April 20, 2013

This week in TV Guide: April 21, 1973

NBC's Friday night documentary series The American Experience looks at three turbulent eras in U.S. history - the Revolution, the Civil War and the Depression.  The program is entitled "Strange and Terrible Times," and after a strange and terrible week in America, the conclusion to which is playing out on the television set behind me as I type these words, let's take a look at something a little more lighthearted and escape the real world for a few minutes.

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I showed my wife the cover of this week's TV Guide with Raymond Burr as Pope John XXIII, and added that the Pope was actually the good guy in the program, she remarked, "Boy, they wouldn't do that on TV today, would they?"

The program in question is Portrait: A Man Whose Name Was John, an ABC special airing at 7pm CT on Easter Sunday night.  It tells the true story of Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, who in 1958 would be elected John XXIII, but during World War II was the apostolic delegate (i.e. ambassador) to Turkey, and his battle to save over 600 Jewish children from being shipped to Nazi Germany.  It was a cherished experience for Burr, who had personally met John four times* during his papacy and called him the most impressive human being he had ever met.  "There was absolute communication between us," he said of their first meeting in 1959, which had been arranged by Family Theatre producer Father Patrick Peyton.  Though not Catholic - he describes himself as "believing in all religion" - Burr had long hoped to do a film project based on John's life (a film for "all people"), when he was approached by producer David Victor with the idea for A Man Whose Name Was John.  It was less ambitious than Burr's plan, but "it told a lot about the kind of man Roncalli was."  Eventually, Burr decided, "it wouldn't be a bad idea" to take it on.  As far as I know, Burr's own movie on John was never made.

*At this point I should point out, not unkindly, that given Burr's predilection for creating events in his own life, one has to be careful not to put too much stock into this.  Still, his impressions of John are so strong I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The whole movie is, not surprisingly, available on YouTube; here's the first installment.  Burr makes for a very convincing John; dare I suggest that the cover shot makes him look even more papal than the current pope?


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Because Easter doesn't have a set day every year, we've seen several TV Guides lately that have had Easter programming of one kind or another, and this issue is no exception.  In addition to John, there are several religious-themed movies, mostly on Saturday night on local TV: The Robe on Austin's WEAU, A Man Called Peter on WKBT in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, The Nun's Story on WDIO in Duluth, and The Song of Bernadette on WCCO in Minneapolis.

As for Easter itself,  CBS has a live broadcast of an Easter service from New York, conducted by the famed positive thinker Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, NBC presents a Sunday morning documentary on the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in England, while ABC's Directions covers the Easter Mass from St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.  Later in the day, Eau Claire's WEAU gives us an hour of sacred music from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and PBS has Handel's Messiah (which Handel had always intended as an Easter, rather than Christmas, piece), featuring the Arion Musical Club of Milwaukee.  In case you're looking for ABC's annual airing of The Ten Commandments, that didn't start until 1973.

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TV's two definitive 70s-era rock music shows, NBC's The Midnight Special and ABC's In Concert, faced off on Friday nights.  Midnight Special was a weekly show, airing after Johnny Carson, while In Concert was an every-other week part of Wide World of Entertainment.  Whenever the two slug it out, we'll be there to give you the winner.

Don't know if you can call this week's matchup entirely fair, as In Concert goes with a three-hour marathon (originally broadcast as two separate shows) featuring Alice Cooper; The Allman Brothers Band; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Curtis Mayfield; Seals and Crofts; Chuck Berry; Poco; and Bo Diddley.  I count eighteen songs during the show, with almost everyone doing at least one of their biggest hits ("School's Out," "Ramblin' Man," "Roll Over, Beethoven," "Summer Breeze," etc.)  The 90-minute Midnight Special counters with an all-50s show hosted by Jerry Lee Lewis with Little Anthony and the Imperials, Chubby Checker, the Shirelles, the Ronettes, Freddy Cannon and teh Diamonds.

You can't say the stars weren't out this Friday night, can you?  I'm going to give it to In Concert strictly on the basis of it being twice as long; as far as the talent, it's a push.

