Sean Connolly, CEO of Toronto-based prodco Gorilla Media, says his team was interested in creating something within the fish out of water format, as seen in recent factual entertainment hits such as Undercover Boss and Secret Millionaire. However, it was earlier ‘genre-busting originals’ such as British formats Faking It and Back to the Floor that inspired Connolly and crew to put Canadian politicians into the spotlight with the upcoming CBC series Make the Politician Work.
Connolly says the idea for the six-part series, set to debut in January, was inspired by news of a photo opportunity, in which a politician was brought to a work place outside of his typical parliamentary gig for a few hours. ‘A light went off,’ recalls Connolly. ‘Imagine if that politician was made to work for three days and given the bottom rung of the ladder job?’
The production team moved forward by soliciting the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) for cabinet ministers to participate in the pilot. The PMO gave the okay for the Canadian minister of national defence, Peter MacKay, to take part, although it was a hard sell with no tape. ‘It was a massive leap of faith for the PMO, Peter MacKay and his team to jump on board because nobody really knew what the show was,’ he says.
Produced by Gorilla Media in association with CBC’s news and factual entertainment divisions, the pilot aired in the fall of 2009 on CBC, with MacKay becoming Private MacKay and showing up for a grueling two-day program of army combat training at the Canadian Forces base in Petawawa. In the episode, MacKay not only gets his head shaved but also a verbal dressing down for being late. ‘That’s the moment I think Minister MacKay realized what he got himself into,’ says Connolly.
In keeping with the fish out of water concept, MacKay experienced what a typical private in the Canadian Forces would – extremely long days, bunking in the barracks and eating rations. ‘We do insist when we’re talking to political teams that if they jump in, they jump in with both feet and that they allow it to be a completely immersive experience,’ maintains Connolly. ‘The BlackBerry is handed over and that’s it.’
Make the Politician Work returns in the new year with the re-airing of the MacKay episode and five new episodes, each with a different politician. Each one gave up two to three consecutive days to the production and had a minimum of 12-hour work days.
It was also important that the work they did tied back to their own individual political portfolios. Thus, the new episodes feature NDP leader Jack Layton clocking in for shifts at a hospital emergency room; Prince Edward Island premier Robert Ghiz working on a lobster boat and at a lobster processing plant and the mayor of Vancouver, Gregor Robertson, doing duty as a garbage collector. Yukon premier Dennis Fentie and Danielle Smith, leader of Alberta’s Wildrose Alliance Party, will also take part.
The CBC’s executive director of factual entertainment, Julie Bristow, says that while it was challenging to negotiate access and to find the right politicians for the series, she hopes the program will add a new slant to both the public broadcaster’s political programming and its fact ent output.
‘[Gorilla] had a really strong idea for how to tell political stories, which I think is a constant challenge for us, and how to make politicians in some way multidimensional,’ says Bristow. ‘It also gets behind the political stories of the day in a way that is broadly appealing to viewers so they can engage in an issue or a challenge that’s political in nature.’
UK-based distributor C4i, part of the DRG Group, is handling international sales and has already sold the format to New Zealand, where it’s in production with prodco Great Southern Television, to air on TVNZ. The format has also been optioned in Italy, Ireland, France and Norway and options are almost closed in the U.S. and in Spain.
‘For us, it’s a true indication of the rising popularity of Canadian content internationally and in terms of the formats arena, Gorilla is very excited to be part of that success,’ says Connolly.