This article was originally published in 2009
Patrick Watson is always looking for new experiences. The renowned broadcaster, journalist, filmmaker, actor and author – who becomes an octogenarian this year – has been working on poetry.
‘I find it very rewarding,’ he says. ‘The Literary Review of Canada has just accepted one of them. And I’m working on a book of limericks.’
It’s another dimension to Watson, a man who has proven himself incredibly versatile over his 60-year career. He has produced, created and appeared in numerous television shows, acted in films, served as president of the CBC, and produced documentaries. But Watson is perhaps still best remembered for a stint that lasted but two years on the CBC. From 1964 to 1966, he coproduced This Hour Has Seven Days, a public affairs program that broke rules and grabbed huge ratings during its brief 50-episode run.
When asked about the highs of his career, Watson refers to This Hour himself. ‘It was an extraordinary time. We kept discovering things. It was partly because there was such an atmosphere at the CBC at the time – there was this spirit of trying things. If you had a new idea, they’d urge you to try it out. It really doesn’t exist there anymore.’
Watson says one of his most difficult interviews – and one of the most rewarding – came during those two years. ‘We were doing a show on the death penalty. We were looking into the idea that someone could actually be rehabilitated after being convicted and leading a productive life. I remembered that Nathan Leopold had served his time and was then living in Puerto Rico.’
For the uninitiated, Leopold was one-half of the infamous criminal Leopold-Loeb team, and arguably one of the most notorious gay killers ever. The duo’s story inspired Hitchcock’s Rope (itself kept in a closet for years), Compulsion (starring Orson Welles) and Swoon.
The story goes that in 1924, these two young men, convinced they were of a higher intellect and thus didn’t have to play by the rules most people have to follow, murdered a 14-year-old boy. They cited the philosophies of Nietzsche as justification for the killing. Clarence Darrow defended the two men, and though they were convicted, Darrow managed to convince the judge to spare them the death penalty. Loeb was murdered by another inmate, but after serving a 33-year sentence, Leopold went to Puerto Rico where he worked in health care.
‘I called him up and asked him if he’d appear as Exhibit A, as someone who’d survived and was living a fulfilling life,’ explains Watson. ‘He came to Toronto and we had an extraordinary encounter. I remember looking at him – he had these intense, clear, blue, unblinking eyes. There were some things he said he simply would not talk about.’
Watson also recalls that he was soon faced with an ethical dilemma. ‘The night before the interview we had dinner together, and he asked a favor. He asked if he could be in the cutting room floor when we did the edit. I told him we never really do such things, but he insisted and said he wouldn’t do the interview unless I agreed.
‘He promised not to interfere, but he said it was the one chance he’d have in life to witness something like that, and he really wanted to see it,’ Watson continues. ‘I didn’t tell anyone except the editor. It took us three hours to edit the piece, and when it was done he shook my hand and thanked me for the experience.’
It was precisely this kind of controversial, groundbreaking interview that brought This Hour Has Seven Days so much praise and attention – but also so much criticism.
What some saw as risqué, others denounced as yellow journalism. This led to an ongoing series of spats with Ceeb brass about the show’s envelope-pushing ways, which ultimately led to its untimely cancellation.
‘We often did confrontational interviews with the authorities,’ Watson recalls. ‘The CBC was taking a lot of heat from elected officials. Some of the stuff we did on sexual matters was far more open. We would introduce sexual questions to fairly distinguished figures, which back then wasn’t normally done. We [also] had a couple of Ku Klux Klan guys up, and then sprung a black interviewer on them. Strangely, that stuff upset some at the CBC.’
It’s the kind of ratings-grabbing stuff that producers now dream of, but Watson found himself in the odd position of being out of work when the plug was pulled. ‘It was a tough time,’ he recalls: ‘I had to try to pick up work here and there. But it didn’t last very long. Expo [67 in Montreal] came along and there were all sorts of projects in development.’
A strange reversal of fortunes would take place in 1989, when Watson was appointed president of the CBC. While there, he was forced to deal with a series of severe cuts to the Crown corporation. He laments what has happened to the Ceeb, and the waning public support for a public broadcaster.
‘It’s heartbreaking,’ says Watson. ‘It began to change with the advent of Pierre Juneau as president in the ’80s. He felt the single most important thing he could do was to get more advertising revenue. That became the dominant motif on the television side. It had a transformational effect that meant the Americanization of Canadian programs and the abandonment of the role of a public broadcaster.’
Watson, who now spends half the year in Toronto and the other at his country home, says his daily media diet consists of reading various news sources on his computer. He always begins with the Toronto dailies. He does not watch much TV, and hasn’t seen The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. ‘We disconnected the satellite. We use the TV mainly to watch movies.’
In his 2004 autobiography, This Hour Has Seven Decades, Watson concludes the book on an optimistic note: ‘On the whole I incline to the considered and rational view that, slow as it seems, and largely because we are crying out against our barbarities instead of concealing them – that on the whole we are moving slowly towards civilization.’
Which prompts the question: Is Watson optimistic about the future of media, given its current precarious state and its digital transformation?
‘Yes, it’s in a great state of jumble and tumble right now,’ says Watson. ‘It’s been interesting to read people associated with places like The New York Times who are speculating about what form it will take. From the point of view of someone like myself, who spends more than half the year in a country house, I find that my access to information through the Internet is terrific.
‘I’m optimistic in terms of the capacity of citizens to get information,’ Watson speculates. ‘But I couldn’t for a minute predict what form it’s going to take.’
Dec. 23, 1929: Born in Toronto
1957-63: Produces his first public affairs TV show, CBC’s Close-Up
1964-66: Co-creates, coproduces and ultimately co-hosts This Hour Has Seven Days, widely considered one of the CBC’s greatest programs
1967: Produces The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, a huge international hit
1967: Exec produces Warrendale, Allan King’s astonishing cinéma vérité doc about a home for troubled children
1972-74: Hosts The 51st State on PBS, a New York-based news program about life in Manhattan
1981: Made an Officer in the Order of Canada
1989-94: Serves as president of the CBC, facing down Tories who wish to see the Ceeb privatized
1991: Begins producing Heritage Minutes, educational short films about key moments in Canadian history
2002: Promoted to Companion of the Order of Canada
2004: Pens his autobiography, This Hour Has Seven Decades