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.
“He taught us to relax and warm up our commentary, to make it more viewer-friendly and to appreciate that while the Queen was our head of state, she was, after all, a human being,” said Mr. Robertson.
“We would still speak in respectful tones, but the Queen and the Duke and other Royals should be seen as members of the Canadian family. The result was electrifying, both for the audience and for those of us behind the microphones and in front of the cameras. It also helped the Royals in making them more authentic for the average Canadian. To me, this is Wilf’s legacy to the broadcast industry and to his country.”
He helped usher in a new era in Canadian television in other ways.
Robert F. Smith worked as Mr. Fielding’s production assistant in that landmark year of 1967. He remembers covering the Quebec Winter Carnival with Mr. Fielding in 1967 and using colour cameras for the first time – in -15 C weather. Faced with the challenges of this new technology that would forever change the television experience, Mr. Smith remembers Mr. Fielding putting blankets on the cameras to keep the revolutionary colour tubes warm enough to do their job.
But despite his cool, calm and friendly down-home demeanour, Mr. Fielding was a tough taskmaster. He read newspapers voraciously and expected his commentators to master their subject matter in order to speak knowingly.
Mr. Robertson remembers that when Mr. Fielding came into the studio before they went on air, everyone would put their heads down, studiously looking at their script. No one dared look up to have him say, “Aren’t you focused on what you are supposed to be doing?”
Stanley Burke, Laurier LaPierre, Barbara Frum, Adrienne Clarkson, Lloyd Robertson: they all performed with aplomb, knowing Mr. Fielding would be supporting them, whispering into their earphone from the control room, telling them when to stretch and when to trim.
Mr. Fielding himself knew when to stretch and trim.
His knack was to have cameras live at just the right time to capture the moment in history. That’s why he defied his bosses during the Mexico City Olympic Games in 1968 and continued live coverage beyond the allotted time slot. He sensed that the unlikely group of Canadian equestrians could go the distance. He kept his cameras live, kept the satellite feed, and stayed on the air as Canada’s equestrian team grabbed gold for the first time.
A year earlier, in July, 1967, he raced from Ottawa with a camera crew to be at Montreal’s Dorval Airport for a live report as French president Charles de Gaulle made a hurried exit from Canada after being publicly rebuked by prime minister Lester B. Pearson on the heels of de Gaulle’s infamous “Vive le Québec libre” speech.
Even Americans wanted Mr. Fielding.
For years, for CBS, he produced live coverage of the Rose Bowl parades and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, for which he was nominated for an Emmy in 1977. For senior CBS producer Michael Gargiulo, “Wilf was my right arm – and my left arm.”
It will remain for TV historians to determine Mr. Fielding’s place in Canadian broadcasting history. But there is no doubt as to the place he holds in the hearts and minds of his peers and protégés. He was known for his mentoring and the unstinting way he shared his expertise. Retired producer Don Dixon recalls his first professional encounter with Mr. Fielding:
“I first worked with Wilf when I was a young producer based in Ottawa, handling my first big event – the state funeral of former governor-general Vincent Massey. I was very, very nervous. Wilf was in my left ear the entire time – guiding, encouraging, soothing and cajoling. Over the years, we worked together – and played together – on many different projects: royal visits, constitutional conferences, leadership conventions, Pope John Paul II’s visit. You name it, we were together. At every event, I learned a little more from Wilfie, the ultimate pro. We had a lot of laughs – and a few arguments – but we came out of every shoot better friends.”
Adds former CBC producer Robert F. Smith: “I was a young production assistant when I first worked with Wilf. He was my mentor and I never had another mentor like him. I’ve learned other things from other people, but never what I learned from Wilf. Throughout my career, I would often ask myself ‘What would Wilf do in this situation?’
Wilf Fielding died in Toronto April 19 and was buried in his beloved Annapolis Royal. Predeceased by his wife, Nora, and sister Pauline, he leaves behind his life partner of 30 years, Anita Gordon and his devoted friend Heather Pollard.