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Three cheers for a funny fellow

Like his hapless Canadian hero, he often found himself in hilarious situations

Special to The Globe and Mail
Thursday, June 12, 2003 - Page R9

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Once in the middle of an interview at the Toronto airport, writer Donald Jack left to fetch a document from his car. Notorious for a sense of direction so poor he found it difficult to navigate through a city park, let alone the airport's massive parking lot, Mr. Jack took so long to find his vehicle that by the time he returned the interviewers had gone.

Like Bartholomew Bandy, the hapless hero of The Bandy Papers, Mr. Jack's eight-volume comic-novel series describing an Ottawa Valley boy's adventures during both world wars and between, the author often found himself in hilarious situations, made the more so by his telling.

A three-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, Mr. Jack died last week at his home in England. He was 78.

Listeners were reduced to tears of laughter by his tales of construction disasters while having a villa built in Spain; a house sale falling through on closing day; and an aging bright yellow car named Buttercup, whose sun roof shattered soon after it was searched for drugs at the Spanish-French border, showering Mr. Jack with glass, insects and rust.

Once, while being toured with his daughter around the offices of his publisher, McClelland & Stewart, Mr. Jack entered the boardroom and shouted with surprise. There on the carpet lay a large amount of dog excrement left by an employee's pet. In his Bandy-like way, the writer very nearly stepped into it.

"If you could choose one author out of the entire world who during a visit to his publisher would stumble across this, it would be Donald Jack," said Douglas Gibson, president and publisher of McClelland & Stewart, who knew the writer for more than 30 years.

"Things would go wrong for Don, very seldom caused by himself," said Munroe Scott, a close friend of more than 45 years. "He would narrate all this stuff either in person or in a letter and make it all hilarious, because he always saw, in retrospect at any rate, the funny side of things. You'd be doubled up with laughter."

Despite Mr. Jack's incident-prone nature, it would be a mistake to see Mr. Jack as a buffoon, said Mr. Scott, also a writer. "He was enormously well read, erudite and could handle the language with aplomb at many levels. He could make me feel like a Philistine."

Said author Austin Clarke, who was Mr. Jack's neighbour for five years during the 1960s. "He was a quiet, reserved, retiring kind of man. You would never have known he was a writer."

Mr. Jack's Leacock medals came for three volumes of The Bandy Papers: Three Cheers for Me, in 1963, That's Me in the Middle, in 1974 and Me Bandy, You Cissie, in 1980. Published between 1963 and 1996, they still enjoy a loyal following, including a Web site which draws mail from around the world. Six of the eight volumes were recently reissued by McClelland & Stewart.

Drawn from Mr. Jack's fascination with the First World War, the rural people he met in the Ottawa Valley and his time in the Royal Air Force, The Bandy Papers feature the blundering Bartholomew Wolfe Bandy, who in the first volume, Three Cheers for Me, inadvertently becomes a hero, despite capturing his own colonel by mistake.

Ensuing volumes follow Mr. Bandy's adventures through to the Second World War. Although devastatingly funny, they also describe war's horrors and the realities of the home front, and lampoon war's leaders.

Mr. Bandy encounters and influences historical figures, such as then British minister of defence Winston Churchill, and generously offers him use of the altered Bandy phrase "blood, sweat, toil and tears."

While best known for The Bandy Papers, Mr. Jack wrote countless documentary film scripts, stage, TV and radio plays, as well as two non-fiction books: the history of a Toronto radio station, Sinc, Betty and the Morning Man, and another about medicine in Canada, Rogues, Rebels and Geniuses.

His third play, The Canvas Barricade, won first prize in the Stratford Shakespearean Playwriting Competition in 1960. Produced in 1961, it was the first, and remains the only, original Canadian play performed on the main stage of the Stratford Festival.

Mr. Jack, however, did not see much of its opening. He left the auditorium for the lobby. "During the performance, we'd be aware of a crack of light from a door opening slightly and a white face would stare through, then vanish for a while, before another door would open a crack, and the same apparition would fleetingly appear," Mr. Scott said.

Born on Dec. 6, 1924 in Radcliffe, Lancashire, England, Donald Lamont Jack was one of four children of a British doctor and a nurse from Prince Edward Island. After attending Bury Grammar School in Lancashire and Marr College in Scotland, he gained enough qualifications to attend London University.

While stationed in Germany with the RAF in the last year of the Second World War, Mr. Jack attempted short-story writing, but thought he lacked talent. After his mother asked him, "Isn't it about time you left home?" Mr. Jack immigrated to Canada in 1951.

Interspersed with jobs as a member of a surveying crew in Alberta and a bank teller in Toronto, Mr. Jack studied at the Canadian Theatre School in Toronto run by Sterndale Bennett. There he wrote two plays, one of which drew praise from theatre critic Nathan Cohen and a job offer from a film company. Mr. Cohen later wrote Mr. Scott, decrying Canadian theatre's "shameful treatment" of Mr. Jack, which largely ignored him.

A theatrical background enhanced Mr. Jack's writing, according to Mr. Gibson. "His dialogue was terrific and his scene-setting was excellent."

After leaving the school, with the encouragement of his wife, Nancy, whom he married in 1952, Mr. Jack worked in the script department of Crawley Films in Ottawa. Two years later in 1955, the company's head, Budge Crawley, let him go because he thought Mr. Jack would never make a good writer.

A dry first year of freelancing followed, until in 1957 Mr. Jack sold the play version of his novelette Breakthrough, published in Maclean's, to CBC Television. It became the first Canadian TV play to be simultaneously telecast to the United States.

He never looked back. By 1972, A Collection of Canadian Plays, Vol. 1, which included Exit Muttering by Mr. Jack, noted he had written 40 TV plays, 35 documentary film scripts, several radio plays and four stage plays. The works included Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Armed Forces training films for the National Film Board and often demanded a great deal of research.

Mr. Jack wrote with military discipline, beginning at 9 a.m., taking tea at 11 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m., tea again at 3 p.m. and finishing at 5 p.m. "All my life, I swear, that routine never altered," said one of his daughters, Lulu Hilton.

Persisting in writing drafts in pen and ink long before adopting the typewriter and, much later, a word processor, Mr. Jack often developed storylines while walking. A 1959 CBC press release explains Mr. Jack's dedication: "My self-discipline is to keep reminding myself of how lucky I am to be able to be the only thing I ever really wanted to be -- a writer."

During the early 1980s, Mr. Jack and his wife returned to England to be near their daughters who had emigrated there, and their grandchildren. Mr. Jack missed Canada's open spaces and its classless society, and visited often.

At the time of his death, he was working on the ninth volume of The Bandy Papers. He died on or about June 2 of a massive stroke at his home in Telford, Shropshire, England. He leaves his two daughters, Maren and Lulu, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild, a brother and a sister. His wife Nancy died in 1991.

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