Well, we've finally come to the end of a pretty terrible year for the city of Toronto. Ice storms, floods, crack cocaine. But 2013 was actually a pretty wonderful year for the Toronto Dreams Project. I launched ten brand new dreams, started the Toronto Historical Jukebox, teamed up with the AGO, and published a whole whack of blogposts — both here and over at Spacing. Now, as the year winds down, I've got the perfect opportunity to be completely self-indulgent and look back at some of the posts I had the most fun writing in 2013. And you've got the perfect opportunity to catch any of the best stuff you might have missed over the course of the last twelve months. I've picked my favourite dozen stories — some of them are also the most popular; some are just personal faves. But hopefully you'll enjoy them all. And have a wonderful New Year.Here we go:
Saturday, December 28, 2013
Thursday, December 19, 2013
The first post I ever wrote on this blog was about the Torontonian writer Morley Callaghan (and the time he punched Ernest Hemingway right in the face). I've come back to him from time to time. Earlier this week, I was listening to a CBC "Rewind" podcast about his life, which you can stream online here. It features an old interview he did with Michael Enright in November of 1974, which included a little snippet about Callaghan's love of Canadian winters. He was famous for it — and for his daily walks through Rosedale with his dog. (In fact, that's the subject of what I suspect is the most beautifully sad plaque in Toronto.)Since this year's winter has finally just arrived, I thought I'd share a snippet of his thoughts (complete, unfortunately, with his dated pronoun usage):
"The other thing about winter is... that on a winter night, if it's not too cold — now I'm not pretending to be a lover of those harsh winter winds — but on a lovely winter night when there is snow and when there is sort of unbroken snow, I love the cities. I love the cities when they're absolutely snow-covered and there's a kind of unearthly winter calm about them. And I feel a curious sense of peace and ease with myself and you can walk... and it's great, you know, when you yourself can break the snow. And somehow or other you get a sense of well-being in that kind of weather that you don't get in the hot summer...
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
In 1851, the year this painting was painted, Toronto was beginning to boom. It had been less than 60 years since the first British soldiers showed up to clear the ancient forest and make way for the new capital of Upper Canada, but the population was already skyrocketing. By the time of this painting, there were something like 30,000 people living in the city. The population had doubled over the last decade and would double again over the next. It was truly the dawning of a new age: in 1851 we started building our very first railroad. In fact, the City's own website uses this year as a defining line in the history of Toronto: between "A Provincial Centre" and "An Industrializing City."There were big new public buildings opening all over town. Some of them are still there today. Near King and Jarvis, the gorgeous St. Lawrence Hall had just opened, the city's main venue for concerts, political meetings and other public events. In 1851, it hosted an important anti-slavery gathering: the North American Convention of Colored Freemen, which included a speech by Frederick Douglass. Today, it's a National Historic Site. A block away, a new building had just been built at the St. Lawrence Market: it served as Toronto's City Hall for the next 50 years and can still be seen in the facade of the current Market. Far to the west on Queen Street, near Parkdale, the new Provincial "Lunatic Asylum" had recently begun taking its very first patients. It lasted all the way to the 1970s before we tore the beautiful old building down. It was in 1851 that the first in a series of brick walls was designed for the grounds. The patients were used as free labour to build them. A section of the walls survives to this day, on the eastern edge of what's now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Meanwhile, the Province of Canada had just become a real democracy. Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine had recently won an overwhelming majority on an election platform demanding the British government allow Canadians to make our own laws. They called it Responsible Government. Some of the Tories who opposed them were so pissed off they attacked the Parliament Buildings in Montreal, burned them to the ground, and threatened further violence. As a result, the capital was moved to Toronto. As 1851 began, Baldwin and LaFontaine were hard at work in our Parliament Buildings down on Front Street (where the CBC building is now). Their government would become known as "The Great Ministry." In a few short years, they brought in public education, a public postal service, an independent judiciary, our jury system, and our appeals system; they brought democratic reform to municipal governments and made sure anyone — not just the upper class — had access to the courts and could be appointed to the civil service. They also extended the right to vote — it wasn't just for property owners anymore — though, at the same time, they restricted that right to men only.
Despite all this change, we still remained an overwhelmingly British city: in 1851, 97% of Torontonians had been born in the British Isles or traced their ancestry there. It would be a long time before that changed: fifty years later, in 1901, the figure was still 92%.
