Sunday, July 01, 2007

Happy Canada Day! (2)

It's Canada Day, and we all know what that means! Okay, so most of you don't because you're handicapped by being, you know, Americans and all. July the First is the day that we as Canadians celebrate going from being a group of four colonies to something that was more than a colony and less than a nation – a Dominion. It took the Statute of Westminster of 1931, almost 64 years after the unification of the colonies to make the Dominions equal to the United Kingdom legislatively. Up until that time Acts of the British Parliament would extend to the Dominions and the laws of the Dominions could be overturned if they were deemed "repugnant to the law of England." Of course, most Canadians don't see this as an important change, although it meant that Canada declared war on Germany in 1939 on our own rather than as part of the British Empire as we had in 1914. We celebrate the birth of our nation as having happened on July 1, 1867.

Of course since this is a TV blog I need some sort of hook to tie Canada Day to TV. Last year, when I posted the picture of the Fathers of Confederation, someone asked "Okay, so that's the cast of characters. Now who plays them on TV?" (Okay, it was my buddy Tele-Toby.) Well that's not too easy. As far as I can tell there's never been a TV show, movie or mini-series that details the story of the founding of Canada as a united country – in other words no Canadian answer to 1776. Back in the 1950s the National Film Board did some dramatizations of great people in Canadian history and focused a lot of time and energy on the period between 1840 and 1867. They were Social Studies class staples when I was a kid.

On the other hand, Canadian Prime Ministers are a surprisingly rich vein to be mined. There haven't been that many more shows about Canadian Prime Ministers there are enough, and they seem to be timed in such a way that most of the 140 years of Canadian history is covered without having to reference The Royal Canadian Air Farce and This Hour Has 22 Minutes too much until you hit the modern period. I have a list of Prime Ministers and who played them, although sadly I don't have images of the actors in the roles to go with the list. None of them seems to be available online.

Sir John A Macdonald (1867-1873, 1878-1891): The first Prime Minister is the probably the first Canadian Prime Minister to be depicted in a dramatic work. American character actor Frank McGlynn portrayed him in the British movie The Great Barrier, about the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Robert Christie made something of a career out of portraying Macdonald in those NFB films that I mentioned in reference to the Fathers of Confederation – he was in no less than five of them. Christopher Plummer played Macdonald in the 1979 miniseries Riel in a role that was more than a cameo but less than a full supporting part. Perhaps the best depiction of Macdonald was by the legendary William Hutt (who died just a few days ago) in the dramatization of Pierre Berton's The National Dream. Hutt's portrayal of MacDonald spans the period between 1871 (four years after Confederation when he was 56) and the completion of the railway in 1885 (at age 70, six years before his death). It is a tour de force performance, and for those of us outside of the reach of the Stratford Festival the first time we really saw him perform.

Alexander Mackenzie (1873-1878): The old Stone Mason, possibly the only "working man" ever to become Prime Minister (the rest have been lawyers or worse – civil servants) was the very definition of a "dour Scot". He's really only been depicted on screen once, again in The National Dream played by legendary Canadian character actor Gillie Fenwick, who I'm surprised to learn only passed away last year at the age of 90. Fenwick's portrayal is of a man who is a bulldog in opposition but once in power is labouring under the weight of the world.

Sir John Abbott (1891-1892): Following Macdonald's death Abbott, who was a member of the Canadian Senate at the time, reluctantly accepted the leadership of the Conservative Party and the job of Prime Minister. Although it is not clearly stated, there is a character named Abbott in The National Dream; unfortunately the actor playing the role isn't given screen credit or listed in IMDB entry for the mini-series. Interestingly, Christopher Plummer, who played MacDonald in Riel is the great-grandson of Sir John Abbott.

Sir John Thompson (1892-1894): The rising star of Macdonald's cabinet he was just about everyone's preferred choice to take over when Macdonald died but he refused until after Abbott resigned. He died of a heart attack at Windsor Castle within hours of being made a member of Queen Victoria's Privy Council. He's never been portrayed on film.

