He arrived in Canada largely by accident, a young Polish boy of 7 tossed about by the backwash of the Second World War, unable to speak either English or French. School was an ordeal until he found his voice in the 1960s as a student firebrand at Montreal's McGill University, the Anglo editor of the McGill Daily student newspaper advocating a "McGill français." He went on to become arguably English Canada's most influential broadcast journalist, a hard-news junkie putting his mark on the big events of the day and, almost as important, on the news culture of the CBC. His last big documentary in 1996, The Dawn of the Eye, explored his own métier and how the TV camera can lie. Now, Mark Starowicz is about to unleash his most ambitious television project, the $25-million Canada: A People's History. Filled with passion, intrigue and tricksters, it is a story much like his own.
A compact, dapper man of 54 - the ever-present cigarette held, Russian field marshal-style, between thumb and forefinger - Starowicz swans through the editing suites at the CBC like an impatient father. The first instalment of the 30-hour series is to air on Oct. 22, but only now are some of the key scenes being given their last dash of digital polish. Starowicz has hired some of the most accomplished directors and technicians the CBC has ever developed. But he can't stop himself tinkering. The sound of marching being fitted to a garrison of 1812 soldiers "is too 20th century," Starowicz observes quickly. He knows the sound of jackboots.
Five years in the making, A People's History is a story the CBC has long wanted to produce. But the subtext may be that of the CBC itself, living on borrowed time. In editing suite after editing suite, Starowicz introduces one top technician after another and walks through their personal stories: laid off last year or the year before and brought back on contract for this one project only. There is irony in this, and maybe a little guilt. Here he is sitting on the biggest single budget item in CBC documentary history and all he can feel is the dashed dreams, he says "of what the CBC might have been." He would know. He is, after all, something of a living legend at "The Corp." Still in his 20s, he transformed radio's As It Happens into a listening post on the world, launching the late Barbara Frum into the dinner-hour consciousness of millions of Canadians. He followed that up in 1976 with Sunday Morning, the radio show that spawned a generation of documentary journalists. After that came the Starowicz assault on television: moving the CBC evening newscast to prime time at 10 o'clock and following it with The Journal.
Flashy, expensive, determined, The Journal was one of the most watched current affairs programs of its day. When it was shut down and replaced in 1992 for reasons that are still hotly debated, Starowicz was unceremoniously shunted aside. "Not one of the CBC brass came to our farewell party," he notes. He recalls sitting in his office on the day after the final broadcast and hearing the chipper truck on the street behind the CBC building grinding the Journal set into tiny bits.
After The Journal's demise, Starowicz drifted. Then came the dead heat of the 1995 Quebec Referendum, and both he and the country were given another roll of the dice. Starowicz says he wants to leave a true record of Canada's history for his two teenage daughters and their generation in an idiom they can understand - television. But there may be another rationale at work - redemption. "Mark needs this project," one of his former senior producers says. "He needs to show he can still move with the times." And it is possible, too, that Canadian history needs his passion, his intensity. The stories about Starowicz are legend. He has an unfashionably deep belief in public broadcasting, public initiatives. The Sunday Morning crew was famous for working Friday night straight through to Sunday morning to get their documentaries to air. "Nothing," says Starowicz, "beats small teams of people - one piece of equipment - trying to do their best. Regimental pride is what makes documentaries special and this," he says - referring to A People's History, a grand battalion of special teams across two official languages, two mutually suspicious CBC networks and countless layers of professional expertise - "is the last great production of the old school."
Regimental pride runs deep in the Starowicz clan. His father was a Polish bomber pilot who flew 55 Royal Air Force missions over Germany. His mother was a partisan in the Warsaw uprising who was imprisoned by the Nazis. They met when he helped liberate her from a prisoner-of-war camp at the end of the fighting and were married three weeks later. Mark, their only child, was born in England but spent the first seven years of his life in Buenos Aires - in fascist Argentina - until his father's fledgling truck business failed and they were forced to take a tramp steamer to New York City, on the way to Montreal, where a relative was willing to help them start anew. Starowicz recalls feeling out of place in Montreal, always out of step with the culture of the playground. That feeling changed only when the Jesuit teachers at Loyola High School sparked his curiosity about the world and the drink-stained wretches at the Montreal Gazette took him in as an 18-year-old copy boy.
Starowicz was part of the print invasion of CBC Radio in the early 1970s. He says he didn't trust radio at the time, just as he didn't trust television as a news medium 10 years later when he moved on to create The Journal. But Peter Herrndorf, a then-CBC executive who now heads the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, asked him: "Are you really going to turn down the Normandy invasion of Canadian television?" The challenge became almost a personal credo, the gusto for the hit-the-beaches attitude that animates A People's History.
As it happens, Starowicz's father was in the first wave of the Normandy invasion in June, 1944. He flew a collapsible glider that was designed to deposit Allied equipment behind the lines. He told his son later that all he could recall was the glow of the taillights of the plane ahead of him, looking like a giant green snake weaving its way across the English Channel. Starowicz is now waiting for his own big green snake to move out, to disgorge the hopes and dreams of the baby-boom generation of CBC journalists who have mastered their craft and the intrigue and infighting of their times, and have now only one last set of (enemy?) lines to penetrate - the murky, often-untold story of their own country's history.
Maclean's October 23, 2000