My First Break

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“Telling It From Where You Live”  by Andrew Wreggitt

It’s 1972.  I’m fifteen and I live with my parents in a mobile home in Fraser Lake, a tiny mining town in northern B.C.  Our TV antennae is lashed to a poplar pole and roped to the side of the trailer.  A new show comes on CBC (which is the only TV station we get).  It’s about this Greek immigrant trying to make a living salvaging logs.  There’s an anti-social old man who lives in a shack, a Native kid, a cop, a lady who runs a coffee shop… some others.  The show is called “The Beachcombers.”

In Fraser Lake at that time there are also immigrants from Greece, as well as scary reclusive guys living in shacks, Native kids, etc.  It’s a place where people work at the mine or the sawmill, hunt and fish and sometimes meet at the only restaurant in town.  I’d seen lots of TV shows about American places but never one about a place I’d actually been to, never mind a place like the one where I lived.

Two things I knew for sure as a fifteen-year-old in Fraser Lake:  a)  I wanted to be a writer.  b) I did NOT want to work at the mine.   As it turned out, I did work at the mine, more than once.   But I also went to university and got a degree in creative writing.  I was halfway through my Masters degree at the University of British Columbia when I got a job working at the CBC building in Vancouver.  They needed someone to do archival work — watch shows, write down what they’re about, who’s in them, who wrote them etc. so people could be paid residuals.  I volunteered to take on The Beachcombers file.  (By then there were close to 300 episodes!)

I’d never thought about writing TV.  I didn’t know who did that sort of thing but I was pretty sure it wasn’t someone like me.  But I did know something about living in a small town and logging and things that mattered to these characters so… when the summer ended, I wrote down three ideas for new Beachcombers episodes and took them to Jana Veverka who was the story editor.

She hated my ideas.  As I was being directed to the door, I blurted out that I’d thought of another great idea on the bus on the way to work.   Jana was either genuinely amused by my new idea or slightly alarmed that I seemed to have unimpeded access to the CBC building.   She said she would look at it if I wrote it down.   Later that day I came back and stole a script from a stack I saw on a PA’s desk so I could copy the format.  I didn’t know how to type a TV script, never mind write it.

To Jana’s surprise and no doubt consternation, I came back with an entire script.  There must have been something of value in it because I was eventually given a contract.  I then went on to rewrite the script more times than I could possibly count.  (I was also taking my first screenwriting class at university so I used the drafts as my course work as well.)  The episode was called “Hanson’s Ark” and was eventually shot.  Bruno Gerussi later commented to TV Guide that the writing on The Beachcombers had become so bad that the show was actually hiring f***ing students now!   I might have been discouraged by Bruno’s remark but after being screamed at daily by my various foremen at the bottom of the mine’s secondary crusher…  Let’s just say I had learned how to deal with constructive criticism.

A few months ago I found myself in front of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) having to explain again why Canadian content matters.  Every time I do that, I think about that kid watching a fuzzy TV in a trailer park in the middle of nowhere and what seeing a Canadian show like The Beachcombers meant to me.  I think about the opportunity that was given to me because someone at the CBC took a chance on developing home grown talent (thank you, Jana).  I think about the Canadian stories I’ve been privileged to tell in thirty years of screenwriting in this country.

And I also think about how grateful I am that I haven’t had to go back and work at the mine.  Not yet, anyway.

(Published in “Canadian Screenwriter,” Spring 2013)