CBC @ 50: Covering 50 years in a month

When the CBC decides to throw a party, no effort is spared to make it a memorable one. Celebrating 50 years as a national broadcaster, the network is offering the public a wide panorama of events to participate in this September, ranging from a VIA-sponsored cross-country rail tour to kids-oriented heritage fairs to new media initiatives. Tuning In, a book depicting 50 years of CBC lore, will be published by McClelland and Stewart to coincide with the anniversary. From July 1 on, viewers are going to be encouraged to vote on their favorite CBC shows, with the winners being rebroadcast this fall.

Then, there’s the programming. Veteran producer Pia Maria Marquard has been brought on board as the project director for the 50th anniversary celebrations. A former head of programming at TV2, Denmark’s largest public broadcaster, she brings a deep and varied portfolio to her challenging assignment. With an expertise in story construction, Marquard has assembled a team of producers, directors and assorted creative talent across the country to create a variety of new shows for the busy month of September at the CBC.

Tuning In: 50 years on the CBC is the signature archival series for the month-long extravaganza. The host is Rick Mercer, who, according to Marquard, ‘will be talking to Canadians instead of being someone who says ‘Now this happened.’ I like the idea of having Rick, who adores television. He loves all the archival stuff. Rick links us to now and the way people are thinking today.’

Tuning In is produced by Daniel Gelfant, who is an old colleague of Marquard’s and a former producer at The National. Taking a deliberately post-modern approach to the CBC and Canadian culture, the series raids the bulging vaults of the national broadcaster. Viewers will see images of Canada’s past five decades, ranging from the long-running celebrity quiz show Front Page Challenge through ’70s pop star Rene Simard to stirring footage of legendary hockey icons.

Deliberately using a stylistic melange, the series will use contemporary footage of Mercer shot in Betacam video and Super 8 with old kinescopes from the ’50s, black-and-white footage of the ’60s and the more standard color format from the ’70s through the ’90s. In a characteristic scene, Mercer replicates Paul Henderson’s famous winning goal against the Russians in the 1972 Summit Series with Canada’s greatest tabletop hockey player in a suburban Toronto basement.

Not all of Tuning In will be that ironic. Serious scenes will abound – there’s much footage from the FLQ crisis, for example – and the series will examine how Canadians have appeared to themselves, through the lens of CBC’s cameras.

Landed: Six New Lives In Canada is a contemporary docusoap which will capture the lives of six new immigrants who are living across Canada, from Vancouver to Yellowknife to Halifax. The subjects are from such diverse parts of the globe as China, Russia, the Sudan, Kosovo and Palestine. Some of the stories will be family dramas while others concentrate on singles adjusting to a brand-new environment. ‘It’s a character-driven series,’ comments Marquard. ‘We’re interested in the Canada they’re seeing and the Canadians they’re meeting.’

Andy Blicq, who along with Adrian Callender is one of the series’ producers, has a personal interest in Landed. ‘I am an immigrant to Canada as well as Pia and Adrian,’ he notes.

Blicq is working in particular on the Winnipeg story. In a key scene, his main character, a Sudanese refugee, arranged for two of his relatives to fly in from Egypt and join him in Canada. Blicq was there, observing these first-time arrivals adjusting to Canada. ‘When they walked out of the airport, you could see their shock at discovering winter here. In Cairo, it had been 30 degrees above, but here in Winnipeg, it was 33 below. You could see them trying to get used to it, but I’ve got to say, in Winnipeg, you never get used to it.’

Inside Information is a three-part series which mixes contemporary and archival footage. It’s an in-depth look at what many observers feel the CBC does best, broadcast journalism.

In Part One, Stories from the War Zone, the working life of Neil Macdonald, CBC’s correspondent in Israel, is covered. Macdonald and his family are in the midst of one of the world’s most troubled spots, where violence is erupting every day. The camera captures his movements and then moves to Toronto, where his reports are filed.

The daily business of working long distance with producers and news editors is explored, as is the process of how a news report from abroad is crafted into a journalistic item.

Juxtaposing Macdonald’s story with classic war footage and up-to-date interviews, such former CBC correspondents as Ann Medina, Nancy Durham and Michael Maclear relate some of their experiences in dangerous zones.

‘Conflicts, whether they were in Vietnam decades ago or in Israel now, have the same human dimensions,’ comments Inside Information’s executive producer, Sig Gerber. Those universal qualities will anchor the series’ other two parts, which deal with two other troubled spots for journalists, Ottawa’s famed ‘Hill’ and its federal politicians and ‘the street’ where organized crime so often prevails.

On Friday, Sept. 6, the CBC and Radio-Canada will unleash 50 camera operators throughout the country. A Day in the Life of Canada is a classic anniversary idea, a celebratory snapshot of a nation. Halifax-based producer Geoff D’Eon combined forces with director Chris Mullington of Ottawa to create the successful A Day in the Life of Nova Scotia and they are stretching across all the provinces and territories for this shoot.

‘We picked a Friday,’ comments D’Eon, ‘because it’s a day where there’s a mix of work and play. If we want to go on an assembly line, it’s turning that day. If we want to observe the political process, it’s happening on a Friday. If we want to go to a school, schools are in. Everything that Canadians would normally do is being done on a Friday during the day, but it has the added advantage of a Friday evening, which is when people let their hair down. So you’re going to see quite a lot of music in this particular episode. We will take you to a ceilidh in Cape Breton. We may take you to a barn dance in Alberta. You may hear some throat singing in the Far North. There’ll be a lot of leisure and fun that typically happens on a Friday night.’

Freedom of the Air, executive produced by Mark Starowicz, focuses on the development of CBC Radio. Graham Spry and Alan Plaunt, two articulate Depression-era nationalists, lobbied hard to turn the chaotic, privatized and often Americanized, airwaves back into the hands of Canadians. Cleverly utilizing stills, recreations and film footage from the period, this documentary brings to life the mixture of idealism and practical wisdom that was at the core of the creation of the national broadcaster.

Adding to the list of in-house-produced items for the anniversary are new episodes of Life & Times concentrating on key figures in the broadcaster’s history and CBC stories, 30-second spots concentrating on great moments in the network’s past. With her plate filled with projects, Marquard has not forgotten the main purpose of CBC@50. ‘We’re looking back, celebrating 50 great years, but we’re also saying that we’ll be here for 50 more. The CBC is a valuable player in the media picture in Canada.’