Tommy to the rescue

Can the CBC's newest miniseries break out of the stuff 'em and mount 'em mould of historical drama?

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 6 2006

Tommy to the rescue

Can the CBC's newest miniseries break out of the stuff 'em and mount 'em mould of historical drama?

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 6 2006


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Tommy to the rescue

Can the CBC's newest miniseries break out of the stuff 'em and mount 'em mould of historical drama?


Michael Therriault has a confession to make. Before he was cast as Tommy Douglas, he’d never heard of the guy. Two years ago, CBC viewers had voted Douglas the “greatest Canadian” of all time, but somehow the reputation of this national legend— five-term Saskatchewan premier, father of medicare, first leader of the NDP—had eluded the 32-year-old destined to portray him. Thereriault figures it’s a generational thing. “Most of my friends didn’t know who he was either,”

says the Toronto stage actor, who makes his film debut as the star of Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story, a four-hour CBC miniseries airing March 12-13.

Among younger viewers, Douglas is less famous than his grandson, 24 star Kiefer Sutherland—another example of our chronic failure to mint heroes from Canadian history. And in a fraying cultural landscape, it often seems that the beleaguered CBC is left

to curate our heritage single-handedly—to stuff and mount the national legacy, and its legends, in a kind of wax museum of historical drama. Exhibits have included the 2002 hit Trudeau and January’s prequel bomb, Trudeau II. And filming recently wrapped up on two more docudramas, René Lévesque, and October, 1970, running six hours apiece.

Prairie Giant, a genteel but passionate piece of socialist realism, both fits the museum mould and strains to break it. The CBC brass deemed it dangerous enough to post-

pone the program’s original January air date on the grounds it could influence the federal election. Heaven forbid a political drama might give people ideas at a time when they could put them to use. Yes, Prairie Giant does wear its socialist sympathies on its sleeve. But it hardly seems designed to drive voters into the arms of the NDP’s Jack Layton, who seems bloodless and calculated next to this saintly portrait of Douglas. The drama is not so much a rallying cry as an invitation to nostalgia. It conjures a lost world of eloquent idealism, where Canadian politics was warmed by a

bipartisan blush of civility and compassion. The story ends on a tragic note—with Douglas dying of cancer in 1986—and you’re left wondering, where did it all go? It’s like watching the death of a national dream.

As a quiet refuge of Canadian history in the carnival of prime time, Prairie Giant— which is up against Desperate Housewives in its first hour—also makes you wonder if bigticket CBC dramas may be the last of a dying breed. Like René Lévesque and October, 1970, the Douglas miniseries was commissioned before a regime change put Richard Stursberg in charge of CBC English television. After Trudeau II failed to attract viewers in the wake of the CBC lockout, Stursberg speculated that “maybe people aren’t so interested in docudramas that date all the way back to the 1940s.”

Well, the Douglas story goes all the way back to thel930s, to the Dust Bowl and the Depression. But a contemporary perspective only makes it more exotic. Douglas was an openly religious Christian leftist, a species now virtually extinct in an age when Christian fervour has become a right-wing franchise. And by any measure, regardless of ideology, he left an extraordinary mark.

A Scots-born Baptist minister who pursued politics with righteous zeal, Tommy C. Douglas shattered a Liberal dynasty in Saskatchewan, and became the first socialist elected to run a government in North America. Heading five successive majorities as provincial premier, he introduced milestones that included Canada’s first bill of rights, its first 40-hour workweek with paid vacations, its first government insurance plan, arts council and universal hospital coverage—as well as

creating the continent’s first medicare system. At the same time, Douglas modernized the province, connecting farms with electricity and paved roads, and was a stern fiscal conservative who wiped out debt and balanced the provincial budget. Later, leading the NDP in Ottawa, he helped fuel a generation of Liberal social reform.

