WHAT’S BRITISH TELEVISION GOT? CANADIANS, ALL OVER THE PLACE
Bernie Braden, Sydney Newman, Elaine Grand... they’re just a few of the ubiquitous Canadians who dominate British television. They’ve found the success Canada couldn’t offer — but some reasons for remaining Canadian
A FEW YEARS AGO Peter Forster, the British novelist and critic, wrote in the London Spectator, “British TV hardly suffers from a shortage of Canadians at the present (some say to be a Canadian is a qualification in itself)...” Forster, I should add, was not entirely serious. Still, some Englishmen do believe TV is overrun by Canadians, and I must admit that to scan a listing of a week’s TV shows in England is rather like flipping through a CBC graduation annual. There are, as yet, only three channels in British TV, and channelhopping on any given week you couldn’t — even if you chose to — avoid the ubiquitous Canadians.
Every Saturday night there's the bouncy, extremely successful Braden Beat. Then one Sunday night some months ago you could have watched Hamlet In Elsinore (producer, Sydney Newman; star, Christopher Plummer) on one channel, or The Close Prisoner, a play directed by Ted Kotcheff, on another. One of the first plays to be presented on BBC-2, the new channel, was directed by Alvin Rakoff, another Canadian, and when Granada-TV presented a festival of Tennessee Williams’ plays, seen on TV for the first time anywhere, the three directors were Silvio Narizzano, Henry Kaplan, and Paul Almond. Narizzano won the Best Director Of The Year Award in 1959 and Ted Kotcheff,
his former assistant, took the prize the following year.
If that isn’t old-home-week enough for you, look at it this way: nowadays any play or serial presented on either of the BBC’s two channels comes directly under the scrutiny of Sydney Newman, who, as head of BBC-TV drama, employs sixty directors full time and is responsible for twelve hours of drama a week — that is to say, a squeeze of tarted-up Shakespeare (maybe Caesar in modern costume), a smidgin of Ibsen, some kitchen-sink and Mr. Clean plays, and lots of clichés.
Newman, the most powerful and controversial of the Canadians in British TV, has had his ups and downs since he burst brashly on the British scene in 1958 as drama supervisor for ABC-TV, one of the commercial companies. On arrival, he told reporters, “I’m just a crude colonial,” and, on the evidence offered, they were more than prepared to believe him. Only two years later, however, Newman was the miracle-making producer who had not only lifted ABC-TV’s Armchair Theatre series to the top of the ratings, but had also made it the most original and critically acceptable of all the drama series. Newman charmed novelists of the stature of Angus Wilson and Doris Lessing into writing for TV and he promoted the best of England's new TV playwrights, Alun Owen and Clive Exton.
But for the past six months Newman has been down, very down, not a week going by when
he hasn’t been personally cut up in the press for the present sorry state of BBC-TV drama, which is, according to a special bulletin issued by the BBC Audience Research Department, at its lowest ebb in eight years. Actually, Newman is hardly to blame. He remains the most skillful producer of TV drama in Britain. The trouble
is, TV drama is in the doldrums on all British channels and Newman is — as they say in the business — being asked to carry the can. Newman — to quote Peter Black, the most astute of British TV critics — is his own worst press agent. In an interview with the Daily Mail, for instance, Newman, disowning any further kitchen-sink or dust-bin dramas, said, “We have reminded writers that life is fun as well as dour and hard.”
Newman, unfortunately, is usually reminding writers of something. In an article he once published in England he had the following advice for “tired writers”: “Cheer up, the world's a pretty exciting place and changing overnight. Why not start by finding a new and visually exciting place for a play to take place, e.g., a plant where a nuclear reactor is running wild, inside a jet airliner with its undercarriage hanging limp, behind the walls of a convent or a whisky distillery.”
And this, without taking a breath, is what he had to say to the would-be writer: “Don’t worry about style . . . Remember, a play is about people (the same as you and your audience) who demonstrate (it’s visual, see?) their hopes, needs, ambitions (the play’s driving force) but something (motherin-law, a rival firm, the Russians, a character’s ego) blocks their efforts (conflict), but they overcome
it, or they don’t...”
Elsewhere, in the same article,
Newman has managed to pack the following clichés into one punchy sentence: tough as commandos, disciplined as Jesuits, act with the speed of lightning. But Newman, after all, makes no claim to being a writer; he is, as he puts it, “a creative midwife,” and he has an undoubted ability to handle both writers and directors. True, he can be vulgar. He once commissioned a distinguished novelist to adapt Lorca’s The House Of Bernarda Alba for TV and then
wanted to change the title to Crazed Women. Just about everybody in TV has a Sydney Newman joke, but only a fool would underrate him.
