Murder on the prairie

The CBC tackles the chilling Thatcher case

DIANE TURBIDE July 17 1989

Murder on the prairie

The CBC tackles the chilling Thatcher case

DIANE TURBIDE July 17 1989

Murder on the prairie


The CBC tackles the chilling Thatcher case

The the scene Moose was Jaw being railway filmed yards alongside on a sunny but unseasonably cold June day. For the fourth time in a row, a yellow Corvette raced down the wide street and did a squealing U-turn as it pulled up to the curb. A middle-aged man in a denim jacket threw open the car door and began striding

quickly toward the camera.

As director Francis Mankiewicz yelled “Cut” and instructed the actor to replay the scene, a tiny, elderly woman looking on from the sidelines tugged at the arm of a CBC publicist. “I just have to get a picture of Colin,” she said, waving her camera. The man she was referring to was Colin Thatcher, the Saskatchewan politician who was convicted of the 1983 murder of his wife, JoAnn. But the man she was looking at was actor Kenneth Welsh, who portrays Thatcher in the $4million CBC mini-series Love and Hate: The Story of Colin and JoAnn Thatcher. The woman’s reaction was typical of Saskatchewan’s enduring fascination with the real-life drama and its players. Said producer Bernard Zukerman:

“It seems like everyone here has had some connection to the Thatchers, and everybody

has an opinion about the murder.” Easterners and westerners alike were rivetted to Colin Thatcher’s 1984 trial, which led to his conviction for first-degree murder (the court was unable to confirm whether he had

actually killed JoAnn himself or hired an assailant). And when Zukerman, banking on continuing interest in the sensational case, obtained the rights to Maggie Siggins’ award-winning book about the murder, A Canadian Tragedy, he had no difficulty selling his proposal. “It took the CBC about 30 seconds to decide they wanted to do this,” Zukerman said of the two-part, four-hour drama, scheduled to air in December. For veteran Canadian di-

rector Mankiewicz, the story embodies the most elemental human emotions. “It’s a classic conflict about home, money and children,” said the Montreal-based film-maker, who has assembled a stellar, all-Canadian cast for the production, including Welsh, Kate Nelligan as JoAnn and R. H. Thomson as Thatcher’s lawyer, Gerald Allbright. “We all know families

tom apart by the emotional violence of divorce,” said the director. “But this one went to incredible extremes. Something broke there.” People in Saskatchewan became intimately acquainted with the Thatchers’ ruptured lives

between 1979 and 1983. During that period, Colin— the son of the province’s former Liberal premier, Ross Thatcher—and his Iowaborn wife, JoAnn, separated and divorced. Their breakup led to a bitter and highly public custody battle over two of their three children, as well as a dispute about a financial


Those conflicts ended on Jan. 21, 1983, with the bludgeoning and shooting death of JoAnn at the house she

shared with her second husband, Anthony Wilson. The large, stucco dwelling was across the street from the Regina Legislative Building where Thatcher had served as the MLA for the Thunder Creek riding since 1975, first as a Liberal, then as a Conservative. “The Thatcher family was very powerful here; everybody knew them,” said George Young, who conducted a 45-minute interview with the incarcerated

Thatcher that was aired on Regina’s CKCK radio station in mid-May. “You could put Colin in a fortress on Baffin Island and he’d still be news.”

Thatcher himself, currently serving a 25year sentence without parole in the Edmonton Institution, was an almost tangible presence on the film set. Local people were still buzzing about the CKCK interview—in which Thatcher reiterated his innocence and called for a new trial—when the actors arrived on June 8 for two weeks of on-location shooting. Later, when

the crew was preparing to film the murder scene at the Wilson home, set decorator Michelle Jelley reported that she saw Thatcher’s two sons, Greg, 24, and Regan, 20, driving past in their father’s yellow Corvette. (Together with their 15-year-old sister, Stephanie, the boys still live in the original Thatcher house in Moose Jaw.) For their part, most of the actors were clearly spooked by the environment. Said the New York City-based Nelligan: “It’s creepy, being in the actual spots where they lived and where JoAnn was killed.” Welsh, too, was affected. “After so many months of preparation,” said the actor, “my heart starts to go boom when I see the highway signs here for Thatcher Drive or Thunder Creek.”

For Nelligan and Welsh, the challenge in such a grisly story was to give their characters some human dimensions beyond those of saintly wife and monstrous husband. Said the 46year-old Welsh, who wore body padding and a

wig for the role: “Colin is often painted in very black-and-white tones, but there had to be some basis for his re-elections, for the fact that he had no trouble attracting women.” Welsh compared Thatcher to the fictional James Munroe, the flinty millionaire he portrayed in the 1983 mini-series Empire, Inc. Declared Welsh: “Colin’s world is overturning—his marriage and family have fallen apart, his cattle and farmlands are threatened and so is his legacy to his children.” The film-makers sought an interview with the real-life Thatcher, but the convict ignored their request. “I would have asked him how he wanted to be represented,” Welsh said. “But really, my job is to interpret him, not imitate him.”

