b Papa Dog's Blog: Bon Voyage, Pierre

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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Bon Voyage, Pierre

I hadn’t planned on doing a second “Canadian” column right away, but major world events and the tardy and sparse reporting of same in the American press have placed the matter out of my hands.

To this child of Canada in the 70s, there were two Pierres who loomed large in the national life. One, of course, was the Prime Minister, our foxiest politician and our greatest statesman – a whole Kennedy family rolled up into one suave turtleneck-wearing cat. The other was journalist, television personality, and writer of historical tomes Pierre Berton.

It’s difficult to explain the cultural significance of Pierre Berton to anyone who’s not familiar with it firsthand, in much the same way that it’s difficult to explain Canadian television of the 1970s to anyone who didn’t see it. He was a dry wit, a dignified white-haired man in a bowtie who could talk at length about the construction of the Canadian Pacific railway, the history of the Social Credit Party, the Yukon gold rush, or any other element of Canadian history you might care to spring on him. He was, in short, the type of person who would never be seen on American television outside of some federally-mandated community affairs show, and he was our biggest TV star!

How to describe the Canadian TV I grew up with? I think it was probably very similar to state-controlled East German television of the same period, only not as flashy. Imagine if you would that American TV consisted of NBC and CBS (that upstart ABC had not yet developed), and at any given time both channels had either William B. Fuckley or Gore Vidal or both talking about advances in grain milling in the 1930s. Or – or – imagine there were ten channels of static and then CSPAN2 and then, for the lowest common denominator crowd, PBS.

For thirty-eight years – 38! – Berton starred on Front Page Challenge, Canada’s premiere quiz show. The object was for the panel of experts – in my heyday that would be Berton, fellow balls of fire Gordon Sinclair and Betty Kennedy, and a guest panellist – to try to guess the identity of the mystery guest and the news story with which he or she was associated. Then, whether they’d managed to guess the identity or not, they’d interview the newsmaker. The tension! The suspense! You have no idea, it was unbelievable.

Not to mislead – we did receive American television, but who would bother with that? It was all tits and car chases and Alan Alda wisecracking up to his elbows in blood and Archie Bunker saying “Listen here, yez big dumb Polack meathead.” We had a collection of formally dressed old men soberly discussing the issues of the day! No contest!

I jest, of course. Affectionately. It really is hard for me to imagine a Canada without Pierre Berton. These kids today, they won’t know. But for those of my day and age, there is no face more iconically Canadian than that square weathered puss with the big expanse of dome under the always flawless mat of silver hair. Pierre Berton: 12 July 1920 – 30 November 2004. Cheerio, adieu, arrivederci, farewell! It will never ever be the same without you!

1 Comments:

Blogger Robert said...

Living in the US, you may not be aware that one of the last things Pierre did was a spot on Rick Mercer's show in which he demonstrated the correct method for rolling a joint.... Man had a sense of humour!

7:29 AM  

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