But now, more than ever before, we were a particularly Irish city. Ireland had just been devastated by the Great Famine. More than a million people died in just a few years; many others fled. Tens of thousands of Irish refugees flooded Toronto in the years leading up to 1851 — at one point during the terrible summer of 1847, there were more refugees in the city than non-refugees. Hundreds died of typhoid at the old General Hospital on the corner of King & John (where the TIFF Lightbox is now) and in the temporary fever sheds built out back. It was the beginning of a great wave of Irish immigration that changed the face of our city. Soon, we'd earn the nickname of the "Belfast of North America."
Toronto had always been a very Protestant town. In fact, for the first four decades of the city's history, Anglican ministers were the only ones allowed to perform marriage ceremonies. The Protestant Orange Order was immensely powerful — just like in Belfast — and they didn't hesitate to use that power against Catholics. Prejudice was rampant. In the few decades after 1851, as the city became home to ever-more Irish-Catholics, Toronto found itself dealing with some of the same sectarian violence that plagued Ireland. There would be dozens of riots between Protestants and Catholics before the end of the century.
By the end of 1851, however, the era of Baldwin and LaFontaine was suddenly over. They had granted an amnesty to the rebels of 1837, allowing them to return from exile. For the first time in more than a decade, the old trouble-making former mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, was back at home living in Toronto. He was joined by other returning rebels — unsurprisingly, they were more radical than the moderate liberals (like Baldwin and LaFontaine) who had refused to take up arms. It didn't take long for Mackenzie to get elected to parliament and to cause problems for the Great Ministry. Baldwin and LaFontaine were relatively young — in their 40s — but they were already exhausted from years of political struggle and plagued by a variety of illnesses. (Most famously, Baldwin had been suffering from severe depression since the death of his wife 15 years earlier.) When one of Mackenzie's bills to overturn one of Baldwin's new laws got unexpectedly strong support, Baldwin resigned. LaFontaine wasn't far behind.
And so, as 1851 turned into 1852, the Province of Canada was in the hands of a new generation of political leaders. In the wake of the Great Ministry, people like George Brown and John A. Macdonald would rise to prominence. The fight for Responsible Government was over. Now, it was time to start down the road to Confederation.
Image: it was an artist born in Germany who painted this painting. Augustus Köller had been raised in Düsseldorf and now lived in Philadelphia. He made his living off watercolours and lithographs. His work took him to cities all over North America. For this painting, he seems to have taken a vantage point looking out over the city from the ancient shore of the prehistoric Lake Iroquois, just north of Davenport Road now. The land up on top of the hill had long belonged to the city's elite — it's where many had their country estates. In fact, up on that hill right next to where Casa Loma is now, Robert Baldwin's family built the first Spadina House.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
|Cartier's cross, 1534|
I. JACQUES CARTIER
So there's this story about Jacques Cartier. He was a French explorer, of course, one of the very first Europeans to ever come to Canada. At the end of his first trip here, he erected a cross on the Gaspé Peninsula, as a way of claiming the land for France. They say that's how he met Donnacona.
Donnacona was the Chief of Stadacona, a village around where Québec City is now. When the French erected their cross, they noticed that the Chief seemed kind of annoyed by it. So Cartier decided to trick him. The French made signs as if they wanted to trade with the Chief — and when Donnacona got close enough to their ship, they trapped him, forcing him and his two sons on board. Eventually, they came to an arrangement: the sons would sail with Cartier for France. They would learn French. And then, after the winter was over, they would return to the New World with Cartier — where they would be his guides
|Cartier & Chief Donnacona|
|Stephen Harper & Chief Fontaine (via)|
But maybe not as much as we settlers would like to think. After all, as absurd as it seems, it was the official policy of the Canadian government to forcibly remove First Nations children from their homes until very recently. The last residential school didn't close until 1996. The entire system was founded on the idea that the First Nations should be taken far away from their ancestral homes and forced to assimilate. They, like Donnacona and his sons, would be forced to learn French, or English, and to leave their own cultures behind. The aim, as one government official put it, was to "kill the Indian in the child." Frequently, the child was killed too. In the 1900s, children at residential schools died much like the villagers Cartier took to France in the 1500s did. Many were also physically and sexually abused, sterilized, and experimented on. To be fair, there was some progress over those 400 years: the mortality rate in residential schools wasn't 100%; it was more like 50% according to some estimates.
Or, to be more precise, he said: "this policy of assimilation was wrong". Those are my italics, because it seems like a particularly important qualification given that many people, even some of those who believe in the sincerity of Harper's apology, still believe that his ultimate goal is the forced assimilation of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis.
