English-Language Television Drama

Throughout the history of Canadian television drama, the anthology has survived.


Television Drama, English-Language

 English-language television drama is fictional narrative material ranging from short illustrative sketches to original, full-length scripts. The term covers various forms, though situation comedies, mysteries, soap operas, dramatic series, miniseries, family adventures, comedy sketches featuring recurring characters, docudramas and topical dramas are most popular.

Growth and Characteristics

Throughout the history of Canadian television drama, the anthology has survived. The 1950s and 1960s were represented under titles such as "Folio"; "Festival" (the prestige anthology of 2-hour programs of popular music, classical and contemporary drama adapted for television, classical music, opera and ballet, poetry, jazz and occasional docudramas); "First Performance" (special Canadian scripts written for the limited anthology); "The Unforeseen" (mysteries and the inexplicable); "Q for Quest" (an experimental half hour); "Playdate"; and a decade of "G.M. Presents," which specialized in more popular fare but had the majority of the Canadian scripts, including a 2-part version of John COULTER's "Riel."

In the 1970s CBC presented "To See Ourselves" (adaptations of Canadian short stories); "For the Record," (journalistic dramas on topical themes); and "Some Honourable Gentlemen" (a set of wry plays on Canadian history). Half-hour anthologies were the rule as the 1980s progressed. "The Way We Are"; "Family Pictures"; "Sons and Daughters" (6 adaptations of 5 short stories and one long poem, one of which won an Oscar); "Inside Stories" (about "ethnic" communities and their struggles), "Scales of Justice" (strictly defined docudramas about well-known cases) and "Straight Up" (an innovative film anthology about urban young people) represent the 1980s and 1990s.

These teleplays revealed a mixture of experiment, sentiment, history, comedy, tragedy and adaptations of the best of foreign and domestic, classic and contemporary storytelling. Since 1952 Toronto and Montréal have been the major national production centres for drama, with Vancouver, Winnipeg, Halifax and St John's producing fine regional drama during some periods. Over the years a daily ration of TV drama has become a habit for most people. Yet in 1982 only 3% of TV drama shown in Canada was Canadian in origin. By 1997 it occasionally reached 4%, although well over one million Canadians will watch a particular CBC drama special.

Kinescopes (8 mm films made from the image on a monitor) were made of early live productions and shipped to remote locations for transmission. When recordings on reusable videotape replaced kinescopes, fewer copies were made and those were sometimes erased for reuse. Nevertheless, scattered collections of drama scripts, kinescopes and tapes from the CANADIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION's nearly 5 decades of television have survived.

There is now an agreement between the CBC and the National Archives of Canada to deposit copies of every prime-time program aired in the NAC. In the early 1990s the CBC appointed the first full-time archivist with the authority and the resources to ensure that more of our electronic, film and paper broadcasting heritage will be saved. However, the savage cutbacks during the 1990s by both Liberals and Conservatives now threaten these resources. Many of the private broadcasters do not yet recognize the importance of their programming as a resource for scholars, for their own future news and current affairs reports - and for repackaging and rebroadcasting some old favourites. The proliferation of specialty channels may change that by providing new markets for older programming; Bravo's current re-broadcasting of the CBC's 1960s arts and music programming is a case in point.

Characteristics which have distinguished the best of Canadian TV drama are a tolerance of moral ambivalence, open-ended narrative structures, a willingness to experiment with the medium itself and an ironic vision of authoritarian values. When Canadian series function well they retain many of the characteristics of anthology drama. From the early days, distinctively Canadian TV dramas have been sold in large numbers all over the world.

The CBC has also shown some of the best of contemporary Canadian theatre, adapted with varying success for television: "Ten Lost Years," "The Farm Show," "On the Job," "Paper Wheat," "Leaving Home," "Les Belles-Soeurs," "La Sagouine," "Billy Bishop Goes to War," "Joey" (Smallwood), "Ma" (Murray) and "Rexy" (Mackenzie King). Contemporary Canadian plays are not often adapted for television, although playwrights such as Judith THOMPSON, George Walker and Drew Hayden TAYLOR have worked for the CBC.

American Prototypes

Established in 1961, the CTV network for many years bought from independent Canadian producers only a handful of situation comedies and police and animal shows. These programs were indistinguishable from their American prototypes despite the conditions attached to the licence by the Board of Broadcast Governors and its successor, the CANADIAN RADIO-TELEVISION AND TELECOMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION. Up to 1988 the history of Canadian TV drama was primarily a history of CBC drama or CBC collaborations with independent producers.

