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THE TELEPHEMERA YEARS: O Canada! (part 1)

Written By:

Alan Boon
Seeing Things, 1981

Ah, telephemera… those shows whose stay with us was tantalisingly brief, snatched away before their time, and sometimes with good cause. They hit the schedules alongside established shows, hoping for a long run, but it’s not always to be, and for every Street Hawk there’s two Manimals. But here at STARBURST we celebrate their existence and mourn their departure, drilling down into the new season’s entertainment with equal opportunities square eyes… these are The Telephemera Years!

O Canada!

Although the odd European show occasionally slips through the net, a massive percentage of the shows featured in The Telephemera Years originate from North America, and almost exclusively from the USA. Canada, though, has a thriving film and TV industry – including providing locations and supporting cast members for many of those American shows – and even has its own range of TV channels, including CBC, CTV, Global, and Space. To celebrate those gems made north of the border – some of which enjoyed three- or four-season runs but little acclaim outside their native land – we’re giving over four weeks of this column to our Canucklehead friends.

Some of the shows produced in Canada that have enjoyed wider acclaim include telefantasy schlockbusters Lexx and Relic Hunter, while the beloved Due South also falls into this category. Viewers of children’s BBC in the 1980s will no doubt have fond memories of The Raccoons and Degrassi Junior High, while Kids in the Hall rewrote comedy in the early nineties with a decidedly surreal touch. But those are the shows you’ve heard of and probably watched… what about those that didn’t get much reach beyond the provinces and territories of the Great White North? This is the story of some lesser-known Canadian treasures…

Seeing Things (1981, CBC): For those of a certain bent, one look at Louis Del Grande will elicit a Pavlovian response to prepare yourself for horror. Best known outside his native Canada as the first man to have his head explode in David Cronenberg’s Scanners, Del Grande had a background in stand-up comedy, becoming a regular on the Toronto circuit before being installed as head writer on the sitcom King of Kensington in 1975.

Starring Al Waxman, King of Kensington ran for five seasons, with Del Grande himself making the odd appearance while also finding the time to appear in the Burt Lancaster movie Atlantic City. While making King of Kensington, Del Grande formed a fast friendship with associate producer David Barlow and the two came up with an idea for a show which would star the comedian.

Seeing Things, 1981

Seeing Things features Del Grande as Louis Ciccone, a journalist on the Toronto Gazette who begins to suffer visions which impart clues to solve crimes. Teaming with ex-wife Marge (Martha Gibson, another King of Kensington alum who’d also appeared in Bob Clark’s Black Christmas), Ciccone’s visions eventually lead him to the culprit, albeit often in a roundabout way.

Debuting on September 15th 1981, Seeing Things ran for six seasons and a total of forty-three episodes. Moving between Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday nights, Louis Ciccone solved cases involving a boorish sitcom star, modern day Nazis, left wing terrorists, and the illegal disposal of nuclear waste, even having to prove himself innocent after a murder at his high school reunion implicates him in the crime.

Adderly (1986, Global): Created by Elliott Baker, and based on a character from his novel Pocock & Pitt, Adderly starred Winston Rekhart as VH Adderly, a debonair operative of the International Security and Intelligence agency. Coming through the Vancouver theatre scene, Rekhart had made several guest appearances on shows such as The Beachcombers, The Littlest Hobo, and Night Heat before landing the role, and had provided voices for Star Wars spin-off cartoon Droids.

As the show begins, Adderly suffers an injury at the hands of an East German spy, losing all feeling in his left hand. No longer of use on active service, he is reassigned to a desk job in the obscure Department of Miscellaneous and finds that there are unsolved cases that still require his attention, beyond his official remit.

Adderly, 1986

Rekhart was joined in the cast by Jonathan Welsh as Melvin Greenspan, his boss at the DMA who is fastidiously averse to giving Adderly the freedom he needs to solve the cases, and by Dixie Seatle as Greenspan’s secretary Mona, hopelessly addicted to romantic adventure novels and all too willing to assist Adderly in his extra-curricular activities.

Throughout the show’s two season run, Adderly is more than a match for the threats he encounters, performing as well as an active agent as he did with two working hands, and there is a sense that the DMA is a cover operation, created by ISI chief Major Clack in order with full knowledge that he would not be able to resist taking on a challenge.

The show was a cult hit in the US in a late night 11.30pm time slot, which led to CBS moving it to prime time for season two. However, a lack of promotion led to low ratings and the show was moved back to its late-night slot, where it regained its loyal following. Pocock & Pitt was Baker’s third novel, released in 1971, and he wrote a further five books before his death in 2007, but Adderly remains his only screen adaptation.

Diamonds (1987, Global): Sonny Grosso was a former NYPD detective who was instrumental in breaking a case that was later fictionalised as The French Connection. Grosso acted as a consultant for the movie starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, who played Cloudy Russo, a thinly veiled version of Grosso. Grosso’s involvement with The French Connection was a gateway into the movies, also acting as a consultant on The Godfather while still working as a policeman.

In 1975, he retired from the force and became a producer, working on TV shows Kojak and Baretta while also being in demand as a consultant for many of the decade’s biggest police dramas. In 1980, Grosso partnered with former AIP Executive Producer Larry Jacobsen to form Grosso-Jacobsen Productions, producing TV series Baker’s Dozen and Hot Shots, as well as some unsold pilots, and began to look to the north as a potential market.

