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Great Canadian Heritage Discoveries

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More important Canadian antique memorabilia the Museum has preserved.

Part 1 of an interview about the making of "The Great Anglo-Boer War: the Canadian Experience"

Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. 1996-1999-2005



Philippa McCoyne: So obviously you've been a Boer War enthusiast all your life.

John Goldi: Well, actually no. When we pitched the idea for this project to History Television I knew about as much about the Boer War as the next guy. As a historian I'm keen on any history but I knew the Centennial of the Boer War was coming up during 1999-1902. So I thought it was a good hook. So did History. Actually May 31, 2002 is the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Peace ending almost three years of war.

Historian John Goldi csc, who studied Modern History at the University of Toronto, and did graduate work in Education, and History, at Queen's University, is the director/cameraman for the program. He was interviewed in the living room of his house.

Philippa McCoyne: But your house is like stepping back in a time warp; it breathes Boer War. It must have taken a lifetime to collect all this stuff....

John Goldi: Well when Linden MacIntyre was here recording the narration he said ....

Philippa McCoyne: Lincoln who?

John Goldi: Linden ..... Oh sorry. Linden MacIntyre. In Canada we consider him Canada's most respected broadcast voice. Sort of like Geraldo Rivera, Mike Wallace and Larry King all rolled up into one, but heavily garnished with a dash of Canadian class.

Philippa McCoyne: OK. Sort of get it.

John Goldi: Well as I was saying, he thought the house looks like a museum, which it really is I guess. But we hate bland houses. Our home is really a repository of memorabilia of all the people and places involved in our film and television projects across Canada which have consumed us for the past 24 years.

Philippa McCoyne: But all this huge mass of material of the Boer War...

John Goldi: That's some of the research and memorabilia we dug up in the last couple of years specially for this project. Before then, well, we had hundreds of history books in the house, but only 5 on the Boer War, given to me by a history teacher back in the fifties. Now of course, we have over two hundred on the Boer War alone....

Philippa McCoyne: Why so many. Why not just get a couple of Canadian books and do the script from that.

John Goldi: Well it's important to get the different viewpoints, different anecdotes, from all sides. British generals had a different viewpoint from the ordinary Tommies, the colonials from the Brits. We used about 30 Canadian books alone, like Edward Morrison's "With the Guns." He gives wonderful insights into how a young Canadian reacts when called upon to do horrible things in war. The Boers also had emotional accounts. After all their wives and children were front line victims of the first total war in modern history. And the American correspondents in the field - what a difference a century makes - they had strong views about the British habit of stomping all over small defenceless countries around the world. We set out to tell the story of Britain's biggest war in history. The canvas was big, so the library had to be too.

Philippa McCoyne: And the memorabilia. Astonishing!

John Goldi: Well we wanted to be innovative, make a documentary with a difference. Traditionally people making history programs just wrote a story line, then went to a footage and picture library and cut in black and white stills and motion pictures.

We decided to "bring History alive," to illustrate our program by using the exact memorabilia used in Canadian homes a century ago. If we needed a picture of a general, instead of the traditional black and white photo, we decided to use, say an antique mug from 1900, featuring a glorious colour transfer of General Buller. And we have it rotate so it's three dimensional as well. All designed to increase the viewing pleasure of the public. The Boer War produced a blizzard of memorabilia unmatched by any war before or since. We wanted to document that, so we used rare parian marble busts, plates, jugs, stevengraphs, and brass doorstops and trivets wherever they would enrich the viewing experience. And of course they're real historic items in their own right.

Philippa McCoyne: Stevengraphs, trivets!!! What are those?

John Goldi: Well Stevengraphs were exquisitely detailed, small coloured silk portraits woven on a Jacquard loom, then glued into cardboard mounts. They were invented in Victorian England and were all the rage during the Boer War era, featuring the important generals and politicians. We use five different ones, instead of the usual black and white pictures found in traditional history programs. These actually hung in Boer War homes in Toronto.... Trivets are brass plate-like supports to keep hot irons and dishes off wooden desk and table tops. We've got a wonderful brass trivet of Lord Roberts, as well as a huge brass doorstop of him riding his horse. We use that to introduce his section called Marching to Pretoria. We've got the most antique memorabilia items ever used to illustrate a history documentary anywhere, literally hundreds of items. We think they give the viewer a more intimate connection with the times and brings the period more to life.

Philippa McCoyne: And all these huge colour portraits! And the frames. Wow!