***

Besides John, there are some other very interesting specials on this week - or at least they were interesting to me, even though I didn't see any of them.  You see, this was my time in the wilderness, literally; the six years I spent in the world's worst small town,which for the bulk of my time there had only two television stations.*  The main channel, KCMT, was primarily an NBC affiliate, but picked up additional programming (mostly sports and some specials) from ABC.  We did get TV Guide up there; unfortunately, it was the Minnesota State Edition, which meant I was continually being taunted with glimpses of shows I would never see.  Nonetheless, a number of these shows intrigued me - they seemed fraught with a suggestion of gravitas that lent them importance, or so it seemed.

*Yes, I realize I'm being quite shallow in judging quality of life based on number of television stations received, but you have to remember I was only 13 at the time.  On the other hand, the promoters of cable TV would surely have agreed with me.

Tuesday night, for example, Cliff Robertson starred in ABC's The Man Without a Country, available (naturally) on YouTube.  The final 30 minutes dovetailed with CBS's Playhouse 90 special of Ingmar Bergman's The Lie, the story of a husband and wife (George Segal and Shirley Knight Hopkins) struggling to hold their marriage together.  As one of them comments, "People have to lie and deceive in order to live together."  Does this in any way resemble The Secret Life of Dentists?

PBS weighs in with a couple of specials of their own: on Sunday night the opera great Joan Sutherland continued a series of abridged operas on Who's Afraid of Opera (this week: La Traviata), and on Thursday evening the network presents a restored version of David Lean's epic Oliver Twist, which included nine minutes of footage originally cut from the American film version.  Not to be outdone, CBS counters with its own special Monday night, as Rex Harrison stars in The Adventures of Don Quixote," a co-production with the BBC.

You'll notice that none of these are on NBC, which means none of them were seen in our household.  Oh, there was an NBC special: The Going Up of David Lev, a musical saluting the 25th anniversary of the creation of Israel, starring Topol (Fiddler on the Roof), Brandon Cruz (The Courtship of Eddie's Father), Melvyn Douglas and Claire Bloom.  It wasn't on KCMT - preempted by a Minnesota Twins baseball game, which is what I would have watched anyway.

***

This week's "Shape of Things to Come" feature: this note in The Doan Report, asking "Will the Senate's Watergate probe early next month develop, as some observers predict, into a major TV show?"  The Senate committee, led by North Carolina Democrat Sam Ervin, is welcoming the cameras into the hearing room, and NBC News president Richard Wald tells Doan that "We'll air a live pickup if the hearings are interesting enough."  Oh, they will be, Mr. Wald - trust me on this.

That note makes all the more poignant a CBS news special on Thursday, Five Presidents on the Presidency, in which the incumbent, Richard Nixon, is quoted as saying, "The most important thing about a public man is not whether he's loved or disliked, but whether he's respected.  I hope to restore respect to the Presidency."

Doan also tells us of the strange Star Trek craze; even though the show has been off the air for several years, there are still devoted fans "hold[ing] reunions to bemoan its loss."  For them, producers hope to provide some solace with a new sci-fi series entitled Starlost, created and written by legendary writer Harlan Ellison, starring Keir Dullea (2001). It winds up being called The Starlost, and if you've never heard of it, this article - with the title "Is The Starlost the Worst Science Fiction Series Ever Made?" might provide an explanation.

And then there's the coming end of the third and final incarnation of Jack Paar's talk show, the one that featured on ABC's Wide World of Entertainment.  Paar had made the comeback, in part, to help out his old friend and protege Dick Cavett, but speculation is that ABC and Paar "will mutually call off his late-night comeback as an unsalvageable disappointment."

***

Finally, at the end of a most entertaining issue, a couple of articles that I'm saving for later: the conclusion of an interview with FCC Chairman Dean Burch on how much permissiveness should be allowed on TV, and the final part of Edith Efron's three-part series on the disaster that is children's television.  These articles deserves more space than I can give here, so in the coming months you'll read Tuesday essays on each.  They provide a very interesting look at the current state of television and its interaction with the culture of the early 70s, and it will be hard to understand how TV got to where it is today without looking at what they have to say.

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