(excerpt from a memoir)
Long John Silver: that was what I began to call him, later on. The reasons for it were not related to my vague memories of Treasure Island, but to the sense of not so much tallness as length, the endless arms that swung a little with his quick walk, the long legs, their extension often exaggerated by pants that were too short, the fact that he hovered over you as he spoke. Then there was something in the personality that was too large, too much energy, too much impatience, too much hungry need, too much, too much, and with it a fierce piratical greed. Everyone was drawn in to be part of his dramatic moment.
I worked for John Hirsch, for two years, from the spring of 1974 to the spring of 1976, in the television drama department of the CBC. I had never met the man before I was summoned to his office on the 5th floor of an office building at Bay and College and more or less offered a job. He wanted someone to deal with writers, and he'd talked to Dennis Lee and Robert Weaver and come up with my name. John was well known for his theatrical work, founding Manitoba Theatre Centre, directing at the Stratford Festival and in New York. He had recently been brought in to be the saviour of English language television drama, and he was in the process of hiring a number of sub-saviours. I was to be one of these. It was only later on that I learned how he got my name and how I ended up in that corner office, with its poster of a gaudy cartoon vulture and the words "One of these days I'm going to kill something!"
I spent quite a bit of time in that corner office over two years, but the image is always the same, Hirsch folding and unfolding the long arms and legs, nodding, gesticulating, gobbling mints and occasionally belching quietly. His digestion must have been a ruin. The head was small, at the top of a long neck, just one more aspect of the inordinate length. He was balding. A short black beard with a few grey hairs interspersed rounded to the shape of the face. The eyes were a little protruberant, dark and intent. And the voice: still a slight accent, and a rhythm of speech that seemed to belong to a highly sophisticated rabbi, with very accurate consonants and a slight crooning, a lilt. I had listened to George Jonas, another immigrant from Hungary, but his accent was entirely different. John's voice was always soft, careful, when I heard it, even when he was being most unreasonable, and he almost always was. I heard stories about shouting matches, but while I knew him as a supremely difficult man, he didn't, in my presence, come across in a raised voice.
There was a story he told about appearing in a small part in some New York production, as a janitor. The play began with his entrance, and every night the audience laughed. This wasn't what was wanted, and he was replaced. It was easy, seeing him stride down the office hallways to understand what the audience found so risible. He wasn't funny looking, and he moved gracefully, but there was something uncontainable, something outré, as if he might have been a new breed of darkly poetic giraffe, or an importunate and improbable stork. And, sometimes out of embarassment at having nothing to say--he was not a master of small-talk--he would pull faces.
We never had any personal relationship, and I seldom saw him outside the office. Once we met at a theatre, when there were tickets for a few people from the drama department; there was, of course, too much of him to fill a theatre seat, especially when he didn't like what was happening on stage. Arms and legs began to go astray, the torso bent and stretched and suffered. Another time, Sutton Place had a reception for those who made use of the place to book outside guests. Hirsch was there, and I went along with someone else from the department. There were door prizes and gambling games, and John had won a bottle of wine, but to get it he had to stay for another half hour or hour, and he didn't want to. Since I looked like hanging in for a bit, I got elected to pick up his bottle of wine and deliver it to his office the next day. He certainly was not going to abandon it altogether. This was a man who knew a place on Queen Street where you could get groceries in damaged tins and packages at a discount and who told others about it, being helpful. In the course of the reception, as he picked over the plates of food, he explained how he had survived his poor days in Winnipeg by going to weddings and filling his pockets with food which would keep him going for days afterward. He loved telling these stories about how--tough, wily and resilient--he had managed to get where he was, though they were always stories about Winnipeg or New York or maybe Stratford. The other story, his survival in Auschwitz, the only one of his family to come through, was not part of the routine. Perhaps he discussed it with his intimates, over the years, but it was not included in the show.
And it was a show, a fabulous narrative that began with a little boy dancing for Nijinsky and reached his embattled present within the CBC, where he was trying to teach us all what drama was about. I didn't actually hear him tell the Nijinsky story, but he wrote about it in a memoir published in James Reaney's little magazine, Alphabet, how the mad old man and his wife came to visit John's family in Hungary, and John was told to dance and did. Of course it would have to begin like that. And New York, all the wonderful vulgarity and excitement. The producer's wife who would sit beside him at rehearsals giving him sandwiches and artistic advice. Splendour and struggle and comedy. All of us, it was suggested, were small and tame and repressed, and we must become larger and brighter and more aggressive and funnier.
Every now and then, in the first few months, he would have a meeting of the department, usually at someone else's urging I suspect, to explain and harrass and encourage. The one I remember most vividly was in an ugly windowless room, everyone sitting in ugly standard issue chairs, Hirsch delivering one of his set-pieces about how he alone could do nothing, solve nothing. We must do it. Publicity. Well, he got his name in the papers. We should go out and get our names in the papers. It was up to us to generate our own hype. The endless arm took a great sweep through the air and came toward us, the middle finger rising and falling to emphasize his words.
"Ladies and gentlemen, " the soft, precise, insistent voice said, the rabbi teaching, "we are in a whorehouse here. And people are getting fucked. And you cannot just sit and listen to the blind piano player."
What a performance it was, the whole thing. Fix it, do it, make it wonderful. Don't be afraid of conflict and collision, but be new, be splendid, be serious.
He was impossible almost on principle. A producer who had worked with him in New York as a designer told me how he would demand more and more lights for a stage production until finally someone would tell him there was no more wattage available. His reply was simple. "If you can't do it, get me someone who can." A four-year old given to tantrums but with a mind of startling speed and brilliance, he was convinced, I often found myself thinking, that he could set in a straight line three points on the earth's surface. The curvature of the planet meant nothing if he refused to acknowledge it.
Two things to keep straight. The performance wasn't just theatre: he was a man of some real spiritual power. And he was monstrous: it wasn't just a joke when, after I'd been there a year or so and a number of people were leaving, I called them ships leaving a sinking rat. He would promise the world and then blame the one to whom the promise was made if delivery didn't take place. When someone was to be let go, he would hide out to avoid having to pass on the bad news.
One of his devilish skills was always to put his interlocutor in the weak position in any discussion. I'm not sure even yet how it was done, but as soon as there was a hint of disagreement, you found you were defending yourself, explaining the inexplicable, but as soon as you did, it was clear that you were making excuses for the inexcusable. And the figure of Hirsch would move off down the hall, leaving you to ponder your sins. His favourite sentences all began, "You must. "
Early on, I'd got the habit of dropping into his office first thing in the morning, before the level of hysteria had risen and the door had closed for his day's appointments. Caught like this, he was capable of surprising simplicity and directness. I was there was one day after a large public affair--it may have been the ACTRA Awards--and when the subject came up, he said he found these things difficult. He never knew what to say to people. He appeared to be telling me this simply because it was true, but of course that too had the effect of putting you off balance. You expected another act from the big show and you got a human being, and perhaps you were patient for a few days more.
As the months went by, I became convinced that he needed hysteria and disaster, and if the place had been too quiet for a while, he would look for someone who could become the day's or week's victim. Things had to be changing, had to be in motion. At one point I was more or less ordered to fire a story editor--it didn't matter which one-- because that part of the department had become almost stable. He would arrive in a dark cloud of grievance with a script in his hand, something that one producer or another was planning to shoot, and the word would come down that he was displeased. It wouldn't do.
