...on the political program the CBC killed. The NDP wanted to get into showbiz, but the Corporation quickly quelled the revolution.
THE ATMOSPHERE IN CBC Toronto’s Television Studio Two was one of sleepy casualness. It was 8.30 a.m. In a corner, a prop man hammered desultorily away at a platform to be used in a video-taping that morning of what was hilled as a “very different” provincial-affairs program. In another corner, Jurgen Hesse, right-hand man to Ontario NDP leader Don MacDonald. gave scripts of the program to reporters.
He explained that the NDP was discontent with what are usually dreadfully banal political programs. To liven things up and present their policies to the public in an entertaining format, the party had decided to use actors in skits of satirical comment.
But in the next 12 hours the NDP was to find the CBC was far from receptive to new ideas and the party’s revolutionary approach would drive a
deep wedge between the CBC and the overlord Board of Broadcast Governors on what was acceptable political programming.
The men the NDP had chosen to bring this new image to political telecasts were two 33-year-old revue artists, Barrie Baldaro and Don Cullen. Baldaro is nationally known for his satirical skits on This Hour Has Seven Days. Cullen did a North American tour last year with the Beyond The Fringe group.
“What about the ruling that forbids dramatized political broadcasts . . .?” began a reporter, but just then in bustled John Kennedy, wearing the producer’s uniform of casual sweater, fawn-colored slacks, and soft-soled shoes. Kennedy, a large man with an incongruously boyish head, curtly interrupted all introductions to the press with: “No guests allowed in the studio. You’ll have to leave.”
“For what reason?” asked a photographer.
Kennedy stared at him for a mo-
ment. “My reason,” he said, “I’m nervous.” As if to emphasize h i s point he yelled out to his floor manager, “Dennis, no visitors,” then he rushed off across the set.
Out in the corridor a reporter buttonholed Baldaro, a short, thickset man who always looks as if he desperately needs at least ten hours sleep. “What’s all the secrecy about, Barrie? Why won’t they let us in there?”
“Damned if I know,” said Baldaro.
Then along came Bruce Lawson, entertainment writer for the conservative Globe and Mail. He had organized the program for the NDP. He explained: “They don’t want you around because the performers are nervous. They haven’t rehearsed.”
With everyone nervous in the studio, the reporters tried to get into the control room from where the program would be directed. There they were met by two CBC management men, Peter Campbell and John Irwin, who smilingly insisted the newsmen leave.
About this time Reeves Haggan, a CBC management executive who has had much to do with putting Seven Days on the air and keeping it there, went into the control room.
With little else to do at this point, the reporters present began to read the script. There was certainly nothing sensational in its satire. In it Cullen and Baldaro played with puns and made mild jokes on topics ranging from the miserable plight of Indians to the ever-changing Ontario pension plan. The few barbs that existed were hardly subtle. For example: Cullen: Now as to the actual location of the Ontario government, if you look very closely at the map you’ll find it. Bay Street!
Baldaro: You mean this long, green line here?
Cullen: Yes, the crooked one.
The entertainment in the corridor was funnier. Haggan, Lawson, Campbell, and Irwin all filed out of the control room and went into a conspiratorial huddle. Lawson did most of the talking in a soft undertone, Haggan grunted, Campbell puffed on his pipe, and Irwin kept on smiling. Then they all self-consciously trooped back in again. In a few minutes a distraught-looking Hesse burst out of the control room and hurried down the stairs. About 10 minutes later he reappeared, this time with NDP leader Don MacDonald, greying hair ruffled and panting a little.
After a few minutes the party leader and his assistant emerged to give a statement of sorts: “The CBC, or rather Mr. Haggan, has said the show cannot go on. We protest that
the skit is not a dramatization.” As MacDonald warmed to the fight, he added: “This is only another indication of the CBC management’s inability to make a decision. They have agonized over this since last week when they knew exactly what we were going to do. For years they have been telling us we must liven up our political broadcasts ...”
Apparently Haggan decided he better have a video-tape of the skit — at least as evidence. After the taping, the reporters were allowed into the studio to talk to Cullen and Baldaro, who had apparently been kept ignorant of all the foofahrah in the control room.
MacDonald and Hesse approached the two actors gingerly: “I know this
isn’t called for in your contract,” began Hesse, “but we might have to do another show tonight with MacDonald.”
“Why?” asked Baldaro.
“Well, the CBC may kill this one.” “So what?”
“Eh . . . how would you feel about doing an interview show with Mr. MacDonald?”
“Not very good,” replied Baldaro. “Besides Don makes a better interviewer.”
Then Lawson came over and said to a reporter: “I hope you keep my name out of this. I mean, I work for the Globe and this is an NDP thing.” Reeves Haggan came over to ask MacDonald to go over to the CBC executive offices, usually referred to as The Kremlin. There Haggan reiterated his position and said that the CBC would definitely not show the NDP program because it contravened the rule in the Broadcasting Act that prohibited dramatized political broadcasts. MacDonald insisted the rule was open to interpretation and demanded an appeal to Dr. Andrew Stewart, chairman of the Board of Broadcast Governors. Haggan ordered his secretary to make the phone call to Ottawa.
“Charge it to the party,” said MacDonald.
“All right,” said Haggan.
By this time it was 11.30 a.m. Cullen and Baldaro were posing for pictures when a reporter told them the CBC had definitely ruled the program off the air. “You mean they want to kill that innocuous dreck we did this morning!” Cullen burst out. He quickly recovered himself. “It’s not that
we didn’t believe in what we were doing. It’s just that we tried to tame it down as much as possible. We tried to find something that there would be nothing to object to.”
Stewart, the BBG chairman, apparently found nothing to object to, because at about five o’clock that evening he sent a wire saying the CBC “may” broadcast the program, and should there be “complaints from any other party that the program offends section 17 (1) (a) of the Act, the Corporation and the Board will seek a test case in the courts.”
Hesse happily phoned the CBC at about 5.30 to tell the standby crew that they wouldn’t be needed. A technician in the control room listened to him quietly, and then said, “Maybe you should speak to your leader.” Hesse did — and was stunned to hear MacDonald say the CBC was still refusing to run the program.
“Despite the telegram?”
“Despite the telegram,” replied MacDonald. He then went on with Baldaro and Cullen to do a live show.
In a scathing review of the CBC’s stand, the NDP leader took about five of his 15 minutes to brief viewers with the sequence of events that had led to the CBC banning the NDP program. He then bravely attempted to feed the two comedians a few lines from the original script. But the bynow deflated revue team never appeared to get on the same wave length as the party leader. And as everyone fumbled around for words it ended up with MacDonald interviewing Baldaro and Cullen.
At a party later that evening a CBC executive who had been involved first demanded anonymity, and then went on to tell “what really happened.”
“Haggan made the decision, mainly because he didn’t like the way MacDonald was trying to go over his head all the time to Ouimet and the BBG. It became a point of pride. It’s sad. Because it’s the first time Haggan has gone out on a limb without ever really doing anything. He was also one of the few allies the producers had in management. Now all those bastards in production are sawing off that
limb, saying that Haggan’s become too tired to fight for new program ideas.” For February 23 the NDP plans another provincial-affairs telecast that will be “different, vital, informative
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