Diamonds, 1987

Partnering with Canadian company Alliance Entertainment, Grosso and Jacobsen developed Diamonds, which starred Nicholas Campbell and Peggy Smithhart as Mike Devitt and Christina Towne. Devitt and Towne were actors who had met and married on the set of detective show Two of Diamonds, only to go through a divorce and the cancellation of their show. Years later, the two exes now run their own real life detective agency, negotiating the pitfalls of working together as they solve the case of the week.

Diamonds was immediately compared to Moonlighting, which had started two years before, something the show played up to in an episode where somebody mistook Devitt and Towne for Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. The similarity was enough that CBS aired it in the USA as a late-night competitor to that series, but Diamonds was less long-lived, enjoying just two seasons to Moonlighting’s five. Grosso-Jacobsen enjoyed more success in the Canadian market with Night Heat and Counterstrike, but never did find that elusive American success.

Learning the Ropes (1988, CTV): For something that exploded in popularity in the mid-1980s, there’s very little permeation of pro-wrestling into mainstream North American culture. Whether it was seen as kid’s fodder or still regarded as the stuff of smoke-filled halls, pro-wrestling themed shows were few and far between. Which makes Learning the Ropes, a one-season sitcom produced by CTV in Canada, all the more special.

Learning the Ropes starred former Super Bowl winner Lyle Alzado as Robert Randall, a mild-mannered single dad and private school vice-principal who moonlights as a jobbing professional wrestler named The Masked Maniac. After making a few guest appearances during his playing days, Alzado retired in 1985 and started working more regularly in film and TV, usually in small roles and often as himself.

Learning the Ropes, 1988

Created by producer Ed Self and Welcome Back, Kotter veterans Neil Rosen and George Tricker, Learning the Ropes was Alzado’s big break, although multi-time world tag-team champion Steve Williams was under the mask for the action scenes. Williams was competing for the National Wrestling Alliance at the time, which allowed for some cross-promotion between the products, with NWA stars including Ric Flair and The Road Warriors making appearances on the show.

Debuting on CTV in September 1988, the series was also sold into syndication in the US but failed to grab enough of an audience that a second season was viable. Alzado returned to guest starring, also attempting a failed comeback in the NFL in 1990, and a year later went public about his use of steroids as a player throughout his career. He died in 1992, aged just forty-three-years old, of brain cancer, which he asserted was due to his steroid use, a claim that remains unsubstantiated.

My Secret Identity (1988, CTV): “Canada has superheroes, too!” was the conceit of Secret Identity, a sitcom starring Jerry O’Connell as teenager Andrew Clements, gifted superpowers in a laboratory accident. O’Connell had been one of the child stars of Stand by Me, Rob Reiner’s 1986 adaptation of Stephen King’s short story “The Body”, but hadn’t enjoyed the same post-movie success as co-stars Corey Feldman, River Phoenix, and Wil Wheaton.

Producers Fred Fox Jr and Brian Levant had worked on Happy Days in its last two seasons and were looking for a sitcom project to call their own. Creating Secret Identity, they cast O’Connell as their everyboy hero, packing the supporting cast with Canadian veterans including Derek McGrath, Wanda Cannon, and eleven-year-old Marsha Moreau as Andrew’s younger sister Erin.

My Secret Identity, 1988

Andrew initially called himself Ultraman but enjoyed less a superhero career, more a series of personal problems befitting a boy of his age, often caused – or at least not helped – by his developing abilities, although Andrew never seemed to think of them as anything other than a gift. Only mentor Dr Jeffcoate (McGrath) knew his secret and the show walked a fine line between cutesy camp and earnest drama.

My Secret Identity enjoyed decent ratings and even earned a tie-in novel written by Jovial Bob Stine (who wrote the Goosebumps series under the name RL Stine). As well as airing on CTV in Canada, the show was syndicated into the US and lasted for three seasons, somewhat running out of steam in the third as Andrew – and O’Connell – got older, but by that time Fox Jr and Levant had created the juggernaut that was Family Matters and the cancellation of their first born was nothing major to worry about.

Next on The Telephemera Years: More Canadian goodness as we move into the 1990s, including videogame wackiness and Phil Collins’s daughter!

Check out our other Telephemera articles:

The Telephemera Years: pre-1965 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1966 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1967 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1968 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1969 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1970 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1971 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1973 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1974 (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

The Telephemera Years: 1975 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1977 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1978 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1980 (part 12, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1982 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1983 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1984 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1986 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1987 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1989 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1990 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1992 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1995 (part 12, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1997 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1998 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2000 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2002 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2003 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2005 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2006 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2008 (part 1, 23, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Irwin Allen

Titans of Telephemera: Stephen J Cannell (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: DIC (part 1, 2)

Titans of Telephemera: Hanna-Barbera (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Titans of Telephemera: Kenneth Johnson

Titans of Telephemera: Sid & Marty Krofft

Titans of Telephemera: Glen A Larson (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Quinn Martin (part 1, 2)

Titans of Telephemera: Ruby-Spears

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