Sir Mackenzie Bowell (1894-1896): The senior cabinet minister at the time of Thompson's death he was an ineffective Prime Minister, and was removed by a cabinet revolt. Again, never portrayed on film.

Sir Charles Tupper (1896): The "Ram of Cumberland" was an incredibly able man who never really had a chance to show his abilities. He had the shortest time in office (68 days) was the oldest Prime Minister upon coming to power (74) and would be the oldest at the time of his death (96). In The National Dream Tupper is portrayed by Ted Follows as a fiery orator.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1896-1911): The man who said "The Twentieth Century belongs to Canada" was the first Prime Minster from Quebec and the first French Canadian Prime Minister. In the CBC and Radio Canada mini-series Laurier he was portrayed by the noted Quebecois actor Albert Millaire, who is also well known in English Canada. He may also have portrayed Laurier in The King Chronicle (see below) but maddeningly while both Laurier nor The King Chronicle have complete IMDB cast listings most of the actors do not have their roles stated.

Sir Robert Borden (1912-1920): Borden was Canada's first wartime leader (although Laurier who sent Canadian troops to the Boer War). He is almost certainly included in the Laurier mini-series but no actor is listed. He will apparently be portrayed by Francis X. McCarthy in the upcoming CBC mini-series The Great War, although this seems likely to be little more than a small part or possibly even a cameo.

Arthur Meighen (1920-21, 1926): Selected to replace Borden, one of Meighen's first acts was to call an election...which he lost. In 1926, when Mackenzie King's minority government was defeated, Lord Byng (the Governor-General of the day) called on Meighen as leader of the largest party in Parliament to form a government. King was able to rally the support of the third party in Parliament against Meighen and defeat his government. Meighen is almost certainly included in The King Chronicles but the IMDB listing for the miniseries is woefully lacking in details.

William Lyon Mackenzie King (1921-26, 1926-1930, 1935-1948): The first Canadian party leader selected at a political convention King's first term ended with a scandal over a tariff scandal (related to American Prohibition), while his second term was brought to a screeching halt by the Great Depression. His third term coincided with the easing of the Depression and the Second World War. His personal life was extremely eccentric; he was an enthusiastic participant in sĂ©ances where he talked to – among others Laurier, his late mother, his various Irish Terriers (all named Pat), and Leanardo da Vinci. He also collected ruins on his estate Kingsmere. He was almost certainly included in the miniseries Laurier. In the miniseries about his life, The King Chronicles, he was portrayed by well known TV actor Sean McCann. He was played by Andy Jones in Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story.

Louis St. Laurent (1948-1956): Probably best known to the public as "Uncle Louis" he was in fact a brilliant lawyer and a great political mind even though he didn't enter politics until the age of 60. Although probably included in The King Chronicles he is "portrayed" in the TV movie Joey by David Ross (I say portrayed because this seems to have been a filmed stage play and Ross played eight different characters including St. Laurent).

John Diefenbaker (1956-1963): A brilliant trial attorney, Diefenbaker was the first western Canadian to become Prime Minister. A brilliant speaker, Diefenbaker was a poor Prime Minister. Diefenbaker is played by Robert Haley in the TV movie The Arrow where he is very much the villain. He was presented in a far more sympathetic light in Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story, in which he is played by Paul Gross (who played Benton Fraser in the series Due South with a dog named Diefenbaker). Perhaps the most interesting portrayal though is in Laurier where Joseph Levesque played Diefenbaker as a child. The story goes that during a campaign visit to Saskatoon, Sir Wilfrid bought a newspaper from a young newsboy across the street from the railway station and had an extended conversation with him that ended when the boy informed Laurier that he had to get back to selling his papers – the boy was John Diefenbaker, and in fact there is a statue of Laurier buying a paper from Diefenbaker on the site where it is supposed to have occurred.

