Throughout his career, Don McQueen's reputation as a hard-nosed journalist often preceded him. To describe him, colleagues used the adjectives "tough," "demanding" and "stubborn." Over the years, CBC's The National News (The National's predecessor), CTV's Canada AM and W5 and numerous documentaries all greatly benefited from Mr. McQueen's leadership, sense of history and storytelling skills.
According to retired broadcast executive Trina McQueen, his wife, Mr. McQueen was a persuasive talker, adept at dealing with revolutionaries or negotiating his way through war zones, and ballsy enough to instruct a prime minister to sit up straight during an interview. She said his proudest accomplishment was a one-hour documentary focused on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982 legislation that made the Supreme Court the final arbiter of law in Canada. It was the first time that Canadian Supreme Court judges gave interviews on television. The show won a Gemini Award. Don McQueen died on March 30 of complications arising from Lewy body disease, a progressive dementia. He was 80.
Journalistic lion Michael Maclear, the first Western correspondent allowed into North Vietnam during the Vietnam War (who produced the book and documentary series Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War) met his new executive producer Don McQueen for the first time in a Toronto pub in the mid-1970s. The meeting was about Maclear, a globetrotting weekly documentary series proposed by CTV. The get-together was to determine whether the two strong-minded men could get along. Mr. Maclear recalls an unsmiling man, with a pint of beer, who lobbed a combative question at him like a grenade: "Why do I get the job of having to boost some guy's ego?" A tense silence followed. Mr. Maclear finally said, "This is not about us. It's about delivering a weekly documentary series unique in television. You run the shop and we plan the subjects together … but not my scripts, okay?" Mr. McQueen thought about it, grinned and finally said, "When do we start?
Maclear, which ran on CTV from 1974 to 1978, attracted a whopping million viewers per episode. The series covered, among other topics, trumped-up British war trials in Northern Ireland, head-hunting in the highlands of Papua, New Guinea, and a resort in the Philippines where a Canadian woman seemingly had cancer pulled from her stomach. Mr. McQueen controlled the mayhem of juggling crews in foreign locations, a relentless schedule of shooting, screening, editing, briefing directors and overseeing other aspects of production while successfully keeping within a tight budget. "In my opinion, … Don McQueen proved himself the best news producer in the country," Mr. Maclear said.
"Difficult" was the descriptor that concerned reporter Dennis McIntosh when he learned Don McQueen was being sent to join him as a producer. In 1979, Mr. McIntosh opened CTV's bureau in Beijing. The network subsequently wanted a four-part series on the changes taking place in China following Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, when the Communist Party was intent on banishing any vestiges of capitalism.
"China is a complicated place to get around. People were afraid to say the wrong thing for fear of being banished to the countryside, so the idea of working with someone difficult was slightly nerve-racking," Mr. McIntosh said. Nervous or not, Mr. McIntosh had no choice but to make the best of things. Coming from a hard-news background, Mr. McIntosh had little idea of what was required to produce television in a documentary style. The man he subsequently got to know surprised him. "Maybe Don McQueen saved being difficult for network executives, but I never once saw him lose his temper or scream at anyone. In fact, he was great at defusing tensions that arose among the crew."
Mr. McIntosh came to admire Mr. McQueen's skill in writing the narration required to make a documentary hang together in a coherent way, as well as his ability to plan and capture shots he knew would tell a good story. "He would instruct the cameraman to get a shot of a truck carrying goods, knowing it would contrast with an earlier shot we had of people pushing their belongings in a cart." Not only did Mr. McQueen expect the best from himself, he expected it from others. "He demanded that I go into the edit suite with him so I could see what made things work. He taught me more about journalism and making documentaries than anyone else," Mr. McIntosh said.
Donald George McQueen was born in London, England, on June 27, 1934. He and his older sister, Pamela, grew up in the Essex village of Hutton, directly beneath the flight path of German bombers on their way to strafe London. The crash of an enemy plane near the village caused much excitement. Try as they might, village constables couldn't prevent young boys, including Don McQueen, from swarming the downed craft in search of the most prized possession of all: a swastika. At the time of the crash, Don McQueen's father, George, was serving in the British Royal Navy. Twice he managed to survive torpedo attacks on his ship.
