pretty well zero guidelines as to format. One could really play around. There was enough budget that, one week out of four, we could do extensive documentary production, sending film crews out to do some good hefty stuff. And to import guest commentators like Scotty Reston from the New York Times, who was not just a wonderful on-air contributor but a very wise journalistic colleague. When I look back, it seemed so easy to open doors back then.
POV: Was it the CBC name?
PW: I’m sure a lot of it was the name, and we were coming out of the capitol. ‘My name’s Watson, I’m doing a national affairs program out of Ottawa. Can I talk to you?’ ‘Sure!’ Great courtesy. It didn’t hurt that I was coming out of the period when Ross McLean had been sending me down to the States quite a lot to produce items out of Washington and New York and elsewhere. I was used to working in the American environment, directing in American control rooms. Early on he said, ‘you and Pierre Berton and Charles Templeton are going to go to New York and do a bunch of interviews. We’ve got a bunch of people lined up, including Leo Szilard, (one of the Los Alamos guys who was then dying of cancer, but who came out of hospital in pyjamas to be interviewed in the CBS studio) and Patrick, you’re going to direct.’ So I was directing with wonderful people like that doing interviews. Mike Wallace came in for an interview, and that set up a relationship that has endured. Over the years, I’d call up Wallace and ask him if he’d interviewed someone—what’s it like, what do I need to know? And I’d find a lovely courtesy that was part of the fraternity.
This Hour Has Seven Days
POV: After Inqui’ry, you came back to Toronto to produce This Hour Has Seven Days. It was the high point of your career at the CBC. What are your recollections about that time?
PW: It was a very theatrical period. Not only were Douglas Leiterman and I using consciously dramatic conflict on the screen in order to draw people into national and international affairs, we were devising ways to make something as simple as an interview as theatrical as possible. Lighting and shooting, the structure of the questions, everything was created to make current affairs exciting to watch.
We were into an almost endless series of conflicts with management who believed Leiterman and I were pushing the envelope too much. They were embarrassed and kept telling us to be less provocative. That became the backstory, the second line of drama going on, as the show was being televised to great acclaim. It was very dramatic and not very pleasant, but we were cocky enough to think we were winning all the time. And for a long time, we mostly won the battles and kept doing what we wanted to do.
POV: Looking back at Seven Days, I’m struck by how much they are like variety shows. There is the use of music, the political cabaret style, the theatrical documentaries, the ‘hot seat’ interviews: they all worked well together. Did the format evolve easily?
PW: I don’t remember that we said a hell of a lot to management about what it was going to look like. They knew that Seven Days was going to use a magazine format and that we would use satire. Our rationale was that satire was our version of a newspaper’s editorial cartoon, so that was accepted. We were winging it in terms of format. We had some principles: the original being, if you can turn your eye away from the screen, then cut it. At least in the editing room. We did a fair amount of stuff live, but as we became more comfortable with videotape, we began to record very long interviews just searching for that moment, that gem, when something really electric was happening. You’d do an hour and a half with someone, and you’d warn them, we’re only going to broadcast 6 or 7 minutes; and if they agreed, you went ahead.
Because Leiterman and I were alternating in our responsibilities week by week, I would produce the shows that he directed and he would produce the shows that I directed. I’m sure there was a nice competition in there, each of us trying to goose the thing a little more. It was exhilarating.
POV: Who in management was holding you back?
PW: All of the head office senior people—the president, Al Ouimet, a man I really liked and admired. But he had sublet a great deal of his responsibility to a guy named Bud Walker. H. G. Walker was not a very thoughtful guy. He was kind of brutal and given to using his authority in an arbitrary way. ‘You’re not going to do that and I’m not going to discuss it with you.’ And we would effectively say, ‘hump you’ and go and do it and there’d be a ruckus and we’d be summoned to head office and hauled on the carpet. We were well prepared, pretty good at going up there and cross-examining our bosses: which part of ‘no’ didn’t you understand? It was that kind of rhetorical device. We’d plot this, Leiterman and I. ‘If he says this, you say that, and then we’ll ask him what would you have done?” We were certainly being very manipulative and not very accommodating.
POV: When you describe your early years at the CBC, you’re right on the inside, but by the time of Seven Days, you’re an outsider maintaining a position of marginality, on the edge. How did that happen?
PW: That becomes so during the run of Seven Days. Leiterman and I became cocky within the first weeks because the success was so prodigious. We were being talked about in the papers every week. The audiences were huge. We’d never seen anything like that before. The mythology is that current affairs programming gets 14 – 15% of the audience; we were getting more than anybody else except Don Messer’s Jubilee. Running 3 million viewers every Sunday night, and for major documentaries.
