If anybody ever tries to tell you that Canadian TV isn’t all that special, ask if they’ve ever heard of Nick Slaughter.
Nick was a fictional gumshoe from the classic Dashiell Hammett mold. Unshaven and hard-drinking, he was saddled with a “down these mean streets walks a man who is not himself mean” morality and a dark sense of humor.
Nick was played by one of Canada’s finest actors, Rob Stewart, the lead character in a 1990’s TV series titled “Tropical Heat” in some markets and “Sweating Bullets” in others.
The series ran three seasons from 1991 – 1994, shooting first in Mexico then Israel and finally South Africa, taking advantage of whichever co-production deal offered its producers the best bang for their buck.
But the creative team was entirely Canadian and for all of the exotic locations and sun-drenched beauties, the writing, directing and acting all displayed a decidedly Canadian take on the “blue-skies” private eye genre.
I had the good fortune of writing five episodes of those three seasons and was later able to hire Rob to star in “Broken Lullaby” a CBS TV movie we shot in Hungary in 1994.
The Bosnian Conflict was at its height at the time and on Saturday mornings we could visit flea markets selling Russian AK-47’s and land mines that had been turned back at the border. And sometimes at night you could see the flashes of distant artillery and rocket fire on the horizon.
Little did Rob know that while Canadian jets were raining devastation on Serbia, he was giving the innocent in that war hope for a better future.
For it seems that the UN trade embargo imposed on the country had gone into effect just after tapes of “Tropical Heat” made it over the border, becoming the only escapist entertainment available during the civil war that tore the former Yugoslavia apart.
“Tropical Heat” became so popular it ended up running on all four Serbian TV networks for several years, eventually becoming a symbol of opposition politics, particularly among the country’s urban youth.
The show’s idyllic tropical setting and content imbued with a Canadian sense of justice, fair play and self-deprecating humor had turned it into a national cultural phenomenon.
Soon after the war, with the country roiling against election fraud perpetrated by President Slobodan Milosevic in 1996, a movement was ignited to establish Nick Slaughter as a symbolic revolutionary hero. During the student protests that followed, Graffiti began appearing in Belgrade that read "Slotera Nika, za predsednika" ("Nick Slaughter for President") and meaning “Anybody but Milosevic”.
Meanwhile, a local punk band by the name of “Atheist Rap” had a hit record with "Slaughteru Nietzsche" with its chorus of "Nick Slaughter, Serbia hails you".
Local bars renamed themselves "Tropical Heat" and mothers were encouraged to name their sons “Nick Slaughter”.
The result of all this – the only peaceful overthrow of a dictatorship in the 20th Century. Carrying banners emblazoned with the logo of a mostly forgotten Canadian TV series, the people of Serbia drove Milosevic from power without firing a single shot.
Oddly enough, or maybe not odd at all when you consider how little publicity Canadian television gets, nobody associated with “Tropical Heat” knew anything about all this. And they wouldn’t for ten more years.
That all changed in 2008 when somebody talked Rob Stewart into going on “Facebook”. He posted his profile and woke up the next morning to discover he had 17,000 friend requests from Serbia.
After learning the reason for his immense popularity in a country he’d never set foot in, Stewart, filmmaker Marc Vespi and Vespi’s sister Liza, decided to travel to Belgrade and make a documentary on what transpired.
What followed was one of the most astonishing experiences of Rob’s life. Grown men dissolved in tears on meeting him, politicians thanked him for saving their country and thousands turned up to see him join “Atheist Rap” onstage to sing their hit song about a character he’d first brought to life.
All of that will be available for other Canadians to see in a soon to be released documentary entitled “Slaughter Nick for President”…
It would be…
If the people I’ve been railing about all week who run Canadian television had any interest in scheduling it.
So far nobody has stepped up to broadcast or distribute this remarkable story.
Well, it might just be that those people don’t want Canadians knowing the kind of effect our television has had on the rest of the world. Because then Canadians might start taking an interest in it. And then somebody’d have to make more of it.
And we can’t have that – can we?
On the other hand, it might be that those executives live in the same world as John L. Sullivan, the fictional Hollywood director in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels”.
In that story, Sullivan detests the popular entertainment that has made him a huge success, feeling it's beneath him and wanting to explore the plight of the downtrodden in a film called “O Brother, Where Art Thou”. But by the end of the story he has learned the power and importance of escapist entertainment.
A power exemplified by a Canadian TV series known as “Tropical Heat”.
Here’s a taste of an absolutely original Canadian documentary. Savor what Canadian drama can do.
And Enjoy Your Sunday.
As an added treat --- here’s a clip from one of those original “Tropical Heat” episodes I wrote, starring one of my own childhood cowboy heroes Clint “Cheyenne” Walker.