The Beachcombers is one of the most successful Canadian television series of all time. The half-hour family adventure show ran for 387 episodes over 18 seasons (1972–90) and is Canada’s second-longest-running scripted television series. Widely panned by critics, it was nonetheless an audience favourite and was named one of Canada’s all-time best television series in a 2017 poll conducted by the Toronto International Film Festival. Watched by more than 1 million viewers per episode in its prime, the series played a pivotal role in the development of film production in British Columbia and provided an early template for uniquely Canadian content on television.
The Beachcombers grew out of the short-lived 1969 series Adventures in Rainbow Country, a family adventure series by independent producer William Davidson. It starred Lois Maxwell (best known as Miss Moneypenny in the 1960s James Bond films) as single mother Nancy Williams, Stephen Cottier as her son Billy and Buckley Petawabano as Billy’s Ojibwa friend, Pete. The series followed their adventures in the wilderness north of Lake Huron. However, after a changeover in executives at the CBC sparked creative conflicts with Davidson’s Manitoulin Productions, the broadcaster pulled its funding and exercised a clause that prevented Manitoulin from partnering with another network. But when The Adventures of Rainbow Country premiered to 4 million viewers — numbers surpassed only by Hockey Night in Canada — the broadcaster realized it missed the opportunity for a viable hit and quickly set out to produce an alternative.
The CBC liked the premise of Adventures in Rainbow Country and decided to pursue another wholesome, family-friendly adventure series. CBC executives believed the West Coast provided an attractive setting for a prime-time series and assigned producer Phil Keatley to oversee the show’s development. They stipulated that the series should focus on a single mother, a father figure and three kids — one of whom would be of Indigenous background.
Keatley’s writing partners, the husband-and-wife team of Marc and Lynn Susan “L.S.” Strange, initially pitched Keatley a show called Orphan’s Island, inspired by both the Spencer Tracy film Boys Town (1938) and a West Coast legend about a sea captain who took in orphans during the Depression. Keatley liked the idea and passed it on to CBC, but the Toronto office rejected it, believing that nobody would watch a show about the Depression. (The Depression-era The Waltons premiered the next year on CBS and became a hit.) Keatley gave the Stranges two weeks to create an alternative.
The idea for The Beachcombers came when the Stranges were walking on the beach and observed the practice of beachcombing, which involves salvaging logs from the shore and selling them. Struck by the freedom and simplicity of the job, they devised a series they called Molly’s Reach, focusing on a Zorba the Greek-like character who works as a beachcomber and a single mom named Molly who runs a café. Keatley liked the idea, retitled it The Beachcombers and submitted it to the CBC, which greenlit production.
The CBC sent story editor Suzanne Finlay to Vancouver to oversee the writing and ultimately replace the Stranges, who left early in production (although they returned in later seasons). The series generally didn’t adhere to a particular situation or procedure, although Finlay quickly mastered a wholesome formula that focused on empathy for outsiders and a respect for the natural environment. Action typically focused on the adventures of Nick Adonidas (Bruno Gerussi), who combed the beaches in his boat, the Persephone. Nick interacted with Molly’s (Rae Brown) family at the café and fended off his rival, Relic (Robert Clothier), an unsavoury beachcomber who competed for Nick’s business and often stole his logs. The plots and storylines were broadly comedic, with visiting landlubbers and tourists serving as general foils for Nick and Molly.
Italian Canadian actor Bruno Gerussi, who had enjoyed success onstage and as the radio host of the pioneering talk show Gerussi: Words and Music for the Middle of the Morning, was cast as Nick Adonidas, the Greek Canadian beachcomber and father figure of the series. Wary of the impact that any sexual tension between Molly and Nick would have on the family-friendly nature of the show, the CBC backtracked on the idea of Molly as a single mother and instead made her a grandmother. Rae Brown played Molly, much to the chagrin of Gerussi, who insisted he signed on to co-star with a young blonde.
Bob Park and Nancy Chapple played Molly’s grandchildren, Hugh and Margaret, and were cast despite having no acting experience. Juliet Randall replaced Chapple as Margaret when she grew out of the role after the first season, and Park left the series in 1978 when producers refused to give him a more prominent role. Pat Smith, one of the last Sechelt First Nation children to be put in residential school, signed on to play Hugh’s friend, Jesse Jim. Smith’s character made the series notable for its casting of Indigenous actors in roles that transcended stereotypes and caricatures.
Key cast members remained throughout the series, with Gerussi and Smith performing for The Beachcombers’ entire run. Other regular cast members included Jackson Davies as RCMP Constable John Constable, an amiable lawman who was introduced as a bit part in 1974 but became a regular character in 1979. Charlene Aleck came aboard as Jesse Jim’s little sister Sara Jim in 1976. Marianne Jones joined in 1982 as Jesse’s wife, Laurel Jim (despite previously appearing as his cousin, Alice). Red Romero was an early audience favourite as Relic’s partner-in-crime McClosky, but tragically died of a heart attack while filming in 1980.
Production of the first eight episodes began in 1971 in the small BC town of Gibsons, up the Sunshine Coast about 25 km from Vancouver. A vacant liquor store near the town’s ferry terminal served as the location for the café, Molly’s Reach. The production crew filmed Nick’s scenes on the Persephone on open water with the aid of a custom-built barge containing a generator and storage for props, costumes and change rooms. The barge enabled long shoots and facilitated location shooting and a variety of angles to offer production values higher than the average Canadian series.
Gerussi and Clothier clashed on set throughout The Beachcombers but were professional in their competitiveness, and their rivalry imbued the show with tension. Tensions also flared between Finlay and Gerussi, who felt Finlay’s storylines failed to fulfill the show’s potential.
