The Secret Nine Point Plan to British Unwitting Gen X Canadians
A guest post from Mark Dykeman of the How About This newsletter
Let me tell you of a secret plot to subvert Gen X Canadians. The fine folks of the Metropolitan have given me the opportunity to describe a subtle British plan from the 1970s and 1980s to make Canada’s youth love British culture. (And the Americans were in on it.)
The 1910s and 1920s saw waves of emigration from Britain to what were then called ‘overseas colonies’. The cover story was that people emigrated from a crowded country in search of land and new opportunities. The true purpose was to increase global Britishness via human exports.
I, in fact, am the product of this plan. My paternal grandmother was born in England and spent her early years in Great Wyrley, Walsall (now in the West Midlands). She and her family emigrated to Canada around 1912 – 1913. My maternal grandmother was born near Cardiff and emigrated to Canada with her family in the late 1920s. And that’s without getting into my Northern Irish ancestors…
Insidious! I didn’t stand a chance!
The Pink Rolling Who Beatle Zeppelins
The ‘60s produced five of the greatest rock bands of all time: Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and Led Zeppelin. They found their foothold in North America in the years leading up to my birth in 1969.
I was indoctrinated into this music via homemade mix tapes made by an Austrian immigrant living secretly in the US (well, not exactly secretly but it’s pretty easy to pick up a Jersey accent when you’re six). I received these artifacts in the mid-1980s and the imprinting was successful.
Need I remind you where all five of these bands came from?
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The Prisoner of Six
The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s surreal, clever take on individuality in the face of oppressive organizations, was released in the late ‘60s and was another piece of samizdat given to me on VHS cassettes by my Austrian contact. Number Six was cool but relentless in his quest to remain a free man. The programme was the darling of pop culture for a time, resurging every decade to remind us of what you can accomplish in a short TV run… and how to befuddle your audience with your series finale in ways that Game of Thrones could only dream of.
An Important Side Note
America’s role in this Britishing of Canadian Generation X was subtle. The States had two broadcasting organisations that aimed to provide consistent non-commercial programming: PBS (the Public Broadcasting System) and National Public Radio, divided roughly into units corresponding to each US state. In Maine (yes, Stephen King’s home state), they were called Maine Public Television and Maine Public Radio.
Canada too has its own public broadcasting corporation, the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, tipping its toque to Auntie Beeb) with 100% radio and television broadcasting coverage of the sprawling wilderness once known as British North America. The more rural parts of Canada did not have cable or satellite television until the 1980s. In the Maritimes (the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) only a few towns and “cities” had access to more than three Canadian television stations and a smattering of radio stations.
But here’s a little known geographical circumstance - quaint today but incredibly significant prior to the end of the Cold War.
A map of Canada’s Maritime Provinces, showing the border between New Brunswick and Maine. If you look at the Bangor, Maine circle long enough, Stephen King will eventually include you in one of his stories, in exchange for your eye.
New Brunswick, Canada shares a border with the United States along the north-eastern part of Maine. This led to cross-pollination of cultural influences; in addition to US commercial radio and television, New Brunswick received Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television. And some of the funniest, most creative programming broadcasted from Maine was imported… from the UK.
And Now For Something Completely Different
Friday nights were British comedy nights on Maine Public Television in the ’80s, and the later the hour, the more… creative it became. At 11pm on Fridays, just after many parents went to bed, it would broadcast two episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
To the average New Brunswick youth the show was uninteresting: poor sound, absurd interstitial cuts and bizarre humour guaranteed to befuddle or bore. But to those of us who craved Silly Walks, Nudges, an Argument Clinic, or just Something Completely Different, Month Python satisfied the urge for British parody and satire that we’d been secretly programmed to love.
Who’s that Doctor?
Thankfully Maine Public Television managed to get its hands on Doctor Who. I discovered it in the early ‘80s, just in time to see Jon Pertwee regenerate into Tom Baker. The Fourth Doctor - probably the most famous and popular of all - was daffy, mad, witty, fearless, ruthlessly clever and agile enough to avoid being strangled by that enormous multi-coloured scarf. His adventures on alien worlds, leading hapless companions down innumerable corridors, sparked many a young, curious mind. I’ve come to love NuWho but the Fourth Doctor’s entry into Canadian consciousness is a true Fixed Point.
A Hyperspace Bypass For Your Imagination
When I was a kid we had a kitchen radio often tuned to Maine Public Radio. I don’t know exactly when or how it happened, but one day I heard a programme about a hapless fellow named Arthur Dent and his companions: Ford; Marvin, the droning deadpan android; and, wildest of all, some hoopy guy named Zaphod. I’d accidentally discovered the BBC radio serialization of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The. Original. Episodes. I claim bragging rights here: most Canadians discovered H2G2 either through the novels or the television adaptation.
Bookended by a theme song with layers of banjos, keyboards and synthesizers (‘Journey of the Sorcerer’, by the Eagles! American complicity once again!), the programme was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. I can’t adequately describe to you what the double whammy of Monty Python and Douglas Adams did to my impressionable young mind. Suffice it to say it was warped in the best way. And I always keep my towel hung in the same place in the bathroom. Just in case.
