The wonderful world of French-Canadian TV
Nearly everybody watches it, and it keeps a thousand people busy producing an endless, zestful mixture of spice, sorrow and unabashed corn. Pull up a chair and see this Gallic hit parade
To see who these stars are, see key on page 84
To most Canadians the arguments about television begin in a seedy cluster of buildings on a seedy thoroughfare in Toronto called Jarvis Street. And they end—if a continuing wrangle can ever be said to end—in the rumpus rooms, beer parlors and office bull sessions of Peterborough and Winnipeg. Is Shirley Harmer as pretty as Dinah Shore? Has Joe McCulley learned anything from Ed Murrow? What will Alex Barris do next? With the same money behind him, could Jackie Rae out-Gobcl Georgie?
The outcome of such arguments may be for or against the Canadian effort. Whatever the result, however, it is usually taken for granted that Canadian TV standards are set in English Canada and can only be judged by Englishspeaking Canada.
This belief is only one of the many misconceptions Canadians have about themselves. For Toronto is not the capital of Canadian TV. In number and variety of original shows, artists employed, or sheer volume of production, Mont-
real is far ahead. As a TV production centre Montreal is surpassed only by New York and Hollywood. Toronto is a distant fourth, followed by Chicago. London, then Paris.
The French - Canadian network of which CBFT Montreal is the heart—in all the vibrant Gallic sense of that word—is made up of one other CBC station (Ottawa) and only four private stations, Jonquière, Rimouski, Sherbrooke and Quebec City. Their prospective audience however is almost five million people in eastern Ontario, Quebec and neighboring New England.
Over this cultural island washes each week some sixty-two hours of TV, some of it superb, much of it very good, much of it bad. Upward of fifty hours of this are not only homemade but “live”—that is, not on film. No other network in the world has such a high percentage of live entertainment.
But volume is not the whole story. Partly because it is live, but more probably because it is small and French-Canadian, the six-station
hookup has all the cozy intimacy of a rural phone line. The stars or vedettes (en vedette means literally to be "in the limelight”) are intimately known to viewers through a whole press devoted to them, and through the fact that a tour through the Radio-Canada Building studios in Montreal is now as much a "must” pilgrimage as one to the Oratoire St. Joseph. Anything said or done on the network by these stars is not looked upon as the temperamental outburst of some highly paid actor, but as the beguiling wilfulness of a friend.
So Maurice had a little bit too much wine at supper and he threw away the script and insulted everybody? So Ginette had her gown cut a little lower than necessary? So Paul played the country schoolmaster as if he were a schoolmistress? So what? Everyone knows they are fine people at heart, don't they?
Even on commercials, other than the slick filmed kind from Toronto or New York, the announcer often seems like continued on page 82
A lifted eyebrow gets a laugh, a look can bring tears, but only true Quebeckers understand why
a close relative who would sooner bet against Les Canadiens than sell you a wrong bill of goods.
How well CBFT Montreal has attuned its programing to the mood of its viewers was reflected in the Fowler Report, released in late March. The report noted in a special section that “the sentiment of French Canada . . . was virtually unanimous in its commendation . . . of the general programing of the CBC in the French language.” Ratings of its six or seven téléromans (as the weekly serials such as Les Plonffes are known) are so stratospheric that it can virtually be said that everyone in Quebec is watching them. Many other shows as well, including panel shows, educational programs and others considered hardly worth watching on U. S. or other networks, find a surprisingly wide audience.
Music Hall, a variety program with vivacious Michelle Tisseyre as mistress of ceremonies, puts up such a tine mixture of native corn and foreign spice that for a paltry thirteen thousand dollars per show it has captured three times the audience the expensive Ed Sullivan Show has in Montreal, where language is no problem and where Sullivan once held undisputed sway come Sunday night.
“What CBFT shows offer their patrons is hard to explain,” says Bernard Dube, TV critic for the Montreal Gazette, “but it makes one regret that les pauvres Anglais do not understand French the way so many Québécois understand English.”
Whether just understanding French would admit one to the pleasures of French-Canadian TV is hard to say. Much of this pleasure depends upon knowing Quebec politics, the traditional respect for parents, the mild contempt of Quebeckers for their own who “go Américain,” the amusement at the Puritanism of English network audiences, the fierce sentiment for hockey heroes, and so on. Such background can put hilarity in an eyebrow lift, or unbearable pathos in a look that to outsiders means nothing.
