TELEVISION/SPECIAL REPORT

The sexy, wealthy world of Mount Royal

Brian D. Johnson February 1 1988
TELEVISION/SPECIAL REPORT

The sexy, wealthy world of Mount Royal

Brian D. Johnson February 1 1988

The sexy, wealthy world of Mount Royal

TELEVISION/SPECIAL REPORT

Some viewers say that it is not good enough. Others complain that it is not bad enough. From the casting of its lead role to the airing of its first episode, Mount Royal has been a focus of public controversy. But a month after the splashy première of CTV’s extravagant new series, one thing is clear: there has never been a Canadian show like it. At face value, Mount Royal seems to be Canada’s answer to Dallas and Dynasty. It is a slick, sexy drama about a filthy-rich family, the Valeurs, and their personally monogrammed corporate empire. They gad about the world in jets, helicopters and limousines and, when they can make it back to the mansion for supper, they sit around a 15-foot dining room table while a butler serves champagne. Still, they differ considerably from their American TV cousins. None of the Valeurs is demonstrably evil. True to the Canadian character, they are loath to offend one another. And the tycoon at the head of the family, André Valeur, leavens his lust for power with composure and a concern

for such causes as native rights and economic nationalism.

Mount Royal amounts to a historic compromise between Canadian content and Hollywood style. With a $17-million budget, the 17-hour series is the most ambitious ever produced in Canada, and it marks a radical departure for broadcasting’s private sector. Critics say that, in the past, CTV has paid mere lip service to its Canadian-content obligations. But under mounting pressure from federal regulators, the network finally made a major commitment to local production. With Mount Royal, it has fostered a new TV breed: a show that combines the gloss of U.S. prime time with a distinctly Canadian focus.

Life: The series was created by executive producer Robert Lantos of the Toronto-based Alliance Entertainment Corp., Canada’s largest television and film production house (page 52). Alliance’s other shows have penetrated the U.S. market by way of cultural camouflage: in Night Heat and Diamonds, Toronto is disguised as a generic North

American city. But Mount Royal, a coproduction with France, accentuates its Montreal and Paris locations. Said Alliance’s Lantos: “We have tried to create a show with Hollywood production values that doesn’t promote the American way of life.”

Cut: The result is a sort of mongrel melodrama, lacking the full impact of either Hollywood fantasy or Canadian reality. Now heading into its fifth week, it is a series still in search of a formula. Mount Royal has all the elements of a prime-time soap—sex, glamor, power, family—but they add up to a unique equation. For one thing, the show lacks the usual continuity of a soap. Although the scripts interweave a few story lines, the threads are neatly cut and knotted at the end of each episode. Mount Royal also presents an odd balance of family morality and sexual licence. After a quartercentury of marriage, the Valeur parents, André and Katherine, remain faithful to each other—at the insistence of CTV network executives. But their three children are permitted to

be unusally promiscuous for young members of a prime-time family.

Whatever its faults, Mount Royal is a major phenomenon in the limited world of Canadian TV drama. And the show brings an interesting set of fresh talents to the small screen, with a cast that is perhaps the most cosmopolitan ever assembled for a Canadian series. Patrick Bauchau, the Belgian-born actor who stars as André Valeur, had never before acted in a television series. He is known for character roles in movies by such acclaimed directors as Wim Wenders (The State of Things) and Alan Rudolph (Choose Me).

Domini Blythe, a veteran of the Shakespearean stage, plays André’s elegant wife, a concert pianist, and their fashion-model daughter, the impulsive Stefanie, is portrayed by Guylaine St. Onge, who is making her dramatic debut (page 50). Catherine Colvey, who emerged from the alternative theatre community of francophone Montreal, plays Stefanie’s sister,

Danielle, an aggressive TV journalist. Finally, the impish Jonathan Crombie, son of federal Secretary of State David Crombie, appears as her naively dissolute brother, Rob, who moonlights as a nightclub owner—an enormous leap from his role as the heroine’s straitlaced suitor in CBC TV’S Anne of Green Gables.

Attacks: Unlikely to galvanize viewers as successfully as Green Gables, Mount Royal receives its first ratings report this week. Meanwhile, responses from reviewers have ranged from constructive criticism to outright hostility. Toronto’s Globe and Mail called the show “handsomely produced, well-acted and intelligently written,” but added that it lacked “the real sizzle of great primetime trash.” Montreal critics were less charitable. “Nothing in Mount Royal’s debut engages or excites the viewer,” reported The Gazette. The most savage attacks came from Montreal’s Frenchlanguage media. Under the headline “A $l-million-an-hour scandal,” the tabloid Le Journal de Montreal branded the series “a huge fraud—a caricature of Quebec society” perpetrated by a group of Toronto entrepreneurs. And La Presse, dismissing Mount Royal as “a bore,” added that its “French-Canadian flavor is nearly nonexistent.”

