Forty years ago today, on October 1, 1972, CBC launched “The Beachcombers,” making Canadian television history and the Gibsons tourist industry. “The Beachcombers” became a fixture for Canadian families for almost 20 years.
A few weeks after the show’s cancellation in 1990, I interviewed Robert Clothier – aka Relic, the show’s crusty and beloved villain and nemesis to Bruno Gerussi aka Nick – at his home in North Vancouver. It was an unforgettable interview – not because I had any special affinity for the iconic TV series created by Mark and L.S. Strange as a CanCon Zorba the Greek with logs, but because the sculptures surrounding Clothier’s house gave it the feeling of a fairy-tale kingdom, and the love he shared with his wife, Shirley Broderick, was so apparent that when the two were in each other’s proximity, or even referring to each other, they practically glowed. It was, quite possibly, the most loving home I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting.
When I arrived at their front door for the interview I was completely ambivalent about the cancellation of “The Beachcombers.” The show had been around forever and I hadn’t really paid attention to it since I was a kid.
After spending nearly an hour drinking tea with Clothier and listening to his stories about the show and his thoughts on its cancellation, I felt like Canada had lost something precious, and even though I hadn’t watched “The Beachcombers” in years I found myself missing it.
I haven’t been able to dig up my interview notes, or my original recording from that afternoon, but I have found the story I filed to TV Week. So here’s what Robert Clothier was talking about just after they sunk the Persephone and torched Molly’s Reach.
Happy birthday Beachcombers.
He doesn’t want to talk about the death of “The Beachcombers.” Not really. Robert Clothier is in the mood to talk about his sculptures, his career as an artist.
But there’s something about the cancellation of “The Beachcombers” that’s important. And it’s not the loss of a steady job and a regular paycheque that bothers him, it’s the way the show went. Clothier probably would have been a lot happier if they’d killed off Relic in a boating accident but left the show intact, the way it used to be before CBC dropped the “The” from the title three years ago in an attempt at modernization that he angrily describes as “fatuous.”
“The people in the east had been trying to get rid of it for quite some time. They took hold of it and decided they wanted to slick it up and to modernize it. And I think in so doing they destroyed the innocence that the thing had.”
Sitting on the patio deck of his North Vancouver home he talks about the end of “Beach” the way one does a friend who has just died after a long bout with a terminal illness — not surprised. Just sad. Very sad.
“It was not ever a show that went in for the slick at all. For one thing we never had the money for slick, we had miniscule budgets, and in trying to slick it up the original quality of the show was lost.”
According to Clothier the original quality was, “very gentle, naïve, nonviolent, very west coast, relaxed to the point almost of slack which, combined with the gorgeous scenery and that sort of thing, sold it all around the world.” That’s why it really sticks in his craw that the show he loved went out with a bang — a lot of bangs actually, including explosions, fires and gunshots.
Clothier picks a spot up in the sky and stares towards it as he tries to explain his frustration. “You see, we had explosions of boats and people trapped under logs and broken legs and all kinds of things in earlier times but there was a kind of humour that took the curse off any violence. For example, there was one boat explosion in which I was actually in the boat and come stumbling out of the ruins blackened and that sort of thing. It had almost a cartoon quality to it. But in this last episode there’s boat explosions, boat burning and gunfire in earnest, with no humour to relieve it, and it left it plain violent. And if that’s the sort of thing you need to sell a show I think it’s a ghastly mistake. They ended up with a last episode which is, to my mind, completely second hand American.”
Then Clothier snaps out of his reverie with a suddenness that’s almost startling. “But that’s dead and gone and defunct and now we’ve got to go on and look at other things. There’s a lot more in this world to be done. If my life comprised only ‘Beachcombers’ I’d be a sad, ruddy lot and I don’t intend to be a sad ruddy lot.”
It seems time to find out what else has comprised his life other than nineteen years of Beach. “I was born in the rain of Prince Rupert,” says Clothier, “spent the first year of my life in Stewart, then went with my mother to England for about a year and a half, then came back to live in Victoria, then from there to Penticton and from there down to Vancouver.”
His father was a mining engineer and promoter so the family spent most of their vacations visiting mines in small towns throughout B.C. It was in the small towns that Clothier met the characters — hermits and miners — he used to create Relic.
After serving as a pilot in World War Two, Clothier decided to study architecture at the University of British Columbia. He realized he wasn’t going to make it in architecture, because of his mathematical aptitude, about the same time he joined the UBC Player’s Club for a production of School For Scandal. He had enough fun that he decided to “chuck architecture” and move to England to study acting.
“And then in, I guess it was ’54, I came back to visit my parents for six months but then I got here and said, no, this is my country, this is where I want to work.”
In 1957 he was cast as Trinculo in a production of The Tempest out at UBC. Shirley Broderick was playing Ariel. “We met on the way to rehearsal and then a few months later we were married and have stayed that way solidly ever since by jing. Now we want to do a lot more work together.”
The pair have two children — both in “the business” — Jessica is a script editor and John is a cameraman.
In 1952, Clothier added sculpting to his artistic pursuits, but in the early ’60s his acting career became so hectic that he put the other on hold. Then, in 1980, Clothier realized he’d been away from sculpting long enough. A few years ago he had a show at a gallery in Sechelt and last summer his work was shown at the Buschlen-Mowatt Gallery in Vancouver.
A small collection of his sculptures is carefully displayed in the garden. Most have a gentle, romantic feel to them – lots of curves and circles. One concrete sculpture, that looks a bit like an abstract version of a flamingo, sprays jets of water into a tiny fish pond.
He talks poetically about his compulsion to sculpt, his influences and his theories on art, but eventually the conversation circles back to “The Beachcombers.” He knows there’s something more to say and he’s struggling for the exact words. “I have never, up until very recent years, been a nationalist, I’ve always felt it to be more desirable to be an internationalist. But when things started to be changed in my estimation not for the better with “Beach” and the whole Americanization of things started, I became fiercely nationalistic.”
Then, at last, he pins it down. “CBC is the one medium that connects the country end to end and if you turn that American then you turn all of us American.” And that’s all he has to say about “Beach.” Now it’s time to get back to the studio and sculpt.
(Note: Robert Clothier passed away in 1999)