I had my most intense run-in with him in just such a situation. I was the story editor of the police series called Sidestreet. It had begun in one of John's confused and visionary frenzies, then in the middle of the second show everyone working on it was fired. Three of us working in the department saw the series fall into our laps, and for our first couple of shows, John was pleased, but then the morning arrived when John was not pleased. He didn't like the script we were planning to shoot and he would not allow it to be done. A meeting was scheduled in the office of John Ross, the executive producer. Hirsch arrived to meet with the three of us, executive producer, producer and story editor. The others were a little inclined to mollify him, to keep the peace, but I wasn't convinced that the script was inferior to others he'd liked, and I fought back. By this time I'd been working there for a while, and I didn't feel like backing down. After all, he said we had to fight these things out. There was always a lot of dramaturgical talk in the air, about the purpose and structure of scripts, and I had learned from it, and from John himself, as he intoned the words, "What is this about? Why is it interesting?" So when he turned to me and said, "Tell me what this script is about in three sentences," I was able to do it without missing a beat. I was proud of myself, but it didn't get me anywhere.
A compromise was reached. A new writer was brought in to fix the script, and it went ahead. Perhaps the anecdote reveals nothing but my bull-headedness colliding with his. By the time I left the CBC after two years, the others working on the series tried to keep the two of us apart, at least when scripts were to be discussed, and when, after I left, a producer wanted to hire me for a script-doctoring job, John said to her, "David and I have a problem," and insisted that he and I talk before I was hired. We did, though I hardly remember the meeting. I assume I agreed to be agreeable, since I got the job.
In these days, of course, he was under a great deal of pressure from the complex bureaucracy above, and he was also under pressure from a certain thoughtless conventionalism around him, those who assumed you made television by doing what Hollywood did. In many ways it was (and perhaps still is) very unclear just what Canadian television drama should be doing, and the struggle to define this and find an audience was a thankless one. In the first year that I worked for him, we got along because our unspoken assumptions about aesthetic, political, spiritual values were close enough that I understood more or less what he was after. But patience and compromise were never a part of his armoury. I came to believe that he understood the idea of building, but the part of it that he truly loved was demolition, clearing the ground. He was a brilliant wrecker, and a gadfly of genius.
His charm was real and substantial, but it gradually wore thin. Yet he was an authentic visionary. He hated cliches but he understood that popular drama had to be simple, sometimes formulaic. He had a vision of an exciting, populist Canadian drama, and sometimes he achieved it. I remember some kind of reception or meeting a hotel room which ended up with John discussing, with substantial insight, the nature of spiritual discipline. He cared about these things as very few around him did.
There were perhaps a couple of dozen people at work in television drama in those years, racing in and out of the offices on the 5th floor of the Continental Can building. Just beyond John's corner office when I first arrived there, was the office of his assistant, Barbara Potter. She had earlier worked with him when he did some directing at the CBC, and he wanted someone he liked and trusted nearby. It was Barbara who called me to make the first appointment with John, and she helped me find an apartment for the first summer, a place on Belmont left empty by a touring actor, Gerard Pearkes I think it was. I stayed there for a month or two and then found myself a smaller but brighter place, a bachelor apartment on Macpherson Avenue.
Within a year Barbara was gone, angry and disappointed. Whatever she had expected from John hadn't come to be. The new world he was trying to build had a high price, and no doubt she paid part of it. Other empty offices on the floor had names on the door of producers, once powerful figures, who now came and went from time to time with no clear role in the new dispensation. Ron Weyman had been influential; now it was unclear whether he had any future in the department. David Peddie, who had bought stories of mine for adaptation, was working on couple of shows based on stories by Alice Munro, but he too faced uncertainty. George Jonas--who had produced my little film--no longer had an office, and would pass by looking lost and disconsolate. A couple of years later, he remade himself in radio with the Scales of Justice series, which then went on to TV and became a kind of industry for the merchandising of Eddie Greenspan.
Starting out at the CBC I had one great piece of luck: between the time that I had agreed to take the job and the day I set to work--while I was finishing up the manuscript that became The Glass Knight--I was walking along a Kingston street near the university and met a former student, Patricia Fitzpatrick. She had been enrolled in a senior seminar I taught a year earlier. She was very smart, lively, energetic, but although she got good marks, it was always clear that her intelligence wasn't an academic one. When I met her on the street that day, she explained that she had been studying journalism at Carleton for a year, was just finishing up and looking for a job. I suggested that she get in touch with me once I started at the CBC. She did, and it worked out splendidly for both of us. The only way I could get her hired was at a very low salary as a stenographer, but she took the offer and became my secretary, assistant, flak-catcher, whatever was needed. I trusted her, and she was loyal to me. I handed problems to her and just said, "Fix it, Pat," and she always did. There were always a lot of scripts wandering around the department, unsolicited submissions, or samples of work, or things handed to John Hirsch, and she worked out a system for keeping track of them and getting them read by someone or sending them to the National Script Department, which was run by Gloria Cohen, widow of the infamous drama critic Nathan Cohen. As a public corporation the CBC felt responsible for reading and responding to every script that came in the mail, no matter where it came from, but the few scripts that actually went into production were usually commissioned to fit a particular slot and were usually from writers with some experience. So the National Script Department was invented so that every script sent in was given a careful reading by someone, and the writer received a response. I'm not sure anything that came in that way ever achieved production--there were too many scripts already, too few places for them.
Pat got the problem of wandering scripts under some control, so nothing was lost or ignored. She was a brilliant fixer, and gradually, over the months, she began to do more script reading, some script editing. Not long after I left the CBC she made a sideways shift to the Public Relations Department, and from there she moved on to a position in public relations at Sun Life. We often had lunch when I was in Toronto, and suddenly, after the move to Sun Life, she was wearing very stylish, obviously expensive clothes. She was flying all over North America as part of her job. Then I heard, from a friend of her mother who lived in Kingston, the bad news that Pat had breast cancer, and not much later that she was dying. I wrote to her, trying to make clear my affection and gratitude. Then she was gone.
During those years at the CBC I commuted on a weekly basis, leaving Kingston on the early train Monday morning, so that I was the office by about ten, and leaving at five Friday afternoon to return home. While I was in Toronto, I did nothing much besides work. I would arrive in the office between seven and eight, which gave me an hour or so free to read, think, organize before the crowds began to gather. I was starting from nothing. I had some theatrical experience, I'd had one television script produced, I'd edited poetry and stories, but I suddenly had a job with undefined responsibilities, and all kinds of difficult personalities to deal with. Back in Kingston after the first week I climbed on the bathroom scales and found that I'd lost seven pounds.
What I tried to do first was to get people to tell me things. My job, Literary Manager, was invented by John Hirsch, on the basis of a position found in some theatres, but theatres generally produced one show at a time, on a single stage. In every corner of the 5th floor, groups of people were planning productions and of many kinds, some going into studio immediately, some only hypothetical. I went from office to office, asking questions, getting to know who was who, learning about the endless problems.
