Understanding CTV’s Carole Taylor, the especially nice celebrity
Carole Taylor says she’s “embarrassed” that her beauty won her the Miss Toronto title in 1963. She remembers her early days as a TV hostess and interviewer as being distinguished mainly by “a catalogue of mortifying mistakes.” And she insists, after 10 years in the business and at only 27 years of age, that her “decision to stay in TV is a week by week thing — that impermanent.” Yet this same Carole Taylor just happens to be emerging in the 1973-74 television season as by all odds the most accomplished and appealing woman in the hot and competitive world of Canadian public affairs broadcasting.
This.season — no two ways about it — belongs to Carole Taylor who is currently lighting up the screen as hostess
and reporter for W5, CTV’s flagship public affairs program, shown on Sundays at 10 p.m.
Not that Mrs. Taylor is pushing herself for the top of the female list. She, of all people, is not given to talking up her own virtues. In fact, her off-air conversational bag is understatement.
“A lot of my attitude to TV work was shaped by the way I started in it,” she explains. “I was just a 17-year-old kid; I was put in front of a camera, without any direction at all, and I was told to act like a hostess and talk to the guests. Well, I got away with it because television was so young in Canada back then. There were a lot of mistakes on TV and I was one of them. So today, coming out of that kind of background, I don’t want anybody to get too serious about
me and treat me like some kind of guru on the subject of interviewing.”
Still, there’s no denying Taylor’s credentials for star rating. Consider, for beginners, her beauty. She has porcelain pure skin, a heart-shaped face, an immaculate sense of grooming, and a smart-young-Canadian-matron elegance in the way she holds herself. Hers is a thoroughbred sort of looks, beauty that makes you admire her but that keeps you, politely, at a distance.
There’s another Taylor quality that also serves to hold outsiders at a safe remove: niceness. Carole Taylor is nice. That isn’t to label her dull; rather she comes across as a remarkably disciplined woman, and if there’s a bitchy side to her then she keeps it safely muffled. Certainly no journalists who have
examined her up close, including at least one specialist in cracking veneers, have detected a phony cover to all that niceness.
Then there’s brains. She was the first winner of the Miss Toronto pageant ever to take her $1,000 prize money, not in cash to launch a modeling career but in university tuition. And she graduated from the University of Toronto with solid marks and a degree in English.
“That education,” she says now, “was the biggest help I had in doing good interviews. All through school I was working weekends as the hostess on After Four, a show that was aimed at the young audience, and I found that the more I absorbed in classes and in read-
ing the more sensible and confident I was about asking politicians and movie stars and so on questions on television. As a matter of fact, I used to think I might have a career in the academic world. Maybe I still will — I applied last year at the U of T to take a master’s in economics or political science, but they want you to work at an MA full time not part time, and I’m not quite ready to give up everything for graduate study.” In private life, she’s married to Bryce Taylor, a tall, handsome all-star quarterback at the University of Toronto, the senior intercollegiate league’s leading
passer in 1965, who turned down pro football offers in order to devote himself to a surgeon’s career. The Taylors have an 18-month-old son named Christopher (“Unfortunately,” says Carole, “pregnancy was hell for me, very depressing”), and they live comfortably in a pleasant old home, done up as a replica of a Scottish castle gatehouse, in a chic section of west Toronto.
The Taylor marriage started, conventionally enough, in a flash of glamour — one Toronto newspaper described it as “a modern fairy tale come true” — but, Carole says, 10and 12-hour workdays for both parties have long since turned it into a union of rare liberation. “Bryce has always been so committed to work and study himself,” / continued on page 104
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Carole says, “that the last thing he could cope with is a woman waiting at home for him to entertain her.” While Dr. Taylor tends to patients and textbooks, Mrs. Taylor spends evenings working on W5 research, handling her sideline chores as a director of Ontario Place and script reader for a movie production company, and generally hoping the house will look after itself.
When the two take time out for social stuff, it’s mostly of a low-key nature, a night at the movies or a small dinner party at home. Next year, though, there won’t be time for even those small bows to convention since Dr. Taylor is leaving in January for a year of postgrad work in England. Carole, in a choice of career over marriage that might shock some of her fans, is staying at home with W5.
