Passe-Partout is a French-language television program for preschool children. It was popular among Canadian GenXers of the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in Quebec. In 2019, this series found a new audience thanks to Télé-Québec, which has recreated the show for today’s young generation. The music from Passe-Partout has received several awards at annual galas held by the Association québécoise de l'industrie du disque, du spectacle et de la vidéo (ADISQ).
In the late 1960s, the Head Start program was created in the United States for underprivileged preschool children. The program offered access to social, educational and health services to help these children prepare for school. One of the projects was Sesame Street, a television series which proved very popular among young viewers, parents and education professionals.
In 1971, inspired by this philosophy focused on early childhood, Quebec’s Ministry of Education enlisted the help of the General Service of Teaching Media or SGME (Service général des moyens d’enseignement) to create a television series with formative and creative content for preschool children. However, while Sesame Street targeted knowledge building, this show would be geared toward social and emotional development.
The Ministry tasked SGME project leader Laurent Lachance with creating the series. Lachance’s colleagues Louise Poliquin and Carmen Bourrassa also helped create the program. While Radio-Québec was initially meant to produce the 125 episodes of the series, the task was finally assigned to Télé-Métropole subsidiary JPL Production, a private corporation led by Jean-Paul Ladouceur. From 1977, Passe-Partout episodes were filmed in the new G and H studios which were equipped to provide technical services during the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
On 15 November 1977, the first episode was aired simultaneously on Radio-Canada, Radio-Québec and TV Ontario to thousands of viewers.
Passe-Partout quickly became a cult show for Generation X, also nicknamed the Passe-Partout generation.
Characters and values
At first, the series was to be called Saperlilopette, but since the word can be interpreted as a rude expression, a deputy minister requested that the name be changed. The series was eventually named Passe-Partout.
Each episode consisted of three segments. The live-action segment, produced by Claude Boucher and Jean-Pierre Licciono, starred Passe-Partout (played by comedian Marie Eykel), Passe-Montagne (played by comedian Jacques L’Heureux) and Passe-Carreau (played by comedian Claire Pimparé). The second segment, produced by François Côté, featured puppets, and the third segment, produced by Yves Michon, showed real-life scenes with children, filmed indoors and outdoors.
Screenwriters Michèle Poirier, Bernard Tanguay and Ronald Prégent created scripts inspired by their own family lives and the issues they faced as parents. However, they also consulted educators to incorporate specialized subjects designed to promote child development. The show’s approach to learning was driven by two central messages: “Say it!” and “Do it!”.
Created by Pierre Régimbald and Nicole Lapointe, the puppets (Cannelle, Pruneau, Perlin, Perline and Alakazou the zebra) generally spoke directly to the children, just like the actors who helped them learn specific skills.
In each episode, Passe-Partout would talk about a situation that had affected her. At times, these scenarios were intense or dramatic, but by putting her experience in perspective, she was able to self-soothe in a calm manner. These stories sought to teach children to verbalize their own emotions and, in doing so, to learn about themselves.
Passe-Carreau was considered the thoughtful character in the live-action trio. She was sound, resourceful and independent, and these traits reflected her constant good mood. By encouraging children to move in different ways, she taught them to be aware of their own bodies, to use their motor skills and to enjoy jumping into action.
For his part, Passe-Montagne specifically aimed to develop children’s language skills. This playful and mischievous character pronounced words along with his young viewers. He engaged them in phonetic exercises or alliterations and invited them to repeat stimulating sentences while appealing to their curiosity. Word games were representative of Passe-Montagne’s personality.
Learning and growing with music
In April 1977, composer Pierre F. Brault joined the project: he went on to produce music for 125 episodes.
With 175,000 copies sold, the first long-play record of the theme songs was a hit. It won the Félix award for best-selling album, all categories combined, at the ADISQ gala in 1981.
Passe-Partout songs have become part of the collective conscience and have stood the test of time. Today, some emerging artists credit their creativity to the atmosphere, melodies and songs of the Passe-Partout universe.
For instance, Biz, a singer from the band Loco Locass, stated in Marianne L’Heureux’s documentary Influence:
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Passe-Montagne is the reason I rap, but he was a character who, very early on, awoke me to my interests, that is: words, language, discourse.”
Similarly, in 2004, the band Les Cowboys fringants paid tribute to Pierre F. Brault at La Tulipe, a venue in Montreal. More than 600 people from the Passe-Partout generation assembled to listen to the songs that had marked them and to rediscover the magical effect that they still had. Members of this generation were some of the first to experience the reality of broken families. The audience was proof that the show had been a source of great comfort.
Passe-Partout broached delicate subjects, such as childhood wounds linked to abandonment, namely through one of its characters, Zig Zag. Singer and storyteller Fred Pellerin released a new, contemporary remake of the song “Je m’appelle Zig Zag”. Singer Cœur de Pirate also covered “Des maisons boîtes à surprises,” another Passe-Partout song that became part of the collective imagination. In 2009 and 2011, two Génération Passe-Partout albums were released, featuring various artists. Among others, France D’amour, Brigitte Boisjoli, Marie-Élaine Thibert, The Lost Fingers, Kaïn, Madame Moustache, Tricot Machine and Alfa Rococo came together to relive and revive those childhood emotions.
A re-boot for a new generation
Since February 2019, Télé-Québec has aired a brand-new version of the Passe-Partout series for children. In an interview conducted for the Passe-Partout special of the show Format Familial, Stéphane Legault explained that the screenwriters of the new version retained 80 of the series’ original 125 episodes. The new actors, Élodie Grenier (Passe-Partout), Jean-François Pronovost (Passe-Montagne) and Gabrielle Fontaine (Passe-Carreau) took on the live-action roles dressed in costumes created by a team of designers including Jöelle Céré.
Given the enduring success of the original, a renewed program of this scope presented a significant challenge. Support for a Passe-Partout remake was not universal, but more than 707,000 viewers tuned into the first episode of the new version on 25 February 2019.
Awards and recognition
Album of the Year – Bestseller (Passe-Partout, Passe-Partout), Félix Awards, ADISQ (1981)
Album of the Year (nomination) and Album of the Year – Children’s (Passe-Partout vol.3), Félix Awards, ADISQ (1982)
Album of the Year (Passe-Partout, vol.4), Félix Awards, ADISQ (1983)
Album of the Year – Children’s (Passe-Partout, vol.6, Noël de Pruneau et Cannelle), Félix Awards, ADISQ (1986)
Album of the Year – Children’s (nomination) (Passe-Partout vol. 7), Félix Awards, ADISQ (1987)
Album of the Year – Children’s (Passe-Partout Concerto rigolo), Félix Awards, ADISQ (1992)