COVER

A TELEVISIONARY

PATRICK WATSON’S BRILLIANT CAREER

Brian D. Johnson January 16 1989
COVER

A TELEVISIONARY

PATRICK WATSON’S BRILLIANT CAREER

Brian D. Johnson January 16 1989

Twenty-five years ago, Patrick Watson helped launch a program that became the most controversial and popular weekly current affairs program in the history of CBC television. An irreverent blend of reporting, comment and satire, This Hour Has Seven Days mocked politicians, parodied the Pope and belittled the Queen. Every Sunday night for two seasons, as many as three million Canadians tuned in to watch Seven Days. But, in 1966, the CBC’s unamused management cancelled the program, triggering a storm of public protest. Watson, the show’s cohost and coproducer, was summoned to the office of H. G. (Bud) Walker, the executive then in charge of the English network. Watson, who surreptitiously took notes during the meeting, recalled that Walker branded him “anti-president, anti-management, anti-CBC—we believe you to be ‘not one of us.’ ” Times change. With his epic series The Struggle for Democracy, Watson has returned in triumph to Sunday-night CBC. He is also a strong candidate to succeed Pierre Juneau as president of the network that once banished him.

Charm: One of Canada’s most eminent broadcasters, the 59-year-old Watson has made a habit of breaking new ground in TV journalism. In 1964, he directed and produced the first film by a North American in Communist China. And his 1984 documentary series Lawyers featured the first filming of a Canadian murder trial. Watson has won awards for such thoughtful CBC documentaries as The Canadian Establishment. He has also created a select role for himself in U.S. television. In the early 1970s, he anchored The 51st State, New York City’s Emmy-winning newsmagazine show. In this decade, he helped pioneer the experimental CBS Cable Network. American political scientist Benjamin Barber, who collaborated with Watson on The Struggle for Democracy, calls him “a remarkably civilized intellect” who also possesses “an unusual capacity to understand the requirements of a television audience.”

Watson has an uncanny talent for communicating on camera. Soft-spoken and articulate, he seems to confide in the audience with subtle complicity. An intellectual at home in a mass medium, he exudes boyish charm, seducing the viewer with a twinkle in the eye that suggests depths of meaning he has neither time nor licence to explain. Watson combines a journalist’s insight with an actor’s craft. Since beginning a CBC career in the early 1950s, he has treated television as a theatre. Film-maker Douglas Leiterman, a comrade-in-arms at Seven Days, said that, unlike many broadcasters, “Patrick feels the potential of television is still there to be discovered like glittering gold.” Recalled Roy Faibish, another former colleague who is now a British TV executive, “He always made his audience feel he couldn’t do his job properly without their participation.”

Insatiable: In his life, as in his work, Watson appears to be a Renaissance man dedicated to the art of endless possibility. When he was in his 40s, he learned to play classical piano with impressive grace. He has written two novels, Zero to Airtime (1974) and Alter Ego (1978), along with four nonfiction works. He has acted in two Canadian feature films, The Terry Fox Story (1983) and Countdown to Looking Glass (1985), as well as writing and performing a stage version of The Book of Job. His intellectual sparring partners include former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Although Watson’s left leg was amputated after injuries from a fall in 1960, he remains stubbornly active. With an artificial limb, he has enthusiastically taken up scuba diving, water-skiing and windsurfing.

Painter Robert Markle, one of his closest friends, says that Watson has a dogged enthusiasm to learn—and refuses to succumb to his handicap. “It’s like being in a house all by yourself where you have to move a huge piece of furniture downstairs,” said Markle. “There’s a way of doing everything—and that’s how Patrick thinks.” Added Markle with a laugh: “Maybe he’s just one of those smart guys who you’d love to punch in the nose once in a while. He can be irritatingly right sometimes.” At the same time, Markle and others stress that Watson keeps an open mind. Said Ted Remerowski, who coproduced The Struggle for Democracy. “Underlying Patrick’s character is an insatiable curiosity and a willingness to have his opinion changed.”