Lester B. Pearson (1963-1968): One of Canada's greatest diplomats he won the Nobel Peace Prize for the creation of the first United Nations Peacekeeping Force following the 1956 Israel-Egypt War and the Suez Crisis. Pearson defeated Diefenbaker in 1963 but was never able to win a majority government. Pearson was portrayed by William Parsons in 2002's Trudeau and 2005's Trudeau II; Maverick In The Making.

Pierre Trudeau (1968-1979, 1980-1984): Regarded as perhaps the most flamboyant and charismatic of Canadian Prime Ministers ever, Trudeau entered politics as a cabinet member and within three years of being elected to the House of Commons for the first time was Prime Minster. A tremendous intellectual, he was regarded alternately as a "philosopher Prince" and arrogance personified (particularly in Western Canada). He was played by Jean l'Italien in the 1994 Quebec TV series Rene Levesque; and by Pierre Gendron in the 2005 mini-series Rene Levesque. In the 2002 mini-series Trudeau he was played by Colm Feore (who was born in Boston but has lived in Canada for the past 40 years). In the 2005 prequel Trudeau: Maverick In The Making he was played at various stages in his life by Dany Duval (1933-34), Tobie Pelletier (1938-1944), and Stephane Demers (1949-1968). Demers had previously portrayed Trudeau in the 2000 Quebec series Simonne et Chartrand. Finally, Yannick Bousquet provided the voice of Pierre Trudeau in the NFB documentary Trudeau's Other Children.

Joe Clark (1979-1980): At 40, he was the youngest Prime Minister in Canadian history. He had to deal with internal and external opposition to his leadership of the Progressive Conservatives. He made the mistake of trying to govern with a minority government as though he had a majority. By the time of his retirement in 2003 he was regarded as the most trusted politician in Canada. In the Trudeau mini-series he is only depicted using archival footage although a number of other living politicians are portrayed by actors.

John Turner (1984): The "Golden Boy" of the Liberal Party, he ran against Trudeau in 1968, finishing third. He spent seven years in Trudeau's cabinet as Justice Minister and Finance Minister before leaving politics in 1975 over conflicts with the Prime Minister. He returned to politics once Trudeau announced his intention to resign and won the Liberal leadership. Four days after being sworn in as Prime Minister he called an election despite being tarred with charges of patronage by his predecessor. His election campaign was, to say the least, filled with blunders. In the Trudeau mini-series he was portrayed by Karl Pruner.

Brian Mulroney (1984-1993): A smooth, fully bilingual Quebec attorney his term as Prime Minister started with such promise, winning the largest number of seats of any Conservative leader ever, reducing the Liberal Party to a rump of 40 seats. Things rapidly went down hill, and by the time he left office was referred to as "Lyin' Brian" and there was suspicion of massive corruption though nothing was ever proved. Never portrayed on TV.

Kim Campbell (1993): Canada's only female Prime Minister she was also the first woman to be Minister of Defence in any NATO country. Her only act as Prime Minister was to call an election due to the fact that Mulroney second term had lasted the maximum five years. Her brutal frankness and apparent condescension when dealing with "ordinary" Canadians, combined with the scandal ridden Mulroney term in office and an incredibly badly run campaign led to the greatest defeat of any governing party in Canadian history, with Campbell's Progressive Conservatives reduced to two members – and she wasn't one of them. Except for being portrayed by Luba Goy of Royal Canadian Air Farce has never been dramatised on TV.

Jean Chretien (1993-2003): If anyone understood the ordinary guy (or was assumed to) it was Jean Chretien. First elected to Parliament in 1963 he held a number of cabinet posts under Trudeau. He ran for Liberal leader against Turner in 1984 and resigned from Parliament in 1986 to protest Turner's leadership of the party. He was a generally strong and pragmatic politician whose reputation for honesty took a major hit in his last years in office. In the Trudeau miniseries he was portrayed by Guy Richer, and will be played by Gordon Tanner in the coming CTV mini-series Elijah about former Manitoba Native politician Elijah Harper.

Neither Paul Martin Jr. (2003-2006) nor Stephen Harper (2006-) have been portrayed on screen except in parodies such as The Royal Canadian Air Farce.

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