Canadian Dramatic Anthology Series

For the Record was one of the most successful series ever produced and broadcast by the CBC. It used an anthology format, offering four to six new episodes each year linked only by the series title and a documentary-style approach to topical stories. Many episodes proved controversial, but the series was critically acclaimed for its thoughtful and intense treatment of difficult issues.

The idea for the series originated with John Hirsch, who was appointed head of television drama at the CBC in 1974. He felt that CBC drama should have the same urgency and relevance as the network's well-regarded current affairs programming and recruited Ralph Thomas as executive producer of a new series which would become For the Record.

Although the producers and writers contributed a great deal to the success of the series, one of the key decisions taken by Thomas was to hire directors who had contributed to the growth of Canadian cinema in the 1960s and early 1970s. These filmmakers were part of Canada's "direct cinema" movement of low-budget feature films based on documentary techniques developed at the National Film Board. In the mid-1970s Canadian film moved toward the production of supposedly more commercial imitations of Hollywood style and, as a result, leading filmmakers, both anglophone and francophone, were pleased to find an outlet for their talents in a television series which stressed its difference from the U.S. network programs that dominated Canadian television screens.

The series officially got under way in 1977, but the basic approach was established in the previous season when five topical dramas were broadcast under the title Camera '76. These included "Kathy Karuks is a Grizzly Bear" (written by Thomas and directed by Peter Pearson), about the exploitation of a young long-distance swimmer, and "A Thousand Moons" (directed by prolific Quebec filmmaker Gilles Carle), about an old metis woman who lives in a city but dreams of returning home to die. Six new programs were broadcast in the following season, when the series got its permanent name: two ("Ada" and "Dreamspeaker") were contributed by another Quebec director, Claude Jutra, while documentary filmmaker Allan King directed "Maria," about a young Italian-Canadian who attempts to unionize a garment factory. The most controversial production of the 1977 season was undoubtedly "The Tar Sands," written and directed by Pearson, which provoked a libel suit because of its depiction of recent dealings between the oil industry and politicians in Alberta.

By the end of the t977 season the format and possibilities of the series had been firmly established; but these did not fit comfortably into existing categories of television programming. The episodes were presented as television dramas, but the location shooting made them seem more like films. After the legal problems with "The Tar Sands," the CBC disavowed the term "docudrama" which had been applied to the series and suggested instead "journalistic drama" or "contemporary, topical drama that is issue oriented."

Whatever the term, the series did allow for a range of approaches. Dramatized treatments of specific topical events (like "The Tar Sands") were rare, although viewers could often relate the fictional stories to similar stories recently in the news. More common were episodes (like "Maria") which dealt with an identifiable "social problem" in terms of its impact on characters seen as both individual and representative. While the "social problem" was a necessary ingredient, some episodes, notably those directed by Carle and Jutra, took on a poetic dimension with subjective fantasy sequences emerging from their social realism.

Some memorable episodes from later seasons dealt with rape ("A Matter of Choice," 1978), hockey violence ("Cementhead," 1979), separatism ( "Don't Forget 'Je Me Souviens," 1979), television evangelism ("Blind Faith, 1982), farm bankruptcies ("Ready for Slaughter," 1983), gender discrimination ("Kate Morris, Vice President," 1984), and the beauty myth ("Slim Obsession," 1984).


The series was praised for its refusal to allow personal dramas to obscure the social implications of the issues. Whatever the outcome for the characters, the endings did not create the impression that the issues had been resolved, implying that solutions still needed to be sought in reality. Supporters of public broadcasting in Canada pointed to For the Record as an alternative to the formulas of commercial television, with its demand for clearly-defined conflicts and happy endings, and there was a widespread agreement that the series fulfilled the CBC's mandate to provide insight into Canadian society and culture. Its cancellation in 1985 could be seen as a response to commercial and political pressures on the CBC, although the public network has continued to broadcast similar realist dramas exploring topical issues.

-Jim Leach

PRODUCER Ralph Thomas




Collins, Richard. Culture, Communication and National Identity: The Case of Canadian Television. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990

Feldman, Seth, editor. Take Two. Toronto: Irwin, 1984.

Gervais, Marc. "Lightyears Ahead: For the Record." Cinema Canada (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), March 1977.

Henley, Gail. "On the Record: For The Records 10 Distinctive Years." Cinema Canada (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), April 1985.

Miller, Mary Jane. Turn Up the Contrast: CBC Television Drama Since 1952. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press, 1987.

Morris, Peter. The Film Companion. Toronto: Irwin, 1984.


See also Canadian Programming in English