Once, at a cocktail party, a disgruntled writer said to me, “Don’t look now, but Sydney Newman just oozed into the room.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Look, he’s the one guy in the business I know who takes all sides of an argument. He takes the writer aside and tells him the director of his play is a pretentious ass, a no-talent — but be tolerant, be human — Then he takes the director into the corner and tells him that the writer is stuck-up, an overrated runt — but be nice, be human. You never know where he stands because he doesn’t stand anywhere.”
“Why don’t you take your plays elsewhere, then?”
“Are you crazy? There’s only Newman.”
I agree. As an occasional writer for TV, I would always go to Sydney Newman first with any play. Writers for TV have reason to be
grateful to him. Within two years of his arrival in England he had, by raising the scale of payment himself, forced other companies to more than double the rates that were formerly paid for plays. As Newman himself puts it, simply enough, “I paid more money, I got better writers.” But there’s more to it than that. Newman has been loyal to his writers, and if he regards a man’s work highly enough he will fight for and produce the most sourly uncommercial of his plays.
Newman, who is now fortyseven and bears a striking resemblance to onetime film star George Brent, cunningly encourages the myth of his own ignorance. A story he tells on himself is that John Grierson, the documentary film-maker, told him when he was only twenty - three, “Newman, you’ve got a B-picture mentality.”
Newman went to work for the National Film Board of Canada, under Grierson, in 1941, rising from splicer boy, through director, to producer. Among the more than three hundred shorts he produced for the NFB was a Venice Award winner, It’s Fun To Sing. In 1952 Newman joined the CBC, and two years later he was National Drama Supervisor. His script editor, in those days, was a young man named Nathan Cohen. Among the directors who worked for Newman at the CBC and who, significantly, preceded him to England, were Narizzano, Kotcheff, and Kaplan. Among the plays Newman produced while still with the CBC there was Arthur Hailey’s Flight Into Danger. This may find
Newman no room in heaven (literary division) but it certainly opened a lot of TV doors in England. Newman has been in England for six years, the last two with the BBC, and he now thinks of London as his home.
“Eventually,” he says, “I’d like to make films.”
“Why don’t you go back and make one for the National Film Board?”
"The Board isn’t free enough. There are too many political taboos. It’s run by accountants.”
Looking back on his days with
the CBC, he says, “Of course there are more professional opportunities here than there ever were in Toronto. I also deal with a greater variety of actors and better writers. I think, as a group, the Canadian directors have been very influential here. Possibly it’s the American influence via Canada. They've done a lot to rid the English actor of histrionic, externalized performances. They’re also technically unique in the way they manoeuvre cameras and handle music and sound. Only a parochial Canadian would find it too foreign here. In fact, it wouldn’t do any Canadian director harm to leave Canada for three or four years. The trouble is,” he added ruefully, “will he ever go back?” Newman could see himself living in Toronto again’ but he thinks of himself as settled in London. “There’s the glitter, you know. A chance to hit the jackpot.”
The latest Canadian to hit the jackpot has been the director, Ted Kotcheff. He did it with Maggie May, a musical by Alun Owen and Lionel Bart that opened in September to dazzling notices and now looks like the greatest British boxoffice success since Oliver! Kotcheff, a failed violinist, is happy to have put Toronto behind him. “Over here.” he says, “I’ve had a chance to work with some firstrate writers.” These include Angus Wilson, Doris Lessing, Alun Owen and Clive Exton. “The industry’s here. There’s stage and film. Toronto’s the bush leagues, isn’t it? I mean you might come from there but nobody goes there, do they? Nothing happens there.”
Kotcheff has a theory. He feels that Toronto always was — and still is — the last haven of the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). A parched provincial city. No place for what he calls the offwhites— that is to say, men of Italian, Jewish or, like Kotcheff himself, Bulgarian extraction. “Look at the names of some of the people who left,” he says. “Narizzano, Kaplan, Ted Allan, Rakoff, me — all wogs. I never felt a part of things there.”
“Are you trying to tell me that you feel at home here?”
“No. Over here is just about the only place I feel like a Canadian. An American. I’ll always be a foreigner here. In fact, the depress-
ing thing is 1 feel I could do my best work about Canada. It’s a society I know and react to more deeply than this one. I’d love to make a film in Canada."
Even more than Narizzano or Kaplan, both of whom had stage experience prior to working in TV, Kotcheff is a product of BBC-TV. A University of Toronto graduate, he started at the CBC as a stagehand in 1952 after a brief and uncharacteristic foray into the meat - packing business. Kotcheff worked his way up from floor manager to director in 1955. Two years later he went to London, where a number of critics soon credited him with being the best director in TV.
