The Second Last Spike

On location with Pierre Berton

JOHN HOFSESS March 1 1974

The Second Last Spike

On location with Pierre Berton

JOHN HOFSESS March 1 1974

The Second Last Spike

On location with Pierre Berton


Suppose they created a great television series and nobody watched? Will a public gulled out of its skull over The Whiteoaks Of Jalna trust in the abilities of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to once again spend two million dollars on home entertainment? The CBC knows how to spend, but does it know how to create?

The National Dream, an eight-part series starting Sunday, March 3, based on the best-selling books The National Dream and The Last Spike by Pierre Berton, is the CBC’s biggest gamble to date. Each one-hour episode cost $175,000. After two years of research and preparation, headed by Executive Producer Jim Murray, six months of filming by Murray and co-director Eric Till, and several months of editing, The National Dream certainly qualifies as a television epic. In the weeks to come reporters and television columnists in every Canadian newspaper will describe the logistics, perils and impressive facts of the production, and evaluate its merits. Personally I think it will be straight raves across the board. Early in December, even before the sponsor, Royal Trust, had seen anything of the series, I saw episodes one and two, late in the day, feeling tired and hungry, and was amazed at the exhilaration I experienced watching William Hutt give a spellbinding portrayal of a boozy Sir John A. Macdonald, and being witness to the kind of political intrigue and chicanery that makes Watergate a piker. Later I watched other episodes, and found each profoundly thrilling. The National Dream is a major cultural event, an exciting and original work which will have reverberations for years to come.

As a companion to the series, McClelland and Stewart have republished The National Dream and The Last Spike in a paperback edition, edited by the author, with 96 color stills from the television production.

On the last day of shooting for The National Dream I accompanied Pierre Berton and the CBC crew, not so much to learn more about the production itself, which is likely to be the most exhaustively written-about television series of 1974, but to learn more about the dreamer behind The National Dream. Pierre Berton for all his television appearances remains in large part an unknown man, and for all his book-sale popularity, a neglected artist.

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BERTON from page 30

“I read a fascinating book last night,” I recently told a friend in Vancouver, “Pierre Berton’s Drifting Home.”

“Oh?” came the response, somewhere between incredulous and uninterested.

“It filled me with a strange longing. One I would not have thought possible,” I continued. “It made me wish I had a father. ”

“Well,” came the reply (still not much interested), “on the subject of fathers . . .” (there followed a sad-sounding, what’s-the-use “Hmmmm”) “you can have mine.” My friend is married, in his mid-twenties and periodically bedeviled by blood relations and in-laws. As we were speaking after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, he had just had another fill of the lot.

“No you don’t understand,” I objected. “Reading this book, which is in no degree a sentimental one, filled me with the kind of feelings I had as a child when I first saw National Velvet, or Lassie and Flicka movies; a wistfulness just short of tears. It made me want a special kind of father (and brothers and sisters, a jolly clan with creditable genes, and a long history of memories). He would take me down the Yukon river, recite the legend of Dan McGrew with hammy gusto, be an example of wisdom and courage; someone with whom one could talk over anything, I mean talk it over profitably and satisfyingly, with understanding and the balm of wit. A hearty, un-neurotic man, with a no-nonsense approach to the fundamental appetites, who doesn’t give a fig for debilitating pieties. What a lot of misery children could be spared if they had a father like that.”

My friend, who has a typical postwar sensibility (Beatles, Stones, Dylan, and more recently John Prine) steeped in booze and grass, doesn’t like to dream much, or yearn much, or hope for much. So he just said, “There aren’t any fathers like that,” and changed the subject.

Most conversations about Pierre Berton among my friends and professional acquaintances run a similar course. No one, it seems, is much interested. If I see a new Canadian film months in advance of its release, or read a new book in galley form, and tell the same people that here is an exciting talent they mustn’t miss, most of them try to see the film, or they order the book. But when I tell them they should read Drifting Home or Klondike or The National Dream, a prejudice intervenes. They’ve seen Pierre Berton, of course, many times, and probably think they know him better than the Prime Minister. After doing more than 2,000 television interviews, and making more than 600 appearances on the weekly Front Page Challenge show, writing 21 books with several having sales in the hundreds of thousands, Berton has become so famous and suc-

cessful, so ubiquitous, that few people, in or wishing to be in the vanguard of Canadian culture, take him seriously. He is so well known that few take the time to discover him.