In one corner two producers were putting together a kind of soap opera/family epic, to be written by George Robertson, who had invented the Quentin Durgens series, stories about a small town member of parliament, played by Gordon Pinsent. In another corner Perry Rosemond was starting work on King of Kensington, assembling a staff of writers, building a show around the charm and comic talent of Al Waxman. John Hirsch was determined to give this show enough time and space to grow, to allow for the development of sample scripts, of a pilot program, a budget to write off failed attempts so that the series wasn't hatched and instantly put on the air to fail. His determination produced a show that actually had a significant run, a homely and home-grown product-- as much fun as going to lunch, as I sometimes did, along college street at The Bagel. (I once went there for lunch with a woman friend who'd turned up at my office, and as we were paying, Lily, the tiny old woman who was at the cash, stared up at her and said, "Dollink, how did you get to be so beautiful?" Only at The Bagel.)
On the other side of the building, Ralph Thomas and Stephen Patrick, who had come to the CBC from documentary and journalism, were taking the first steps toward the series which would be called For The Record, films that were to be based on the headlines and what was beyond the headlines, but to be produced with some style and stride. They started out working with journalists and went on to hire some of the best directors around, Peter Pearson, Robin Spry, Allan King, Donald Brittain, and Claude Jutra among them.
In my first few days, someone passed on to me a most valuable document, the drama department's monthly script inventory. It was the one piece of paper I always kept in my desk, It recorded what scripts had been commissioned, who had commissioned them, and what stage had reached. Traditionally in film and television, scripts were developed in stages, with a lot of consultation with producers. In the Hollywood studios writers had always been considered expendable or interchangeable. Film is expensive to make, and a nervous producer might go through any number of writers looking for a script that would guaranteee success. In Canada the contract under which these anxious negotiations took place was the one established between the CBC and ACTRA, a union which had begun by representing performers, but then developed a writer's branch. (This later broke away and became the Writers Guild of Canada.)
At the time I was working for the CBC, the contract stipulated that writers would not to asked to work on spec, and that all contracts would go through three stages, outline, first draft and second draft, with some provision for a final polish. Many kinds of scripts were being developed, by new and old producers. Before Hirsch came there had been a kind of interregnum in the drama department when nobody was wholly in charge, and even when there was an effective head, there had always been varied groups of producers trying to get their shows on the air. Some TV dramas were shot on film and others on videotape, and the two techniques were handled by different sets of producers and, of course, different sets of technicians, though most of the crews were on the CBC staff. Every budget was broken up into notional expenses for CBC staff and facilities, and the cash paid out to those outside the corporation. Above the line and below the line, I think they were called. The Drama Department didn't pay out cash for a CBC studio and a video cameraman, but obviously somebody did. And everything cost a lot and needed a very high level of organization.
Compare the making of a radio drama. A few actors did a read-through, then went into a studio and taped the show in three or four hours, sometimes with actors playing more than one part, the whole thing supervised by a producer and perhaps one staff technician. The tape was edited by the producer, music added, often from available tapes, and the show went on the air. I don't have exact figures in front of me, but a television drama cost something like ten times the amount needed for a radio drama of the same length. Also television was a medium that was noticed, loved, attacked, while radio drama went on quietly reaching its small devoted audience.
The result of all this was that television producers were at least ten times as crazy as radio producers. I was working in a madhouse. Scripts were commissioned and held ready, just in case someone announced there was an empty slot and an aspiring producer or one who was on the edge of oblivion would be able to run up the hall crying, "Look, here's a great script that can go into production tomorrow", thus saving the department from disaster and becoming the latest local hero. Many scripts were developed and at some stage abandoned, written off. There was a specific budget for write-offs, and necessarily. It was cheaper to write off a script than to get into a mess during production.
The script inventory was the map to this chaos, particularly important when a new regime and an old regime were still operating. It allowed me to go to a producer and say, What is this script called The Horsemen? And to find it that it was a ninety minute crime story by an experienced scriptwriter, so that when I talked to the writer--I talked to as many as possible--I knew that he had done this script and would be hoping to see it go into production. So the script inventory was the one piece of paper in my desk. Everything else was in my head.
There were a few script readers and story editors already at work on the 5th floor when I arrived. The senior story editor, and one of the very few with a staff appontment--the rest were on contract--was Alice Sinclair, Lister Sinclair's former wife. She had been more or less in charge until I came, and I tried to tread very carefully, not to give offense and create bad feeling. In the event Alice and I got along very well. We liked each other, and she was getting close to retirement, and I think had no interest in power or joy in battle. Small and brisk, with a deep-voice and a no nonsense manner, she was intelligent, well-educated, funny, and she had a life outside the CBC. She commuted every day from someplace in the country near King City, where she was a dog breeder, an expert on Doberman Pinschers and Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Tiny woman, enormous dogs. There were photos of her dogs on her office wall, and she could while away an idle moment over lunch with the books of bloodlines which she kept on her office shelves. In those days Lister Sinclair was a CBC Vice-president, and once when he was in town, Alice took me off to meet with him after work--a kind attempt to give me a connection near the top. We had a drink and a pleasant, inconsequential chat.
The other story editor on staff was Doris Gauntlett, who spent all her time working on George Robertson's series, and I simply left her to get on with it. Everyone else was on contract, and in the months before I arrived, there had been many short term contracts issued--sometimes only for a month or so, people who worked at home reading and sending in reports. It soon became obvious that this was a useless expense, since a written report cut no ice with anyone who was actually going to put a show into production. A story editor could only work directly with the producer who was going to mount the show, so I stopped renewing all those contracts--sad for those who'd been doing the work, but they'd been no closer than the fringes of a real job. There were two young women working in the office on slightly longer contracts, and I assigned both to work directly with two more senior story editors for the run of their contracts. Then I promoted one and didn't renew the other. The one I promoted, Anne Frank, went on to a long career in script development and production for the CBC and then in various outside production houses. (Everyone was taken aback momentarily when they met Anne--the name. of course. I once introduced her to the irrepressible Larry Zolf, who, not missing a beat, said, "Read your book. Loved it.")
The senior story editors were Jim Osborne and Richard Benner. Jim, quiet and sound and sensible, went to work for the journalistic series. Dick Benner was an American, who had come to CBC by way of a the University of Calgary, where he had taught drama. He was quick, lively and irreverent. If he'd ever been in the closet he'd long ago left it, and the sensibility of the gay liberation movement was behind a lot of what he did--including a little half hour film I later commissioned from him about a young man's first homosexual experience, Friday Night Adventure it was called. When I arrived he had begun working with Julius Roffman--another Hirsch recruit, with some Hollywood connection I think--on a series of contemporary stories. Matt Cohen was commissioned to do a script for them, one that was produced a few months later. I'd early on brought Hirsch the idea of adapting John Metcalf's comic novel, Going Down Slow, about the misadventures of schoolteacher who manages to be both idealistic and feckless, and the rights to that were purchased. Barry Pearson (who like John had been a teacher, and who had been one of the scriptwriters for the Peter Pearson film, Paperback Hero), set to work on the script. John Metcalf was brought from Montreal--in keeping with Hirsch's desire to have real writers around the place--to consult on the work. After a few hours of consulting, John stopped into my office to say that while he was grateful for the money this was bringing in, he found the adaptation a little . . . was coarse the word? John, in spite of his occasional ferocity on paper, is a gentle person with refined standards, and Barry Pearson, endlessly cheerful and ebullient, looking for simple, punchy story lines, made him deeply uncomfortable. The show was directed by Peter Carter, who was at his naughtiest--no longer drinking he had endless energy to burn up being difficult--and the film was sexy enough that the nervous CBC executives hid it at some impossible hour of the night, after 11 p.m. I think, when Helen Shaver's bare breasts wouldn't be noticed by certain members of parliament.