At home, Don McQueen's mother, Elsie, a woman with a love of amateur dramatics and reading, raised rabbits to help feed the family during times of rationing. His sister, Pamela, cried when a favourite rabbit was served. Don McQueen ate the dish quite happily, continuing to enjoy the meat for the rest of his life. Asked whether this implied a lack of sentimentality, his wife, Trina, said, "He was sentimental. Just not about dinner."
During the Second World War, it was commonplace for British families to receive both morning and evening papers, along with magazines. Don McQueen's first part-time job was as a paperboy for a news agent. Noticing his paperboy's interest in reading the news, the news agent suggested he apply to a newspaper for work. At age 17, having completed his education at the local grammar school, Don McQueen took the news agent's advice. He was soon bicycling around to cover police courts and country fairs for local papers. Along the way he learned shorthand, a skill that came in handy when he was called up for military service. He was assigned to be the secretary of an RAF officer, whom he accompanied to various meetings and conferences in Europe.
Once his military service was complete, Mr. McQueen returned to the field he enjoyed. He worked his way up to a job on London's Fleet Street for The Press Association, the news-gathering organization of Britain that feeds stories to other papers. As a young reporter he delighted to find himself in the company of Benny Hill, interviewing the comedian, who shared Mr. McQueen's somewhat politically incorrect sense of humour.
In 1964, after immigrating to Canada in search of better economic opportunities, it was a natural fit for him to work for The Canadian Press. Mr. McQueen said he learned the geography of his adopted country by putting together news feeds about sports scores.
Compiling information was one thing, but television promised more of a challenge. Mr. McQueen soon left The Canadian Press to join the CBC. His excellent memory and knowledge of world current affairs made him a natural to produce The National News. After one unsuccessful marriage as a young man, his new career led to lasting romance.
The habit of staff in those days was to gather for drinks at the Four Seasons Hotel across from CBC headquarters at 345 Jarvis Street in Toronto. One day, Catherine (Trina) Janitch, a junior reporter for local news, found herself arranging chairs in the hotel bar with the producer of The National in preparation for colleagues to join them. She says she and Mr. McQueen simply clicked, enduring several painful dates together at discos before admitting to one another that they hated disco music. Classical music, particularly Tafelmusik, the Toronto-based Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, became a passion of Mr. McQueen's. Mrs. McQueen continues to serve on its board. The couple married on Jan. 2, 1970. Two years later they had a daughter, Jennifer.
By the mid-1980s, Don McQueen and his wife were one of Canadian television's most powerful couples. They shared a love of news, travelling together and cuddling in front of British TV dramas. They were suited on so many levels that even their disagreements indicated a comfortable level of compatibility. Mrs. McQueen said they argued frequently, assigning numbers to their arguments as a running joke. If the conflict was about the duties of Christmas and who was responsible for what, it was called having a No. 10. If it was about booking a hotel room, it could be called a No. 32. She credits the success of their long, loving relationship to keeping their finances separate. "He had things he paid for and I had things I paid for, so that's one quarrel we never had." Mrs. McQueen added, "In all our years of marriage, I never won an argument. I always gave in, and I'm not known for doing that."
After retirement, the McQueens travelled extensively. They planned to spend at least a month or two in each location. "We had a complicated list of requirements. It had to have an interesting political situation. It had to have great music. The place had to be stable enough so we could move into an apartment without having to bribe someone to get a phone," Mrs. McQueen said. "Don also loved beaches. The higher the waves, the better." Their travels together included London, Paris and New York, as well as Miami, Singapore and Buenos Aires. "We decided we couldn't get to know a whole city in that time, but we could certainly get to know a neighbourhood," she said.
Standing 6 foot 1, broad shouldered and athletically inclined, Mr. McQueen maintained an imposing physique by playing squash, tennis, golf and skiing. Even though he was proud to be a Canadian citizen, he maintained his links to Britain by continuing to follow soccer, enjoying a pint and keeping up with the British soap opera Coronation Street.
Was Mr. McQueen really a tough guy? Stuart French, a sound recordist who worked with him in the 1980s, said, "Nah. He was a pussycat." Pussycat to some. Tiger to others.
He leaves his wife, Trina; daughter, Jennifer; and grandchildren, Lucas and Alex Budd.
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