Before the dogmatic twaddle of Barney and Teletubbies, kids looked to Once Upon A Hamster for early-morning amusement. Unapologetically wholesome, the live-action serial followed a boot-dwelling hamster, Hammy, and his exploits with the Riverbank posse: GP the Guinea Pig, Martha Mouse, the Wise Old Frog, Turtle and Granny Rabbit. Tune in one week and you might find Hammy steering a raft or riding shotgun in GP’s car; the next, he’d be navigating a (miniature) hot-air balloon. That critter led a life of unequalled adventure.
Hammy Hamster was the invention of Paul Sutherland and David Ellison, who introduced him in 1959. The show debuted as Tales of the Riverbank, and was shot in a makeshift Toronto studio with a crew of two: Sutherland and Ellison penned the scripts, manned the cameras, did the voiceovers and even composed the accompanying music. The 15-minute segments were initially rebuffed by the CBC, but were soon picked up by the BBC.
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. (Sutherland, who went on to voice Honda ads in the ’90s, died in 2004, at the age of 73.) Sutherland and Ellison halted production in the mid-’60s when Hammy failed to attain the popularity they’d hoped for. The show experienced several revivals, however: first in the ’70s, when it was produced out of a British studio, and then in the ’90s, when it appeared on Canada’s YTV network.
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. The show was retired for good in 1998, but Hammy and his furry clan are syndicated in the hearts and minds of Canadian viewers