The blind painter

The Volvo blast-off

The absolute pinnacle of Canadian television drama

The CBC has just launched a superb new website devoted to arts coverage — and many of the writers are expatriates from the late, excellent Shift magazine. The articles include a terrific photo history of the personal audio-player and a great essay on why “comics have abandoned children”.

But my personal favorite was a short ode to Hammy Hamster, the star of the long-running Canadian TV show Once Upon a Hamster. If you’ve never seen the show, it’s difficult to describe just how enjoyable — not mention hallucinogenically odd — it was. Hammy lived in a shoe near a riverbank, and would wander around getting into adventures with his friend G.P. the guinea pig, as well as other nearby residents. The thing is, this was a live-action show: The producers would try and lure the rodents to “perform” actions that looked vaguely like what the plot maintained, with closeups on their faces whenever the voiceover actors had them “saying” something.

These days, of course, we’re accustomed to high-tech CGI manipulations of live-action animals — or straight-out, full-CGI animals, such as in Finding Nemo — such that their mouths appear to be actually moving in synch with their speech. Still, there was something weirdly expressive about seeing a full-frame shot of a hamster staring into the camera, doing nothing particularly special — just, y’know, being a hamster — while his “voice” discussed the often deeply philosophical questions of the show: Life, death, friendship, love, food, frogs.

The lid really blew off during the action sequences. G.P. would regularly build model airplanes, hot-air balloons, or diving bells, and somehow convince Hammy — a pretty nervous guy — to go for a ride, which would inevitably end in near disaster. The sight of a hamster and guinea pig shoved into the cockpit of a model airplane was, initially, simply too bizarre for the CBC, and the executives initially turned down the show when it was first produced in 1959. (The only network that would show it was the BBC.) But eventually it made it to Canada, where my teenaged friends and I would watch it in total hysterics after school. As the CBC arts piece notes:

People still speak wistfully of Sutherland’s gentle, artless narration, which was as integral to the show’s charm as the sight of twitchy, uncomprehending rodents scurrying across a simulated nature set. … At its pinnacle, Once Upon a Hamster was seen in more than 30 countries. It didn’t reach a U.S. viewership until the ’90s, where it delighted insomniacs and stoners on late-night television. That’s where it caught the notice of Alan Ball, creator of HBO’s Six Feet Under, who ended up using a clip of Once Upon A Hamster in an episode of his lauded series.

Which episode was that? My god, I’d love to see it. There’s a whole website devoted to Hammy, if you really need to waste more time at work reading about this.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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