Gruelling: Watson’s most monumental search for truth has been his decade-long quest to make The Struggle for Democracy. Aside from the challenge of funding the $8-million project, once shooting was under way, he followed an itinerary that would be gruelling even for men half his age. During an especially intense period in 1987, he recalled, “I went from New England to England to Nigeria to Botswana to Zimbabwe to New Zealand to Australia to New Guinea, back to the United States, to Switzerland, back to the United States, back to Canada, to Japan, back to Canada, and back to Europe—all between March and June.”

During a recent interview, Watson stretched out on a bed in the back room of his midtown Toronto house, where he lives with his second wife, Irish-born Caroline Bamford, 40, a former teacher who now works with him as an associate producer. It is a modest place decorated with an impressive collection of West Coast Indian masks and totems. With an apology, he explained that a temporary artificial limb was giving him some discomfort. His regular false leg, with a sophisticated hydraulic knee, was being repaired. “The knee was coming apart and it was creaking like a ship at sea,” he said. Watson went on to explain the dynamics of its quadrilateral socket with the enthusiasm of someone who appreciates the small wonders of human achievement.

Infatuation: In fact, it was Watson’s infatuation with scientific elegance that led to the loss of his leg. In the late 1950s, he met Buckminster Fuller, the visionary American architect who invented the geodesic dome and died in 1983. “I fell in love with the dome and became very friendly with Bucky,” said Watson, who turned down an offer to work with Fuller. Watson eventually began building his own dome as a summer retreat on Go Home Lake, south of Parry Sound, Ont. “The ladder slipped,” he recalled, “and when I went down, my left leg happened to be hanging between two rungs and just snapped.” Characteristically, he seems to bear no resentment against the dome, and still marvels at the crystal simplicity of its design. The dome still stands, and his three grown children from his first marriage to Beverly, whom he divorced in 1983, use it as a summer cottage. “It leaks,” said Watson with a laugh, “but it’s beautiful.”

As a boy, Watson was fascinated with science and planned to become an aeronautical engineer. Bom in Toronto, he was the fourth of five children. Both his parents, now deceased, were teachers. But his hero was his dashing elder brother, Cliff, a championship fancy diver and a fighter pilot who was killed in an air show at the Canadian National Exhibition after surviving the dogfights of the Second World War. “In many respects I’ve emulated him,” said Watson. The household was a highly cultured one, “full of books and talk and art,” he recalled. “The dinner table was a great place to show off—we were all a bunch of show-offs.”

Shock: At 13, Watson found his first national audience when he won a role as a child actor in a CBC radio drama, The Kootenay Kid. As a teenager, he was more interested in mathematics and science. Then, he says, a sudden passion for Shakespeare in his final year at high school persuaded him to change course—he enrolled in English instead of engineering at the University of Toronto. He took up acting again, but settled on a career as a professor. After graduating with a master’s degree, Watson began preparing a PhD thesis in linguistics at the University of Michigan—and a publisher had commissioned him to write a textbook on teaching language to children.

But he finished neither the thesis nor the book. A former high-school teacher who had become the head of children’s programming at CBC TV offered him a job. Watson says he first scoffed at the unintellectual prospect of working in such a “murderous medium.” But after visiting the studios, “I was enchanted,” he recalled. “They were doing the precursor of Sesame Street.” Before long, Watson had moved from hosting a children’s show to learning how to produce current affairs programs. He met the legendary CBC producer Ross McLean, and together they developed Close-up, the country’s first current affairs show. It was 1957, the threshold of the space age: the Soviets launched the first Sputnik satellite the week Close-Up went on the air. “We felt we were doing something that had never been done before,” said Watson. “And it was a very different atmosphere at the CBC then—very collegial. You brought lunch in a brown paper bag and often ended up sitting on the floor, talking about the craft.”

