12 December 2011

Jalna's Dirty Little Secret Exposed! (Part I)

The Secret of Jalna
Ronald Hambleton
Toronto: Paperjacks, 1972

I remember Jalna... rather, I remember The Whiteoaks of Jalna. The television adaptation of Mazo de la Roche's sixteen-book soapy saga ran on Sunday nights from January through April in 1972. A nine-year-old aspiring architect, I'd lie on the floor, sketching the house by the glow of our Viking colour TV. My mother, much more attentive, did her best to follow along with the aid of a Whiteoaks family tree she'd clipped from the pages of Weekend Magazine.

The Whiteoaks of Jalna was to have been our Forsyte Saga. CBC Television Drama poured nearly everything it had into the project, draining resources and, ultimately, crippling future productions. With a total budget of $2,000,000, 'twas such a big deal that even an elementary school student such as myself knew it was coming. The Secret of Jalna, thrown together in anticipation of the series debut, captures some of the excitement. Here, for example, is the book's poorly laid-out reproduction of an undated Toronto Star headline:

"Jalna pilot bombs" would have sufficed.

Polite company does not speak of the series. In Turn Up the Contrast, her history of CBC Television drama, Mary Jane Miller devotes all of two paragraphs to this most of monumental of flops. Still, I think she sums things up nicely: "The problem was that Jalna readers, who wanted their old familiar story, were treated to an ill-conceived experiment in narrative structure complete with flashbacks, multiple plot strands, and intercut time frames, all edited in haste as the air date approached. Of course they were frustrated by this. Viewers unfamiliar with the novels were simply confused."

Blame belongs, in part, to lead writer Timothy Findley.

The Whiteoaks of Jalna never made it to beta, VHS, laserdisc – you won't find it on DVD, Blu-ray or Netflix. YouTube has no clips, and there are not more than a couple of images online. I'll add this photograph, drawn from the book, capturing the wonderful Kate Reid in hideous 'seventies attire.

The series aired for a second and final time two years later. Windsor Star critic Ray Bennet speculated: "The great fiasco may have some camp appeal by now." He was wrong. But then camp appeal grows with time.

How soon is now?

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  1. First time I ever heard of it. What is the book about?

  2. Ah, I went back and forth on whether I should divide this post in two. The answer is in tomorrow's post. It's not terribly interesting, I'm afraid, though "the secret" - or what I view as "the secret" - is shocking and shameful. Sorry to tease.

    (Should add that I don't think Hambleton thought of the same as "the secret". I think the title was just a way to sell the book.)

  3. The cover looks like a Don Harron spoof.

  4. I was thinking it's either Uncle Willie or Floyd, but can't figure out which.

  5. Hi, I loved this wonderful series and especially Paul Harding as Renny. I had read the entire series of Jalna books (16 in total, I believe) and had no problems with flashbacks etc. the other viewers complained about. Kate Reid, Amelia Hall and Gillie Fenwick as Uncle Ernest were wonderful and I would dearly see CBC release the series in dvd. I saw the Star's tributes to Amelia Hall and Kate Reid on their passings but am trying to find out whether Paul Harding is still appearing on stage/film or any further information. I would be very grateful to anyone who is/was his agent/friend as my mother met him at Pearson International many years ago and he was a wonderfully gracious man. cathy_garside@yahoo.com

  6. An excellent documentary now exists about Mazo de la Roche called The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche. It premiered at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival in May 2012. The DVD is available through The National Film Board of Canada.

  7. You can also find out more about the documentary here:

  8. i was at the premiere at the st. lawrence centrew....star kate reid was drinkjing heavily at the bar while co-star amelia hall whispered the dreaded word ''debacle''....ironically the french remake in 1994 with danielle darriwux was so much better

  9. Are there no copies of the series in existence? Have the tapes been wiped and the film lost? It would be interesting to see the series.

    1. I'm certain that the series has survived, Anon. I'd love to see it myself, if only to rekindle childhood memories. A shame the CBC hasn't released it on DVD. They'd have a sale in me.