BORN: Niagara Falls, Ontario • 8 September 1937
DIED: Toronto, Ontario • 26 March 1992
TV VIEWERS DON’T LIKE CHANGE,” BARBARA Frum wrote in Saturday Night in a 1967 column.“The situation comedies, the quizzes, the panel shows…only have to hook firmly on to an audience to keep it. As in marriage, it’s the first year that’s critical; if a show can scrape through that one season, it’s likely to survive…
On television, it would seem, familiarity breeds no contempt.”Written well before she became a regular part of the evening for CBC radio and TV audiences, those dismissive words were cutting. Yet there was truth in them—when Canadians came to know Barbara Frum, or to think they knew her because she talked for them to the great and near-great, their familiarity with her bred not contempt but growing admiration.
Her parents were from Niagara Falls, the Ontario honeymoon capital. The Rosbergs owned the largest department store, they lived well, and they were Jews, all unusual characteristrics in small-town Ontario. Born with a damaged shoulder, thanks to a clumsy forceps-wielding doctor, Barbara was raised to be independent and to achieve.
Intelligent and attractive, she attended the University of Toronto and, when she was nineteen, married Murray Frum, a dentist and later very successful property developer.Initially content to be a homemaker, Frum began to freelance as a journalist for Toronto newspapers,Chatelaine and Maclean’s.
She made her way into television in 1967, then in 1971 became the host of As It Happens, the CBC’s nationally broadcast radio phone-out show that pioneered the intrusive interview and, for ninety minutes a night, became a national institution.
Politicians and strikers, the important and the silly—all were grist for the mill. When the British ambassador in Iceland was besieged by stone-throwing protesters, for example, Barbara was there, haranguing the poor man to talk to her before he could report to the Foreign Office.
A thousand interviews a year sharpened her technique, and her silky voice hypnotized interviewees and listeners alike. “Use as few words as possible to ask your questions,” she described her style,“then get out of the way.”
By 1982, when CBC television was remaking its national evening news, Frum was the natural choice to become the host of The Journal, the forty-minute interview and feature portion of the hour. She shone immediately. Her transparent compassion, honesty, and warmth grabbed viewers, as did her unobtrusive but comprehensive research and her tough, sometimes aggressive questioning as she pursued the truth— whatever she believed it to be.
A woman with her own views, her own hates and likes, occasionally those opinions showed through. A fierce Canadian nationalist and a believer in a bicultural country, she became very partisan during the Meech Lake debacle, her efforts to save the country some¬ times turning into open support for the federal government’s position.
Her interview with Prime Minister Mulroney after Meech was viewed by many as near-pandering, and her hostility off-air to those who opposed the Free Trade Agreement in 1988 was sometimes withering. From other interviewers, such positions would not have been tolerated, but Canadians were very indulgent of Barbara Frum.
Indeed, they admired her rare instances of partisanship, and when British prime minister Margaret Thatcher savaged her and rebuffed her questions in one interview, they cursed the Iron Lady for lese-majeste and her snooty imperial ways.
Diagnosed with leukemia in 1974, F’rum laboured in the certainty of her death. Carefully keeping her illness secret, for a time even from her children, Frum continued to push herself in her work. Her compassion for others with whom she worked at the CBC and for her friends was legendary, and the image she projected on screen was genuine.
Her family wealth, high salary, chauffeured limousine, and clothes allowance from the CBC were all her due, but somehow they did not spoil her or separate her from the ordinary Canadians who called her, familiarly, Barbara, and for whom she was the CBC.