THE WAY IT IS The way it is
INSIDE CBC THE NAME OF THE GAME
Jan Tennant is a script assistant on The Way It Is. Every day, nine or 10 people apply for her job, or one like it. Few of the hopefuls have any notion what working for television is all about. When we asked her to tell us, she invited us instead to see for ourselves. The result of that invitation follows below — an intimate, control-room look at
I JUST COULDN’T hack teaching any more, it was as simple as that.” Jan Tennant pulled the hair back from her face and held it with one hand, pulled back like a ballerina’s. “The one thing I need more than anything in the world right now is an elastic,” she said. The elastic appeared from somewhere, and with it, a red, white and bluç ribbon, which she tied into a neat bow.
“I really don’t know why I ever got into television. High-school teacher, phys-ed instructress, housewife, part-time model . . . all those things I had tried and wanted no part of any of them. So, like a thousand girls with a Bachelor’s degree and no place to go. I came to the CBC, filled out an application and became Ross McLean’s secretary.”
Jan Tennant wasn’t the first young unknown to be spotted and signed by McLean, who created Tabloid and Closeup and is now executive producer of The Way It Is. McLean has a staff of 60-odd; most of them are under 30 and most of them have stories to tell about his enigmatic personality and his legendary fixation with youth. His interviewers — the “stars” of any public-affairs program — are plucked from a pool of eager young talent and their careers are often short-lived. “Ross acquired a Pygmalion complex when he created
Joyce Davidson,” said one who did not last, “and every time he sees a bright young face he can’t help trying it out to see if it could turn into Joyce Davidson II.”
“Everyone gets a chance to make it as an interviewer,” said Jan. She shrugged. “I had mine. Warren Davis couldn’t make his interview with Honest Ed Mirvish, so at the last minute they called me. I had never held a mike before and had practically no notes, but somehow I stumbled through it. I guess Ross liked it, because I did two more soon after for TBA. One was with Chuck Connors, the old Rifleman. 1 didn’t know anything about his TV series, so we wound up talking about how he worked his way through college playing basketball. As it turned out, the interview never got on the air. Then Barb Amici and Carol Tierney were hired specifically for oncamera work. 1 haven’t done any interviews since.”
That bit of stardom passed two years ago. Since then, McLean has emerged as the papaguru of the The Way It Is, and Jan Tennant has moved along as script assistant to the director of the show. And now, this bright Sunday morning, she was getting ready for the opening program of the 1968 season.
“How does my private life fit into this work? I’ll tell you. I worked Friday night until midnight. I worked last night until eight. I came home, exhausted, chewing Coricidin to fight down this awful cold. My man friend phoned me when I got home and wanted me to go out for dinner. I told him how I felt, that the only thing I wanted was to get a good night’s sleep for today. He asked me if the show was more important to me than he was, and I said yes, tonight it is. He hung up.” She paused, pouring milk onto a thin bowlful of Cheerios. “That’s the kind of private life I have.”
We drank our coffee together in silence. The apartment confirmed what she’d told me
earlier — that she didn’t work for the CBC for the money. The room was obviously the brainchild of an architect of the space-is-waste school. Everything screamed frugality, though Jan had gamely added touches. A lady named Contessa smiled benignly from a painting on one wall. Four yellow director’s chairs surrounded a modest low table, a samovar (“a gift from a secret admirer”) sat on the windowsill, and in one corner was Jan’s only luxury: a tiny color TV she had bought with the superannuation money from teaching.
The building itself was the sort desperately hoping to grow old gracefully, with bright brass mailboxes inside the main door and Turkish carpets in the halls, the kind you see in the living room in old Margaret Rutherford movies. Jan pays $85 a month and considers herself lucky.
She broke a long silence. “I really do think you have to be a bit demented to get married. My own marriage ended six years ago, and I thought I wanted to get married again, but the man I loved didn’t want to. Now he wants me, but I don’t really think I’m ready for it. We’d better go, we’ll miss the production meeting.”
We arrived at the meeting four minutes late. The Way’s director, Barrie McLean (“No relation to Ross”) sat at the end of a long conference table, an assistant at either hand. Carol Fisher, the other script assistant, had just come in. She was new and someone asked her if she was nervous.
“Not really. So far, I’m still finding out about the show, what it’s like. What’s the sense of being nervous? Well, maybe I’m a little nervous, but what’s the point? Isn’t that right, Barrie?”
“Sure, anything you say, Carol.”
“Okay — maybe I’ll lose my cool in the middle of it and faint. Then you’ll just have to carry me out.”
“How you / continued on page 49
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Crisis...“! think I might kill somebody,” said the director
feeling this morning, Jan?”
