New Year’s Eve at the Harbourfront

boats in St. John's harbour at sunsetThe most wonderful place I ever spent New Year’s Eve was the waterfront in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The tradition started, according to CBC, in the 1960s with one family going to the harbour front. In the 1980s, when I first went, it was still just a small group of people, mainly those who lived downtown.

You’d leave the bars about 11 pm and walk to the harbour. And wait. At midnight, the ships that were docked blew their horns. Every one of them, as many as were in port, would toot one after the other, then in unison. A few minutes later, they’d stop. That was it.

Everyone would cheer, open champagne, sparkling wine or beer bottles, toast each other and themselves and yell “Happy New Year”. Then everybody would make their way back up the hill, either back to the bars or home.

view of Narrows from harbour apronI remember one New Year’s Eve so cold with gale force winds that only maybe twenty diehards were there. You nearly got blown into the harbour it was so windy. Still, if you could survive until the ships’ horns marked the passing of another year, the fireplace at the Ship Inn up the hill on Solomon’s Lane was waiting to warm you up.

New Year’s Eve ship horns to fireworks

Over the years, the waterfront became the spot to go. People began coming in from the suburbs. City officials decided it would be good to have fireworks at the harbour. That was nice but, in the opinion of many of us, it was also unnecessary. I assume, prior to that decision, there were fireworks somewhere in town.

New Year's Eve fireworks St. John's 2000 photo CBC NLAnyway, with the fireworks came even bigger crowds.  People were bussed in to downtown because there just wasn’t enough parking. Then, in the early or mid-1900s, someone decided to make it a commercial event. Snowfencing was placed along the harbour apron, with one entry gate. You needed a ticket to get in. Vendors were there, so were police. Hauling a bottle of Baby Duck out from under your coat was no longer permissible. I suppose it never was, but there was no one around who was going to complain.

I read on CBC’s website that the fireworks won’t be held at the harbourfront this year due to liability and insurance issues. That’s ok, I think. Maybe the harbour can go back to welcoming those who want to stand on the apron and clap and cheer the new year in without fireworks. Maybe the ships will blow their horns again.


Coronation Street Scene of the Week (Dec. 26/10)


Becky leaving Rovers' bathroom stall after miscarriageThe biggie of the week was Monday’s three-scene telling of Becky’s miscarriage.  The look on her face when she leaves the bathroom, the surreptitious tippling of vodka, the screaming out “I had a miscarriage”.  Dramatic, suspenseful and, ultimately, heart-breaking.

Liz tells Becky about Katie's Christmas angelBut my pick comes on Thursday, when Liz sits down for a heart-to-heart with Becky.  She tells her she knows how she feels, and she tells her about Katie.

Katie was the baby girl that Liz lost.  She was a day old when she died.  Liz puts a spin on it that’s consoling for Becky and that is really nice of her.  She says, “at least I did get to hold her.” She doesn’t mention the emotional devastation of carrying a baby for that many more months, see it bornBecky sees Liz's pain about Katie and then lose it.  But the look on Becky’s face suggests that she sees that, sees the pain for Liz.

Then, a lovely gift of our delay in airtime, Liz mentions the tattered old angel she puts on her Christmas tree every year.  It’s her memorial to little Katie.  Watching this on the eve of Christmas Eve, I felt my eyes fill up.  Becky and Liz hug, and my tears spill over.

Liz mentions Katie from time to time, but not often.  And when she does, the pain is evident on her face.  It’s not surprising that Liz has never told Becky before.  And Steve?  Maybe he felt it wasn’t hisclose up of Becky & Liz hugging each other after miscarriageplace to mention Katie.  I don’t know.  She was his sister, and he and Andy would have been old enough to know what was going on.

So often we see only Liz’s exasperation with Becky.  Often it’s completely understandable but sometimes, well, she can be very hard on her I think.  But, with this pregnancy, there have been some lovely moments from Liz with Becky and with Steve.  It’s nice to see the compassionate and understanding side of Liz.

