The Great Eastern first came on the air on CBC radio in July 1994, almost twenty years ago. It was a summer replacement for something or other and just ran six episodes, an hour each. I think that was when I first heard it, though it might have been the next summer when it came back for another replacement season of eight episodes. In September 1996 it came one for a full season, and was brought back for a fourth and fifth season, then ended in April 1999.
The first episode shows everything fully formed, and has hints of things that will develop over the years:
- At the start it’s briefly mentioned this is the first time The Great Eastern is being heard beyond the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland, and listeners from the rest of Canada hearing the show on the CBC are welcomed to “Newfoundland’s Cultural Magazine.”
- The show begins with a discussion of a large art festival in St. John’s, with special attention to Ned Brocklehurst’s performance piece where he cuts off his own finger (a metaphor for cuts to arts funding), which foreshadows a later work where he has his cerebral cortex surgically removed. Paul wonders what “culture” is, and puts a question to noted folklorist Dr. Rose Viesberg: “I guess what I mean to say is that people are always insisting for instance that this is such and such, whereas that isn’t. You see that kind of thing happen around here all the time.” She responds: “I know what you’re getting at, but I think it all gets back to the issue of cultural singularity as a self-conscious node of world culture—but world culture interpreted and represented within and by that very cultural singularity. Does that answer your question?”
- The fascination with German art, culture and history. Here there’s an interview with Eckhart Wunderich, an olfactory artist who curates odours. There’s no mention of Krupps-Funkenscheit, but in the first of the recurring “In the Vault” features, which replays old BCN clips, station head Ish Lundrigan says there’s something he wants to play: “I thought today we might listen to the legendary 1939 recording of the city council meeting where the city of St. John’s surrendered unconditionally to the Germans.”
- The third week of the current “What’s That Noise from Newfoundland” contest, still with the same sound because no-one’s guessed it right.
- Kathleen Hanrahans’s “Word Works” book segment, a regular feature.
- Host Paul Moth’s memoir The Rocky Road to Recovery is brand new. We’ll hear a lot more about it, and episodes from Paul’s life (such as his time with Shirley Jones, and the disastrous Mexican interlude) over the years.
- Three musical breaks with songs by Newfoundland bands.
- The political panel, a standard feature of Canadian radio, with a blowhard right winger, a feminist left winger, and an academic on the phone who never manages to get a word in. Here they talk about the Parkists, a possibly fascist political movement that wants to turn the entire province into a park.
- Oougubomba, which isn’t explained as being “Newfoundland’s ill-fated West African colonial experiment,” but which will come back in later years in one of the show’s masterpieces.
- The audio documentaries. Here Paul plays tape from a camping trip he took with a couple of friends. It went badly.
- The show ends with Paul doing an editorial, and the final credits thank Ish Lundrigan.
It’s all fake.
There’s no Paul Moth, there’s no Ish Lundrigan, there’s no BCN, there’s no anybody else, they’re all characters, written and performed by a tight crew of Newfoundland artists who pulled off the greatest work of radio satire ever. They created an entire world, an entire history, an entire mythology, and dropped it into Canadian laps without ever giving it away (except for a few hints in a few episodes once people were sort of in the know, as I recall). They played it entirely straight for years.
In the second episode Paul reads the first letter from someone from the rest of Canada. Or as he puts it:
I’m happy to announce that we’ve received our very first letter from Canada this week. Linda Leech of western Ontario writes, “Dear Paul, I heard your show on Saturday and the kids and I really liked it. I’ve never been able to get out there to Newfoundland though I would like to. I knew a really funny guy from there in Fort McMurray when I worked there a few years ago. Just one thing, though: what does ‘The Great Eastern’ mean? Does it have something to do with Newfoundland or it just something to make the show sound important? Looking forward to next week. Yours truly, Linda Leech.”
This must have been scripted, because it leads into an interview about the ship the Great Eastern. But it’s so real and close to the bone it could easily have been said by any Canadian. “I knew a really funny guy from there in Fort McMurray when I worked there a few years ago.” It’s perfect. All Canadians think Newfoundlanders are funny. They have funny accents, and we mostly see them on TV on comedy shows. We don’t know much about them otherwise. And Newfoundlanders are still going to Fort McMurray to make money in the tar sands.
But what about this letter from a later show, where Paul is reading listner mail with Erling Biggs:
Paul: Canadians think we’re too regional. In Iceland people aren’t even sure this is a real show!
Erling: It’s not just in Iceland. Here’s a letter from St John’s. Donnie Lawson writes: “I don’t know whether The Great Eastern is for real. What gives?”
Paul: I’m not sure I understand the question. I’m here.
Erling: Me too.
Paul: We’re for real.
That’s quoted in a marvellous appreciation by Michael Collins in The Newfoundland Quarterly in 2013, The Great Eastern. It was probably real. But who knows?
(Years later I met David Fiander, a librarian colleague, who actually won the “What’s That Noise from Newfoundland” contest and was sent a t-shirt. It was a real noise from Newfoundland, and a real contest. A beautiful mix of the real and the unreal. I had to buy my own shirt. I still wear it.)
Michael Collins puts it nicely:
That’s why I find The Great Eastern such a remarkable program. It is not mild and benign, and it was sometimes challenging and radical. In my experience as a CBC listener, it has a strong claim to be the most intelligent show I’ve ever heard them broadcast, and I’m not sure the CBC was (or is) aware of this. The Great Eastern does something surprising, shocking even. It uses the Canadian national broadcaster to create for Newfoundland an imaginary national broadcaster of its own, separate from the CBC, predating the CBC even, with a history as long and as rich as Newfoundland’s itself. It creates not a nation-within-a-nation, but a national radio within a national radio, patching together the scraps of Newfoundland nationalism and culture with threads of the creator’s own narrative invention, playing on public ignorance and expectation to create something that never was and probably never will be.
The CBC cancelled it in 1999 for being “too foreground.” The Great Eastern demanded, and rewarded, attention, but the CBC wanted shows that were good background listening, things you could play while you were doing the dishes or gardening or vacuuming. The group came back in 2004 for Sunny Days and Nights, where Paul is summer host for an Ontario regional show, and it was a small beauty. That was it.
The Great Eastern is a masterpiece: the greatest radio comedy ever made in Canada. (Frantic Times by The Frantics is a close second.) Every episode bears repeated listening. You can find them all on Gerry Porter’s archive The Great Eastern. Work through them all, and do not miss the two Oougubomba episodes from season 4 or episode 6 from season 5, the trip to the Funk Islands.
It was written by Mack Furlong (who played Paul Moth—I met him once at CBC headquarters in Toronto) and Edward Riche and Steve Palmer (who both played various roles). I just noticed the show’s archives are at Memorial University of Newfoundland (itself a subject of the show, such as Paul’s radical student involvement with the Viet MUN.) I thank them, and everyone else involved, for hours and hours of enjoyment over the years.