John Goldi: Glad you like them. Colour printing was just beginning to bloom in the 1890s. So we haunted auctions across Ontario looking for antique portraits of Boer War era figures. We were also lucky to find large colour portraits of Victoria, Edward VII, Kitchener and Roberts. And on the internet we found scores of coloured antique postcards from the period. And battle prints. Sheet music too was all black and white before the Boer War. We found some wonderful coloured Canadian Boer War sheet music in Ontario and British Columbia. Phenomenal stuff. And in a farm sale in Woodstock we retrieved a wonderful coloured battle print of the Canadians fighting at Paardeberg. Col. Otter is clearly featured. It must have been a rare treasure for the family who had it hanging for decades no doubt, before succeeding generations stashed it away. It was found among the rafters of the old house by the auctioneer when they sold the place. We've got over 200 antique colour illustrations in our show, the most ever I think in a history documentary. They're all on our website.

Philippa McCoyne: Yes, well come to think of it I tend to think History happened in black and white....

John Goldi: You're not alone. Everybody does. Television producers created the false impression. They use black and whites because colour pictures are very, very hard to find. Takes a lot of time, money and effort to unearth colour images. Nobody bothers when black and whites are so easy to come by. We were determined to innovate, make a special effort, and give the colour record of history it's rightful place in a history documentary.

Philippa McCoyne: And this huge "Mountie" standing there.

John Goldi: That's our pride and joy. That's our title shot for Show four. It's really a Boer War trooper. It's the biggest and best portrait I've ever seen - out of hundreds - of a Canadian veteran of a hundred years ago. It's actually an original tempera painting - not a photo like you usually find - commissioned by a leading family somewhere in Winnipeg, probably on the eve of sending a son to the wars in 1900. He's a bit of a mystery; his name and regimental numbers faintly scrawled on the back so we've put them on our website hoping someone out west will decipher them and give us a call. It's also the only Boer War veteran colour portrait I've ever seen. Found by sleuthing auctions and antique shows two or three times every week for the past two years. We were determined to innovate, to find the best stuff still around from the Canadian experience in the Boer War, use it to illustrate the show and the times, and preserve it for posterity.

Philippa McCoyne: You're pretty passionate about all this.

John Goldi: Sure. Well we've always been passionate about Canada and Canadian stories -"The Canadian Experience" if you will. Our company motto is "Keeping Canadians in Touch With Canada." It's been the guiding principle for every film and television program we've shot over the past 24 years. This Boer War project is no different. You're probably not aware, but every year up here, somebody makes another program on World War 1, the same footage and images appear again and again. Lots of people complain about the recycling. "Deja vu" they say. That's Canadian for "Been there, done that. Show us something new." We do. Our program is different. It's a story that has never been told before on Canadian television. No one has seen these images before. No one has seen these locations before. No one has heard these voices before. It's an absolute first for History Television, for Canadian television. The Canadian Millennium Bureau recognized it as such. Our project was honoured as one of the rare Canadian television programs it selected to commemorate the Canadian Experience at the turn of the century. We had a big responsibility. We wanted to do a good job.

Philippa McCoyne: This horse hoof is something else. What are the numbers on it? Brands or what?

John Goldi: That's from the estate of a turn of the century Mountie and came with horse bits, spurs, gloves, and his RNWMP badges and shoulder flashes. Probably served in South Africa. The Mounties did such good work during the war that King Edward honoured them by allowing them to add the R for Royal in front of the NWMP.... During the war, horse hooves were deeply stamped with huge numbers to prevent theft by men from other regiments. More than a few sets of hooves were brought back by sentimental troopers. We use ours to illustrate Canadian Trooper Willie Griesbach's poignant story of "His Reproachful Brown Eyes" where he tells what happened to his beloved riding horse that accompanied him from Alberta to South Africa. The war was devastating to horses. Half a million of them died from fatigue, starvation, overwork, and lack of food and water. But try to find pictures of dead horses. Virtually impossible. The British are horse lovers. I don't think they could bear to record for themselves - let alone the folks back home - what they were doing to horses in South Africa. It's actually easier to find pictures of dead men.....

Philippa McCoyne: Hmm. Now that is strange......That's an interesting bugle. What's this scratching here?

John Goldi: Oh, on the bell collar. Yeah, that's our missing Rembrandt - probably our most prized memorabilia possession. It's the bugle of Edwin McCormick who served two terms in South Africa, once as Sam Steele's bugler when he was only 14, and came with a letter of permission from his mother to go off to war. I found it after months of nightly scouring the internet for Canadian Boer War memorabilia. I'd seen hundreds of bugles until one day this turned up with the word "Brackspruit" scratched on it. No one else recognized the implication, but being a historian does come in handy at times. It sure did that time.

Philippa McCoyne: Brak what? What does it mean?