It is not surprising that a Toronto-

produced, federally subsidized series about a wealthy Westmount family caused indignation in Quebec. According to Colvey, “A lot of actors have refused to do the show because it’s a representation of a Quebec family in English.” Controversy first erupted last summer when it was announced that Belgian-born Bauchau would star as the head of the family. Peter Pearson, then-executive director of Telefilm Canada, threatened to withdraw the federal agency’s $5-

million stake in Mount Royal’s budget if a Canadian were not cast in the role. But Lantos argued that Bauchau was the only non-Canadian in an ensemble cast—and that the show’s coproducers, France’s SFP network, deserved to see some European talent because they were contributing more than 20 per cent of the program’s budget. Telefilm finally withdrew its objections.

Strange: Aside from the Telefilm issue, Quebec critics seem especially annoyed that the CBC’s financially strained French-language network, Radio-Canada, had invested $1 million

in the series. Although Mount Royal is filmed in English only, both RadioCanada and France’s SFP plan to air a dubbed version of it in the fall. A coproduction involving Radio-Canada and CTV seems strange. Lantos had originally envisioned making Mount Royal with the full CBC network. And Denis HarVey, CBC vice-president in charge of the English network, recalls that the network was “certainly very interested.” But the French coproducers were pressed for time, and the CBC lacked the funds to proceed immediately, opening the way for CTV’s involvement. Said Harvey: “I’m delighted that CTV is finally showing an interest in Canadian drama—we can’t do it all ourselves.”

Unveiled: CTV chose a dramatic moment to announce its involvement with Mount Royal. At the network’s 1986 licence-renewal hearings in Hull, Que., the nation’s broadcast regulators were berating the network for its limited offering of Canadian drama. Then, after a brief adjournment, CTV executives unveiled Mount Royal. Earlier in the hearings CBC executives had mentioned the series as one of their own properties. “That’s funny,” said one of the commissioners. “Is this going to be a CTV-CBC coproduction?”

The coproduction that did emerge, teaming CTV with partners in France, formed an equally unorum thodox marriage. ExecuI fives at CTV and 5 France’s SFP have dif% ferent notions about I what an audience finds acceptable. And that has created problems for story editors Wayne Grigsby and Guy Fournier. “It is hard to please everybody,” said Fournier. “CTV says we’re not writing enough happy endings. France says we’re writing too many. CTV says no nudity. France says how come nobody’s naked?” Admitted Lantos: “The French are surprised we don’t see a lot of skin. But we go further with it than anything you’ve seen in a North American TV series—we go to the edge of what’s permissible, then stretch it a little.”

But the main point of moral contention in Mount Royal is whether or not

André Valeur should violate his marriage vows. The original script for the pilot episode called for him to have an extramarital affair while his wife is away consoling his brother’s widow. CTV insisted that the affair be cut from the script. Arthur Weinthal, network vice-president in charge of entertainment programming, said that infidelity would mar André’s image as a man of principle. Added Weinthal: “To me, it’s about as logical as having him take the kittens from the litter down to the lake and drown them.”

CTV’s European partners had a dif-

ferent view. In fact, says Lantos, “the French are absolutely scandalized that a man of André’s wealth and power would not have a mistress. But CTV says there is no way a heroic character like André can have a mistress.” Dropping the affair from the pilot disappointed Bauchau. “To our utter confusion,” he said, “the whole subject just vanished, and we were left with a script without a subject.” Jaunty: Sipping coffee at a breakfast interview in a Montreal café, Bauchau spoke candidly about Mount Royal. Like André Valeur, he exudes

charisma and intelligence. Lantos cast him with the image of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau in mind, and there is indeed a resemblance. Bauchau has a wise man’s air of bemused detachment, and his voice is remarkably close to Trudeau’s—an adenoidal English that has no discernible accent, yet an un-Canadian cadence. Bauchau was wearing a fashionably baggy dark suit with a lavender tie and a fedora set at a jaunty angle. “I have constant battles with wardrobe,” he said with a smile, adding that André Valeur dresses too conservatively. “Look at Trudeau—he was always adventurous with his clothes.” Bauchau has a morethan-passing familiarity with the international élite of wealth, power and intellect to which André belongs. The actor’s father—a psychoanalyst and awardwinning author—is the scion of a wealthy Belgian family. His mother is the daughter of a former czarist Russian official who fled Moscow with his family after the revolution. The Valeur mansion, he added, reminds him of a number of “gloomy houses” that he frequented as a child. “The mansion on the hill—it’s a beautiful set, but it’s a little sad. Sometimes I wonder how André can go home at night.”

