In 1992, journalist George Garrett at Vancouver International Airport with granddaughter Mary Paige Field upon his return from Los Angeles, where he was beaten during the so-called Rodney King race riots. (photo: submitted/Les Bazso)

‘Talk!’ doc focuses on Surrey’s George Garrett and the ‘good ol’ days’ of radio in Vancouver

Documentary movie debuts Saturday, 35 years after filmmaker George Orr began work on it

Longtime Surrey resident George Garrett retired in 1999 after an award-winning 43 years in radio journalism, but apparently the intrepid reporter still aims to inform people of political happenings in B.C.

Over to you, Mr. Garrett.

“An anecdote from yesterday, if I may,” he told the Now-Leader on Tuesday. “I’m at the Canadian Club meeting (in Vancouver) and Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin is there, and she’s honouring winners of the Order of Canada and Order of B.C., but also there is Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon. While they’re speaking and so on, we got a text from someone that (NDP leader John) Horgan and the Greens are getting together, and that they were going to announce something at 2 o’clock. So when the lieutenant governor stepped off the stage, I walked up to her and said, ‘Hi, my name’s George Garrett, a retired reporter, and I have some news for you: Mr. Horgan and Mr. Weaver are holding a joint news conference.’ She looked at me and I said, ‘I don’t expect you to comment,’ and she said, ‘Oh no, I can’t comment.’ So I got thinking that I was the first to tell her that news.”

Garrett laughed and, in conversation, carried on telling some stories that will fill an autobiography, already written and due to be published later this year.

“The book is done, and it’s 80,000 words, which is a lot, maybe too many,” reported the gentlemanly Garrett. “I sat down at home over the last year and just wrote, because I could remember almost everything. I didn’t have to worry too much about sources, and sometimes I would Google a name to get the spelling correct, or Google an event to get the date correct.”

Stories will be told, and questions answered, by Garrett on Saturday afternoon (June 3) at Vancouver’s Pacific Cinematheque theatre, where George Orr’s documentary film will have its world premiere. The 80-minute movie, called Talk! Vancouver’s Fifty-year Fascination with Grand Journalism and Instant Democracy, focuses on “the men and women of radio who made it flourish, rode it to fame and fortune, and then finally killed it off,” as Orr describes. “Told in their own words, through exclusive interviews and decades of unfettered access, combined with archive material, this is a grand sweep through the city’s history, when radio news and talk ruled.”

CLICK HERE to watch the film trailer.

Garrett, a central figure in the film, was a reporter, not a talk-show host, but his work to break news stories helped shape call-in programs hosted by the likes of Rafe Mair, Bill Good, Pat Burns, Gary Bannerman and other big-time broadcasters in this market.

In Garrett’s final month of work at radio station CKNW, in the spring of 1999, Orr had the foresight to hire a camera operator to follow him on the job. Some of the footage is revealed in the film, which Orr, a newsman himself, began crafting in 1982.

“At the time I was early-morning assignment editor at BCTV, before it became Global,” Orr explained. “Jack Webster had a morning show and he’d come in and sit on my desk and talk about the good old days of radio. I was really interested in it. I knew there was a good story to tell, so I’ve been pecking at it, looking through archival footage, gathering things, interviewing people like George (Garrett) and getting it done ever since. I’m done now.”

A Saskatchewan native, Garrett’s decorated career in journalism began as a kid who grew up “always curious, always asking questions, pestering people, and then getting into news more or less by default, and just taking an interest in it.”

In Talk!, Garrett is shown getting a big news tip on his final day of work at CKNW, one about an independent MLA (Gordon Wilson) crossing the legislature floor in Victoria to receive a cabinet post with the NDP government of the day. The movie also shows Garrett gap-toothed and bruised after he took a beating while covering the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles. Later, during a retirement dinner for him, Garrett is roasted by Kim Campbell, the former prime minister and one-time talk-show host, who describes Garrett as having “a passion for the news, a huge respect for the truth and a disdain for orthodontia.”

In the film, Orr makes the case that Christy Clark, a former broadcaster herself, killed the talk-radio business in Vancouver during a 2013 provincial leadership debate on CKNW. “It’s in the movie,” Orr said. “I’m not being glib. Politicians have discovered that messaging is more effective than answering, and that selective listening is more effective than just honest conversation. (Clark) is the bad guy in the story, and on camera you watch her kill talk radio. There’s no provincial funding for this project, clearly.”

Orr figures the film cost him $50,000 to make – but never more than a “fistful of dollars at a time, because this has been such a slow work of accumulation, and I do everything myself.”

Talk! will be shown at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Pacific Cinematheque, 1131 Howe St., Vancouver. Doors open at noon “precisely,” Orr noted in tribute to legendary broadcaster Webster, also shown in his film. Search for details at eventbrite.ca or visit thecinematheque.ca.

As for Garrett, he continues to do work for Alzheimer Society, as he has for years following the diagnosis of his wife, Joan.

“Two really sad things happened in my life, one being the death of my son (Ken, in a canoeing accident 30 years ago) and secondly, my wife having Alzheimer’s. The hardest decision was to put her in care, take her away from all the things we shared. That’s really tough, but it had to be, and she’s in good care.

Garrett continues to live in a townhome the couple once shared in the Boundary Park area of Surrey. “We moved there (from North Delta) after Ken died,” he recalled. “I guess we wanted to move, different surroundings.”

This year, Garrett authored a book titled The Life and Times of Lighthouse McNeil: An Adventure in the RCMP, and he’s working on another about Black Bond Books founder Madeline Neill.

As for his still-unpublished autobiography, Garrett says “there’s nothing in the book that will hurt anybody. It’s not that kind of reveal thing” – although politicians will be named.

tom.zillich@ surreynowleader.com

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