Read our response to Mark about Canada as seen from 80s Britain:
Fly Me to the Moon in 1999
Between Star Trek and Star Wars there lies a television show which provoke strong feelings in those who remember it. It’s one of the most reviled science fiction programmes of all time, once incurring the scorn of Isaac Asimov himself: Space: 1999.
The conceit was a simple one: Earth’s Moon was forced out of orbit by nuclear explosions, left to travel aimlessly in space. The crew of Moonbase Alpha, led by Commander John Koenig, had many improbable adventures in their quest for a permanent home.
Space: 1999 was an odd beast: a British/Italian joint venture with a multinational cast dominated by two US actors (the husband and wife team of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain). It only lasted two seasons and they were like two different shows stapled together: the writing, the pacing, the sets and the tone were quite different. This gave critics the opportunity to deride two different shows at once.
CBC picked it up in the ‘70s and I watched it in black and white as a wee lad (my family didn’t have a colour television until the mid-‘80s). Watching this programme in grainy, static-laced monochrome fit perfectly, like a broadcast from space. Space: 1999 fulfilled my need for space fantasy. I still love the first season’s aesthetic, with the occasional great episode (‘Dragon’s Domain’ still thrills despite the horrible visual effects) and for the nostalgic value of seeing the Moon moving through some mysterious cosmos. There’s a stark, lonely beauty in the first season that’s accentuated by an fitting musical score and theme song.
I don’t recall any tea on Moonbase Alpha, but the accents certainly stayed with me, especially that of Barry Morse (a Canadian!) The stoic Welshness of Prentis Hancock as Paul Morrow persisted, keeping calm and carrying on.
The New Romantic Wave
Partly enabled by MTV (and MuchMusic in Canada), the ‘80s brought Duran Duran, Tears for Fears, Wham!, and many other UK acts to North America. My favourite UK band of this period is XTC, best known in Canada for their college radio staple ‘Dear God’ which conquered alternative radio in ‘86-‘87. Shaped by their main songwriter Andy Partridge, they wore their British heritage on their sleeves, with odd humour and jarring, angular melodies. If they hadn’t stopped touring in 1982 I wonder if they would have achieved the fame of some of the acts mentioned above. Sadly we’ll never know. But at least you can be assured that someone, somewhere is playing The Reflex right now.
Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore
Another ’80s British invasion involved a beachhead at the edge of the world of comic books. Some talented British writing talent found work in North America, primarily through DC Comics. For many of us, two of them stood out.
Neil Gaiman established himself as an extraordinary creative force with The Sandman, a fantasy/horror hybrid with a Goth/punk aesthetic that created a persisting pop mythology. Like his novels Good Omens, American Gods and Coraline it has been successfully adapted for TV, and Gaiman - a likeable chap who just happens to bend people’s minds with his prose - has thrived in the social media era.
Then there’s Alan Moore, who deconstructed and reconstituted the comic book genre with his Marvelman (aka Miracleman) revival, his brutal and thought provoking tale V for Vendetta and Watchmen, his collaboration with Dave Gibbons that presented a multi-layered graphical and written narrative. Watchmen was a dark, realistic take on masked heroes, including the impact of the arrival of a truly super man. Moore seems to prefer remaining in the fringes, growing small demons, I mean stories, in his beard and occasionally releasing them into the world: his legacy persists.
The British indoctrination program persists to this day. Canadians drink tea, although our coffee tends to push it into the background. We like bitters, ales and stouts but we lump everything under the term ‘beer’ (or draft). We misuse the term football, like the Americans, but rugby has a decent amateur foothold in Canada. We misuse the terms chips and crisps but we still eat an awful lot of them. Cricket seems to be the biggest gap (nothing will dislodge hockey from the Canadian psyche, I fear), along with driving on the, erm, other side of the road. We have our feelings about the Royals, in much the way that the British do, but we greet them as celebrities on their rare visits to Canada.
It’s unclear whether the British indoctrination of Millennial and Gen Z cohorts will be as successful as it was for Canada’s Generation X. There are so many other cultural resources to choose from now. It’s uncertain how the whole Harry Potter/J.K. Rowling situation will pan out. This Harry Styles fellow seems to be all the rage though…
This was a guest post from Mark Dykeman of the How About This newsletter.
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Ah - interesting walk down memory lane! And interesting to see how much regionalism played a much bigger role in Canada in the 1980s.
For example, Ontario had Dr. Who on TVO in the 70s, so I saw it from a young age. I'm pretty sure my first exposure to Monty Python was via PBS way back when (though it wasn't love until me and a bunch of other 12-year-olds rented "Holy Grail" on -- get this -- laser disc), but Benny Hill was floating around some of the channels. And I discovered HHGTTG via the BBC mini-series, also broadcast on TVO. But with all of these different rivulets all amounting to the same thing, kind of points to the insidiousness you were talking about, no? lol
One other observation: we took the kids to the east coast many years ago and drove through the States as part of the trip including northern Maine. Every little town we passed through had a gas station, a wreckers, and a Mexican restaurant. Poutine was literally being served half an hour away, but the favourite there came from 3,000 miles further southwest... Kind of a mirror to your argument I guess - it's a wonder culture can float and plant so far away like a dandelion seed. lol
Anyway, great post Mark.