WOJECK

Canadian Drama Series

First aired on the anglophone network of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for two seasons (1966 and 1968), Wojeck was a magnificent aberration: a popular, homegrown dramatic series made for the pleasure of English-Canadian viewers. Early on, francophone producers in Montreal had developed a particular genre of social melodrama, known as tÚlÚromans, that did captivate the imagination of French-Canadian viewers. Not so their anglophone counterparts. The record of domestic dramatic series in English Canada had been short and dismal, a collection of failures or at best partial successes, usually modeled on American hits but lacking either the inspiration or the funding necessary to succeed. Audiences much preferred watching the originals, the stories Hollywood had made--until Wojeck arrived. Early in its first season, Wojeck was purportedly attracting more viewers than many American imports, and it received even higher ratings when rebroadcast in the summer of 1967.

Part of the success of Wojeck rested upon its visual style. It was the first time the CBC had produced a filmed dramatic series for its national audience. Executive producer Ronald Weyman drew upon his experience at the National Film Board to deliver stories which had the look of authenticity. This was especially true in the first season when each episode was in black and white, and scenes were sometimes shot with a hand-held camera, giving the productions a gritty, realistic quality that at times suggested the news documentary. The look of authenticity was less apparent in the second season, when the series was in color.

Success, however, had as much to do with the subject, the script, and above all the acting. Wojeck created stories around a big city coroner and his quest for justice. The character and setting were novel twists on the very popular 1960s American genre of work-place dramas that focused on the exploits of such professionals as lawyers, doctors, and even teachers or social workers. The notion of a crusading coroner would become much more familiar to North American audiences because of the hit U.S. Quincy, of course, which began its long run on NBC in 1976. But at the time, Wojeck was an original, possibly inspired by the much-publicized exploits of an actual coroner of the city of Toronto.

The show did nonetheless conform to the formula of such American hits as Ben Casey (1961-66) or Mr. Novak (1963-65). All of the episodes (written in the first season by Philip Hersch) centered on the seamy side of life: racism, ageism, discrimination (one program dealt with male prostitution and homosexuality), and other species of injustice. Often the "heavy" was society itself whose indifference or intolerance had bred evil. Wojeck was a kind of "edutainment," since viewers were supposed to absorb some sort of moral lesson about the country's social ills while enjoying their hour of diversion. The first show, an outstanding episode entitled "The Last Man in the World," looked at why an Indian committed suicide in the big city, exposing "Canada's shame,"--its mistreatment of its native peoples.

Wojeck featured a strong male lead, Dr. Steve Wojeck, superbly played by John Vernon, who was backed up by a "team" that included his wife (the understanding helpmate), an assistant (efficient but unobtrusive), and a sometimes reluctant crown attorney (the well-meaning bureaucrat). Wojeck was emphatically masculine: big and rough, aggressive, short-tempered, and domineering. These qualities were most apparent when he dealt with the police and other authorities. He was easily moved to anger and to moral outbursts, but was much more understanding when he dealt with society's outcasts. Wojeck was the engaged liberal: an advocate for the powerless committed to reforming the practices of the system so that it ensured justice for all. Like his Hollywood counterparts, Wojeck embodied the 1960s myth of the professional as hero who would turn his talents and skills to making our sadly flawed world a better place.

Wojeck had no real successors. Weyman and others did produce a number of forgettable dramas in the next few years, but none could match the appeal of the imports. Ironically the very success of Wojeck had spelled trouble for CBC's drama department. John Vernon was lured away to Hollywood, where he came to specialize in playing villains. Indeed, Weyman later claimed that much of the talent which had contributed to the appeal of Wojeck was drawn away to the greener pastures down south. The memory of that brief, glorious moment was sufficient to justify replaying some of the episodes of Wojeck on the CBC network over twenty years later.

-Paul Rutherford


Wojeck

CAST

Dr. Steve Wojek ........................................John Vernon
Marty Wojeck......................................... Patricia Collins
Crown Attorney Bateman .............................Ted Follows
Byron James............................................... Carl Banas

PRODUCER Ronald Weyman

PROGRAMMING HISTORY   20 Episodes

CBC
September 1966-November 1966        Tuesday 9:00-10:00
January 1968-March 1968................. Tuesday 9:00-10:00

FURTHER READING

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

Rutherford, Paul. When Television Was Young: Primetime Canada 1952-1967. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Wolfe, Morris. Jolts: The TV Wasteland and the Canadian Oasis. Toronto: James Lorimer, 1985.

 

See also Canadian Programming in English; Weyman, Ron