When the CRTC made Canadian drama programming a condition of the renewal of the licences for CTV and Global, the result was mixed. Global bought an anthology of adapted Canadian short stories, developed a fine children's series and a series for teens and climbed on the late 1980s/early 1990s bandwagon of relatively inexpensive but melodramatic "recreations" of real events - for example, "Missing Kids" and "Hearts of Courage" - as well as a German co-production adventure/soap series, "Destiny Ridge." The more indigenous period anthology "Jake and the Kid," based on W.O. MITCHELL's short stories popularised in the 1940s and 1950s by the CBC radio and television series of the same name, was pleasant fare but not as popular as the CBC's depression series "Wind at My Back." Their most successful adult dramatic series was "Traders," a hybrid of the night soap with overtones of "Dallas" and the morally ambivalent universe of Canadian TV drama. The risky, hard driving, fast-paced world of trading on the stock market combined with topical issues from the business pages and some attractive characters made this series a hit. Global in its third season worked out an unprecedented co-production with the CBC to keep "Traders" on the air.

One of CTV's successes was the half-hour Western "Bordertown" (co-produced with France), which added some gritty realistic touches to the cliché of the by-the-book Canadian Mountie in conflict with a rough and ready American Marshall. However, CTV's best effort in the 1980s was "E.N.G.," a fast-paced, well-written series which sold widely abroad. Set in a local newsroom, "E.N.G." was unmistakably based on Toronto. It was full of Canadian references, had attractive characters with colourful personal lives and looked at some complex social and ethical issues in a timely fashion, sometimes without easy solutions or clear-cut conclusions. In 1994 CTV launched a half hour soap, "Family Affair," which did not survive.

Industrially produced Canadian series, usually co-productions, proliferated in the mid-1980s and 1990s. In the 1980s CTV did produce the gritty and occasionally ambivalent and well-written "Night Heat" and the semi-spoof spy series "Adderly," both of which did well in the CBS late night movie slot. But in the 1990s CTV drew on the action/adventure genre in co-production with France to produce "Counterstrike" - one British agent, one French journalist, one muscular CIA agent all working for a Canadian billionaire based in Paris. Series like "Matrix" and "Sweating Bullets" and the somewhat more edgy cult favourite about vampires "Forever Knight" qualified for federal and provincial tax breaks but are unrecognisable as "Canadian product." The stylish but empty "Nikita" (1996- ) and the campy, energetic "Once a Thief" (1997- ) based on the TV movie by Hong Kong director John Woo, are the latest additions to the set.

The best of CTV's co-productions is also the most distinctive. "Due South" has fans all over the world. It seems to have been influenced by the success of its 1980s CBC predecessor "Seeing Things." Although "Seeing Things" always includes a murder and "Due South" does not, both build elaborate plots around small incidents. Each satirizes the genre itself - in "Due South" the police procedural and in "Seeing Things" the amateur detective. Each includes many jokes at the expense of American popular culture. In "Due South" part of the fun is the handsome hero Fraser's ineptitude with women and his invincible innocence. Louie in "Seeing Things" is the antithesis of handsome - out of shape, middle-aged and bald. Yet like Fraser he has a superhuman skill - not for tracking, or hand-to-hand fighting (Louie never fires a shot and almost never holds a gun) but, just as Fraser uses his uncanny nose and taste buds, so does Louie use his strange "visions" of murder, which also yield tantalizing clues. However, unlike "Seeing Things" which is an example of the now defunct "in-house production" at the CBC, "Due South," despite its popularity here and abroad, has had to struggle through 2 cancellations - a result of its sometimes uncertain status as a co-production.

  The CBC has always created distinctive variants on familiar television forms and pioneered others. From 1959 to 1967 a few episodes of "Cariboo Country" appeared each year. It was one of the finest series made in Canada - a completely distinctive anthology with continuing characters that was also a contemporary Western; "Wojeck," (1966-68), with a title character based loosely on a real coroner, was innovative in both visual style and content and was the CBC's first smash hit as well as its first filmed series. It combined excellent writing with complex perspectives on topical issues.

Since the first season of Canadian television in 1952-53, many of the forms of TV drama have become more complex as illustrated by the "professional" series about lawyers or the cop shows. Others, like shows about teachers and social workers, have disappeared. Still others have tried a comeback - TV Westerns, after a 20-year absence, to mixed success, and medical shows like the American series "E.R.," to very high ratings. "Side Effects" on CBC, set in a walk-in street clinic, replaced the very popular show about legal issues, "Street Legal," and was in turn replaced by "Black Harbour," a successful mixture of soap opera and serial about a couple who have made a success in Hollywood and try to return to a small East Coast fishing village. In 1997 the CBC at last tried its hand at the most durable of all genres, a soap opera called "Riverdale." At two episodes a week it is a characteristically hybrid blend of heightened American melodrama and the quicker pace of "Coronation Street" - the plots unwind very quickly. The characters and dialogue are derived partly from Hollywood and partly from the Canadian naturalistic tradition.