Monday is a typical TV evening during the Quebec winter. Entertainment really starts at eight when a panorama of the snow-clad, sombre Laurentian hills appears on the screen. Over this there presently drifts like smoke a haunting theme (from Glazounov’s ballet, The Seasons) and a voice like a church organ announces that another episode of Les Belles Histoires des Pays d’en Haut (Beautiful Stories of the Up Country) is about to unfold.
In this installment of this popular téléroman we go as usual to the village of Ste. Adèle at the turn of the century to learn what new inhumanity is being concocted by that beak-nosed monster of a land agent, Séraphin Poudrier (JeanPierre Masson). We find the young miser being upbraided by his aged father (Hector Charland) for his avarice. Séraphin however is in gay mood, for he is about to go down and make advances to the beautiful village postmistress, Donalda Laloge (Andrée Champagne.)
A villager enters, tells Séraphin he has TB and needs money to go to the sanitarium in Montreal. Séraphin forgets
Donalda, starts haggling with the poor sick wreck, finally contracts for the man's thirteen-year-old son to work off the debt (at eight dollars per month). Hardly has the consumptive stumbled out than Séraphin gleefully tells his father he will pack the boy off that very night to a lumber camp thirty miles away, thus avoiding feeding him and getting maybe three times as much money out of the lazy lout as the contract called for.
As the program ends with the scared boy starting the long lonely walk through the woods at night and Séraphin eyeing the lovely Donalda like a snake, a wave of loathing for the mispr sweeps across Quebec. Its intensity is only matched by the deep-rooted conviction that this is how life is, a boy should suffer for his father. But oh, that devil, Séraphin!
This mood lasts only till the next program—possibly the worst program on any network anywhere—hits their ears with a belt of laughter, and master of
Aggressive or supinely passive,
All wrestlers are impressive, massive. Though obviously far far tougher Than you and I, they always suffer With moving and dramatic skill,
And while each gamely strives to kill His murderous and hated rival,
How oddly frequent is survival.
P. J. BLACKWELL
ceremonies Denis Drouin announces that Le Rigolade (Fun Time) is here again.
The curtains part to reveal four jittery married couples, a table loaded with cameras that take and develop pictures in one minute, and one sexy-looking blonde. Emcee Drouin interviews the contestants, elicits the fact that one couple has been married ten years and has one child, another has been married ten years but has eleven children. He makes a risqué joke about this, half in English slang, and before anyone can say more, explains the purpose of the contest: the wives are to take pictures of their husbands being embraced by the blonde. The picture judged most loving wins for the wife who took it a twentyfour-inch TV set. The second prize is a portable bar, with hand-tooled leather stools to match.
The contest proceeds, and the huge studio audience (at the CBC’s transformed college auditorium in suburban Ville St. Laurent) is amazed that the mousiset-looking wife is the one who demands the closest co-operation from her uneasy husband and the blonde. Drouin finds this a good chance for more quips, some of which would curl the hair of an English audience. The audience roars.
This contest ends and another begins in which wives lower their husbands on pulleys toward plates full of strawberries and then over to plates of cream. The object: to move all the strawberries from
«~;e plate to another—with their teeth.
Drouin’s beautiful blond assistant, Elaine Bédard, checks her watch, announces there is time for yet another wonderful contest! The curtains part again to reveal two fully clothed men sitting in tubs. They are to scrub themselves till judged clean. The catch: the water contains a substance that turns black when it foams. An immaculately dressed assistant producer gets dragged into the tub by mistake. The audience is howling with delight and there are prizes galore still to be distributed, when nine o’clock mercifully comes.
Porte Ouverte (The Open Door) is next, and what pleasure just to watch and listen to piquant Colette Bonheur (the Shirley Harmer of Quebec) sing, the dancers go through their routines and the co-master of ceremonies, comedian Gilles Pellerin, tell jokes! What they say is not important—it is so good after that last show.
The evening continues with a filmed American drama, with a French-language sound track very clumsily dubbed in; Reportage, a factual coverage of some Montreal activity; a lively session of Les Idées en Marche (Ideas on the March), the Quebec Citizens’ Forum. It ends with news, sports and a half-hour Télépolicier, a filmed detective drama, from France.
