Considering the dearth of original programming in this country, it's logical to assume broadcasters might jump on every new idea that happens along. But apparently the Canadian TV industry doesn't work that way.
Fortuitously, some brave souls keep stepping up to the plate. The Making of Lost in Canada (CTV, Saturday, 7 p.m.) details the efforts of filmmaker Mike Johnston to negotiate his own space in our national TV landscape. The homemade documentary is a testament to the die-hard Canadian spirit.
Born and still based in Peterborough, Ont., Johnston enjoyed a brief media fling with his documentary, My Student Loan. Using borrowed cameras and a Canada Council grant, Johnston chronicled the madness of student debt through his personal experience, and the film became the hottest box-office draw at the annual Hot Docs film festival.
Johnston's follow-up documentary details his attempt to mount what is actually a unique concept for Canadian television: a talk show set aboard a bus. "I've driven across the country a few times," says Johnston, who cites Johnny Carson and Charles Kuralt among his creative influences. "This just seemed like a natural idea for a show."
As a filmmaker, Johnston seems a cross between Michael Moore and Radar O'Reilly. Filmed mostly in Peterborough and neighbouring areas, the film's vidéo-vérité style suits the subject. To his credit, Johnston deployed a typically methodical Canadian approach.
His first step is to retain a business manager, which leads him directly to an old bar pal, Al Wilkinson, a retired business teacher. A deal is struck.
Somehow, the pair make their way to the office of Bob Culbert, vice-president of the CTV documentary division, where they pitch their talk-show concept. The gentlemanly news veteran steers them toward the CTV-owned Comedy Network, where they take a meeting with executive Brent Haynes.
This time, Johnston brings a little bus replica with kids'-toy figures. When queried about possible guests, he immediately suggests Canada's most eminent living writer. "Hey, if I can make Margaret Atwood funny...," he theorizes. Haynes tells them that, if they make a demo, he'll watch it.
Such offhand encouragement only energizes Johnston, who wisely adheres to two of the oldest tenets in show business: Keep the budget low, and work with people you know.
In fact, Johnston may have set a new low-budget record filming the pilot. One of the first tasks involves finding a bus at minimal cost. As it happens, Johnston's buddy Lou has an old bus, which he's willing to donate to the cause, but there's a hitch: It has to be hauled out of a snowbank.
The film is rife with such homespun ingenuity. In later scenes, Johnston is shown holding auditions - in a Peterborough barbershop - for key positions on the show. An affable guy named Jeff Ruehl wins the sidekick job after demonstrating his Ed McMahon belly laugh. "He was a natural," says Johnston.
The position of musical director goes to Washboard Hank, a local legend who, yes, plays a washboard, as well as other household items affixed to his body. Meanwhile, Al is promoted from business manager to bus driver.
And when Johnston's blue-collar buddies are finished with the bus, it's a thing of beauty. Resembling the interior of a small Muskoka cottage, right down to the working wood stove, the vehicle is a rolling talk-show set. "It was absolutely beautiful," says Johnston. "And all I gave them to go on was a rough layout I drew on a piece of foolscap paper."
Even more impressive, Johnston finagles the participation of Ms. Atwood. Drawing on his friendship with the late Canadian poet Al Purdy, whom he used to book for poetry readings at Peterborough's Red Dog Tavern, Johnston coerced the author to film an interview for the pilot; Atwood appears gracious and bemused in the segment, and she even signs the roof of the bus in a good-luck gesture. "She was awesome," he says. "And she had really great skin, too."
In theory, the engaging pilot should be enough to convince any Canadian network to turn Lost in Canada into a regular series. The unassuming Johnston's no-frills hosting style is clearly Canadian, and he's honest to a fault. (He admits to Atwood straight away that he's never read any of her books.) There's still no decision about Lost in Canada being turned into a regular series, but if the word does come, Johnston is ready. "I've got the first six shows," he says, "all mapped out."