The 1974 edition of the Oberon New Canadian Stories, which I'd edited with Joan Harcourt before coming to the CBC, was about to appear, and I told Dick Benner that it contained a brilliantly realized story about women in a mental hospital, Ada, it was called, a first publication by Margaret Gibson Gilboord. (She soon dropped the last name.) I managed to get hold of proofs and Dick bought the rights to the story, which was adapted by Dick himself after a couple of failed attempts by others, and was directed by Claude Jutra.
Margaret Gibson and Claude Jutra: this may be the place to write about Nicholson's. It was the restaurant on the ground floor of the Continental Can building on the corner of Bay and College, moderately bright toward the front where there were windows, but dark as a subterranean cavern further back. TV Drama wasn't the only CBC television department in the building. Public Affairs, Children's Broadcasting, Arts and Science were all there on other floors, and Nicholson's was, inevitably, our local. An unremarkable restaurant at best, Greek in spite of the name, always busy at lunch. I spent a lot of hours there. I hate working lunches, but I had them, at Nicholson's, and it was where you went for a drink after work, sitting in the dim back corners near the door that led in from the lobby, perhaps waiting for a crew to arrive to watch the rushes, unedited footage they'd shot the day before. By early evening it was more bar than restaurant, sometimes quiet enough, but a lot of creative people passed through--I remember a not very coherent conversation with CBC News' star broadcaster, Norman Depoe. You could see odd things there. One evening, glancing across the cavernous space I watched Peter Reilly, a CBC News reporter, drinking alone at a table in the middle of the room. He spoke to no one, just stared down at his drink until, seized by some wild distress, he put his head back and howled out loud.
When Claude Jutra came to Toronto to direct Ada, he was introduced to Margaret Gibson, and the two of them hit it off, and she got the habit of coming to Nicholson's to meet up with him after he had finished shooting and returned to see the rushes from the day before. Margaret would arrive for their date in an off-the shoulder red gown, bare arms, face made up, long blonde hair brushed out--in Nicholson's, that plain little downtown beanery--and in her party get-up she would sit quietly in a small booth until Jutra arrived.
(Interestingly the only person ever banned from Nicholson's was the perfectly proper Alice Sinclair. Once after I'd left the CBC I proposed lunch there, and Alice said No, it couldn't be Nicholson's, she was banned. I stared at her. Finally asked why. She had, it appears, been overheard criticizing the food. They would tolerate any amount of drunken misbehaviour, but not that.)
The collaboration between Margaret Gibson and Dick Benner continued after the filming of her first story by the CBC. Another story of hers, "Making It," was to appear in the Oberon annual the next year. It was based on the friendship between an eccentric, pregnant young woman and a gay man who works nights as a female impersonator. Talking to Margaret, Dick discovered that the drag queen was based on Craig Russell, by then working in New York and starting to become well-known, who had been a close friend of Margaret's when they were in high school, and Dick put the whole thing together as the movie Outrageous, which was released in 1977. He wrote the screen play, directed, and the film was produced by William Marshall and Hank van der Kolk (who had just founded the Toronto film festival). It had some real success, and when I looked for it recently on the internet, I found a few references: one called it 'seminal' (of all things), and the other said it was 'a cult classic'. I suspect that Dick would have been delighted by both descriptions. I lost track of Dick Benner after that film--we'd both left the CBC--though I can find references to a number of writing and directing jobs he did. Years later I went with a friend to see the Toronto AIDS memorial and found his name there, along with that of John Hirsch.
When I arrived at the CBC, in that summer of 1974, the Drama department was producing a series called The Collaborators, a crime series it was, based on the connection between the police and a forensic science lab: ahead of its time. Perhaps it had its roots in Wojeck, the earlier dramatic series about a crusading coroner with John Vernon. (Wojeck was derived from the career of Morton Shulman, as the current Da Vinci's Inquest was derived from the career of Larry Campbell.) I'd watched The Collaborators on the air a few times over the previous year, and it had, at least at times, some of the better qualities of Canadian TV shows.
At the time I began to work for John Hirsch, he was due to make a decision about whether The Collaborators would be continued, cancelled, replaced. Obviously a police show drew audiences, and John was enough of a populist to believe that his shows must find audiences, must try to work within the accepted conventions. He was, after all, having Perry Rosemond develop a sitcom. But it was clear he didn't really like Collaborators. Still, it was there. He was indecisive. I was told to look at the scripts, find out what was going on. I did my best. The show's producer was René Bonnière, a French (not québecois) film director. The associate producer was Brian Walker, who had emigrated from England, done this and that, including running a bar in Yorkville, then begun at the CBC as a prop man, putting The Friendly Giant's little chairs in place, then worked his way up until he was first assistant director, the main organizer of all the day to day shooting schedule, on a variety of films, including Jalna, where, he once told me, he got to start the First World War, cueing planes, soldiers, guns, whatever else was involved in the mock battle. The Collaborators' story editor was Don Ginsberg, who was by profession a film editor.
I went to at least one script meeting for the show. You must find out what's going on, Hirsch would say. What are they up to? So I went to the script session. Carol Bolt was the writer. She had adapted the Olivia's Scrapbook story a couple of years before--badly, and she knew it. René Bonnière had directed that show, so while I was an outside intruder at the script conference, I had some connection with these people. René was a pleasant and very charming man, but I found he was extraordinarily vague about what he wanted, where he thought the story should go. He was vague and Carol was defensive. The only person on the team who struck me as having a clear head and a quick analytical mind was Brian Walker. Hirsch continued to be indecisive. Don Ginsberg's contract was coming to an end, and no one would tell him if it would be renewed. Hirsch was avoiding him.
Finally I think it was John Kennedy, the department business manager, who told Ginsberg his contract wasn't being renewed. Kennedy was a CBC staff manager, a former unit manager who had worked his way up and increasingly had a good deal of power in the department. He appeared to have no particular artistic or intellectual interests (though he later became head of the department), but John Hirsch trusted him. Kennedy knew how to handle the CBC bureaucracy. I talked to Hirsch first thing in the morning before his door was closed, and to John Kennedy last thing in the afternoon after his door was open. These informal conversations were the only things that kept me abreast of what was going on. If I'd waited for formal notification of anything I would have been lost.
It finally became clear that The Collaborators was going to be cancelled, and in its place was to come something new. Hired to create this something new were Chalmers Adams, as executive producer, Geoffrey Gilbert, brought from England to be story editor, and John Saxton, to work with Gilbert on developing the scripts. John Saxton was my suggestion, someone whose reputation I'd known from theatre and who had showed me sample scripts which indicated he was interested in the construction of crime shows. I knew nothing of the others, have no idea to this day how Hirsch found Geoffrey Gilbert and brought him to Canada. Obviously he had some significant background in English television.
