Desmond Smith: Charming documentarian became a TV guru

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Desmond Smith was a television producer and writer who worked on the first CBC television programs in 1952 and went off to produce documentaries and news programs in Vietnam, Russia and across the United States for American TV networks. He later returned to Canada, eventually becoming a guru to top TV executives, including the man who ran CBC News and Current Affairs for more than a decade.

“He was my futurist,” said Tony Burman, who was in charge of CBC Newsworld in the 1990s and then all of News and Current Affairs from 2000 to 2007. “He understood the whole revolution in American television. He had worked in it but was no longer there, so he was able to see it with detachment.”

What first impressed Mr. Burman and others were the long magazine features Mr. Smith wrote about television and the information age in the 1970s and 80s. Some appeared in The New York Times Magazine, but his best work was in New York magazine. He would travel to New York regularly, always staying at the Algonquin Hotel because of its romantic association with the writer Dorothy Parker and her literary salon there.

In the early 1980s, many people in Canadian television were predicting the rapid demise of CNN. The man who started CNN, Ted Turner, was seen as a brash upstart who knew nothing about news, a kind of Donald Trump of the media world at the time. Desmond Smith wrote a piece in New York magazine saying CNN was the future.

He saw that computers, television and telecommunications would all come together, and wrote about the information age. He was an early adopter and always worked with an Apple computer, though he had a CBC staffer help him set it up. Theory was his forte.

“In 1969, computers were big, expensive, and for the vast majority of people, out of reach. In 1980, computers are small, relatively inexpensive and in radio stores. The computing power that was in an IBM machine that cost $1.2-million in 1968 is today available in the Apple home computer, priced around $2,000,” he wrote in a story proposal to the editor of New York magazine in 1980.

That observation may seem obvious now, but it wasn’t then, which is why editors in New York bought so many articles from him. Mr. Smith also drew on his extensive connections, developed while working at ABC News and CBS News, to write knowledgeably about American TV news. He could pick up the phone and get straight through to Don Hewitt, the CBS producer who invented 60 Minutes, or media mogul Roone Arledge, who built ABC News into a powerhouse.

In February, 1980, he published a profile in The New York Times Magazine titled “The Wide World of Roone Arledge.” No one else could have written it, since Mr. Arledge avoided media interviews.

“Roone Arledge was notorious for never returning phone calls. But he would pick up and talk to Des because of their friendship and the work Des did in Vietnam and the Soviet Union,” said Peter Rehak, a former executive producer of W5 who was working at the CBC when he met Mr. Smith, who had just been transferred from Montreal.

“I remember someone on the assignment desk who knew him from Montreal complained about Des, saying, ‘All he wants to do is go to lunch.’ So I asked him to lunch,” Mr. Rehak said.

Desmond Smith was not Mr. Smith’s real name. When he was born in Manchester, England, on Sept. 7, 1927, his Canadian-born parents, Lily and Arthur Desmond-Smith, named him Eric. But when he came to Canada he dropped the hyphen and just called himself Desmond Smith. He had a brother, Godfrey Desmond-Smith, who also went by the name Desmond Smith. Mr. Smith’s daughter, Charly, says both did it because they didn’t care for their tyrant of a father.

Like many British boys, he yearned for the romance of the Royal Air Force, but he was only 12 years old when the war began. He did join the RAF in the final months of the war, flying as a navigator in a twin-engine Mosquito. He specialized in aerial photography, mapping Germany from the air in the fast, high-altitude Mosquito.

After the war, his squadron was based in Germany and he joined some of the older airmen in a business of trading coffee from Britain for German cameras, which they would bring back back in the empty bomb bay of the Mosquito. His Majesty’s Customs and Excise saw it not as a business but smuggling, and Mr. Smith and others were given a stern reprimand.

Following advice to study something that interested him, Mr. Smith received an undergraduate physics degree at the University of Manchester after the war. He then went to Cambridge to study economics, though he was always terrible with money.

He started working at small papers in Britain and eventually received an assignment from the Economist, which delights in hiring clever young oddballs. His task was to write an in-depth article about Canada. One stop on his 1952 trip was Toronto, where the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was preparing to air its first television broadcast. Mr. Smith filed his story to the Economist then joined the CBC. He was working on the set of that first broadcast in September of that year.

