Sunday, August 24, 2014
On Canadian TV the fall season starts early.
This week HGTV which is one of the success stories of Shaw Media unveils its new lineup.
At first I thought I'd never even heard of Tackle My Reno starring former CFL star Sebastian Clovis.
But it was announced in the fall lineup as Reno Rookies --the name change is for the better I think.
Clovis grew up in Scarborough, attended Neil McNeil High School and later Saint Mary's University and was a CFL star before retiring to become a reno specialist.
On Global's morning show he said that when he was 15 his parents had a contractor renovate their kitchen with the proviso he give their teenager a summer job.
And from that he learned the building trade from the ground up.
Now there are some HGTV series I like and watch and others I avoid.
Property Envy does nothing for me --I can't relate to the million dollar estates which all seem to be eyesores.
I stopped watching Property Virgins when amiable host Sandra Rinomato decamped.
Her subsequent series Buy Herself was a distinct disappointment and got cancelled after one season.
I wish Mike Holmes would expand his search somewhat and stop his fixation on mold.
Million Dollar LIstings has lot its luster for me although I'll still occasionally visit House Hunters despite its venerable age.
Which brings me to Tackle My Reno starring Clovis, 34, who has an amiable TV personality.
He's picked wisely on the first two half hours which debut Tuesday August 26 at 10 p.m. as a one hour block of programming.
For one thing he makes gentle fun with the rank amateurs who seemingly can't even hammer a nail straight.
Then he shows how a pro would do it.
The first episode looks at a husband who can never finish his basement renovation because he lacks the skills.
Clovis is pretty good at guiding him along and explaining all the processes and stirring things up with the fed-up wife --even the neighborhood children get in on this one.
And I felt the average viewer could relate to the narrative more than a million dollar listing.
The second half hour is even better as Kristine who is heavily pregnant wants a functioning kitchen before she gives birth. Husband Sam is obviously crazy about her but he just does not know how to re-jig the cramped space and provide the finishes in time.
Clovis gets Sam working and provides valuable backup as he provides a running commentary about each crucial decision he has to make along the way.
I'm not the only one who has noticed the crucial difference in HGTV's Canadian made shows and the American imports where selling real estate and closing the deal is the end all.
Canadian handyman offer life lessons in each episode and I know i'll be watching more episodes of Tackle My Reno.
TACKLE MY RENO PREMIERES ON HGTV TUESDAY AUGUST 26 AT 10 P.M.
'MY RATING: ***1/2.
Thursday, August 21, 2014
Only a few years ago a new Canadian TV special as important as Grasslands would have enjoyed pride of place on CBC-TV.
But the public network is in free fall and the other "Canadian" networks are busy right now rerunning American programs.
That's why Grasslands debuts Saturday August 23 at 10 p.m. on Oasis HD --the second showing will come up on Citytv stations in the fall.
This is an important reflection on the state of Canadian conservation--it was shot over several years in all kinds of climactic conditions.
The photography is gorgeous but it's the important riff on how we are falling back in efforts to preserve and protect endangered species that should grab you.
"I thought I knew the area since I'd spent much of my life there," Ian Toews, the director and camera man, told me on the phone. "But I kept learning until filming stopped.
"We started shooting in the winter of 2011. I could have gone on forever, well almost. Every time I came back to the project there was another challenge."
Toews wanted to look at the disappearing prairie landscape through the eyes of people who knew it best:
"I felt the way it was going the shrinking prairie would soon become a harsh statistic --and be gone from memory."
He looks at the challenges through the experiences of a number of people passionate about keeping it going: a Blackfoot who is also an academic, a rancher, an American in Montana, even a sound recorder.
Ironically this is the last Saskatchewan documentary Toews will make --the provincial Tory government cancelled its tax subsidies for the arts and Toews and his Regina-based 291 Film Company relocated to Victoria, B.C.
"They give subsidies and help to farmers, the oil interests, the potash industry but not to the arts," he says. "That's sending quite a message."
It was because of the tax credits that CTV's hugely successful series Corner Gas flourished and helped produce a growing tourist boom in the province.
And it's not as if Grasslands was made with a huge crew --its luxuriant photography was filmed on an Arri Alexa camera, the state of the art 4k camera --the crew was usually just two or three members including Toews who did the photography himself.
"When you're out there it's prudent to only have a few people around or the animals would notice and leave," he laughs.
"But being in a blinder for days in wintry conditions isn't a whole great experience."
The theme of the hour is the relationship of everything to everything else and how it's been this way since the Ice Age re-carved the landscape.
The grasslands need the bison munching away to keep the grasses short. The owls need the old burrows originally made by gophers. Fires can actually be beneficial since they do not touch the root systyem which can quickly reproduce after a conflagration.
