How I Got Here: Ed Sanders

Queue the music, roll the film... Ed Sanders' life has scenes that could be right out of the movies, with Noel Coward playing a supporting role

Let it be said that Ed Sanders has had an extraordinary life. 

There’s a childhood that starts in a house with servants, middles with the emotional penury of convent life and ends at an orphanage where Noel Coward was a frequent table tennis opponent and Marlene Dietrich gave young Ed an ego-withering stare.

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Early manhood was spent at sea, travelling to exotic places on a passenger ship where, on board, the women swooned at the sight of the crew dressed navy whites and, on land, women gathered at the port to welcome the arriving sailors with enthusiasm.

When, at 24, that life was getting a bit stale, he landed in Toronto as an actor and then a producer and writer in CBC television’s heyday. With the show This Land, he essentially got to write his own ticket for a life of adventure, whether documenting a cargo ship as it made its rounds to Newfoundland outports, hot air ballooning in New Mexico or training in the Rockies with the first Canadian team to scale Mount Everest.

There was a scene change when he moved to Vancouver to work on The Beachcombers, partying under the radar of the CBC execs who’d only occasionally fly in to see how things were going in Gibsons. And then the introduction to Bowen Island, a place which made him say, “This is it. This is where I want to be.”

All of this is not immediately obvious when you sit down for a visit at his Bowen Court apartment. The simplicity of his present-day life is deceptive.

So, to start this How I Got Here it’s best to go back to his origin story: his birth in a tiny town called Strawberry Hill just outside of London, England in 1937.

His father, who earned a substantial living managing a chain of grocery stores, was also a talented artist and playwright. When he fell in love with Ed’s mother, there was a hitch: his wife wouldn’t grant him a divorce. Ed, and his brother, were by legal definition bastards but the term didn’t bother Ed.

“We lived quite sumptuously, with a chauffeur, nanny and gardener,” he says.

If this was a movie, queue the music that portends an end to this idyllic life. When Ed was four, his father died of pneumonia, intestate, leaving Ed’s mother with few legal recourses to his wealth. The business went to his partners, the bank accounts went to his wife and the house and its onerous responsibilities were given to Ed’s mother. She not only had to sell everything, she also had to start earning a living.

 

Get thee to a nunnery

While she went off to become an actress, she put Ed and his younger brother in a convent. “Now that was traumatic,” Ed says. “They were euphemistically called the Sisters of Mercy but they were anything but merciful.” The long leather belt used for punishing children was frayed at the end from heavy use.

True mercy arrived in the form of Noel Coward when Ed was 11. The British writer had got together with some friends to buy an Edwardian mansion near Surrey and turn it into the Silverlands orphanage for actors’ children. 

“It was heaven,” Ed says. “All the rooms were magnificent, although we ruined half of them.”

The property was somewhat self-sustaining and all of the children were given chores — bringing in coal, tilling the massive potato patch, taking care of the pigs. Ed was mucking out the pigsty when Coward dropped by during a tour of the property with Marlene Dietrich. On the plus side of memories, Dietrich was marvellously and impeccably dressed. On the down side, she took one look at Ed, turned away and made a disdainful comment to Coward about that ‘disgusting boy.’

“It was very hurtful,” Ed concedes, “but having been used to a few hard knocks I got over it, as they say, in a trice.”

Coward, on the other hand, provided nothing but good memories. “He spoke in a very clipped, English accent and he was fond of his words. He was outrageously gay but he never posed a hint of that to the kids… It was just after the war and he was very lavish. He smoked only a few puffs of each cigarette and threw it away. Us kids would pounce on what was left and go to our camp that we’d built and smoke.”

To raise money for the orphanage, Coward and his friends would host Theatre Under the Stars or Circus Under the Stars and the children were invited to perform. Since one of their teachers was an Olympic gymnast whom the children adored, it was quite a production, complete with animals and free-form floor exercises. “It was thrilling.” 

Ed’s younger brother was “incredibly intelligent” so he was sent to a different school. The brother, now 77, got a job early on at a field studies centre in rural Wales and still lives in the stone cottage today. “He became a character in the village — he’d wear a cloak and had a long beard.”

“All in all,” Ed says of his years at Silverlands, “it was a very good time but we had to work hard to keep it going. We all loved each other.”

 

A life at sea

In those years, young men in England had to spend 18 months with the National Service, something that 17-year-old Ed didn’t relish, so he signed up with the Merchant Navy and ended up liking it so much he stayed for eight years. “It was a wonderful period in my life.”

He started as a seaman on cargo ships but then signed up for passenger ships and was appointed as a quartermaster, tasked with steering the ship. After falling asleep at the wheel and sending the ship way off course, he was quickly demoted. The captain told him, “You’re such a clown you might as well entertain the passengers.”

It wasn’t only the passengers who found him entertaining, especially when the temperature turned 70° F and the crew changed into their handsome white uniforms. “Whenever these big ships came into port, there was a phalanx of girls waiting for us at the dock. The downside was their boyfriends were there, too…

“In Australia, the ship came into Melbourne, where I had a girlfriend. As I looked over the railing, waving to her, right behind her was my girlfriend from Sydney. I went down and faced the music.

“There are,” he says with a smile, “complications in deception.”

At 24, he felt in a bit of a rut. For all its charms, was this a job to age into? 

A passenger talked him into moving to Toronto. “I’d been — truthfully — impressed with Canadian people,” Ed says. “They were the most gentle, polite people and they had a genuine openness and love.”

It was 1961 and, like his mother, Ed decided to become an actor. He did a lot of amateur theatre, as well as with Toronto Workshop Productions. Designed to be theatre for the masses, it was housed in an old factory in a working-class neighbourhood. The irony was that after work, most factory workers wanted to go home so the seats were filled by people from the tony Rosedale district who got a frisson of excitement from slumming it.

He eventually joined the nascent CBC and progressed quite rapidly, becoming a producer and writer. “We’d write our own script, grab a crew, pick out a location, shoot the film and edit it. There was total freedom.”

A son was born during this era of his life; that son is now a professor at U of T.

 

From Beachcombers to Bowen

Too much paperwork dulled his enthusiasm for running the film department so he quit and became the post-production producer for the Beachcombers. “It was fun; it was crazy. The CBC was the training ground for the film industry in Vancouver and the parties, of course, were unbelievable. When they did the actual shooting in Gibsons, we were separated from the authorities in Vancouver.”

Ed was living with a story editor on the show in Vancouver when another story editor invited them to Bowen Island. “As soon as I saw it, I thought ‘I’ve just got to live here.’ Bowen fitted me like a glove. I was so enthralled. I’d been to sea but never had the chance to live with the sea at my doorstep — the mountains, the seeming seclusion of island life. I said to my girlfriend, ‘We’ve got to buy some land.’ 

“She wasn’t enthusiastic at all.”

Girlfriend or not, Ed started building a house in Eaglecliff in 1989, the winter of the massive storm that toppled 13 trees on his property and shutting down the power for three weeks. “If this was a warning that I shouldn’t be here, I ignored it.”

Turning down the volume on what his rational self says is a habit of his. “I just drifted along from one experience to another. My heart leads all the time. I don’t listen to my head. That’s where I am where I am — ‘Shut up, Ed.’”

Moving to Bowen was a big change in gears, and drop in income, with no regrets. “At the time I was earning quite a bit of money and now I live on a government pension. But I’m happy because I find I don’t need things.” 

Too often people can strive to “get there” in their career, or life, only to find there’s no there there. As long as Bowen has a pub — and for Ed there’s a much worn corner seat at The Pub — his needs are met.

“I don’t need excitement; I’ve had my fill,” he says.

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