Television

RUMBLE ON THE ROCK

Margaret Wente was one thing. But why is local hero Mary Walsh making fun of Newfoundlanders?

SHANDA DEZIEL September 5 2005
Television

RUMBLE ON THE ROCK

Margaret Wente was one thing. But why is local hero Mary Walsh making fun of Newfoundlanders?

SHANDA DEZIEL September 5 2005

RUMBLE ON THE ROCK

Television

Margaret Wente was one thing. But why is local hero Mary Walsh making fun of Newfoundlanders?

SHANDA DEZIEL

IN A MAKESHIFT graveyard in picturesque Torbay, Nfld., actors Mary Walsh and Rick Boland are done up in their Sunday finest-but all sense of decorum is lost when the coffin pops open in the middle of a burial. Boland’s character, a drunk, didn’t put the final screws in the box. “Actually,” he says to his wife, played by Walsh, “we haven’t screwed in years.” That’s CBC’s Hatching, Matching & Dispatching—a show full of exaggerated accents and jargon, lovable dim-wits and crude language. And not surprisingly, the

cause of much commotion on the Rock.

Boland, a 52-year-old theatre veteran, tries to explain his fellow Newfoundlanders’ concerns: “I’ll tell you a story about my grandmother. My uncle Fred was at university and he came back with the dean of junior studies and they were fishing for salmon up at Portland Creek. When they got home my grandmother was beside herself as to what to have for lunch. There was all kinds of lobster and salmon, but she thought those things were ordinary. So we had to go to the store and get a can of luncheon meat, because it was bought and that would be suitable. It’s sort of like that—people think when there are people looking at them from outside, the very things and the wealth they have is sometimes not good enough.”

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The pilot episode of Hatching, Matching & Dispatching (produced and co-written by Walsh) ran in January as part of a CBC test—the broadcaster ran three shows and asked for public feedback before making any commitments. Walsh’s show, about the Furey family who own a funeral home/wedding chapel/ambulance service, got the most response—more than 4,700 calls and emails, 95 per cent positive. “I figured a certain portion of Newfoundland wouldn’t like it because traditionally they don’t,” says CBC exec George Anthony, who ordered the six episodes that are being filmed now and will run in the next year. “There’s a pocket that didn’t like CODCO, but the majority of the

island absolutely adored it.

There are always people saying we don’t like the way you’re representing us.”

This time around, that group was pretty vocal. Within Newfoundland itself there was, as co-star Joel Hynes described it, “quite a shitstorm.”

Letters were written to editors and opinion pieces ran in the province’s papers, bloggers had a field day and the phone lines at radio call-in shows lit up. “Newfoundlanders felt a little embarrassed by such caricatures,” says St.John’s radio host Randy Simms. “That the show lent credence to the Newfie joke.” While this seems to be a lot of fuss over a little comedy series, it speaks to a much bigger issue of cultural identity in Newfoundland. These days there’s a real split between people who think that laughing at themselves and referring to themselves as New-

‘WHEN the bride’s

water broke as she was getting married-that kind of put a damper on Newfoundlanders’

fies is part of their culture, and those who view Newfie as .the other racial Nword and would like to shake the goofy, derogatory image. When the j pilot ran in JanuI ary, it was right in the middle of the tense Atlantic Accord debate over offshore oil revenues, and close on the heels of a Margaret Wente column in the Globe and Mail stating: “Rural Newfoundland is probably the most vast and scenic welfare ghetto in the world.”

Sensitivity was understandably high. “We are extraordinarily hard-working,” says Walsh, 53. “So I think people were shocked that Wente said those things.” They were even more shocked when Walsh, the province’s biggest TV star, came out right after with a show about alcoholic, daft and coarse rural Newfoundlanders aimed at a national audience. Viewer Andrew Short told a local CBC news program, “It was like watching

Margaret Wente’s letter come to life.” And “Everybody hates Mary,” read the headline in the St. John’s Telegram.

Eight months later, things have calmed down somewhat. These days, Newfoundlanders are much angrier over the transfer of their weather reporting from Gander to Dartmouth, N.S.—complaining that the forecasting has been inconsistent, to put it mildly. But as it turns out, feelings in Newfoundland about Walsh and her show remain divided. Reaction to the pilot was split down the middle in the St. John’s home of Hayward Pike, 55, and Faith Roberts, 49. Pike, a business consultant, liked it and laughed at some of the racier scenes, like when one of the younger couples tried to have sex in a coffin. But Roberts, a safety professional, says her husband has a “different” sense of humour. She thought the show was sick and made Newfoundlanders look stupid. “They can represent our heritage, but they don’t have to undermine it with coarse language and the sexual activity.”

Debbie Myers works at a bank near the set in Torbay, and has been watching the filming of the new episodes on her lunch

hour. She said she laughed during the pilot, but there was one part that bothered her: “When the bride’s water broke as she was getting married—that kind of put a bad damper on Newfoundlanders.” City councillor Shannie Duff reluctantly admits she didn’t like the show. “Mary is a good friend of mine, and my nephew and godson are working on that show, but I just found it a little too profane, a little too crazy, and I think it tended to reinforce that stereotype of the nutty Newfoundlander. Maybe they put all their over-the-top stuff in the first one, like screwing in the coffin, but I’m told that was just the start.”

