Canadian TV, Part 1: The Good

Moo-hoo Ha-ha!In spite of living next to the U.S. during the development of TV and our easy exposure to the diverse programs broadcast on ABC, CBS, NBC, and the defunct Dumont network, on its own, Canada hasn’t produced that much original programming since the fifties, and so little of those early works have been seen since their original broadcast. (Attention CBC: Where the heck is Wojeck?)

Even today, it’s still a costly venture for Canadian networks and specialty channels to develop shows, which is why we kind of fostered co-productions, or made shows packaged with familiar elements for easier sales south of the border. This was particularly true during the eighties and early nineties when out boob tube contributions included fine fodder like Sweating Bullets / aka Tropical Heat (starring Painkiller Jane’s Rob Stewart, with a curvy ponytail).

When I was a kid, the only Canadian shows I recall watching were The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, Rocket Robin Hood and The Amazing Spider-Man, The Friendly Giant (27 years on the air!), The Polka Dot Door, The Starlost, and The Trouble with Tracy. The Swiss Family Robinson. Adventures in Rainbow Country. Forest Rangers. The Beachcomers. King of Kensington.

Now, if you grew up during the seventies, those names will immediately evoke a set of very unique reactions. Frightenstein was that weird kids show with Vincent Price, a catchy title credit sequence, and some familiar characters: Dracula, Igor, and the Wolfman. Robin Hood and Spider-Man were animated el cheapo but trippy Ralph Bakshi productions.

Friendly Giant was an adorable CBC show with a friendly giant who read stories (“Look up… Look waaaaay up!”). Polka Dot Door was a long-running TVO series (TVO being Ontario’s equivalent to PBS). The Starlost was a terrible sci-fi adventure series starring Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey, Black Christmas). Tracy was a neon-dyed sitcom adapted from ancient (and very bad) fifties radio show scripts.

Swiss Family (which co-starred Friday the 13th: The Series’ Chris Wiggins) was a surprisingly action-oriented show with a Gilligan’s Island hook, wherein each episode sometimes brought the family close to returning home to the land of Toblerone before something always fell through.

Rainbow Country had a family and friends (headed by Jame Bond’s Lois Maxwell) living through cottage country dramas. Forest Rangers had ethnically diverse kids and adults learning moral lessons amid forest funnery. Beachcomers had lots of boats on water and slapstick humour. And Kensington had a laugh track.

Those are the details that I remember having prior to seeing some of those shows again as an adult, but that eclectic mix is what I watched, in terms of almost pure Can-Con (look it up).

MIA from the above list, now that I think about it, is Bruno (Beachcomers) Gerussi’s cooking show, Celebrity Cooks, Guess What? (hosted by Jan Rubes), Science International (‘with Joseph Campanella, and Tiiu Leek’), Definition (which used the now-famous Austin Power’s theme music, and the grand prize was a GE toaster) and the Joyce Davidson Show (whose guest list included Vincent Price. The theme music was derived from Lalo Schifrin’s Black Widow album. Thirty years, but I found the source!)

Here’s the thing about growing up Canuckle: even as a child, you just knew some of the shows you were watching were 'qualitatively lacking.' Tracy’s soundtrack was bleached with a laugh track, and the Starlost characters were always running through chunky styrofoam sets. Even at an age less than ten, I knew these shows sucked, BUT they were strangely hypnotic.

DVD has slowly brought forth some of the good, the bad, and the ugly shows from several generations’ collective childhood, of which The Hilarious House of Frightenstein is a biggie, and a goodie.

The first 3-disc set sporting 12 episodes had previously been released by Critical Mass through Alliance Atlantis, but with the former label now being distributed through Anchor Bay/Starz, Vol. 2, dubbed “Gory Gory Transylvania,” brings out 9 more episodes, each around 48 mins. (including the necessary Wolfman psychedelic dances).

Have no idea what I’m talking about?

Not a problem. Just click HERE for the review, where I hope I give an easy intro into a series, as well as its talented star, the great Billy Van, who played the bulk of the show’s memorable characters.

Van passed away in 2003, but his final interview appeared in Rue Morgue (issue #62), something you might want to track down after checking out the review, the fan sites, and the YouTube clips to give novices an idea of why this show really deserves an ongoing DVD release schedule.

Frightenstein is clearly the Good, which in turn will be followed by the Bad: The Starlost. (I’m still working on a suitable Ugly, but I’ve a great contender for a rude and provocative home-produced series that drove conservative watchers crazy in the eighties.)

I do have one wish, though, for the folks at Critical Mass: now that you’ve started to tackle a beloved classic produced by Hamilton’s old CHCH (Channel 11), how about the station's Strange Paradise? You know, the bizarro occult series from 1969 with psychedelic acting *and* colourful visuals. No actors ever chewed up so much plywood scenery with such hilarity. It’s 195 half-hour episodes, which can translate to roughly 5 DVD volumes sporting around 40 episodes apiece. Or maybe it’s just too risky?




Anonymous said...

I remember Billy Van as a regular on the very groovy Party Game. And how about Seeing Things? Degrassi? And some of the City TV talk shows, like You're Beautiful (with Micki Moore) and City Lights with Brian Linehan. And what about the infamous 20 Minute Workout? Good times!

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