Ottawa Citizen Online
Cult TV: A Canadian Arts Export
Shows forgotten at home spawn
Tony Atherton, The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, 17 February 2001
There are, in our midst, certain TV programs that provoke an intense, almost
savage, loyalty. They inspire fan conventions, nostalgic cast reunions on
afternoon talk shows, and massive mail-in campaigns whenever their existence is
threatened. Their stars are stalked, their theme songs are resurrected for
international ad campaigns, and their fan Web sites are legion.
Though you may not know it — or wish you could forget — these programs are
Shows that most Canadians don’t give a second thought to, except occasionally
to jeer, have become international cult favourites, spawning fan clubs obsessed
with production minutiae. Home-grown series as profoundly antithetical as Nikita
and The Littlest Hobo, shows as obscure as Dracula: The Series or as familiar as
Degrassi Junior High, are the unbridled passion of countless millions scattered
across the globe but linked by CRTC-approved CanCon.
Most Canadians are aware of the the international success of Due South, the
sly Mountie drama which is shown in more than 80 countries and was top-rated in
Britain and Germany. Many know about its dozens of fan sites on the Internet, or
have heard of the show’s annual fan convention, RCW 139 (named after a licence
plate seen in one episode of the CTV series) which attracts viewers from as far
away as Australia and England to Toronto each August to meet the show’s stars
and tour locations where favourite scenes were shot.
But few know that Britons of a certain age share an almost equal passion for
a kitschy, low-budget Canadian family drama that gets almost no respect in the
land of its birth. The Littlest Hobo, a video-taped series about an itinerant
canine do-gooder made in Toronto between 1979 and 1985, had its largest and most
loyal following in England, says Terry Bush, who wrote the series’ theme song,
That untapped wealth of British feeling for Hobo has paid dividends for Bush,
a successful jingle writer who got his start in music in the ’60s with the
popular Toronto band Robbie Lane and The Disciples. Two years ago, his catchy
Hobo theme song was revived by the Natational Westminster Bank for a British TV
commercial. The ad became so popular that a British band called Scooch released
the song as a single last April, which has since had extensive air-play on U.K.
radio stations. It also became a hot commodity on the Internet music-trading
site Napster, along with a punk version recorded by a Montreal band, Vaginal
This revival prompted Bush to re-record the song and release it as part of a
CD of original music he could flog at his own Web site (www.hobotheme.com). Hobo
fans from as a far away as Romania and Australia are snapping up his faithful
recreation of the original arrangement.
Actually, there are two The Littlest Hobo theme songs, just as there are two
separate but related Hobo series.
And anything you could possibly want to know about either is contained in the
exhaustive Hobo Web site maintained by superfan, Kevin McCorry
(www.members.tripod.com /kevinmcorrytv/hobo.html). The site includes photos, a
full production history of the series, and episode guides for both its
incarnations: the filmed black-and- white version shot in Vancouver from
1963-65, and the 1979 revival which is still in international syndication (it’s
currently seen in Canada on Vision TV, weekdays to 4 p.m.).
McCorry’s site is, apparently, the only one of its kind on the Web, but this
skimpy Web support doesn’t preclude Hobo from qualifying as a cult show. It’s
not so much the breadth of support for a show, but the wealth of feeling by its
fans that classifies a program as cult TV, according to a British web site
“Cult programs are objects of special devotion,” the Web site says. They have
a much higher percentage of avid fans than casual viewers. The fans of cult
shows are distinguished by their need to do more than merely watch; they have to
interact, write fan mail, join clubs, or build Web sites.
The opportunity to interact, and to make contact with like-minded aficionados
has increased immeasurably since the advent of the World Wide Web. And this
formalization of cult-dom has had far-reaching effects.
Take, for example, Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, series which
followed the same cast of teenagers through five seasons, beginning in 1986 on
CBC and slightly later on PBS. In 1996, when the Web was young and not widely
accessible nor particularly sophisticated, there were already three Web sites
devoted to show which by then had been out of production for five years. Last
year, there were more than 40 sites created by fans from all over the world.
This unprovoked display of support by teens and twentysomethings who had
grown up with the show, prompted CBC’s cheeky teen-talk show host Jonathan
Torrens to host a Degrassi reunion show in 1999 which drew fans from as far away
as San Francisco to a taping in Toronto.
Degrassi Junior High became the only Canadian show ever to be featured on the
popular U.S.-based Web site http://www.whowouldyoukill.com. The tongue-in-cheek site
invites visitors to select the cast members they would most like to exterminate
on more than 70 current and classic TV shows.
The cult support kept feeding upon itself until this month when the series’
original co-creator, Linda Schuyler, announced she’d struck a deal with CTV to
resurrect Degrassi with a new generation of kids, and some original cast
holdovers playing adults.