That sort of creative fertility eventually led to the birth of Seven Days, the brainchild of Watson and Leiterman, a former newspaperman who had worked with him on Close-Up. Seven Days quickly earned a reputation for mischief. And its controversies are now enshrined in the lore of the 1960s—the film of former cabinet minister Pierre Sévigny bashing Seven Days reporter Larry Zolf with his cane; the Ku Klux Klan leader who stormed off the set after being asked to shake hands with a black minister; the shock of seeing Watson’s cohost, Laurier LaPierre, crying on camera while urging viewers to help end capital punishment. “The key thing about the show,” said Watson, “was that it very overtly said to the little man, ‘We are on your side.’ But people looking back on it tend to become preoccupied with the politics and forget that there was a tremendous preoccupation with craft and pictures—with television as theatre.”

Cocky: With an intuitive grasp of what media guru Marshall McLuhan was preaching at the time, Watson understood that television was a nonlinear medium of sensory impressions. But Seven Days was too sensational for CBC management, who cancelled it at the height of its popularity. Now, a mellower Watson takes some of the blame. “We had become so cocky because of the ratings,” he admits, “that it never occurred to us we should help management, who were having to fend off angry parliamentarians and members of the Establishment offended by our program.” Instead, Watson offered himself as a replacement for his boss in 1966, lobbying several cabinet ministers for the job of CBC president. He says that he is glad he did not succeed. “I wasn’t politically shrewd or patient enough back then to have done it,” he admitted.

Watson’s restless intelligence has occasionally taken him out of his depth. With The Struggle for Democracy, he set himself an Olympian goal. And the series, with its uneven momentum and ambitious scope, reflects the approach of an intellectual risk-taker who does not always know when to stop. Asked to single out his greatest weakness, Watson said, “Impetuosity—it was the same kind of impetuosity that lost me my leg, an ill-considered tendency to jump into things.”

After the cancellation of Seven Days—an event that rated an investigation by a parliamentary committee—Watson found no work at the CBC for several years. Forming his own company, he turned to independent production. And he hosted such programs as Witness to Yesterday (1973-1975), a series of interviews with actors portraying historical figures, and The Last Nazi (1976), an award-winning documentary about Albert Speer. He also explored new avenues in U.S. public broadcasting. With changes in CBC management in the mid-1970s, Watson returned to the fold, hosting The Watson Report and the award-winning series The Canadian Establishment. Later, with some reluctance, he agreed to launch the network’s first business show, Venture—a condition of CBC support for Democracy.

Offensive: But The Journal, the CBC’s most ambitious current affairs program since Seven Days, did not take advantage of Watson’s obvious qualifications. He said CBC executives assumed that he would have “a natural role” in The Journal before it was launched in 1982. But Watson explained that the program’s executive producer, Mark Starowicz—“doing what I think I would have done if I had been Starowicz’’—insisted on starting with a fresh team.

Watson now voices strong criticisms of The Journal’s style, from its imagery of “TV monitors and winking lights” to the “glibness” of its format. “I do not understand why The Journal has chosen to present itself in such a mechanical fashion,” he said. “It’s so controlled that it leads me to think it’s being careful not to be offensive. It’s preoccupied with polarity—pulling back from an issue just when you want someone with the national stature of Barbara Frum to say what’s really going on.” Added Watson: “Barbara would be more of a star if someone turned her loose.”

Treasure: With his broadcasting experience, his proficient French and his knack for diplomacy, Watson is an obvious candidate to succeed Juneau in the CBC’s top post. According to Denis Harvey, vice-president in charge of the English network, “He is certainly one of the names being prominently mentioned.” Watson admits that he would be “crazy” not to consider such an appointment. If he wins it, he says that he would try to accelerate the Canadianization of the network and bring more passion to its airwaves. “My prime interest would be programming,” he said. “My secondary interest would be to rehabilitate the position of the CBC as a national treasure, because I think it’s largely lost its constituency, those who were once willing to go to the barricades for it.”

Even without running the CBC, Watson faces a future of intriguing options. Last week, Chinese officials invited him to coproduce a film in April that would retrace his steps exactly 25 years after his last exploration of China. Meanwhile, he is trying to squeeze in a sabbatical in Europe with his wife. “I thought we would just rent a car and see where it takes us,” he suggested. After his punishing 500,000-mile quest to make Democracy, Watson’s wanderlust seems undiminished. As youthful curiosity draws him around the next corner, he is still enchanted by the romance of discovery.