Ghostwriter – Author – Journalist

George McLean: CBC newscaster was a familiar voice to Canada

By on April 15, 2016 in Articles with 0 Comments

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George McLean was a CBC announcer with one of the most distinctive voices of his generation. Apart from Peter Mansbridge, who has done the job on The National for nearly 28 years, Mr. McLean had the longest tenure as the reader of CBC Television’s flagship newscast, though he was passed over four times for the top newscaster’s position.

Mr. McLean, who died on March 16 in Toronto at the age of 92, was a staff announcer, a creature that no longer exists at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Union rules dictated that only announcers could deliver the news, and they were not allowed to change the scripts prepared by the news writers, who were in another union. CBC managers thought it would be better to have a working reporter deliver the news.

“The announcer-journalist issue first came up when Lloyd [Robertson] was upset that the guild [the journalists’ union] wouldn’t let him write his own material and that was the ultimate reason he left for CTV,” Mr. Mansbridge recalled. “Then Peter Kent came along, and no one argued about his journalistic credentials, but the guild didn’t really fold until after Knowlton came along, if my memory is correct.”

He was referring to the last time Mr. McLean was turned down for the newscaster’s job, when the late Knowlton Nash, a CBC executive who read the news during strikes at the public broadcaster, was appointed permanent news reader in 1978. CUPE, the announcers’ union, filed a grievance that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which did not hear the case, and the union lost the battle.

Mr. Nash wrote about the incident in his 1987 memoir, Prime Time at Ten. “I came to believe the union persistence was due to a combination of things. First, there was George McLean’s personal disappointment at not getting the job …,” wrote Mr. Nash, who noted that Mr. McLean “never accepted the value of having a journalist anchor The National. Given George’s strong feelings, the union wanted to demonstrate to its long-standing members that it would stand up for them. It was a very expensive exercise.”

While all this was going on, Mr. McLean continued as the back-up announcer on The National. Unlike some others at the public broadcaster, he was not a political animal – just a great announcer.

“He was a classic CBC announcer with a great baritone voice, calm, deliberately enunciated presentation and a clear-eyed, reassuringly solid, confident bearing,” said Mr. Kent, who anchored The National from 1976 to 1978, beating out Mr. McLean in his third shot at the job. “He was a pleasure to work with and he was gracious and supportive in helping me to settle in.”

Mr. McLean continued to believe that announcers could do a better job of delivering the news. When he retired in 1986, at 62, he told The Canadian Press that he had nothing against journalists reading the news “if they can get the words off the page … but I feel announcers can do that better than most journalists.”

George Angus McLean was born on May 16, 1923, in Brandon, Man., where his father was a bank manager. Because of the hard times in Western Canada, the McLeans decided to move to England in 1930, where the maternal side of the family had a business in Manchester. George was studying aeronautical engineering at the Manchester Municipal College of Technology when he left to join the Royal Air Force.

He served as a wireless airgunner, whose main job was to man a machine gun turret, one of the most dangerous places to be in a Second World War aircraft. As a Canadian citizen, although one who sounded like a home-grown Briton, he transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1944 and began reacquiring his Canadian voice.

After the war, he returned to Canada and landed a job as an announcer at radio station CJRL in Kenora, Ont. He was soon the station manager as well, and hired another announcer, Warren Davis, who went on to become the first newscaster on The National. Mr. McLean tried to buy the station but lost out. He then worked at stations in Winnipeg and Penticton, B.C., before joining the CBC in Vancouver in 1956. Eventually he moved to Toronto and began reading the news in 1963.

Not only did he read The National news for decades, becoming a familiar face and voice to millions of Canadians, he was also in demand as a voice-over artist. A 1977 CBC press release noted that Mr. McLean “is still highly regarded by advertising agencies for his announcing skills. However, he refuses to appear on camera for commercials.”

CBC rules at the time allowed announcers, but not on-air reporters, to do commercial work. The part-time reader on The National was one of the busiest in the business; with a voice and delivery that was much admired.

“To me, George was the last on-air representative of the old Canadian style of speech – that kind of mid-Atlantic, semi-English Canadian accent so dominant at the time,” said Brian Stewart, a CBC reporter who was also a back-up reader on The National. “He was a typical Canadian male figure of the 1950s: war vet, slight mustache, careful in dress, something formal in manner, with that mid-Atlantic delivery,” Mr. Stewart said.

Mr. McLean’s sound was so seductive that his second wife, Barbara, fell in love with his voice years before she met him. At the time, she was a British immigrant living in South Africa, where the apartheid regime had banned television so the population wouldn’t know too much about racial conditions in the outside world. People would get some information when they went to the cinema, which is where she first heard Mr. McLean’s voice, in a travelogue recorded in Toronto.

“We would hear this beautiful voice and didn’t know who it was,” Mrs. McLean recalled. When she later moved to Toronto, she was invited by chance to a party at the home of Mr. McLean and his first wife, Marjorie. “As soon as he opened the door, I said, ‘My goodness, that’s the voice.’”

Several years after Marjorie died, he and Barbara married. For the past 25 years, the couple lived on Lake Simcoe, north of Toronto. In retirement, Mr. McLean continued to do voice-over work and played a lot of golf.

He leaves his wife, Barbara; children Sandra, Scott, Garth and step-daughter Tracy; and extended family. He was predeceased by a son, Christopher.

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About the Author

About the Author: Fred has had a full career as a CBC TV host and reporter. He has written countless articles for many renowned publications such as The Economist, The Globe and Mail, BusinessWeek and many more, as well as more than 2000 obituaries. He is also a successfully published author and ghostwriter. His current projects include writing and co-authoring books, as well as lending his talents as a speaker and interviewer for webcasts. .

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