John Goldi: "Brackspruit" is Afrikaans for Brack Creek. The Battle of Boschbult Farm - Canada's second biggest battle of the Boer War was fought on a farm beside Brack Creek. So I was able to save one of Canada's finest Boer War items for posterity. McCormick saw more of the war than most Boer War volunteers. And he used it to blow the Last Post when they buried the Canadians after the battle. I actually took it back to the same spot where Edwin blew it 100 years before. It was a very moving experience, not only for me, but for the Boer family whose front porch is right in front of the burial plot where the Canadians were laid to rest that evening. The whole story is on our web site under Boer War bugles.

Philippa McCoyne: Awesome, just amazing.

John Goldi: You might like to see our Otto Moody collection.

Philippa McCoyne: Otto who?

John Goldi: Otto Moody. He was an 18 year old from Montreal who joined up at the end of the war and witnessed the last desperate months of the war. Again by relentlessly sleuthing the net, I discovered his belongings from the Boer War being sold by a woman in Montana, who found it all in a trunk in a shed where it had been stored for forty years. I bought some - his knapsack, duffle bag, snake belt, spurs; she donated a lot more - his whip, cinch, martingale, bayonet, wallet, two photos, lots of papers, and twenty wonderful letters that he wrote home to his mother. His poignant insights into some of the horrors he witnessed are featured voices in our show. They've never been published before.

Philippa McCoyne: Martingale? What's that?

John Goldi: Yeah. Well, I didn't know what it was either until a couple of horse experts told me it was a strap used to hold down the head of an unruly horse so he couldn't go wild and throw the rider off. Interesting enough but it got better. When I read Otto's letters he talked of having his horse stolen after a short time in South Africa. The older men in the regiment eagerly provided him with a new one, which turned out to be a mean bucking bronco which threw him time after time, to the general merriment of his colleagues. But he wrote to his sister Bess that he and the bronco ultimately became good friends after many bruises and no doubt, thanks to the martingale you see there. Wonderful really when the written record dovetails so seamlessly with memorabilia items. Brings them all, and the man, the era, the history of it all, to life.

Actually you know, I recently tracked down Otto's descendants. It's taken me a year. His son-in-law lives in Telluride, Colorado, and was blown away to get a phone call from me and to hear I had all Otto's stuff. Stranger still, he told me Otto's wife is still alive and living in Georgia. And at 98, still sharp as a tack.

Philippa McCoyne: Amazing, amazing....You call the show "The Great Anglo-Boer War; The Canadian Experience" but there's a lot of non-Canadian material here. Right?

John Goldi: Not really. The title shows the balance we were after. We wanted to do a show on the "Great Anglo-Boer War" - that's the first part of the title. It's a story never told before on Canadian television. It certainly was "Great," men came from all over the world to fight. British troops came from India, Ceylon, Australia, New Zealand, Malta, Ireland, Scotland, England, Rhodesia, Cape Colony and of course Canada. To help the Boers, volunteer fighters came from Germany, Holland, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Norway, Austria, France and the United States. In other words it was a huge story with a cast of hundreds of thousands that devastated an area the size of Western Europe and ultimately reduced it to ashes.

The Canadians were a part of it all. Remember, they never acted independently. Canadians were always under a British general, always a part of a larger group of other British soldiers. We could have done a "local show," just saying the Canadians went here and then there but one would have lost the immensity of the titanic struggle that went on all around them. Sure Canadians weren't the focus, or the centerpiece of the war. But Canadians didn't see themselves as a "side show." Focusing entirely on "The Canadian Experience" would have minimized their sense of where they saw themselves taking part in "The Great Anglo-Boer War," the terrifying struggle between Britain and Boer. They were in the midst of great world events and we wanted to give the proper momentous context in which the Canadians participated.

Besides Canadians were everywhere: hundreds were in British army units. Canadians served as scouts for Lord Roberts and were on his headquarters staff. And even in battles like Spion Kop, that shocked the world - and where Canada had no official participation - we focus on Canadians like Lt. J.W. Osborne from Brantford, Ontario. Like 150 other Canadian officers serving in the British army, he was educated at Kingston's Royal Military College. He died on Spion Kop as a Canadian officer among his British comrades. In other words we constantly tie in the Canadian Experience into the momentous events of the war as a whole.

In a real sense, though, we confess, the program is not "Canadian," if you will. We do not set out to glorify war, or Canadians in war. And we don't think the program does that at all. Linden MacIntyre - our narrator - said he really liked the balance we had achieved in the script. He said, had it been a rah, rah, type of military thing, he wouldn't have done it. We're glad he latched right on to the feeling we wanted to capture with our show. Our program is really about human beings caught up in the humour, the pathos, the horror of modern war: Canadians, Boers, Britons, Blacks, men, women, and children. It's really an unsettling program in many ways. The sacking of Dullstroom is a case in point. Lt. Morrison (left) who took part and wrote about it - we use his voice throughout the show - was upset about the kind of warfare they were conducting. He wrote, "We didn't get anything like a fair share of the loot, but I don't think my men objected to that." So his men had the same reservations.