It is a strange world, television. It was, of course, a Canadian, Sydney Newman, who more or less created television drama for the BBC, but now we were bringing British experts to help create television drama for Canadians. As so often we were between two worlds. Hirsch saw great shows, relevant, inventive, from the BBC and said we should be able to do that. Other people at the CBC saw the sucessful shows that came from the United States and regarded them as the standard to be met. Add to that confusion the fact that television is a collaborative medium, and every show had dozens of people working on it, and the skill and opinions of every one had some effect on the final outcome. There is always a lot of gossip about films as to who was responsible for the success or failure. A simple example: The Rowdyman, a film made in Newfoundland with Gordon Pinsent, who'd written the original story, as the star, was generally accepted as a successful movie. It was directed by Peter Carter--chalk one up for PC. But there were those who would tell you that when that film was being made Peter--who was on the wagon by the time I ever met him--was at the low point of his alcoholism, so sick he had to choke down a slug of brandy to stop the shakes and begin the day's work, barely functioning. Who held it all together? Perhaps Gordon Pinsent. Is that true? Approximately, no doubt, but maybe Peter drunk and sick could still do what was required. Maybe the film cutter made it work. With a medium as fully collaborative as film, it's hard to say.
The people assigned to create a new police series went out and talked to the Toronto police, and came up with an idea for a series about community policing--the officers who were assigned to anticipate problems, work on the streets, get to know people within the city's various communities. The series was to be called Sidestreet. Hirsch wanted a show which wasn't just gunplay and punch-ups, a series that could deal with social problems, and the new conception promised that. Geoffrey Gilbert and John Saxton interviewed a bunch of writers, contracted some, and began to work with them in locations outside the CBC offices, so what the rest of us heard about what was going on was mostly gossip. Shooting dates were already lined up, and in a place as big as the CBC, you miss a shooting date at your peril.
The impression given to the rest of the department by those developing the series was that Geoffrey Gilbert, the English pro, was going to teach the rude colonials how to do things right. Gilbert was not a winning man, short, plump, red-faced; the sight of him with John Saxton, who was very tall and slender and handsome, was a comic one. These things have an effect, and Geoffrey Gilbert had a superior manner that got people's backs up. Chalmers Adams wasn't experienced enough to know how dangerous this was, that he should compensate for it. He too went about being forceful and condescending. One of the writers commissioned was Don Bailey. It made sense. By now he had published two books, and he certainly knew something about crime and the police. Getting on for the production date, the new production team handed Hirsch their golden scripts. I was one of those who read them. John called me in and asked me what I thought. Which was the best of them? In a way it seemed like a trick question: he knew perfectly well that Don was a friend of mine, that I might be biased, but I said what I thought, that Don's was the best of the lot. He agreed with that, without hesitation, but overall he wasn't impressed.
Somewhere in the middle of all this I discovered that Saxton and Gilbert had cancelled Don's script. They didn't like it and said he shouldn't go on to another draft. On my own I told him to go on with it anyway. I'd see that he got paid. Then the script they had planned to shoot first, when timed by the script assistant and then by Brian Walker, with all his practical shooting experience, was said to be too short. The waters were rising. The new group had set out to be arrogantly independent, but they were working within a large department where the bad feeling they'd generated was coming back to haunt them. They had to find a different script to shoot, and Don Bailey's--on Hirsch's orders, I suspect-- was it. It was years later Don told me that they called him in from Peterborough on Christmas Day to work with them on revisions.
The first show was produced. More or less. John Wright, the director, was new to the CBC, and not very experienced in general, and the shooting wasn't quite completed in the days avilable. Soon a second script had to be done--a story by Michael Mercer, a playwright from BC, the one that had originally been planned as the first to go into production--but longer by now I assume. And then the contracts of all the three principals came up for renewal, and none was renewed. The series had a pile of uncompleted scripts, Sean McCann and Steven Markle contracted to play the leads, production dates, and no one in charge.
Three of us inherited the show, John Ross, who had a private production company, as executive producer, Brian Walker as producer, and I was story editor. I'm not sure if anyone ever asked me if I wanted the job or told me to do it. It just became clear that it was mine. Fortunately John Ross was eminently sane, pleasant and calm, and Brian and I got along, became, in fact, quite close friends. A shooting date was imminent, a script on hand by Mort Forer about a métis woman and her family and their housing problems. It appeared to be the only possible script to shoot, and the three of us got together with Dick Gilbert, who had been hired to direct. There was always a question about how many changes a director could ask for in a script--none if the producer was tough--but we were in a mess. Dick Gilbert wanted a great many script revisions. I listened, made notes, took the script home to my apartment, and when I came back the next morning I said I couldn't promise that revisions that substantial could be done in time. A script is a house of cards, I said, and you want to take out one card too many. It will collapse. Everyone looked glum. This was Friday and we went off for a weekend of worry.
For some reason I wasn't in the office on Monday, an official holiday or some family matter. When I got in Tuesday morning Brian was smiling. All was well.
Go back two or three steps, to the period when Geoffrey Gilbert and John Saxton were teaching writers how to write. One day I looked up from my desk and Tony Sheer was standing in my office doorway. Tony was an experienced film writer, had done quite a bit of work for Ron Weyman. I'd spent some time talking to him when I was trying to meet everyone. Like Don Bailey Tony had decided to leave behind a life of crime when he got out of prison a few years before. He knew that I'd done some teaching in the prisons, and that gave us something to chat about, Tony speaking in his odd, precise, almost pedantic manner, a little British, a little Jewish, a mixture of Damon Runyon and Laurence Olivier, I always thought. Before he started to write he'd done some acting. I remember Peter Madden's name came up, the man whose play Nancy had directed inside Collins Bay. Tony knew him, of course.
"Even before his last bit," Tony said, slowly, precisely, "Peter had already seen," the voice grew ever more precise, forming italics, "the error of his ways."
I knew the Sidestreet team had commissioned Tony to write for them, after some of the other scripts fell by the wayside. Now here he was, blonde hair, shark's grin, big shoulders hunched, in my doorway.
"Do I have to work with these clowns?" he said. Stared at me with that slightly ominous look.
"No, Tony" I said, "you don't. Come in and close the door."
So, telling no one, I worked through the outline with Tony, and off he went to complete a first draft, and it was that first draft that arrived the Monday I was away. He gave it to Brian Walker, who gave it to John Ross and John Hirsch. It would be the next script shot. Production planning had already begun. The story was about slum landlords and their tenants, and Tony, a very smart cookie, had walked the fine line between cop show suspense and serious drama. He even had a stunt, a house burnt down, a figure running out covered with flames. John Hirsch loved the show when it was put together, and the three of us in charge were able to feel secure for a week or so. But we had to keep coming up with scripts. The Mort Forer piece now had time available for revisions, though not much time. I had a large hand in the final version. One night I went home with the script and a bottle of whisky and produced a new version by morning. That splendid actress Monique Mercure came from Montreal to play the métis woman, and she gave the show the energy it needed.
