NFB Memories

November 6, 2015
Canadian composer Robert Fleming (1921-76) had his "portrait" taken by Karsh in 1952 or 1953, on the occasion of the National Film Board filming of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet production of his Shadow on the Prairie, choreographed by Gweneth Lloyd. Fleming is pictured holding a "clapper", ostensibly prior to the beginning of a shoot. The individuals gathered on the left of the photo include producer/director Roger Blais, cameraman Denis Gillson, and Ron Alexander. There were likely other photos taken by Karsh of the production process itself.

In many ways, I am a child of the National Film Board.  At first, the NFB was all about the music for me, which only made sense, since my father was a staff composer there from the year I was born, 1946, to 1970. I suspect that the prospect of my arrival led Dad to seek regular employment earlier than he might have done as a budding young composer still studying in Toronto. The NFB was originally established in Ottawa some seven years before he started working there. He ended up writing the music for well over 200 films, and as Music Director (from 1958 on) was also responsible for much of the recording and editing of other film scores. That was of course just his day job, as he also wrote several hundred other works, and was an organist and choirmaster, as well.

If the NFB was initially about music for me, it also, eventually, came to be about social analysis, history, politics, French-English relations, and social inequality, all significant motifs in my life as an adult.

I was the stereotypical introverted and conformist first-born child in a young family involving four children who all arrived on the scene within a five-year period.  (Our poor mother.) I was also a smart kid, or so I was led to believe. I loved music, and was highly conscious, and perhaps inordinately proud, of what my father did for a living. Much of it he did at home, and after hours. One of my strongest childhood memories relates to Dad’s practice, when trying to meet some NFB or commissioned-work deadline, of composing through the night, while the rest of us were trying to sleep. I found it all strangely comforting. Memories of the sound of his piano, the starting and the stopping, the hesitation, the repetition, the pauses while I imagined he was writing, using a government-issued pencil on manuscript paper purchased at Archambault Musique, the ill-disguised frustration, and the occasional triumphant exclamation, remain vivid even today. (NFB pencils had this cautionary slogan on them: “Misuse is abuse”.  Evidently one was not supposed to steal the pencils, or presumably take the letterhead or manuscript paper home. A Marxist with a sense of humour (and I do not mean a Marxist, tendance Grouchiste) might have referred to this as “separation from the means of composition”. In any case, since it was understood that much, probably most, of the NFB writing was done at home, there was no danger of the place being raided by the civil-service pencil police.)

As I have suggested, awareness of the process of music composition, whether for the Board or on commission, was a part of my daily round of existence. Even when Dad was on the road he would call to bring Mom and any child who happened to be around at the time up to speed on the latest developments. One time, when he was calling from England with a progress report I was put on the line, and I told him some fanciful tale about something that had supposedly happened at school, at the end of which I exclaimed, “April Fools!”, at which point he solemnly informed me that April Fool’s pranks could only legitimately be pulled before 1:00 p.m., and here it was well past 2:00, Ottawa time.  I have to admit, he almost convinced me.

What was really special, though, was when Dad took me to work, which he did on occasion, because for me his work environment was truly a place of wonder. I might only have gone to the NFB building in Ottawa once. I certainly went at least the one time, because I have quite clear memories of the staircase that we had to climb to get to his office. It was one of those metal-grate affairs. In its Ottawa years, or at least the ones when we were around, the NFB was in a very old building, on Sussex Drive and by the confluence of the Rideau and Ottawa Rivers, roughly across the street from where, in 1958, that is two years after the NFB had been moved to St. Laurent, Québec, the new Ottawa City Hall building was erected. (That was so long ago that that building is today usually called the old City Hall, although in 2011 it was officially renamed the John G. Diefenbaker Building.) The NFB building itself was demolished shortly after we departed Ottawa, and the grounds were left as a park, with a suitable historical marker indicating what had once stood there. I would have been no older than ten when I visited the NFB on the one occasion that I somewhat dimly recall. I found some old photos among my father’s papers recently that suggest that, initially, the NFB must have been housed elsewhere, or perhaps there was an additional, satellite location. Indeed, I have found some identical and some similar images in a small NFB photo archive on the web which identify the location as 25 John Street, which is fairly near the location that I remember visiting. I shall have to check one of the institutional histories available in book form to clarify this.

