Paul Sutherland

Creator of the children's television series 'Tales of the Riverbank'





Paul Sutherland, writer, producer and director: born 1931; three times married (two sons); died Toronto, Ontario 15 May 2004.







Paul Sutherland, writer, producer and director: born 1931; three times married (two sons); died Toronto, Ontario 15 May 2004.



The sight of real-life animals travelling in miniature planes, cars and hot-air balloons and living in furnished homes graced British screens in the enchanting Canadian series Tales of the Riverbank during the heyday of Watch With Mother on BBC television.

Hammy Hamster, GP the Guinea Pig, Roderick Rat and their friends were filmed at double-speed so that their movements appeared slower and friendlier when played back normally. The haunting guitar score and distinctive tones of Johnny Morris, who narrated the programmes in Britain, added to the illusion of being transported into a world of adventure and camaraderie away from humans.

In Canada, the soothing voice of Paul Sutherland narrated Tales of the Riverbank (1960-63). Both narrators closed each episode with the tantalising words: "But that's another story . . ."

Sutherland created, produced and directed the series with David Ellison and drew on his own hobbies as an aviator, sailor and diver to generate exciting, non-violent entertainment that children could watch with their parents. The gentle action centred on the river and woods, and the timid Hammy's house - a converted old boot that the creatures dragged downstream with the aid of a winchamabob created by GP, "the mad inventor of the riverbank". The animals would be coaxed into such performances with the inducement of cheese and peanut butter.

Paul Sutherland was matter-of-fact about his modus operandi. "Casting is simple," he said:

The animal has to look right and can't be too crazy or wild. Acting talent

doesn't figure into it - you can't teach them how to act. We've never been accused of being mean to the actors - we treat them with kid gloves.

Sutherland was working as a news editor for CBC, Canada's national broadcasting organisation, when he and Ellison dreamed up the children's series and filmed it in a makeshift Toronto studio. CBC turned down the production but the pair sold the original 52, 15-minute, black-and-white episodes to the BBC and, eventually, 34 other countries. In Britain, after being shown in a teatime slot, it eventually became part of Watch with Mother at lunchtimes.

It was revived for 26 colour episodes made specially for the BBC (retitled Hammy Hamster in Canada, 1971), then on Canadian television as Once Upon a Hamster (1994-98), which gained a cult, late-night following in the United States. Ellison also served as associate producer on Further Tales of the Riverbank (1992), which was specially made for Channel 4 in Britain.

After his success with the original series, Sutherland worked in video production and advertising. Notably, he co-scripted Buster Keaton's final film, the 30-minute silent short The Scribe (1966), made for the Construction Safety Association of Ontario. Keaton portrayed a newspaper reporter trying to highlight safety problems to construction workers but walking into disasters instead of preventing them.

Anthony Hayward

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