This schedule, without anything quite as low as Le Rigolade, is fairly typical of any winter night except Thursday. Thursday at ten is what the network considers the high point of its week, though a majority of viewers would undoubtedly vote either for Saturday at nine (hockey), Wednesday at 8.30 (Les Plouffes) or Sunday at 9.30 (Popular Theatre). On alternate Thursdays CBFT presents its biggest costliest shows—the top drama series, Téléthéâtre: and
L’Heure du Concert, the showcase of the musical, vocal and dancing talents that Quebec most admires. The latter show is carried simultaneously on the English network as The Concert Hour.
Téléthéâtre is an excellent example of what can result when TV imposes its insatiable demands on a small, rigidly moral society like Quebec. Entertainment in the past season, for example, has included superb presentations of the story of a bad priest (Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory), a spicy eighteenth-century comedy, the adventures of a scheming doctor, a version of Shaw’s rollicking Chocolate Soldier, a pre-Shakespearean Hamlet, and a story of the bitter death of a French-Canadian farmer amid his children who hate him.
Some of the presentations are not very daring, even by Toronto standards, but they represent an enormous advance in Quebec. This advance stems from September 1952 when CBFT went on the air two days before CBLT Toronto. The producers knew that Toronto planned to fill part of its air time with material from the U. S., Britain and other sources, but doubted that they could obtain similar material from French-speaking countries: France, Luxembourg and Belgium.
Except for a few detective stories, old feature films and the odd variety show, European aid has been almost nil. CBFT had to rely on its native talent for almost everything—thus the high percentage of locally produced shows. The ferocious demand for more and more material also brought out new writers, and stories once considered too daring for Quebec audiences. Cautious experiments were made, the CBC ready to leap back to the safety of musical interludes if necessary. But only a few viewers protested, and the executives
relaxed when thousands applauded.
The CBC therefore made it known that it was open for suggestions, and that few works would be rejected because of subject matter.
Top weekly budgets of tw'enty thousand dollars to thirty thousand plus are now available for Téléthéâtre, roughly the same budget as Folio, its closest Toronto counterpart. Any time length is also available. Claudel’s nativity play, L’Annonce Fait à Marie (Announcement Made to Mary) took two and a half hours to perform at Christmas; it
could have had twice that, if necessary. The last play in the series was Florence, the story of a young Montreal stenographer (played by Monique Miller, Quebec's TV Actress of the Year) infatuated with her playboy boss (international film star Paul Dupuis). “A powerful work!” said Paul Coucke, of La Patrie, and audience polls agreed.
Audience ratings are just as important in Quebec as anywhere. Based on the Elliott-Haynes practice of phoning four hundred or more French-Canadian TV set owners during a half-hour show,
they give ratings in percentage of people actually watching TV when called. By this method, plus fan mail as well, a téléroman like ¡4, Rue de Galais (14 Galais Street) was put off the air, presumably because the sight of petit bourgeoisie of today acting naturally was more than a bourgeois audience could stomach. But a brash, loud ex-Quebecker named “Harry S. McCarty, damngood A-l Américain” (played by Miville Couture) who sits in front of a sign labeled “Eiscn-no-where” and tells how he made millions selling dud machine guns to the
I, Marjolaine Hébert, v/ho plays Bedette in serial The Outlander. 2, Singer Yoland Guérard, of Singing Stars. 3, Singer Dominique Michel, of Small Café. 4, Comic Paid Bcrval. 5, Fernand Seguin, emcee of What's My Fine? and the science show, Joy of Knowing. 6, Actress Nathalie Naubert, of Television Theatre. 7, Fmcee Michele Tisseyre, of interview show Rendezvous with Michele, and Music Hall. 8, Actress Gaétane 1.aniel.
as Pinocchio. 9, Actress Charlotte Boisjoli, of Television Theatre. 10, Comedian Paule Bayard, as the penguin on children's show, Kimo. 11, Orchestra leader Roland Leduc, of Concert Hour. 12, Pierre Theriault, Monsieur Surprise of children’s show, Surprise Box. 13, Dancer Corinne Saint-Denis, of Concert Hour. 14, Actor Jean-Pierre Masson, Séraphin in Beautiful Stories of the Up Country. 15, Actor Jean Duceppe, Stan
Labrie in The Plouffes. 16, Actress Ginette Letondal. of Television Theatre. 17, Actress Amanda Alarie, Mama in The Plouffes. 18, Singer Colette Bonheur, of Open Door. 19, Louis de Santis, of Surprise Box. 20, Actor Guy Provost, Father Alexandre in The Plouffes. 21, Actress Andrée Champagne, Donalda in Stories of the Up Country. 22, Comic Gilles Pellerin, of Open Door. 23, Actor René Caron, Groseilliers in serial Radisson.
