Lost Atlantis

The Golden Age of TV Arts in Canada

26 mins read

I remember it quite well. There were great singers, dancers, musicians and artists of all stripes creating breathtakingly beautiful things. There was Dracula winding his way through a world of dance and silent movies; Teresa Stratas, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello and William S. Burroughs singing Kurt Weill like you’ve never heard before; and Greta Hodgkinson, the great classical ballet dancer, writhing erotically on a satin sheet with four lovers. There was also Yo-Yo Ma accompanying the great ice-dancing couple Torville and Dean, and Mary Margaret O’Hara and Sarah Slean in a musical about a severed head. These images were all part of a remarkable period that produced some of the most original and imaginative works for TV. The films, which included arts documentaries as well as scripted works that integrated performance and musical elements, were lauded by critics, loved by audiences, won International Emmys, and were shown on networks all over the world. More importantly, they created a pool of talent that made Canada the best producer of original arts programming in the world.

I was lucky enough to be a part of this community and got several chances to write, produce and direct films that were primarily shown on the CBC and Bravo!, two networks that were instrumental in commissioning this “golden age” of Canadian arts programming. Don’t quote me exactly but the period I’m talking about is from the late 1980s to about 2007, a time that encompassed three various arts strands on the CBC: Music for a Sunday Afternoon, Adrienne Clarkson Presents and Opening Night. But as the programming streams started disappearing, so did the films themselves, along with the opportunities for countless artists. (The loss of the exclamation mark (!) at the end of “Bravo” was more than just symbolic—it was symptomatic of the disappearance of risk, daring and bold originality on broadcast TV.) And if truth were told, audiences lost something as well, since TV was sometimes about as close as they could get to the artists whose luminous performances were at the centre of these films.

So, what happened? Why did these great arts films disappear? And is there a hope in hell that we can see arts programming again on Canadian TV? Who would help me in keeping the dialogue going about the need to keep the arts alive on TV? Well, I didn’t have to look too hard because everyone I contacted seemed just as concerned as I was in resuscitating one of the most unique parts of our broadcast culture.

My first chat is with Robert Sherrin. He is sitting in a booth at the Senator restaurant in downtown Toronto as I arrive and waves me over. As the executive director of CBC’s flagship weekly arts programme Opening Night, he oversaw the development and production of more than 50 arts-related films over the course of a seven-year period (2000-07). Four of those films, I’m proud to say, were mine. But aside from that, he was one of the best executive directors or commissioning editors I’ve worked with, a sentiment that is shared by other directors and producers who crossed paths with him. Having been a director and producer himself, his comments and critiques were always right on the money. Now, almost seven years after retiring completely from the TV racket, he has slowed down a bit but his manner is as direct as ever. “It has to start from the top. From the very top,” he says. “The entire reason Opening Night started in 2000 was because Harold Redekop [the executive vice-president of CBC Television at the time] liked the arts. He was keen on music, on performance. And he truly believed that it was in the interests of both the audience and the public broadcaster itself to make room for the very best that the world of arts could offer.”

As I write down what Robert is saying, my mind quickly flips back to the late 1980s, when I made my first feature-doc for the CBC called Dance for Modern Times, a look at the work of five renowned Canadian choreographers. Acknowledged for its cinematic treatment of showing dance on screen, it was entirely the product of an earlier stream of arts programming which, in turn, had been put in place by Pierre Juneau, the CBC president at the time. (Juneau, it should be noted, battled constantly with Mulroney’s Conservative government over budget cuts and the reorganization of the CBC—sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? and yet still managed to increase overall Canadian content on the network to 95 per cent of programming.) The same can also be said for the subsequent era in the mid-’90s, when Ivan Fecan became director of programming for CBC Television. Knowing the importance of arts programming, he created what eventually became one of the best-known TV arts streams in North America: “Adrienne Clarkson Presents.” “Robert is right,” I say to myself. “It has to start with the top dog. Otherwise, no matter how great the argument, it ain’t going anywhere.”

I’ve drifted, but Robert brings me down to earth: “The CBC is a public broadcaster and has a public function and mandate and arts must be a part of this. But there is nothing on TV to reflect that right now.” The former executive director goes on to talk about the roster of extraordinary directors that made films for Opening Night and I can’t help but recall Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, a masterpiece of performance, music and silent film–era techniques created by Guy Maddin in 2002. Originally staged by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Dracula was transformed by Maddin into one of the most dynamic works for either the small or big screen. Shot in high-contrast black and white, it brought out all the passion, horror and pathos of the Dracula story. Some critics even thought it equal to Coppola’s version. The film won a truckload of prizes, including Gemini awards (Best Arts Program and Director), a DGC award and an International Emmy, amongst others. The accolades given to Maddin’s Dracula were almost typical of the praise the shows on Opening Night received.