Always scrambling, we got the scripts together, and they were shot. The final problem to be solved was the incomplete footage of the first Don Bailey script. In the meantime Don had written another script, which had been been produced, but every time Brian ran the first show through the Steenbeck he cut a little more of it. We ended up with just over thirty minutes of edited footage--we needed 52 minutes. The story was about a guy just out of prison and his dealings with two detectives, based loosely on two real Toronto detectives--the famous heavy squad--whose names I'd been told in the prison, along with tales of some of the more colourful of their activities. (Lest this be taken as mere prison gossip, I heard the same things years later from a retired Toronto police detective.) One of the detectives had been played by Al Waxman at his most menacing, and, bad luck for us, his fattest. In the meantime he had lost a huge amount of weight in order to do King of Kensington. Also, the show was shot in winter, and that was an important point in the plot. It was now early summer, leaves on the trees.
Working out a way to complete it became my problem. I tried to hire Wilton Shiller, a writer living in Toronto who had some reputation as a Hollywood hack. He turned down the job. I showed the footage to various people in the department, Pat Fitzpatrick, Barry Pearson, and with a lot of help I worked out a story line: Waxman was killed, offscreen, and we outlined a series of indoor scenes that worked as a conclusion to what was already in the can. Then Don Bailey came in from Peterborough, and one night, working in the empty offices with me and a production secretary who did the final typing, he wrote the lines. The new material was shot by Don Haldane, an old pro who'd done a couple of other shows, and we had 52 minutes ready to go on the air. Peter Madden told me later it was his favourite show.
While a significant amount of my time was being spent on Sidestreet, and I passed a lot of evenings in Nicholson's with Brian, before or after the rushes, I still had to keep track of what was happening in other parts of the department, though some of these were increasingly well-organized. John Hirsch had early on decided he wanted to bring in the brightest young directors on the Toronto scene and train them to do TV, and I met with Martin Kinch, Paul Thompson, Ken Gass, Steven Katz. George Bloomfield, who'd done a lot of studio directing in the past few years, was supervising the production of a number of half hour shows on videotape. The intention was to produce a separate series on film, but for a long time no-one was put in charge of that, and I commissioned a certain number of scripts, so that something would be available. I commissioned material from film-makers like Martin Lavut and David Cronenberg, both of whom went on to direct their own scripts. A few other scripts were developed and kept in inventory, and later on Gerry Mayer--nephew of the famous Louis B., and a Canadian by birth--took over as producer for the series.
Allan King--best known as a documentary film-maker, the man who made the revolutionary Warrendale, (I was astonished to discover recently that he was also one of the actors in that celebrated radio production of "Mr Arcularis")--had worked out a complicated development contract for a production of Who Has Seen the Wind, to be adapted from W.O. Mitchell's best known novel, produced in segments on television and assembled as a feature film. The adaptation was being written by Alan's wife, Patricia Watson , and at some point the script was passed on to me for comment. I remember reading it on the Monday morning train to Toronto, but most of the script editing on this project was done by Alice Sinclair. She and I both thought it would be a good idea for the CBC to adapt a number of the best known Canadian novels, and Alice did detailed summaries and editorial reports on a few of the most obvious, but we were never able to get any of these large projects anywhere near production. That fine director Eric Till wanted to produce a Margaret Laurance novel--I think it was The Stone Angel--but that project too remained in limbo. Years later someone did manage to make The Diviners. And while Allan King did make Who Has Seen the Wind as a feature, the television version was never produced, at least so far as I know. There were roadblocks in the way of almost any large scale project, money, organization, a lack of daring at many levels of the corporation.
The part of the television drama department where there was the greatest continuity was Robert Allen's corner of the world. Bob Allen had won everyone's respect as the producer of Festival, the series that made ninety minute dramas in studio, classics or adaptations, though not much Canadian material. I think Hirsch had earlier directed for Festival, and that was where Eric Till's brilliant version of Katherine Anne Porter's novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider appeared. Bob Allen was polite, cheerful, and a survivor. Not too long after I arrived he found in the files a copy of my play, The Hanging of William O'Donnell, pulled it out and began to circulate it to readers. I wasn't best pleased to have this flawed work from several years earlier appearing, but at some point I'd sent it in, so it was on my own head. I was new, a threat, and I think Bob Allen was using the script, subtly, as a weapon of defence.
Grahame Woods, the one-time cameraman who had become the most successful of CBC scriptwriters wrote, for Bob Allen--at at least in was in Bob's hands--a dramatization of the trial of Henry Morgentaler, the Quebec trial at which the jury, more or less in defiance of the prosecution and the judge, refused to find him guilty. That trial led eventually to the legalization of abortion in Canada. Trials are always dramatically effective material, and Grahame Woods had written an excellent and careful piece of work. I was one of those who argued very strongly that it should be produced. Bob Allen was nervous about the controversial material, but since the script was an accurate presentation of what had happened in court, it was effectively a news report and at that level couldn't be faulted. I can't remember all the arguments against it. That it was already over, stale news. Various others. Essentially, I think, those who came from a CBC background, Bob Allen John Kennedy, had been trained to avoid controversy. I argued the other side as forcefully as I could, as did Beverly Roberts, one of Bob's producers, but the script was set aside, and the drama department lost an opportunity to be up-to-date and exciting.
One of John Hirsch's projects was to bring more serious writers in to work side by side with those who were primarily scriptwriters. I did some of this, and so did others in the department. In the first few months Matt Cohen, Marion Engel, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Rudy Wiebe and Alden Nowlan were approached and a number of them discussed or began scripts. (This wasn't a wholly new idea: Fletcher Markle and George Jonas had made similar attempts a couple of years before.) While travelling in the maritimes I commissioned a half hour film from Tom Gallant, a writer and singer from P.E.I., and later Bill Gough from Newfoundland wrote one. Both these were produced, and Bill Gough ended up doing a lot more writing and becoming a drama producer.
Lists of names, but my days were like that, lists of names of writers, directors, producers who passed by to talk about one thing or another. One after another, and somehow I managed to keep it all straight. Things were always a little frantic. I remember one day saying to Peter Carter as he passed by, "I have the revision of that scene for you." "Shot it this morning," he said and kept going. By now Pat Fitzpatrick had gone beyond sitting at a desk solving problems, and eventually Gloria Kemp, who had been in the deparment for years and recently displaced in some reorganization took over as my secretary. It wasn't a difficult job. The door of my office was seldom closed, and I spent a lot of time talking in the halls, in other people's offices. It was the only way to keep on top of things. It was Brian Walker's system for producing Sidestreet. He spent a most of his working hours in the corridor by the production secretary's desk, the organizers of the post-production only a few feet away. Nothing happened that he didn't know about. He took calls, checked on the crew working the current show, putting together the next one, adjusting schedules, occasionally closing his office door to read a script or have a conversation with me about one.
John Hirsch wanted Canadian writers introduced to those doing the best work elsewhere, so I arranged for two English playwrights and television writers, John Hopkins and Alan Plater, to come to Toronto and spend a couple of days meeting with writers new to television. I would find myself at the airport international arrivals gate holding a sign that said ALAN PLATER, and introducing myself to the man who came toward me.
