Once upon a time, a countryside of men and women, ignorant of the conveniences of finger-lickin’ chicken and Chinese takeout, ate porridge and apples, mince, muffins and mutton, jam junket and jumbles; went nidding, nodding in the garden during warm afternoons and after dinner retired to drawing rooms with the books of Mazo de la Roche to be assured that Surrey was, after all, only a stone’s throw from Ontario. Besides her 16 famous Jalna novels Miss de la Roche wrote 20 other works in Canada (who can forget Portrait Of A Dog or Lark Ascending?) which, over the years, have sold 15 million copies and have been translated into any number of mother tongues. During the past year an institution in the form of this lady’s estate and an institution in the form of the CBC have met to create a 13-week hourly TV series at a cost of two million dollars. The series premieres January 21 at 9 p.m. so why not pull up a scone and sit down.
WH ITEOAKS' SAGA
From left to right allow us the pleasure of introducing the Whiteoaks of Jalna: (back row) Uncle Nicholas (played by Don McGill), Young Piers (played by Douglas Blrkenshaw), Aunt Augusta
(played by Josephine Barrington), Young Eden (played by Tom Lewis); (front row) Meg (played by Amelia Hall), Adeline Whiteoak (played by Kate Reid and that's infant Wakefield in her arms) and Young Finch (played by Vincent Dale). According to Ronald Hambleton, Mazo de la Roche's most perceptive biographer, she has created this
family as a “chief mourner of dying British influence in Canada.” Kate Reid as Gran Whiteoak typifies “the mother country, irascible, touchy, crippled with gout, her brood around her selfishly clinging to her domain.” And according to novelist Timothy Findley, who wrote the CBC pilot script and two ensuing episodes: "Another writer was asked to work on one of the episodes and he refused saying the Whiteoaks were all monsters. To a degree he's right but what an opportunity for a writer to discover what makes people monstrous. There’s no point ignoring the unpleasantness of the Whiteoaks. Mazo did listen to the prejudices of that society in the 1920s and she used them to show what kind of folks the Whiteoaks are.” As one character says in The Building Of Jalna, “My aim is to keep this settlement British. The trouble with Quebec is that it is too French. If I had my way only the English, Scottish and Welsh would be allowed to settle in any part of Canada.” The CBC has found a way of tastefully dealing with such statements for all our contemporary sensitivities and, as scriptwriter Findley says, “every episode will have a Ziegfeld Follies number, a production number that pulls out all of the stops.” The stops include the pulling out of $230,000 for the production of the pilot episode, a cost amortized over the other 12 episodes, for what has been called the most important and prestigious drama series CBC-TV has ever produced. That's as maybe. But there have been any number of pitfalls on the road to Parnassus.
Have a little sympathy for John Trent, he’s been through a lot. He’s the producer-director of Jalna and came to the position after a substantial record of three movies (Homer, Heart Farm and The Bush baby), the Quentin Durgens MP series and an NBC-produced soap opera called Moment Of Truth. Two full years with Mazo de la Roche and he’s bushed. Consider why: After eight years of constant offers to make the Jalna books into a TV series from such organizations as CBS, Screen Gems and Bing Crosby Enterprises the De la Roche estate finally started talking to the CBC and BBC about a possible co-production. The BBC wants to make it into another drawing-room Forsyte Saga. Fletcher Markle, CBC drama chief, and Thom Benson, entertainment director, disagree. The BBC is anxious to film only exteriors in Canada and do all the inside setups in England. The CBC says, “We want to do it our way.” This despite Mazo’s warning before she died that the only actors who could do her novels on stage or elsewhere were in England. The BBC deal falls through. The CBC makes a deal with the estate alone and agrees to pay between $2,000 and
$3,000 per episode plus a piece of the action of foreign sales. CBC is hopeful that it will make an arrangement with NBC. Word comes to Trent to take out a “bastard” (even though used to describe an illegitimate child) and a “son-of-a-bitch” so they won’t offend NBC’s rigid Standard and Practices department. NBC reads the script and calls the Whiteoaks “too damn grand” and makes rewriting suggestions. Finally, when the pilot is finished, NBC Vice-President Mort Werner looks at it and announces that NBC will not buy into the series at this stage. CBC is crestfallen and is stuck with the
cheque. The CBC tightens its budget and Trent feels the pressure; "I can’t even hire a continuity girl!” A memo comes down from CBC hierarchy, “Why are they renting a studio for 10 months when all they are shooting is a one-hour pilot?” Confusion. Haven’t they read the papers? It’s a series. -Trent survives anyway and uses the film technique of “parallel action” to tell his story; scenes move quickly from a World War I battlefield to the modern apartment of Roma and Maitland Fitzsturgis (above) played by Antoinette Bower and Sean Mulcahy. Back and forth in time the camera moves, so it goes.
ASTARIS BORN BUT THEN WHAT?
