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Brian Mckillop

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Pierre Berton

Pierre Berton

A Biography
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary
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In the summer of 1957, when Berton was dictating and then editing the text of his gold rush book for Knopf, the CBC aired a new television panel show, the brainchild of the writer John Aylesworth, as a summer replacement for The Denny Vaughan Show, a variety series. (At the end of August, Vaughan’s show was cancelled and he complained that the CBC was “selling out Canadian talent to the Americans” by drastically cutting variety entertainment.) Panel and quiz shows were ubiquitous on television at the time. They were informative, entertaining, and — most important — inexpensive to produce. With its title adapted from the American game show The $64,000 Challenge, and its basic idea borrowed from the BBC program What Happened Last Week, the show first aired on Monday evening, June 24, 1957. Guided by a moderator, three regular panellists and a guest questioned and identified a person hidden behind them to discover the news story from past or present to which he or she had a connection.

That evening, led by the moderator Win Barron, the panel of Front Page Challenge consisted of the veteran newspaper columnist Gordon Sinclair, the twenty-one-year-old actress Toby Robins, and the American-born entertainment writer Alex Barris. The former Maclean’s journalist Scott Young rounded out the group of interrogators. Together, they managed to identify a man who had survived a mine disaster at Moose River (Alfred Scadding), a woman who had been present at the birth of the Dionne quintuplets (Madame Legros), and the mayor of Montreal (Jean Drapeau), whose story was the investigation of criminal vice on his city’s streets.

Berton did not see the program because he did not own a television, but he knew about it. Stories had circulated in Toronto media circles during the early summer about the auditions that its producer, Harvey Hart, was holding in the basement rec room of his Willowdale home. “Everybody, it seemed, was being tested except me,” Berton wrote. He need not have worried at the lost opportunity. A month into the summer run of Front Page Challenge, the CBC confirmed that the program would continue into the fall. Hart decided that two changes of personnel were necessary. Win Barron, the show’s “managing editor” (as the moderator was initially called), had proven to be hesitant and uncertain on air, and Alex Barris tended to be too flippant to pursue the hidden stories. On July 25, CBC management announced that the managing editor of Maclean’s, Pierre Berton, would be a Front Page Challenge guest panellist on August 5. (The contract called for Berton to receive a fee of $100.) When the day of the show came, Berton drove down from Ogopogo Lodge in the Haliburton Highlands to make his appearance. He never did audition for the role.

The first weeks were by no means easy. On the day after Berton’s guest appearance, Gordon Sinclair noted in his Toronto Star radio and television column that while its ratings from the Toronto-based polling firm Elliott Haynes placed Front Page Challenge first among Canadian-made programs, ahead of Holiday Ranch and Country Hoedown, fourteen American shows scored above it. By the end of the month, its producers had stirred up a good deal of consternation and resentment within the Toronto entertainment community by announcing that Barron would be leaving and by restricting the search for his replacement to a handful of well-known entertainment figures — thought to be Berton, the veteran broadcaster Austin Willis (brother of J. Frank), the actors Paul Kligman and Barry Morse, and the musician and television host Fred Davis. To make matters worse, the CBC brass inexplicably replaced Harvey Hart, a decision that upset both the producer and the panel.

Near the end of September 1957, word leaked out that Davis had won the competition for moderator and that Barris had “lost his seat on the panel.” A month later, in his Star column, Gordon Sinclair revealed two secrets about the program. “Pierre Berton will be a semi-regular three out of four on ‘Front Page Challenge,’” he wrote, “and apparently granddad that I am, I was the last of the whole crew to notice why Toby Robins no longer does a walk on.” Just as no married couple in a television situation comedy could be seen in the same bed without one foot on the floor, no visibly pregnant woman could be allowed on-air exposure.

Few journalists in Canada had proven better at pursuing a story than Berton, but that was only one contribution he could make to the show. Its producers quickly recognized that the program’s appeal lay more with the panel’s personalities than with the hidden guests or their elusive stories. No less than a prime-time soap opera, Front Page Challenge had a cast of characters. Playing variations on themselves, Sinclair became the blunt and grizzled columnist, Robins the beautiful and perky young actress, and Pierre the chippy reporter. The mix was perfect: an old curmudgeon viewers grew to like, an aspiring career woman they immediately admired, and a smug know-it-all they loved to hate.

June Callwood captured Pierre Berton, panellist, as viewers saw him in the early days of Front Page Challenge: “When moderator Fred Davis cried, ‘Pierre, you’re right again!’ the studio audience begins to applaud and there is a swelling of orchestral jubilation but Pierre’s expression remains stern, unsmiling, unsurprised. He blinks a few times to indicate indifference, all but yawns and, in general, displays the characteristics of a boy riding no-hands past his girl friend’s house.”

Berton could bring to the program a detective’s instinct, needed for tough stories, and so to some viewers he was “the aloof inquisitor, the very epitome of a hard-nosed reporter, who tracked down a story and grilled a victim with a cold zeal.” But they knew too that on another level he served as a foil to the accommodative instinct of Canadians that made this northern breed of former colonials at once nice but boring, even to themselves. This was an ingredient missing on Front Page Challenge at the beginning, and in Berton its producers found an antidote to “nice.” This was a man viewers could detest for his cocky detachment yet admire for his breadth of knowledge. “He’s a marvellous villain,” John Aylesworth proclaimed with a note of satisfaction.

Even the cast and crew found it difficult to warm to Berton at first. Fred Davis found him “a cold fish.” “I can’t get close to him,” Davis told Alex Barris. A studio director thought that Berton’s arrogance was real: “Pierre was probably the most unpopular with the crews,” Steven Hyde said, “because they found him very snobby, very aloof. He was all for the working man but he didn’t want to rub shoulders with them.”

Arrogant or distracted? Aloof or shy? Perceptions of Berton varied, and a case could be made for each. The one truth universally acknowledged, however, was that Pierre Berton made Front Page Challenge a show to talk about from the moment of his first appearance. In November 1957, the Toronto Star media columnist William Drylie wrote, “Pierre Berton, said by some at CBC to be the hottest interviewer on tap . . . may be inviting over-exposure on TV. We’ve seen him on Tabloid, he’s on Close-Up, and now on Front Page Challenge three out of every four weeks.” But in the spring, when the program was bumped from its usual place in the television lineup to accommodate (what else?) the hockey schedule, Drylie wrote: “The Front Page Challenge show that was wept about was one of the tamer turkeys in the series and would never have been missed. Only Pierre Berton was worth his salt.”

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