Test Drive

Sometimes it can feel like the editorial attitude taken toward radio drama in Canada (specifically at the CBC) over the years was that it should deliberately be the un-TV sort of programs…that is “low-key” concepts that probably wouldn’t last six minutes, let alone 6 episodes, on TV (unlike, say, British radio series which are often very much the kind of high concept, high drama things you’d do for TV). Not that this was always the case at the CBC, as it certainly produced some good thriller and sci-fi series. But this deliberately low-key vibe does seem to crop up from time to time — detective series about small scale crimes, mild comedies that are more just light-hearted. And case in point is Test Drive, a six episode “dramedy” written by Dave Carley chronicling the unassuming life of a Toronto car salesman from the 1950s to circa 2000 (the series aired 2003-2004).

The whole point in the various episodes (set sometimes years apart form each other) is to be kind of slice of life (the appropriately-named narrator, Earl, even self-deprecatingly remarks on how “ordinary” he is). Indeed, probably the best episode is among the most flamboyant…when he decides to run (unsuccessfully) for parliament.

The result is a series that is kind of too unassuming at times…yet with that said, it does grow on you. It’s a comedy-drama…though the “comedy” is often more just “light-hearted” and has a slightly broad, campy delivery at times. Gordon Pinsent narrates throughout in a kind of self-consciously “bumpkin-y” voice, though when he assumes the role proper in the final two episodes, he’s exceptionally good (Geoffrey Bowes plays the character in the scenes in the first four episodes).

Part of the point of the series is to chronicle not just Earl’s life (growing older, his kids aging, etc.)…but the changing world around him through the decades, and in that sense its very “Canadianess” is part of the appeal, making period references throughout (from a Toronto flash flood in the 1950s to Robert Stanfield’s political misadventures in the 1970s). So, not exactly riveting but, if you stick with it…mildly appealing. Others in the cast included Catherine Fitch and Andrew Tarbet.

Wingfield

The hugely successful Wingfield plays (beginning with Letters from Wingfield Farm and numbering four or five sequels) tell the story of a big city stock broker, Walt Wingfield, who decides to chuck the fast lane and buy a small town farm — relating his adventures (and misadventures) in letters written to the local paper. Written by Dan Needles, they’re all one-man shows starring Rod Beattie.

Very funny comedies, yet with an underlining drama. Sure, they aren’t much more than sitcoms — but smart, high quality sitcoms, not relying on cheap jokes for the most part. The town’s folk aren’t bumpkins, and there’s a good natured charm to Walt’s clumsy efforts to adjust to farm life (an underlining theme is that Walt is often more nostalgic for — and protective of — the rural life than his neighbours who are born to it!)

A strength of the plays is Beattie’s multi-faceted performance, evoking a cast of characters who are consistent (yet also capable of growth) throughout the plays. Many of the plays have been recorded as audio productions and, in that format, his performance can be even more remarkable, as you wouldn’t realize it’s not a full cast acting together (well, except when he does the women characters).

Funny, charming…and definitely a modern classic of Canadiana.

The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood novel adapted across six half hour episodes by Michael O’Brien in, I think, 2005, for CBC Radio. It falls into pretty familiar/genric “Lit genre” grooves (elderly woman reflects back on her life, the secrets and iniquities that plagued her and her family, her religiously conservative small town childhood, her loveless marriage, and her troubled relationship with her sister who died — possibly by suicide — decades earlier.)

Frankly, it struck me as kind of tedious — sorry, but true.

Whether that’s a problem with the source novel (which I haven’t read) or the adaptation, I don’t know. As I say, it’s pretty familiar stuff for this kind of “Can Lit” exercise, and uses a story-within-a-story-within-a-story format that, personally, I found uninvolving (inbetween dramatizing past events, we keep cutting away to excerpts from a novel written by one of the characters — the eponymous “Blind Assassin” — a novel in which a character is telling another character a fantasy/SF story). It’s all supposed to be symbolic and meaningful, but was just too many layers down for me to care (since the novel/radio drama is itself a fiction — so it’s a fictional story about a fictional story about a fictional story…) Add to that competent but rather drily professional performances (from a decent cast including Patricia Hamilton, Amy Rutherford, Fiona Reid, Robert Bockstael, and Tom McCamus), and it was just hard to care, emotionally. A story about not very interesting people leading dreary, unpleasant lives.