The last day’s shooting for The National Dream consists of doing plugs for the series (“I’m Pierre Berton and I hope you’ll be watching . . .”) with Berton standing beside an 1883 steam engine puffing away in the zero cold on an isolated stretch of CPR track near Havelock, Ontario. (Location shooting for the series involved more than 20 setups from Montreal to Bute Inlet, British Columbia.) It takes one whole afternoon to get a few usable seconds on film, trying to beat the deadline of an early nightfall, trying to get durable readings in the moody winter light, trying to keep the camera from freezing up: it will all fly by in a blink on your television set. As the day wears on, with everyone getting colder, and Berton doing his best to say

his lines without letting his teeth chatter, it doesn’t look like fun, but when it’s finished, wrapped up for the last time, he says it is fun, it’s exactly the way he’d like to spend a day. “I like variety,” he remarks, “I like being free. It’s a pleasant way to work and live. Each day, something different to do.”

Up and back, from Toronto to Havelock, we talk about many subjects. From hardcore pornography (“The Devil In Miss Jones is one helluva sexy film,” Berton says. Speaking as someone who has simply read about it, I ask him, “What does she do with that snake?” “Oh,” he says, “nothing much. But you should see what she does with the rest of her equipment”) to physical fitness (“I’m afraid to get on the scales,” he says, when I query him about how much he-weighs. “I figure I may be 30 pounds overweight. The trouble is I love good food and I love good booze, and in recent months I haven’t been getting any exercise.” He doesn’t smoke, never has. Even for a white-haired, 53-year-old, patriarchal figure, I found his sudden portliness appalling: it would take

months of daily exercise to reduce his protruding paunch and reduce the folds of thick flesh at the neck).

“When did it first occur to you,” I ask, “that you had become successful? Did any one event tell you, as it were, from this point my career will go on building?”

“Twenty years ago,” he answers, “I made a film with the National Film Board called City Of Gold. I sold all rights to it, the story and my narration, for $360. And that film went on to win awards, and it was shown for years all over the world, and never made a cent for me. I was 33, mind you. And that’s the kind of salary I worked for then. Well, I vowed then and there never to work cheap, and never to sell entire rights to anything again. In one sense, I never doubted that someday I would be a successful writer, so no one event was pivotal in the sense you suggest, but making City Of Gold made me appreciate my worth, you might say.”

“There was a recent report in the Wall Street Journal that your annual income has now reached $400,000 . . .”

“That’s a guess,” he interjects, “I never discuss my earnings. The writer simply added up what he thought might be my income from several different sources and published that conjecture. To be honest, I don’t exactly know what my income is. I know that I currently pay taxes in six figures, and as long as there is something left for me, that’s all the interest I take in it. I never negotiate settlements for shows or books personally, I have agents who do that. I find it creates too much bitterness to haggle over terms with my friends.

“Money doesn’t interest me particularly, except as a means of doing things, things that have a higher value than money. For example, I’ve told the children that I will give them virtually any amount to further their educations. Both formally and informally, whether they go to university or travel around the world. But I’m not going to leave them money, and I’m not going to leave them the house in Kleinburg [Ontario]. I believe everyone should make their own way in life. As I did, as my father did, developing one’s resources, testing one’s will. That’s how character is formed.

“Too much money, especially when it’s inherited, spoils people, corrupts them. I want my children to be happy, and to get along with one another, so after they have had all that I can provide as an education, the adventure of living is up to them. What I wish to do with my estate is to have some university or arts council administer a fund for young writers and artists. Say someone needed six months to complete a novel, or something, they would be granted permission to live at my house, sharing it with others in the community, all ex-

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BERTON continued penses paid, while they finished their work. The surroundings are pleasant, peaceful; I think it would be useful. But so far I haven’t had any offers from universities to take care of the property and administer the program. To me, that’s a good use of money.”

“You once told me that the trouble with Canada’s film industry is that no one takes a big enough chance, sinks several million into a really good story, and has confidence in a big payoff. Instead we keep making low-budget films, and this in turn dictates the kind of stories we tell. No big flights of the imagination, no 2001 s, or Satyricons. Do you see The National Dream as an example of the big budget extravaganza you spoke of?”

