Ask anybody around the world about long-running TV shows and titles like The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, CSI, Law and Order, M*A*S*H, General Hospital, Coronation Street, Doctor Who and perhaps even Gunsmoke might come up.
Ask a Canadian and, given its years of CBC airtime, you might hear Coronation Street as well, along with home-grown stalwarts like The Fifth Estate, W5, Hockey Night In Canada, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and the various incarnations of the Degrassi franchise.
Ask any Canadian born before 1985, however, and your likeliest answer is The Beachcombers.
CBC launched the adventures of British Columbia log-hauler Nick Adonidas, crotchety Relic and sweet-as-pie diner owner Molly on October 1, 1972 – six days after I made my own debut. The 387th and final episode of The Beachcombers aired over 18 years later, on December 12, 1990.
Not much changed among the fictional residents of Gibsons, B.C. during that period. In 1986, a parody of TV Guide running in The Complete Cynic’s Guide to Canadian Humour listed the action for that week’s episode of “The Beach Cronies” as the following: “Nick breaks up an illegal salvage operation; Constable John falls down and hurts himself; Relic forgets to shave. (Repeat)”
The Beachcombers was one of those shows that cool, urbane Canadians refused to admit they watched, much like The Dukes of Hazard in the States. There’s a wonderful early-‘90s radio sketch by the Montreal comedy group Radio Free Vestibule (later known simply as The Vestibules) in which two characters start a conversation by dissing The Beachcombers, slowly come to admit they watched a few episodes, excitedly start naming their favourite characters, and are then suckered into joining a Beachcombers rehab centre by calling a phony “Beachcombers Fan Hotline.”
Despite the best efforts of Beachcombers backers, including two odd little CBC TV-movies designed as pilots for a series reboot (with no Nick, Relic or Molly but new actors and characters including, of all people, SCTV alumnus Dave Thomas), the series seemed confined to the dustbins of Canadian TV history by the time the 2000’s rolled around. Playing a Canadian trivia game (called, appropriately enough, Canadian Trivia) with some friends of my wife-to-be in early 2008, I died a little inside when a Beachcombers question came up and a woman in her early twenties asked, in all sincerity, “What’s The Beachcombers?”
Which is a shame for me, because even though I didn’t watch The Beachcombers religiously, I watched it regularly, right up to its final years on the air. Even though I was living on the opposite end of the country, there was something real about the action that unfolded on the waters off Gibson, B.C. every week. It wasn’t the Duke Boys burning rubber to escape Sheriff Roscoe, or David Hasselhoff talking to his car, or Magnum, P.I. getting the girl every week.
Even with the comic relief injected by the likes of half-villain, half-hero Relic (played with aplomb by versatile stage actor and Royal Canadian Air Force veteran Robert Clothier) or the loveable klutziness of Constable John Constable (portrayed by one of the show’s MVPs before, during and after its cancellation, Jackson Davies), it seemed like the action on The Beachcombers could actually happen anywhere in Canada that happened to have water.
And, seriously, that opening theme song – every time that huge cedar log hit the water, you knew something awesome was going to happen. I still have no idea why CBC insisted on replacing it with generic-sounding synthesizer music in the late ‘80s.
Then again, all kinds of changes were coming to Beachcombers (no “The” at that point) in the late ‘80s. Even though Bruno Gerussi’s Nick finally got a girlfriend, played by Janet Laine-Green in a marked departure from the straight-laced Crown attorney she portrayed on another of my favourite CBC series, Seeing Things, Nick was less involved in the central action of Beachcombers, which seemed to give more storylines to its teenage characters (including a young Cameron Bancroft and the newly-adolescent Charlene Aleck, who had literally grown up before our eyes in the show’s previous decade-plus).
According to Knowlton Nash’s behind-the-scenes-at-the-CBC book Cue The Elephant!, Gerussi didn’t take very well to some of the changes. He described the series’ move from its long-time Sunday-evening “family hour” timeslot to a Wednesday evening placement in its final two seasons as “total b***s***,” and responded to the reduced activity for Nick in those episodes by declaring, simply: “Nick is very vital!”
When I watch it today, in daily afternoon reruns on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, there’s still a certain charm and comfort to The Beachcombers. The stories, writing and acting are actually better than I remember, and the whole cast plays off each other extremely well. It’s not cloying or cartoonish – this isn’t The Forest Rangers, Flipper or Skippy The Bush Kangaroo. The quality is definitely there, making it easy to understand why CBC kept it on the air for so long and was so successful in marketing it to other countries, including the U.S. (on PBS), England, Ireland, Germany, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, South Africa, Egypt, and – fittingly, given the shared heritage of Bruno Gerussi and Nick Adonidas – Greece.
(Footnote: Molly’s Reach is still open in Gibsons, B.C. They’ve even got a Facebook page, which recently had a review from one fellow who said he drove 1,900 kilometres on his motorcycle just to enjoy a “Relic Burger.” I hope to have one myself someday.)