I had occasion recently to read an account of the life and work of Louis Applebaum, who brought Dad to join the Music Department at the NFB. In it, the author, Walter Pitman, referred to “the old barn on Sussex Avenue”, and explained that the film-makers had had to share space therein with some kind of laboratory, which entailed having to suffer the “stink of guinea pigs”.  He also recounted that there was no piano available in the building, and that, as a result, Applebaum had had to use the nearby French Embassy’s instrument. He didn’t really mind, apparently, since, by his testimony, he spent more time in the “cutting room” than at the keyboard, in any case.

Photo courtesy of Berkeley Fleming

Apparently there were NFB Christmas parties for employees and their children. I rather doubt they were held at the “old barn” itself, but possibly they were. Here is a 1951 photo of some of us, suitably dressed up, on one such occasion. The three Fleming boys, short pants and all, are arranged in the front row. (Sister Margot was either a newborn or her arrival was imminent. In any case, she was absent.) Michael and I would appear to have matching bow ties. According to a just-discovered note on the back of the photo we were watching a puppet show of “Little Red Riding Hood”, and the camera caught us just as the wolf was chowing down on Grandma. The person on the viewer’s far left might well be Anthony Hyde, one of two sons of NFB director Laurence Hyde. (Hyde the elder directed about twenty NFB films, including the 1967 Tuktu series, for which Dad composed the music. I came to know his writer sons, Anthony and Christopher, better, if briefly, later in life, through a mutual friend.)

Photo courtesy of Berkeley Fleming

In the early years, the NFB adopted the practice of sending out travelling projectionists, to show their films in various neighbourhoods and communities. Here is a photo of one such occasion, in an unknown location, from the NFB archives.

Often, Board films were presented to us in classrooms and school assemblies, not only in Ottawa, but also in Pointe Claire and Ste. Anne de Bellevue, where they were screened for our entertainment and edification, preferably both. I was always thrilled when the credits included reference to Dad, and was very pleased with myself when I had already figured that out beforehand. There are certain NFB films from the elementary-school days in Ottawa that I remember particularly fondly, regardless of whether the music was by Fleming or not.  My absolute childhood favourites, both seen many, many times, were “The Romance of Transportation in Canada ”(1952) and “The Story of Peter and the Potter” (1953). Although both are available on-line, as are a third and fourth video alluded to later, the NFB embedding facility seems not to be working, so the best that I can do is to provide the URLs.

“Peter and the Potter”, as we always called it, remains, to this somewhat jaded sexagenarian eye, a perfectly charming film. I suspect that it resonated with me in childhood because it had to do with a boy about my age, seeking to establish his independence, and encountering a new and fascinating world of nature and craftsmanship while coping with certain challenging circumstances. An accident had led to the need to replace a broken item just purchased, and happenstance led to his meeting the challenge by commissioning the crafting of a present “made especially for your mother” by a family whom he had met through a chance encounter in the woods. Until viewing it again the other day, I had completely forgotten that folk singer Alan Mills was the narrator. Of course, Robert Fleming was the composer of the (largely pastoral) music. Don Wellington, about whom I shall say more later, was the sound editor. I probably saw this film at least five times while in school, and even remember one time watching it with our two children after we had moved to Sackville.

The other favourite, with its cool, jazz-influenced, music by Eldon Rathburn, was the highly amusing and informative animated film, “The Romance of Transportation in Canada”, which apparently was nominated for an Academy Award in 1953. (The NFB has had more than 70 such nominations, more than 50 of them in one or another of the various short-film categories, and has won a dozen or so Oscars over the years.) The narration for this film is said on the NFB site to have been provided by Max Ferguson, but I am fairly confident that the film credits themselves correctly identify the narrator as NFB film director Guy Glover. The sound is by Kenneth Heeley-Ray.

