A Story from William Whitehead
I have written a book. WORDS TO LIVE BY is about my life, and the 40 years I shared with Timothy Findley. I guess you could call it a “memoir” — but it’s more than that. My own private title for the book is the “powers and perils of words.” It’s about the wonders of language, and the traps that threaten its users.
However, not all my stories concerning words actually made it into the book. One of my favourites concerns words spoken in public, but destined to be heard again under very different circumstances: in a pre-recorded radio broadcast.
Early in my career as a documentary writer, I was asked by CBC’s Children’s Department to write and host a radio show about zoos. I wrote a script involving me as “Uncle Bill,” taking his “niece and nephew” to Riverdale Zoo. My plan was to use my neighbour’s children as my young relatives, and actually take them to Riverdale Zoo, hoping to use my brand new, broadcast-quality tape recorder to help create an educational program out of their questions and my answers. The Head of Children’s Programming liked the idea, but wanted it completely scripted, to be recorded in a studio, using her two favourite performers – two mature ladies, one specializing in “little girls” and the other in “little boys”. I managed to persuade her to let us all go to the real zoo, using all its natural sounds as the background – but she still insisted on using actors – including a mature chap who could double as “Mr. Zookeeper” and the children’s dog – and also insisted that she accompany us.
That is the background to the most embarrassing afternoon of my life.
We all trooped off to the zoo, with the Department Head resplendent in her bright pink plastic coat and matching boots. Once the sound man was ready, we all gathered around the monkeys’ cage and went to work:
LITTLE BOY LADY: (jumping up and down) Uncle Bill! Uncle Bill! Look at the monkeys!!!!
LITTLE GIRL LADY: (POUTING) I hate monkeys!!!
MR. ZOOKEEPER: Now, now….they’re great fun. Aren’t they, Rover? (THEN, IN THE ROLE OF ROVER, HE STARTED A SESSION OF EXCITED BARKING.)
At that moment, all the mothers around us – more puzzled than horrified – started backing away, with their children peeking out from behind their backs. Our CBC lady, who wanted lots of background chatter, then – in desperation – became a whole crowd all by herself. She hopped and skipped in her pink plastic, making excited juvenile noises as we attempted to continue with the script.
A little later, a disdainful camel managed to spray her with urine – at which point, as I remember – we all went home. The Zoo Series was over.