We sat down. They passed around the latest version of the script, a rough version of the order of the items for the show. Barry padded out the details. “From the top, let’s go 20 seconds with the VTR-film mix to Warren Davis’s first voice-over. Then come on to the studio and Patrick Watson, then do 10 seconds of The Way It Is animation. Then back into the studio for the intros. A teaser with McClure [Dr. Robert McClure, newly elected Moderator of the United Church]. Then a sting [a music bridge] for five seconds.” Jan’s face was down on the script. She said, “Have we a silent time on top of McClure?”
“I’m not quite sure but we’ll probably have voice-over saying something like, ‘Now guess who this is.’ Okay? Now, has the interview with Dustin Hoffman been transferred to tape? No? We’ll have to do that. Okay? Next a five-second animation and sting, then into Chargex, then into audience with a sting. Have you the proper logo, Andy? Page 8 is ad lib. Did that other material arrive last night? No one has seen it, right? . . .”
Twenty minutes later the meeting broke up. They all knew the script would change before air time but, for the moment, affairs took on a reassuring certainty. Coffee break, and Jan took off upstairs to adjust her makeup. Carol Fisher returned to her desk, making corrections of times in her script.
At 11, we all went over to the Studio One control room. A long table faced a bank of 14 monitors. Barrie McLean’s seat was in the middle, with Jan and Carol on one side, the switcher (who did just that — switched from one camera to another at McLean’s direction) and the technical producer on the other.
A great clock dominated even the monitors. You couldn’t see the studio floor. We were encapsulated in the dark, like supermen in space.
Barrie was the last to rush in. “I’m going to do some roasting, man. Am I going to do some roasting. We're five hours away from doing the show and the edit of the man-on-the-street
thing on what the English think about Trudeau hasn't even been started."
Jan looked straight ahead, expressionless.
Barrie was wearing grooves in the cement floor. “I think 1 might kill somebody, I think I might kill somebody. I find it incomprehensible that no one has started the edit on that
thing!" He stopped, transfixed, eyes closed, fingers pressing his temples, searching for a reasonable answer, knowing there was none.
Jan offered to call Ross McLean or Ken Lefolii. the show's executive editor, and a minute later she was on the phone to Lefolii's wife. She hung up and said to Barrie. "He's up but can’t come to the phone just now.” It was Barrie’s turn to look impassive.
Five minutes later, Lefolii called in to say that he would be there in 40
minutes. Barrie looked better and went back down onto the studio floor.
Now Jan began to lay out the paraphernalia of her craft. She could have been mounting a collection of butterflies. “People think I'm cold and calculating. Maybe I am, though I never used to think so. I do know I’m terribly organized and keep track of things. On the table, in neat rows, rested her stapler with TENNANT printed neatly on its side, four blue pencils, a clip board, one coffee (regular), a timing tape, a pack of Cameos (already half gone), and two stop watches. “I could tell you how much I spend on big things and even on some little things. I could tell you what my telephone bills were for the last year. I suppose you could say I m quite methodical and not very spontaneous. Perhaps that’s why I’m a script assistant.”
Two o’clock. On the studio floor, they were running an item to be taped for the show, a commentary by John Livingston, who makes films about the way Canada is being butchered by power projects, strip mines and pulp mills. Barrie had just started dry runthroughs with Livingston when . . enter Ross McLean.
Good morning, afternoon, evening, everyone,” he said. “Dum dum dum dunnnm.” I think it was a tune.
He was dressed in a dark-grey suit, striped shirt, dark tie. Rather like a prolessor, perhaps English, perhaps philosophy. McLean bounced to the back of the control room, adding nods to his hellos all around, and settled on a high draftsman’s stool behind a narrow sloped table with long legs, the kind you see decorating privateschool classrooms in photos from the 1920s. Beside him, at his right hand, was another, slightly lower stool, empty.
Ross, the master tactician, took in all that was happening at a glance. “Ah, Livingston,” he said. “Close in on him, Barrie, I want to see more of his face. His face we have to establish now, his elbow later in the season.” McLean was in a good mood.
The tape rolled and they were doing it for real now. Someone on the floor forgot to cue Livingston and he was caught bewildered, not knowing whether to speak or not. Stop tape. They tried again, but this time the scenic film that was supposed to appear on the screen behind him wasn’t rolled in time, so they stopped the tape again. Take-three came to a sad end when the switcher had an argument lrom one of his buttons. Take-four got through unscathed and received the long-awaited blessing: a hand slapped the school desk, then, “Right! Great!” Jan sprinted down to the studio floor. She thrust a contract form at Livingston. He signed and the pact was sealed.
Most of the afternoon, they went through the trickier items for the show. The air was tightening up. They missed the intro to the interview with The Graduate's Dustin Hoffman once, then again. The hand slapped the desk. Barrie got on the mike to the floor man. “Let’s do it again and let’s do it right this time.” They did, and the rest of the afternoon passed without incident.