Many people trace their concerns about Harper back to a man by the name of Tom Flanagan. He's one of Harper's former chiefs of staff, campaign managers, and writing partners. The Walrus once called him "The Man Behind Stephen Harper"; one former Reform Party colleague calls the two men intellectual and philosophical "soulmates". In many circles, Flanagan is best known for his book First Nations? Second Thoughts, which lays out old colonial arguments in favour of assimilation. "Call it assimilation, call it integration, call it adaptation, call it whatever you want: it has to happen," he wrote in that book. And he followed it up by claiming that assimilation is "historically inevitable," "now largely accomplished, and will remain the basis of Canadian society." (He is also known for his suggestion that Julian Assange "should be assassinated" and, according to The Walrus, once had a book removed from an approved list of high school textbooks because of "'racial, religious, and sex bias' against women and Jews." More recently, he made national headlines after controversial comments questioning the idea of jail-time for people who view child pornography.)
|Residential school students in the 1950s|
Meanwhile, the echoes of the forced assimilation that began with Cartier in 1534 are still being felt in First Nations communities today, in cycles of poverty, violence, suicide, and substance abuse. As a result, more First Nations children are "in care" now than ever before — more even than at the height of the residential school system.
Still, the Harper government seems to blame those problems on some kind of inherent cultural flaw rather than seeing them as the result of hundreds of years of brutal systemic discrimination. That attitude was evident in the federal government's reaction to the crisis in Attawapiskat. The Conservatives blamed the state of emergency on the reserve's leadership and tried to impose outside management. Never mind that Attawapiskat, like many reserves, was already co-managed by a federal bureaucrat — or that their audits are continually monitored by the government. A Federal Court declared the government's response to be "unreasonable". In fact, Canada's former Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, reported that there is too much oversight of spending on reserves. A study of First Nations audits found less evidence of fiscal wrongdoing on reserves than in the governments of the average Canadian province or municipality.
And yet, Harper's paternalistic, colonial ideas aren't limited to his own government and allies. The problem is much bigger than one Prime Minster or one political party. In fact, assimilationist arguments are considered to be remarkably mainstream. Both Conservative and Liberal federal governments — as well as some provincial ones — have used Tom Flanagan as an expert witness in order to oppose First Nations land claims in court. Before his child pornography comments, Flanagan was a frequent "expert" guest on news programs and wrote editorials for newspapers. His ideas are echoed not just by the rants of racist online commenters, but in the columns of some of Canada's most respected journalists.
Chelsea Vowel, the Métis writer and lawyer, recently compiled some examples of anti-Indigenous racism in the mainstream media, while pointing to a study that found the same arguments being made today as in 1869. "[W]e literally see the same arguments being made year after year after year," she writes. Distortions, half-truths and outright lies are repeated over and over again. And they've been successful in their attempts to sway public opinion. A recent poll found that 60% of Canadians believe, despite the evidence to the contrary, that "most of the problems of native peoples are brought on by themselves." That's up from 35% in 1989.
It seems that far too many 21st century Canadians see the First Nations, Inuit and Métis in much the same way Cartier saw the Iroquoians of Stadacona back in the early 1500s: as people who must be assimilated for their own good; as primitive curiosities stuck in the past; as an obstacle to progress; as people with a culture colourful enough to parade before the King of France or at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics, but with nothing more important than that to offer the modern, European world.
|Idle No More|
Jacques Cartier wasn't the only European who came to Canada. He was, of course, followed by hundreds and then thousands and then millions more. And while there have always been plenty of settlers who saw Indigenous people in much the same way Cartier did — as "heathens" to be "civilized" — others saw things differently. In a new world they didn't entirely understand, some realized how much they could learn from the people who already lived here. The curative powers of cedar tea were just one contribution to a period of immense learning.
As John Ralston Saul points out in his book, A Fair Nation, some new Canadians didn't just see the First Nations and Inuit as peoples to be conquered; they saw them as civilizations worth engaging in a partnership. For 200 years, the fur trade was the foundation of the Canadian economy and the driving force behind European settlement in the northern half of the continent. Many newly arrived Canadians lived far from the growing cities of the east, in close quarters with the First Nations and the Inuit. From them, they learned how to live in this land: how to survive, how to travel, what crops to grow; they discovered shared values and new ideas. They were allies in business and allies in war. Some would form strong and lasting partnerships. Many even got married. In fact, it was the French government who first pushed the idea of intermarriage as a means of assimilation, but it backfired: many of the fur trappers who did get married chose to embrace Indigenous lifestyles and ideas. An entire new people came out of that period: the Métis.