A Dog’s “Night before Christmas”

NIght before Christmas Dog Nicky an American Eskimo‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house,
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
with nary a thought of the dog in their heads.
Holly, one of a litter of 7, at ABCRescue Dec. 2010And Mama in her kerchief and I in my cap,
knew he was cold, but who cared about that?

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
the dog must be loose; he’s into the trash!

The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
gave the luster of mid-day to objects below.
Donner, 1 of 7 pups rescued by ABCR Dec 2010When what to my wondering eyes should appear,
but Santa Claus with eyes full of tears.

He unchained the dog, once so lively and quick,
last year’s Christmas gift, now thin and sick.

More rapid than eagles, he called the dog’s name,
and the dog went right to him, despite all his pain.
Prancer, 1 of 7 shepherd mix pups rescued by ABCR Dec 2010To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!!
Let’s find him a home where he’ll be loved by all!!

I knew in an instant there were not gifts this year.
For Santa had made our mistake very clear.
The gift of a dog is not just for the season,
we had gotten a pup for all the wrong reasons.

In our haste to think of a gift for the kids,
there was something important that we had missed.
A dog should be family, and cared for the same.
Blitzen-ON229.18048098-1-pnYou don’t give a gift, then put it on a chain.

And I heard him exclaim as he flew out of sight,

Author Unknown

Night before Christmas real ABCR dogs

I got this poem in my email yesterday.  Maybe a lot of people will be getting it in their inboxes.  I hope so.  In this adaptation of the familiar and kinda hokey poem, there’s a lot of truth.  The unfortunate part of the truth is too many pets end up in this situation.  The other truth is “you were given a gift – a life.”  That is the most valuable gift there is.

The dogs in the pictures are all at All Breed Canine Rescue, and all are hoping for the gift of a home.  At top is Nicky, the elderly and ill American Eskimo recently found abandoned. He’s the end of the sorry tale told above.

The pictures below him are the beginning of the story.  They are some of a litter of seven Vixen- 1 of litter of pups at ABCRescuepups recently removed from a situation of neglect.   I wonder if they were intended to be sold as Christmas gifts.  It didn’t work out so good.  But, in the spirit of the Season, these are now named (from top to bottom) , Holly, Donner, Prancer, Blitzen and at right Vixen.


Coronation Street Scene of the Week (Dec. 19/10)

Trash Kitties

Trev telling Janice about kittensTuesday at the Rovers, Trev says,  “Hey guess what I found today?  Two little kittens in a wheelie bin.” Janice says, “aah, really? Where are they now?” In a cardboard box at her flat, Trev says. No one else says anything, except to comment on Janice’s allergy to cats, out of Trev’s earshot. Living kittens were put inside a bin destined for the compactor end of a garbage truck. And no one comments on it??

It happens in real life. There are people uncaring and cruel enough to find that a way to solve their unwanted kitten and puppy dilemma. But they don’t do it thinking “a nice garbage collector will surely find them if I put them here”. They think this is an easy and cost-free way to get rid of animals. And it is, for them. It’s not for the animals that are crushed to death by the compactor. It’s also not for the garbage collector who may realize too late that a live animal is being crushed.

So if ever there was a moment crying out for a “public service” line to be written in easily and effectively, this was it! Janice saying “Whaatt? Kittens put in a wheelie bin? What pillock would do that?” would actually be more in character for her and would quickly convey that this is far from an “aah, cute little kitten-whittens” moment.

Janice may be allergic to cats, but that does not mean she is blind to animal cruelty. Even if the writers wanted Janice to appear so smitten with Trev that all she can do is be sweet and gooey, there were other people standing there. Leanne, Audrey – somebody should have said it, for the sake of realism as well as because it needed to be said.