It’s true—on the set in Torbay tastefulness is not the order of the day. “Nick and Darlene’s storyline is pretty f—ed up,” says Hynes, who plays Nick, the guy who likes to get it on in the coffin. “There’s more bizarre sex to come. There are no sacred cows at all.” Of all the cast members, Hynes, 28, is the most sensitive to Newfoundlanders’ concerns. “I did understand,” says the native of

Calvert, an outport of300 people. “There’s a real identity crisis going on here—it’s been ongoing for 50 years. But it peaked with that Margaret Wente column and then when this show aired. People want us to be portrayed as something that we’re not always. We’re not a bunch of scholars and intellectuals and stand-up high society people. But we have a really unique culture that is grounded in our humour and our accents. This is a situation where we’re enabling ourselves to laugh at ourselves.” But he insists that Nick, a “real hard ticket,” is a true representation. “Where I come from, everybody drinks and everybody does everything to excess and there’s not much loyalty and there’s a lot of infidelity and shit like that.” While Hynes got a juicy role, talented Shaun Majumder—a Burlington, Nfld., native who’s found success in Los Angeles— is stuck playing a dim-witted, bullied gravedigger. Majumder, 33, defends the part: “He’s naive, but not a dumb person. I think he’s one of the most sympathetic characters because he’s not yelling at everybody to shut up. I’m the one who’s taking a beating.” And it’s true—some fans of

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the comedian are disappointed. “Shaun Majumder is really smart,” says St. John’s coffee slinger Emily Bridger, 19, “and it was a total waste of him.”

The rest of the cast is rounded out by fellow Newfoundlanders Susan Kent, Jonny Harris, Sherry White and Ontarian Mark McKinney—each portraying a more sharptongued and foul-mouthed character than the last. Walsh, who plays a critical mother of three and the brains behind the businesses, is adamant that she’s created realistic characters. “My mother’s from Conception Harbour, and they are the sweetest old ladies in the whole world there,” she says. “They’ve got faces like apple dolls— and the language they use would curl your genital hairs.”

Walsh had come up with the funeral/wedding/ambulance idea decades ago, when she saw the phrase Hatching, Matching and Dispatching written on the side of an ambulance. Then Six Feet Under beat her to the morbid TV punch. But last year she left This Hour Has 22 Minutes to get this new series off the ground. “I didn’t want to die in my Marg Princess Warrior suit,” she says. Walsh and Boland went out and interviewed funeral directors—and ended up basing the Fureys on one particular clan from a Newfoundland outport. “The family that we represent,” says Boland, “had a garage first. But there weren’t enough cars to keep in business, so they started a bus service. The bus service led to an ambulance service and once they had that, they thought, ‘We might as well have a hearse.’ Then it was natural that they got into the funeral business.” In his interviews, Boland heard how in the course of one day a woman gave birth in their ambulance, a young bride got married in their reception hall, and they had a funeral for a grandmother that evening. Wente obviously wasn’t aware of this kind of industriousness when she made her comments about lazy Newfoundlanders.

Yet some locals remain puzzled by the Fureys. “My father was a clergyman,” says humour writer Ed Smith, author of the “Everybody hates Mary” column, “and we got shipped from there to there to there and I’ve never seen any of the characters from that show in any of the communities I’ve lived in.” It’s a 30-year-old image of a Newfoundlander, according to public affairs consultant Ed Hollett. “People reacted badly, largely because it didn’t reflect where they

are today. Maybe Mary was taking a concept that was lying around a while, or making a return to the roots of where she started out. Or maybe the market for the show isn’t actually here, but on the mainland. So if you want to talk to a mainland audience, you give them a caricature they know.”

Walsh doesn’t see it that way—she claims she thought only Newfoundlanders would get the show. And despite the silliness of Hatching, Matching & Dispatching, there are deeper family issues explored. The Fureys live, work and play together—something Walsh is interested in because she feels she never had it herself. “I have seven brothers and sisters and a mother and father,” says the native of St. John’s. “They lived at 7 Carter’s Hill, and I lived at 9 Carter’s Hill with my aunt May, aunt Phine and uncle Jack.” Walsh says she was moved next door at the age of eight months because she had pneu-

‘THEY’VE GOT

faces like apple dolls— and the language they use would curl your genital hairs’

monia and her family’s house was too damp. But even when her parents and siblings moved around the bay to Conception Harbour, 11-year-old Mary stayed in St.John’s with her aunt and uncle. “I spent most of my life terrified and concerned and devastated and heartbroken that I didn’t belong—but I feel like it’s all worked out pretty good. I had two mothers and now I get to be part of a family but I don’t have to be involved in any drama.”

With Hatching, Matching & Dispatching, though, she has been. “When people got mad about the show, I got so angry,” Walsh says. “I was thinking, it was just like the myth of Sisyphus. First you’ve got to convince the CBC that it could be done here, then so much equipment has to be brought in. You roll the rock up to the top of the hill and then everyone said, ‘What the f— did you put this rock here for?’ Then it struck me that everything I have, everything I am, I owe to being from Newfoundland. I could only stay mad for a little while.”

But the question is, with six more buttonpushing episodes on the way, how long can Newfoundland stay mad at Mary? lifl