Before coming to The Whiteoaks Of Jalna, producer John Trent did a soap opera for NBC called Moment Of Truth. Soap opera has a very distinctive and peculiar style; it is the style of Jalna. However Jalna is not only The Edge Of Night in period costume but, we are told, the greatest dramatic series Canadian television has ever produced. Such a claim exposes us to international humiliation and, back home, raises a lot of very awkward questions.
Canadians have been tolerant of CBC drama, loudly applauding the good ones, like Wojeck, and suffering silently through the bad ones in the patient, puritan belief that, however tedious and pretentious they were, they were “kulcher” and, like cod-liver oil, good for us. There was snobbery about it too; anyone who didn’t like Festival was assumed to be a clod and a bumpkin, one of those people who complain publicly about smutty language and bare breasts. Anyone who mentioned cost (mostly Conservative MPs from the Prairies) was quickly shushed.
Jalna challenges that tolerance. It is the Titanic of television drama. Its 13 episodes have cost two million dollars; it was produced not primarily for local consumption but as a money-making prestige venture which would turn a profit for the CBC and catapult us into the big leagues. On it ride the resources and reputation of Canadian broadcasting. Jalna is an incredibly reckless gamble which, at the moment, has all the aspects of the South Sea Bubble. Jalna may be sold — perhaps to the Japanese, who have an insatiable appetite for North American schlock — and it may make money. It may even be popular and will probably command a sizable audience of Mazo de la Roche and Harlequin romance fans in Canada. But it will never be good, and great popularity might, in the long run, be worse than no sales at all.
Jalna carries all the earmarks of the afternoon sob shows except the organ music. It is full of those familiar long, pregnant pauses, tearful interludes and significant glances. It is utterly deadpan and sentimental. Emotional outbursts are tied together by a script that goes nowhere, repeats itself and states only the obvious. There is little discernible plot. The acting is wooden, the characters flat. Jalna is a visual and verbal cliché with that appalling, relentless predictability which gives soap opera its most simpleminded quality.
An attempt has been made to disguise Jalna as a movie with picturesque visual effects and a cast of thousands. It is here that the money was spent. As a film, however, Jalna is pathetically amateurish and pedestrian. The camera seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — too often on people’s navels. The pace is sluggish, the timing off. The most expensive scenes are ironically the least successful. They would have been better cut or eliminated along with all the unnecessary actors who make Jalna look like a winter works project. Jalna is basically so misconceived that it takes on a chaotic life of its own, like a monster in a horror movie that consumes everything in its path. Many scenes, pointless in themselves, seem to have been filmed for the sole purpose of filling up time. All the leaping back and forth between 1914, 1954 and 1971 creates numbing confusion. Who are all these people? What year is it? Where is Jalna? And what, in God’s name, is going on? Jalna leaves me with the impression it was put together with pieces from the cutting-room floor and the real film is actually somewhere else. It demands a commitment from the audience it cannot fulfill. It’s a bore.
Of course, Jalna is not really drama but Big Business. If it succeeds abroad, it will probably be the first in a whole series of similar CBC productions. Canada will become renowned for penny-dreadful ethnic epics, as the Japanese are renowned for transistor radios and the Danes for pornography. If it does not succeed abroad — and so far, as they say in show biz, we seem to have stunk the place out — someone needs to find out why it was ever undertaken in the first place.
Apparently, an ideological commitment was made to go ahead with Jalna regardless of cost, actors or foreign markets. The money, assigned at a time the rest of the CBC was enduring severe austerity, was spent on a pig in a poke. The financial problems became evident long before filming was well begun; the problems with script, actors and direction must have been visible at the same time. Since a lot of important decisions — including possibly one to stop production — were not made, one has to assume that Jalna s faults are not accidental but deliberate.
It is a trademark of backward and colonial peoples to be always jumping on bandwagons that have just gone past. They play a game of one-upmanship which they are doomed to lose. They are forever unfashionable, provincial and ridiculous. Jalna is a blatant and embarrassing attempt to imitate the success of The Forsyte Saga and Marcus Welby, MD. It indicates an increasing tendency in the CBC to opt for whatever is currently pop, hip or mod — the slick and easy thrill. Because it cannot bring it off, Jalna, with typical nouveau riche vulgarity, tries to buy quality with financial extravagance. It is intellectually chintzy, financially irresponsible and scandalous. Judy LaMarsh called it
rotten management. So do I.
To parry charges of imitation, the CBC is touting Jalna as a “Canadian” program; the producers went to great pains to hire Canadian actors even if they couldn’t find good ones and miscast the ones they had. Unhappily for the PR men, Jalna doesn’t look very Canadian. There is a myth going around that Forsyte and Elizabeth R were wildly popular because they were great shows. They weren’t; people liked them because they conformed to everybody’s stereotype of English people. Everybody’s stereotype about Canada is not The Whiteoaks Of Jalna (which some Canadians think is a dramatic series about trees) but Mounties, Indians, bears and French-Canadian lumberjacks. I have a funny feeling the CBC could have sold a 13-week series about White Fang or King of the Royal Mounted a lot faster than it’s going to sell Jalna. And it would have been more fun. ■
Heather Robertson is a Winnipeg free-lance writer and broadcaster
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