Chinese, is called back again and again to Music Hall.
And even Les Plouffes lake notice when Maman, sending Ovide off to 1 oronto, hands him a rosary and says, "You’ll need this there, among all those Protestants!” Polls indicate that though this may be true, it is considered to be in bad taste.
One of the most controversial issues on Quebec TV is its children’s shows. Critics have raved over shows like L’lle aux Trésors (a non-Stevenson Treasure Island), La Boite éi Surprises (Surprise Box), Ton Fon, Tic Tac Toc and others. But many mothers think they are so well produced that they are over the heads of children.
“I love to watch them myself,” admits Solange Chaput-Rolland, co-editor of the critical magazine, Points de Vue, "but unfortunately my own children switch to the English children’s programs, which are simpler.”
No such criticism attends CBFT’s adolescent drama show Beau Temps, Mauvais Temps (Good Times, Bad Times). On the contrary, much of this is more naïve than necessary, as if CBFT has not made up its mind that there is a teen-age problem. At the other extreme is a Friday night show called Profils d’Adolescents, run in co-operation with the School for Parents. This one is often so adult in approach to teen-age problems that parents would rather their children saw an Elvis Presley movie instead.
CBFT’s attitude to women is that they should be in the home, working, not watching TV all day. To point this up, only one afternoon per week (Wednesday) is devoted to the affairs of women. and that only from 2.30 on. To soothe them however another program that Quebec women have come to love is put on at 9 p.m. the same night, presumably when the kids are safely in bed. This is the spectacle known as Lutte, or Wrestling. Nowhere are mat villains greeted with louder boos, handsome heroes more roundly cheered, and every new antic more appreciated than by the intensely feminine women of La Belle Province de Québec.
Women are the chief audience for another immensely popular weekly seri-
al called Le Survenant (Germaine Guévremont’s book which appeared in English as The Outlander). This, like Les Belles Histoires, is a turn-ofthe-century story, but unlike the former’s morbid undertones Le Survenant is the strangely sweet account of a handsome rogue (Jean Coutu) who appears one day in a little village near Sorel, and sets about righting its glaring wrongs.
To Canadians who look upon Quebec as church-ridden, the action on this show would come as a shock. For the main enemy of Le Survenant in his Robin Hood style deeds is not the local sheriff but the local priest. In the three years the serial has been running, the two have never seen eye to eye, especially since Survenant keeps muttering. “Oh, never mind!” in English, and flinging bits of Balzac or Voltaire in the other’s face. But one recent episode ended with the astonishing spectacle of the priest gnashing his teeth in the tradition of all true villains and hissing, “Either he goes—or 1 go!”
Big money for les écrivains
There is nothing like the Quebec téléromans on English TV. Since they tap a common heritage of tradition, they need pay only scant attention to drama, suspense or smash endings. Often the only way you can tell an episode is over is by looking at the clock. Only one of them, Quatuor, by distinguished poet Robert Choquette, tells a complete story in four installments; the others go on endlessly. Another, Cap aux Sorciers. about the modern-day fisher folk along Quebec’s North Shore, makes use of such English actors as Eleanor Stewart and occasionally folk singer Alan Mills. A new one, Le Colombier, dealing with the odd guests who visit the inn of this name near Montreal, has Stratford stars Jean Gascon and Guy Hoffman at the head of its cast, and may one day rival Les Plouffes.
Each of these téléromans is written by one author, who gets an average of six hundred dollars per week for each episode. Roger Lemelin gets a reported eleven hundred dollars for Les Plouffes, because it is shown in English as well, and all the actors who portray
his main characters get five hundred dollars for the two performances.
But the fact that these are all oneauthor shows is important for a reason other than indicating that there are fewer starving poets in Quebec, thanks to TV. Each spring, with thirty-nine episodes behind them, these authors feel fatigue creeping on, and consequently a situation unheard of in English TV arises: though their ratings may be sky-high and their sponsors love them deliriously, the word goes out that one or all of these shows will not return come fall. Usually, however, with big money beckoning, they soak up enough energy in the thirteen-week layoff to return to the grind.