Wouldn't it be wonderful, Trent and Markle say, if we could convince the very best Canadian stars to come home and take part in our project — wouldn’t it be wonderful? Let’s get Arthur Hill. Sorry but he’s committed to an American TV series. Let’s get Lloyd Bochner then. Sorry. Or William Shatner. Or John Colicos. Sorry. They have “delusions of our grandeur.” Then let’s get William Hutt. Hutt agrees to play the key role of Renny. Kate Reid (top right) has already accepted as Adeline, so everything isn’t as bad as all that. On February 22, 1971, Markle buys Trent a
bottle of champagne to celebrate the first day of filming. Three days later the Canadian Union of Public Employees calls a slowdown. The slowdown continues painfully and the CBC cancels production. There are a few minutes of finished film in the can at a cost of $100,000. The decision is to make the few minutes into a trailer and start all over again. “It must be the most costly trailer in history,” a CBC technician says. Hutt drops out to perform at the Stratford Festival, where he is associate artistic director. He is paid in full without ever stepping before the camera or onto the -set. Money for jam. No Hutt, no Renny. Markle and Trent have an emergency meeting and from the ranks of the cast
Paul Harding (bottom right) is plucked. He is given a screen test, then the part. And Trent says, "Jalna will do for Harding what Forsyte Saga did for Eric Porter. Create a star.” Ah, well, there’s still Kate Reid. Seven days prior to the shooting of the new start in May, Kate Reid is called by Screen Gems in Hollywood to come down immediately to star in the sit-com The Good Life. Kate is enraged, thinking her agent has got her out of that contract. “I don’t get any money on stuff you do in Canada,” her New York agent says. Screen Gems threatens. Trent is agonized and spends hours on pleading long-distance phone calls. Screen Gems backs off. Kate sticks with Trent. It isn’t as bad as all that, after all.
Picking the stars is like selecting the jury. The trials are yet to begin. Consider the photograph above. It’s a scene of a patriotic cabaret at the outbreak of World War I and is actually a minor scene in the Jalna series. It was shot in Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre, an aging but beautiful vaudeville house that had been left unused since its closing in 1928, a year before Miss de la Roche published her second Jalna book. Elevators were unsafe and 90 actors
and staff had to climb seven flights of stairs to get to the set. A hoist was brought in to lift cameras, sound equipment, lights, an entire orchestra, large water cooler and three portable washrooms. The scene (a favorite of Trent’s) was alive with the sound of music, pomp and period — a resounding success. Except the next day the lab ruined one shot. Another hour of shooting was ordered, so back to makeup and up those seven flights of stairs. Labor without joy is base, but the show must go on. During the filming of the pilot episode, workers toiled at least 10 hours a day, some actors spent more than three hours each day being made up. All this before one camera rolled.
COME HELL OR
On the surface Mrs. Stroud (played by Dawn Greenhalgh) is being rowed during a pastoral and romantic moment by Eden (played by James Hurdle) on a lake near Jalna in the summer of 1920. Under the surface the camera and sound crew struggle to record the scene. Jalna story consultant Alice Sinclair had the tedious task of going through all the Jalna novels and setting up an information-index system of all manner of observations and facts. It was discovered that Adeline prefers three lumps of sugar in her tea and has long black hairs on her cheek and chin. But there will be a discrepancy: Kate will be smooth-cheeked. In the novels Jalna is described both as a two-story and three-story house. The CBC makes it two stories. Adeline has a grey parrot that lives to be 102. The grey parrot is ordered but only a red one is found. Alice Sinclair says it will take three months, because of quarantine regulations, to import a grey parrot at great expense. In the novels Boney the parrot swears in Hindi. The parrot plays dumb. “He is red, not grey, and he refuses to talk at all — I’m going bonkers,” says Trent.
ANXIETY IS THE BEDFELLOW OF ART
Here’s a simple one. The re-creation of a World War I battle scene at the Cheltenham Brickworks just outside Toronto. A building is bombed (top left), Renny’s lifetime retainer and batman Wright is made to look wounded (middle) and John Trent (bottom left) leaps into action to direct a shot. Cut, print it? Not necessarily. First you have to get a plane to bomb the building. George Neal is hired to fly his Sopwith Pup. He puts German markings on it. The Department of Transport says he can’t put on German markings without permission. The permission finally arrives. CBC production coordinator Liz Butterfield meanwhile has to cope with regulations that make it easier for actors and staff to be fed on location. A caterer is hired. Twelve horses are brought in for a shot. An argument develops about who should clean up the horse droppings — special effects or staging? Portable washrooms are brought in for crew and actors but someone uses the makeup trailer toilet by mistake. Trent wants it cleaned up and to avoid arguments has it done himself. "CBC people who negotiate contracts have nothing to do with production in the field.” Later he calls for extras for the battle scene. The 48th Highlanders send eager young men to the set. Trent has to explain that one can’t be used because, well, there were no Negroes in this regiment.
ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS
When the sun finally set on the first Jalna episode John Trent had remade the pilot five times on paper and twice on film and had had no time to use the silver press-clipping cutter Fletcher Markle had bought for him at Tiffany’s. The photograph below is from a scene in the second episode, home of Whiteoak neighbors (left to right) Maurice Vaughan (played by David Hughes), Chris Dayborn (played by Patricia Collins) and Jim Dayborn (played by Nicholas Simons). How all this sense of history, money spent and talent used come together to form a terrific TV series is up to you, reader, to figure out. As for us, we're content with appropriate versefrom the period: Old Sallie Worm from her hole doth peep; “Come!" said Old Shellover. “Ay!" said Creep. ■
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.