Plopping down electric poles gives predators such as owls and hawks unfair advantages --they can perch on the poles and easily pick off their prey.
Winters are especially hard on the larger animals --there are shots of one deer herd as the narrator notices how thin they've become, perfect targets for the coyotes to pick off. Yet mice and voles live under the snow and ice only to re-emerge in spring.
And, yes, there is sadness as we watch the mating habits of the sage grouse and learn their numbers have so declined there are less than 100 left.
The great grasslands harbor as much carbon as huge forests --when disturbed that carbon escapes under the relentless exploitation of oil and gas companies.
A rancher takes us to an abandoned shack with two rooms -- no hydro or running water and says people do not want to live like that these days.
What will happen next? That's what Grasslands is all about.
The fact there's still a place for a uniquely Canadian true story like Grasslands makes me believe Canadian TV still has a future.
And I'm wondering if you'll be as affected by this TV event as I was?
GRASSLANDS PREMIERES ON OASIS TV ON SATURDAY AUGUST 23 AT 10 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.
Monday, August 18, 2014
The scariest TV I've watched this year?
It's the series Don't Drive Here which returns for Season 2 on Discovery Monday August 18 at 10 p.m.
I sat down to watch the first new episode after a frustrating day commuting around Toronto and getting stuck nearly everywhere.
Then I watched Don't Drive Here and I felt , well, safe.
Host-creator Andrew Younghusband literally outs his life on the line in the first hour which shows us the hazards of being a driver in Nairobi, Kenya.
"I felt scared a whole lot," he explains. Several times he seems to be close to serious injury.
"And yet it's the kind of situation where the people there accept it and go about their business."
The statistics are startling: 10,000 deaths a year from traffic accidents, most of these could be preventable.
It's simply something about the culture of the place and the gritty determination of the city inhabitants to survive.
One thing I instantly noticed: there are few female drivers in Nairobi which Younghusband chalks up to cultural differences. "Look at the crowds of pedestrians everywhere and there are plenty of women. But you are correct: there are few women drivers."
Younghusband isn't just the host, he's an active participant in all forms of transportation in the over crowded city.
He starts by showing how virtually everybody jaywalks --between speeding trucks, around buses in motion or delivery boys on bikes.
"It's beyond scary," he says. "But it's the only way for many people to get around."
And he tries every form of transportation before he's done. One turn on a bicycle has him matched against a one legged cyclist courier who lost a leg when he was just a kid.
Yet, he seems to have no ill will, he just accepts his condition and gets on with it --and he's the fastest cyclist around.
As I watched this consistently exciting hour I kept wondering about the camera crew who must record every exploit of Younghusband.
"They were in even more danger than I was," he laughs nervously. "We have two cameramen, a producer who also films, a sound guy and a researcher and a fixer who sets scenes up. They focus on what I'm doing which makes them extremely vulnerable."
As crazy as it looks there wasn't a set up shot in the whole hour.
"It's so exciting out there we have no reason to create more excitement. It's all happening as you watch."
In other episodes Younghusband ventures to Sao Paulo, Brazil, "where the delivery boys have 10 fatalities a week.
"In Rome they allow kids of 14 to drive, now that is frightening."
In Ho Chi Minh City there are bikes fitted up for up to six riders".
In Bolivia's La Plaz a new cable car system is the largest in the world.
Says Younghusband :"I thought we might run out of cities after about 18 hours. I think we can easily hit 36 hours because every city is different. It's a subject that fascinates everyone. We all think we live in a city with bad transportation --then look at this series !
"I've had some mighty close calls. I just get caught up in the situations. We have insurance but I don't want to know anything about that. I've taken a lot of risks, an awful lot."
DON'T DRIVE HERE PREMIERES ON DISCOVERY CANADA MONDAY AUGUST 18 AT 10 P.M.
MY RATING: ***1/2.
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
It's funny but I almost do not count Lauren Bacall as a Golden Age movie star.
She's not in the same category as the truly Goldens I've interviewed including Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Loretta Young, Jane Wyman, Jimmy Stewart.
Many were at least a decade older and they started out in the Thirties.
No, Bacall belonged to the Forties and after and her death the other day at 89 truly rattled me.
Among the survivors only Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas, both 98, and Luise Rainer who is 103 still persist.
True, Doris Day just celebrated her 92nd birthday but I count her as a Fifties survivor.
In fact until yesterday a good trick question was to name the three surviving stars of a 1950 classic.
The movie title was Young Man With A Horn and the stars were Douglas, Day and Bacall.
A few years back I wrote an appreciation of Douglas and he wrote back in vigorous prose: "To my new best friend!"
Wow! He'd survived a stroke and was still out there promoting his image.
Yet, at Douglas's AFI tribute few of the actors he'd worked with bothered to show up. Jane Wyman declined, so did Day and Mitzi Gatynor, Gena Rowlands, Lana Turner, Eleanor Parker, Jan Sterling --all were alive at the time.
