Even though my friend Wilf, with his slight, wispy frame, looked like he could have been picked off the ground in a hefty wind gust, he was always a giant to me. He was a guide, mentor, friend and one of the best TV special events producers this country has seen.
- Lloyd Robertson
What ambition burns in the mind of a young man, raised in a sleepy, former provincial capital on the Bay of Fundy and coming of age in the heady years after the Second World War?
For Wilf Fielding, there was no doubt what the future held. This son of Annapolis Royal, N.S., where he was born Apr. 26, 1927, to Harold and Constance Fielding, decided at 18 that it lay in television.
No one in that neck of the woods probably even had a television set back then, but in 1950, before CBC Television was a gleam in the eye of anyone in that part of the world, Mr. Fielding threw his fate to the winds, hitchhiked from Nova Scotia to New York, and studied to become a TV cameraman.
The report he got on his graduation certificate in 1951 from the Television Workshop of New York became the scorecard on his whole life and career: “Studio Work: Excellent; Aptitude: Excellent; Cooperativeness: Excellent; Personality: Excellent.”
Credentials in pocket, he was back in Toronto in 1952 at the newly minted CBC to begin a long career in the world’s new visual medium. It would see him regularly rub shoulders with royalty, while helping to lead Canadian television production into the modern era.
In 1957, having honed his skills first as a live events cameraman and then as a CBC producer, Mr. Fielding was lured to Britain to help launch the first private TV network serving the North of England – Granada. He worked with Granada’s founder and impresario, Sidney Bernstein, on many firsts, including, in 1962, the first British television appearance of the Beatles.
In his 10 years at Granada, Mr. Fielding produced one of the longest-running and most successful programs in television history, What the Papers Say. Each segment was hosted by a well-known journalist, such as Alistair Cooke, Harold Evans, Antonia Fraser and David Frost. They would take an offbeat look at how the papers and tabloids had covered the week’s news.
Mr. Fielding also worked with zoologist Desmond Morris, author of the best-selling The Naked Ape.
“I was very sad indeed to learn of Wilf’s death,” Mr. Morris said. “Over half a century ago, Wilf and I worked together on an animal series called Zoo Time. It was made on location at the London Zoo and Whipsnade Park, and I presented the program almost weekly from 1956 to 1967. … The series had a number of producers and Wilf was one of the later ones. The unpredictability of the animals used to cause producers considerable stress and some of them found the experience something of an ordeal. But not Wilf, who was wonderfully relaxed and laid-back and made those outside broadcasts much more fun. He was a wonderfully calming influence, soft-spoken, amusing, sophisticated and a pleasure to work with.”
That “calming influence” would certainly be needed. In 1967, with Canada’s centennial looming and a world exposition slated for Montreal, CBC-TV turned to Mr. Fielding to lead centennial coverage, and more. He returned to Toronto to make his name as the network’s top special-events producer. From royal tours to papal visits to state funerals to 1967 celebrations, he rethought the way live state events were covered.
“Almost single-handedly, Wilf changed the tone of royal visit coverage in Canada,” says former CTV news anchor Lloyd Robertson. “Before he came on the scene in the mid-sixties, royal commentary was delivered in whispered, deeply reverential tones. It was as though we were talking about a distant deity whose level we were far below and we were expected to bow and scrape, indeed cower, in their midst. Wilf was the television genius charged with making it more in tune with the times, more in keeping with the new mood of a proud country that had shared in the glory and sacrifice of two world wars.”
Mr. Fielding believed strongly in the dramatic visual elements of any good story. He was master of the “one shot” – the signature shot – the wide-angle view displaying breadth and depth. He wanted Canadians to appreciate the grandeur of historic moments, to know their importance and enjoy their pageantry, but most of all to feel they were part of it all.