The brilliant John A. biopic

Who said Canadian history was devoid of excitement?

The brilliant John A. biopic

Steve Wilkie/CBC

Chances are you missed it, but something quite significant happened on the CBC Monday night. Indeed, I may say it was an event of some importance in the life of the nation: the historical drama John A: Birth of a Country. It is rare enough to see any Canadian history on Canadian television, and rarer still something of this quality. There have been subtler dramas, there have been more exact histories, but this is the finest historical drama to appear on the CBC since The National Dream almost 40 years ago.

Explaining the road to Confederation through the personal and political battle between Sir John A. Macdonald and George Brown, it should dispel forever a pernicious myth: that Canada’s founding, like much of its history, was a dry bit of horse-trading, devoid of interest or excitement. On the contrary, as any viewer of John A will be convinced, it was the creation of men of extraordinary passion and conviction, driven by personal ambition but guided by their own greatness toward an end much larger than themselves. The last half-hour, in particular, is simply riveting: the scene where Macdonald seeks to persuade Brown to join his cabinet—on his terms—is a study in psychological and political acuity.

That the show brings Macdonald so vividly to life (Shawn Doyle is marvellous in the part, wobbly accent notwithstanding) is an achievement, though not entirely surprising: he remains one of the richest, most colourful subjects in all of political history, a brawling, drunken, cheerfully unscrupulous rebuke to the whole “Peace, Order and Good Government” theory of Canada’s development, which has bored two generations of Canadian schoolchildren.

But we know Macdonald was great. Of much more significance is the treatment of Brown, at last restored to his true position in the historical firmament, second only to Macdonald among the Fathers of Confederation, and perhaps not even second. It is to Brown that we owe much of the design of the country: not only his famous insistence on “rep by pop,” or representation by population (apparently still a controversial idea), but the very principle of federalism, against the unitary state that was Macdonald’s dream. And it was his momentous decision to cross the floor, joining Macdonald in the grand coalition that would pursue federation with the other scattered colonies of British North America, that made the whole enterprise possible. All that we are, everything this country has become, can be traced to that supreme act of statesmanship.

Yet in popular terms at least, he remains very much the forgotten man of Canadian history. There are no highways or airports named for him, as there are for Macdonald and his Quebec lieutenant, George-Étienne Cartier. The last major biography him was J. M. Careless’s—52 years ago. He simply does not fit into the dominant, Macdonald-centred view of Canadian history as an orderly series of public works projects. He was a Victorian liberal: reform-minded, pro free trade, skeptical of government, with unfortunate (though by no means unusual for his time) views of Catholics and the French. As such he was an inconvenience, and so was made largely to disappear. With any luck, John A, and Peter Outerbridge’s doughty performance as George Brown, will begin to change that.

Good as it is, I do not see John A as an argument for public broadcasting (the question is not whether I like a particular show, but whether I can justify forcing others to pay for my pleasures; the subscription model, à la HBO, has more to recommend it, both on artistic and philosophical grounds). But if we are going to have public broadcasting, surely this is exactly the sort of thing it should be doing. Which makes it a mystery why the CBC should seem so intent on burying it. It’s bad enough that it has taken the corporation decades to produce a show on this, the single most important event in our history, but it has thus far committed only to this first instalment in what I gather was planned to be a four-part series on Macdonald’s life (drawing on Richard J. Gwyn’s shrewd biography, John A: The Man Who Made Us). For goodness sake, we’re only up to 1864: the adventure has barely begun.

What’s truly unforgiveable, however, is the lack of promotion. At a time when the network is blanketing the airwaves with ads for Battle of the Blades and other bilge, you’d think it could spare some of its PR budget for a project as important as this. Yet people working at the CBC were unaware it existed until a week ago. If the corporation were in any doubt of what it had on its hands (it shouldn’t: the producer, Bernard Zukerman, has a proven track record, as does director Jerry Ciccoritti and writer Bruce Smith) it cannot be now.

It is just too much like the CBC to turn what ought to have been a moment of triumph into a fiasco. Fortunately, there is a remedy. We’ve seen the pilot. Now green-light the rest of the series. Give it a decent time slot. And maybe tell the odd person it’s on.

The brilliant John A. biopic

  1. I found out about it on Twitter from Peter Mansbridge. It was fabulous – but ended just when it was getting really good – it was a cliffhanger. I went online to check when the next segment was to air, and could find no reference to it – even with a search.