However, when it comes to awards, no other entity hauled as much award tonnage than Rhombus Media, undoubtedly Canada’s most prolific producer of arts programming. In talking about TV arts programming it’s simply impossible not to mention Rhombus. It’d be like trying to talk about the history of the NHL without bringing up Gretzky. With Niv Fichman at the producing helm, the company, which includes directors Barbara Willis Sweete and Larry Weinstein, worked hard to establish a long line of wonderful arts programmes with an impressive network of international partners that included NHK (Japan), BBC, Channel 4 (U.K.), ZDF (Germany), ARTE France and RTP (Portugal), amongst others. Sheena Macdonald, who ran the company’s distribution arm, Rhombus International, played an instrumental role in that remarkable growth and contributed greatly to the company’s becoming one of the leading producers and distributors of cultural and performing-arts programming in the world.

The vivacious redhead is now chief operating officer at the Canadian Film Centre and echoes what Robert Sherrin had said to me earlier: “The previous leaders of the CBC clearly saw the role of a public broadcaster. That’s what enabled the dollars to flow through so that we could make these great films,” she explains over the phone. “People were able to see their first Shakespeare or their first opera or their first dance or their first exposure to great artists. And this is what makes public broadcasting so important. Because there has to be a place for the arts. It’s the only thing that lives on. Everything else dies but art always survives. It also gives people a feeling that they can dream…just like the way sports does.”

When I mention the accusation that arts don’t attract enough viewers, Sheena counters with some startling facts: “Are you kidding? Our docs at times smoked out some of the dramas on the CBC. You’d see ranges of 175,000 to 350,000 for one of our performance or doc shows, and anywhere from 600,000 to 900,000 for a special movie like Long Day’s Journey Into Night [which was originally staged at the Stratford Festival]. Do you mean to tell me that Bravo wouldn’t kill for numbers like that today?” (Indeed, Bravo, now devoid of that cheerful exclamation mark, was a big player alongside CBC in the financing of arts films. In my own case, I was able to raise anywhere between 10 to 15 per cent of the budget for my films via the network’s BravoFACT stream, a tributary that’s been redirected toward more scripted or factual projects.)

“But I have to say,” Sheena continues, “that no other country makes arts films or docs like us [Canadians]. In Europe, the traditional arts program looked like a straight doc or a direct taping of a stage show like an opera or ballet. But we Canadians do it completely differently. We reimagine the piece entirely so that it becomes like a movie unto itself. They are made for TV. That’s what makes our shows attractive for Europeans and other countries around the world. At first, they were not used to seeing arts films like that. They popped.” As Sheena talks, I’m remembering some of the great Rhombus shows that popped equally on our home screens. I’m thinking about Le Dortoir, François Girard’s brilliant adaptation of Carbone 14’s dance drama about the erotic and violent memories set within a long-deserted Catholic school. I’m also thinking about Larry Weinstein’s unique biographical take on the work of Kurt Weill (September Songs) and Barbara Willis Sweete’s gorgeously filmic presentation of the National Ballet of Canada’s The Four Seasons. All of these programmes contributed to setting the bar higher for what makes great TV and to the strong reputation of Canadian filmmakers, not only on TV screens around the world but on home turf as well.

George Anthony, the strikingly silver-haired and debonair executive who was the head of CBC Arts and Entertainment during the midway point of the golden era, helped to greenlight many of Rhombus’s productions. I’m sitting in his bright midtown kitchen as he pours me coffee and brings up an important point about the absence of the arts on TV: “What about the young people today? Think about all the experiences they’re missing. If someone missed out on seeing Edouard Locke and his La La La Human Steps company, they could see it on TV [as in the sensuous film Amelia, directed by Locke himself]. If they wanted to see more about Nureyev—shameless self-promotion coming up—they could watch the dance film by Moze Mossanen. And if they wanted to watch some of their favourite ice dancers in an eye-popping special like The Planets [directed by Barbara Willis Sweete], they had that option as well. But how are kids or young people going to see a great dance work by Crystal Pite [one of the most dynamic and promising choreographers working today], or a musical that can be seen only by people lucky enough to go to Stratford or Shaw? Or a documentary about some of the great Canadian bands today? There’s something lost here.”

George pours me more coffee and I’m now thinking about the docs, series or one-offs that young audiences might never hear about. Films, for example, about the spectacularly promising new generation of dancers at the National Ballet; the colourful and burgeoning world of show choirs across Canada; adaptations of electrifying new musical plays like Ride the Cyclone (currently being workshopped, aimed at Broadway); and the very best that the world has to offer in terms of dance, music and performance. The weight of all this is compounded by thinking about all the films that would never have been made had there never been an arts strand on TV. I’m thinking in particular of David Mortin’s clever Black Widow, an original musical drama based on the Evelyn Dick murder case that aired on CBC’s Opening Night in 2006. With a glorious cast that includes many outstanding Canadian talents like Mary Margaret O’Hara, Sarah Slean, Tom McCamus and Gary Reinke, the film is both a macabre and delicious look into the worlds of desire and deceit. I mean, how can you not love a film that begins with a severed head sitting in a fiery coal furnace singing about the heartbreak of lost love? In some ways, the film foreshadowed some of the risky, unorthodox themes and film techniques that are now somewhat de rigueur on shows like Boardwalk Empire or Breaking Bad. I can’t help but think what a loss it would’ve been had Mortin’s film not seen the light of day.