So did an entirely new country. Canada would not be the nation it is today if it weren't for the contributions of Indigenous peoples — despite the myth of our having only two founding peoples: the English and the French. In fact, Saul goes as far as to say that many of the values we think of as modern, Canadian values — environmentalism, diversity, respect for the other — can be traced back to those centuries spent living with and learning from Indigenous peoples. He argues that Canada is, in a sense, a Métis nation. And that as progressive Canadians look for ways to embrace and support those values in the 21st century, it's important to be conscious of the debt those ideas owe to what Saul calls the "third pillar" of Canadian civilization.
Of course, there have always been Canadians who don't agree, who don't share those values, and who see multiculturalism as a failure: an unnecessary and dangerous compromise by whatever the dominant "Canadian" culture happens to be at the time. Instead, they look to the example of those old monolithic European empires: one nation; one people; one culture. And so, they said we could never form a country with the Québecois, that Catholics could never be trusted, that the Acadians needed to be expelled, that we needed a head tax on Chinese immigrants, that we needed to jail and deport all Canadians of Japanese descent and Canadians of Ukrainian descent, too. The day Canada became a democracy, they claimed we were betraying our superior British heritage and handing the country over to minorities. They were so angry, they burned the parliament buildings down. Many of our darkest days as a nation have come when too many of us agreed with those voices; our greatest days, when we've seen those voices for what they are — rooted in ignorance and fear — and we chose to stand up against them.
For centuries now, when it comes to the question of our relationship with the First Nations, Inuit and Métis, far too many of us have been listening to those voices. They are still there today, saying that the "Indian problem" is too complicated to be solved, that it's a cultural issue and a foregone conclusion — that there's nothing to be done but admit defeat and force Indigenous peoples to assimilate.
|The Royal Proclamation of 1763|
And so, last winter, his government's actions were met by Idle No More. It was the giant omnibus budget bill, C-45, that sparked it. Chief Spence went on hunger strike. There were protests at shopping malls, marches in the streets, railroads shut down, and construction sites occupied. The movement's website calls it "a peaceful revolution to honour Indigenous sovereignty." That alone would make it a worthwhile movement — the Canadian government has already gone far too long without living up to its legal, constitutional and moral obligations in its dealings with the Indigenous nations. But the website adds, "And to protect the land & water," which hints at the implications Idle No More has for all Canadians. Even the most selfish settler stands to benefit.
For one thing, Harper's attacks on the rights of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis are part of a larger attempt to remove any and all obstacles to "resource development" — including large-scale extraction projects like the tar sands, fracking and open-pit mines. Bill C-45 was one more skirmish in that fight, a fight progressive Canadians have been losing. The Conservatives have gutted environmental regulations, denounced environmental advocates as radicals and terrorists, muzzled government scientists, slashed funding for environmental projects and sidestepped parliamentary oversight. That leaves the unique constitutional land rights of Indigenous peoples as one of the strongest and most effective checks on the Harper government's unprecedented power. Last year, the Financial Post reported that the First Nations were on "the biggest winning streak in Canadian legal history": 170 victories in the courts. At a time when climate change is becoming an ever-greater challenge, the importance of those land rights is a truly global concern.
"It is our responsibility to protect Mother Earth, to protect the land for non-natives too," one former Mi'kmaq Chief, Susan Levi-Peters, said just a few weeks ago. "My people are speaking up for everyone... People care about the water. People care about the environment. This isn't just a native issue." And it's true. A recent poll found that 62% of Canadians support a moratorium on fracking — 66% of people in Atlantic Canada. But it was Levi-Peters' Nation, Elsipogtog, who organized a peaceful, weeks-long protest against fracking on their ancestral lands in New Brunswick. They were the ones who drew attention to the issue, they were the ones at risk when the RCMP's camouflaged snipers moved in, and they are the ones who now, in the wake of the violence that followed, find themselves the subject of one racist media commentary after another.
