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Thursday September 10, 2009

He was there when the CBC introduced TV to Canadians

Special to The Globe and Mail

The people who work behind the scenes in television are largely anonymous to the public eye. They are underdogs and don't get the recognition of on-air talent. Cliff Solway was one of them.

Mr. Solway was a pioneer at the CBC when the corporation introduced television 57 years ago this month, a phenomenon that mesmerized Canadians.

Fresh out of the radio and arts program at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, Mr. Solway was walking one day down Jarvis Street in Toronto and was asked by a friend he met, "Why don't you help us out on the air at the new television station?"

He applied and got a job, starting out in the lighting department and rising to become arguably the foremost public affairs producer/director at the CBC with shows such as Fighting Words and Background.

"It was all live, black and white television in those days and it went right across Canada," recalled Vincent Tovell, a fellow CBC producer from the early days. "We were learning on the job and trying to build a Canadian audience for the CBC."

Fighting Words was a major force on the network for close to 10 years until 1962. It was the network's first successful discussion program, which implored four celebrity panelists to guess the author, who was suggested by the home audience through a mail-in campaign.

The host during much of its tenure was Nathan Cohen, a leading drama critic of the day, who raised furor after furor with some of his outrageous comments.

"The show made Nathan a national celebrity," National Post newspaper columnist Robert Fulford said.

It was cancelled by the corporation in 1955.

"Just months later, the show was back on the air, due to a letter-writing campaign, much of it presumably done by Cliff," Mr. Fulford said.

The show would go on for another seven years. Over the years, Mr. Solway would produce a number of other CBC shows, including Background, which aired in the late 1950s to early 60s in the Sunday-evening time slot.

Fuelled by Mr. Solway's ferocious appetite for reading newspapers and keeping up on the news, Background looked at the week's stories in more detail and was a forerunner to This Hour Has Seven Days. Hosts were familiar journalists and commentators, including Mr. Fulford.

"Cliff was very creative, very intelligent and very up to the minute," Mr. Fulford recalled. "He was dynamic, a terrific broadcaster, a terrific boss."

Another one of Mr. Solway's shows was The Business of Books, which was a series of six, half-hour programs that employed drama, music, and satire to outline the business of literature and publishing, particularly in Canada.

During his 10-year stint at the CBC, Mr. Solway would meet Antoinette Bower, a transplant from Germany. She found her way to Toronto and ultimately the CBC's public-affairs department, where she would do interviews, arrange open houses and conduct other duties for about five years before heading to Hollywood for a career as an actress. She's still working at age 76 and was recently filming in Alberta for a personal project she is doing on horses.

Their friendship lasted 55 years. They lived together just shy of 10 of those years, or at least tried to. They lived part of the time in Toronto and then in Los Angeles. But there were too many phone calls and too little time together. He'd be in Toronto or elsewhere, she'd be in L.A., or elsewhere.

"We were soulmates for life. We loved each other," Ms. Bower said from Los Angeles. "I don't mind saying we were close for 55 years. We tried that back-and-forth thing for a while. Then I got married in 1963.

After the CBC, Mr. Solway worked in New York and Los Angeles as a freelance writer for newspapers and as a documentary producer. He wrote for numerous newspapers and magazines, including Saturday Night, Village Voice and the New Statesman.

"What Cliff loved best about being in New York was that it was where he was seen as a writer," Ms. Bower said. He wrote several screenplays and produced a number of stellar documentaries, among them a seven-minute shortie, The Gay Life, and the 10-minute The Burglars.His most prized documentary may have been his 60-minute production in 1966 for the CBC: Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Reagan and The Big, Beautiful, Beleaguered American Dream. It comprised many newsreel shots of Ronald Reagan and Robert F. Kennedy in appearances in California during the 1966 campaign, plus scenes of the two being queried on a number of topics by the film's narrator, Philip Deane.

Little known among Mr. Solway documentaries was the one he fashioned on Cuba, around the time Fidel Castro was about to take power. "Cliff had his finger on the pulse," Ms. Bower said of his prowess for digging up stories. "He always had something in the works."

One of his other documentaries in the 1960s involved corruption in Mexico and the murder of a Mexican journalist, issues that are very much relevant today.

CLIFF SOLWAY

Cliff Solway was born Nov. 6, 1926, in Toronto. He died Aug. 3, 2009. He was 82 and suffered for decades from Parkinson's disease. He leaves his brother Jack, 93, a number of nieces and nephews and close friend Antoinette Bower of Los Angeles.

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