I think we were probably pretty offensive to a lot of our colleagues. There was undoubtedly a measure of envy in some quarters, and some admiration. People asked to help out—from drama, from variety, from news. But some barriers went up in the news department; people thought we were invading their territory. They made it quite difficult for us to access the news library. Quite frankly, we sent people to steal from the library: ‘if it belongs to the CBC, it belongs to the people and we should have it.’ The news people didn’t see it that way. So there was a lot of enmity in the house. When the battle came to be a pitched and open one between management and us, there were lots of other producers who were laughing and thinking it served us right.
POV: Your use of documentaries as monthly specials was an extraordinary idea. Beryl Fox’s Mills of the Gods was the most famous but there were others; how did management react to prime-time docs?
PW: I don’t remember that it was ever controversial. The documentary evening would open in the studio, with the regular host on set, but then we’d be into a doc. Some of those, Beryl’s Summer in Mississippi, which is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, was only 22 minutes, so it was actually part of a magazine show, not a whole evening. The Mills of the Gods, a great film about Vietnam, was a full-length piece.
POV: CBC’s management canceled the show despite its high ratings. Was the cancellation traumatic for you and Leiterman?
PW: I had the feeling that we’d fought a really good fight, that we’d made a lot of points with the public. A lot of those colleagues who were angry with us and were enemies when the fight began, came around by the end and saw that we were making genuine points about journalistic independence and respect for audiences. It was physically exhausting, but morally exhilarating.
Leiterman now believes that we could have been more accommodating without seriously compromising the program and that we should have been. He would have liked to have kept Seven Days going forever. I had a different feeling. I had been persuaded by Ned Sherrin who had been the Executive Producer of (The BBC’s landmark political satire programme) That Was The Week That Was… that three years was a natural life and it would be a good idea to kill the show then and go do something new. That was romantic. It was not a thought out position. I thought Doug agreed, but I suppose that wasn’t so.
Seven Days Aftermath
POV: What did you do after Seven Days concluded?
PW: It turned out to be a tough period because I was blacklisted at the CBC and it was tough to get work as a freelancer. But I don’t remember feeling that it was tragic. That summer I learned to fly; it was part of the therapy. I guess I did feel bruised and certainly exhausted. It was a summer of flying lessons and baking bread and making martinis.
POV: What did you do when you realized that it wouldn’t be easy to continue in broadcasting?
PW: There were some really tough years, financially. I’ve never really totally recovered from that. But then good luck came along: five years later I was suddenly called to New York, to develop a daily news show for Channel 13 as a consultant. What started off as a six week consulting contract ended up, somewhat accidentally, by my becoming anchorman for The Fifty-First State, a daily news show in Manhattan. And that really brought me back to TV journalism.
Broadcast Journalism and Interviewing Styles
POV: Looking again at Seven Days, I’m struck by how much more frank people were, then. How do you feel about what passes for journalism today?
PW: I’m certainly not watching television much any more because of that kind of disappointment—the missed opportunities, the lack of rigour. I also have to say, parenthetically, I’ve always felt a tiny bit uncomfortable about referring to myself as a journalist. I’ve worked in journalism, but not in the daily sense. I was never a newspaper reporter, although I’ve written a lot for magazines and newspapers: it’s been dashing in, doing a book review or a comment piece. I always thought of myself as a producer/director and an interviewer. Interviewing is journalism, or it’s a part of journalism, but for me it was a highly specialized form of journalism. It was a form of theatre. It was a way of dramatically drawing the audience into the experience of real people and to arouse their interest in current affairs through that format.
POV: You mentioned that Percy Saltzman had taught you that the first thing an interviewer has to do is listen. What do you tell people when they want to learn from you?
PW: When I worked as a teacher within the CBC training program, I quite deliberately provoked the trainees by saying, ‘the first thing you have to understand about interviews is that no one ever remembers anything that’s said in the interview.’ This would get the students very upset, particularly if they came out of print or an academic background: ‘what’s the point of doing it then?’
I’d use a classical interview with Lord Bertrand Russell when he was in his late 80s. It was an uninterrupted half-hour piece with Elaine Grand from around 1957-1958. I’d screen the interview, and ask them to promise not to take notes. They’d be spellbound—it’s great television —and then I’d ask for comments. They’d all say how wonderful it was, and reflect on the brilliance of this guy Russell and his argumentative skills. And I’d ask for examples. They wouldn’t remember anything, except for a couple of jokes that he made and a couple of phrases that are funny. They’d remember that he was convincing in his arguments about nuclear issues, but they wouldn’t remember what the hell he said! Naturally, they’d be very angry, and their anger would be directed at me because I’d proven myself right. But then I’d ask, ‘was it a valuable experience?’ ‘Yeah!’ Why? They would have had an experience of another human being that was powerful; they’d never forget it. As interviewers, I’d ask, ‘how can you make this happen?’
