Tales From the Riverbank: Rediscovering Hammy Hamster

Canadas strangest television icon, Hammy Hamster

Canada's strangest television icon, Hammy Hamster

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

Paul Sutherland and David Ellison and the Tales From the Riverbank Team film Hammys adventures in a ballon!

Paul Sutherland and David Ellison and the "Tales From the Riverbank Team" film Hammy's adventures in a ballon!

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.

Hammy and Roderik consult the wise old frog from Hammys motorboat.

Hammy and Roderik consult the wise old frog from Hammy's motorboat.

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.

Hammy, GP and Matty outside GPs water whell home in the 1972 British revival of Tales From the Riverside

Hammy, GP and Matty outside GP's water whell home in the 1972 British revival of "Tales From the Riverbank"

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.

Roderik Mouse obviously faced an indentity crisis.  Throughout the years he would be known as Roderik, Matty and Martha.

Roderik Mouse obviously faced an indentity crisis. Throughout the years he would be known as Roderik, Matty and Martha.

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.

GP and his jeep.  Adventerous and erradict, GP was the shows scene stealer

GP and his jeep. Adventerous and erradict, GP was the show's scene stealer

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.

Hammy is reborn in 1996s Once Upon a Hamster and not only becomes a cult figure for drug users, but GP makes an appearnace on HBOs Six Feet Under

Hammy is reborn in 1996's "Once Upon a Hamster" and not only becomes a cult figure for drug users, but GP makes an appearnace on HBO's "Six Feet Under"

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.

In 2004 Hammy Hamster joined the likes of Louie B Meyer, Jack Warner, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young by recieving his own spot on the Canadian Walk of Fame

In 2004 Hammy Hamster joined the likes of Louie B Meyer, Jack Warner, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young by recieving his own spot on the Canadian Walk of Fame

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…

  1. Mary-Lynne’s avatar

    I loved Hammy too. :)

  2. Dave Ellison’s avatar

    As creater of this series I find this item interesting but wrong on nearly all the ‘facts’. CBC were not the first to buy the series nore did they sell it world wide. BBC in London was our first sale. ABC in Australia followed. Canada didn’t take the series for some time and then it was CTV not CBC who aired it. Books, comic strips, Videos and DVDs have been and still are on the market. They have been since the very begining. Publishers Rupert Hart Davis put the first book out in1960 and many others have followed. I have not retired the series. The current series ‘Further Tales of the Riverbank’ is still around and I am in the middle of writing the next 26 scripts for filming in the near future. ‘Hammy’ is 50 this year. But that’s another story.

  3. Zeta’s avatar

    Goodness! Um, funny that we aren’t going to see a DVD of this show: meanwhile I found this article while PLAYING a DVD of it. I must be one of the odd ones because I don’t find The Storyman (played by Paul Sutherland) creepy. I’d love to find more DVDs of it. However I definitely find resonance with “violence obsessed United States”. Pretty much. No one notices it either, if you say “I can’t take all that tension.” they respond with “Huh? What tension? It’s just a flick.”

    Hammy Hamster likens to the Cosgrove animation of Wind In The Willows from the early 1980s. Hopefully VHS players will keep b/c beyond this dvd are my three videos of all that aired on Animal Planet at 3am, which doesn’t include a number of episodes. You can also tell when the boats and cars go rough the only thing in them are fluffy dolls. Wonderfully gentle show.

  4. Jacki’s avatar

    “..but that’s.. another story” Ah, I remember it well. We’re watching some “Once Upon a Hamster” as I type and my 3 year-old just loves it. I hope to find some of the 70s episodes of Tales from the Riverbank. :)

  5. Anna’s avatar

    So how can I get my hands on the colour Canadian episodes? Matty – not roderick. I would love to have them on DVD.

  6. Marco’s avatar

    I agree with Anna. I would love a copy of the Canadian episodes with Matty mouse. I’d pay a lot to hear the narrator’s voice again. There’s lots of the british versions on youtube but none of the canadian ones. Please contact me if you do have copies (quickstepper1@hotmail.com)

  7. Tracey’s avatar

    Someone else must’ve done the voices as I remembered GP’s-voice was loud and excitable..like W.C Fields. Hammy sounded a little nervous. I would like to see some originals..not the one with the British accent…they all sound the same.

  8. Ken in Korea’s avatar

    I happen to have some cassette recordings I made of the Canadian show off CBC in 1980. Here they are at http://keneckert.com/other/hammy/Hammy-hamster-1980-1.mp3 and http://keneckert.com/other/hammy/Hammy-hamster-1980-2.mp3. Download link at http://keneckert.com/other/hammy/Hammy-hamster-1980.zip. If my server complains I may have to take them down, but until then enjoy!