Meanwhile, Indigenous people make up the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population and are younger than the rest of Canada, too: nearly half are under the age of 25. Ensuring those young people have access to the same opportunities and educational advantages as other young Canadians isn't just the moral thing to do (although it is) or the fiscally responsible thing to do (although it is), it will also unleash a vast source of human potential: new doctors and nurses, new artists and teachers, new ideas and new advances. Then there's the economic argument: one study [PDF] found those young people could be adding $400 billion to Canada's GDP before the end of the next decade.
|The Charter of Rights and Freedoms|
Idle No More cuts to the core questions about what kind of Canada we want to live in. A Canada where all citizens are treated fairly? Where everyone has a voice? Where we seize the opportunity to learn from each other? Most Canadians are fiercely proud of our history of immigration and see our diversity as a strength. But this country is also home to scores of unique Indigenous cultures — cultures found nowhere else on earth — and for far too long, we've essentially ignored them, seeing their extinction as an inevitable side effect of progress. Or as a tragedy already complete.
But it's not too late. We still have a unique opportunity in Canada. And a unique history to guide us. While Idle No More has lots to offer politically, it's also a reminder of that cultural opportunity. If we, settler Canadians, want to take advantage of it, it will require our active effort. The true story of our nation's history — and of the current relationship between our federal and provincial leaders and the First Nations, Inuit and Métis — is not one the government has ever been anxious to tell. They won't do the work for us. We must also be idle no more.
Luckily, it's 2013; it will be easier for us to take advantage of that opportunity than it has ever been before. We can read Chelsea Vowel's blog with the click of a mouse. We can listen to Thomas King's Massey Lectures online for free. We can order his book, The Inconvenient Indian, in just a few seconds. Or have it shipped for free to our neighbourhood library. We can follow Vowel and Pamela Palmater and Hayden King and Wab Kinew and countless other Indigenous leaders on Twitter. We can stream panel discussions from The Agenda, or a free NFB documentary about the Oka crisis, or the entire CBC series 8th Fire. We can listen. We can learn. It's just the first, very small step, but the effort to take that step is barely any effort at all.
"Canada will not crumble and fall apart," Vowel writes, "if we become more honest and aware of the history of these lands and the incredible diversity of contributions by peoples from all over the world." She's right. In fact, Canada is at much greater risk if we don't.
In 1535, Jacques Cartier was too arrogant to realize how much the European world stood to benefit from Indigenous peoples. Nearly 500 years later, Stephen Harper and far too many other Canadians are making the very same mistake. We can — and we must — actively make the decision to see our country in a different light. To turn our backs on the worldview of Cartier and of Harper. To learn the unique lessons of our own history — and to make sure we never repeat the same mistakes again.
Friday, November 29, 2013
|The AGO before the AGO, 1907|
Hope to see you there!
Image: The Grange in 1907, via Wikiemdia Commons, with some photoshopping by me.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Doctor Who is more than 50 years old. The Guinness Book of World Records calls it the most successful science-fiction series of all-time. It's the longest-running, too. Since it first debuted in 1963, the show has aired nearly 800 episodes, plus specials, spin-offs, movies, radio plays, mini episodes, sketches for charity shows, books, graphic novels... It's an icon of British culture; the London Times called it "quintessential to being British." But if you want to trace the show back to the very, very beginning, to the person who more than any other is credited with the creation of Doctor Who, well, then you have to travel back to Canada, back to downtown Toronto, back to a brand new baby boy born in our city during the First World War.
|Sydney Newman at the CBC, 1950s|
But he would make his biggest splash as the head of the Drama department. He took it over in 1954; by then, CBC-TV was a big deal. Well over half the people in Canada now owned a television set; we had quickly become one of the leading television-producing nations in the world.
But it was a third playwright, Arthur Hailey, who wrote the biggest hit for General Motors Theatre. It was called Flight Into Danger, a tense thriller about an airplane whose pilots get food poisoning. It starred James Doohan (just a few years before he played Scotty on Star Trek) and it was a HUGE success. One critic called it, "probably the most successful TV play ever written anywhere." Hollywood turned it into a feature film (which was then, in turn, spoofed by Airplane!). The BBC aired the original CBC version, too. In fact, they bought more than two dozen Newman-produced CBC episodes. His shows were grittier, more innovative and more exciting than what the British were doing. And there, at the end of every single one, was Sydney Newman's name.
So he packed his bags and headed off to London to become the head of Drama for ABC. He brought his trademark moustache and bowtie with him — along with his radical, new, Canadian ideas.
"I didn't really like what I saw here [in England] on television," he said. "Most television drama in 1958 — and when I say most, I mean 98% of it — consisted of either dramatization of short stories or a novel, or consisted of hand-me-down theatre plays, which were adapted for television... The theatre has always been a kind of middle class activity... These plays never had any real roots in the mass of the audience."
