And there is another charm about him, namely, that he puts animals in a pleasing light and makes them interesting to mankind. For after being brought up from childhood with these stories, and after being as it were nursed by them from babyhood, we acquire certain opinions of the several animals and think of some of them as royal animals, of others as silly, of others as witty, and others as innocent.1Being an anthropomorphizer to the nth degree, I firmly believe that animals talk to each other – not just about where one can find food or shelter, but things like, “How’s yer day?” “What’s up with Muffy’s fur?” “Dude, you got any more of that fermented grain?” etc. So of course I am enraptured with Tales of the Riverbank. In this gem of a children’s show, Saturday morning early-risers were allowed an exclusive look into the daily lives of Hammy Hamster, G.P. Guinea Pig, Roderick the Water Rat and the other woodland creatures. Kids laughed and sighed as they enjoyed the triumphs and endured the trials life on the riverbank. Our Riverbank friends fit firmly into the groundwork laid by Mr. Ed vis à vis talking animals, but this time the action is decidedly human-free. I can only imagine the herds of animal lovers who answered the riverbank’s call of the wild on Saturday mornings. Hammy taught several generations of children that small creatures had a lot to say and that perhaps we all have a lot to learn from those who see from a different vantage point.
A bit of history before returning to our regularly scheduled program: Tales of the Riverbank was the 1959 brainchild of David Ellison and Paul Sutherland, Canadians extraordinaire. Strangely enough, the CBC claimed it had no place for talking animals at that time, so the show traveled to the other side of the pond, -- er, riverbank -- to find an audience. In 1960, the original Tales of the Riverbank ran for 13 episodes on the BBC in black and white. It was revamped in color several times in over 30 countries under various names [Hammy Hamster’s Adventures on the Riverbank (1972), Further Tales of the Riverbank (1992), Once Upon a Hamster (1995) et al.].
My favorite of the three episodes in this collection is “The Drought,” which begins like a mini version of Disney’s 2007 sob-fest, Earth. Hammy laments and (wielding a pencil in his little paw) writes: “Dear Diary, the trees and plants are dyin’ of thirst. If it doesn’t rain soon, I don’t know what the riverbank animals will do.” Our narrator continues, “Without rain there aren’t any juicy slugs for hedgehog to eat! And without rain, the river is too low for anyone to use their boats for fishing…” Wait – WHAT? In what world do the same hedgehogs who eat slugs also captain boats? What kind of nature show is this? And wasn’t that hamster just writing in a DIARY WITH A QUILL PEN?2
Rest assured, dear reader, you are not seeing things. Herein lie the true delights of Tales of the Riverbank. To begin with, the animals appear to talk in sync with the voice-overs, all done by Johnny Morris. This savvy film special effect was no special effect at all – Ellison and Sutherland simply filmed the animals working their mouths around peanut butter to simulate speaking. Apparently, episodes were filmed at double-speed so playback could slow down the animal action. And all of the action on Tales is “real,” by which I mean they actually dress the animals in bonnets, somehow have them hold objects, pour water over their heads when it’s raining, and even place the unfortunate creatures in various vehicles: Hammy and friends fly planes, drive cars, and steer sea vessels.
Apart from these bits of unsavory treatment of small rodents, Riverbank is unabashedly wholesome, and you can find glimmers reminiscent of lessons like Aesop’s throughout the episodes. In “The Drought,” the animals seek out Betty the Skunk who can do some sort of spell to call forth the rain. But alas, be careful what you wish for… and in a flash-flood, the community is awash in disaster: water, water, everywhere. “Oh, just look at the mess!,” exclaims Roderick.3 But ultimately, the riverbank returns to a lush green and along with the adorable Hammy, we all learn something: Just how much to ask for.
I know you’ll be as surprised as I was to learn that the only official credit Hammy has received is a place on the Alternate Canadian Walk of Fame: “for honorable service in the field of children’s entertainment and for giving buck-toothed rodents a voice.”4 I vote that he be awarded a place on the actual Canadian Walk of Fame. Robert Goulet has one. Surely, that’s not too much to ask for? In the meantime, watch, enjoy, and remember that a little goes a long way, just like Hammy the Hamster.
1 In re: Aesop; from Apollonius of Tyana by Flavius Philostratus, ~200 C.E.
2 Intriguingly, Hammy is left-handed.
3 Do make sure to pause your browser on the hilarious scene wherein the animals climb around on the roofs of their now underwater houses. How Ellison, who is listed as “animal trainer” in the credits managed that, I have no idea. Hamsters, guinea pigs and rats do not, as a rule, seek out deep water.
Kristen Vagliardo is a Central Square girl who works at a museum and used to write lots of incredibly boring papers on obscure topics. She enjoys the Egyptian Revival, refusing to buy music from itunes (thus filling her apartment with needless CD detritus) and quoting from eighties movies that no one else recognizes. You can find her on Twitter at vagliard.