I was even implicated in the production of an NFB film, once.  Perhaps, technically, this should be referred to as “post-production” involvement. When I was ten or eleven, that is in 1957, I was persuaded to participate in the dubbing of my voice over that of the original actor in an episode of one of those  â€śvalues education” sorts of endeavours that the Board was periodically prevailed upon to produce for school use. The film was called “Being Different”, and was about ten minutes in length. The story, as I recall it, was of a young lad, ultimately voiced by myself, who had made friends with a new boy in school. Upon visiting the latter’s home, somewhere in suburbia, our protagonist encountered the boy’s father, who had the odd hobby – or perhaps it was the profession – of studying and collecting butterflies. The lad took this up as a joint activity with his new friend. At some point, he became aware that their friendship and his nascent interest in entomology were setting him apart from his original circle of chums, and at one critical point he had to choose between attending a longstanding acquaintance’s just-announced birthday party and going off on an already-scheduled butterfly expedition with the new boy. At that point, the story stopped, and certain dramatic words were intoned: something along the lines of the question “What would you do?” This was presumably when the teacher was to stop the film, encourage class discussion, and draw conclusions, more likely to be moralistic than relativistic, given the times. Mercifully, this particular film is not available on-line, but I imagine that its classroom showing might have been resumed after discussion, to see what “actually” happened. I have it in my mind that that is what was done, and that it turned out that the lad succumbed to peer pressure and reneged on his commitment to his new friend, going instead to the birthday party, but then felt tremendous guilt and shame over the decision. Perhaps I am projecting, in the Freudian rather than the cinematic sense .

I don’t know why the original actor’s voice was found wanting, and I was never under any illusion that I now had an acting career before me. (I was much too introverted, and already had a fear of forgetting the words to songs that I had to perform.) I think that the Board must have been desperate to get some young voice, any boy’s voice really, on that sound track, and pronto! I wonder why they didn’t prevail upon the producer’s son, whom I came to know some years later later and who was about my age. (Both the producer and the son were named Nicholas Balla. The latter is a law professor at Queen’s, specializing in family and child law.)  I vaguely recall that Malca Gillson, like my father originally from Saskatchewan, and a producer and director at the Film Board, encouraged me during the process, although as far as I can see she had no formal role in the production of the film. Her husband, Denis, also worked as a photographer and cameraman at the NFB. (Her uncle was, by the way, Bora Laskin, eventually the Chief Justice of Canada.) The Gillsons happened to live across the street in Baie d’UrfĂ© from the young woman whom some of you will know as my saintly wife. Resuming the narrative, and with apologies for the perhaps unnecessary digression, I will note that, although Mrs. Gillson was rather more extroverted than most, she was very kind to me on this occasion, and needed to be as I was fairly nervous. I was paid $10 for the voice work, which took maybe two hours, and I remember being irritated when the cheque arrived, with about $1.60 in taxes deducted. Now, of course, I am pleased, indeed eager, to pay my taxes. I insist on it, actually.

In the 1970s, I told a friend and colleague this story about my voice work, and noted that the film in question was still listed in the NFB catalogue. Faculty members in the social sciences at McMaster in those days often arranged to borrow NFB films for pedagogical purposes, and we decided that it would be a hoot to include reference to this one when one of us next ordered films for a sociology course. This did happen, and it was very odd hearing my pre-adolescent voice on the sound track. The film itself was pretty much as I remembered it.  Of course, by then a professional sociologist, and already teaching courses in which the concept of socialization was paramount, I found its content and its evident exhortative purpose interesting from an analytical point of view.  I no doubt raised this serious matter for discussion with my colleague, lest too much attention be paid by him to the possibly risible nature of my vocalization.

I went into work with Dad a few times while in elementary and high school, presumably on whatever they called professional development days in QuĂ©bec at the time.  He would often drive in from Pointe Claire with a neighbor, Normand (“Norm”) Bigras, who worked as a general assistant in the Music Department, his duties including contracting musicians, editing sound, and occasionally composing music. Getting to St. Laurent from Ste. Anne de Bellevue during rush hour was often problematic, and CĂ´te de Liesse Boulevard was typically quite congested, much to Dad’s frustration, but at least we had the radio, which meant the CBC, to keep us amused, and of course informed.