“The best?” says Sydney Newman. “Maybe yes, maybe no. But he is certainly the most intelligent director I know. He has a unique ability to understand and get the best out of writers.”
In Anger And After, a critical study of British drama since Osborne, John Russell Taylor wrote. “Kotcheff has an intuitive, exploratory style, perfectly under control,
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“I still feel a foreigner,” says Bernard Braden
without ever falling into stale predictabilities.” He also has a quick temper and a tendency to curse cameramen in Bulgarian. To put it in the gentlest way possible, studio crews would never vote Kotcheff the Nicest Director To Work For. Neither would some actors. Kenneth Haigh, one of the stars of Maggie May, refers to Kotcheff cuttingly as “that Bulgarian wine snob.” A TV actress, who prefers to remain anonymous, says, “To watch Kotcheff on the set, you'd think poker and garlic salami were his main interests and directing a sideline.” All the same, many an otherwise choosy TV actor will accept a part in a play without reading the script simply because Kotcheff is directing it. John Russell Taylor told me, “He is undoubtedly the most gifted and most influential director in TV.”
Maybe. But Kotcheff has certainly had his share of setbacks and bad luck. Many had high expectations when he signed to direct his first film, but the upshot was a slight and traditional comedy, Tiara Tahiti with James Mason and John Mills. And Kotcheff, prior to Maggie May, had only a limited success with three plays in London’s West End. His first production, Progress To The Park, by Alun Owen, was first-rate but it came at the end of a cycle of working-class plays in the West End and was generally passed over by the critics. Play With A Tiger, by Doris Lessing, had mixed reviews and so did Kotcheff’s production of Luv, by Murray Schisgal. Maggie May has been Kotcheff’s breakthrough. As just about all the critics observed, Maggie May, lumbered with an average score and without benefit of a real musical-comedy star, was lifted out of the ordinary by superb direction. The choreography managed by yet another Canadian, Paddy Stone, was also splendid. David Merrick, who flew in to see the musical and expects to produce it on Broadway, told me, “A lot will depend on Kotcheff's availability. Without him to carry the show, I’d think twice about it.”
After his triumph with Maggie May, Kotcheff said, “The difference between London and New York is that after three comparative stage failures 1 would have been finished in New York. Here 1 got another chance.”
This spring Kotcheff will direct another film. A big one. Life At The Top, with Laurence Harvey. And it is rumored in the trade that the script Kotcheff has to work with is a stunning one, an enormous improvement on a thin novel.
“After that,” says Kotcheff, “I'd like to go home and direct a film in Toronto. But I wouldn't stay.”
The Canadian directors in London do not. as some have it, consider it a stepping stone to New York. They genuinely enjoy living there.
“London isn't a second choice for any of us.” says Silvio Narizzano.
Narizzano has just finished shooting his first film for Hammer Films. It's a horror story, starring Tallulah Bankhead, and the distributor, Co-
lumbia Pictures, is supposed to be so pleased with the result that they have already offered Narizzano another, more considerable picture.
“What about Canada?” I asked Narizzano.
“I’ve been invited back several times. By CBC’s Festival series, the Crest theatre. 1 like going back — if it’s to do one specific job. Obviously London has much more to offer. Going back to Canada to stay would be a step backward for me.”
Elaine Grand feels much the same. “I’m settled in London,” she says. “I prefer it here.”
The versatile Miss Grand, who threw up Canadian TV stardom in 1956 to come to London, is now one of the most respected women producers in British TV.
“To say, as some do, that the Canadians brought a breath of fresh air into British TV is insanity,” she says. “True, they once had to rely on Canadians here, but that was when the commercial channel had just started in 1956, and there was a shortage of trained talent here — especially technical talent. At the time, there was some resentment of Canadians, but not any more.”
Canadians have a nowhere accent
Elaine Grand, I must say, is widely accepted as first-rate — an interviewer, according to the Spectator, more varied and sympathetic than any feminine competitors, and, as far as the Sunday Times is concerned, the most effective woman in factual TV, period.
As Miss Grand is the first to point out, she has a built-in advantage as an interviewer in England — a neutral Canadian accent. “It is accepted everywhere, without class stigma,” she says, “because it doesn’t belong anywhere.” But it is as an intelligent and unsentimental producer, with an eye for the more endearingly outlandish aspects of human behavior, that Elaine Grand has made her most serious reputation in England. At the moment she is editing a six-part documentary series on Punishment, a project that has been six months in production and that has made her a familiar figure in prisons throughout the country. The series will be shown this month. An earlier documentary produced by Elaine Grand, Unmarried Mothers, was the first ever to top the ratings in England. “I don’t think I could even have made that one in Canada. Too many taboos.”