“I’ve always liked the spectacular, the thrilling, the damn-good marvelous show,” he replies. “Maybe it’s due to having grown up in Dawson, which was a drab place, especially in winter. I’ve always liked midways and expos. I love Disneyland, I go on all the rides, twice, and more. All the experiments in multimedia, and expanded cinema, giant screens, multi-images, combinations of live actors and images, and so on, interest me very much. I like being stirred, jostled, awed, by the original and the unusual, rather than reinforced by the conventional and the familiar. I hope people agree that The National Dream is an exciting recreation of history, nothing has been spared to make it an exacting, accurate portrayal of the way things were and what people said and did. When negotiations began at the CBC for the books, I said only, ‘You will do the story well, or not at all.’ And as far as I’m concerned, it’s as good as could be hoped for.

“I could have gone on for many years probably doing my interview series for Screen Gems. But I quit, even though they were paying me one of the highest,

probably the highest, fee for any Canadian television performer, because there was no challenge left in it. It had become too easy, too monotonous. I don’t go where the money is, I go where the adventure is, and making The National Dream was certainly a memorable adventure. What the next one is, I’m not sure. People often say to me, you must have your life all plotted out, and plans extending years into the future, but the truth is I drift, I have no plans. I’m always ‘game’ for a new challenge or opportunity. It is likely to be several years before I complete a new book. I have one I want to do but it would require a lot of research.”

“What gives your life meaning?” I ask. “Does creating something like The National Dream give you the feeling of fruition, of amounting to something? Or do your satisfactions lie elsewhere?”

“Writing the books gave me a sense of achievement, everything concerning them since is just a spin-off. It represented a vast amount of work and also deprivation since I can’t drink and write at the same time and I do like to drink. Even so, I’m not sure about your question. I’ve never had to look for meaning in life. I enjoy what’s there, with a minimum of complication. My wife and family are the centre of my life, we’re a dose and happy family. With eight children, life is never dull.”

“Do you have any problems with any of your children?”

“None. I wouldn’t tell you in precise details, naming names, even if I did, but I would tell you, and the answer is no.”

“Is there a secret to impart in all of that?” I inquire.

“The most sensible way to live has always been perfectly obvious to me,” he says. “Unfortunately there seem to be thousands of people who can’t see the obvious and make other people’s lives hell as a result. Nobody needs a manual

to be a good father or husband or friend.”

“Can you explain your success? What makes practically every book you write a best seller?”

“People can’t buy books they’ve never heard of. That’s where being on television is an advantage. People get to know your name, and something of what you stand for. But being on television doesn’t sell books, if they’re not good books that people want to read. Johnny Carson and Jack Paar, people like that, can’t sell books no matter how shamelessly they plug them. If I wrote a bad book tomorrow, it might sell a bit on the strength of the others, but that would be it. The next one would be hurt in its sales.”

Near the end of Drifting Home Berton writes:

“The children are already noticing something about Northerners — that they are shaped to a different mold by climate, loneliness, environment and heritage . . . (have) the inner serenity of wilderness people. Almost everyone who visits Dawson talks about the special quality of the old-timers. Part of it comes, I think, from a kind of personal security which is the stamp of those who have survived and prospered in a harsh environment; some of it springs out of the very isolation of the northern communities, which forces people to fall back on their own resources (we notice the absence of television aerials in Dawson); some of it comes from the need to cooperate for survival rather than to compete — the tradition of the open cabin door goes back before the stampede. It is difficult to bamboozle Northerners. Phonies they can spot a mile away. Fads, fashions and sudden enthusiasms are not for them. They suffer no identity crises. They know exactly who they are and where their roots are and so they do not find it necessary to play a role or wear a costume.”

Reading Berton is a distinctly different experience from reading, say, Anne Hébert, Marie-Claire Blais, Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Roch Carrier or Mordecai Richler. Many of Canada’s writers seem to be Dostoevskian characters; they write of guilt, madness, coming apart, of feverish private lives. Berton alone has the calm, Olympian sweep of a Tolstoy. He chooses the big canvas, the epic scale. And only the epic can have a culturally unifying effect; personal dramas of lower depths always keep us locked up in the individual. The National Dream may, if anything can, unite Canadians in a new way, with television serving as much of a vital link from coast to coast as the building of the “impossible railway” did during its time. The great Canadian movie many of us have been waiting for turns out to be, of all things, a television seriel. ■