Bacall attended because she was loyal --she consistently refused to diss her contemporaries.
Bacall I only met once and peripherally.
I was in L.A. doing a profile of James Garner and he suggested I stroll down the block at Universal to gab with Bacall who was in preproduction for a guest spot on his series The Rockford Files.
Why the heck was she doing a TV series, I innocently asked.
"Because Jimmy phoned and here I am," she snapped. "I could sit around or do the best job I can in a medium I'm not too sure about."
Loyalty then was the key ingredient in the Bacall personality.
Garner later repaid the favor when he jumped into a particularly bad horror flick titled The Fan (1981) that she was starring in as a good will gesture to his old pal.
In her snappish tone Bacall was lots of fun.
Two doors down her co-star for the week Dana Wynter criticized everything about her dressing room and even asked me why I wasn't wearing a tie.
But Bacall warmed as she chatted.
When I moved to get up and leave she said "Sit down and shut up. I'm trying to give you the story of my life and you keep interrupting me."
She'd moved back to New York city decades ago, she said, and never much liked Hollywood to begin with.
I asked her if the anecdote about Marlene Dietrich claiming she'd stolen Dietrich's act was correct.
"Sort of. She was great pals with director Howard Hawks and after he showed her the first cut of To Have And Have Not the lights came up and she said 'She's playing me, right?'
"Well, I wasn't but that was Marlene's marvelous egotism for you."
Only a couple of days earlier I'd taken tea with Joan Caulfield who told me she was rushed in from Paramount to fill in after Bacall exited the 1947 film The Unsuspected. True?
"In those days Jack Warner would only let me play opposite Bogey. Then they put me in this suspense film with Claude Rains and in rehearsals he made mince meat out of me and Bogey told me to quit and run and I did both."
The subject of discussing Garner went out the window and I asked her if she understood the Marilyn Monroe myth that had grown up?
"Nope. She was a scared kid who thought becoming a big star would fix all her problems. Instead she got a whole new range of problems.
"Do you know who was the funny one on How To Marry A Millionaire? Betty Grable. Great gal, constantly had us in stitches. We waited a lot of hours for Marilyn to simply show up."
Bacall said by the Sixties Hollywood had given up on her "I was so starved for funds I even did TV game shows like Match Game and Password."
She had great hits on Broadway "but Goodbye, Charlie went to Debbie Reynolds and Ingrid Bergman snatched up Cactus Flowerr --that's after coming to my Broadway dressing room and asking me how I thought she'd fare in comedy!"
Sadly, Canadians never had a chance to see her in musical hits Applause and Woman Of The Year when she went on tour because :"The Canadian dollar sank like a stone and I wasn't going to perform for 60 per cent of the American dollar."
In recent months I heard Bacall had been depressed by the sad ending of pal James Garner, aged 86.
And now it's our turn to feel sad at her disappearance after an amazing 70 years in the spotlight.
Monday, August 11, 2014
I'm greatly distressed over the apparent suicide of clown extraordinaire Robin Williams.
But am I surprised? Well, no.
I interviewed him early in his remarkable career --in 1978, in fact, as he shot to fame as the funny alien in the hit series Mork And Mindy.
There were a few random encounters after that but to me he always remained an elusive personality to write about.
I remember first encountering him at an ABC press party in Los Angeles for visiting TV critics.
First up there was Jonathan Winters who breezed through 20 minutes of stand up in various disguises before sitting down to an ovation from the critics.
Williams who was then guesting as Mork on Happy Days out did the character comedian he idolized with manic moves that lasted a half hour and left him totally exhausted.
"I want whatever he's smoking" said Winters in an audible stage whisper.
Winters frequently guested on Mork And Mindy and the two would match each other with improvised gags until the cameraman ran out of film.
Off camera Williams was contemplative and not funny a bit.
He was born into a politically influential family that had a lot of wealth--his father was an executive with the Ford motor company.
He studied political science at university before jumping to Julliard for an acting career.
He first tackled stand up comedy as performance art on the streets of San Francisco where his style was decidedly raunchy.
ABC talent scouts cleaned him up and he shone in the four seasons of Mork and Mindy.
Like other comics I've interviewed he was soft spoken in real life.
I interviewed Bob Hope several times who approached comedy like a business executive --Hope showed me the miles of cabinets where he had every joke he'd ever cracked cross referenced on index cards.
Lucille Ball said she lacked a funny bone --"mine has dollar signs on it" --and she showed that side by becoming the first female head of a major L.A. studio (Desilu).
Johnny Carson warned he'd walk out if I asked anything personal.
Red Skelton said he'd had years of fighting the demons of depression.
For Williams it started with cocaine addiction which made him very high followed by incredible lows.
