The dramatic series Republic of Doyle debuts tonight on CBC Television (9:30 NL time).
But chances are, you already know that. With a deluge of advance promotion, on radio, TV and even billboards in downtown Toronto, CBC clearly has high hopes for the series, which stars St. Johns native Allan Hawco (who is also executive producer, writer and creator of the series).
And from what I've seen, there is much to be excited about. The series features edgy and funny characters, smart writing, and interesting storylines from infidelity to arson investigations, wrongful convictions to missing art work, runaway spouses to runaway rum, according to a CBC news release.
In a telephone interview from CBC headquarters in Toronto, conducted just minutes before he went live with Jian Ghomeshi, Hawco said the idea for the series has been germinating for the last 12 years. He pitched it to his co-writer, Perry Chafe, about two and a half years ago.
That was the hardest part to be honest, because I dont like to do anything without Perry, Hawco said. He is such a super talent and a big part of all of my writing we write everything together. Perry wasnt too keen on it right away, but as we moved forward with the idea, and CBC liked it and then Malcolm MacRury joined us and it became a new idea completely, taking on a new life and becoming something very exciting.
Hawco is an actor of national renown (with starring roles in television dramas ZOS: Zone of Separation, H2O, Trojan Horse, Above and Beyond and the feature film Love and Savagery), but St. Johns is a scene-stealing co-star, captured in all its colourful glory in the warm summer light. However, its not all pretty postcard scenery: the action also takes place in alleyways, rooftops and junkyards.
As well, there are no thinly-veiled fictitious locations. Instead of the Earl of Gower or some such foolishness, we get the real Duke of Duckworth. As well, Hallidays meat market and Wm L Chafe and Son appear as themselves. Its a nice touch, and one that is long overdue in local productions.
We wanted to use the real names and buildings to represent St. Johns as closely as possible, Hawco said. We asked people [such as store owners] to get on board with us, and everybody was really supportive.
Hawco said it was essential to remain true to the character of his city and province.
It was really important to use what we see as the real St. Johns; to tell a story that had an authentic point of view of what Newfoundland means for me, and for Perry too, as well as John Vatcher and Rob Blackie, my producing partners. Its almost like a romance with the province. Its a character in the series, but it's not rammed down anyones throat. Its just a beautiful backdrop for this cool story Youve got to use it as much as possible. It would be ludicrous not to.
I asked if it was a hard sell, convincing the CBC brass to set a dramatic TV series in far-flung St. Johns.
No, its not [a hard sell] for anyone who has been here, Hawco replied. All you have to do is take them down to Prescott Street, and when they look out through the Narrows, they gasp! But its not a selling tool the city is what it is.
When Malcolm MacRury joined the team, Hawco explained, the rest of the production team took him for a drive around the city. He said, My god, this is a directors dream. This town is a movie set.
A lot of the action takes place at the Duke of Duckworth, where Hawcos character Jake Doyle likes to hang out. However, it was not practical to shoot scenes in the club, because it would have meant shutting down the business for weeks at a time. So the producers built an exact replica of The Duke at a soundstage in the old recreational centre on Torbay Road. (And to give credit where it's due, this detail was first reported on CBC Weekend Arts magazine back in October.) Every detail of The Duke was reproduced, right down to the bar shape, wood grain, table placement, dartboard, and photos on the wall of visiting musicians (which were posed for in this case by crewmembers).
Perry and I developed most of our ideas sitting at that bar, talking and playing with ideas, so its pretty exciting to see how much work the designers put into modeling that for us, Hawco said, adding that the finished set was startlingly realistic.
Man, if you stand in there, you feel like youre at The Duke. Theres no way around it. Oh man, it was so weird, it was like living in a bizarro world. When we would have our last night of shooting for the week, we ended up having a few beers at the [simulated] bar after work. And then wed all go to the Duke after work. It was very confusing. Me and Dad were playing pool in the fake Duke for two hours before I realized we werent at the real Duke.
The series has been compared to The Rockford Files, for the way it weaves comedy and ironic wit with more serious dramatic themes. The Rockford Files was certainly an inspiration for it, but the series developed its own identity, Hawco said. I cant think of another show I could compare it to its kind of unique in that way, which is both scary and exhilarating.
Noting the name of the series, I asked Hawco if there any references in the shows to Newfoundland nationalism.
I sort of shy away from that. In the show, the term Republic refers to the family This is a show for everybody and I dont want to exclude anyone. It is very important to me that Newfoundlanders watch it, and are proud of it, but number two, I want people from Vancouver or anywhere in Canada to watch and say, Thats a good television show.
For more on Republic of Doyle, check this review by John Doyle of The Globe and Mail.