Meanwhile, Schuyler’s Epitome Pictures has set about biting that feeds it,
launching a lawsuit against one of the fansites that created the momentum for
the series’ return. It’s fighting University of Waterloo student Mark Polger to
regain the choice Degrassi domain names he registered in 1998 when he started up
his fan sites.
Cult shows are not only easier to resuscitate in the climate that the
Internet provides; they are, by the same token, harder to kill, as the USA
Network learned when it tried last spring to cancel Nikita, a dark,
sexually-charged bit of Canadian-made fantasy intrigue which is known south of
the border by the name of the movie that inspired it, La Femme Nikita.
Nikita, which made Quebec hunk Roy Dupuis into a brooding international
celebrity, introduced a whole new audience to Canadian star Alberta Watson, and
revived the career of veteran Canadian performer Don Francks, was supposed to
end its four-year run on USA Network last May. In Canada, it had been a fixture
on CTV until last season when it moved to CH, formerly ONtv. When news of the
cancellation got out, USA Network was swamped with 25,000 protesting e-mails and
letters, a clamour that got so intense, the cable channel had to shut down its
Internet mail address temporarily. Fans also sent other inducements to make the
network rethink its decision, including $3,000, a TV set, four VCRs, and fake
money featuring Roy Dupuis’s picture. [Hey! He mentioned
the Roy money I made!! 😀 You can see the money in the Community
USA Network relented and struck a deal with Toronto’s Fireworks Entertainment
to produce eight more episodes. They began running last month in the U.S., but
have yet to be picked up by a Canadian broadcaster.
The shows’ popularity has prompted several fansites just devoted to Dupuis,
who is described by Nikita cultists as “totally drool-worthy.” The sites in turn
have prompted a spike in the international sales and rentals of the Canadian
movies and miniseries that Dupuis starred in before Nikita, most of them
originally produced in French including Les Filles de Caleb and the provocative
Being at Home With Claude.
Being in a series that attracts a cult following can hasten the consequences
of fame. Degrassi actress Sara Ballingall (Melanie), for instance, had to bring
charges against an Australian man who, she said, was stalking her by phone, mail
Or take the case of Leni Parker, a Montreal actress who had worked in
relative obscurity, mostly in theatre, for almost a decade before being cast as
Da’an, the delicately androgynous seven-foot alien who is involved in most of
the melodrama in the Alliance Atlantis series, Earth: Final Conflict.
EFC, as it is known in cultdom, is now the top-rated sci-fi show in U.S.
syndication, and Leni Parker’s face, biography and resume are featured in more
then 48 fan sites. Parker also has an “official” fan site devoted exclusively to
her (leniparkerfc.myqth .com), created and maintained by fans who worry about
her health (the weight of her alien costume has caused back problems), fawn over
her occasional missives, and espouse her causes, especially animal rights
Next fall, Parker will be the guest of honour on a three-day EFC fan
convention cruise from Miami to Florida, a prospect she probably never
considered when she was trodding the boards in Montreal.
Star turns in cult favourites have also impinged upon the careers of former
Stratford and Shaw Festival stalwarts Geraint Wyn Davies and Geordie Johnston.
Both appeared in Canadian-made vampire series which, though long out of
production, have dozens of active web sites and fan clubs hosting public events.
Davies starred as a remorseful vampire turned Toronto cop in Forever Knight,
while Johnston played an entrepreneurial modern-day vampire in Dracula: The
Writer-producer Bill Laurin who wrote Dracula with Glenn Davis, says that the
Toronto writing team, which has created such CTV series as Power Play and Once A
Thief, and writes extensively for U.S. TV, still gets more fan reaction from
Dracula than anything else.
One Dracula Web site in particular, he says, ” is so fanatical that I just
don’t have any communication with them. They know all kinds of stuff about the
show that I don’t. They ran a trivia contest on the site a few years ago. You
know, Glenn and I wrote essentially every word of every episode on that show,
and I scored 50 per cent on their trivia contest.”
With a cult series, says Laurin, your work is no longer your own. It is
appropriated by the fans, he says, pointing to the phenomenon of “fan fiction”
or fanfic. When a show reaches a certain cult status — usually after its gone
out of production — Web sites spring up that are entirely devoted to sharing
fan-written stories based on the characters and themes of the shows.
“In the case of Dracula: The Series, the volume of fanfic is way higher than
the volume of produced shows,” says Laurin.
“There is something bout the web that encourages enthusiasm.” says Laurin.
“Growing up I was addicted to First World War aviation, and I thought that this
was a very curious sort of obsession, and I just kept my mouth shut about it. If
I had been able to find other 11-year-old boys who knew the performance
characteristic of the Albatross D5-A as opposed to the D5, I would have spent
all, my time on line with them. It makes other people of like mind available to
you, a key component in any cult following.”