Kittens and Cats PSA moment

kitten with Trev and Janice in flatI know from my interviews with Street production people that they do not put PSA content in just for the sake of “educating” the public. If social issues and education can be incorporated realistically into a plotline or character development, they do it. But they don’t want “clunk – here’s your educational bit.” That’s fair enough, and that’s good storytelling.

But here, in this brief scene setting up Janice and Trev’s relationship, was the perfect opportunity to get a plug in about responsible animal treatment. With the number of dogs and cats with real roles on Coronation Street over the years, I have always assumed there were “animal people” in the writing and production staff. So where were they the day this storyline was workshopped around the table?

The Boat House, Laugharne

Portrait of Dylan Thomas by Augustus JohnWhen I was in high school, I discovered the beauty of Dylan Thomas’ writing.  I first read Under Milk Wood and then moved on to his poetry.  In community college, I was lucky enough to get an English teacher who let me pick my own course content.  I picked Dylan Thomas and read everything he wrote and everything about him.

So much later, when I was in Wales for a few days, I wanted to find the places of Dylan Thomas.  Laugharne was within easy driving distance of where we were staying.  So off we went in our rental sign at Browns Hotel, Laugharne, WalesMini to spend the day in the footsteps of the great Welsh poet.  I was so excited I had tears in my eyes as we drove into town.

We walked the streets, found the houses he and Caitlin had lived in. Found our way to Brown’s Hotel where he spent a lot of time.  We went in, spent a lot of time.  Pictures of him and Caitlin on the walls, lots of ambience.  Locals looking askance at the tourists looking at everything as if they were in a place of worship.  For me, I was.

Another wander through town, then a look at my watch and at my pamphlet.  “We gotta go, the Boat House is going to close soon.”  The Boat House, on the water at the bottom of a cliff, is where he and Caitlin last lived in Laugharne.  Nearby, atop the cliff, is the “writing shed” where Thomas worked.  Both are a museum about him.  They are a fair walk along the cliff from downtown, where we were.

Walking to the writing place

We started walking through town, leisurely looking around as we went.  I was keeping an eye on my watch and realized time was running out, and I sped up. I The Boat House, Laugharne Waleskept looking back, saying “hurry, hurry”.  My partner strolled along, with a “don’t worry, lots of time”.  I was getting panicky and the Boat House was farther away than I thought.  I should have just run ahead.  I did finally, but I got there ten minutes too late.  The Boat House had closed for the day.  I cried.  I was angry at myself for having not Exterior of Dylan's Writing Shedjust gone on ahead in the first place.  At him for dawdling, for not realizing how important this was to me.  The town’s atmosphere was indeed lovely, but it would still be there after the Boat House closed.

So I looked in the windows trying to see as much as I could.   You can see almost everything inside the writing shed, with his table set up as if he’d just walked away for a minute.  But it wasn’t the same.  I wanted to be inside the rooms in which Dylan Thomas had spent his time.  I wanted to touch the walls, breathe the air poetry - Interior of "Writing Shed"inside his place.  I wanted to absorb the space of a poet I’d had a crush on for two decades.

My partner felt bad for causing me to miss this.  I guess the sight of me with my hands cupped around my face pressed against the window glass while I sniveled must have been pretty pitiful.

The cat in the graveyard

We walked back to town, went to the church graveyard where Dylan is buried.  A white cat walked up to us and lay across a nearby gravestone, stretched and rolled, batted at blades of Dylan Thomas' gravegrass.  She wanted somebody to play with her and scratch her belly, so I did.  There were no flowers on Dylan’s grave, but there were some plastic flowers on another gravestone.  I felt bad about what I was about to do, but did it anyway.  I took one flower from the bouquet and stuck it in the earth in front of the white cross marking his grave.

We patted the cat good-bye and drove around Laugharne for a farewell look, then left.  That visit has stuck in my mind, for what I didn’t see and what I did see.  It was devastating to not be able to go in the Boat House, but the cat at the graveyard felt right.  It was like she was greeter of Dylan Thomas fans and keeper of the grave.


