Show Business

A visual feast from the East

Film and TV take off in the Atlantic region

BRIAN BERGMAN March 17 1997
Show Business

A visual feast from the East

Film and TV take off in the Atlantic region

BRIAN BERGMAN March 17 1997

A visual feast from the East

Show Business

Film and TV take off in the Atlantic region

BRIAN BERGMAN

The abandoned fish plant sits on a picturesque point of St. Margaret’s Bay, its peeling red shingles, rotting baseboards and broken windows all testifying to the many years that have passed since it served as part of a thriving fishing community. On the wharf side of the building is a large sign bearing a nautical wheel and the words “Black Harbour, N.S.” But there is no such place as Black Harbour; this is simply the backdrop for the CBC series that recently finished shooting near the town of Hubbards, 50 km west of Halifax. That bit of Hollywood-style fakery does not faze the likes of Harold Britten, manager of the local Irving gas station. Business became brisk after cast and crew of Black Harbour arrived last fall. Britten even appeared briefly in one of the early episodes, playing himself. And come the summer, he and many other Hubbards residents are hoping that the series will attract curious tourists to their corner of Nova Scotia’s south shore. “Maybe some people will be a little nosy,” says Britten, “and come and check us out.” Hubbards residents are not the only Atlantic Canadians basking in the reflected glory of the klieg lights. Black Harbour— which completes its current 13-episode run this week and begins shooting a second season in July—is one of three new nationally televised series set and shot in Atlantic Canada. Last fall, the CBC aired an initial six episodes of Gullage’s, a half-hour serio-comedy revolving around the exploits of a hapless St. John’s, Nfld., cab driver. Another seven Gullage’s episodes have just been shot and will be aired later this year. Production also just finished near Summerside, P.E.I., on the first, 13-episode season of Emily of New Moon, the latest dramatic series drawn from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novels about orphaned girls. Vancouver-based broadcaster WIC is set to air the series on its stations across the country starting this fall.

In addition to the new programs, four irreverent Newfoundlanders—Mary Walsh, Cathy Jones, Rick Mercer and Greg Thomey—continue to create one of the nation’s top-rated TV shows, the news satire This Hour Has 22 Minutes, now in its fourth season. Produced by Halifax’s Salter Street Films, This Hour is watched by more Cana-

dians (up to 1.3 million) on many Monday nights than tune into the CBC’s flagship news program, The National, a half hour later. Atlantic Canada has also become a favored location for a small but growing number of feature films, including such Hollywood offerings as the critically trashed Demi Moore vehicle The Scarlett Letter, and the slightly more acclaimed Dolores Claiborne, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh.

All told, Atlantic Canada now boasts a lively television and film industry that brings with it not only much-needed dollars and jobs, but some hard-won respect and recognition for local producers and directors who have resisted the pull of such media centres as Los Angeles, New York City and Toronto. “Years ago, the thing you had to do was leave,” says Michael Donovan, who, along with his brother Paul, founded Salter Street

Films in 1979. “Everyone left. Now, you caí be creative and successful here.”

The change is most dramatic in Nova Sco tia, where the provincial government found ed Atlantic Canada’s first film developmen corporation in 1990, and later introduced ; generous film tax-credit program. In 1993 local producers who qualified for provincia support spent a total of $7 million in Nov; Scotia, while productions originating outsidi the province accounted for another $7 million Over the next three years, revenue from out side projects averaged $16 million, while amount spent annually by Nova Scotia pro ductions increased sixfold, to $43 million ii 1996 (the comparable figure in Ontario where the TV and film industry is mucl better established, was $277 million).