  9. L8dybug’s avatar

    L8dybug loves HAMMY!

    My little hamster “mini” was HAMMY’s secret
    Lover.

  10. hammy hampson’s avatar

    I can not stand the english version . I have one show from Canada on vhs and i will treasure it Why on earth can’t we get the old ones. Some selfish moron from cbc sold the rights to the old ones. goodbye for good to the canadian hammy and friends

  11. Gerald Hampson’s avatar

    I agree the british version of Hammy Hamster is terrible . I well remember Paul sutherlands pleasant voice, and the animals voices. I too have one copy of one show on vhs . I treasure it That’s what you get when you hire new managers. They are not worth their eight in salt. I’m hopping for a miracle aand maybe we will get some originals

  12. Gerald Hampson’s avatar

    I too don’t like british version , and I miss the old Hammy and GP very much

  13. Richard’s avatar

    Where is hammy? I want to touch him! This article was pretty good, by the way.

  14. Liz Gower’s avatar

    Just found this brilliant site http://www.furthertalesoftheriverbank.com where there is loads of news,photo’s and the latest DVD for Hammy addicts

  15. Marco’s avatar

    To Hammy Hampson, Gerald Hampson and anyone else for that matter… If you have a copy of a Canadian version I would love it if I could get a copy from you. Willing to pay. Please contact me at quickstepper1@hotmail.com.
    Posted before but haven’t heard from anyone.

    Thanks so much.
    Marco

  16. The Balls’s avatar

    To Dave Ellison: I used to watch the Canadian version of this series as a boy in the mid-70′s. I cannot seem to find any of these online or anywhere else. Why not put all of these Canadian originals on a DVD, manufacture 10,000 or so and sell them to people like me — surely there are enough of us. At $25 + shipping, it is an easy quarter of a million for yourself.

  17. Dan Cormack’s avatar

    I’d like to toss my support in for a DVD release of the original Canadian release. I watched this show as a kid every morning and I loved it. I would be thrilled to share these shows with my kids today (and I would watch them quite a bit as well). I would gladly pay for these shows..

  18. B. Fitzgibbon’s avatar

    Out here in New Zealand we had Hammy on the old BCNZ at 4PM on weekdays. It was the Canadian voiceover for what sounds like the second incarnation of the world’s best hamster. This means we skipped the British version, unusual for NZ. Mind you, we got the South African dub of “Kimba The White Lion”, but that’s another story…

  19. Dana’s avatar

    I lived in NW Montana and my brother and I watched it all the time on the Canadian tv station we got. My brother passed away 6 weeks ago and I would love to find the Canadian version for his young children to watch–and me too.

  20. Liz Gower’s avatar

    The first nine episodes of the last series with Johnny Morris have been released on DVD,go to the web page for Further Tales of the Riverbank ,I did and there’s so much about the series.

  21. kubbingj’s avatar

    I really don’t know which version/series we watched, I don’t remember a human, at all, but I do remember Hammy, a mouse, GP, the turtle, the raft, the jeep, and the boat. My daughter was little and I ran a home daycare. This was one of the few children’s shows that I loved. As a result of this show we had three Hammys in total. Our first living for over 2 yrs. This was and will continue to be one of the nicest children’s shows ever made. I don’t care if it was made here or overseas..it was a nice show, plain and simple. Kudos to the creators, critters, etc. Wonderful.

  22. Ann campbell’s avatar

    Thank you for such a wonderfull comment and sharing your memories,I will pass them onto David Ellison.It was because so many have happy childhood memories of the series that I decided to help David put the series onto DVD so that a new generation can enjoy it,and the older ones re live watching it.So far we have two DVD’s with a third to follow and our web page,a good and worthwhile OAP project.

  23. Cindy Allaer’s avatar

    So does anyone know where one could purchase the Canadian version of Hammy the Hamster and the Tales of the Riverbank?

  24. Ann Campbell’s avatar

    The Canadian series is no longer produced but some DVD’s can be found on Amazon or Ebay

  25. janice mcstea’s avatar

    LOve Hammy and had all the UK shows on VHS. So happy to see they are now on DVD and just ordered from Amazon. Love the innocence of each episode and looking forward to reliving my childhood. However, according to Wikepedia, all the rodents used in the filming of the very foirst black and white series were released into the wild afterwards. I now this is a long time ago now but it still disgusts and saddens me. Who would release a domestic pet into the wild like that. Too sad to watch my old VHS now, knowing what happened to poor Hammy and co :-(

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