BERTON, PIERRE

Canadian Journalist/Broadcast Personality

Pierre Berton is one of Canada's best known personalities and arguably Canada's best-known living writer. He has also been an important television presence since the earliest days of Canadian television. For more than 30 years, he was rarely absent from the nation's television screens and by the 1970s was correctly described as "clearly Canada's best-known and most respected TV public affairs personality" by Warner Troyer in The Sound and the Fury: An Anecdotal History of Canadian Broadcasting. He was also one of most highly paid. During his career as a columnist and commentator, he has been a tireless defender of public broadcasting and the importance of Canadian content. In all of his many public roles, he has been a prodigious popularizer of the Canadian experience. He may be remembered most for his many books, mostly popular histories, but he has long had an arresting television presence.

Berton's first TV appearance was probably in 1952, as a panellist on Court of Opinion, soon after he arrived in Toronto from Vancouver, where he got his start as a student newspaper editor (The Ubyssey) and daily newspaper writer. Always well informed and opinionated, he provided a strong journalistic thrust to various CBC public affairs programs. In 1957, he became the host of the interview show Close-Up and joined the panel of Front Page Challenge, a long-running program that featured "mystery guests." The guests were connected with stories in the news and the task of the panel was to identify them by asking questions and then to conduct a brief interview with the guest. After a long run, the program was finally cancelled in 1995. In 1963, on the newly formed private network, CTV, he premiered the Pierre Berton Show (also known as the Pierre Berton Hour) another talk show, which ran until 1973.

Berton's commitment to popular history led in 1974 to My Canada on a new, private television service, Global. The program made use of his formidable talents as a story teller to present Canadian history viewers. The program had few props and relied on Berton's ability to hold an audience with the story. Later, in 1986-87, he was host of Heritage Theatre on CBC television, a series of dramatizations of true Canadian stories.

Among his major television triumphs was the 1974 CBC production, The National Dream. Based on his books, The National Dream and The Last Spike, the drama-documentary series consisted of eight hour-long programs on the opening of the Canadian West and the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Berton wrote the series outline and served as on-air guide to the documentary and drama segments. The series premiered at 9:00 P.M., Sunday, 3 March 1974 and had 3.6 million viewers, a very large audience in English Canada, where, at that time, the average audience was 3.1 million.

Over his career, Berton made a major contribution to Canadian television. Not surprisingly, he has been an ardent champion of public broadcasting and the CBC. Closely involved with Canadian Radio and Television League, he helped found a successor organization, the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, which has been a critical supporter of the CBC and Canadian production. As a Canadian cultural nationalist, Berton has made a major contribution to the development of a distinct Canadian approach to television.

-Frederick J. Fletcher and Robert Everett


Pierre Berton
Photo courtesy of Pierre Burton

PIERRE BERTON. Born in Yukon Territory, Canada, 1920. Married, Janet; six children. Began career as reporter for the Vancouver Sun; managing editor of Maclean's magazine, 1947; editor/columnist for Toronto Star newspaper 1958-62; writer of documentaries and plays for TV, film and radio, revue sketches and musical comedy for theatre; author of 36 books. Member: Canadian New Hall of Fame. Recipient: Companion of the Order of Canada, three Governor General Awards for Creative Non-fiction for The Mysterious North, The Last Spike and Klondike; 2 National Newspaper Awards; 2 ACTRA Awards for broadcasting.

TELEVISION

1957-95 Front Page Challenge (weekly panelist)
1957-63 Close-Up (host)
1972-73 The Pierre Berton Show (host)
1974 The National Dream (writer/narrator) series in 8 parts
1976 Greenfell
1979 The Dionne Quintuplets (writer)
1984-87 Heritage Theatre (story editor/host)
1985 Spirit of Batoche
1988 The Secret of My Success (writer/interviewer)

FILM

Klondike, 1960 (writer).

PUBLICATIONS (selection)

"Make Way for the One-Eyed Monster." Maclean's (Toronto), 1 June 1949.
"Everybody Boos the CBC." Maclean's (Toronto), 1 December 1950.
The Mysterious North. New York: Knopf, 1956. The Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush. New York: Knopf, 1958.
Adventures of a Columnist. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1960.
The Comfortable Pew. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1965.
Les Biens-pensants or The Smug Minority. Montréal: Editions de l'Homme, 1968.
The Last Spike. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971.
Drifting Home. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973.
Canadian Food Guide. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974.
The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977.
My Times: Living with History. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1995.

FURTHER READING

Gould, Terry. "Front Page Challenged: Aging Panelists Were One Thing, Then They Got Grumpy." Saturday Night (Toronto), July/August 1995.

"A star is Born: In His New Memoirs, Pierre Berton Describes How TV Bought Him Fame and Fortune." Maclean's (Toronto), 11 September 1995.

Stewart, Sandy. Here's Looking at Us: A Personal History of Television in Canada. Toronto: CBC Enterprises, 1986.

Troyer, Warner. The Sound and the Fury: An Anecdotal History of CAnadian Broadcasting. Toronto: Wiley, 1980

 

See also Canadian Programming in English; Front Page Challenge