For Nelligan, portraying Thatcher’s wife for the TV screen proved difficult. She says that despite an excellent script, adapted from Siggins’ book by Suzette Couture,

JoAnn remained elusive.

“Even some of her closest friends didn’t know all the things she went through,” said the 38-year-old actress.

“An average day in JoAnn’s life,” added Nelligan, “was to have her brakes tampered with, to lose her lawyer and fight with Colin over where he was hiding Regan.”

The role is Nelligan’s first CBC appearance since 1977— when she starred in Bethune with Donald Sutherland—after a decade of British and American theatrical success and several movie roles, including 1983’s Without a Trace. Explaining her decision to play JoAnn Thatcher,

Nelligan said: “It’s a kind of character that I haven’t played before. She started out her married life as the ultimate twin-set-and-pearls kid from Iowa—a perfect 1950s-style housewife and mother—and ended up in a tremendous battle of wills.” She added: “JoAnn’s operative word seemed to be ‘control, control, control.’ I had to loosen her up—her speech, her dress—to make her more real.”

Initially, Nelligan wondered why JoAnn lasted for 17 years in an increasingly unhappy marriage. But after filming on location, Nelligan said: “It’s easy for me to understand the law of inertia in a small place like this. Change is hard for anyone. And really, what was she supposed to do? Thatcher was a very wealthy, powerful man in a place that seems to be very male, very patriarchal. Women just seem to take more shit out here.” After a pause, she added: “At least, that’s what I had to believe for the sake of the part. I couldn’t understand it otherwise.”

But if there was a sense of unease at times for Nelligan, many on the film set spoke appreciatively of the friendliness and openness they

encountered in Moose Jaw and Regina. Local ranchers who knew Thatcher as a neighbor helped the Edmonton-born Welsh to refine some aspects of his part. In a scene in which Thatcher is selling a Hereford bull, Welsh said he had to squeeze the bull’s testicles in the traditional check for virility—a practice he had no experience with. Tom Wamyca, who had rented his ranch to the crew, also corrected Welsh’s dialogue. “We had Colin describing the bull as ‘clear through the brisket,’ ” said Welsh. “But Tom told me that Colin would have said something more simple, like ‘He’s clean-fronted’ or ‘He’s got a good front.’ ”

Director Mankiewicz agreed to the change because, as he told Maclean’s, “One of my preoccupations was to use real people whenev-

er possible for authenticity. They give something to the actors, too.” In one scene, the filmmaker encouraged local reporters—many of whom had covered the real-life events—to improvise when they interviewed Welsh, as Thatcher, emerging from the legislature. “I told them, ‘Go after him, try to get a piece of him,’ ” said Mankiewicz. Welsh said that the reporters’ questions triggered his memory of a newsclip that he had seen in which Thatcher blasted journalists trying to interview him. Welsh went on to repeat the politician’s own words in the movie: “I’ve said all I’m going to say. And if you don’t get those God damned cameras out of my face, I’m going to shove them down your throats.”

The realism extended to the casting of extras, with some 250 local residents used to depict Thatcher’s constituents at a ranch barbecue he held. Real policemen also acted in a segment during which a SWAT team surrounds a decrepit farmhouse where Garry Anderson,

an alleged accomplice played by Regina-born actor Eugene Lipinski, is holed up. (Anderson, who was approached by Thatcher to hire a hit man to kill JoAnn, eventually testified against him.) Cpl. Ron Seiferling, a 16-year veteran of the Regina police force, and Const. James McKee were part of the real SWAT team that staked out a May 1, 1984, meeting between Thatcher and Anderson. Early that morning at an abandoned farmhouse, Anderson, wired with a voice transmitter, trapped Thatcher into a damning conversation about JoAnn’s murder. Nearby, four SWAT team members lay in the flat field, thinly camouflaged by grass blinds, as Thatcher and Anderson came as close as eight metres to them.

McKee, a 13-year veteran of the force, heard the now-infamous words of advice that Thatcher gave Anderson in case he faced police interrogation: “It’s just always deny, deny.” When asked how the two men could have failed to see four armed policemen lying in a flat field, Seiferling said, “We had to figure that they wouldn’t stumble over us. In the Prairies, because of the big sky and the flatness, everyone’s eyes are always drawn to the horizon.”

Viewers’ eyes will inevitably be drawn to those same Prairie horizons when the CBC network airs the drama in December. Love and Hate concludes with Thatcher’s conviction for murder, according to Mankiewicz. But despite the finality of that outcome, the director said that he sees the drama as an enigma—one that centres on what finally made Thatcher cross the line and commit such a savage act. He vows, “When people turn off their TV sets, there will still be a mystery.”