Chapter Twenty-three

It was about then that I heard that the CBC was planning a major expansion of its Edmonton operation. Almost anything would amount to a major expansion when you consider that the CBC’s total Alberta presence in 1960 was crammed into a few rooms of Edmonton’s MacDonald Hotel.
I wrote an urgent letter to Herb Nixon of the CBC’s Winnipeg newsroom, explaining my situation. My hope was that he remembered my work in Winnipeg during the ’50s: the Wolseley tree and the Lake Winnipeg swims. He replied immediately with the promise of a job in the CBC’s first ever Edmonton newsroom – as soon as the new CBC building was ready. And when would that be? Sometime in the fall: I was to “hang on” somehow until then. It was then early Spring.
A friend in Toronto was almost sure of an opening at CKEY. He wrote back in a matter of days saying a massive internal shakeup had eliminated it.
When help finally came, it was from an unexpected quarter. The Program Director of CFRN Radio had already turned me down, but he called back to say they were looking for someone at CFRN’s television operation to write commercials.
Shades of CKY, Winnipeg! I’d be right back where I started. I took the job. CFRN-TV’s studios and offices were in a modest building out on a busy highway just past suburban Jasper Place. The station’s impressive TV tower, something of a landmark, told you where. I lived in St. Albert, a good 10 kilometers away, but I found a connecting country road that would get me to work in about 25 minutes.

Remember Brillig, the little dog in Peter Sellers’ office? As soon as I heard the name, I wanted to apply it to a pet of my own. I got my chance when a tomcat adopted us soon after my return from the U.K. tour. He was lots of fun when he stayed home.
Ours was a row house in a new area of St.Albert. We got to know the people next door, but the burly truck driver a few houses down wasn’t very approachable. That’s why we were surprised to find him on our doorstep early one morning, holding Brillig in his arms. The cat didn’t look too perturbed but the truck driver was white as a sheet.
“Here’s your goddam cat,” he blurted. “I heard this awful racket coming from my engine compartment when I started the truck just now, so I popped the hood – and there he was, sitting on the motor!”
We tried to keep an eye on Brillig after that but his next escape came only weeks later, and it was even more spectacular.

I’d taken that long drive to the TV station one morning and parked the car in its lot. CFRN-TV was the only channel in town in 1960 so it was all I could watch while I ate my brown-bag lunch at my desk. The station had a “Noon Show” hosted by two of its announcers. It was a vehicle for community announcements, including pets up for adoption at Edmonton’s SPCA.
To say the “Noon Show” was informal was to plumb the limits of understatement. The two hosts wore funny hats and Hawaiian shirts and spent much of the time between announcements giggling and snorting. Their cameraman was just as relaxed, swinging his lens in wide arcs over the studio.
One of these swings ended in a close-up of a cat. I choked on my sandwich. The animal looked remarkably like Brillig! But how could that be?
I called home. My wife said she hadn’t seen Brillig since I left for work that morning. In a matter of minutes I was part of the “Noon Show” chasing Brillig around the studio trying to retrieve him. By the time I did, most of the station had found one of its many TV monitors to follow my progress. A cheer went up when I returned to the office with the cat in my arms.
Not long afterwards, Brillig was gone again, but this time he didn’t come back.
Writing commercials must be like riding a bicycle. And you know what they say about riding a bike: you never forget how to do it. It had been ten long, eventful years since I churned out ‘spots’ for the second CKY, Winnipeg, but a few days at CFRN-TV were enough to make me a working part of the station’s continuity machine.
There were only three of us, and seniority decided who got to write what for whom. As the new boy, I must have got a few clients the others didn’t want, but I never felt abused. It may have helped that my fellow writers knew my history: that I had been fired from a management job at “the university station” by a politician. As soon as my deportment ruled out drunkenness or eccentricity as possible explanations, they were ready to blame the politician. We all are.

One of the other writers was a middle-aged woman with a cultivated British accent. I tried to regale her with stories from my United Kingdom tour but when I went into a description of my encounter with Peter Sellers, she cut it short with: “Oh, him!” And, sputtering with indignation, she went into a Peter Sellers story of her own.
It appears that she had once been a fashion writer in London with a circle of lady friends from “all the quality magazines.” She had a flat in one of London’s semi-posh areas. It was on the ground floor, with Peter Sellers as her upstairs neighbor.
“Trash!” she huffed. “Him and his lunatic chums!”
Then, while I struggled to look sympathetic, she told me what had transpired the afternoon she gathered her fashion friends in her back garden for cocktails.
“They were dressed magnificently, of course. Trying to outdo each other. And everyone wore a hat. As the afternoon wore on, I noticed a change in them.”
“In your friends?” I ventured.
“No, no! In the hats! Sellers – no doubt aided and abetted by that maniac Milligan – had cooked a large pot of spaghetti, and they were throwing strands of it from the balcony above. Can you imagine? A disgrace! A positive disgrace! It ruined my garden party! And that’s your Peter Sellers.”

The ‘Milligan’ of course was Spike Milligan, Sellers’ cohort on the BBC comedy show “The Goons.”
Milligan stories abound. My favorite originated with a minion who had been delegated to drive the comedian to the airport. The car had barely emerged from the downtown area of London when Milligan shouted: “Stop! Stop! Pull in over there.” He was pointing to a delicatessen.
The driver obliged and Milligan disappeared into the shop, emerging minutes later with a small cardboard carton in one hand and a plastic spoon in the other. A few blocks closer to the airport, Milligan opened his briefcase and extracted a small paper bag, which the driver recognized immediately as an aircraft ‘sick bag’ – the kind to be found tucked into the backrest of any commercial aircraft. While the driver struggled to keep his eyes on the road, the comedian opened the carton he had taken from the delicatessen and emptied it into the bag. The laden sick bag then went back into the briefcase. All this had the driver goggling.
“Pasta salad,” Milligan explained. “I always get hungry before they can serve a meal.”
“But . . . but . . .?”
“The sick bag? Yes, I guess that calls for some explanation, doesn’t it? I always sit next to a stranger, see. And once we’re in the air, out comes my briefcase, right? Then I turns to the stranger and tells him it’s my second flight of the day. That I got sick on that first one, but I saved the vomit for now. Then I pop open the briefcase, fish out the sick bag and spoon and set to eating. Never fails to get a rise out of the poor bastard!”

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