Or as he put it more bluntly: "Damn the upper classes – they don’t even own televisions!"
As part of his job at ABC, Newman took over a show called Armchair Theatre — sort of the British version of General Motors Theatre — where he again made sure to hire exciting new writers. This time, they were British ones, many of them playwrights who were having trouble establishing themselves in the upper-middle-class world of London's West End theatres. Newman helped launch the early careers of English writers like Harold Pinter, Ken Loach and Alun Owen (who would later write the screenplay for The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night). His writers wrote about issues like race, sexual assault and the potential for a nuclear holocaust. And the work they produced for Newman at ABC met with the same kind of popular acclaim he had achieved with the CBC.
"They were locals," Newman explained. "They were ordinary people... they wrote about the country that they knew... We discovered that the audiences were just eating this stuff up. And in retrospect, looking back, the audience loved the plays because the plays were about them, not about some elegant people in drawing rooms... They were plays, really, about the working class. And for the first time in England, the working class was being presented not as comic foil."
|Newman & Kotcheff, CBC, 1956|
And it wasn't just the writers. Newman brought some Canadian directors with him to England. People like Ted Kotcheff (a Torontonian who would later direct The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Weekend At Bernie's) experimented with new camera techniques. Instead of boring, static shots, they adopted a more cinematic style, including hand-held camerawork and more frequent close-ups. Newman used those Canadian directors along with young British directors who were interested in the same kind of innovation. "We wanted to push against the limitations of the medium," Kotcheff remembered, "to approach the freedom of film, and not to enslave it to the theatrical tradition in which we found it when we arrived..."
Meanwhile, Newman used the talent he assembled to create a slate of brand new shows. His biggest hit with ABC was an adventure thriller capitalizing on the public's obsession with spies during those early years of the Cold War. It starred one of the British actors Newman had regularly used back in Toronto. It was called The Avengers. It would prove to be one of the most famous television shows ever. But that was nothing. Newman had an even bigger hit coming.
In 1962, he left ABC for the BBC. Now, he would be the head of their Drama department. And the new boss wanted him to mix things up.
|Pathfinders in Space, 1960|
Newman insisted the show had to be educational — about science and history — and that, even if the premise was extraordinary, it still had to connect with the ordinary lives of the people watching. He nixed the idea of making the main characters scientists (they wouldn't need to learn as much), proposed the cast should include a teenaged girl (who young people could identify with) and when the writers suggested the time machine should be invisible, Newman argued it should present a striking visual image instead. In the end, the Doctor's first companions would be a science teacher, a history teacher and his own teenaged grand-daughter, while the TARDIS time machine would take the form of an iconic blue police box — a familiar sight to English viewers in 1963.
But while Newman might have played a leading role in the creation Doctor Who, he wasn't going to produce it or direct himself. So, as usual, he set about finding the most exciting, young, innovative talent he could find.
Meanwhile, the director for the first episode would be Waris Hussein. He was even younger: just 24, a recent graduate of Cambridge, where he'd worked with student actors like Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellan. He, like all of Newman's favourite directors, was interested in bringing a more cinematic style to television. And he, too, was breaking new ground: the very first Indian-born director to work for the BBC.
But as talented as they were, shooting that first episode would prove to be a major challenge for Lambert and Hussein. The BBC executives above Newman weren't completely sold on the show. They threatened to cancel it before a single episode had aired. The production team was forced to make do with a small budget despite their need to create entire alien worlds, historical costumes and the elaborate interior of the TARDIS. They were also forced to shoot on a sound stage so old it was nearly obsolete: Studio D at Lime Grove, a long, thin room which didn't give them much space at all. They couldn't even fit the police box in the elevator. "It was so old-fashioned, it didn't even have a lighting console," Lambert remembered in later interviews, "...It was like going into a studio that had come out of Noah's Ark... It was horrendous. If it got too hot, the sprinklers would turn on."
Their first attempt at shooting the first episode — in which the Doctor and his companions travel back to the Stone Age — was a disaster. The Doctor wasn't funny enough. The grand-daughter was too strange. Hussein had been too ambitious with his cinematic camerawork; the early TV cameras were just too clunky and heavy to pull it off. One of the actors remembered the day they screened the episode for Newman: "There was a long silence. And then Sydney got up and just said, 'Do it again, Waris.'"
Newman took Lambert and Hussein out to a Chinese restaurant in Kensington High Street to explain just how bad it was. "By rights I should be firing both of you," he told them, according to Hussein. But he believed in their talent and was willing to give them a second chance. Decades later, Hussein is still grateful: "For Sydney to put himself on the line makes him into somebody who, as far as I'm concerned, is a hero."
