RIP Larry Zolf, 1934–2011 ..

Mar 17th, 2011 | By | Category: In Brief

Larry Zolf in his early 30s, in 1966, the last year of This Hour Has Seven Days.

As best as I can make out, I did not agree with quite a few of Larry Zolf’s opinions about Canadian public life. (The two examples that come most immediately to mind are his residual sympathies for the British monarchy in Canada and Barbara Amiel’s husband, Conrad Black.) He was, however, the kind of journalist you could disagree with but still enjoy. And I was sad to hear about his death on Monday, March 14, 2011, at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

Like millions of Canadians of my generation I knew him only through his media persona. According to what would seem the official obituary: “Larry was born in North End, Winnipeg in 1934, received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Winnipeg and did graduate work in history at the University of Toronto. He joined the CBC in 1962 and worked as a reporter, producer, critic and radio and TV host on several shows, including the legendary current-affairs TV show This Hour Has Seven Days as well as Sunday, Weekend, and Take 30.”

Larry Zolf also wrote a number of books, including Dance of the Dialectic in 1973 — described by Allan Fotheringham in the Vancouver Sun as “the funniest and truest book I’ve read this year.”

I remember him as a great icon of what I nowadays see as a kind of golden age of Canadian public affairs television in the 1960s and earlier 1970s. I should perhaps acknowledge that I was 15 in 1960 and 30 in 1975 myself. And my golden-age view of this era no doubt has a lot to do with its relation to my own now all too long lost youth. Still, I think a quite good and more or less objective case can be made for the argument that Canadian public affairs TV during this era — especially on the publicly owned CBC — achieved heights it has never quite reached again.

Larry Zolf himself apparently once declared (with a characteristic immodesty): “I was the star of Canada’s Seven Days, the best television show of its kind on the continent, better than 60 Minutes … Seven Days gave me the image that helped me get started.” I think the show was at least close to being that good. And it says something about the difficulties of such an achievement that it lasted “just two seasons between 1964 and 1966.”  As explained on the Museum of Broadcast Communications website: “This Hour Has Seven Days has repeatedly been cited as the most exciting and innovative public affairs television series in the history of Canadian broadcasting. It was certainly the most popular, drawing more than three million viewers at the time of its controversial cancellation by CBC management, which was unable to withstand the cries of outrage from offended guardians of public morality.”

Larry Zolf in his later days with the CBC.

Larry Zolf went on to other heights in his own media career — which culminated with his intriguing work as a commentary writer on the CBC website in his early 70s! Yet as his colleague of sorts George Jonas reported in a National Post obituary yesterday: “Zolf reached the zenith of his career by the early 1970s, after which he started on a long path of gradual decline. There is such a thing as being too good a fit. Being a favorite of one’s own times, or even their disciple, raises the risk of being out of tune with the times that follow.”

There is something as well to the identification of Larry Zolf with the somewhat twisted 15-year odyssey of Pierre Elliott Trudeau as Prime Minister of Canada (1968–1979, 1980–1984). I think I remember him best myself as the author of the striking characterization of Trudeau’s political career as a journey “from philosopher king to Mackenzie King.” You no doubt have to know quite a lot about Canadian political history these days to get the joke. But it was one of Larry Zolf’s virtues that he did. And he brought this knowledge to bear on his reporting in a way that, as Michael Posner has noted in his Globe and Mail obituary, “made us laugh.” Canadian federal politics could certainly do with a reporter who could make us laugh in some similar way today.

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