I was particularly fascinated by a couple of recording sessions that I attended at the NFB. One involved as large an orchestra as the NFB could afford to hire, possibly for the Canada at War series, which was a truly massive undertaking in the late 1950s and early 1960s, masterminded by the redoubtable Donald Brittain, who wrote the script and co-produced the thirteen half-hour programs, aired on the CBC in 1962. By this time, much of the NFB production was of films intended for television broadcast, although of course films were also sent to various outposts scattered across the country for showings, particularly in schools, and to Canadian embassies around the world, as well. This particular series, now available with related bonus material on DVD, involved an incredible amount of original music, the production of which was co-ordinated by my father, although all four staff composers at the time contributed to the writing. I either recognized or had pointed out to me at the recording session I attended various musicians from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, including several Massellas, a couple of Joachims, and one Brott.

The other session I remember actually involved the integration of sound effects with the already-recorded (jazz) score, narration, and dialogue for “The Great Toy Robbery” (1963), an hilarious NFB animated film, the graphics of which were running on a screen while the sound effects were being created and recorded in the session for which I was present. The music had already been recorded by then. It was a Mancini-esque jazz score by Donald Douglas, whom everyone called Soapy, and whom I thought to be fascinating. He seemed funny and ultra-relaxed. The sound effects creator was Don Wellington, whom I was aware had originally been a French horn player, and whose acquaintance with Dad went a long way back, I think to Toronto Conservatory of Music days. The Wellingtons actually lived on Île Perrot, just across the bridge from my then hometown of Ste. Anne de Bellevue, and we visited the Wellington home at least once. Their son Frank went to school with us. Many years later, I realized that the multi-volume Groves Dictionary of Music (1904 edition!) that my father had in his office (and I now have in the upstairs “music library” of the Silver Lake estate) had actually belonged to Don Wellington when he had been a music student, and that the marginal notes within those volumes were his, not Dad’s. Anyway, this was an example of a film for which my father received no mention in the credits, yet he was directly involved in the production of the sound track, in his capacity as Music Director.

I was also intrigued by the craft practice of the various people in the Music Department, and especially the editing process that Dad and Norm Bigras showed me a couple of times. I have since read a short article by my father on “Music for Films” (1961), and I certainly recognized much of what was being discussed in it. On the craft aspects of what was done there, he discussed the creation of an initial and detailed “shot list”, from which musical sketches were developed, typically at the piano, and later turned into orchestrations, all the while guided by consultation with and feedback from the producer and the director. The orchestration was then broken down into individual parts, which had to be copied, in preparation for the recording process. The latter was itself discussed in the article, and it brought back memories for me. Dad would conduct from the score, of course, but also used a “cue sheet” and a stop watch, having rehearsed the timing of the score against the film. He also kept an eye on the film being projected behind the heads of the musicians assembled for the recording session, who themselves had very little rehearsal time. There was also reference in the article to various æsthetic considerations, the need to bear in mind the nature of the intended audience, the imperative to serve the artistic and didactic intentions of the director, the pressure to assuage the cost concerns of the producer, and all without overly compromising the music. Adjustments were of course made on the fly, as well. Once the recording session was finished, the track was taken to the editing or “cutting” room, which involved the use of a Moviola machine, a pair of scissors, and a tape-splicer. There then followed the “marrying” of all of the sound elements of the film – the music track, the sound effects, the commentary, and the dialogue – “into one homologous whole”, which had then to be fit by the re-recording specialist (sometimes called the sound engineer or “mixer”) into “their proper place and in correct proportion to the demands of the film”, this sometimes involving as many as 18 sound tracks running simultaneously. I gather that Dad and his colleagues were accomplishing minor editing miracles within constraints of time and money, and invented a number of procedures and make-dos that they and others in the film business continued to use for many years thereafter.

Photo courtesy of Berkeley Fleming

I have a crummy 1950s snapshot of Vincent Massey with Dad, examining a Moviola, but I cannot find it at the moment.  Luckily, I have been able to scan a so-so print of a professional (NFB) photo likely taken on the same occasion, which can be seen below. Massey’s visit to the Film Board was not a matter of idle curiosity or of merely fulfilling his official duties as Governor-General. My father had actually known Massey since his student days in London, England between 1937 and 1939, when Massey was Canadian High Commissioner there. This was at the very time (1938) that Massey and his secretary, Ross McLean, were advocating the establishment of what became the National Film Board of Canada and recommending the recruitment of John Grierson to serve as its first Commissioner. This was done in 1939.