Changing Needs, Changing Technology

A variety of broadcasting Acts have evolved a mandate for the CBC to meet the changing needs of the country and the rapidly changing technology. In the 1980s the CBC was expected to educate, inform and entertain people of different ages, interests and tastes; to present a balance of views on controversial issues over the whole range of TELEVISION PROGRAMMING; to serve as a patron of the arts; and to promote Canadian unity, provide for continuing expression of regional diversity and reflect the Canadian identity. CBC drama responded with fictional characters as diverse as Charlie Farquharson; Bob and Doug McKenzie; Ada; Nick Adonidas and Relic; the "King" of Kensington, Wojeck, Maria, Louie Ciccone and Marg; Ol' Antoine and Smith; Leon, Carrie, Olivia and Chuck; Marg Delahunty; Mike from Canmore; Michelle, Albert and Peter; and real-life folk heroes such as Sir John A. MACDONALD, Norman BETHUNE, Louis RIEL, Stephen LEACOCK and Emily MURPHY.

At its worst, Canadian TV drama is derivative, bland, sometimes incoherent and self-indulgent - ranging from "Radisson" (an inept riposte to the Davy Crockett phenomenon of the 1950s) to plays which reinforce society's unthinking stereotypes. The CBC has never developed a consistent focus on unions, small towns, farmers or shopkeepers. However, television is a 2-way mirror reflecting its audience, and audience attitudes have changed over the years. As always, TV drama can stimulate discussion about controversial issues or it can widen an audience's perceptions through innovative and imaginative scripts in the hands of talented producers, directors and actors.

"Flight into Danger" thrilled its audience; "The Open Grave," a "direct cinema" version of the Resurrection, raised questions in Parliament; and the Lucy Maud Montgomery classic Anne of Green Gables was adapted for television in the 1980s as an independent production and garnered the largest audience for drama ever recorded. "Tar Sands" provoked then Premier Peter LOUGHEED of Alberta into a successful lawsuit. "The Boys of St. Vincent" brought home to Canadians - as news reports of trials could not - their collective responsibility for the safety and welfare of children who are wards of the state.

In the mid-1950s and 1960s there were few Canadian playwrights and fewer stage companies. CBC TV drama took over from CBC radio as our national theatre, providing training and work for actors, designers, producers, directors, technicians and composers. Zoom lenses, more mobile cameras and sound equipment, videotape and the introduction of colour freed some kinds of drama from the confines of studios. Live television drama disappeared.

Yet from the very beginning, the limitations of the technology and the dramatic conventions were transformed into art, a very few examples being "Ward Number Six" (1959), "Kim" (1963), "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" (1964) and "The Freedom of the City" (1975). When taste shifted from anthology drama to series drama which focuses on one set of characters, the CBC produced "Wojeck," the forerunner of topical series drama; "Quentin Durgens MP"; and later, when teams of characters or families became popular, "The Manipulators," "The Beachcombers," "The Collaborators," "Sidestreet," "A Gift to Last" and "Home Fires." In the 1980s "Seeing Things" and "Hangin' In" continued the pattern of blurring television genres with swiftly changing tones and a wide variety of topical issues.

"For the Record" (1977-86) gave viewers several journalistic topical dramas each year which brought to life familiar issues - sometimes too didactically, often with excellent scripts and imaginative direction. A few of the many successes were "Maria" (union organising), "The Winnings of Frankie Walls" (unemployment), "Blind Faith" (televangelism), "Ready for Slaughter" (farm crisis in the beef industry), "Cementhead" (professional hockey), "Don't forget Je me souviens" (the only CBC drama to date on the ongoing crisis with Québec), "One of Our Own" (Down's syndrome), "A Question of the Sixth" (euthanasia).

