Vintage Gen-X Children’s Television Show Surprisingly Gouldian

From the opening credits to the CBC children’s television show, The Friendly Giant, 1982.

Earlier this month, I heard about the passing of long time CBC personality, Rod Coneybeare. He was eighty-nine. From 1958-85, Coneybeare worked alongside host, Bob Homme, on the CBC children’s television show, The Friendly Giant. Coneybeare provided the voices for Rusty the Rooster and Jerome the Giraffe.

Host, Bob Homme (“Friendly”) alongside Jerome the Giraffe and Rusty the Rooster, 1982.

In the early 1980’s, seated in front of the television set in the living room of our house in Peace River, Alberta, I used to watch episodes of The Friendly Giant. I loved Rusty in that little bag, with his wee harp and also, Jerome’s thick, spotted neck and gleaming white teeth.

For those not familiar with CBC children’s television programming of the 1980’s, I, like many Canadian Gen X-ers, can attest to the relaxed and thoughtful sense of play exhibited in shows such as The Friendly Giant and, my personal favourite, Mr. Dressup, which, incidentally, also involved two puppets (named Casey and Finnegan.)

Ernie Coombs, host of the CBC children’s television show, Mr. Dressup (1967-96) with friends, Casey and Finnegan.

During the years I spent watching The Friendly Giant, I hadn’t a clue who was Glenn Gould and yet, there he was on the other side of the country, nearing the end of his life and still hard at work on various recording projects, including his final rendition of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (1981), the Opus 79 Rhapsodies of Brahms (1982) and the heart wrenchingly beautiful recording of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll (1982). Glenn died on October 4, 1982.

It would be many years before I began to understand and appreciate some of the thought behind Glenn’s work. I know I’ve said this numerous times, but, from what I can tell, it was a fact that Glenn worked very hard at being a good person. This has been and continues to be relayed to me by those who knew him.

From his concern both for animals and people in need, to his hatred for competition of any sort, Glenn approached his work with a desire to transmit meaningful and intimate (direct-to-listener) experiences. This comes through in his recorded piano performances, his writing and even in the books that he read.

With Coneybeare’s passing, my thoughts revisited happy memories of watching the show and, in so doing, I began drawing parallels between The Friendly Giant and Glenn. With its simple storylines and kind, neighbourly characters, that cozy hearth and the welcoming, outstretched hand of Homme’s character (known simply as, “Friendly”), The Friendly Giant offered a blend of music, stories and conversation.

It amuses me to think that episodes of the show were produced by the CBC, that same institution for which Glenn produced many complex and intricate, contrapuntal radio programs, programs that examined, the various facets and benefits of solitude, the best known of which being The Idea of North.

Though not much of an Arctic traveller himself, Glenn was profoundly attracted by the Canadian north, having made numerous road trips along his beloved Highway 17 in search of a kind of solitary headspace, in which he could create some of his best work. Almost instantly then, when I see the opening winter scene credits to The Friendly Giant, I think of Glenn and his obsession with the north.

From the opening credits to The Friendly Giant, 1982.
Photo of Glenn Gould by Don Hunstein, 1970. (glenngould.com)

As for the characters on the show, Friendly, Rusty and Jerome were, like Glenn, considerate and gentle souls who, in addition to being good listeners, were avid readers who loved music! Like Glenn, they worked hard at being good puppet friends and, in their castle, set in a rural landscape, the trio lived in isolation, far removed from the rush of city life. In a way, The Friendly Giant is Gouldian philosophy made simple and, apart from the smiling moon, is there really that much difference between the show’s opening title and that of one of Glenn’s favourite novels, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann?

Front cover of one of Glenn Gould’s favourite novels, The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann.

Like Glenn, the characters in The Friendly Giant lived in a room marked by tones of “battleship grey” (Glenn’s favourite colour). As well, there was always plenty of music and books, Friendly himself having played the flute/recorder, Jerome having sang and danced and Rusty having played the harp, accordion and guitar.

The Gouldian elements of The Friendly Giant were perhaps best articulated by Coneybeare himself, who once told an interviewer that the show was “an island of quiet and intelligence, humour, music and books…”

The welcoming and gentle hand of the Friendly Giant welcomes viewers to the castle, amidst hues of battleship grey, northern landscapes and solitude.

In the episode below, from 1982, the setting is one of Glenn’s favourites, a Canadian winter. Musical selections include a Rondo (yes, a Rondo!) danced to very comically by Jerome, a Gavotte and a Mozart selection performed by Rusty on his little harp, to which the thoughtful and non-judgmental listeners, Friendly and Jerome, offer their undivided attention. I wonder if, on that enormous television set, Glenn ever tuned in to see what his beloved CBC was producing for the next generation?

An episode of The Friendly Giant, 1982.

In the following episode from 1979, Friendly, Jerome and Rusty are joined by the recorder and bassoon-playing pair of raccoons named Patty and Polly. Says Jerome, “I enjoy a good Gavotte once in a while!” That Baroque and Classical music occupy a place in the lives of puppets is something to be commended. Completely unpretentious and informal (no tuxedos on these characters!) and entirely lacking in competitiveness and conformity, the show would surely have made Glenn smile.

An episode of The Friendly Giant, 1979.

On their own but never lonely, isolated but never unhappy, the characters in The Friendly Giant differed from those in action-oriented children’s programs. According to a Wikipedia entry for The Friendly Giant:

“The shows were largely ad libbed, typically based around a one-page plot summary for each episode. This gave the show an added spontaneity uncommon to most children’s shows, though the series was marked by a go-slow, gentle nature. The simple repetition of its main elements from show to show put it fundamentally at odds with the bolder, ever-changing nature of such shows as Sesame Street.”

The phrase, “marked by a go-slow, gentle nature,” might also do well to describe the tempo choices made by Glenn in the late years of his career, the 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations, for instance, having been played much more slowly than his historic 1955 recording. The same could be said of Glenn’s 1982 recording in which he conducts members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in a performance of the Siegfried Idyll.

Perhaps, like Bob Homme’s character, we might do well ourselves, to strive for the nickname, “Friendly” and go about our lives with a slow, gentle nature and an openness for non-conformity, accepting all forms of diversity and marching to the beat of our own drum.

From the closing credits to The Friendly Giant, 1982.

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