Mr. Smith worked on Tabloid, the first daily current affairs TV program in Canada, and a host of other events including the Queen’s coronation in 1953. He started as a script assistant and floor director, then graduated to writer and producer.

“In those early days there was no variety, no news, there was just television and you did it,” Mr. Smith told The Globe in 2004. It was live television: “There were no re-takes. Just 30 pages of scripts with every shot planned.”

In 1955, Mr. Smith moved to New York, established himself with some overseas TV networks and worked in Denmark and Germany for a year. He married Kirsten Rasmussen, a Dane, then returned to New York, where he was a stringer for The Economist and started working in local television at WNBC.

In the mid-1960s, ABC News sent him to Vietnam, where he produced documentaries, including one called This Is Saigon. It featured the charismatic Armed Forces Radio Network announcer Adrian Cronauer, the character played by Robin Williams in the 1987 film Good Morning, Vietnam.

“I am sure some kid was watching that program in his basement in 1966 and this scene of the disc jockey stuck in his head and it later became the movie,” said Gary Gould, a professor of journalism at Ryerson University who worked with Mr. Smith at a media school they ran in Oxford, in England, for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

After his stint in Vietnam, ABC News sent Mr. Smith to Moscow to shoot documentaries. The Soviets suspected anyone working for a U.S. network of being a CIA agent. One of Mr. Smith’s documentaries was called Comrade Soldier, a profile of the Soviet army,

“Desmond had this idea he wanted to open with the changing of the guard at Lenin’s tomb in Red Square. At first the Russians said no, but Desmond was extremely friendly and very persistent, and in the end they agreed,” said George Watson, who was ABC’s correspondent in Moscow. “We filmed all night; every hour on the hour the guard changed. One hour Des wanted the boots shot, the next hour a long shot. We had to rent huge lights from the Soviets to light Red Square. It worked.”

Back in the U.S., Mr. Smith worked for ABC in Los Angeles and then on The Walter Cronkite Show in New York for CBS News. In 1973, the CBC hired him to run the local television station in Montreal. His flamboyant style soon earned him the nickname “Broadway Des” in Montreal’s anglophone community. He changed things, cancelling religious programs and dramas, and pouring money into an extended newscast called The City at Six.

Reporters were sent to Northern Quebec to make documentaries about Cree land claims at James Bay, or to Florida to interview the grandson of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, a U.S. district attorney who had uncovered a fraud involving a Montreal businessman.

In 1979, he moved to Toronto, where he produced the weekend newscast, leaving him lots of time to work on his New York-based magazine articles. In the late 1980s he became the senior producer at the business program Venture, and in 1992, when he turned 65, was forced to retire.

Mr. Smith was addicted to TV news. He could not be disturbed between 5:30 and 7:30, when he channel-surfed, watching Canadian and American newscasts and taking notes. In retirement, Mr. Burman hired him to critique the flagship news program The National. “He was an absolute whiz,” Mr. Burman said.

Following the breakup of his first marriage, Mr. Smith met Marjaleena Jappinen, a Finnish flight attendant, on a Pan Am flight from Moscow. They married and had two children together. Marjaleena died of an aneurysm on the tennis court in 1985, when she was just 41.

Mr. Smith was close to his two children, Charly (a daughter, named after a friend) and Nicky, his son. He gave up smoking cigars when his daughter said her friends at school told her she smelled of tobacco.

Mr. Smith leaves his two children, two grandchildren and his sister-in-law, Ulli Jappinen.

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Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

Comments ( 2 )

  1. Replyapp_64230502
    Thanks for such a lively and smart memory to the one and only Des. I was very fortunate to have worked with Des at Venture from 1989 -1991. He was also an amazing mentor to young broadcast journalists - which I was at the time. Des was brilliant at nailing the essence of story and context. I learned some of my best professional habits from him - quality, clarity and surprise. He always imparted his unique knowledge with stealth and good humour. A wonderful man to have worked with so early in my career and I have called on his influence many since, including to impart his smarts to a new generation. A true gem. Ann
  2. ReplyMcIntoshMedia
    Well said Fred!

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