Copying of scores was of course done by hand in those days, and it still fascinates me to discover and pore over examples of my father’s autograph scores, both the initial sketches and the final products. Without a doubt the latter evince a “beautiful hand”, as he might have put it when discussing someone else’s work. There was actually some type of crude photocopying process used at the Board for certain purposes. I recall that it involved some kind of chlorine mixture, and my impression at the time was that one should stand as far back as possible, given the health hazards that the process likely involved. (For you youngsters out there, the first time that I remember considering having anything photocopied, which we called “xeroxed” in those days, was around 1970, when I was completing my Master’s thesis. In the end, I wasn’t allowed to proffer photocopies to Old McGill. That venerable institution required the submission of one original and two carbon-copies of a thesis, on 100% rag paper, and bound, of course. Can you imagine making corrections on the carbon copies? Oh yes, corrections: those had to be gently done with an eraser and the typewriter. There were electric typewriters in those days, but they were not the IBM Selectronics that arrived a little later.)

I have recently started working my way through a massive thesis from the early 1980s by William H.L. Godsalve on the æsthetic functionality of film music, using some of my father’s work to assess the validity of his argument concerning the centrality and significance of an æsthetic variable that he calls tensity. I will doubtless contribute something about this to a web site on Robert Fleming on which I am currently working. The Godsalve thesis, which I have only recently acquired, includes reference to some very interesting comments by Dad’s various colleagues about him as a musician and a complex personality, the value of whose film work was in their view insufficiently recognized and valued by some. Part of what was related was news to me, but none of it was inconsistent with my own knowledge and impressions of my father, his ambitions, his musical intentions, his self-conception, and his interpersonal relations.

Dad’s regular composer colleagues at the NFB included Louis Applebaum, Phyllis Gummer (who might have predated his arrival), Eugene (“Jack”) Kash, Eldon Rathburn, Maurice Blackburn, Soapy Douglas, and Kenneth Campbell. I never met Ms Gummer or Mr. Campbell. At various points, particularly in the early years of the NFB, John Weinzweig, Godfrey Ridout, Howard Cable, Oscar Morawetz, Clermont Pepin, William MacAuley, Lucio Agostini, and Harry Somers also wrote music for the Board. And, others on regular staff did as well, on a very occasional basis: Norm Bigras and Joan Edward come to mind.

I have a few comments to make about some other interesting NFB employees I encountered, one way or the other. In the Ottawa days, one of our back-fence neighbours was Leslie MacFarlane, father of Brian of Hockey Night in Canada fame, although I don’t remember ever seeing Brian when I was a child. (He is 15 years my senior, so might well have departed the household by then.) Leslie MacFarlane’s regular employment in the early 1950s was at the NFB.  I think he was a scriptwriter. At some point, I discovered that he had written many of the Hardy Boys books, which my parents had never bothered to tell me despite my rather obvious obsession with reading all of the works of “Franklin W. Dixon”. (This was before I graduated to reading G.A. Henty.) Perhaps my parents were not aware of this, at the time: apparently Mr. MacFarlane had stopped taking these projects on after 1947, having completed 22 Hardy Boys books by then. (He also wrote some Dana Girls mysteries, under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, the nom de plume also used by someone else to write various Nancy Drew mysteries.) During the Ottawa and early-MontrĂ©al years, James Simpkins worked at the NFB as an artist. He and my Dad got along well. He is better known for his Jasper the Bear cartoons in Macleans magazine. My brother Richard finagled an original Jasper cartoon from him at some point when we lived in Pointe Claire, where he also resided. It still hangs in Richard’s home. The sound editor that I mentioned earlier, Joan Edward, did sketches of each of the Fleming children at some point, although I actually don’t remember sitting for mine. It must have happened when she visited us at home, probably when we were still living in Pointe Claire.