Coronation Street Scene of the Week (Dec.12/10)

‘Bob’ jokes

There was one brief, shining moment this week on Wednesday. As I said to my husband when updating him, Joe popped up.Joe popped up
Then I almost fell off the chair laughing as he looked at me searchingly, perhaps a bit fearfully. I do hope I’m not alone in finding it funny: the beautiful calm lake at night, silvery in the light spilling out from a cottage window, then sproing! “Hi, my name’s Bob.”

Lost and Found – Joe McIntyre

Poor Joe. Even in death he gets no dignity. Pawed by a Border Collie trying to get him back with the flock. Ostensibly sending flowers to his daughter, and the flowers being the kinds she most dislikes. Ever more convoluted stories being told about his absence, surpassing even his considerable ability to spin complicated and silly lies. You’d hope at least your one talent would stand out at the time of your passing and not have to compete with the efforts of Johnny-come-latelys. It’s just awful, and I’m sure it’s going to get worse, much much worse.

Corrie Crazy on CBC

In happier news, we had Corrie Crazy on CBC this week. So wonderful to see Tony Warren and hear the largely unknown story of original producer Harry Elton’s part in the creation of Corrie Street. When I talked to Mr. Elton many years ago, he was proud of his role in it, but didn’t regret leaving when he did either. He believed, I think, that he had done his part in it. That’s pretty much what Tony Warren said to me too. They created it, saw it successfully on its way and passed it on to new people. But I don’t think they, or anyone, ever expected it would last this many years.

The wedding that was being taped when Debbie Travis was there was pretty much given away. I was avoiding thinking too much when the first scenes were shown because I didn’t want to know. But she gave it away near the end. Too bad. Doing so wasn’t necessary for the doc at all.

Debbie Travis in front of Rovers in Corrie Crazy docI loved seeing the Canadian fans, especially Corrie Street society such as the viewers’ club and the Ping that Travis visited. I’ve never been a “social” Corrie watcher, but it looked like a lot of fun. Hearing that indeed CBC knows how much fans hate having the schedule disrupted made me wonder only, well, then why do they do it so often!

Why we watch

I’d have liked to see something new on why people watch, other than “they’re people just like us”, but maybe that’s the sum total of it. It’s certainly what I’ve been told and maybe it’s no more complicated than that. Tony Warren told me that people come back to it, maybe during low periods in their life when the familiar faces and places give comfort. Certainly the BC journalist fan who was interviewed found that out, both for herself and from the response she got from readers after writing about her Corrie watching. So maybe that’s it: it feels like ‘home’ and sometimes we really need that. It was a joy to watch. Now, if we can get CBC to bring us the recent BBC movie, The Road to Coronation Street, about the beginnings of the show! That would be wonderful.

Days of our Lives and Chex Mix

product placement on DOOL with Sammi opening Chex Mix bagHaving fallen off on my American soap viewing, I didn’t know about the new product placement on soaps until I saw the spoof of it on the Colbert Report.  I thought he had to be photoshopping the tape somehow to have Sammi extolling the virtues of Chex Mix while in a cozy little scene with some guy. 

But no, I thought, Stephen Colbert doesn’t artificially enhance the insanity of something in our society – at least not the original Stephen Colbert saved by Cheerios & evil twin Pavros holding productsinsanity.  He may add to it, as he did here with being confronted by his evil twin Pavros (looking more like Stephen Nichols’ “Patch” DOOL character than the evil Stavros of General Hospital).  So he, consciously I think, mixes his soaps up to great comedic effect for all of them – especially when he’s shot and protected by his courageous Cheerios box.

So I Goodsearched* for DOOL product placement.  It’s true and it’s appallingly awful.  And they’re all doing it or going to be doing it, apparently.  Even Coronation Street will be engaging officially in product placement as of January 2011.

