It was like a jovial family reunion broke out during a Zoom call to discuss the new Newfoundland-shot comedy series Son of a Critch, and it was hard not to get steamrolled a bit by the whole affair.
But when you’re enjoying the camaraderie between the show’s creator, This Hour Has 22 Minutes star Mark Critch, British film icon Malcolm McDowell and young actor Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, you just have to roll with it.
Based on Critch’s childhood memoir Son of a Critch, the show premieres Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem, and features the Clockwork Orange star as the comedian’s grandfather and Yorkshire lad Ainsworth as his 11-year-old self.
Shooting over the summer, it was the first time in Newfoundland for both actors, but it sounds like they made the most of it.
“The people there are amazing. I went fishing and caught five cod, that was a really cool experience,” says Ainsworth, who will also be seen later in 2022 as Pinocchio in the Disney live-action remake directed by Robert Zemeckis, and co-starring Tom Hanks as Geppetto the toymaker.
“Five cod? It’s the fisherman’s story, isn’t it?” interjects McDowell, summoning his world-famous sneer. “What did you hook, a whale or something? You were on an ice floe, were you? Yeah, right!”
Quickly, Critch runs to the defence of his youthful portrayer. “I saw him! It was the fastest I ever saw anyone catch a fish. His first time ever, he put the hook down and one, two, three, four, five…
“And then, like a tourism ad, all these whales popped up. He wanted to see a whale, and I said, ‘Oh yeah, there’ll be one in a minute…’ and then they started jumping out of the water. And I thought, ‘Fooled another one.’ ”
But it’s McDowell who appropriately gets the last word. “Kudos to the prop department that managed to stick these fish on his hook and then got the whales to rise.”
That should give you an idea of the kind of playful relationship between the cast members, including Critch, who also plays his own father, the late St. John’s VOCM radio newsman Mike Critch. As a result the whole affair, developed with former 22 Minutes staffer and Corner Gas and Last Man on Earth writer Tim McAuliffe, gives him a kind of weird, out-of-body experience, seeing moments from his life filtered through a fictional comedy prism while embodying his own dad in the process.
“Every now and then it hits you. The other day I was watching it and thinking, ‘Yeah, something like that happened to me…’ and then I remembered, no, THIS happened to me!” exclaims Critch.
“I think, ‘What the hell are you doing? Did you really rebuild your childhood home? You madman!’ But no, I’m just doing a scene. It’s taken on its own character and become its own thing. And I got to say I got a second family out of it, because I couldn’t be working with more wonderful people than Benjamin and Malcolm and everybody else.”
For those who’ve read Critch’s memoir, and its followup An Embarrassment of Critch’s, the show is a kind of funhouse mirror version of the comic’s life, set in late 1970s Newfoundland, with Ainsworth coping with both his own family’s quirks and the bullies and strict discipline that lurk around every corner at his local Catholic school.
McDowell’s Pop — a fictional version of Critch’s grandfather, who died before he was born — is a bit of a troublemaker who no longer cares what other people think. Young Mark relates to his granddad better than just about anybody else in his universe, and McDowell quickly established a strong rapport with his fellow Yorkshire-raised co-star, recently seen in Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor.
“He’s a very skilled actor,” gushes McDowell about Ainsworth from his home in California. “It amazes me. In fact, I’d often say to him, ‘What’s my line? Do you know my line?’ and he’d know everybody’s lines. So he’d always help me out.
“I remember once, there was a long pause in a scene, and I went, ‘Uh, Benjamin … your line!’ and he goes, ‘Oh, I was acting!’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t realize we had a Pinter pause.’ ”
Critch’s behind-the-scenes cohort McAuliffe originally hails from Montreal, not Newfoundland, but having seen the 22 Minutes star spin his life’s stories into comedy gold while working together on set or in the writers’ room, he immediately knew there was a show in the rich vein of material from his childhood.
Although it’s set in the past, and young Mark revels in his love of oddball pop culture heroes like Dean Martin and Rich Little, the show’s creators feel viewers of all ages will relate to the awkward coming-of-age story and Mark overcoming his battles with everyday obstacles.
“When we came to deciding to make this into a TV show, I felt like I understood that world and I understood that there was a lot potentially in there that Mark could mine for comedy and drama,” says McAuliffe, who has excelled in finding the human face of humour in scripts for The Last Man on Earth and The Office.
“The vulnerability and the awkwardness of the thing are what people are going to see in every single character, hopefully identify with. Situations are just vehicles for these personalities that you want to see in different situations.
“That’s what we’re hoping to do and hopefully that gives it a longevity.”
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