Winter 2005 - Volume 8 Number 1
This Hour Has Seven Decades
Toronto, McArthur & Company, 2004
Until I lifted up Patrick Watson's autobiography (and, at 614 pages, that is no easy task), I had forgotten what a weighty presence he had been in my early adulthood. I was one of those who waited expectantly for "This Hour Has Seven Days" to appear every Sunday night at 10:00 p.m. The show began on 4 October, 1964 and closed on 8 May, 1966. For me, it was the defining point in Watson's extraordinarily long career. During its short run, I was impressed by almost everyone on the show, but especially by the films of Beryl Fox from Mississippi and Vietnam. I also enjoyed the interviews by Douglas Leiterman, Warner Troyer and Laurier LaPierre. I relished the humour of Larry Zolf and the satire of Dinah Christie (whose name is not mentioned and whose photo does not appear, though pictures of Watson with Pierre Trudeau, Orson Welles, Peter Ustinov and Robert Duvall do). Did I miss something?
CBC executives killed the show. They prattled on about its lack of "objectivity." In retrospect, I cannot imagine what all the fuss was about. As William O. Gilsdorf has written: "Seven Days usually dealt with mainstream concerns and issues, taking a slightly left-leaning perspective on social issues. It might have challenged members of the Canadian elite but it rarely went outside the frame of dominant beliefs." There were some innovations especially in the use of hand-held cameras and the framing of close-ups during its "Hot Seat" segments, but, apart from some early experiments in "gotcha" journalism, it was all really quite tame.
That wasn't the way CBC management saw it, and I was more than a bit distressed at its cancellation. As with most acts of repression, CBC management merely intensified whatever "anti-establishment" sentiments its audience might have harbored at the time. Unfortunately, I cannot say, from reading Watson's account of his own lifespanning over sixty years in broadcast journalismthat my youthful resentment has been re-ignited.
Watson's book is certainly full of personalities. Almost everyone who was ever almost anyone makes a brief appearance. From Bella Abzug to Moses Znaimer, Watson's memoirs amount to an inventory of who was almost whom. Ezra Pound writes him a letter. Robert W. Service grants him an interview. Norman Jewison makes a brief appearance directing the "goofy" old "Alex Barris Show" in 1953. A page or two later, in 1959, Fidel Castro shakes Watson's hand "politely" but turns down an interview; "Not now," the Cuban leader says. In 1968 (mostly on page 300), Watson meets John Lennon, Al Capp, Tommy Smothers and Timothy Leary. It takes only three paragraphs to dispense with the "bed-in" for peace in Montreal. There, Leary provides one of the few funny lines in the book. The egregious Al Capp offers him a ride back to the US in his private Piper Aztec airplane (Watson knows the names of all airplanes and most other mechanical devices that pop up in the course of his life), and Leary accepts saying: "Why not, Al? It'll probably be the only time you and I will get high together." Well, perhaps you had to be there.
Watson's television is not full of information. By page 566, he is ready to declare that "a kind of formulation or principle began to emerge." He says to himself: "This is not an information medium. It is … theatre." Soon he will say that he has begun "to fit it all together into something resembling a theory." Part of me wants to say that it is about time! But the time doesn't really come and, by the end, I find that the greatest insight into communications is given not by, but to, Patrick Watson. He reports that Buckminster Fuller, in the late 1960s, persuaded him to be spontaneous. He took the advice. Thereafter, when giving speeches, he stopped writing them out in advance and relying on notes; instead, he spoke what was already in his head. Teachers take note: no notes!
Still, I want to find something good to say about this volume which has disappointed me on a number of levels. The only time I felt not so much passion (which doesn't impress me much) but strength was in Watson's account of his failed chairmanship of the CBC. That, however, was mainly contained in Appendix Foura paper or, better, an "action plan" written in 1991 and distributed to the CBC Board of Directors in 1994 during a retreat, "effectively," he says, "my last function as chair." At least, in the narrative, he reveals some genuine anger, and shows that he can give some "payback" too. The heat of the moment is refreshing.
What is wrong with this book? It is certainly comprehensive. It contains some amusing anecdotes and some engaging descriptions of what Canadian television appeared to be from the viewpoint of the amateurs and opportunists who created it more or less out of nothing in the early 1950s. There are some winning personal impressions and reminiscencesplenty of intimate comments about places where he lived and people that he saw. What is missing (or, at least, what I didn't get) is a deeper theme, a summing up as it were, an interpretation, beyond that which might be expected of a casual diarist, of what broadcasting and his life within it has meant.
When I think of the broadcasters whose programs have insinuated themselves into my life as a Canadian, only Peter Gzowski shows up more often than Patrick Watson (though I had to go to the index to be reminded of how frequently his work caught my attention and guided my understanding of this place and this culture). There are others, of course, who have brought tremendous contributions, especially to CBC radio, but (apart from Lister Sinclair) is it mere longevity that has made Watson's presence outstanding? Is it typical Canadian diffidence, or just the fact that he has told so many stories and that he lacked the energy, or the ambition, or the willingness to leave some things out in order to tell a larger story in a shorter tale?
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. He can be reached at email@example.com or 416-491-5050, ext. 5195.
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