Product placement in Coronation Street

Norris in front of cigarette display in KabinCoronation Street long has, but perhaps unofficially and unpaid for, on its store shelves.  Look at the stock in Dev’s corner shop and you see recognizable food packages.  Look at the cigarettes behind the counter in Dev’s and the Kabin.  I recognize Silk Cuts among other brands I’ve seen in England.  When someone is pouring tomato sauce over their food, you recognize the shape of the bottle even if the hand is over the label.  When Peter was swigging from his bottle outside George’s house, it certainly looked like Ballentine’s Scotch to me.

I’ve never minded that: it’s not shoving the product in your face and it makes it look more realistic.  I’ve not known if the show was paid for this or not.  It seemed to me they ought to be since it is showcasing a particular brand instead of another.

Coleman talking to Brooklyn at bar, General HospitalSometimes I’ve wished to see product placement in American soaps just to make it seem more realistic.  Someone says to the bartender “give me a beer” and the bartender walks away and comes back with a beer.  The very few times I’ve seen the bartender ask “what kind?” the answer is something like “whatever you’ve got.”  You’ve probably got 20 or 40 different kinds at least.  If you don’t want to do unpaid product placement, just make up some names. That’s what Coronation Street did with the brewery Newton and Ridley.

Soaps: history in the name

American radio serials started with ‘ads’ for soap manufacturer products incorporated into the storyline.  Then the ads moved to separate commercial breaks, leaving the storyline to unfold on its own.  The division between advertiser and production became clearer as networks or independent production companies, instead of “soap” companies like P&G, increasingly owned soaps.  Now with the new product placement on soaps, they are getting back to their roots.  And, if this is the only way to keep soaps on the air, well, so be it.  But surely it could be done with a bit more finesse than DOOL is showing!

However, DOOL is a lifeforce of its own I often think.  For twenty years or so, since the days of James Reilly, DOOL has been over the top in its stories and acting.  It’s driven viewers away but it’s also drawn viewers in just to see how bad it can get.  So it’s totally fitting that, if product placement is to be done, it’s done on DOOL in the absolute cheesiest fashion possible.

This is my contribution to product placement. It’s for the search engine Goodsearch which donates a penny per search to a charity of your choice.  My search pennies go to Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm. Near Lexington Kentucky, It is a retirement home for thoroughbred racehorses, including stallions.

Dog blankets, beds & coats needed! (Dec. 8/10)

dog blankets over little terrierAll Breed Canine Rescue needs beds for foster dogs.  If you have washable dog beds, fluffy blankets or towels would you please take them to K-9 Concepts (9830 Sunset Drive, just east of Talbotville). Or contact Linda at 519-631-5607 or or Lois at 519-633-6226 or  ABCR is being deluged with litters of puppies.  There aren’t enough foster homes and some are being boarded in kennels.

Where are they coming from?  Some at least are from people who thought having a litter and selling the pups would earn some extra Christmas money.  But the pups didn’t sell, so now they’re being killed or dumped on rescue groups.  ABCR is doing the best they can to get shots and vet care for the pups and find homes for them and help pay for the spaying of the mother dogs.  Money, foster homes and emergency provisions for this influx of puppies are all desperately needed.

Thrift Shop Dog Blankets

Hound dog sleeping on blanketI know recently I extolled the virtues of thrift shops for finding cheap mittens, socks and coats for your kids.  And, yes, there are also lots of old blankets and towels there too.  But ABCR is a non-profit charitable group that survives only on donations.  Every dollar spent on dog blankets is a dollar they don’t have to spend on food and vet bills.

I can’t donate my services as a veterinarian because I’m not one. But I can contribute dog blankets even if it means I go to the Sally Ann and buy them.  At least with these, you don’t have to buy new ones to give.  Anything warm and fluffy for a dog or puppy to sleep on will be appreciated.  Dog coats are also needed for winter walkies. If you have any you don’t need or feel like knitting some, put them in with your blankets.

