Now I want you to do something with me. I want you to search the part of your brain where the most obscure and long lost memories from your childhood are kept. Somewhere tucked between the New Ed Allen Show and the Secret Railroad should be faint visions of scampering talking real-life rodents – rodents sailing boats, driving jeeps, flying bi-planes and searching for sunken ships in a diving bell. Can you find them? Are they there? If, like me, you can clearly see the scampering hamster, mouse and guinea pig I assure you that those memories are not the hallucinations that are caused when you mix Captain Crunch and Apple Jacks together. No, they were real. This was, of course, the production that many former Canadian children may remember as Hammy Hamster. Although probably not the most popular of all Canadian productions, Hammy Hamster, to this day, remains the longest lasting Canadian kids show franchise, even beating out such powerhouses as Mr. Dressup, the Friendly Giant and Polka Dot Door. Produced in three different incarnations on three different networks over a course of a forty year time span, Hammy Hamster and his friends remain in the hearts and minds of the Canadian children that watched them. That’s why memories of Hammy Hamster are rare and special. They don’t belong to everyone. They belong to young Canadian insomniacs who ventured downstairs in the hours before the sun came up. People who remember Hammy Hamster and all his incarnations are a special subculture all their own. They are bonded by being in a certain similar region and age bracket – and not necessarily the same ones. As giant gaps separated each different incarnation of Hammy’s show, the same gaps form in the people that remember him… If you weren’t there you just don’t remember it. I must admit that my memories of Hammy, GP Guinea Pig and Matty Mouse are faint indeed. So why don’t we refresh our memories, and get the rest of the population who don’t know what the hell we’re talking about up to speed, as we journey back to that strange riverbank where the rodents play together as
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
TALES OF THE RIVERBANK:
REDISCOVERING HAMMY HAMSTER
The Hammy Hamster saga began in 1959 when two young Toronto television producers, Paul Sutherland and David Ellison were to come up with a brand new kids show for the CBC. Now in 1959 kids programming was still pretty makeshift and was not yet dependent upon garish animation. Sutherland wanted to produce something that would be both creative, yet quiet and gentle. Thus they came up with an idea for three rodent friends who would all have adventures together along the riverside where they lived. They called it “Tales of the Riverbank”. After a trip to the pet store and putting together a little makeshift studio, Sutherland and Ellison went to work on what would become a two man and three rodent (with a turtle and frog thrown in) production. Sutherland and Ellison wrote all the scripts, performed the animals’ voices, operated the cameras and even wrote the original music used on the program. In order to get the rodents to move their mouths and create the appearance that they were talking, Sutherland and Ellison would put peanut butter on their lips and film them eating it off. They would also bait the critters to move around the little miniature sets by placing food just outside of the camera’s range.
Now I know what most of you are thinking. Just how entertaining can some rodents on a riverbank be? Well the charm lay not in the animals themselves but the props and the sets that they were put in. The animals lived in nifty houses, such as GP’s mill with the water wheel and Hammy’s boot house. The houses were fully furnished with rodent-sized furniture. Then, to make things extra exciting, Sutherland and Ellison would stuff the animals in remote control vehicles – such as motor boats and jeeps and planes and such. Making it even more charming were the animals’ individual personalities. First there was Hammy. Hammy was quiet and a bit naive and was the baby of the cast. His best friend was, in the early years, Roderick mouse. Roderick was nervous and cautious but the responsible one of the trio. Finally was GP Guinea Pig, the show stealer. GP was the real star of the show. Eccentric, vain and adventurous, GP’s inventions and ideas were most often responsible for the plot developments of each episode. The other animals on the show included a turtle, the wise old frog and Granny Rabbit. However, the stories always revolved around the trinity of rodents.
The original series of “Tales From of Riverbank” which showed for fifteen minutes each morning on CBC, ran until 1963. However, although the CBC pulled the plug on the series, it also managed to sell it to a number of overseas markets, most notably the BBC. There, the show proved to be just as popular with British kids as with Canadian ones. It was due to its popularity in England that the BBC approached Sutherland and Ellison to revive the series for them in 1972. Ellison went to the UK to oversee the project while Sutherland, once again, provided the voices for Hammy and friends although he recorded the voices from Canada. Another voice actor, Johnny Morris, best known for the British kid shows “Animal Magic” and “The Railway Stories” was added as the new narrator of the series.
