When pondering what one wants to be when they grow up, not too many place "narrator" at the top of their list. Jeff Douglas was no different. Although his love of performing thrust him into theatre, film and commercials (you may know him as Joe Canada in the Molson Canadian commercial The Rant), it was thanks to the strange forces of the media industry, a passion for storytelling and a voice you could listen to for hours that ultimately landed Jeff at CBC. Besides co-hosting CBC Radio One's As It Happens, Jeff lends his voice to another CBC program - narrator of the newly repackaged season of Who Do You Think You Are? We sat down with Jeff during a break in a recording session of WDYTYA? to find out more about the revamped season and what it's like to be a CBC voice.
CBC Live: What is different about WDYTYA? this time around?
Jeff Douglas: I think it's being repackaged to have... it's a little less stentorian, a little less didactic or formal, I guess is the best way of putting it and because I think the subjects are familiar. I guess what the producers and what CBC are going for is to have a little more familiar approach with familiar people... The Canadian public already knows the subjects - particularly the seven they're repackaging. Because the Canadian public knows them so well, there's no need to be formal with them. They are like old friends so they're making it a little friendlier, a little more familiar.
What do you think the journey for these Canadian celebrities have been like as they go back through their ancestry and discover unknowns?
JD: I think that in all of us, we have a sense of longing and searching, that we all do want to know ourselves better and we want to feel settled in our own skin and I think that's what I've watched from the subjects of all of these documentaries is that they do come away with it feeling tied into their ancestries more and I think that gives them a sense of being more firmly planted in the present by knowing their past.
Do you have a favourite episode of WDYTYA?
JD: Randy Bachman I liked a lot because I love Randy Bachman. I just I think he's a terrific person. He just seems so accessible in the documentary and his story because there's music in his family, I have music in my family as well, so I feel that and I feel the kinship that he has when he finds it because he does find that [it] goes deep, deep, deep into his ancestry. But the piece we're doing right now actually, Mary Walsh, just listening to her and thinking this is someone with an incredible capacity for insight and for looking into herself and I love that when she says: "The poor walk faintly on the Earth." I love that and it's so true. If you're not say William and Harry, I mean, their genealogy is no problem or the genealogy if you're an Eaton or if you're a Molson, it's done, it's part of the history of the nation. But for the most of us, particularly in a country like Canada that is a land of immigrants - typically a land of immigrants that came not because oh we want to live in Canada or whatever but because they didn't have anything where they were coming from. They were fleeing poverty or discrimination, danger. I think you do have to do a lot of digging and so Mary Walsh at that point that "the poor walk faintly on the Earth," that really struck me and her sensitivity to the plight of her ancestors and her empathy for them I find really striking.
Would you be interested in tracing your ancestry?
JD: I would be, yeah. I would be because I, like Mary Walsh, am like crofters and woodsmen and people who came from Ireland or from Scotland, fleeing from proxy, land owners and landlords and fleeing famine and stuff like that. I would love to know their story because I know just recently I was given a photograph of my paternal grandfather who I never knew. He was dead long before I was born and it's interesting - I've never met him. You would think that I should have very little connection to him. He's a stranger to me but seeing that photograph, it's an emotional thing. So to know more about him, to know about the journey - his journey and the journey of his forbears and my mother's side as well. I would love to. I think everyone would.
What is the best thing about narrating this show?
JD: I think being able to watch the stories, to watch them unfold. I think that for me as a narrator, the producers and the directors have done the research, they've written the scripts for me but other than that, my experience as narrator is basically what the experience of the viewer will be - which is to react.
You are also the co-host of CBC Radio One's As It Happens. What is the most important characteristic to successfully voice two different styles of program?
JD: I just think that, and this is in performing in general because [I've been] whether performing or presenting, it's all storytelling and I think that at the end of the day, you just have to go with your instinct, put yourself forward, best shot and not worry too much about getting it right. Like you've heard the process in here - if you don't get it right the first time, they'll coach you toward right but if you do not offer yourself, there's nothing for a listener or a viewer to hang their hat on. There's nothing human there. So you have to, warts and all, you have to bring yourself. You have to bring your reaction and your humanity, your empathy to it or understanding of it.
Your background is in performance, theatre, acting - so why narration? Why radio?
JD: One thing I've learned having been steered through the industry in this way through whether it's presenting a radio show or television show or narrating a television show is that what I love is story. I love stories and I love hearing stories, I love telling stories and so I think that it's two things that happened: A - It just happened. The industry drove me here and B - Probably the reason that drew me into performing in the first place was just a love of story.
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