Kitten asleep on blanketRescue groups and shelters will soon be overloaded with cats, if they’re not already.  Winter is here, and the cute kittens of summer are now at the age when they need spaying or will be producing kittens themselves.  It’s the time when they are dumped.  Let someone else worry about them or let them die – too often that is the attitude toward those cute cuddly kittens when they start to grow up.  So cat shelters like Animal Aide and Pets/Friends for Life are in need of supplies and cash as well.

Probably every other dog and cat rescue group is experiencing the same thing.  So if you aren’t in Elgin County or London, call a shelter or rescue group near you and see how you can help.

Coronation Street Scene of the Week (Dec. 5/10)

"Corrie Crazy" airing on CBC TVBefore getting to this week’s episode on Lake Schtupid: Set your pvr, tvo, vcr, whatever you have, and make sure you’re home next Thursday evening. Canadian Coronation Street fans hit the small screen on CBC TV.  “Corrie Crazy” airs Thursday, Dec. 9th at 8 pm (8:30 in Newfoundland, I assume). Debbie Travis is the host, and I know from reading her blog that Nova Scotia’s proud Corrie fan “Tvor” will be one of the people featured in it. It’s CBC’s contribution to the 50th anniversary celebration of  The Street.

Coronation Street is not the longest running show on television. Guiding Light, cancelled a year ago, still holds that honour. But 50 continuous years of entertaining and moving storytelling – that’s an incredible feat by any measure. Thank you, Granada Television, for giving us this. Thank you, Tony Warren, for creating a world of people who have become like friends to so many of us. And Bill Roache, who fifty years ago introduced the character of young Ken Barlow, university student. Thank you all.

Lake Schtupid

Now back to Scene of the Week, in Canadian time, which is 10 months before the big anniversary. Valentine’s Day 2010, where romance blossoms and so do colossal emotional meltdowns on the Street and in the Lakes District.

Suicide by stupidity: that’s the theme of this week. Or, another name, Dumb and Dumber. By Wednesday, when you add Gail to the mix, it’s “Dumb, Dumber and I can’t believe she’s that dumb!”

Dumb and Dumber, of course, are Joe and Peter – different storylines, different kinds of stupidity. For those of you unfamiliar with the Darwin Awards, check them out. They are “awarded” posthumously to people who do the human race the favour of taking themselves out of the gene pool. To be eligible, you must kill yourself in some spectacularly stupid way. I thought of them often while watching this week.

GailForce sailboat at night on lakeThe scene. The breathtaking beauty of a lake in the Lake District on a cold winter night. White sailboat reflecting off the water in the moonlight. Onboard, Joe putting his “solution to all our problems” into effect. His cold hands fumble with the dinghy rope as he’s trying to tie it onto the sailboat. He drops it. The dinghy floats away free. He has to get it back; it’s the key to his floating away free. He uses an oar to retrieve it, almost gets it. The sail comes around and knocks him overboard.

Joe slides down side of boat into waterHe flails in his heavy clothes.  The boat sits in the background, serene on the silvery water. Picture postcards of a cold beauty, except for the roiling water in the foreground. Joe struggling. He manages to swim back to the boat. He’s going to make it! But how will he get away? It’ll be only him and the Gail Force, not him and the dinghy to Ireland. And his hands let go and he slips down the side into the water. And keeps sinking.

So he’s set up Gail to report him in the morning as missing while, in the plan, he’s rowing his way to safe anonymity in Northern Ireland. You could see a hundred things wrong with this plan, even if it went accordingly. With it gone horribly wrong, especially for Joe, there are another hundred things. And Gail, within a day, manages to find a good few of them. There’s a scene the next morning when David actually talks a lot of sense to his mother, but she doesn’t listen. It’s pretty bad when David is the only one living in Sanity Land.

