Wednesday, October 20, 2004

I happened to be in London when the BBC was holding its Greatest Briton contest in late 2002. (Yes, the CBC’s Greatest Canadian is not an original idea.) The only episode I saw was the face-to-face debates between the advocates. The CBC will reach that point in late November.

Lesser Britons – Boy George, George Harrison, a few more Georges, David Beckham and others – having been ejected in previous rounds, the BBC was now down to ten excellent candidates. Actually, there were eight, I had never heard of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who in the end, placed second to Sir Winston Churchill, and I wouldn't consider Princess Di a greatest Briton.

I consider myself reasonably well-educated, and was flabbergasted that I had never heard of Brunel, and who, according to his advocate Jeremy Clarkson, was greater than sliced bread, Churchill, Shakespeare and all the others.

Brunel was the man behind England’s rail system. During the 19th century he was in charge of design, planning and construction of the network that grew to cover England. Building bridges, designing cars, rails and stations was all part of his mandate. Afterwards, he built some of the world’s biggest steamships when he was done with railways. No small accomplishment.

His advocate was equally good, and could sell the Amish DVD players if he wanted to. He was so good I was wondering why I had never heard of Brunel. I think it’s because his influence was only ever felt in England. The other nine made their marks worldwide. You wouldn’t think Shakespeare (#5) needs much PR help, nor Newton (#6) or Darwin (#4), but apparently they do. Advocates make a big difference.

Is the same thing going to happen with the CBC’s Greatest Canadian? Probably, and that’s a shame. It’s not hard to bamboozle audiences with glam, a loud voice and confidence in the perfection of one’s subject. (But enough about George W. Bush.)

If I was to advocate for Lester Pearson, he’d be in trouble, especially if someone who knows all the television tricks was advocating for Bob and Doug McKenzie. Picture the newspapers headlines the next day: "Take off, eh? Hosers #1!"

What I don’t want to see is moronic shoutfests à la Counterspin, Crossfire or Hardball. I’m happy to side with Jon Stewart on this one, volume isn’t going to help anyone.

This is what I want to see: reasoned discussion and learned debate on the historical merits of the candidates, and if their influence will still be felt in 500 years, because that's the true measure. There shouldn’t be a need to compare the candidates between themselves. Surely one candidate’s glory will stand out above the others.