A captivating television show: CF-RCK, Part 1

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The main actors of the Société Radio-Canada television show CF-RCK, Yves Létourneau (on the right) and René Caron. Anon., « Une scène de CF-RCK avec René Caron et Yves Létourneau. » La semaine à Radio-Canada, from 2 to 8 January 1960, cover.

Top of the morning, my reading friend, and welcome to the wonderful world of aviation and space. With your permission, or without it, if need be, yours truly will move a little away from our usual anniversarial approach to address a subject that is close to my heart.

One of the first, if not the first fictional / entertainment Canadian television series devoted to aviation went on the air in November 1958. It was entitled CF-RCK. This weekly production of Société Radio-Canada, a state-owned corporation that still existed as of 2018, was shot with the technical services of Niagara Films Incorporé of Montréal, Québec. CF-RCK was aimed primarily at a fairly young and masculine audience.

It should be noted that Niagara Films, one of the largest production houses of the day, officially opened in August 1954, but seemingly did not did produce much. Three people resuscitated the company in December 1956. One of them became pretty much sole master on board during the following year. The staff of this second iteration of Niagara Films mainly included French women and men who had immigrated to Québec more or less recently.

The owner of this production house from 1957 onward was none other than Fernand Seguin, a brilliant chemist, biologist and ex-professor / researcher at the Université de Montréal, an institution mentioned in a July 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. During his stay in this institution, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he carried out research to prove that some mental illnesses such as schizophrenia had biological causes – an almost revolutionary hypothesis at the time. His approach and critical attitude towards the management and faculty of the Université de Montréal limited his future prospects, however. Seguin abandoned teaching and research in 1954. This learned philosopher fascinated by the arts, culture and literature became one of the pioneers of scientific communication / popularisation in Canada by default.

Seguin’s first experience in this field actually dated back to 1947. For 8 years, he hosted a chronicle entitled Les aventures scientifiques at Radio-Collège. Inaugurated in 1941, this daily Radio-Canada radio program aimed to supplement the information provided to high school students. Renowned professors gave talks and animated chronicles. Radio-Collège left the airwaves in 1956.

Seguin played a very friendly researcher in La science en pantoufles, broadcasted in 1954-55 by Radio-Canada for a teen audience. A curious neighbour visited him in the laboratory set up in his basement, a fictitious location created in studio of course, and participated in the experiments. This 30-minute weekly show broadcasted on Friday night was the first science series on Canadian television. A public presentation of at least one episode in Paris in the spring of 1955 impressed many representatives of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. In fact, this organisation presented some episodes of La science en pantoufles around the world, as part of a tour. And yes, my reading friend whose memory is like a steel trap, UNESCO was mentioned in a July 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Seguin’s innovative spirit of proved very useful in several episodes. He often used, for example, a transparent plastic screen superimposed on the televised image with the help of mirrors. This imaginative approach, by which he seemed to write on the inside of the screens of the television sets of tens of thousands of Québec families, may have given rise to the famous blackboard of the public affairs show Point de Mire, broadcasted between 1956 and 1959 by Radio-Canada, and hosted by a well-known journalist, René Lévesque. And yes, this series and this larger-than-life Quebecker were mentioned in a September 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Another example of Seguin’s ingenuity was the use of ping pong balls delicately placed on the springs of a great many mouse traps to illustrate the principle behind the chain reaction caused by the explosion of a nuclear weapon. He developed this idea for an April 1955 episode of La science en pantoufle. Walt Disney Productions Limited may have been inspired by this rather spectacular demonstration to produce a scene in a well-known episode of the television series Walt Disney’s Disneyland, broadcasted in January 1957. Mainly devoted to the benefits of nuclear energy, Our Friend the Atom was sponsored by a giant of the American defence industry, General Dynamics Corporation, the parent company of Canadair Limited, a Montréal aircraft manufacturer mentioned for the first time in our blog / bulletin / thingee in July 2018. I would like to remind you, my reading friend, that a new type of mouse trap was mentioned in an October 2018 issue of that same blog / bulletin / thingee.

The host of Our Friend the Atom was a German-American physicist and communicator / populariser, Heinz Haber, well known in the United States and West Germany during the 1960s and 1970s. Interestingly, or not, it’s up to you, Haber was one of the pioneers of space medicine. By the way, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, will inaugurate an exhibition entitled Health in Space: Daring to Explore in early 2019. Great work, EP!

From 1955 to 1957, Seguin hosted La joie de connaître, a television series produced for Radio-Canada also intended for young people. He presented fundamental science notions. From 1956 (or 1957?) to 1960, Niagara Films produced Le Roman de la science, a television series hosted by Seguin which went over the history of great scientific discoveries as well as the lives of world-renowned scholars, played by renowned Québec actors. Would you believe that he wrote the script and dialogues of the characters, including his own, in addition to doing the research? The broadcasting companies in several French-speaking countries bought Le Roman de la science and presented its episodes for years.

In 1960-61 and 1961-62, Niagara Films also produced Aux frontières de la science and L’homme devant la science for Radio-Canada. In the first, Seguin explored advances in cutting-edge research. In the second, he interviewed renowned scientists and researchers. Despite its many successes, Niagara Films went bankrupt in 1962. This was a very painful experience for Seguin, and a heavy loss for television viewers in Québec and beyond.

It should be noted that Seguin was one of the writers of La vie qui bat, a well-known children’s television series broadcasted between 1955 and 1968. As its title suggested, this Radio-Canada production dealt with natural science. Would you believe that yours truly remembers watching some episodes of this series? Seguin also hosted La science et vous, a series devoted to scientific news broadcasted by Radio-Canada between 1970 and 1979. Between 1975 and 1978, he was one of the contributors to the televisised science news program Science-Réalité, on the air between 1975 and 1988. It should be noted that Science-Réalité gave way to another scientific program, Découverte. The latter was still broadcasted every week as of 2018. In 1978, Seguin produced a 13 episode series, Un univers à découvrir : Le corps humain, for the Télé-Université service of the Société Radio-Québec. Seguin participated in the radio program Aujourd’hui la science between 1982, the year of its creation, and 1985. Renamed Les années lumières at some point, this program was still delighting its listeners in 2018.

Over the years, Seguin received many medals and awards in Québec and Canada. His scientific communication / popularisation work was deemed so important that he became, in 1977, the first Canadian to receive UNESCO’s Kalinga Prize, the most prestigious international distinction in this important field of activity. Other winners of this award included:
- in 1952 (first winner), Prince Louis Victor Pierre Raymond de Broglie, a French personality mentioned in a July 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee,
- in 1961, Arthur Charles Clarke, a British science fiction writer,
- in 1981, David Frederick Attenborough, a British of natural history television series host, and
- in 1986, David Takayoshi Suzuki, a Canadian television series host and environmentalist.
If I may say so, some Canadian national museums should celebrate the career of this great Canadian through a stupendous traveling exhibition. Just sayin’. Long live the Earth!

Seguin died in June 1988. He was only 66 years old. This brief overview of the exceptional career of this great Quebecker completes the first part of this article on the fascinating television series CF-RCK. Please come back next week for the rest of the story.

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Rénald Fortier