This was in the days before bombing threats and security guards, and anyone could walk into the building. Strangers arrived at my office door wanting to write scripts, and some of them did. A pretty young woman with a lovely Irish accent turned up, Fiona McHugh. She'd done some work for TVO and was interested in working for us. We had a long and intense conversation. We were both fans of Eric Till's Pale Horse, Pale Rider. In fact Fiona, when she was thinking of leaving Ireland, had chosen to move to Canada because of that beautiful film, which had been shown on Irish TV. She was very interested in a woman painter called Christiane Pflug. German, by origin, she had lived and worked in Toronto, had a significant success, and then committed suicide, not many years before. John Hirsch had talked about wanting to produce experimental works, mixing documentary and drama, so Fiona began to work on a script about Pflug. It was a fascinating idea, but I never quite succeeded in selling it to a producer. Fiona was one of those who attended one of the workshops with the English playwrights, John Hopkins, I think, and later on she was involved in the earliest stages of planning for The Great Detective.
Another day my door was darkened by the shadow of a huge stranger. Larry Gaynor, he said he was. Well over six feet, broad as well as tall, he filled the doorway. Graeme Gibson and Peggy Atwood, he announced, had told him he should come and see me. He had known Graeme, it turned out, when they were at military college together. So we talked, Larry had an endless fund of gab, a lot of it stories from his years spent in England where, it appeared, he had hung out with the great comedian Spike Milligan, and known, among other raffish and bohemian types, Christine Keeler, the party girl/prostitute who helped to bring down a Tory government when it was discovered that she had been sleeping with both the British Minister of Defence and the Russian military attache. Larry was endlessly amusing, a voice to match his size, and I'm not sure how he convinced me he could write, but he ended up doing a half-hour script called Fight Night, about a man who is humiliated by some toughs in a bar and wants to go back for revenge. The script turned out well and was produced, and it was some time later that he told me he'd stolen the idea from a BBC script written by the husband of one of his English girl-friends. Later on he too worked on The Great Detective.
During the writing of the script he appeared one day, filling the doorway as usual, proudly displaying a cast that covered his wrist and forearm.
"My falcon landed too hard," he said.
On another ocassion I walked in the back door of Nicholson's and saw a strange group in one of the booths, Robert Sherrin, a new producer in those days, still at the CBC and now producing Opening Night, was being jovially beset by Larry and an equally large military school dropout and scriptwriter, John Ancevich. Bob was smiling politely and appeared to be looking for a way out.
My first year at the CBC ended at about the same time as the shooting for Sidestreet, and my life grew a little calmer. I went for walks in the evening, now and then visited with Peter Harcourt, who was teaching at York and living just down the street. Atlantic Crossings was in print, and The Glass Knight was on its way to publication, revisions, proofs passing by somehow, and one night, I went out for a long walk, and at the corner of Avenue Road and Davenport, I had the idea that it might be the first of a four novel series, using the same four-part musical shape as the long poem, writing about various aspects of life in Kingston. Somehow, I knew, that night, more or less what each part would be like--though the last of them wasn't written until five or six years later. Except for occasional bits of script revision, I hadn't written a word for months, but I began to set my alarm for an early hour, drag myself from bed, and do a little work before I left for the office. What I began to write was a story that became the first half of A Sound Like Laughter, a comic story, it seemed to me--though not to everyone--in which all the characters got what they wanted, though mostly by misadventure.
It was some weeks before John Hirsch, and his bosses decided whether Sidestreet should be renewed. I went back to my other jobs, and since Hirsch wanted to do a series about immigrants to Canada, Brian and I began developing some scripts for such a series. At least one of them was later produced. Finally the decision was made that Sidestreet would return, but in the meantime the shape was changed. The original series had used Sean McCann and Steven Markle as the leads. Sean McCann is a fine film actor, who has worked successfully at a wide range of parts over the years--I saw him recently in the musical Chicago--but he is not the classic leading man, not handsome, not dashing, though he communicates a very human warmth. Casting him as the series lead was daring, but there were second thoughts. Steven Markle was a handsome young man, but in the first year we increasingly avoided giving him important scenes, as he came across to most of us as insincere and unconvincing. So in the second year Sean was kept on, but only as a senior officer making occasional appearances, and the two new leads were Donnelly Rhodes and Jonathon Welsh.
Donnelly was archetypally handsome, an actor born in Winnipeg, a member of the first crop of students at the National Theatre School, who had spent years in Hollywood, doing all kinds of films, and had most recently played one of the male leads in the popular soap opera, The Young and the Restless. He was a relaxed and convincing figure in front of the camera, and Jonathon was a very solid actor who could play whatever lines were given to him. So with a bit more warning this time we set out to create another series of shows. If the series had begun using two former criminals, Don Bailey and Tony Sheer, it continued also using two former policemen, Ted Wood and Peter Yurksaitis. Both of them had pounded the beat in Toronto in their earlier lives. Ted Wood in those days had just published a sensitive book of short stories and was an agreeable and modest writer. Later on he began publish a series of crime novels about a tough cop, and on the one later occasion when I met him, he appeared to have taken on a new persona--the tough, no-nonsense guy--to go with his new books. John Hunter, (later to write The Grey Fox and a number of other films) and Barry Pearson also wrote scripts that year, and we were able to explore some difficult areas, a cop who can't keep his personal and professional lives separate (at the end of the show Donnelly arrested his friend and colleague, powerfully played by John Colicos), a teen-age boy who is planning to shoot his family. For that show, which had its roots in a real event, I had Barry Pearson reading R.D. Laing, and I think we managed to portray the troubled boy, the family that lives by evasion, without any too-easy psychological explanations. That show was, I think, also the only occasion in two years when one of our cops fired a gun. At the end of the show, Donnelly is forced to shoot the armed and obviously dangerous boy, and afterward he turns away, and the show ends with the camera close on his face. He has tears in his eyes.
By the time the second series of Sidestreet shows was completed, I had decided to leave the CBC. I'd been on leave of absence from Queen's, and I had to fish or cut bait. It was pretty clear the entertainment industry was not where I wanted to spend my whole life. I had done little writing, and that was what I wanted to do most. Interesting though that when I took a few days off to attend a poetry event at Dalhousie I'd been invited to--to read with Joe Rosenblatt, Louis Dudek, Robert Creely from the U.S., Jon Stallworthy from England--I came back talking grumpily about egos masquerading as souls. (One definition of the poet.) In television drama ego was ego, and there was a certain healthy brutality to the whole thing. In the second year of Sidestreet Brian hired a second story editor, another one from England, (though he'd arrived in Canada on his own, and for the second time) and while Gerry Davis was a pleasant man, nice to talk to and work with--we initially split the scripts and each worked on different ones--there was a kind of built-in if polite competition, and before long I had final responsibility for most of the scripts. I had been right more often and more quickly.
The last and most successful of the John Hirsch's English imports was Peter Wildeblood. A tall, elegant man in late middle age, Peter had been arrested many years before, tried and imprisoned for being a homosexual--not for any particular homosexual act, far less an assault--but because his correspondance was seized and gave evidence that he had been involved in a sexual relationship with another man. He served his time, and when he got out, instead of slinking away, changing his name and sneaking off to one of the colonies, Peter bravely wrote and published an account of his life and trial, called Against the Law. The book was immensely influential, as among the first to give a straightforward account of a homosexual life without defensiveness or any hint of shame. Peter once told me that the Sunday Times had listed his book as one of the most important of the last fifty years, right beside The Catcher in the Rye. Not long afterward, and perhaps partly because of that book, the Wolfenden commission was created, and after its report, the English law was changed.