The Beachcombers premiered on Sunday 1 October 1972 at 7:00 p.m. The ratings were initially weak, with Nick proving polarizing as an unconventional leading man. The show nevertheless found an audience with its family-friendly stories and its time slot between suppertime and prime time. Nineteen more episodes were filmed in 1972, and family gatherings around the TV set soon became a weekly tradition.
Changes and New Title
The Stranges returned to writing on the series in 1978 (they went on to write more than 70 episodes) with the episode “Bandits,” which was the first of several episodes directed by Gerussi. The Beachcombers featured some changeover in the cast when Brown retired from acting in 1985. The Reach got a new owner in 1988 when Janet-Laine Green debuted as Dana, a single mother from Toronto who bought the café and moved in with her son, Sam. This new character gave the show some sex appeal. The series was also rebranded with the cleaner title, Beachcombers.
However, this fresh image was not enough to save the struggling series. In 1989, CBC programming executives quietly shuffled Beachcombers from its family-friendly Sunday night slot to Wednesday nights, and it experienced a decline in numbers. Beachcombers concluded on 12 December 1990 with the finale, “Sunset.” Gerussi got the last word by acknowledging the series’ unlikely success in the concluding shot, saying, “We gave ‘em a run for their money, didn’t we?”
Gerussi might have been the lead on The Beachcombers, but the star of the series was arguably Canada itself. The Beachcombers was the first Canadian series that didn’t try to copy an American model, and it emphasized the power and character of the natural landscape to provide a distinct, if idealized regional flavour. The show’s respectful slice-of-life depiction of blue-collar labour was also a big part of its appeal.
The series frequently drew upon the clashes between BC’s Indigenous and settler communities to explore how cultures coexist. The Indigenous elements subsided when executive producers felt uncomfortable continuing them out of respect for the Indigenous cast members and out of concern for accuracy. In addition to Indigenous representation, The Beachcombers pioneered multicultural onscreen representation (despite casting the Italian-Canadian Gerussi as a Greek).
Despite the enduring popularity of The Beachcombers, it rarely received esteem as high art. Critics often described performances as “stilted” or “wooden” and observed that the series lacked consistently strong female characters. The writers also frequently recycled plots as a consequence of the show’s longevity. While calling it “the greatest show in the history of Canadian television,” author, musician and CBC Radio personality Grant Lawrence also disparagingly described it as “A Greek guy and his First Nations buddy drive around in their sh—y boat collecting logs. Every week. For twenty years…It was like Dukes of Hazzard on water and 100 per cent Canadian. ”
In her book Turn Up the Contrast, scholar Mary Jane Miller wrote that,“It is fashionable among critics, and even around the CBC, to ignore or denigrate this series,” while the Toronto Star called The Beachcombers a “typically mind-numbing Canadian TV series about log salvagers that inexplicably ran for nearly two decades.” The Beachcombers was frequently threatened with cancellation during off-seasons, which creator Mark Strange said contributed to the show’s inconsistency, since writers had little momentum or preparation going into a season. Gerussi frequently acknowledged the mediocrity of the series while simultaneously fighting the CBC to ensure its survival. Even Strange admitted in his book Bruno and the Beach that “Sometimes it wasn’t even very good.”
Spinoffs and Sequels
The Beachcombers inspired a few spinoffs, TV movies and attempted reboots, but none saw a fraction of the original’s success. In 1985, the short-lived spin-off Constable Constable,featuring Jackson Davies’s beloved character, ran for four episodes. Davies then pitched the CBC The New Beachcombers as a revival starring SCTV’s Dave Thomas. CBC expressed interest but opted to begin with TV movies to gauge the series’ viability. Telefilm Canada originally rejected funding for the film, and it was only after a public outcry to bring back The Beachcombers that the project continued. The New Beachcombers aired as a two-hour TV movie in 2002 starring Davies, Thomas and Graham Greene alongside a cast that was notably younger and sexier than that of the original. The New Beachcombers did not continue as a series but returned in 2004 with another TV movie, The Beachcombers Christmas, directed by Anne Wheeler. The Beachcombers also received a behind-the-scenes treatment with the 2003 TV documentary, Welcome Back to Molly’s Reach,directed by Brad Quenville and co-written and produced by Davies.
Impact and Influence
The Beachcombers’ influence as a fan favourite can be seen in its enduring impact on English Canadian culture, especially in Western Canada. The Edmonton-based power pop band Molly’s Reach was named in honour of the show’s centrepiece location. “I’ve seen every episode of The Beachcombers,” the band’s lead singer Sean Rivalin said in 1996, “and when we first started we had a really bad song about Bruno Gerussi.” The shooting location for Molly’s Reach has been a popular café of the same name since 1995 and has since become arguably the signature tourist attraction on the Sunshine Coast.
The success of The Beachcombers paved the way for other regionally flavoured Canadian TV series such as North of 60, Corner Gas and Republic of Doyle. It also helped CBC expand programming and production to regions outside of Toronto and proved foundational for production infrastructure in British Columbia. It began at a time when BC had virtually no film scene, so crewmembers were largely self-taught and learned to work collaboratively and resourcefully. As Strange once remarked, “The most enduring contribution The Beachcombers made to Canadian television is that it produced an entire generation of moviemakers.”
The Beachcombers was broadcast in more than 50 countries and enjoyed the title of Canada’s longest-running drama series until Degrassi surpassed it in 2012. Despite airing for 18 seasons and reaching over a million viewers per episode in its prime, The Beachcombers never won much prestige aside from a Gemini Award for Clothier’s supporting performance in 1986. It remained an audience favourite, though, and topped TV Guide polls as the most popular CBC series of all time in 1998 and as the most popular Canadian family series of all time in 1999. A 2017 poll by the Toronto International Film Festival named The Beachcombers one of Canada’s all-time best television series.