Channelling Mayhem

Winnipeg Babysitter, which screens April 15 in Toronto as part of the Images Festival, is Daniel Barrow’s heartfelt homage to Winnipeg’s heyday of community-access cable TV.

Despite Sally Ann costumes and cardboard props, no-show guests and occasional patches of dead air, Winnipeg’s heyday of community-access cable TV offered an inspired, idiosyncratic atmosphere that’s hard to imagine in the increasingly standardized, centralized and business-like era of mainstream media.

Winnipeg Babysitter, which screens April 15 in Toronto as part of the Images Festival, is Daniel Barrow’s heartfelt homage to a time when Canadian broadcasters were legally mandated to provide resources for local programming, thus offering a pre-internet outlet for any enthusiasts, eccentrics or flat-out show-offs who wanted a weekly TV show. It’s hard to say whether Winnipeg’s programming was weirder than that of other centres, but its hold on the civic imagination has certainly persisted. (You can argue that its can-do, cooperative attitude and lo-fi aesthetic show up in the drawings of The Royal Art Lodge and the worked-over films of Mike Maryniuk.) 

Barrow has brought together a rambunctious video-clip collection, which he has “curated from childhood memories.” Next to the screen, he runs his very own “magic lantern show,” with text giving information about the programs. (There’s nothing downloaded or power-pointy here: the 34-year-old Winnipeg-based performance and multimedia artist celebrates the DIY spirit of community TV by providing commentary with printed transparencies on an overhead projector.)

Most of Barrow’s material comes from the 1980s, when the zenith of cable-access programming dovetailed with the VCR era, and beloved shows found their way onto homemade VHS tapes in rec rooms all over Winnipeg. Original tapes of the shows were junked shortly after Shaw acquired local cable provider Videon in 2001, so Barrow’s footage — which he has been hunting down for almost three years — was scavenged through informal channels, mostly from the private archives of show hosts or the stashes of packrat fans.

In technical terms, these shows — once found on Videon’s Channel 11 — alternated between adorable incompetence and ingenious making-do. Content could encompass anything from Simple Crafts for Young and Old with the no-nonsense Mrs. Hoffman to the avant-garde provocations of musician Glen Meadmore, who — if apocryphal tales are anything to go by — would sit silently for a half-hour of Warholian ennui.

Winnipeg Babysitter made its debut last August at a sold-out screening in its hometown, offering viewers over age 30 a glimpse of their misspent youth, when watching Videon had a certain stoner cachet. Younger audience members, who came of age after the drawn-out death of community access in the late 1990s, came to get a look at shows that have since taken their place in urban myth.

While it’s easy to see why Barrow’s work would lure notoriously nostalgic ’Peggers, Winnipeg Babysitter offers plenty of scope for a wider audience. At the most obvious level, the clips can be screamingly funny, occasionally bearing an uncanny resemblance to SCTV’s spoofs of local “Melonville” talk shows and how-to programs.

There is Cooking with Fran starring the motherly Fran Prescott, who asks viewers writing in for recipes to have patience: “I don’t type them. I have to handwrite them, so it takes a bit. And the lady on Kildonan Drive,” Fran adds conscientiously. “I will call you….” 

There is the ineffably odd Math With Marty, in which freelance genius Marty Green does head-busting math problems on a blackboard and then stops for country and western musical interludes, often with sister Sharon and the show’s cameraman, Neil, acting as accompanists. Or Metal Inquisition, with dungeon-dwelling metal-head hosts who worship “the heavy” and denounce “the wimpy,” all the while undercutting this Spinal Tap posturing with ironic asides — and a house band made up of guitar-smashing sock puppets.

But beyond acknowledging these shows for their undeniable entertainment value, Barrow has serious points to make. He’s mourning the passing of wide-open access to the airwaves, which more or less coincided with a 1997 CRTC ruling that allowed stations to develop their own more polished and professional local content instead of relying on grassroots contributors. His eclectic clip selection affirms the importance of unpredictable individual creativity and applauds the efforts of ordinary folks who routinely faced down 30 minutes of potentially empty airtime armed only with grit, imagination, and sometimes a script “scrawled on a scrap of paper on the drive to the studio,” as a former host admitted at the Winnipeg Q&A session.

These cable-access pioneers may not have been suavely competent, but they were unflaggingly enthusiastic. It’s this quality of magnificent obsession that ties Barrow’s subjects together, from the cat-fancying John M. Bodner on What’s New Pussycat? (“We certainly have wall-to-wall silver Persians here”) to punk fanatic Dan Pachet on Alternative Rock Stand, who chronicled the local music scene for years, despite the near impossibility of getting bands to come in and tape early Sunday morning. (One clip shows Pachet soldiering on after another would-be guest sleeps in. “We’ll get through this somehow,” he sighs, uttering what could be the unofficial motto of the cable-access years.)

Videon’s crucible of creativity had a significant afterlife, as Barrow proves by tracking the alumni of Survival, a culty little show that ran from 1981 to 1987. Featuring a group of friends who pretended to be masked and anonymous paramilitary survivalists fixated on the coming “cataclysm,” Survival’s balaclava-clad cast included Guy Maddin, now Winnipeg’s pre-eminent independent filmmaker; Kyle McCullough, who went on to become a South Park writer; and Greg Klymkiw, currently a Toronto-based film producer. After a humour-free provincial cabinet minister happened to catch Survival, the group was obliged to make an official announcement of its satiric intent before each show. “If you’re taking it seriously, don’t,” the written warning suggested.

Of course, irony is always a tricky point in the consideration of cable-access programming. Barrow never goes for cheap laughs, preferring to approach the material straight on. He lets the footage run with relatively few interruptions, and his commentary conveys his respect — his tenderness, even — for the work and for the sometimes marginalized people who produced it. 

The limit of irony meets the edge of poignancy in Barrow’s presentation of The Pollock & Pollock Gossip Show, which began in 1985 and was arguably the most controversial, most watched and most discussed of the Videon shows. After this unclassifiable program was abruptly cancelled in 1989, reports of its strangeness grew and grew, eventually taking on legendary proportions.

Basically, “Rockin’ Ronnie” Pollock would spin tunes while his sister “Nifty Natalie” would indulge in what might possibly be described as interpretive dance. “Anyone can come and join us,” Ronnie announced during one show promo, and he wasn’t kidding. Along with stray guests the Pollocks picked up on the street or at the mall, this shambolic program might feature Liberace song stylings from a tone-deaf cross-dresser, a dance routine from a shuffling, half-nude elderly man, or an appearance by two giggly, tongue-tied, high-school girls.

Eventually, the Pollocks pursued what Barrow calls “their theme of ‘not quite normal’” to some excruciating extreme that could either be classified as neo-Dadaist performance art or just desperate exhibitionism. In the end, Barrow views their show as valiant: “We applaud the Pollocks,” he writes on his magic-lantern commentary, “for their persistence, their independence, their sexiness and silliness.”

Actually, that’s not a bad epitaph for the whole cable-access experiment, which has been laid to rest in Winnipeg but whose blithe spirit continues to haunt the city’s artistic scene. 

Winnipeg Babysitter screens April 15 in Toronto as part of the Images Festival.

Alison Gillmor is a writer based in Winnipeg.