Column

Give up the imitation American dream factory—we have ourselves to observe

William Casselman May 28 1979
Column

Give up the imitation American dream factory—we have ourselves to observe

William Casselman May 28 1979

Give up the imitation American dream factory—we have ourselves to observe

Column

William Casselman

Because he wrote The Wars, the best Canadian novel I’ve read, because he has labored almost 15 years at the craft of writing TV plays in Canada, I want to share my conversation with Timothy Findley. And because he still cares about his work. That should not seem corny. But in a forum ringing with the clack of easy typewriters and the back-thumping of glitzy cynics, words like style, art, commitment are booed offstage.

Fifteen years in Canadian TV? Why isn’t Findley sucking the golden tit in L.A., scripting Láveme and Shirley?

“Because it’s crap,” he says. “The faces on TV for the most part are plastic doll death masks: Donny and Marie Osmond are immoral representations of the human race. Cheryl Tiegs, Farrah FawcettMajors and their ilk scare the hell out of me. Their faces seem to have been lifted before they reach 25.”

Born in Toronto in 1930,

Timothy Findley was an actor for 15 years, played the opening season at Stratford, performed in London and New York with stars like Paul Scofield, Ruth Gordon, Alec Guinness. In 1962, he quit acting to become a full-time writer. One early TV assignment was seven episodes of The Whiteoaks of Jalna. “A very unhappy experience, but everyone learned a lot.” Recently he has completed three plays for theatre: Can You See Me Yet?, John A.-Himselß, a vaudeville about our first PM that featured William Hutt, and Piaf now on the boards at the Centaur in Montreal. “TV has too many chefs fouling the broth,” he says. “In live theatre, with a much older tradition, priorities and proprieties are established. A theatre director can have the last word. In TV drama—a comparative infant—roles are not well defined yet. Everyone can snip away at your intent: a clumsy director, a nervous actor, an overweening producer.”

Findley also wrote The National Dream, co-scripting that tele-version of Pierre Berton’s books with writer Wil-

liam Whitehead, with whom Findley lives near Toronto on a farm they call the “Stone Orchard.” Despite all the completed work, there remains the frustration of projects written, then stomped by CBC cold feet, such as a 90minute pilot of Berton’s Klondike.

“Television got drawn off into a culde-sac where instead of flowering as a separate and unique medium, it fell back on imitating older media, and cannibalizing them, too. So we got scaleddown movies for the small screen and ‘transcriptions’ of the great plays—

classic comics that moved. And yet TV can be subtle. With close-ups, I can whisper in the viewer’s face. One of the most spellbinding programs ever was a 90-minute solo performance delivered straight to camera: Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight. Careful use of the TV camera by actor and director.”

Does TV call for its own techniques of characterization? “The process of creation is the same, for the theatre, for film, for TV. The character taps me on the shoulder and starts talking. When I’m writing for a TV camera I employ a ‘closer’ voice. Distance is the most telling thing. A brilliant director will always have the proper space between the character and the camera. I wrote a love scene with the actors clothed, sitting on a sofa. The director put them in bed, naked, but he didn’t change the dialogue. The scene failed. Another thing: although there is a shorthand of TV, I never write down to the audience. But economies—physical, verbal—are forced on the writer. I had to reduce

costly war scenes in Jalna. In TV, time is absolute. I’m given 50, maybe 52 minutes for my whole number. That doesn’t mean simplify, it means clarify, always. You fight flat words. You weasel in complexities. You wallop with monosyllables, if you must. Unlike theatre, TV drama is not tolerant of pauses or silence or extended monologue. Pure Pinter can bomb on television.”

In 1911—The Danes (one of two episodes Findley wrote for The Newcomers, first broadcast last February, to be repeated in 1980) he wrote about a young Dane and his wife who emigrate to New Brunswick at the turn of the century. They claw a life from the numbing forests. Camilla, the wife, is stone-stubborn and wants immediate return to Denmark. She blackmails her husband: no sex unless he swears to go back. Hollis McLaren, the actress engaged to play Camilla, balked at “making her a bitch.”

So the script was softened, losing part of Findley’s vision. I quote American writer-producer Stirling Silliphant: “There’s no possible way for a TV writer to control his work.” “He’s speaking from the Hollywood factory,” Findley replies. “We have not quite become a factory yet. And I want to hold on to that in Canadian TV drama. Much of what I write does reach the home screen. In every project there are moments so well done I can cherish them. That’s why you stay in the business. Something can come of it, if Canadians give up imitating American forms. We must learn that we have ourselves to observe.”

In Findley’s work, despair about the fragility of human relationships is deep. Puberty is bleak. Sons kill fathers. Sex is always monstrous, like the coupling of elephants overseen by a startled child. But lately there’s some laughter in the forest, if not hope. Timothy Findley sees us still as little piles of ashes on a northern shore, scattered by the wind. But there is a figure on that shore, patiently collecting what the wind brings.