The Odyssey odyssey, part 1

The Odyssey odyssey

For better or for worse, the work for which I am still best known is The Odyssey, the fantasy TV series which I created and wrote with my writing partner and longtime friend Warren Easton. In it, an 11-year-old boy, Jay Ziegler, falls out of a treehouse and ends up in a coma, which somehow has transported him to an unsettling world where children rule because adults have never been heard of. The Odyssey starred Illya Woloshyn, Tony Sampson, and the late Ashleigh Aston Moore, and provided many other local kid actors, such as Ryan Reynolds, with their career starts. The show was produced here in Vancouver and initially aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with 39 episodes appearing between 1992 and 1995.

In Canadian terms our show was a hit, with a peak audience of over 1 million viewers, and many more than that when you look at other countries. It was also a huge critical success, drawing praise for its intelligent, hard-hitting material aimed at kids without talking down to them. Many, perhaps most, of the show’s fans were adults, intrigued to find mythological, psychological, and political themes entwined in a kids’ adventure story. The series was a darling of festivals, winning awards such as a Top Ten World Program at the Cologne Conference—that is, selection as one of the 10 best TV shows ever made.

The Odyssey was a successful story, but the creation of the series, its writing and production, was a perilous ordeal for the inexperienced writers whose brainchild it was. In February 2008 I started to tell the story of its creation in a series of posts at my old blog, Genesis of a Historical Novel. I have decided to repost the series here on my new site for readers new and old. You’ll find a new episode here every Wednesday.

Below is part 1 of The Odyssey Odyssey—enjoy! And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.

Fans of The Odyssey have expressed curiosity about how the show came to be, and I have meant to say more about that. Maybe I’ll start now.

Warren Easton and I had been friends from childhood, as far back as grade 3 in North Vancouver. Along with other friends we had an interest in creative and dramatic things such as writing and acting. After leaving high school 1977 we lost the nurturing environment for following these things, but were still interested in these creative pursuits, even if it wasn’t clear how to follow these now.

After some time spent (mainly separately) working, traveling, and dropping out of higher education, we agreed in spring 1982 to write a script together–a made-for-TV movie.

Well, we never quite finished that, but over the next few years, while varying between unemployment and working at various jobs, we kept chipping away at script projects. At the same time, I was a stringer for a small Montreal-based magazine called Cinema Canada, writing articles and then columns about happenings in the film and TV industry in Vancouver. This got me meeting people in the industry (and getting them willing to talk to me!). One of the people I met was Michael Chechik, a local producer whose company, Omni-Films, was involved in making the feature film Walls, a true-life prison story starring Winston Rekert, who went on to star in the TV series Neon Rider.

When my father, Al Vitols, who was a current-affairs producer for CBC-TV in Vancouver, told me that the long-running, locally produced TV series The Beachcombers was going to come to an end before long, and that the CBC may well be looking for something to replace it, Warren and I put our heads together and came up with what we thought was a similar adventure-comedy idea, but more urban in tone and therefore (we assumed) also cheaper to produce, maybe. It was a show about bicycle couriers, which we called Flash Dispatch. (At that time, 1983-84, bicycle couriers were everywhere in Vancouver; the fax machine had not yet arrived, still less the Internet.)

After studying a couple of half-hour CBC scripts that my father furnished us, Warren and I set to work writing a pilot script for our half-hour would-be TV series. (Like many proto-TV writers, we looked at the scripts and thought, “Cripes, we can do better than that.”) Warren and I had both recently ended periods of poverty and unemployment by getting jobs, he as a messenger at a securities firm downtown; I soft-landed as a clerk at the Insurance Corporation of B.C.–a cushy unionized job. He worked days and I worked evenings, so we got together at midnight each night in his little apartment over a bagel shop at 16th and Oak in Vancouver. With a typewriter set up on something like an upended box (he had no furniture), I typed while he paced or lounged, and the traffic zoomed noisily past just below.

This was in the winter of 1984. After a few grueling weeks of working like this, we had a pilot script for our show. Entitled “The Old Switcheroo”, the episode had one of our young couriers involved in mistakenly picking up a pack filled with the proceeds of a bank robbery, with farcical results. It was a comedy with fast-moving, outdoor, West Coast action: we thought it was good, and we started trying to get it read–first of all by sending it to the CBC.

Nothing. No response. Not yes, not no–nothing. Gradually we realized that we’d probably have to start showing it to other people, producers. At the same time, we tried to come up with other ideas, while also keeping body and soul together by holding down regular jobs.

I forget now exactly how it happened, but at some point, late in 1985, I sent some material to Michael Chechik at Omni-Films–Flash Dispatch and a story treatment for a TV movie that Warren and I had worked up about ice dancing, called Dancing on Ice. Well, one evening, I think in early December 1985, I got a call at home from Michael, saying he really liked the Flash Dispatch script and wanted to see about getting it produced.

Yahoo! I thought. I’m in show business!

We agreed to meet at La Bodega, a tapas bar downtown, to talk about it. How exciting! We were going to be produced!

There were plenty of twists and turns yet to come. But that will be for future installments…

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