Carole’s brains and beauty have done even more to advance the Taylor career in the life that the TV public knows best — her role as one of Canada’s busiest interviewers of the famous and the talented. After Four on CFTO in Toronto came first, the direct result of the Miss Toronto contest, when the show’s young producer, Johnny Bassett, son of CTV’s board chairman, found himself dazzled by Taylor’s winning 17-year-old poise. She put in four years addressing herself to the teen-age audience, then graduated to the housewife set in a series of CFTO weekday coffee-and-chat shows, Toronto Today, Topic, Women’s World and, the ultimate accolade, The Carole Taylor Show.
“For five years, I did two or three interviews a day,” she recalls, “and eventually I simply ran out of curiosity because the same stories, even the same people, kept coming back at me again and again. I bet I talked about abortion 30 times. Boring! It was maddening.”
At that point, in September 1972, Canada AM came to Taylor’s rescue. CTV conceived of Canada AM as a news and interviews program running live across the country from 7 a.m. to 8.30 a.m., five mornings a week. It was a Canadian response to NBC’s Today Show, and the network invited 150 women to audition for the Barbara Walters spot. Carole won, and when the show arrived on air, she took home extravagantly complimentary personal reviews.
“The way Taylor’s going,” wrote Jack Miller, the dean of Canada’s TV critics, in the Toronto Star, “she’ll be rated the first lady of Canadian television before long, and she’ll deserve it.”
The Canada AM triumph also brought her, in February 1973, to the attention of Ken Lefolii, then producer of W5. That show was gaining in stability and prestige with viewers (its audience averages 1,210,000 per Sunday), but it lacked one element: a woman’s touch. “We took on Carole,” Lefolii explains,
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MISS MODESTY continued “because at her ripe young age, she’s a seasoned professional.” And W5 is in turn offering Taylor the chance for the first time in her career to plan, research, direct, film and edit stories as well as handle on-camera interviews.
It’s those interviews, conversations with everyone from Pierre Trudeau to Joan Crawford to an Eskimo resident of suburban Inuvik, that have dominated the Taylor career. Taylor knows how to talk to people while a few hundred thousand kibitzers look on, and her views on that difficult craft add up to an absorbing list of TV do’s and don’ts.
For example, what happens when you’re confronted with an interviewee who doesn’t measure up to advance expectations?
The Shy Guest: “What’s amazing,” Carole says, “is that the person who turns out to be shy is most often from show business. You get a doctor or a lawyer on, someone who’s only going to be interviewed once in his life, and he brings a naïveté to the interview. He doesn’t know enough to be shy. Then there’s someone like Geraldine Chaplin, from a show business family and all the rest of it, and yet she was a textbook of nerves when I interviewed her. Shook like a leaf, one-word answers, the whole bit. All you can do is sort of hand-hold the person through the ordeal.”
The Reluctant Guest: “Paul Newman definitely did not want me to interview him. It was early in the morning, he was hungover, he was sick of answering questions about the movie he was promoting, he had nothing new to say to me. What happened? Well, he was a very nice man but the interview bombed.”
The Dull Guest: “You can tell from your very first question if you’ve got a boring interviewee on your hands. You just have this sinking feeling. You’re bored, and you know that if you’re bored, the viewers are going to feel the same way. So you try to pull a few surprises on the guest, hit him with questions he has no reason to expect, stimulate him out of his old boring ways.”
Would she care to name a typical Boring Guest? “That’s the thing about a dull guest — they fade away and you forget their names and their existence.” That’s the thing about Carole Taylor — she’s ever the diplomat.
The Cagey Guest: “That’s Pierre Trudeau. I found him to be so bright, so able to handle anything you sent his way that it was next to impossible to get out of him an answer that he didn’t want to give you. With those guests, you hang in there and you trot out every last item of research you’ve done on the person. Eventually you hope you’ll hit gold somewhere.”
But is there such a creature as The Perfect Guest?
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MISS MODESTY continued
“Most big show business stars qualify as perfect. If they wanted to be temperamental, they could destroy you on camera. But, Paul Newman to the contrary, people like Joan Crawford and Charlton Heston and so on try harder than most other guests to make an interview work. I remember years ago on After Four I interviewed Gregory Peck, and I did a lousy job. But he didn’t complain. He went out of his way to say how refreshing it was. He did everything except pat me on the head.”