“So, how come the arts have disappeared from TV? What happened?” I’m now sitting across a café table from Neil Bregman, the president and CEO of Sound Venture, which once produced many popular arts programs for the likes of CBC and Bravo! The tall, athletic producer was behind such titles as The Toy Castle, the globally successful kids’ series that originally ran on Treehouse TV; Footnotes, a dance doc series; and many doc one-offs like Celia Franca: Tour de Force and The Dancer’s Story, both directed by acclaimed former ballerina and now filmmaker Veronica Tennant. He ponders my question before laying it all out: “The loss of the arts on TV is an indictment of where the world is right now. In the past, they [the broadcasters] would not hold you to the numbers or ratings. They did it because they loved it. But then broadcasters started to consolidate and get bigger and there was a greater pressure to make a profit. And now it’s purely commercial. It’s all about advertisers, eyeballs and numbers. I think this had a huge impact on arts programmes because they are, in essence, specialty programmes.” He pauses but then goes for broke: “As for Rogers, Shaw, Bell and Corus…they are essentially distributors, not creative content producers, whereas in the past you had executives like Moses Znaimer who, despite his massive ego, was primarily a creative guy. His company Citytv [CHUM Ltd.] changed completely when Bell Globe Media took over.”

I proffer the idea that in order for the arts to survive on TV, the CBC has to stay in the game. As a public broadcaster, that is certainly their broadcast mandate, but practice has also shown that they are the important force that creates a domino effect in the financing of these films. Once they’re in, everything else usually lines up. “Yeah, OK”, Neil says, “but the CBC should be doing it on a regular basis because that’s how you achieve excellence and consistency. But above all, art is a powerful idea. It’s a powerful idea that needs to be served.” The last line stays with me and I write it down. But when I look back up, Neil shakes the dreamy notions out of my head: “But you can only bang your head on the wall for so long. I’ve given up. I had to change what I do in order to make a living.” He tells me about his current work producing MOWs for other production companies both in Toronto and Vancouver. He pauses but then returns to the arts programming thing: “Hey, look, I’m so frigging proud of what I’ve done. I’ve made good, interesting films that showcase artists and show the best of our creativity and culture. Because deep down I will always believe that the arts do the best job in showing us who we are as a people. More than anything else in this world.”

A short while before my meeting with Neil, the audience numbers for my most recent film, Unsung, are released to me. The doc is about two high school show choirs as they battle time, nerves and each other while preparing for the national championships held in the spring. Commissioned by TVOntario the film pulled in in excess of 600,000 viewers, an astonishing fact given it was only broadcast in Ontario. Combined with an aggressive marketing campaign by the network and extensive support through social media generated by the kids, their families and friends across the province, the response reassures me that there is an audience for arts programming—and one that’s clearly underserved, given the response.

So, where do we go from here? Well, it’s clear that any strong initiative must come from the top dog at the network. There has to be a will and a commitment to create an ongoing platform on their schedules, rather than paying lip service with a special here and there. That way, with a continuing presence and solid marketing support, the programmes will at least have a chance to succeed. Of course, this is all predicated upon the need for the federal government—which lately has shown nothing less than indifference or outright contempt for culture, cultural institutions and the arts—to listen to the needs of Canadians in making the arts a priority in the larger scheme of public policy.

Broadcasters must also make it easier for corporations to sponsor shows on their schedules. Given my own experience on this issue, there is an appetite for corporations to act as sponsors, particularly highprofile arts programmes that can reach a broad range of audiences. But above all, we, as producers, have a continuing responsibility to make our films in a way that engages the community while maintaining the excellent standards of production and storytelling that have made us stand out from the rest of the world pack.

It’s a tall order but it’s worth it. Because art is great. Art is valuable. Art moves, thrills and changes us. And we should never hesitate to stand by those things when we make TV.

10 recommended arts docs and films (alphabetically):
FlicKeR (dir. Nik Sheehan, 2008)
Floating Over Canada (dir. Peter Thurling, 1985)
Flamenco at 5:15 (dir. Cynthia Scot, 1983)
Lodela (dir. Philippe Baylaucq, 1996)
Narcissus (dir. Norman McLaren, 1983)
Bach Cello Suite No. 6: Six Gestures (dir. Patricia Rozema, 1997)
Streetcar (dir. Nick de Pencier, 2004)
Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (dirs. Scot McFadyen, Sam Dunn and Jessica Joy Wise, 2005)
The Young Romantic (dir. Barbara Willis Sweete, 2008)
Year of the Lion (dir. Moze Mossanen, 2003) (I’m shameless, I know)

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