Now facing the competition of flashy cartoons, garish advertising and merchandising the pressure on the “Tales of the Riverbank” team was really mounting. This pressure forced the writers to be more creative in their storytelling. Expanding the series to a half an hour in length, producing it in colour and purchasing the occasional rodent as an extra, the producers also often placed their characters in hats or other pieces of clothing in attempts to make the show more interesting. The producers also developed the addition of the wonderful diving bell! Invented by GP, the diving bell was a device that would bring Hammy and “Matty” Mouse (the name Roderick, for the sake of alliteration, was dropped) for underwater exploration. In a memorable series of episodes, they told the story of how Hammy and his friends’ ancestors first came to the riverbank through the wreckage of an old ship which they found with the help of the diving bell. It was also during the 1970s’ series that the show began to become serialized, something that was still rarely done in children’s programming. Now the serialization wasn’t strict. Each episode could be watched separately. However, at the end of every episode Johnny Morris would begin to elude to another event that happened after the conclusion of the day’s adventure but would leave the audience dangling with, “but that’s another story…” The next day the story Morris eluded to would air, creating a sense of continuation. At the time, this trend of continuation was a very novel idea in children’s television.
The 1972 version of “Tales of the Riverbank” lasted until 1976 but remained in reruns into the early 1980s – and thanks to the BBC’s excellent exportation department Hammy was watched by kids in nearly thirty different countries. In Canada, Global television picked up the new adventures of the little critter, which is where I, along with most of the people I know, watched the show. It was this run of the series that made Hammy Hamster the cult classic which it became. However there was one country that still wasn’t buying into Hammy’s gentle nature. That was, of course, the violence obsessed United States who still believed that if an anvil wasn’t dropping on the animated hero’s head it wasn’t children’s entertainment. This, however, would change over twenty years later.
In 1996 Hammy was born once again. This time Toronto-based children’s television station YTV approached Sutherland and Ellison to revive their band of twitchy animal friends. Changing the title from “Tales of the Riverbank” to “Once Upon a Hamster”. Sutherland and Ellison kept most of the basic concepts of the past two incarnations of Hammy. However, for a variety of reasons the show just wasn’t as popular as the original two series. One of the reasons was that an increased budget for the series made it much more slick – it lost all the quaintness it had in the days of the shoestring budget, and it was often that charm that made people such fans of the series. They also hired more than just one voice actor this time. While Sutherland still voiced Hammy, they had other actors voicing the other characters. They also, changed the mouse yet again. This time, instead of Matty being Hammy’s best friend, it was a more motherly Martha Mouse. The most blasphemous change, however, was that for the first time in the riverbank’s history they added a human! A creepy old guy, referred to as “the Storyman”, appeared at the beginning and end of each episode to welcome children to the show and he would, from there, narrate the show. The addition of a human on the series sort of destroyed a bit of the magic that the original series held. Original Hammy fans weren’t enthusiastic about the show, and for the Ritalin-addicted tots who had been reduced to brain-addled sponges due to years of Barney’s drivel and Elmo’s blathering, they just didn’t have the attention span for some clever rodents. However “Once Upon a Hamster” became a hit in the US with the most unlikely audience. Aired late at night on “Animal Plant” Hammy and his friends became icons of stoner culture with people all over the US getting high and watching the adventures of Hammy, Martha and GP. Sort of destroys the innocence of the series, doesn’t it? It was during this incarnation that Six Feet Under producer Alan Ball saw the series and even incorporated a scene into the HBO series, immortalizing Hammy forever (although, to set the record straight, the scene involved GP riding in his jeep). Anyhow, in 1998 Sutherland and Ellison finally retired the series. Thus the final page was turned on Hammy.
However Hammy’s strange tale doesn’t quite end there. In 2004 Hammy earned his own spot on Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto, “For honourable service in the field of children’s entertainment and for giving buck-toothed rodents a voice,” proving that even those who are quiet, small and gentle can earn their place in pop culture forever. Yet Hammy isn’t a character that you’re going to ever see on DVD or find in a book of at a thrift store. Hammy Hamster was a true example of grassroots children’s entertainment by creative people who wanted a decent production, not a slew of merchandising. If you’re one of the blessed that remember the show cherish those memories. It could be all you possess of Hammy’s gentle lessons. However, Hammy’s example didn’t help in preventing GP’s drug-trafficking charge, Matty’s sex change operation nor the sinister reason that the Storyman was hiding down at the Riverbank… but that’s another story…