Their second attempt at filming the first episode went much better. The night before it was supposed to air they were already working on the filming of a second storyline. It was November 22, 1963. That date is better remembered for another reason.
|The First Doctor, William Hartnell|
No matter how good it was, the premiere of Doctor Who was doomed to be overshadowed by the death of JFK. When the first episode aired the next day, it was slightly delayed in order to broadcast more news about the assassination. And the public just wasn't in the mood for time-travelling adventure. The BBC decided to the air the first episode again the very next week, but at the end of the first serial — four episodes based on the Stone Age story — the show's ratings were average at best. The BBC was going to need more convincing.
They say it was the Daleks who saved Doctor Who. The Doctor's arch-nemeses both terrified and thrilled children: their creepy robotic voices; their bone-chilling "Exterminate!" catchphrase; the aesthetics of a lethal salt and pepper shaker armed with a toilet plunger and a ray gun. The aliens who felt no emotion but hate were a hit as soon as they appeared for the very first time in the show's second serial. By the end of that storyline, there were more than 10 million people watching Doctor Who. Dalekmania had arrived.
Sydney Newman didn't like the Daleks. He agreed with one of the BBC reports when it said the show should avoid the use of "bug-eyed monsters." Newman called it "the cheapest form of science-fiction." But as you might expect from a 50 year-old show whose main character has been played in a dozen different forms by a dozen different actors, Doctor Who can't be reduced to the vision of one person. It quickly took on a life of its own. Those bug-eyed monsters became a staple of the show's format and a large part of its appeal, sending generations of delightfully terrified children scrambling to watch the action from behind the safety of their sofas.
But even half a century later, the use of those alien monsters still reflects the values Newman brought to the show when it first started. They're about more than just cheap scares; they're a learning opportunity. They give the Doctor a chance to demonstrate his respect for others and his belief that violence should be used only as the very last resort. He prefers to use his brain to solve problems. He's willing to risk his own life in order to open a dialogue with those bug-eyed monsters who, more often than not, turn out to have perfectly logical motives. Even if they're not always good ones.
|"The Dalek Invasion of Earth," 1964|
It was also, at the very same time, helping to reshape the British national identity. Pearson's peacekeepers were a response to British and French military aggression during the Suez Crisis in the Middle East. The Crisis was, for many Britons, a sign the Empire was not only over, but immoral. The BBC played an important role, clashing with the Conservative Prime Minster who wanted to muzzle opposition, pressuring the public broadcaster to support the government's position. It became a defining moment in the history of the BBC.
So it's not surprising a Canadian in the early 1960s would create a TV show reflecting something of a Pearsonian worldview — or that upon his arrival at the BBC, he would find plenty of people who agreed. Within a few years, in fact, Doctor Who had made the United Nations a major part of the show's storyline. And even today, the modern version of the series echoes the lessons learned in those dark days: the Doctor is haunted by the horrors of a recent Time War between his own people and the Daleks, and he's troubled by his own role in the violence.
Newman would continue on with the BBC until the late '60s — he was still there when the show made its next genius leap forward: the idea of "regeneration." It allowed them to replace the aging actor who played the First Doctor, William Hartnell, with a new actor playing a new twist on the same old character. It gave the show a built-in way of evolving over time, connecting with successive generations of viewers, and helping to ensure that it would still be a huge hit long after Newman and all the other original creators of the show had moved on.
And for Newman, that time would come sooner rather than later. After he left the BBC, he stayed in England to make feature films for a while, but he didn't find much success with it. Besides, he missed Toronto.
"I am eternally interested in going back to Canada," he told one interviewer, "...it is my country. I mean, just the sheer thought of Yonge & College streets sends shivers... I can't wait to see the Toronto City Hall. I can't wait to go to Georgian Bay. It's my country. And there's something deep about this. It's corny and it's junior Chamber of Commerce stuff, but it's me."
Finally, after a decade in England, Newman headed back home to Toronto. London's Sunday Times mourned the loss. "Sydney Newman flew back to Canada yesterday, and British television will never be quite the same again. Arguably the most significant individual in the development of British television drama and a central architect of Canadian television in the fifties."