I got to meet Norman McLaren once, at some point in the early 1960s, but I was timid and he was preoccupied, so that was that. And, over the years, I heard Dad talking to Mom about various goings on, who was proving difficult, and who was great to work with at the Board. Names that came up regularly included John Grierson, although the great eminence was gone before Dad arrived; Ross McLean, who ended up as Commissoner himself in the late 1940s; Albert W. Trueman; Guy Roberge; Grant McLean; Sydney Newman; James Beveridge; Tom Daly; Michael Spencer, who was my brother Michael’s godfather and a neighbor in Ottawa; Julian Biggs; Donald Brittain; David Bairstow; Nicholas Balla; Colin Low; Guy Glover; Norman MacLaren; Joseph Koenig; Robert Anderson, whose children called him Bob, those little bohemians; John Howe; Laurence Hyde; and Roger Blais, who directed the filming of one of my Dad’s ballets, Shadow on the Prairie, in 1953.

I enjoyed going to the cafeteria at the Film Board, which I did a couple of times, where I met various of Dad’s other colleagues from outside of the Music Department. There were some fascinating characters there. One, whose name I have now forgotten, was somewhat notorious for having lost toes on each foot as a result of losing control of his power mower while cutting the grass wearing sandals. Another one was, I swear, eight foot something, and had significant difficulty negotiating doorways. For some reason, I was also fascinated by the blind gentleman who took payment for purchases in the cafeteria. Ron Alexander, one of the re-recorders, struck me as a kind person, who gave the appearance of being truly interested in whether I was having an interesting time. There was also a Jackie Newell of whom I was vaguely aware, who I guess worked as a sound editor. In 1964, I got to know her daughter, who was a fellow victim of the machinations of the Canadian Pacific Railroad empire, our summer employers at the Banff Springs Hotel. My family once visited the home of NFB director Robert Anderson and family, who lived a few blocks from us in Westboro, in the West End of Ottawa, and after my father’s death I encountered him again, as we were, along with others, seeking to set up a process for establishing a scholarship in Dad’s memory.

The NFB seemed altogether a busy, interesting, and congenial place. Perhaps its denizens were behaving themselves when the youngster was around. I was well aware that there were pervasive artistic-temperamental differences, especially under the pressure of looming deadlines, and that there was an undercurrent of linguistic and political tension with which my father was particularly uncomfortable as, unlike his son, he avoided politics as much as he could.  I also knew that my father occasionally worked pretty much non-stop for two, even three days, at a time and I have discovered, in reading some of his correspondence with his parents, that he had a major physical collapse at one point as a result.

In 1962-63, I was in my first year at McGill but was still commuting from the far reaches of the West Island. Normally, I took the CPR train from Ste. Anne de Bellevue to Windsor Station every weekday morning. One Monday, for some reason, my Dad drove me in to the Town of Mount Royal station, which was not far from the Film Board, and I took the CNR train under the mountain to Central Station, instead.  Either route, as I worked my way to campus on foot that first year, so as to pass through the Roddick Gates towards Moyse Hall or the Stephen Leacock Building, I walked by the sites of two recent FLQ bombings. One had been across from the gates, in a garbage pail behind the RCAF recruiting station, and the other by the post office on University Avenue, just behind Place Ville Marie. At some point in the Spring of 1963, I went into work with Dad only to discover that, reflecting the atmosphere of the times and the nature of the NFB’s mission, there were new routines involved in entering the building. The NFB was of course a culturally-significant, federal institution in an increasingly fractious social milieu, having itself survived a “red scare” period post-Gouzenko, and with a significant number of Board employees with QuĂ©bec-nationalist sympathies, as well. Certainly the history of the NFB in recognizing and embracing official-linguistic duality was not the best, so it was natural to assume that it might be a target for symbolic or more odious expressions of opprobrium. As a result, one had suddenly to endure brief interviews and searches of one’s belongings, and potentially of one’s person, prior to entering the building, even if one was known to be related to an employee. I always wondered what the old commissionaires at the door would actually have done if anything untoward were to have arisen under their watch. They didn’t seem too imposing, or particularly spry, to me.

