Imagine a TV show that was a mash-up of “60 Minutes” and “The Daily Show.” Fifty years ago, Canada had such a show in “This Hour Has Seven Days.”
An episode of the series, plucked from the CBC archives, was screened recently at the 2nd annual Canadian International Television Festival in Toronto. Combined with a couple of shows from the 1970s — “Party Game” and “The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour” — it offered a glimpse at what could be argued was Canada’s “Golden Age” of television: the mid 1960s through mid-’70s.
The scope of this single episode of “This Hour Has Seven Days” was astonishing. Originally shown Oct. 24, 1965 — smack in the middle of the “Mad Men” era — the hour truly crammed in a week’s worth of memorable moments. Off the top, hosts Laurier LaPierre and Patrick Watson referenced an empty chair reserved for party leaders with enough guts to come on their show in the weeks leading up to a federal election. There was a sobering report on the shooting death of a Sudbury policeman. That led to a cheeky, pre-election poll of homeless men in shelters in Toronto and Vancouver (conducted by saucy news-pundits Larry Zolf and Jack Webster). LaPierre jousted with the editor of Playboy competitor Penthouse while a British church leader and a playwright poo-poohed.
Watson then went toe-to-toe with Orson Welles in an interview that should be required viewing in every journalism school in the country. Far from the fawning entertainment interviews of today, Watson could not be more direct or blunt, asking the famous director if his whole career had been reduced to a series of magic tricks post-“Citizen Kane.” Welles, a Goliath next to Watson, glowered but remained engaged by his fearless inquisitor, who threw a reference to Cicero at his subject. It’s a dazzling display of wit and chutzpah, qualities Welles of all people had to respect.
Among the startling revelations from the exchange: Welles had a deal at CBS to do a TV production of Julius Caesar — set in modern day — but the whole thing was scuttled when the American network refused to pick up the $12,000 tab for costumes. It was to star Richard Burton, Trevor Howard, Robert Morley and Welles — who had all waived their fee!
There was a smartly packaged segment on Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo. A sketch followed mocking British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson.
The final segment featured unflappable Robert Hoyt interviewing two Georgia-based Grand Dragons of the Ku Klux Klan. Wearing hoods, the two elders had no idea Hoyt was going to invite a black civil rights leader onto the panel. By the end of the tense segment, you could barely see any of them through the thick haze of cigarette smoke.
Dinah Christie, who modestly describes herself as the newsmagazine’s “token blond,” says the confrontation was unforgettable. Just 22 when she was hired after borrowing Watson’s guitar for her audition, she sang songs with lyrics written for the show by playwright and TV pioneer Mavor Moore.
Christie says the Klan ambush was shot ahead of time because it was so potentially explosive. “Seven Days” otherwise aired live, and — decades before the immediacy of Twitter — a phone number was flashed on the screen so that viewers could call LaPierre and Watson directly after each broadcast.
Christie says there was always an unease from upper management — referred to as “The Kremlin” — about the show. “They used to watch all the rehearsals,” she recalls. Watson used to slip fake lyrics for Christie to sing during rehearsals, holding the more controversial lyrics back for the actual live broadcast.
Less than two years into its run, CBC cancelled “Seven Days.” The ratings would top CBC’s schedule today, but network executives were unnerved by what they saw as loose cannons in Watson and LaPierre. They also resented that these young upstarts showed no respect, says Christie, putting the firings down to “simple, pure, middle-aged, stupid non-thinking.”
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