So much for the Last Spike and fur trading by the Hudson’s Bay Co. Judging by the amount of time that domestic television is about to devote to a small fictional village in Prince Edward Island, Avonlea was the most important centre of activity in Canada at the turn of the century. Peopled by staunch Presbyterian spinsters, gentle bachelors, wholesome farm families and the occasional drunk, its heart and soul was a spunky redhead named Anne Shirley. Author Lucy Maud Montgomery immortalized the girl and her home town in Anne of Green Gables, published in 1908. And Toronto film-maker Kevin Sullivan brought the work to the small screen in a 1985 movie that became an instant TV classic—prompting a 1987 sequel. Now, Sullivan and the CBC are banking on the notion that viewers have an insatiable appetite for the idyllic—and idealized—past that Avonlea represents. Road to Avonlea, a lavish 13-part series based on several Montgomery stories, premieres on Jan. 7. It introduces a new Montgomery heroine, Sara Stanley, a headstrong girl in the spirit of Anne.
The $ 15-million series, one of the most expensive TV productions ever mounted in Canada, has attracted an impressive lineup of Canadian dramatic talent. R. H. Thomson and Fiona Reid are among the celebrated actors who turn up in regular or guest star roles, while novelist W. 0. Mitchell makes his television acting debut as a curmudgeonly bachelor. Colleen Dewhurst and Patricia Hamilton, perfect foils for each other in Anne of Green Gables, return to their roles as the upright Marilla Cuthbert and busybody Rachel Lynde. And Sarah Polley, the 10-year-old star, is already an experienced actor with 18 dramatic roles to her credit. Toronto-based Polley, who played a practical little girl trying to keep a rein on John Neville in the fantastical 1989 movie The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, says of her current role: “Playing Sara is a lot of fun. She’s rich, but she has a lot of problems in her life and she’s very brave about them.”
Like Anne, Sara Stanley is a motherless but resilient child who suddenly finds herself living with strangers in a rural paradise. Her father, a Montreal entrepreneur, has been wrongfully arrested for embezzlement. And until he can prove his innocence, Sara is sent to live with her dead mother’s sisters, Hetty and Olivia
King, in Avonlea. Aunt Hetty, played with just the right level of pinched-lip propriety by Jackie Burroughs, is a spinster schoolteacher who has always disapproved of Sara’s father—mostly because he took her sister Ruth away to the mainland. Her forbidding manner is nicely counterpointed by Aunt Olivia (Mag Ruffman), who becomes Sara’s loving but powerless ally.
Sara’s new world also includes a brood of King cousins on the next farm: Felicity (Gema Zamprogna), Felix (Zachary Bennett) and Ceci-
ly (Harmony Cramp). They show a believable mix of cruelty and affection towards each other, and their shifting alliances provide an abject lesson in petty power politics. In the sixth episode, called The Proof of the Pudding (Feb. 11), Felicity is unexpectedly left in charge of the household and she quickly demonstrates how insufferable eldest children can be to their siblings. While her comeuppance is predictable, the other children’s enjoyment of their rebellion is palpable—as is their relief when the adults finally reappear.
The adults—who all seem to be revelling in their Dickens-like characters—have their own jealousies and friendships to maintain. Lally Cadeau as the children’s mother, Janet King, is all placid pulchritude, while her husband, Alec (Cedric Smith), is another mild Montgomery male. Like Matthew Cuthbert in the Anne
saga, he seems to hover on the edges of a domestic order created by women and children. Another cousin, Andrew King (Joel Blake), kindhearted and smart, resembles the gentle Gilbert Blythe character in Anne. “The books themselves have many similarities,” said Sullivan, explaining that the series is based on four Montgomery novels, beginning with The Story Girl (1910). “Montgomery always wrote about the same kind of people, and in many ways they’re about her own longings too.”
In fact, the parallels to Anne are so close—a wilful, mischievous girl, a repressed female guardian, a protected but claustrophic society—that the series risks dismissal as just another tired TV retread. But that assessment would be unfair, given the outstanding acting and production values. Shot mostly in Coppin’s Comers, Ont., about 50 km northeast of Toronto, and intercut with scenic footage taken by a second crew in Prince Edward Island, the photography has a lush, pastoral beauty. The film-makers have constructed an entire period village, including a livery and covered bridge,
that has the tidy look of a storybook place.
Such expensive undertakings are the result of a co-production deal involving the CBC, Telefilm Canada and the Los Angeles-based Disney Channel, which will air the series next March. The Road to Avonlea is part of a three-film deal with the same partners, under which Sullivan also produced last fall’s Looking for Miracles and the upcoming Lantern Hill, based on Montgomery’s Jane of Lantern Hill (1937). Sullivan, 33, admits that, having discovered and filled a niche for so-called family entertainment, he is ready to move away from the green pastures of Avonlea. But given the critical and financial success that the producer and director has enjoyed with his Avonlea adaptations, it will no doubt always seem a land of milk and honey.
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