I should note a few film music projects of my father’s that that I consider significant.

  • “Red Runs the Fraser” (1946), Dad’s first NFB assignment.
  • “Rising Tide” (1949), about the co-operative movement in Atlantic Canada. This is still an interesting piece.
  • “Shadow on the Prairie” (1953), a film of Dad’s second ballet, choreographed by Gweneth Lloyd, my sister’s godmother, and danced by the Winnipeg Ballet before it was designated as “Royal”.
  • “Man of Music” (1959), for which my father did script work, as it was about his mentor, Healey Willan.
  • “Down North” (1960), which concerned development along the mighty MacKenzie River.
  • The “Canada at War” series, developed between 1958 and 1962, and first broadcast in 1962, involved thirteen half-hour films, “culled from more than 16 million feet of film shot by Canadian, British, American, German and Russian cameramen.”  This involved the writing of a tremendous amount of music, and involved all four of the staff composers at the time.
  • The “Lewis Mumford on the City” series (1963), involving six 27-minute films, all the music for which was done by Robert Fleming.
  • “Phoebe” (1965), a significant fictional production about a pregnant teenager, with almost all of the music involving solo piano bridging of the various sequences.
  • “Antonio” (1966), a beautiful fictional work concerning the psychology and sociology of an old man, with Robert Fleming’s affecting music performed by Tony Romandini on mandolin and guitar. This film was given intensive analytical attention in the Godsalve thesis.
  • The “Tuktu” series (1967), which entailed thirteen 15-minute films aimed at children, directed by Robert Anderson.
  • “Kurelek” (1967), an unusual but beautiful film, the images for which consisted primarily of pans over and zooms into and out of William Kurelek paintings from his years in Europe and Canada, with some of my favourite of Robert Fleming’s film music. (I am pretty sure the musicians used included Gordie Fleming on accordion, Tony Romandini on mandolin and zither, and Rodolfo Massella on bassoon.) I have provided an URL for the video below.
  • “The Best Damn Fiddler from Calabogie to Kaladar” (1968), another fictional film, starring Chris Wiggins, Kate Reid, and the young Margot Kidder, for which Robert Fleming was credited for music editing.
  • The “Struggle for a Border” series (1968), nine 60-minute films that involved 412 minutes of music, all composed by my father. This strikes me as an absolutely remarkable feat.
  • I am also convinced that those one-minute nature vignettes with the lovely pastoral flute melody that those of us of a certain age remember seeing so often on the CBC, and which one occasionally sees parodies of on CBC comedy shows, involve music written by Robert Fleming. I did confirm some years ago that the first ones were produced by the NFB. That I cannot at the moment remember the name of these minute-long pieces is perhaps a symptom of my being of that “certain age”. It is interesting what one can, and cannot, remember, at any particular point in time.

I will note again that I often used NFB films in class, while teaching over forty years at McMaster and Mount Allison, usually in connection with courses on socialization, structured social inequality, and language and ethnicity.  The first such films that impressed me while I was myself a student were “The Things I Cannot Change” and “The World of One in Five”, along with other films associated with the NFB’s Challenge for Change program. Of course, as a reasonably aware citizen interested in worthwhile theatrical film releases, I was thrilled to see the emergence of such works as Mon Oncle Antoine (1971), Kamouraska (1973), J.A. Martin, Photographe (1977)and Le DĂ©clin de l’Empire AmĂ©rican (1986), all NFB productions or co-productions.

Perhaps I shall round off my recollections of the NFB by noting that the number of films available on-line through one of the NFB web sites has increased exponentially over time.  In addition, the complete catalogue of over 13,000 NFB films and information on the history of the institution, films involving specific production personnel, and so forth are available on another web site. In addition, there are now two good apps available that provide access to and information about NFB films and the work of Norman McLaren, in particular. I check periodically, to see what has been added.

AUTHOR NOTE: It is several years since I wrote this article, and I recognize that some details of what I recalled then are inaccurate or incomplete. I shall strive to correct and update this record once I have completed writing a chapter on Robert Fleming’s NFB compositions, which I aim to complete in 2023.

Berkeley Fleming

Sackville, NB

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.