Villain: After a day’s

work on that lavish set, Bauchau, 49, goes home to a loft apartment that he has rented on Montreal’s lively St. Laurent Boulevard. His permanent home is a wooden chalet outside Parisbuilt as a pavilion, along with the Eiffel Tower, as part of the 1889 world’s fair. He lives there with his French wife of 18 years, Mijanou, who is Brigitte Bardot’s younger sister and who inherited the house. Describing himself as “a permanent expatriate,” Bauchau has played leading movie roles in four languages. In American movies, he has tended to appear as a villain —from the gangster in 1984’s Choose Me to one of James Bond’s attackers in 1985’s A View to a Kill. But Bauchau has also interrupted his acting with stints as a laborer. Like André Valeur, who rose from the Quebec work-

ing class, he has the philosophical outlook of someone who has refused to remain a prisoner of circumstance.

Bauchau is clearly the linchpin of Mount Royal’s cast. And he is constantly trying to push the show—and his character—along an unconventional direction. Although he says that he is enthusiastic about the series, he

does not hesitate to criticize it. In fact, after wrapping up filming of Mount Royal’s ninth episode, he said that he was “happy to announce that we’ve finally got a good one in the can.”

That ninth episode, due to air in the spring, was scripted by Toronto author David Young. When Alliance first asked him to write a script, he refused—“I’m not crazy about writing televison,” he said. “I don’t even watch television.” But Young, who is an ardent opponent of free trade, then asked if he could write a story based on economic nationalism, and the producers gave him the green light. “It’s about arctic oil,” he said, “and the fact that we just gave away Dome Petroleum and Bow Valley.”

Exploring social issues within such a high-lustre package is tricky. In the early episodes, serious themes emerge only as token grit amid the glamor. Next week’s show focuses on animal rights. But the issue serves simply as a dramatic pretext for an outrageous

fashion show and an unlikely kidnapping. The fashion show, staged in a circus tent beside the Eiffel Tower, features fur-wrapped models parading down a transparent ramp erected over cages of pacing tigers. While a transvestite prances on a platform, and a pair of musclemen with live pythons wrapped around their necks crack

whips, Stefanie struts down the ramp clad in a revealing fox-fur halter top and a black leather miniskirt. Moments later she is kidnapped and whisked off to a country estate. But she is a willing accomplice: the kidnapper is her latest lover, an animal rights terrorist.

Rich: Mount Royal’s producers are attempting to offer the best of both worlds: vicarious fantasy about lifestyles of the rich and beautiful and drama with something serious to say. The k result rolls across the ; Canadian airwaves like f a champagne bottle 2 with an embossed message inside. Some critics, including The Toronto Star’s Jim Bawden, complain that the show needs more “kitsch and craziness.” But those creating the series seem determined to push it the other way. Chief story editor Grigsby suggests that NBC’S L.A. Law serves as a more contemporary model for the series than Dallas or Dynasty. Instead of promoting fantasy, he adds, “we want to explore how

youngsters deal with power and privilege-living in a house bigger than God.”

Among the “youngsters,” Colvey’s TV journalist is the most rooted in social reality. And the actress stresses that, despite the Valeur wealth, the show has to deal with common experience. “Even the Royal Family do normal things,” said Colvey. “They don’t wake up with tiaras on their heads.” Meanwhile, Crombie seems anxious to inject more grit into his role. “Rob should be doing drugs and getting girls pregnant,” he said. “He should get a social disease.” Added Crombie: “The show is wavering in its own little limbo. There’s a delicate bull’s-eye that it’s got to hit. If it doesn’t, it’s in serious trouble.”

Sign: Clearly, Mount Royal is a work in progress. And the criticisms of the cast, coupled with their enthusiasm for the project, may be a healthy sign. It is too early to tell whether the show S will be a hit or a flop. “ But its producers say k that they expect it to be renewed for a second season. “We would have to have a major disaster on our hands for us not to renew,” said CTV’s Weinthal. “We have to let these shows develop. We just don’t have the resources to do what the American system does—put a series on the air, then throw it out after a few episodes. Our ambition is to have a Canadian dramatic program in the Top 10.”

At December’s Gemini Awards for Canadian television, cohost Eugene Levy pointed to a list of the 10 mostwatched TV shows in the country. Only two were Canadian: Hockey Night in Canada and The Miss Teen Canada Pageant. “Apparently, it helps to have Canada in the title,” said Levy with a smile. Mount Royal, with its more local title, is the first truly Canadian series to sail into the ratings war with a full complement of high-glamor artillery. Whether the series is manoeuvrable enough to survive the battle remains, to be seen. “There’s an opportunity here,” said screenwriter Young, “and if the producers are willing to pull up the anchors, it could be very interesting.”

BRIAN D.JOHNSON

Montreal

PAMELA YOUNG