His daughter, activist-actress Shirley Douglas, was the prime mover behind Prairie Giant. Originally she had hoped her son would portray him, but he got too busy torturing terrorists on 24. To direct, she recruited


OJohn N. Smith, a veteran Montreal filmmaker best known for depicting pedophile priests in The Boys of St. Vincent and making Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer. Smith’s son, Bruce N. Smith, wrote the screenplay, and “Shirley was fantastic” as a research source, says the director. But she didn’t like the script, and withdrew her blessing before filming began. Although Prairie Giant verges on hagiography, its director says it’s “a more balanced portrait than I felt Shirley wanted.” As his son explains, “She wasn’t comfortable with us exploring the personal life of the man, and the way we portrayed his reluctance to take the job of NDP leader.”

Skipping over most of Douglas’s career in Ottawa, the filmmakers wisely chose to dwell on his dramatic early years as a Baptist minister being drawn into politics and his triumphs as premier. They put a strong focus on his wife, Irma (Kristen Booth), as a quiet but strong-willed woman who makes her influence felt. And they shot in Saskatchewan, where local faces and landscapes add a vivid sense of authenticity—the older extras regaled the crew with their own memories of Douglas.

But the movie takes poetic licence in conflating some pivotal events. Its most dramatic scene is the portrayal of a 1931 demonstration by striking miners in Estevan, Sask., that left three miners dead from bullets fired by the RCMP. In the drama, Tommy and Irma show up and confront an RCMP officer who says the miners’ bodies will be left on the ground overnight. The couple nurse the wounded, and one of them dies in Irma’s arms.

Three miners were in fact shot dead by the RCMP. But strikers’ bodies were not left on the ground. Screenwriter Bruce Smith says he took that detail from riots during the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, which Douglas watched in shock from a rooftop at the age of 15. And there’s no record of anyone dying in

Irma’s arms. “That’s the most extreme nudging of the facts,” concedes Smith. “But it’s not a documentary. It’s a drama. These riots were formative events. They weren’t all crammed into 15 minutes. But the facts have been remoulded into something that I consider essentially true.” He adds it was impossible to find any dirt on Douglas, aside from the fact he was a relentless workaholic.

The factual “nudging” is consistent with the film’s heightened dramatic style. “We didn’t see it as a propaganda piece,” says John Smith. “But there were good guys and bad guys.” The filmmakers draw on Douglas’s own words to set the movie’s high-contrast moral tone. His famous “Mouseland” speech is reproduced verbatim. It’s a brilliant flight of allegorical wit, with a scenario of mice ritually electing black cats, then white cats, then black-andwhite cats—instead of mice.

In Therriault, Smith chose an actor who could bring a theatricality to the high-octane oratory. A seven-year veteran of Stratford, he starred in Toronto’s production of The Producers, spent six months on Broadway doing Fiddler on the Roof and is now playing Gollum in Toronto’s new musical of

The Lord of the Rings. Therriault brings such spirited optimism to Douglas’s character, you half expect him to break into song. It’s not “Let’s put on a show!” It’s “Let’s put on a government!”

Therriault is surrounded by a who’s who of name-actors-who-stayed-in-Canada— including Don McKellar (who shines as prov-

incial treasurer Clarence Fines), Andy Jones (a droll Mackenzie King), Nicholas Campbell (gruff Liberal politician), R.H. Thompson (malevolent leader of a doctors’ strike), Brent Carver (dour Baptist church official), and Paul Gross (a magnanimous John Diefenbaker). “Everybody wanted to be in this,” says Smith, “in spite of the fact there was no money.” Therriault, meanwhile, tackles the lead with great panache. And over a lunch interview, before a two-hour makeup session to transform him into LOTR’s Gollum, the diminu-

Kiefer's mother had hoped he would portray Douglas, but he got too busy torturing terrorists on 24

tive, blue-eyed actor is readily re-possessed by Tommy’s spirit. He carries with him a thick black book full of pencilled scribbles—quotes from Douglas—and a wad of index cards pasted with highlighted excerpts of speeches that he copied and cut from Hansard. As his lunch gets cold on the plate, Therriault can’t stop digging out quotes. “Just one more,” he says, locating a line that Douglas borrowed from George Bernard Shaw: “Some look at things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I look at things as they ought to be and ask,‘Why not?’ ” Therriault shakes his head. “Amazing. No one speaks like that now.”

So is the actor who had never heard of Tommy Douglas a socialist convert? He pauses, as if wondering what on earth that might mean in 2006, then says, “Yeah. I think so.” M