Gail standing on dock, looking out over lakeJoe managed to make a bad situation far worse. I hadn’t liked the thought that he was going to kill Gail in order to collect the insurance money. Then, at the end of last week, I thought he was going to kill himself or ‘disappear’ himself in order to end his problems and help Gail by having the insurance money for her to collect. I felt bad about that for his sake. I could also see logistical problems, like insurance won’t pay on a suicide real or presumed. But I never foresaw a totally bollixed job such as this has become.

Back on Schtupid Street

Peter drinking from bottle of Scotch outside George's doorAnd back on the Street, while Joe is inadvertently committing physical suicide, Peter is committing social suicide. You’d think, even drinker that he is, he’d have learned by now to not turn up at people’s door, weaving and slurring his words with a bottle in his coat pocket, demanding to see his son.

But he Barlow family "intervention"does, at Grandpa Moneybags’ door at that. And just as fast as money can get your precocious youngster into the private school system, it can also get you into a private rehab clinic. Peter, of all people, ought to know that George believes in acting swiftly and has the money to do so. And this time, George is getting no argument from Ken on the philosophical importance of supporting the state-run health system.

Lifeboys: Reality tv before “Reality TV”

In the spring of 1992, I heard an interview with Pat O’Rourke, of Liverpool, on CBC Radio’s As it Happens. It was about Lifeboys, a television show that he was making, based on the real lives of real people. O’Rourke and his wife owned and ran the Shipperies, a long established Lifeboys Shipperies Pub, Durning Road, Liverpoolpub in Wavertree, part of Liverpool in the north of England. In it, they were making Lifeboys, based on their pub and its patrons.

I went to visit the O’Rourkes at the Shipperies when I was in England soon after, while researching Coronation Street for a radio documentary. I liked what they were doing: making art out of their reality, or portraying reality through the art of being Liverpudlian, “Scousers.” Either way, it was blurring the lines between reality and entertainment.  It was neither documentary nor fiction. Now we would call it reality tv; then it was comparable only to continuing serials like Coronation Street and East Enders.

I wish O’Rourke had met another producer in England who, at that time, was also thinking of how to change the stories told on television. Charlie Parsons had an idea for a different kind of show based on reality. He wanted to put ordinary people into extraordinary, and stressful, situations and tape what happened. His idea eventually came to fruition on Swedish television in 1997 as Expedition Robinson. It enjoyed some success there and was produced by broadcasters elsewhere. The idea exploded when Mark Burnett sold it in 2000 to American audiences as Survivor.

Competition or “Real Life”

Since then, there has been every kind of reality show imaginable. Some are competition of stress and manipulation, like Survivor. Some are talent shows.  Others are daily lives of regular people doing whatever it is they do, like a television diary. Some have huge prizes for the winners. Some have only the prize of having your life documented and aired.

UnStable website (CMT) horse and womenI started thinking about the “record of life” type of reality show when I watched one called UnStable. Being interested in horses, I’ll watch anything with the word stable in it. I still can’t figure the show out, other than it seems like a “reality” version of CBC’s Alberta-set horsey drama Heartland. I thought to myself, somebody in Alberta must have watched Heartland and said, “this isn’t what our lives are really like, I bet I could tell better stories about what it means to be a rancher in Alberta.” And, with a proliferation of cable stations looking for cheap programming, they indeed found a buyer in CMT (Country Music Television). They’ve got a nice website and presumably lots of fans who want to see “real” families running “real” horse ranches instead of, or as well as, the fictional ones on Heartland.

So that’s what made me think of Pat O’Rourke and what he had put his heart into. But he was thinking of it in terms of continuing serials like Coronation Street and Liverpool’s Brookside. A couple years later, when reality television began flooding the airwaves, I think his eavesdropping on a Liverpool local would have been a hit.

Lifeboys and Wrinklies

What O’Rourke wanted to do was produce a tv show about his pub patrons by his patrons for his patrons. He had worked in television and film and was an actors’ agent. He borrowed and bought equipment and set up the upstairs of the pub as a production studio. There he and writer Paul McKane wrote and produced scripts based on the stories and lives of the people in his neighbourhood, the people who frequented his bar.

