Docs

History Television calls on Screenlife for seaworthy one-off

In their ever-continuing search for quality historically-oriented programming, Toronto-based specialty net History Television believed it was going with a sure thing when they commissioned Michael Maclear, president of Toronto production company, Screenlife. Deadly Seas, a two-hour special slated to air this...
October 1, 1998

In their ever-continuing search for quality historically-oriented programming, Toronto-based specialty net History Television believed it was going with a sure thing when they commissioned Michael Maclear, president of Toronto production company, Screenlife. Deadly Seas, a two-hour special slated to air this November, tells the story of a real life conflict at sea during the 1943 Battle of the Atlantic. One hundred and forty-six of a total 147 sailors from the Canadian navy died during the battle – the greatest single loss in Canadian naval history. Set against the backdrop of WWII, Deadly Seas presents the personal stories of Canadian and German troops and chronicles the conditions under which they fought.

Norm Bolen, VP of programming, and Sydney Suissa, director of program development and acquisitions at History Television, both agreed that Michael Maclear was a perfect choice for the project. Maclear, a four-time Gemini award winner (Canada’s version of the Emmy), has a distinguished documentary career under his belt, including the award-winning Acts of War (for the pubcaster cbc) and the 13-part series Flightpath, currently airing on Discovery Canada.

Deadly Seas, based on a 1997 book of the same name by historians David Bercuson and Holger Herwig and published by Vintage Canada, will run as part of a special Remembrance Week on the channel (November 9-15) – a chance to look back on Canada’s contributions to war efforts. According to Suissa, ‘We read the book and thought that it would make a fascinating feature-length documentary because it told the story of a hugely important battle, but at the same time it told it through two characters – the Canadian captain of the destroyer and the [German] U-boat captain who ultimately sank that Canadian destroyer.’

Deadly Seas uses recreations and actors, archival research and clips of living survivors in order to tell the tale. According to Suissa, the channel’s aim with the CAN$390,000 doc was to ‘tell a Canadian story but on an international canvas.’ The fact that Deadly Seas is a cross between doc and drama is an added bonus for a channel used to being thought of by some as solely focused on war programming. ‘We need the spectacular event television projects to market the channel, bring other viewers to the channel and to drive them to other programs,’ says Bolen. History Television is the sole broadcaster on the project and is armed with all English-language rights.

Finding a book and turning it into a documentary is an increasingly viable way for History Television to come up with future projects, according to Bolen. ‘It happens increasingly that we find a book that’s really juicy, that has a good yarn in it, with good characters, a good story and has historical relevance,’ Bolen says. ‘We take that book and give it to somebody that we’d really like to work with – in this case Michael Maclear – who is, from our point of view, one of the most reliable, experienced and capable documentary makers in Canada.’ The visibility of Deadly Seas will be boosted by a cross-marketing campaign which will include reference to the project on the book cover – a good way for the new channel to hone in on its dedicated, albeit new, audience.

Launched a little less than a year ago as part of a raft of new Canadian specialty channels, History Television (not affiliated with The History Channel in the U.S.) features a blend of documentaries, movies and original historical programming, with a focus on both Canadian and world history. It is owned by Alliance/Atlantis (88%) and CTV (12%).

Four key strands in its programming schedule, built around three daily eight-hour wheels, are: War Stories, a 60-minute doc strand of original and acquired programs which focus on war from a human perspective; Faces of History, a 60-minute Canadian biography series; Turning Points, a 60-minute doc series that looks at events which have changed world and Canadian history; and History Presents, an event-based programming strand encompassing a variety of subjects. License fees range from CAN$25,000 to $50,000 for a Canadian hour.

Although required to adhere to a 33.3% Canadian content rule, the channel is interested in starting to work more closely with international coproduction partners. Some Canadian partners to date include: Toronto-based Barna Alper Productions and Good Earth Productions, Edmonton-based Great North Productions and Vancouver-based Paperny Films (for more on Paperny see pg. 18). But they still consider Maclear and his work on Deadly Seas as an upcoming favorite: ‘The project has gone beyond our expectations,’ says Bolen. Suissa agrees: ‘Michael took what was essentially an historical book and translated it magnificently to the screen.’

Other upcoming programs on the channel include: The Sexual Century, a six-part series on the history of sex in the twentieth century coproduced with Barna Alper and international copro partners in England and France; and CNN’s The Cold War, a $15 million 24-episode doc series produced by Sir Jeremy Isaacs and narrated by Kenneth Branagh.

About The Author
Meagan Kashty is an associate editor of realscreen, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Meagan is an award-winning business journalist. Prior to joining the realscreen team, Meagan was online editor of Canadian Grocer, named Magazine of the Year at the 2015 Canadian Business Media Awards. She can be reached at mkashty@brunico.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @MegKashty

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