Picture this: It’s the 80s, and CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes anchor, Mark Critch, is an 11-year-old growing up in St. John’s, Newfoundland. But while his peers were listening to Bon Jovi and wearing leg warmers, Critch had a taste for Jackie Gleason and sensible jackets.
“1980s Newfoundland is very much like the late 1960s elsewhere,” Critch told CBC News in an interview. “We always take a while to catch up and it’s a small place and there’s a strong sense of community, you know? And I think that that makes for very good characters and it makes for an interesting place to tell a story.”
That’s the basis for Critch’s new CBC comedy series, Son of a Critch, based on the eponymous 2019 memoir about his upbringing in 1980s St. John’s. The awkward pre-teen tries to overcome his old-man-in-a-young-man’s-body disposition and win over new friends with his unique sense of humour — a good Jerry Lewis impression, anyone?
The series, which premieres 8:30 p.m. ET (9 p.m. NT) Jan. 4 on CBC and CBC Gem, snagged Golden Globe nominated actor Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) for the role of Pop, Mark’s curmudgeonly grandfather with a heart of gold and a deep well of advice. McDowell said the writing appealed to him.
“I read these scripts, and I literally called my manager and said, ‘I want to do this, make it work. Whatever you’ve got to do, I don’t care. Let’s do it.’ “
Young actor plays Critch, who plays his dad
Critch’s younger self is played by 13-year-old actor Benjamin Evan Ainsworth (The Haunting of Bly Manor).
With Critch’s blessing, the young Brit brought his own twist to the fictionalized character — and took pains to research the real Critch’s childhood influences, like comedian Don Rickles and crooner Dean Martin.
The winter season means it’s time to choose comfort over style☃️<br><br>Is your PVR set yet? Jan 4 on CBC and <a href=”https://twitter.com/cbcgem?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@cbcgem</a> 🙌🏼 <a href=”https://t.co/zAXnvMgqYZ”>pic.twitter.com/zAXnvMgqYZ</a>
In the series, young Mark’s pop culture tastes are mostly aligned with that of his aging parents and his Pop, with whom he shares a room.
That makes things tricky at his Catholic school, where Mark is a complete misfit among his peers and the relished target for a family of bullies — but he’s determined to use his oddball status to win a few new friends.
WATCH | Stars of CBC comedy Son of a Critch discuss the new show:
“I spent a lot of time learning the accent because I’m not from Newfoundland,” Ainsworth told CBC News. Newfoundlanders have a distinct accent among Canadians, with traces of an English and Irish lilt.
“So it was a lot of commitment, but it was definitely worth it.”
The real Mark Critch appears in the series as well, playing his own dad, Mike Sr., who was a broadcaster for the Newfoundland radio station VOCM. The comedian was initially reluctant to step into his father’s shoes (literally: he wore his shoes), given his familiarity among Canadian audiences.
“I worried, especially as we started to gain this wonderful cast, that me playing older than my years and people in Canada being familiar with me as a sketch comedy guy … that it would maybe potentially take the viewer out of the realism of the scene,” Critch explained.
Story of Filipino Newfoundlander on screen
While much of the story focuses on Mark as he tries to make friends — “He lacks social skills, but finds a way to use it with his comedy,” Ainsworth said — Critch also wanted to tell the stories of the people he grew up with, like Fox, the school bully from a lower class family.
Mark’s best friend is Ritche (played by Mark Rivera), a boy who is of Filipino descent and the only person of colour in school. While both characters bond over being outsiders, the insults hurled at Ritche are especially insidious, because they target him for being Asian.
The character is based on Critch’s real-life friend Ritche Perez, who appears in an episode of Son of a Critch with his family.
My buddy Ritche Perez has been my friend forever. Now he is a character in <a href=”https://twitter.com/SonOfACritchTV?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@SonOfACritchTV</a>! Great laugh having a peek at our billboard in St. John’s today! <a href=”https://t.co/LXUWxNON33″>pic.twitter.com/LXUWxNON33</a>
Critch sought Perez’s blessing to include his experiences in the show, with the help of a Newfoundland-born writer of Filipino descent, Romeo Candido.
“I wanted to try and really tell his story of being a person of colour in a school with the diversity of a snowbank,” Critch said.
Recreating Critch’s childhood home
Son of a Critch‘s costume and set design is a meticulous recreation of Critch’s childhood home and the clothes he and his family wore, right down to the buttons on a replica of his father’s standard red jacket.
Retaining the feel of Critch’s real life during the adaptation process was a must — and that sometimes led to some teary-eyed moments on set.
“The vibe of that house is very much — It feels like my house, if that makes sense. That felt authentic,” Critch said.
“You lose people, you tell their story … Watching these characters based on my real parents kind of evolve and become these different things that now belong to the world … It was wonderful to kind of see their story move forward like that now.”
Young Mark’s grandfather, Pop, isn’t based on a real figure from Critch’s actual life — but he’s a “universal sort of character,” according to McDowell.
The English actor said that his favourite scenes in the show are those between young Mark and Pop, often having candid (and entertaining) conversations about parent troubles, mean bullies and first heartbreaks.
“They’re just so heartwarming and so much fun to do,” McDowell said.