I thought of another gifted comic I'd interviewed in those days: Freddie Prinze who shot himself in his ABC dressing room in 1977.
Like so many comics Williams proved an amazingly deft dramatic actor in such movies as Moscow On The Hudson (1984), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), Awakenings (1990)
, Good Will Hunting (1997).
But people loved him best in those years as Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) --he had planned on reprising his role in a sequel.
Last season CBS put him in a shaky comedy The Crazy Ones (2013) which lasted but a year --Williams looked desperate as he battled predictable situations.
He has three new movies awaiting release but in recent months was battling alcoholism.
In recent years Williams battled serious illnesses including a heart operation in 2013 to replace his aortic valve.
His publicist said he had been battling severe depression in recent months.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
When I started out as a young and callow TV critic at the Hamilton Spectator in 1971 every self respecting newspaper had at least one TV critic.
I knew from the get-go that I just had to get on the Television Critics tour organized twice yearly by the Big Three U.S. networks.
But that was in the days when the American webs catered only to American scribes --so I cagily got the three Buffalo TV affiliates to wrote me letters of introduction saying Hamilton was part of their coverage.
And presto I was in --the only Canuck on the tour for almost the next decade.
In June of that year I boarded a flight for L.A. An NBC press rep met me at the airport, sent my bags directly to the Century Plaza hotel and drove me at break neck speed to Thousand Oaks where I enjoyed a catered lunch with Julie London at her home --she was then starring in the series Emergency.
In those days the TV dial consisted of just 10 channels --nobody had cable as yet.
So the tour consisted of nine days --three devoted to each major network.
PBS was so poor I remember a guy from Masterpiece Theater organizing a "secret" press interview with Anthony Hopkins to promote his PBS special Kean --it was done during a writing break so the three networks never knew about it.
My biggest surprise was to discover almost all the 100 TV critics were on the network tit --they willingly let the webs pay their hotel bills, entertainment expenses.
Some even brought their wives who were bussed out to the luxury shopping malls every afternoon with prepaid charge cards given them by the networks.
When the scribe from a Pittsburgh paper brought his drapes and then had them cleaned by the hotel and then charged the network, why, that was going too far --he was never asked back.
One night early on CBS bussed 100 critics to the Malibu home of Larry Hagman whose living room was a gigantic hot tub.
Scribes had to jump in to get the interview but later in the night Hagman went upstairs to his bedroom to discover a New York critic counting the boxer shorts in his drawers.
Enraged, Hagman kicked him out and that particular writer also disappeared from the trip.
The second year I remember one night CBS PR was near tears --CBS had organized an optional dinner at Lucy Ball's but nobody had signed on-- Lucy's series was faltering in the ratings and writers wanted younger, sexier subjects to write about.
I dutifully attended as did Kay Gardella from the New York News and Lucy retained us regally in her gazebo and at one point neighbor Jimmy Stewart poked his head over to say hi.
The very next year I was at Stewart's home and noticed his beloved dogs had scratched up all his furniture. A second session five years later merely disclosed how badly he'd aged.
I took tea with Roz Russell at her swank Hombly Hills home in 1972. One day that year I spent the morning on the set of Mission: Impossible and the afternoon on the set of Mannix. These two CBS ratings winners shot on the same Paramount backlot --in the middle was a small soundstage for The Brady Bunch.
In those days long before computers we had to file our stories by FAX.
One afternoon I went up to the press department and saw NBC flack Virginia Holden blacking out lines in some copy because she disagreed with the writers' opinions.
When I asked her about it she snapped "After all we're paying for it."
Perhaps networks and critics had become too cozy?
We took an extended trip of several days to San Diego with ABC footing the bill and critics were so frustrated by being cooped up that fisticuffs broke out.
During one interview session battle axe Marilyn Beck accused producer Jimmy Komack of giving Freddie Prinze drugs and he jumped on
top of her and they rolled out the door.
Also, by the late Seventies the Big three's virtual monopoly was eroding. Cable webs were sprouting up everywhere and eventually took pride of pace. And younger TV critics incensed by the payola organized the Television Critics Association.
These days TV critics no longer rule.
Because there are so very few of us left on the old legitimate papers which are shedding circulation.
The bloggers now rule TCA and their comments have become so nasty some networks are threatening to pull the plug on the whole thing.
These days the antics at Comic-Con which closely follows from San Diego get bigger headlines than the pallid antics of TCA.
I was glad to be there during the Glory Days when I could meet and greet with the likes of Bette Davis, Irene Dunne, George Cukor and even Robert Young.
And I met such youngsters as John Travolta, Brad Pitt (on the Dallas set), Michele Pfeiffer (On the set of San Pedro Beach Bums).
It was a pretty good way to cover the TV beat as far as I'm concerned.