Philippa McCoyne: So you won't find any military heroes in this show? No heroic deeds?

John Goldi: I guess in a sense you're probably right. We leave out the bloodthirsty parts. But not the heroes. You've got to remember that however awful war is, and always will be, it also brings out the best in many men. We feature the exploits of Canada's Victoria Cross heroes, not because they were "Rambo" types, they were not. Men like Turner and Richardson are special human beings, who, when confronted by a terrifying situation, that would paralyze lesser men, rise up, regardless of personal danger, and take action to help a friend or defend his comrades. You don't have to be a militarist to appreciate the selfless and very real "personal heroics" of men like this. Here we are really back to "human beings" caught up in war. In our program the Canadians really stand in for selfless heroes who were found among Britons, Boers, and foreign volunteers as well. Like at Magersfontein, a story we couldn't tell - almost the entire contingent of Scandinavian volunteers who had come to help the Boers defend themselves against the most powerful army in the world, were wiped out. Heroes are international.


Philippa McCoyne: True enough ..... So, to back up, you're using lots of antique memorabilia, lots of colour pictures, Canadian voices..

John Goldi: Canadian voices, sure, but voices from all sides, Boers and Britons too. Remember it's "The Great Anglo-Boer War" too. Never forget the context in which Canadians were serving. And, of course, we use black and white photos too, like everyone else. Innovation does not mean you have to throw out everything. You keep what works and photos do. The Kodak folding camera Model 1A was invented in the early 90s - that's one right over there - so practically every other Tommy had one in his pack sack. Before that, cameras were huge and heavy, and only experts could use them. The folding pocket Kodak made the Boer War the most photographed war in history.

Philippa McCoyne: You use the word innovate all the time. Does that really matter?

John Goldi: Well I think it does. Why do a program the way it's been done before? Just repeat what others have already done? Why not think of creative ways to arouse viewer interest, instead of putting them to sleep by showing a type of program style they've seen before. We favour a more brisk style of editing - more like you use in the States - than is found in Canadian documentaries. Also our program structure is different from other programs.

Philippa McCoyne: How so. Does that matter?

John Goldi: Sure it does. It matters a lot. Lots of history documentaries just tend to run on and on and are only cut off by commercials. Instead of the "run-on sentence" kind of program we decided to put our show together by assembling modules of stories some five minutes long - we use 43 of them - that have a theme, a beginning, a middle, and an end. We introduce them with wonderfully colourful slates featuring moving memorabilia items from the Boer War (left). Our slates basically say to the viewer: "Ok, now we're here. And now for something completely different!" We think refocusing the audience every five minutes, with short stories, is preferable to just going on and on. People will stay more alert, and can absorb more, and remember more. We're not doing this for ourselves. We're always thinking of the viewers. Inform them. Keep them up to date. Bring them along. We think they'll appreciate our innovations. Hopefully.

Philippa McCoyne: Sound intriguing. Different anyway. Any other innovations?

John Goldi: Well I guess the period music. Our sound track uses many of Canada's earliest recordings made during the Boer War era by Canada's first recording artists. And we recycle the songs and tunes for effect, just like it was done by soldiers during the Boer War. Numerous accounts say men sang, and bands played, Rule Britannia and the Maple Leaf Forever, ad nauseum, and on every possible occasion. And we recycle the bugle calls. Life in Boer War camps and on the battlefield was constantly dominated by bugle calls, like the Alarm, the Charge, Fatiques, the Last Post. So basically we bathe the viewer with a soundscape for the period, such as would have been very familiar to a Boer War soldier. After watching a program, guess what they'll start whistling in the car, or on the subway?....... Oh and we also innovated with the location shooting as well. But I don't really have time to go into that now. Takes too long. Have to get this last show on lined for History.

Philippa McCoyne: Yes. I completely forgot. You actually went to South Africa to shoot! Unusual to go so far.

John Goldi: Yeah, well there's innovation again. We wanted to make our show look different from others by doing lots of location shooting, and to do it with a difference. Found lots of wonderful historic sites, untouched in a hundred years. But really I have to go. If you're keen to hear more about it we can have another chat when this show has gone tomorrow.

Philippa McCoyne: Yes, really I would. You've piqued my curiosity. Sounds intriguing.

John Goldi: Believe me it is. We spent two months and travelled 11,000 kms visiting scores of historic sites to follow the trail of the Canadians. Found lots of wonderful stuff. But seriously I gotta go.

Philippa McCoyne: Ok. It's been a blast. Really. Do appreciate you taking the time. Will be in town another couple of days. Hope we can touch base once more before I go.

John Goldi: Should not be a problem. Cheers.