T hough sponsors have big money to spend, the CBC docs not—at least not in terms of the huge roster of shows it must produce. One of the inevitable results of this is the panel show, of which there arc at least a dozen on CBFT each week, many copied from Toronto shows. The best of these are Press Conference, which differs from its English counter-, part in choosing not only front-page headliners but all sorts of people from L’Abbé Pierre to actor Jean-Louis Barrault to argue with; and Point de Mire (literally, Point Aimed At) on Sunday night, where pundit René Levesque explores the sordid intricacies of slum clearance, Canadian lotteries or U. S. policy in Suez. CBC officials hold their breath till the redoubtable René is finished.
Gripes against Montreal’s production and management range, as in Toronto, from charges that producers demand bribes for good parts, to the cry that a clique gets all the work. The first has never been substantiated in any way. The second is probably true, but when audiences clamor for the magnificent clowning of Guy Hoffman, or ratings leap whenever Jean Duceppc or Marjolaine Hébert appear, there is little the CBC can do but use this “clique” often.
Of the nine-hundred-odd members of the powerful Union des Artistes, probably not more than half earn a living in TV. This makes for hardship and some bitterness, because, unlike radio parts which are broadcast mainly at night or taped for day broadcast, TV
requires time for day rehearsals. Few bread-and-butter jobs offer such time.
Possibly a hundred and fifty or so union members make a good living out of TV combined with radio. Half a dozen, including Roger Lemelin, Napoleon Plouffe (Fmile Genest in real life, who has two sports programs as well), and, oddly, some musicians may go as high as fifty thousand dollars or more. Twenty or thirty likely will make from twenty thousand to forty thousand dollars, among them the following: Guy Provost. Colette Bonheur, Jean-Louis Roux. Pierre Valcour (Guillaume, of Les Plonßes), Denise Pelletier, Ginette Letondal, Gilles Pellerin, Monique Miller, Paul Berval, Paul Dupuis, Paul Guévremont and Guy Hoffman.
In the latter group, only part of the money in many cases would come from the CBC directly. But such is the enormous prestige of being a vedette in Quebec TV that all sorts-of extra gravy goes with it, from promoting beer or auto sales, to opening fashion shows, supermarkets and theatres, writing columns lor magazines or even refereeing ladies' wrestling matches. More big money is to be made in Montreal than in France, which is why Claude Dauphin, Fernandel and other French stars make regular tours of the Montreal scene, while many Quebec stars who could go elsewhere stay home.
But the fierce competition for a living wage among the bit players was seen earlier this year when six of Jean-Louis Barrault’s troupe from France decided to stay in Montreal. A near riot was precipitated in the special union meeting called to discuss their entry, and they were refused union cards. Only one remained in Montreal, however, and he will soon be admitted to the union.
The most vivid new' personality on Quebec TV is none other than the crusading mayor of Montreal, Jean Drapeau. Ironically, he cannot obtain air time in Monreal, so must go 100 miles to Sherbrooke each Monday night at ten for his often-tempestuous appearance on Votre Medre Vous Parle (Your Mayor Speaks to You). Since Sherbrooke is the most powerful station in all Quebec, and its 300,000-watt transmitter is located high atop Mount Orford. many Frenchspeaking residents of adjacent New York and New England are probably as well versed in the intricacies of Montreal’s civic affairs as the voters themselves.
One other recommendation of broadcasting investigator Robert Fowler, the closing thought deeming it "advisable . . . to bring . . . television to the French-speaking citizens of Winnipeg . . . Vancouver . . . (and Toronto)." is causing considerable stir among the seventy-odd producers—four of them women—who produce all CBFT shows. The prospect is both intoxicating and stupefying. What a grand thing it would be!—what a work of mercy!—to bring the soft lilt of French to those poor patriots, languishing in far-off prairie and seacoast, with nothing to look at but Ozzie and Harriet, Joan Fairfax, Wayne and Shuster and ugh!—Dragnet. The only catch is: who would want to leave the wonderful haven of Montreal, with its bistros, broadminded cops and beautiful French girls, for those outlandish places?
It would require a superman, surely. Someone with the fearlessness of Le Survenant, the sweet idealism of Mama Plouffe. the childish faith of Pepinot and Capucine, with just a dash of the brash Mr. Harry S. McCarty.
With such a combination to get things moving, the candor and cozy intimacy of Quebec-style TV could well become an all-Canada institution. ★