STICK WITH THE CBC, KID, AND SOME DAY YOU’LL BE A NOBODY
STICK WITH THE CBC, KID, AND SOME DAY YOU’LL BE A NOBODY
After a sensational stage debut in a Toronto production of The Fantasticks at the age of 18, pixie-faced singer-performer Diane Stapley gypsied happily (but for the most part anonymously) around the Canadian theatre scene for 10 years. Then in 1974 she won ACTRA’S best variety performer award for her part in a summer TV series, Inside Canada, and now, at the age of 30, has been tapped for stardom by the CBC in a 13-week variety series which debuts January 22. It turns out that being celebrated by the CBC is a little like coming up with the bullet in a nightmare game of Russian roulette. The corporation has pulled out all the stops to ensure that The Diane Stapley Show is the tackiest piece of entertainment to come down the pipe in some time.
Stapley, outfitted in night-club costumes that look like rejects from a 1950s Dorothy Malone movie, has been shoved into a postage-stamp-sized Winnipeg studio to sing tired old torch songs (“Stor-mmmeee-Weather!”) and do best-forgotten Broadway novelty numbers (“Bosom Buddies” from Mame). The whole sorry mess looks as if it cost $1.95 to produce. If Barbra Streisand were introduced to the public under these conditions she’d look like just another hausfrau from Brooklyn.
Struggling manfully to overcome the lousy songs and banal dialogue (“This girl is so busy lately,” she says introducing guest star Julie Amato), Stapley occasionally manages to touch at the magic she always delivered on stage. But even in the good moments the camera conspires against her — satisfying its urge to move within the studio’s narrow confines by constantly zooming in for close-ups of her adenoids.
When Jack McAndrew, head of CBC variety, left the Charlottetown Festival and took over the department last July, eight of the Stapley programs had already been taped. McAndrew changed the concept of the last five shows, scheduled the series for January (after axing Take Time, a folk series so low-key, barely 3% of the viewing audience nodded through it) and decided to give Stapley the big star buildup. That buildup, as chintzy as the show, amounts to a quickie coast-to-coast promotional tour to introduce her to the press. Stapley is pleased but unmoved by the attention. “I know that when this is all over I’ll go back to being simply a performer,” she says. Unfortunately, it won’t be over for a while. McAndrew has already given the green light for 13 more programs. RON BASE
The John Hirsch Amateur Hour
When John Hirsch inherited the corpse that is CBC drama, he realized fresh blood was desperately needed to bring the department to life. The problem, as he saw it, was that the CBC never replaced the talented directors who had trained with the corporation in the early 1960s and then moved on to the United States. Hirsch’s solution was to throw open CBC’S doors last spring to a group of untrained directors and writers in the hopes of creating a new talent pool the drama department will be able to draw on in coming years. The result, a series of 14 half-hour filmed and videotaped dramas called Peep Show, suffers from a bad case of double vision.
Hirsch entrusted the series to two producers with sharply different ideas about what that new talent ought to do. CBC producer George Bloomfield, in charge of the videotaped plays, brought in a group of underground theatre directors to create experimental, controversial shows. Hollywood veteran Gerald Mayer, in charge of producing the five filmed dramas, looked for directors who could make commercial programs attractive to a mass audience. Bloomfield let his directors stumble through the intricacies of the TV studio on their own (Paul Thompson of Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille showed up in the studio without a script) while Mayer held his directors on a tight rein. He insisted, for example, on making the final edits on their work, angering director Tad Jaworski to the point that he demanded his name be removed from The Kill.
It turns out, though, that Mayer had the right approach. Melony, a film written and directed by Martin Lavut, was a taut, Gothic horror tale. A viciously self-centred millionaire (Ed McNamara) lay on his deathbed remembering the only girl he ever loved — a bleak-eyed, mad girl (Carol Kane) who stabbed him with scissors on their wedding night, leaving him paralyzed for life. While the film leaned on cliché (dying millionaire, forboding mansion, devoted nurse), it had enough gripping sequences to make Melony the kind of audience-grabbing half hour the CBC has needed for years.
The taped dramas fared less well. One of them was so bad it had to be junked and two more were of barely marginal competence: the CBC still hadn’t scheduled them when the series debuted. Bloomfield would like us to think that his directors— given a free hand—have something fresh and different to say. They don’t. Everyone’s view of the world seems to have been threaded through the narrow eye of the TV set. A Country Fable, a Theatre Passe Muraille piece of nonsense, is about a hick in love with Mary Tyler Moore. A Brief History Of The Subject concerns a girl whose intimate life is exposed on TV. Festering Forefathers And Running Sons features Newfoundland’s satirical troupe, Codeo, sending up Maritimers exposed to a National Film Board crew shooting a TV documentary. The writers and directors of these taped dramas had an opportunity to reach for a TV audience in bold new ways, but all they seem able to communicate is the shopworn message that TV has become a social monster, eating away at privacy and traditional lifestyles.
Perhaps it’s a blessing that budget cuts forced Hirsch to slash the series from 26 to 14 programs: Peep Show hasn’t generated enough bright new talent to solve CBC drama’s problems. Hampered by inexperienced story editors and a dearth of good scripts, Hirsch is now employing a kick-ass policy within the department. “But let’s face it,” grumbles one disgruntled drama staffer, “the guys Hirsch is trying to shake up don’t know anything anyway. And they’re the ones showing new talent how it’s done.”
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