Carole uses three techniques to smooth along her interviews.
One: “Never talk to your guest before you go on camera. If you do, you may blow the spontaneity of the interview. Or if the guest is the nervous type, you’re bound to mess him up. Once I was doing a location interview with a man who worked on an assembly line. He came up to me ahead of time and asked what questions I’d be asking him. I said that I didn’t really know, probably something like, how does an assembly line work? So we took our places in front of the cameras, the tape started to roll, and I asked this man, ‘How long have you been working on this assembly line?’ And he answered, ‘The way an assembly line works is that. . .’ He’d been so intent on the question he thought I was going to ask that he hadn’t heard a word I said. Never talk to guests beforehand.”
Two: “Do your homework, the research before the interview. If the guest is the author of a new book, for heaven’s sake read the book. I had a writer scheduled for one of my shows, and before he came to us, he was on another big inter-
view show where the host obviously hadn’t read the book. In fact, he turned to the poor author and said, ‘What’s your book about anyway?’ Well, the writer was so outraged that he refused to do my show until finally we proved to him that I’d actually read his book.”
Three: “Don’t run off at the mouth. Viewers aren’t much interested in what you think. They want you to act as a catalyst to bring out the guest’s views. That doesn’t mean you have to be entirely bland. You can register your own views by the questions you ask and the way you react to answers. And you have to bring out the opposite point of view from the one the guest’s presenting, but you don’t do that by going into a personal harangue, not unless you’re William Buckley and your own ideas are part of the show. You bring out the other side simply by quoting opposing authorities and challenging the guest.”
All of the Taylor preparation doesn’t necessarily mean that she can head off potential on-camera disasters. “Like the time I did a live interview on Canada AM with Wally Firth, the NDP MP for Northwest Territories. We broke for a commercial part way through, and the makeup man rushed on to the set to put some powder on Wally. Well, when the makeup guy jumped off the set, his foot caught in Wally’s microphone cord and he went crashing to the floor taking the mike with him. We came back to air, the makeup man was flattened, Wally had no mike and couldn’t be heard, and I had to look into the camera, pad like hell until things were restored and try not to get hysterical. This went on for
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MISS MODESTY continued minutes, me babbling away, and I imagine viewers were thinking, what’s wrong with this dame anyway? The answer was, plenty.
“If I have a favorite interviewer, I guess it’s Mike Wallace. And I do watch all the other interview programs, all the big American ones. There’s two reasons why. One, to judge the style of other interviewers. And two, more important, to learn what I can about the people being interviewed. A lot of those people are on an interview circuit and I know that sooner or later they’ll be sitting beside me on camera. I like to learn something about their personality in advance — because, after all, I have to adjust me to fit them — and I like to find out what areas to avoid.”
With all of Taylor’s experience, she still has one major gripe about the business of interviewing.
“Viewers criticize interviewers when they don’t know all the facts behind the actual interview. I’m not talking about personal difficulties. For instance, when I interviewed Trudeau on New Year’s Day 1973, I found out about the interview only the day before the taping, and the station’s political file had been lost, so I couldn’t go over it for research purposes. In fact, the only special preparation I had for the interview was reading a current Maclean’s article about Trudeau on the plane from Toronto to Ottawa. But those aren’t the behind-thescenes facts I’m talking about.
“What I mean is that the public, watching an interview, doesn’t understand that the interviewer may be following the directions of the network or the station in the questions she asks. Before you go on the air, you may be told, okay, this is a personality interview, or this is a hard news thing. And you ask your questions accordingly. Well, afterward viewers are going to be saying, boy, how come they took it so easy on that guy? Or how come they gave him such a rough ride? And they’ll write it off as a bad or an unfair job without knowing that the interviewer, the one on the screen, was following orders from people off-screen.”
Taylor has a solution to offer for the problem: “I’d like to have an announcement shown on the screen beforehand, something like ‘What you are about to see is a hard-news interview.’ And then everyone can judge you within those announced limits.”
All of which demonstrates just how confident Carole Taylor is of her own on-camera techniques. She may be an “embarrassed” ex-Miss Toronto who launched her TV career in a blaze of “mortifying mistakes,” but these days, after 10 years in front of the cameras, she doesn’t mind putting herself up for judgment.
Over to you, TV viewers. ■