    Very odd decision  making by the corp.

  2. The CBC has been producing this type of stuff for quite some time now and has routinely gotten their teeth kicked in by the media for the effort.

    • What sorts of Canadian political histories have the CBC been airing in the last decade or so? I’d love to know what I was missing. (I assume you’re not counting The Tudors…)

      • Just off the top of my head I recall they did ones on Pierre Trudeau & Tommy Douglas and both caused quite an uproar.

        • Prairie Giant was 2006, Trudeau was 2002.  I suppose every four or five years is about the right amount of time between mini-series about our foremost political leaders.

  3. The drama was a triumph in terms of driving home the nature of the divide between Brown and MacDonald and the accommodation they had to make in order to promote an idea bigger than themselves and their partisan politics.  Acutely aware of your fidelity to Brown’s place in our national history, I think his character, as portrayed by Peter Outerbridge, was very well fleshed out and could well serve as the basis for an ongoing series. However, your assertion that Brown’s role in Confederation was “perhaps not even second” to JMac’s… well that is just plain and demonstrably wrong.   

  4. It was amazing!  Very well produced by Bernard Zuckerman (he has always done fine work). I found it by accident online, I was out of the country for work and I wanted to check the news back home and it had just been posted on CBC.ca . It hadn’t heard anything about it but I assumed it was because I was away.

    I loved it! Sir John A. Macdonald has always been my favorite PM and seeing Brown acting the way he did gave me goosebumps. You should write his biography!

    Here is the link to it online:                                                                                                         

    http://www.cbc.ca/video/#/Shows/1221254309/ID=2136716148

    Another thing that I find bothersome, is the lack of passion by Canadians of their history. Even though it’s a young country, it’s rich and full of passion.

    • Geewiz, as if to emphasize the point about lack of promotion, this show will not play outside the country, thus denying the 1 million or so expat Canadians the rare pleasure of watching something worthwhile on CBC. 

  5. Ditto your kudos, Andrew….extremely fascinating and well-done! This should be mandatory viewing for every MP (especially the Conservatives) as to how to do “putting country first” politics!  However a slight fyi re your comment about Brown’s non-recognition; don’t forget about George Brown College (in Toronto).

  6. Finally, my muttonchops will be cool again.

    • muttonchops were always cool

  7. Andrew is correct in saying that the CBC did a poor job in promoting the pilot. I tuned in quite by chance while clicking up the dial and stopped at a riveting scene. So sad to hear that it’s just a pilot as I was looking forward to other episodes

  8. I support the notion of CBC as a public broadcaster, as the correct broadcaster for mini-series and MOW’s for great stories like this  and for supporting great teams of Cdn  film makers and building the industry.  I wish regulators of funds (government driven) could lay to rest the need for this broadcaster to compete equally in ratings  with commercial other ventures. Let CBC definitely generate revenue when and where they can: but don’t let them die on this sword for support.  That is not the yardstick to measure a public broadcaster by.   CBC does need committed longer term support and a clear direction that provides an alternate voice in this universe. That ‘alternate’ voice is why their funding was originally enshined.   Generally, the CBC has been worthy of this support – but it has been faltering for several years now.  Given the often malicious tone of scrutiny to business practices there, who cannot understand the level of paranoia - and desire to keep under the ‘culture hawk’ radar ??   Like Coyne, I lament the lack of publicity and promotion given to what could be signature productions for the CBC brand. It displays their ongoing political insecurity and does nothing to build the case.  May Bernie Zukerman keep high this bar if the CBC can’t. 

  9. I have to agree. It was the best television production on any network that I have seen in a long time. The fact that it was about Canada is a double bonus. The acting and story were compelling. I want more!

  10. I watched it and found out about it by watching the CBC. Do you expect them to advertise on other channels? By the way, I found it to be a captivating piece of work. Zuckerman should be proud of his accomplishment. Coyne states that Brown is forgotten in history and seems to have forgotten George Brown College (which I’m assuming was named after the George Brown in question) is a monument to the man. 

  11. Finally got around to watching it. Very much enjoyed it, and am saddened that the CBC did not market this production sufficiently. Fact is, the majority of Canadians are completely oblivious to the history of this great country. Instead, we have the CBC marketing the hell out of “Battle of the Blades”. And the bar keeps lowering…

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