Today as part of Rewind's look at the 75th birthday of CBC, radio drama. Michael Enright's co-host for this show is Eric Peterson. Eric is one of Canada's great actors- from stage to TV to radio. He's made his mark as fighter pilot Billy Bishop, crusading lawyer Leon Robinovitch on Street Legal and Oscar Leroy on Corner Gas. His first appearance on CBC Radio was in the Stage Series in 1974 in a play called "Them Donnellys." And most recently, he was in an episode of Afghanada.
The history of drama on CBC Radio is a long and illustrious one. In its early days, CBC's national and regional drama series were the primary showcase for the best of both home-grown and international drama. They also served as a training ground for many Canadian theatre professionals. In fact, CBC drama was our national theatre for many years, as professional theatre wasn't really established in Canada until the mid 50s. And as for Canadian plays, there weren't many of them apart from CBC drama until the late 1960s or early 1970s. For example, in the years 1944 to 1961, about six thousand plays were produced with more than half of them Canadian originals. This show will look at some of those older radio dramas, as well as some of the newer ones.
In 1936 the CBC was officially born. In 1937 the CBC appointed Rupert Lucas as its first head of drama, and he in turn hired a New York producer called Charles Warburton to prepare eleven plays by Shakespeare for broadcast. The stars were British and American with supporting Canadian casts. The first was The Merchant of Venice. But before the play got underway, a review.
And then with the coming of war, the CBC drama department became a source of war education and propaganda. There was The Theatre of Freedom, Transit Through Fire, The German World and Nazi Eyes on Canada.
But it wasn't all serious drama- there was room for comedy too. There was Johnny Home in 1945 and Woodhouse and Hawkins from 1941.
The writers of the Johnny Home show were none other than Wayne and Shuster- who went on to great acclaim on CBC Television and the Ed Sullivan show. The military historian Laurel Halladay has argued that the post-war boom in Canadian culture can be traced directly to the dancers, singers, comedians and performers who entertained wartime troops. Wayne and Shuster were prime examples. Here they are in 1953.
In 1943 with the appointment of Andrew Allan, the golden age of Canadian radio drama was born. As national drama supervisor for CBC, Allan commissioned the production of original Canadian plays and introduced the weekly "Stage" series of plays. The series attracted large national audiences and garnered a reputation as Canada's national professional theatre. Plays like the absurdist Burlap Bags by Len Peterson in 1946. It was about a man who finds himself in a world in which everyone wears a burlap bag over his head. Everywhere he goes he meets narrow-minded men living in illusions: the politician, the romantic lover, the sad man and the weak man chained to duty.
Also in 1946, Hugh MacLennan's classic Two Solitudes.
In 1950 the Prairie writer W.O. Mitchell started a series on CBC Radio called Jake and the Kid. It was enormously successful- running for six years with over 300 episodes produced. The story centres on Jake, the hired hand who helps a 12 year old boy and his mother run a farm in the fictional Crocus, Saskatchewan. The drama had a cast of cranky and compelling characters.
And then there were the soaps. Many of them were American, but Canada also had its own home-grown soaps- Aunt Lucy, sponsored by Sunlight Soap, Laura Limited sponsored by Leaver Brothers and Brave Voyage sponsored by... well have a listen.
And in May 1954 a play considered to be one of the most influential dramas ever aired on CBC Radio. It was called The Investigator and was a devastating satire on McCarthyism. It was written by Reuben Ship, a Canadian who had been deported from the United States after appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee because of his membership in the Communist Party. It told the story of an unnamed United States senator who launched an offensive in a rather unexpected place after a plane crash.
There was always room for original radio drama. The Stage series featured pieces like "A Lively Look at Leacock," a portrayal of the beloved Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock.
Comedy continued to be a big part of CBC Radio programming. Often it was politically based. In 1967 the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism reported on its findings- and the comedy program "Funny You Should Say That" had its own take.
In 1973 a comedy troupe called The Royal Canadian Air Farce appeared on CBC Radio. It poked fun at the political and social events of the day and became one of the network's mainstays. From May 1976, here is the Royal Canadian Air Farce.
CBC radio explored more comedy in the late 1970s and 1980s- Dr. Bundolo's Pandemonium Medicine Show, the Frantics and Double Exposure. Here is a taste of the latter two.
And there was still drama too- Johnny Chase in 1978 and 79 was called a space opera. It was a campy spoof at a time when the Star Wars movies were first making their mark.
In the 1980s there was a resurgence of interest in radio drama with a number of national network drama series. There was "Stereo Theatre," "Vanishing Point" and as well as the flagship series of original plays, "Sunday Matinee." And then there was Nightfall. Nightfall was a supernatural and horror series that produced 100 episodes in its three year run. Edgar Allen Poe's The Tell Tale Heart was one of them.
Nightfall was succeeded in 1992 by The Mystery Project- a weekly series of detective plays. One of the most popular was Midnight Cab. It followed the adventures of a naïve young cab driver called Walker Devereau who stumbles on a series of mysteries.
Another place that drama found its way to CBC Radio was on the daily program Morningside. Between 1983 and 1995 there was a segment devoted to drama. Most of the plays were Canadian, and they featured some of the top names in the Canadian theatre scene. Have a listen to segments from The Jaguar and the Panther, a dramatization of the relationship between Rebecca West and H.G. Wells and Booster McCrane, PM, a live weekly drama about an inexperienced small town lawyer who was unexpectedly elected prime minister. You'll also hear some of Mourning Dove, a drama which first aired on Sunday Showcase and explored the dilemma faced by the parents of a severely disabled girl. It was written at the time that Robert Latimer had been charged with the second-degree murder of his disabled daughter Tracy.
And in the early nineties, a very popular series that ran weekday afternoons on the Gabereau show. It was called Rumours and Boarders, and it was about the everyday comedic situations that befell a couple and their teenage daughter, as well as their sarcastic elderly roomer.
The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour was a comedy show that ran for four seasons from 1997 to 2000.
It was set in a fictional café in the equally fictional town of Blossom, Alberta. The show featured the writer Tom King as himself along with a couple of regulars- Jasper Friendly Bear and Gracie Heavy Hand. The show combined political critique with some cheerfully irreverent aboriginal comedy.
In 2007 an outer space comedy series called Canadia 2056 aired on CBC Radio. It was the year 2056 and the United States had launched an armada to destroy and alien threat. Canada sent the nation's only publicly funded spacecraft- the Canadia.
And Afghanada- a drama series that is still running. It looks at the current conflict in Afghanistan from the perspective of Canadian troops on the ground in Kandahar.