At 4.30 the studio crew left for
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Panic...“I can’t read that clock!”
supper break while Ross McLean called a final pep-talk meeting in the boardroom. I wasn’t on the team, so I passed the hour savoring cold-turkey sandwiches in the CBC cafeteria. At 5.30 1 said, “Right!” Great!”, and whacking the arborite table, went back to Studio One.
Everyone was already there. I sensed that 1 had missed some unspeakable happening, that some unmentionable catastrophe had been unraveled within the unbreachable walls of the boardroom. Jan sat in her place as before, but the impeccable air had vanished. A strand of hair had broken free from the ribbon and flopped unnoticed across her cheek. Her teeth attacked her lower lip. 1 asked what had happened. She said, “Everything is so screwed up you wouldn’t believe it.”
Ross McLean said, “Someone had better acquaint audio with the new deals,” and Jan did. McLean spoke again. “Barrie, let’s go.”
The final rehearsal went remarkably well, considering the mood and the last-minute changes. Through it all, Jan had looked up at the monitors only long enough to check what was going on.
By 7.30 the control room was full. Twelve people in all crowded together, including Ken Lefolii — in a Perry Como sweater rolled up to the elbows — sitting on the lower stool
beside Ross McLean, and Moses Znaimer, McLean’s most recent genius-discovery. Znaimer is in his middle to late 20s, with a brooding, Brandoesque face. He presented what one would accurately call a figure of a man: dark-blue trenchcoat (collar up), chic, brown square-toed shoes with buckles, an old-fashioned brown briefcase (full). Officially, they call Znaimer a contributing producer and interviewer, but at the moment he seemed far, far more. Make no mistake about it, said the black driving gloves with the holes at the knuckles, this is Our Man in Berlin, troubleshooter par excellence; don’t play with this boy. You could have lifted him right from there, as is, and deposited him in the pages of Gentleman’s Quarterly without disturbing a ruffle. At 7.38, final taping of the show began. No one was making jokes about nerves now. Jan gave the countdown, the tape rolled.
Almost immediately, Carol missed a cue and the tape was stopped. Ross McLean said evenly, “Okay, everyone knows what we did wrong. Let’s do it right.”
As she had said before, Carol wasn’t nervous. She was frantic. “That clock is really funny, it’s really funny! I just can’t read that clock!” She was rapidly talking herself into a panic.
At this point in the old Marine movies, the sergeant slaps the kid's
face to shape him up for the landing. Barrie turned toward Carol, and in a quiet voice that isolated just the two of them from the rest of that accusing control room, from that mess out there, he said, “Hold it, Carol. Relax. Just relax.”
Two minutes went by, the tape was rescued and they started again. On the output monitor, the sound suddenly wasn't synchronized with the picture any more.
“Hell! I've done it again!” She was near tears, and this time no one said a word.
Lefolii’s secretary, who was standing behind me. whispered, “I wouldn't have Jan's job for a million dollars. Too much pressure.”
Ross McLean ordered a whole new tape and on take-three, the tricky beginning made it through safely, though a bit ragged.
The crew had got their second breath now, the first left hook had been thrown and they were still on their feet, and the show came smoothly out of the Dustin Hoffman interview and into the Livingston piece. Jan counted down out of the Livingston and they made it safely through another tricky quick cut to the manon-the-street item.
“Now we got it, now we got it!”
The different pieces fell into place one at a time without any more serious problems. Barrie, Jan and Carol kept up a steady cadence of different counts and directions. It was 8.45, and on the floor hosts Patrick Watson and John Saywell began their final ad lib. 1 looked at Ross McLean. He was making frantic s-t-r-e-t-c-h signs to Barrie. Too late: Saywell had already said the farewells, a full seven seconds before the credits were to be rolled over a closing film. Stop tape again. And this time they were really in trouble: the studio staging crew had only been booked until nine, and unless the tapes were ready to go by then, the show faced the predicament of losing the crew.
Two minutes to nine. They were still waiting for the tape rescue. The floor manager got on to Barrie. “The crew's about ready to leave,” he said. Barrie found it hard to control his voice. “Look, try to explain to them we can’t jeopardize the show with this delay. We need a couple of minutes.”
At precisely nine o'clock, the staging crew, members of the CUPE union, walked off the set The drum with the show’s credit could not be rolled. There was no one on the floor who had the authority to touch the starting button.
For an agonizing minute it looked as if The Way It Is had struck an impasse. Then, one of the remaining people on the floor, union be damned, pushed the button. The credits sped past. In a steady voice Jan counted the show down and out: “Forty-five seconds to end of show . . . 35 . . . 10, 9 . . . 4, 3, 2. 1.”
An hour later we stood in the night outside the studio. A staff party waited in Room 346 of the Four Seasons across the road. I asked Jan if she was going. “Yes, I guess so. Don’t think I'll stay long. I'm hungry, I’m thirsty, I’m tired.”
“A long day,” I ventured.
“Yes,” she said, “Sunday is a very draining sort of day.” ★