Of the varous English imports, Peter was the one who stayed longest with CBC TV drama. He was both very smart and very charming. In my second year at the CBC, I began to collaborate with him and others on preparations for what was to become The Great Detective. More than one person had noticed the book of that title--an account of Ontario's first professional police detective and some of his cases, written and published early in the century--and had suggested the idea of a TV adaptation. Hirsch assigned Peter to create a series, which is of course a much different thing from having a bright idea. Alice Sinclair worked with Peter as story editor, and Fiona McHugh did background research and created a kind of outline of the life of a fictional detective. Writers began to work on scripts. Fred Euringer was one, Margaret Atwood another. She had already written a CBC script based on the story that later became Alias Grace and was presumably at home in the nineteenth century ethos. There was, however, a long hiatus between these early preparations and the actual production of the first shows. By the time production began, I had long since left the CBC, but I was hired to write a script that was produced as "The Case of the Suspicious Soprano", about a company of travelling performers and a murderer stalking a Victorian theatre.
I enjoyed the speed and energy and melodrama of the time I spent at the CBC. I fought and argued, foolishly no doubt, with John Hirsch, but adventures in the crazyhouse weren't designed for a lifetime commitment. I announced that I'd leave when my contract ran out. That summer I'd be settled back in Kingston. I'd arranged with Queen's that in the fall I would only teach part time, on half salary. I figured I could make up the difference doing free-lance work. For two years I had taken on all the problems that came to me and solved a lot of them. I was strong enough to survive.
No doubt I was changed the years at the CBC. I was immersed in the problems of inventing and revising plots for hours of every day, when I sat down at six in the morning to work on a piece of fiction it tied itself into wondrous knots. I had seen with fascination how completely artifical film was, how open to manipulation, even before the days of computer-generated images. Why don't we put the second act first? a film editor said to Brian and me one day when we arrived to watch the first rough assembly of a show. Donnelly had a great story about his early days in Hollywood. He was playing an Indian in some kind of western, and he was instructed to make a certain move and turn and look back. He was asking questions about why or how, and finally the director put a hand on his arm, pointed to the camera, and said, "Don't worry chief. Magic box fix everything."
And wild lines. Often when a film was cut, it would become obvious that some crucial piece of information was missing or wasn't sufficiently explained. It was too late and too expensive to reshoot anything, so what you did was call in a single actor, take him to a sound studio and record lines that offered the key information. Then you cut to a reaction shot, or maybe a shot of the character from behind, and you inserted the wild lines. Nobody ever noticed, except professionals.
It was all wonderful, in its way, but I was ready to move on. So at the beginning of the summer of 1976, I left the CBC. Anne Frank invited me and the other story editors round to dinner, and John Hirsch sent me a little note of thanks--we weren't on the best of terms, but I had worked hard to achieve what he wanted--and then it was Kingston and summer, and I had bought a crudely built, unbeautiful housenear the village of Ompah in the woods north of Highway 7, a hundred acres of bush with it, and that was part of another new life.
The people I worked with most closely in that intense spell of time are mostly gone now, Pat Fitzpatrick prematurely, Alice Sinclair some years after her retirement, by then a great authority on her beloved Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Dick Benner and John Hirsch of AIDS. From the Canadian Screenwriter I learned a year or so back that Tony Sheer had died suddenly. Don's heart attack took him last summer. Brian Walker had his some years ago.
Brian and I worked together constantly for months on end, cobbling together shows at the last possible minute, analysing, repairing, laughing, drinking too much. Far too many nights spent at a table in Nicholson's, where I drank beer and skipped rounds while he ordered one double rye after another, his body, burly, with a huge gut, seeming almost to inflate as the evening went on, so that he seemed to sail along just above the floor. Now and then he would invite me home with him where his wife Clare, who worked in the casting department, would make dinner. Clare was always polite, but I don't think she was especially pleased at my arrival--she didn't exactly mind, but she would have preferred to be alone with him--however she was devoted to 'Bears' as she called him, and accepted his comings and goings. On weekends, work left behind, they had a different kind of life. Brian was an avid and well-informed gardener and Saturday found him at work in the yard.
Brian and I kept in touch after I left. I did one script for Sidestreet, now with Stanley Colbert--an American import this time, though he'd been in Canada for a while--as executive producer and story editor. Stanley revised my script in a way I didn't much like, but I took the money and ran. Brian stayed at the CBC for a while, but then he and Clare decided they were going to quit their jobs, sell the house where they lived and another nearby they also owned, and to spend their lives travelling through Europe in a trailer. And they did it. Brian quit earlier than Clare, and it took a while to sell the properties, so with time on his hands, he went on the wagon, quit smoking and started riding his bicycle for hours a day. The next time I stopped off to see him, I didn't recognize the man who met me. He had lost all his fat, as much as a hundred pounds, I would guess, and this small, muscular man, his face no longer a fiery red, was a stranger.
So they disappeared to Europe and I heard nothing but third or fourth hand reports for a couple of years or more. Then one day the phone rang. "It's Brian," a voice said when I answered. They were back. They'd had a fairly serious traffic accident with the trailer and had decided to return to Canada. We began to meet up now and then when I was in Toronto. Brian was working for Nelvana, who made animated films and children's television, their offices near the Toronto waterfront. Brian had put on all the weight he'd previously lost. By now there was no likelihood that we would ever work together again. We were just friends.
He and Clare were separated, he told me one afternoon. He'd been involved with some other woman. It wasn't serious, he said, and Clare should have ignored it. He was living alone in a apartment somewhere on King Street. I think he gave me the new number. By now it was the late eighties. There seemed to be a chance that he and Clare would get back together.
In 1989, Nancy and I spent two or three weeks in France, the latter part of it renting Matt Cohen's wonderful little house in Provence, near Carpentras. Sometime after I was back, I was talking to Don Bailey on the phone.
"Did you hear about Brian?" he said.
"No," I said, without a second thought. "What's he been doing?"
A heart attack in his little apartment on King Street. Dead is dead, of course, I thought it a sad and lonely way to go.
Months later I heard more of the story from Don Ferguson of the Royal Canadian Air Farce, when they were doing a Kingston show. Chatting at dinner afterward I disovered that Don's wife was a very close friend of Clare's. In fact the night of the heart attack Brian had been on the phone to Clare. They were often in touch, maybe getting back together, and that night they were supposed to be going out to dinner. He called to say he wasn't feeling well, and they'd have to cancel, and while he was on the phone, he felt worse and asked her to send an ambulance. They didn't make it in time. Dead is dead, but I felt better for hearing that story.
There's nothing to be done about the past. You tell some stories, not some others. Like the letters you don't write. In the dark of night it comes back in intense images, lovely or sad, unaccountable, something that might give the shine to a poem someday. John Hirsch changed my life, I'm sure. I've never met another human being who existed on such a large scale, what they call a sacred monster, I suppose. I remember one day long after I'd left the CBC when I was standing on a Toronto street corner. A small car went by, and I noticed the driver, who was altogether too tall for the little machine, looking as if limbs might begin to hang out in all directions, and he was waving wildly at me as he lurched through traffic. It was John. That was the last time I saw him.