Steve Paikin, host of TVO’s The Agenda, circulated the sad news. “A broadcasting legend has died. … His Witness to Yesterday in which he interviewed figures from our history got me hooked both on journalism and history,” he tweeted. “His This Hour has 7 Days revolutionized current affairs TV in the 1960s.”
Watson’s career spanned five decades. The Toronto native first appeared on the CBC children’s radio series, The Kootenay Kid, in 1943. He later performed in productions like The Terry Fox Story (1983) and Countdown to Looking Glass (1984). He also produced a one-man stage performance of the Old Testament’s The Book of Job in 1983.
He was a prolific author, including Fasanella’s City: The Painting of Ralph Fasanella With the Story of His Life and Art (1973), Ahmek (1999), This Hour Has Seven Decades (2004) and Wittgenstein And The Goshawk: A Fable (2004).
But the medium where he was the most recognizable was television.
He hosted CBC’s This Hour Has Seven Days, a groundbreaking and controversial current affairs program that ran from 1964 to 1966. He also hosted CBC’s The Watson Report from 1975 to 1981 and was the first host of the CBC’s Venture from 1985 to 1987. He helped create two CRB Foundation/Historica Canada series, Heritage Minutes and The Canadians: Biographies of a Nation. He co-created and hosted the influential 12-part PBS series The Struggle for Democracy.
I’ll remember him best for his two brilliant historical docudrama series, Witness to Yesterday and Titans.
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Watson interviewed great historical figures from different times. The interviews were constructed as informal conversations. He asked penetrating questions to his ‘guests.’ The actors and actresses portraying them responded with a mixture of historical accuracy and light conjecture. The format allowed for varying degrees of artistic liberty and creativity. It was fascinating to watch Watson banter with his guests, arguing at times and occasionally reaching points of mutual agreement.
Witness to Yesterday started on Global in 1974. The original series contained 20 interviews with historical figures like Sir John A. Macdonald, Catherine the Great, Christopher Columbus and Leonardo da Vinci. It was picked up by TVOntario (TVO) between 1975 and 1976, and 15 additional interviews were conducted with the likes of George Gershwin, Cleopatra, Mark Twain and Adolf Hitler. In 1998, History TV revived the series for 12 further episodes. (It was also broadcast on PBS.) Watson spoke with Marie Antoinette, Vladimir Lenin, Tecumseh, Alexander the Great and more.
Titans ran on CBC from 1981 to 1982 and was co-produced with Citytv. It was virtually identical to Witness to Yesterday’s format, although the set design was more elaborate. The discussions were as lively as ever, and included stimulating interviews with Napoleon, Stephen Leacock, Confucius and Alexander Graham Bell, among others.
There were memorable historical portrayals. Witness to Yesterday had famous actors like Richard Dreyfuss (Billy the Kid) and Christopher Plummer (Duke of Wellington), along with comedian Steve Allen (George Gershwin) and his wife, actress Jayne Meadows (Cleopatra). Titans included performances by writer W.O. Mitchell (Stephen Leacock), actor John Marley (Albert Einstein), comedian Andrea Martin (George Sand) and Watson as Alexander Graham Bell.
If you enjoy history, politics, culture and intellectual discourse, these were the perfect TV shows. But unless you made VHS recordings, there’s almost no way to watch them. Witness to Yesterday and Titans don’t run on television. No DVD series or box sets have ever been released, and no streaming service carries them.
The only full episode I found was the Jan. 8, 1974, pilot of Witness to Yesterday on YouTube. Watson speaks with Joan of Arc, played by Academy Award-winning actress Sandy Dennis. It’s a wonderful and free-flowing discussion from start to finish.
In one fascinating exchange, Joan talks about the messages she received “from the angels” in her quest to save France. This led Watson to explain “what’s so frustrating to me talking about your voices.” He suggested that Joan, who was 13, was going into puberty and “indulged in fasting. It was springtime. You worked hard. Your country was in semi-ruins around you, it was a time of anxiety, you never knew when the soldiers would come through.”
In his view, that was “exactly the kind of circumstance that can generate in a young mind hallucinations. And you won’t even concede the possibility.”
“No, Mr. Watson. I will not concede it no more than you seem to be able to concede the fact that what I say is true.”
There’s also a behind-the-scenes clip of Titans that Ed Conroy of Retrontario posted on Vimeo. This includes part of the conversation between Watson and Queen Elizabeth I, portrayed by Frances Hyland. She’s heard saying, “I will have but one mistress here and no master. And that as long as I live, I will be Queen of England. God gave me that role.”
Watson replied, “And you will remain a virgin.” Her Majesty answered, “To whom much is given, much is required.”
This was Watson at his finest. He was a brilliant mind with a critical eye. Intelligent, engaging, curious, humorous, innovative and thought-provoking are all perfect descriptors.
We need more exposure to Witness to Yesterday and Titans. I hope Global, TVO, History and CBC consider bringing them back, even for a short spell. The genius of this broadcasting giant cannot, and must not, remain silent for future generations.
Rest in peace, Patrick Watson.
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics. For interview requests, click here.
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