“Writers should champion writers,” the late Denis McGrath told then Toronto Star TV critic Vinay Menon over a decade ago. “Ultimately, we are all in this together.”
Before his battle with pancreatic cancer ended in March 2017 at the age of 48, Denis was a brilliant, beloved screenwriter whose remarkable career of work in our industry spanned genres and galaxies. The Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television is proud to posthumously present Denis McGrath with the Margaret Collier Award.
When he wasn’t writing on television shows like X Company, Aftermath, Continuum, Republic of Doyle, Creeped Out, and many, many more, he was both teaching and preaching the good word on Canadian television. His insights into the writing process were valued by institutions like Ryerson University, his alma mater, and the Canadian Film Centre, of which he was an alumnus and resident.
It was in these writers’ rooms where Denis’ voice was fiercest—and wisest.
“Whether you did or did not like what [he] had to say, you had to respect Denis’ sharp analytical mind and that his was an extremely well informed and outspoken critical voice,” writes the Canadian Film Centre’s Chief Programs Officer Kathryn Emslie, in the CFC’s obituary of McGrath.
“Denis’ commitment to our creative and cultural industries will be greatly missed, and while his creative and professional contributions deserve our recognition and thanks, they do not overshadow his personal contributions,” Emslie adds.
Canadians are fortunate to have had McGrath, who moved from his native New York City to grow up in Toronto, become extremely passionate about the Canadian television industry—including everything he hated about it—and write a wondrously cheeky tell-all: Dead Things ON Sticks, a surviving blog that documented the often lonesome, usually critical lifestyle of a working writer.
Take one entry: “CBC Drama Gets It Right,” posted Friday, January 12th, 2012, where McGrath surveys the network’s latest forays into dramatic television.
“WRITERS LIKE TO complain. That’s our lot. But if you’re of the Canadian lot, you should be taking a closer look at the CBC this January—specifically their drama department. There’s good news there.”
Fortunately for his intimately curious readers—perhaps less fortunately for McGrath—not everything on Dead Things ON Sticks was as positive his post about CBC dramas.
In “There Is Wisdom In Brunch,” posted Thursday, June 24th, 2010, McGrath recalls a conversation about the Canadian television industry: “There will be idiots. Oh yes. They’re everywhere. Oh, the difficulties. The hours spent trying to keep your disbelief in check. What about getting through that? ‘You will survive the network executive who is making your life hell.’”
Indeed, the blog—and especially that post—goes on in witty detail, exploring the good, the bad, and the ugly in writing and Canadian television (one can almost feel the heat emanating from McGrath’s keyboard).
But if Dead Things ON Sticks accomplishes anything today, it’s this: on Monday, August 15th, 2011, McGrath posted “Blog Fallowing Writing Advice for Screenwriters from Sticksville,” a comprehensive index of all McGrath’s posts—a “blogafesto,” he calls it—which outline advice for writers, both career and aspiring, including “The First Draft,” “Being a Freelancer,” “How to Give Notes,” and “How Much Research to Do?”
It’s a staggering resource for any would-be screenwriter to stumble upon, as are, of course, the episodes of television he wrote (which could be studied per their structure in and of themselves). Wherever he is today, though, there’s a profoundly awesome sense of achievement to think his advice could still be read, gleaned, and taken by anyone starting to venture forth in Canadian television.
Written for the Academy by Jake Howell
Illustration designed for the Academy by Kathleen Walsh