TV's 'Turn' shows another side of Canuck historical figure John Graves Simcoe

Matthew Romanada / The Canadian Press
June 4, 2014 03:00 AM

Actor Samuel Roukin, who plays John Graves Simcoe on AMC's "Turn" attends the show's premiere on March 24, 2014 in Washington, D.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Paul Morigi/Invision

TORONTO - Actor Samuel Roukin — who plays John Graves Simcoe on AMC's "Turn" — says he's captivated by characters who have two distinct personas.

On the historical drama set during the American Revolution, Simcoe is the bad guy. But in Canada, Simcoe — the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada — is remembered as the man who helped grow a fledgling colony and now has a provincial holiday (Simcoe Day) named after him.

"It is fascinating when there is a reverence for a man and yet there are negative stories about him," said Samuel Roukin, the British actor who portrays Simcoe on "Turn," which has its Season One finale Sunday.

Canadian history professor Francoise Noel, who teaches a course on Upper Canada history at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont., hypothesized that the negative view from Americans about Simcoe was in part because of his success as a military officer during the Revolution.

Noel says that in Ontario, Simcoe is remembered for helping to take a sparsely populated colony and put it on the road to the thriving province Ontario would eventually become.

"His positive legacies including moving the capital to York (later renamed Toronto), building Yonge Street and Dundas Street to help grow the transportation infrastructure," she said.

He is also credited with the Late Loyalist movement, which was the migration of Americans to Upper Canada after the end of the American Revolution. It does not seem that Simcoe held any grudges against the rebels.

"He opened Upper Canada to Americans," Noel said. "He saw Americans as good subjects."

Craig Silverstein, the creator and showrunner for "Turn," admits that his show isn't historically accurate — and says it isn't trying to be.

"You take your cue from history and then you try to leave it behind and invent," he said.

Silverstein didn't know about Simcoe prior to reading the book "Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring" by Alexander Rose, upon which the show is based. Simcoe is mentioned in that book as someone who had a rivalry of sorts with Abraham Woodhull, who is the protagonist in "Turn," played by Jamie Bell.

Silverstein says that in the original pilot for "Turn," Simcoe died at the end of the episode, but Roukin's portrayal forced the producers to rethink that decision.

"We needed someone that kind of fit the mould of scary and brutal," he said.

In preparation for the role, Roukin did quite a bit of research, including reading Simcoe's war journals.

"He was arguably a real romantic," Roukin said. "He wrote a lot of poetry." This includes being credited with the first Valentine's Day letter in history.

"You can infuse this information into the role," Roukin said, adding that at some point you need to stop doing research. "There really is a point where the script becomes your primary source."

During the American Revolution, Simcoe rose from lieutenant to lieutenant-colonel by the end of the war. Born in Cotterstock, England in 1752 to a father who was British naval captain, Simcoe was educated at the prestigious boarding school Eton College — where Prince William and Prince Harry would attend a couple of centuries later — and Oxford before joining the military.

Noel points out that during his time in Upper Canada, Simcoe and his wife Elizabeth are remembered for bringing the British aristocratic system to the backwaters of Upper Canada.

His support of, and belief, in the British system has resulted in some criticisms of Simcoe. Noel said that historians often negatively portray Simcoe's use of patronage, though common at the time, during his stint as lieutenant-governor. Some go so far as to connect it to the Family Compact that would control Upper Canada's politics during the early 19th Century.

Roukin says that he used the historical Simcoe to form the backbone of the fictional counterpart.

"He has really firm set of morals and beliefs in the (British) Empire and in the way that people should behave," he said, adding that Simcoe the character doesn't believe he is going around being the bad guy.

"He believes that he is going around behaving in an honourable way and dishing out punishment that completely fits the crime," he said. "It's just that rest of the world doesn't always agree with him."

On "Turn," Simcoe often comes across as a bit of bully with a potential sadistic and vengeful side to him, while his behaviour towards women is less romantic and more lecherous.

Silverstein is intrigued by how Simcoe goes from where he is during the war to the man Canadians remember him as. But he adds that people should not expect to see that Simcoe anytime soon, rather quite the opposite.

"He is heading along the path that history intended, which is taking over the Queen's Rangers," Silverstein said.

During Simcoe's time as the leader of The Queen's Rangers, a light infantry unit, he earned the reputation as a one of the top British commanders during the war and the ire of Americans for what some would describe as brutal tactics. One incident that Roukin read about included the beating of Abraham Woodhull's father just to send the American a message.

"If that is something that made it into the history books, than what didn't?" Roukin asks.

As for this Sunday, Silverstein teased that, "Simcoe is unleashed in the finale."


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