When "For the Record" was cancelled, there remained only specials - of a very high quality - like "Chautauqua Girl" (early populism in the West); "Canada's Sweetheart: The Saga of Hal Banks" (a riveting blend of dramatisation, interviews and new footage about union and governmental corruption); "The Other Kingdom" (living with breast cancer); and "Where the Spirit Lives" (RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS for aboriginal children) in the1980s; and in the early 1990s "Love and Hate" (wife abuse and the impotence of law in Colin Thatcher's murder of his wife, Joanne; "Conspiracy of Silence" (the murder of aboriginal teenager Helen Betty Osborne); "Butterbox Babies" (why many babies in an orphanage in the 1930s died of abuse or neglect); "Million Dollar Babies" (the Dionne quintuplets); the harrowing "Life with Billy" (wife abuse); "Liar Liar" (a father wrongfully accused of incest); the gentle Christmas tale "Small Miracles"; a miniseries on the rise and fall of the AVRO Arrow; "The Sleep Room" on the CIA funded attempts to reprogramme the brains of the mentally ill; "Medicine River," a wry look at a successful aboriginal photographer who returns to his 'rez'; and the very controversial CBC/NFB collaboration "The Valour and the Horror" which combined period footage, stills, sketches by war artists, segments where the soldiers and airmen return to the scenes of action and, most controversially, dramatised excerpts to tell three stories: Normandy, Hong Kong and the battle fought by Bomber Command over Europe. This 3-part drama provoked a special Senate hearing, a multitude of letters to newspapers and legal suits, some of which are still ongoing. Also produced as drama specials were "Dieppe" and the superb complex study of evil, the critically acclaimed CBC/NFB collaboration "The Boys of St. Vincent" (based on the abuse of boys in various institutions by the Christian Brothers and censored by the courts in Ontario and parts of Québec until the court cases in those places were concluded). All of the above drama specials and many others were seen in countries outside Canada. All of them were broadcast in other countries and some were shown as movies of the week on major American networks.

With the cancellation of "For the Record," there has been no regular anthology where contemporary issues are addressed. "Street Legal" began as a place where topical issues which confronted society could be presented and mediated. Later, while continuing to focus on some topical issues in their social and political context, primetime soap elements were added and the ratings went up. The most risky series, which grew substantially in popularity in the south as well as the north was "North of 60" (1992-97). It was a post-Oka recognition of the First Nations' peoples and their interactions with mass culture. On one level it was an affectionate portrait of life in an isolated village like Lynx River, but on another it confronted issues such as the life-long impact on aboriginal people of native residential schools and of the bureaucratic tangles generated by a paternalistic government.

The CBC has also made some very successful prime time television for teens and for youth. It started in the mid-1980s with "Degrassi Street," "Degrassi Junior High," "Degrassi High" - all series with an ensemble of believable children who grew up on the set portraying both the lighter and more serious problems of growing up. These series were eventually converted to a teen soap called "Northwood." Most recently in "Straight Up," the CBC has explored the very different, tougher world of teens in large cities. This is a series/anthology of short experimental films with characters whose paths sometimes cross. "The Rez," based loosely on W.P. Kinsella's short stories, looks at the same age group living on a reserve. The tone is more comic but some of the digs at 'wannabes' sting and the dilemmas are complicated by Rez politics and an ambivalence towards Native heritage.

Two of the most successful programs for the whole family over the years have been the long-running "Beachcombers" (19 years) and "Road to Avonlea", which followed the very successful miniseries "Anne of Green Gables" and its sequel. The darker "Emily of New Moon" is winning a new generation of viewers.

Television drama is the most expensive of all television staples. The approaching convergence of technologies, like telephones, computers and television, the "death star" satellites that will deliver 500 channels to small dishes, fiber optic cable that will deliver programs "on demand," video games and the Internet will have unforeseen consequences. Among the possibilities for television drama are many more re-runs of until now unavailable Canadian dramas; many new and old foreign series subtitled - particularly "télénovellas" and "téléromans"; dramas tailored to the needs of specialty channels - health, legal, Harlequin romance, sports, country and western, etc.; alternative or additional episodes of existing series on line; episodes of series by amateur fans - or even new series and soaps; professionally written interactive dramas where the writers will write many plot-lines and character details which viewers can access and thus "make up" stories to suit themselves.

But the primary functions of television drama will remain the same. Television drama performs many functions. We stay in touch with one another by caring about the PLOUFFES, the Sturgesses or the folks in Avonlea, by arguing about Riel or laughing at the "King." We tell our children stories about themselves through an excellent children's TV service. We educate ourselves about issues, recapture history, debunk old myths and create new ones.


Further Reading

  • Canadian Drama 9 (Spring 1983), an issue directed to articles on Canadian radio and TV drama; Richard Collins, Culture Communication and National Identity: The Case of Canadian Television (1991); M.J. Miller, "Canadian Television Drama, 1952-1970," Theatre History Journal 5 (Spring 1984); M.J. Miller,Turn Up the Contrast: CBC Television Drama Since 1952 (1987), and Rewind and Search: Makers and Decision Makers in CBC Television Drama (1996); Paul Rutherford When Television Was Young: Primetime Canada 1952-67 (1990).

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