The bar is divided into two – a large public room on one side, bar in the middle, and a smaller parlour on the other. The younger people tended to congregate in the larger bar where the music was loud, the older people in the smaller room. The ones in the large room, at least the men, were known as “Lifeboys”. The people in the smaller room were generally known as “Wrinklies”.

The stories O’Rourke wanted to tell were those from both sides of the bar, but the name he liked for the whole was “Lifeboys”. So the real lifeboys and wrinklies told their stories, and Pat videotaped and took notes. He then edited the tape into short episodes and aired them in the big room for the patrons. Everybody loved it.

Watching at The Shipperies

Evenings when episodes were shown began drawing capacity crowds from the neighbourhood. Lifeboys began getting a lot of media attention too. UK, European, even Canadian tv, radio and newspapers wanted to know about the “pub soap”. O’Rourke and McKane had hopes to get Lifeboys picked up by a network for national broadcast. They thought their product told the real stories of Liverpool. They thought they could go up against Brookside, Emmerdale and, yes, even Coronation Street.

It didn’t happen.  I don’t know why. O’Rourke, McKane and all the actors wanted to make a good product that entertained and reflected their reality, and did. I spent a wonderful three days at the Shipperies, with the real lifeboys and wrinklies, and with the actors and production crew.

Lifeboys didn’t make it into my radio documentary on soaps. But it did inform my look at Coronation Street and the other British network serials. Little things like how local are the actors, are the accents authentic for the characters, are the stories believable for these characters in this place? These are questions that also concern Coronation Street and the other UK serials. But opinions vary on how well they succeed in recreating a realistic picture of their environment. Lifeboys is a section of the book on soaps I later wrote. There I could explore the questions of authenticity of voice that O’Rourke had raised as well as issues of reality and story narrative, accuracy and entertainment.

Authenticity of Story

Historic Fire Station and Shipperies Pub LiverpoolPat O’Rourke cared about seeing Liverpool accurately presented, and Manchester and Yorkshire (homes of the other Northern serials). But his concern went further than that. His question was why create fictional people and situations when such richness of character and lifestories is all around you. The real stories are just as entertaining and moving, and to the greatest extent possible, the best people to tell them are the real people themselves.

He found it’s hard to actually do, with time and budget constraints. Especially if you are aiming at well-oiled machines like Coronation Street as your competition. Also the networks had their continuing serial roster pretty well filled up. With home-grown major products, smaller regional soaps in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and Australian imports giving a shot of sunshine and skin, there wasn’t much room for another one. But there might well have been room for a real-life look inside a Liverpool pub and the lives of its patrons in a couple years. By then, pretty much anything that could be made into a reality show was, and was being bought and aired.

Reality TV

In the years since the original Survivor, there have been every kind of reality show imaginable, and then some. In contest form or storytelling, all (except celebrity ones) are “ordinary” people acting in “real” ways.

Perhaps the genre that Lifeboys should have been a part of is the “reality tv” one, not continuing serials. Yes, the latter are a representation of daily life but are clearly fictional. Like a good novel, they reflect reality but don’t intend, or pretend, to replicate it. Pat O’Rourke wanted to document reality and present it as entertanment. In that he had more in common in Charlie Parsons and Mark Burnett. From what I saw of Lifeboys compared to what I’ve seen of reality shows, I much prefer Pat O’Rourke’s vision.

I still don’t know what I think of UnStable. I watched a couple episodes but haven’t felt moved to watch again. The stories didn’t grab me. But that’s pretty much how I feel about Heartland too. I Heartland website mastheaddon’t care about the people that much, and they always seem so clean even after mucking out stalls. I like the horses, though, on both shows and wish they had bigger roles.

flickr photos of the Shipperies by Caroline & Phil Bunford, top, and Jim Malone, bottom. UnStable and Heartland photos are from their websites.