Traditionally, Canadian television has offered few forums for original dramatic programming. That has been especially evident when compared to the commitment by networks and production companies in Britain and the United States. For that reason, the recent appearance of the superb Bell Canada Playhouse on Ontario’s Global TV network has been a welcome exception. The 26-part series, whose 11th episode, Capital, airs July 25, is the happy result of an unusual cooperative effort between the National Film Board and Atlantis Films, an Oscar-winning Toronto production house. The project also marks an early triumph for Telefilm Canada’s Broadcast Fund, established last year to increase private production. As a result of that complicated partnership, Canadian viewers can now turn to a private network for drama with rare emotional potency and subtlety.
The formula behind Playhouse’s success is its skilful adaptation of Canadian short stories to the half-hour dramatic format. Michael MacMillan, Seaton
McLean and Janice Platt, the three young Atlantis producers who originated the series, are already proven masters of the art. Their dramatization of an Alice Munro tale, Boys and Girls, produced in association with the CBC, won an Oscar in 1984. For Playhouse, Atlantis chose works by such prominent authors as Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler and Morley Callaghan. As well, Atlantis secured the involvement of the NFB, with its links to some of the finest technicians and directors in the country. Quebec film-maker Francis Mankiewicz—whose 1980 feature, Les bons débarras, was widely acclaimed—is currently shooting The Sight, an adaptation of a Brian Moore story which airs on Aug. 29. Other productions feature such well-known actors as Eric Peterson and Diana Belshaw.
With cast members of that stature, the budget for Playhouse might easily have soared. But MacMillan estimates that each of the 17 episodes already completed cost a modest $125,000. Atlantis’s thrift does not limit Playhouse’s dramatic effectiveness. Some of the series’ most powerful offerings, including The Painted Door, which is based on a story by Sinclair Ross, touch the reverberant heights of tragedy. A 1985 Oscar nominee which aired last October, it focuses on an unfaithful wife (Linda I Goranson) who unwittingly contributes to the death of her husband (August Schellenberg) in a snowstorm. Capital, which grew out of a tale by W.D. Valgardson, examines an ambiguous father-son relationship in a small Prairie community. Abel Shizter (Ed McNamara), who earns a precarious living by refurbishing and selling old cars, has his young son, Billy (Bryan Stratton), as a helper. Left with little time for friendship, Billy develops a burning resentment for his father. Beautifully shot by its NFB crew* the film echoes the isolation of its characters with haunting images of the stark western landscape.
Only select portions of the national audience will be able to view such quintessential^ Canadian scenes. Global TV, which owns national rights to the series and broadcasts only in Ontario, has sold Playhouse to stations in some major cities, including Vancouver and Calgary. Meanwhile, the amiable partners are planning to pursue separate ambitions. Future NFB productions, according to Andy Thomson, an executive producer, will consist entirely of socially relevant dramas and documentaries. For their part, the Atlantis producers hope to switch their focus to longer dramatic formats as well as weekly series. If Bell Canada Playhouse is any indication, the company’s forays into those new areas will mean increased vigor and excellence for Canadian television. -JOHN BEMROSE
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