With this, most of the other Canadians prominent in British TV emphatically agree. Sydney Newman says, “The atmosphere here is clearly less puritanical.” Ted Kotcheff, who has directed plays on subjects as tricky as miscegenation, told me, “It’s only after you’ve worked here that you realize how cautious the old CBC drama department was. Not that I blame them. There was always the possibility of somebody standing up in parliament to protest that his daughter had been corrupted.”
If Elaine Grand enjoys more freedom in England, she makes less
money. She still doesn’t earn the twenty thousand dollars a year she gave up when she left Canada.
“The Canadians in England have been around a long time,” she says. “There’s no ‘group.’ Nowadays you’re accepted as either good or bad at your job, each on his own.”
Finally, I went to see the Original Original Canadian-in-London, Bernard Braden, who told me that in all his years in London he had only been invited back to Canada once. “It was,” Braden said, “to narrate a play for CBC-TV. I hadn’t yet read the script when I drove in from the airport and was summoned to a press conference in a Toronto hotel. There, on the table, was a copy of the script. A couple of reporters dived for it, but I managed to scoop it up first. I forget the title, but what was amusing was it said something — something starring Ronald Coleman, and that was crossed out. Then it said starring Hume Cronyn, and that was crossed out. And finally it said . . . Starring Bernard Braden.” Braden laughed. “You mustn’t think I’m bitter about Canada. If they want me, well, it’s up to them.”
“But would you like to be invited
“To tell you the truth, I’d be flattered. I’d jump at it. I guess you just want to be wanted where you come from.”
Braden, to be sure, is in no need of employment. He lives in a most luxuriously appointed flat in Knightsbridge and stars in a successful weekly TV show, On The Braden Beat.
Braden and his wife, Barbara Kelly, are both from Vancouver. They went to London, via Toronto, in 1949, and before long Braden was a star in the West End. He appeared in The Male Animal and in Streetcar Named Desire. Since then Braden has starred in several other West End productions, most recently The Spoon River Anthology, with Barbara Kelly, and has directed for the stage himself, notably Ted Allan’s The Money-Makers. But it was initially in radio, with the Breakfast With Braden show, and latterly in TV, as an acid and intelligent comedian, that Braden has made his reputation.
“But even after all these years,” he said, “I still feel a foreigner here. Even my eldest son, Chris, feels alien here.” Christopher Braden, who is twenty-one, is at Oxford, reading history. “If you spend your formative years in Canada,” Braden said, “you’re a Canadian always, and that’s it. But life is very full here and the truth is I’m virtually uninterested in what goes on there. At the same time, I do feel a small knot of guilt because I am uninterested in, well, Canadian affairs.”
That small knot of guilt is what gnaws at most of the Canadians who are active in TV and films in London — and there are many of them. There’s Stanley Mann, for instance, who once wrote plays regularly for CBC-TV in Toronto and is now one of the most sought-after and highly-
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paid screen writers in England. Last winter Mann wrote the screenplay for The Collector, recently completed in Hollywood by Billy Wilder, and he has since signed to write and coproduce four pictures for 20th Century Fox. There’s also Sidney Furie, the director, who has had considerable success on his own pop commercial level. All these young men left Canada because of the limited opportunities there, but none of them feels completely at home in England.
The Canadians in TV in London
do not, as Elaine Grand points out, constitute a group — at least not any more — but once or twice a year, inevitably, they do meet at parties. And on long nights, maybe after a poker game or once a party has thinned out, somebody, looking down into his glass, is sure to say, “What are we doing here? We should be working in Canada.” Then somebody else usually says that he has just read somewhere that a young Canadian with a shining morning face, somebody who did stay home, has gone to
Moose Jaw or Moncton — the grassroots, as they say — to open a splendid new theatre. Enthusiasm leaps. There is excitement in the room, and shame. There is febrile talk of taking the first plane to Calgary. Somebody phones the Canada Council, probably collect. Somebody else threatens to take his family to the Yukon, the real Canada, and make a film with a handcamera. Wives panic. Until finally, a realist asks, “Now tell me what play this guy is doing in Moose Jaw?” And it turns out it’s Charlie’s
Aunt or some other stale rep play, and heads begin to nod sagely.
Uh-hun. That’s Canada, isn’t it?
But the truth is we’re all losers, the people who left and the country they left behind them, and the problem is not intricate but simple. Sydney Newman put it best. “The trouble is under-population. As things stand, we all had to leave. But fifteentwenty years from now it will no longer be necessary for young people to leave.”