Among the Nova Scotia production com panies now hitting their stride are Cochrai

SHOW BUSINESS

Communications Inc., creators of the hit CBC children’s series Theodore Tugboat, ind Imagex Ltd., co-producer of the acdaimed 1996 film Margaret’s Museum, ibout an eccentric Cape Breton coal miner’s wife played by Helena Bonham Carter. But leading the pack is Salter Street, which scored its first hit with Codeo, a half-hour sketch-comedy show that ended a sevenrear run on CBC in 1992. Now, in addition :o This Hour, Salter Street is co-producing 'with Cinar Films of Montreal) Emily of Rew Moon, of which a second set of 13 episodes will be shot this summer. Other ^rejects include LEXX: The Dark Zone Stories, a computer-animated sci-fi series hat airs on Toronto’s City TV as well as the J.S. channel Showtime, and Major Crimes, i police mini-series to be broadcast this fall )n CBC—and one in which Halifax masjuerades as Toronto. For the Donovan mothers, it is all a sweet distance from the ?arly days when one federal film bureaucrat ejected their funding application, explainng that the brothers’ refusal to move from lalifax was “prima facie evidence of a lack )f seriousness” as film-makers.

The Nova Scotia experience has not gone innoticed in the rest of Atlantic Canada. The tew Brunswick government established its )wn film development corporation last sumner and has already helped finance one mall-budget feature, The Secret Life of llgernon, which wrapped up shooting last reek near Moncton. Newfoundland folowed suit last month, announcing that it

had reached an agreement with Ottawa to jointly fund a similar body aimed at luring film-makers to the province.

While Prince Edward Island has no formal film agency, the provincial government did grant $1.9 million to the producers of Emily of New Moon. Berni Wood, film commissioner for Enterprise P.E.I, a Crown corporation, explains that, once the series is over, its outdoor facades will be incorporated into neighboring tourist attractions—including Lucy Maud Montgomery’s original house. Wood adds that, after seeing two other TV series inspired by the island author’s works, Anne of Green Gables and Road To Avonlea,

both shot in Ontario, “a lot of people would like to see Lucy Maud brought home.” Emily may well prove a tourist draw: its producers have sprinkled some enticing footage of rural Prince Edward Island in the backdrop to the story of an 11-year-old girl—played by 12-year-old Martha Maclsaac of Charlottetown—who grows up to be an author.

Beyond the idyllic scenery, the recent explosion in East Coast productions is giving TV viewers some fresh insights into Atlantic Canadian sensibilities. Black Harbour, which has attracted an average of 800,000 viewers each week, centres on the story of Katherine Hubbard (Rebecca Jenkins), who returns to her native Nova Scotia after her mother takes ill. Katherine has just spent several years in Los Angeles as a successful restaurateur and wife of a movie director whose career is now on the skids. The story line gives the show’s writers plenty of scope to deal with two common Atlantic « themes: the attempt to return to one’s roots £ and the suspicion with which residents I sometimes view people from “away.” For I Toronto-based Jenkins, 36, best-known for I her starring role in the 1989 feature Bye Bye I Blues, it is also something of a homecoming. Jenkins spent part of her childhood in Halifax and later returned to attend Dalhousie University. Now the mother of one-year-old Sadie, Jenkins is considering moving to the East yet again. “This place has made a big, big impression on me,” she said during a recent interview on location near Hubbards. “It has a strong pull.”

In keeping with its title, Black Harbour provides an often bleak take on its characters and setting. Viewers were able to find a much more whimsical slice of East Coast life on Gullage’s, the first nationally broadcast TV series to originate in Newfoundland. The show, which had an average audience of 500,000, unfolded through the eyes of Calvin Pope (Bryan Hennessey), a balding, middleaged cab driver who still lives with his chain-smoking mother, Angora (Janice Spence). The series features a number of oddball characters, including Pope’s boss, Pis Parsons (Mike Wade), a sleazy operator from the village of Dildo who won the cab company in a bet, and Bert and Russell (Phil Dinn and Brian Best), two inseparable ponytailed bachelors who finish each other’s often elliptical sentences.

A member of a Toronto focus group that screened the show last year called Gullage’s “a cross between Coronation Street and Twin Peaks.” It is a description that the creator of Gullage’s, St. John’s native Bill MacGillivray, readily accepts. “Like Coronation Street, we’ve tried to build a neighborhood where there’s a certain comfort with the characters,” he says. “Yet at the same time, there’s an element of weirdness that pervades and gives the show its edge.” Whether weird, homey, bleak or idyllic, Atlantic Canadian stories are finally making their way to the screen. □