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Canadian TV Needs an Archive -- Like, Now, Damnit!

11/25/2013 12:32 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 05:59 EST

English-Canadian television has been around since the 1950s -- and almost none of it is available. It doesn't get re-run late night. You won't find many old series on the DVD shelf.

Instead it's mothballed in network basements, requiring an almost Hobbit-like quest to the Lonely Mountain to find. If you know who to contact, what department to query and are willing to pay an arm and a leg, they might even run you off a screener copy.

A very few old series have been uploaded to YouTube. But I won't say which, for fear of drawing the attention of some overzealous copyright lawyer -- though such posters are doing more for the industry by presenting those shows than the holders of the actual rights who hide them away Smaug-like! (And that exhausts my Hobbit analogies for today).

The 1960s TV series Wojeck got a TV re-airing about 20 years ago (and proved popular enough that the CBC made a "return of" TV movie -- Wojeck: Out of the Fire).

Occasionally other reruns have floated to the surface, like a long hidden corpse that's broken free of the weeds. Side Street, A Gift to Last, Strange Paradise, The Great Detective (forerunner to the popular Murdoch Mysteries), among others. A limited run of black & white Wayne and Shuster episodes was arguably funnier, sharper than their better circulated colour episodes.

At one point Bravo dredged up a couple of early 1960s teleplays, both T.S. Elliot plays (I assume reflecting the bias of the programmer) -- but I'm guessing the ratings didn't encourage showing more.

I sympathize with why a programmer might be reluctant to commit time slots to obscure old shows when even classic American series often don't perform well and a lot of these old Canadian shows probably weren't that great to begin with.

But it's not about good or bad. It's about culture. Dramas and comedies that reflected their eras, giving us a glimpse of what was. It's about recognizing the creatives who were breaking ground or simply paddling upstream like Radisson in their struggle to create Canadian TV. (And given people do still remember old Canadian series that haven't been shown in decades, it perhaps suggests those shows did have something going for them!)

But if even I recognize that re-runs of Police Surgeon or The Phoenix Team aren't liable to generate many viewers, nor sell many DVDs, then what's the answer?

What Canada needs is an online archive where people can stream old shows. Like what the CBC does with its CBC Music website.

Not an archive that needs or expects x-number of hits per day. Just a permanent archive that those who are interested can visit, and those who aren't can ignore. Maybe offering three or four sample (but complete) episodes of dozens of series, as well as old 1950s/1960s teleplays, and even old TV movies.

Now I know the howls of objections that will follow this suggestion (or, as usually happens when suggestions are made to improve Canadian film and TV -- whinging). Securing rights would be a hassle! And if it's a free archive, who's going to pay the actors and writers and so on their residuals?

Well, that's the thing isn't it?

Do the math. Nothing + nothing is still freaking nothing!

No one's making any money off these shows mouldering in a basement anyway! So if the creatives had a choice between not getting paid -- and not getting paid but at least having projects they sweated over available for future generations, I'm guessing they'd opt for option number two. Particularly because (however unlikely) making these programs available just might rekindle interest and lead to DVD releases or reruns on commercial TV (or even inspire remakes like other countries do with their old shows).

I have an interest in Canadian film and TV. It's been my hobby for, well, I don't even want to think about how long. Yet I've never seen Quentin Durgens, M.P. or RCMP. I've never seen Seaway or Flappers or mini-series like Empire, Inc or an early 1970s adaptation of The Whiteoaks of Jalna. And I'm guessing someone with a less zealous interest would have seen even less.

It'd be neat to see "Flight into Danger" -- the 1956 CBC teleplay (starring Star Trek's James Doohan) that was subsequently re-made in a number of countries, adapted into at least two Hollywood movies, launched the career of mega-successful novelist Arthur Hailey, and led to the Airport franchise and spoofs like Airplane. And which, according to some sources, led to its Canadian producer, Sydney Newman, being hired away to England where he oversaw the creation of things like Doctor Who and The Avengers. A seminal work to be sure that, so far as I know, hasn't been shown in decades! Chances are it'll be corny by modern standards -- not something to ship a lot of DVDs, or win big ratings if re-aired on TV.

But from a cultural history point of view? Making it available for free on-line streaming would be fun.

Some of those old teleplays might be interesting simply for novelty, seeing later day stars (like Genevieve Bujold) in their salad days. On youtube there's a clip of William Shatner (the very poster child for cult icon) doing Antony's funeral speech from Julius Caesar -- it took me a moment to "get" what Shatner was doing with it, but it's actually a kind of cool (slyly modernist) approach. I bet there are a few Trekkies who might be tempted to spare an hour to watch Captain Kirk tackle The Bard.

The CBC did something like this as part of their 75th anniversary celebration, but it was an extremely limited number of series and is no longer available.

Still it was pretty cool to see the classic Wojeck episode, "The Last Man on Earth" -- and be reminded of just what an astonishingly edgy series it was for its day! It was intriguing to see an early short film by David Cronenberg that, absent his signature horror, was a wry satire. It was fun seeing actors, these days middle aged and older, back when they were young -- even teenagers!

I've long suspected Canadian film and TV is plagued by cultural amnesia. Even actors, writers, etc. don't seem to have much interest in what went before, almost as if it cheapens their efforts to recognize that before Flashpoint and Republic of Doyle series like The Manipulators and Quentin Durgens, M.P. also fuelled occasional water cooler conversations -- even controversy.

But when discussing where Canadian film and TV is at, and where it's going -- it might help to see where it's been. It might even be fun.