POV: You interviewed Pierre Trudeau many times. How was he as an interviewee?
PW: His playfulness still impresses me. He recognized as well as any politician that, although there were some points he wanted to make, the real importance of an interview was the human dynamic in front of the camera. That meant he was free to throw out ideas and play with ideas. Going back to the very first interview at CJOH during the 1968 leadership campaign, when he said, ‘we’ve had enough of the old guys with the old ideas, we need the new guys,’—I’m still struck by a potential Prime Minister, saying ‘guys.’ It’s a simple banal thing, but there was a passion in it. Undoubtedly with a lot of knowing theatricality laid on over the passion. He knew what he was doing. He loved the arena.
POV: One of my favourite Patrick Watson interviews is with Orson Welles. He’s full of bluff, bravado, a magician, an appreciater of the camera. He fights you every step of the way. What were you trying to get at?
PW: I had a very clear starting point in my mind, which was why had there never been anything that quite measured up to Kane or the Ambersons? And how would he react if I put that question to him? He was very interesting on the subject. Welles couldn’t be any other than a dramatic person, so he dealt with it an actorly way. But there was a surprising amount of generosity because he could have told me to fuck off! And I would not have been at all astonished, if he had. But he knew he had to deal with my question seriously. He got to use his humour at the same time; in the end, he’s charming, forthright and evasive.
POV: Does it frustrate you, when even I, who knows your body of work, comes in and asks you one more time about Seven Days?
PW: No, I think if you’re asking if I feel like Orson Welles being asked why there wasn’t anything after Kane and Ambersons, there’s lots of stuff I’m quite happy with; we haven’t talked about yet—the Heritage Minutes, The Struggle for Democracy, The Titans and Witness to Yesterday.
Witness To Yesterday
POV: With Witness To Yesterday, you really do treat interviews as theatre. Was it your idea to create interviews with historical characters?
PW: No, it came from a producer named Arthur Voronka. He came along when I was still hosting Fifty-First State and asked, ‘why don’t we script these historical pieces, really get inside important characters and make them into good pieces of theatre?’
I was very skeptical because I thought we needed shit-hot dramatic writers to make it work. I wasn’t sure we had the writers. Voronka found Patrick Withrow who is so good that I ended up commissioning him to write Heritage Minutes twenty years later.
The first Witness we did had Sandy Dennis playing Joan of Arc; an unlikely piece of casting but it worked like gangbusters. We played around with a range of diligence from using the script very respectfully to a mid-point where we used it as a structural roadmap but not necessarily the words. Kate Reid suggested we do that when she played Queen Victoria and it was quite successful—she’s a brilliant actor—to total improvisation with Donald Sutherland doing Norman Bethune. It was totally convincing but less dramatic than the carefully scripted ones.
When we came back in 1998 to do another round of the series for History Television, we scripted them all. The next challenge came at the actor level. I directed the actors, that time. The issue was to make it sound as if it was being improvised. When you look at the Machiavelli piece, we got pretty damn close. I screened the Machiavelli in rough cut with a producer friend from England who didn’t know about the series. About ten minutes in, he said, ‘is this partly scripted?’ You couldn’t get a better compliment! It was totally scripted.
Heritage Minutes and History on TV
POV: The Heritage Minutes have been quite successful as theatrical and TV pieces. How did you get involved in their creation?
PW: Michael Levine, my lawyer and the Executive Producer on The Struggle for Democracy, insisted that I drop everything and fly to Montreal to have a meeting with Charles Bronfman. That was in 1988. It was Bronfman who came up with the idea of using a short chunk of television time to persuade people that if corn flakes or Cadillacs or tampons are interesting, why not spend a minute to persuade Canadians that we’ve got an interesting past? He said, ‘you tell me how to do it and I’ll pay for it.’ We had a daylong brainstorming session at his Foundation headquarters in Montreal where we talked about getting the Pierre Bertons to sit in the forest to tell stories or go to the National Film Board to do animation.
Out of that came the idea of doing movies that would be only sixty seconds long. Charles wanted particularly to hit teenagers and young adults. Movies are their medium, much more than television, so right from the beginning we said we would make dramas, not documentaries, and try to persuade theatres to put them on the big screen. We knew that we’d have to spend a lot of money on these minutes because we’d have to shoot them on 35mm, in wide format, with great actors and production values. I don’t know how confident we were that we could do it, but a lot of really good commercials are tight little dramas.