But the Canadian television scene he came back to wasn't quite the same as the one he'd left behind. The CBC had drastically slashed their drama department, prompting an exodus of Canadian talent. Homegrown writers, directors and actors all decided they would be better off in England or the United States. Newman called it, "a tremendous loss to... the consciousness of the nation... a tragedy for the country as a whole."
|Student FLQ rally, Montreal|
Meanwhile, the greatest success of his career wasn't even being aired in Canada. The CBC had shown the first 26 episodes of Doctor Who, but then stopped. Canadians wouldn't be able to watch it on TV again until the late 1970s, when TV Ontario finally picked it up for good. They even added to the educational angle of the show: an intro or wrap-up put each episode in its scientific or historical context, hosted at first by a futurist U of T professor and then Torontonian science-fiction writer Judith Merril.
Sadly, by the late 1980s, the show's popularity was slipping even at home in England. On Saturday afternoons, it was forced to complete with Mr. T in the wildly popular American show The A-Team; when it got moved to Mondays, it was up against the mother of all British kitchen sink dramas: Coronation Street. Doctor Who was almost cancelled in 1986, survived and then got cancelled for real. Newman had some meetings with the BBC in an attempt to save it and take over as producer, but he didn't get along with the network's new management. For more than a decade, the BBC didn't make any new episodes of Doctor Who. A full-length movie by FOX, featuring a new Doctor in an American setting, was meant to spark new interest and a new series, but it didn't work. It looked like Newman's greatest triumph was finally, completely dead.
|The Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith|
I'll be writing about the new episode at the Little Red Umbrella, where I've already got posts up about the recent mini episode and pretty much all of last season. You can check that all out here.
Newman and Lambert have both been referenced a couple of times in the new version of the series. There's a character in one episode called Verity Newman; in another, in which the Doctor forgets who he is and think he's human, he gives his parents' names are Sydney and Verity.
There's a whole documentary about the origins of Doctor Who called, appropriately enough, Doctor Who: Origins. There's another one, too, called The Story of Doctor Who. They're both great. The BBC also did a radio program all about he creation of the show recently, which you can stream online here. And they have a whole website dedicated to the creation of the show, including all those early reports and character sketches. They also have an article about one of the documents here.
Jamie Bradburn has the full story of Flight Into Danger and "The Adventures of Sydney Newman" in a post for Torontoist here. Sydney Newman gave a long interview to the CBC in 1966, while he was still with the BBC, which is where some of the quotes in my post come from. You can watch it online thanks to the CBC archives here. The Museum of Broadcast Communications has a webpage about him here. The Canadian Film Encyclopedia has one here. The British Film Institute has another one here. He's also featured a bit in the book Rewind & Search which you can, in part, online thanks to Google Books here. And in When Television Was Young here. His Wikipedia page is here.
Sydney Newman interestingly enough, was also the first person to Marshall McLuhan on TV, as part of a series on University of Toronto professors which you can learn a little bit more about here.
Newman died of a heart attack in 1997. He lived in Governor's Bridge, just north of the Brickworks. When he passed away, the Guardian declared, ""For ten brief but glorious years, Sydney Newman... was the most important impresario in Britain... His death marks not just the end of an era but the laying to rest of a whole philosophy of popular art."
Verity Lambert has also passed away. The Independent shares more about her story in her obituary here. She would eventually run her own Drama department at Thames Television. Sad they're not both still here to enjoy the show's 50th anniversary.
You can watch a couple of Sydney Newman's WWII propaganda films here and here. The Canadian Film Encyclopedia has more about the entire "Canada Carries On" series here. You can learn more about the founding of the NFB here. And about the NFB in general from the book In The National Interest: A Chronicle of the National Film Board of Canada which is, in part, online thanks to Google Books here. The Canadian Encyclopedia shares the history of the CBC here. You can learn more about General Motors Theatre here. And about Lister Sinclair's controversial abortion CBC radio play here. Wikipedia has a bit about the Canadian version of Howdy Doody here. And there's a blog with a little bit more about it here.
There are a bunch of Canadian Doctor Who fan sites. In fact, the Canadian fan club offshoot of the original British fan club — The Doctor Who Appreciation Society — is the longest-running Whovian fan club in North America. 33 years old this year. They're called the Doctor Who Information Network. There's a terribly popular podcast, too: Radio Free Skaro. And countless blogs and Tumblrs, as well as reference sites like The Doctor Who Reference Guide and Doctor Who: A Brief History of Time (Travel).
You can learn more about the BBC and the Suez Crisis in this PDF from the BBC.
You can learn more about the Torontonian director of Weekend At Bernie's, Ted Kotcheff, here.