TELEVISION

The irreverent islanders

BONNIE WOODWORTH July 11 1983
TELEVISION

The irreverent islanders

BONNIE WOODWORTH July 11 1983

The irreverent islanders

TELEVISION

When the Wonderful Grand Band begins its new CBC television series on July 8, it will contain none of the traditional wholesomeness of The Tommy Hunter Show. Although it is occupying half of Hunter’s Friday evening time slot for the summer, The Wonderful Grand Band series is not a showcase for down-home fiddle music. Instead, the irreverent group of Newfoundland actors and musicians offers a mélange of biting satire, violent slapstick and punchy rock, in an unusually raunchy combination for prime-time TV. The cast of brash characters includes a nun— played by a man—who knocks poor people aside in order to solicit donations from rich parishioners; a senior citizen who responds to her neighbor’s order to enter a retirement home by spitting in her face; and a brazen maternity ward nurse who tries to reverse a patient’s labor because a birth would delay a dinner date at a fast-food restaurant.

The raw, spontaneous nature of the humor was a hallmark of Newfoundland theatre companies—such as Codeo,

Rising Tide and The Mummers—that flourished in the 1970s. Although some of the groups have since folded, the WGB represents the cutting edge of that movement. The group is so popular in Newfoundland that the network series will not be broadcast in the province until the fall,when the audience will be

at its largest. Almost half the province’s population, about 250,000 people, last year watched the WGB’s regional series; it received the highest certified rating of any CBC TV show produced in the province. The WGB’s second record, Living in the Fog, released last summer, has sold more than 16,000 copies in Atlantic Canada alone. And in August the

band will discover whether the television series has built up an audience outside Newfoundland when it tours Ottawa, Toronto and the Maritimes.

The nine half-hour shows, written by the actors—Greg Malone, Tommy Sexton, Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones— leave little to the imagination. A skit that lampoons mail-order consumer products is typical of the blunt humor. A farmer, Ezra, buys a “Be a Star at Home” kit, complete with authentic gowns, wigs and scripts of Hollywood’s favorite actors. Ezra’s wife nags him to come to bed because he has to milk the cows in an hour, but the farmer is distracted. “Just one more coat of mascara, honey,” he replies. “These cheap nails won’t stay on.” The camera then moves to Ezra in a magenta velvet evening gown and Joan Crawford wig. As the skit ends, the farmer is enraged because his wife is using wire wardrobe hangers, the kind that Crawford hated in the film Mommie Dearest.

Faced with such material, producer Jack Kellum’s biggest problem was reining in the actors’ tendency to satirize beyond acceptable limits. “You want to tease but you don’t want to offend,” said Kellum. “Imagine a line, call it a line of perfection or whatever. The farther you stay away from that line the safer your material is and the more mediocre it is. The real art is to ap-

Newfoundland's Wonderful Grand Band offers a raunchy combination of satire, slapstick and rock

proach that line as close as you can without falling over. That’s what makes your material a little bit spicy.” That line was traversed at least once last year when one of the WGB’s television skits portrayed a drunken priest at a stag party. Complaints lit up the switchboard at the CBC in St. John’s for days.

Unlike many producers, Kellum lets the actors have a direct say in how the shows are assembled and edited. It offends some of his peers at the CBC, but Kellum insists on it. “They’re the experts on comedy, not me,” he declares. That expertise was gained primarily in Newfoundland. Malone, 34, and Sexton, 26, his front-line partner, have been acting together for the past 11 years. Walsh, 31, and Jones, 28, played opposite them in Codeo. Walsh also acted in Up At Ours, a CBC TV comedy about a St. John’s boarding house which ran for three seasons on the network from 1979 to 1982. Last month at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa she starred in Bloomsday, a one-woman show based on James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The four “ townies” of Irish descent from St. John’s have socialized together since their teens and they draw on shared influences for most of their material-people they all know, have seen on TV or read about. Malone’s “morbid fascination with the church,” as he puts it, is a result of the fact that all of his teachers in school were priests, as were Sexton’s. “Malone’s gestures as a nun are more nunlike than any nun’s,” says Kellum. And both Walsh and Jones were taught by nuns in Newfoundland’s separate school system.

The WGB was formed in 1977 by gui-

tarist Sandy Morris as a house band for a local TV show featuring Malone as a stand-up comic. By the time Sexton joined a year later, the WGB was packing the crowds into local bars and clubs and making itself a household name in Newfoundland. The group added Walsh and Jones especially for the new television series, but both actors will also be on the August tour.

Until this year, most of the WGB’s characters were of Newfoundland origin. Now the subject matter ranges from punk rock to the United Nations, and the characters are more sophisticated and universal. “The faces have changed, but the characters still get you where it hurts,” said one fan during a taping session of the new series. Malone hopes the national audience will react as positively. He acknowledged that the skits have some elements of black humor. But he added that viewers, especially teenagers, like to see that side of reality. Said Malone: “It’s more foolishness than anything else. Everybody, regardless of how important they are, behaves like a child once in a while, and those are the moments we have tried to capture.”

The series was produced on a shoestring budget. The WGB received the same amount for each network show as it did for its local series, and there are two more actors this year. During the winter taping sessions the actors survived on less than $200 a week. But financial success is not the WGB’s priority. Said Malone: “The real reward will be if Canadian audiences like the shows. I just hope people are adventurous enough to keep their sets on.”

BONNIE WOODWORTH