POV: How many Heritage Minutes have been produced and what’s been your involvement?
PW: We’ve made 65 and I’m told we’re getting funding to do another 8 or 10 this year. Pretty satisfying stuff. Of the 65, I’ve scripted between 35 and 40. One of my favourite “minutes” involved working with Colm Feore on John McCrae’s writing of the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. McCrae is sitting out in the battlefield, when he looks down and sees these poppies amongst the wooden crosses. We just hear a couple of the words. Just enough to know what he’s doing. The last line…’if we should die in Flanders Fields’ and then you hear ‘Dr. McCrae, Dr. McCrae’ and you see these horribly mutilated bodies being brought by. He sighs and throws his cigarette away and passes the adjutant the piece of paper. I had written that the adjutant says ‘what’s that?’ and he shrugs and goes on in. But Colm said, ‘what do you mean, he shrugs? What’s he trying to do?’ and I said, ‘well, he’s not confident that he’s done anything of value.’ Colm said, ‘he’s got to say something.’ So he hands the paper to the adjutant who says, ‘what’s it about?’ I’ve got one camera in close up on Colm, who says, “I’m not sure.” It was so actorly right and so much better than a shrug! There was pain, and poignancy, but it was right. We’re sure and he wasn’t sure. Now that’s an actor, knowing exactly what’s needed right there.
POV: Do we understand our own history well enough?
PW: I think we know a lot more about our history than we used to; there seems to be a hunger for it. History Television’s programs have substantial audiences for the Canadian stuff. Certainly the work we’re doing with Historica (the official Heritage Minutes producer) across the country suggests there’s a real desire out there to know our stories. I must say that some of the despair I have about the idea of the citizen being replaced by the consumer gets healed a little bit when I got out into the country, into smaller communities and meet kids who are doing projects in our history fairs program. Last year, there were 300,000 kids involved, telling local stories to their own communities. Isn’t that wonderful?
POV: The more I know you, the more I find it amazing that you took on the role of Chairman of the CBC. Why did you do it?
PW: It’s a question I often ask myself, and the only convincing answer is that I couldn’t not do it, because my friends were all saying I had to. I had an out: Mulroney first asked me to be President, and had I been President with executive capacity, I would have been able to do a lot. I’d have been prepared to be really ruthless. Being Chairman of the Board where I had to do everything by persuasion, I had absolutely no power: it was really tough. I was on the Board with people, half of whom believed the CBC should be earning more money from commercials. My view was that the CBC should have been out of the commercial business and behaving like a public broadcaster.
I was really naïve about the power of the senior bureaucracy and about their motivations. I assumed that everybody in the CBC really believed in public broadcasting and while they might have different views about how to do it, the common purpose was there. Some might suffer from a lack of vision but their morality was one of public service. It turned out that, as in any large bureaucracy, there were a number of people who were interested only in territory and preserving their power and they were very good at it.
They were good at coming to the new guys, like me and President Veilleux, and saying ‘thank god you’re here, you’re wonderful, we’re going to have a great time together’ and you’d get seduced. I’m satisfied that I succeeded in doing some serious damage to that bureaucratic structure, preventing some really bad people from taking more power. I did not succeed in persuading the Board sufficiently that the Corporation does not need to be in the advertising business. And the politics at the CBC were dirty, nasty and vindictive and very personal. It was personally very destructive. I got sick. Caroline and I go over this a lot. She warned me against taking the job at the beginning and then finally said, ‘I guess you’ve got to do it. Don’t expect me to be there.’ Of course she was. She was heroic, but it was tough on the marriage. It took a long time to get over.
POV: What would you have done as President?
PW: Within a year I would have had the Corporation out of commercials. We would have been behaving like a member of a broadcasting spectrum in which there are 500 channels instead of only 30 or 40. We’d have been producing a primarily Canadian schedule, but also broadcasting a lot of good international programs that Canadians wouldn’t otherwise get to see.
POV: Have there been any improvements?
PW: The schedule has been Canadianized. There are the Thursday evening arts broadcasts with no advertising, which is welcome, but every Saturday night, there are still American movies. What’s that for? That’s appalling.
It would be easy to fix; it takes an act of will, not any brilliance. What we need is a government to say, ‘here’s what you’re going to do. We want a real public broadcaster. Get out of advertising. We have terrific broadcast material and you have to find a way to show it. And do it within the parliamentary allocation. If it was done well and with a sense of public spirit, the constituency, which has vanished from television but is very active for radio despite some of the strange things that are happening with Radio 1, would be rebuilt.