“Hello, I’m Tom, it’s lovely to meet you,” I said to the elderly gentleman in a multicoloured waistcoat standing next to me. “My name’s Bram,” he said, “and this is my partner Sharon.”
“It’s lovely to meet you, Sharon,” I said. “What do you do?”
“Well actually, Tom,” Sharon said politely, “we’re rather well known in Canada.”
“Oh,” I said, “forgive me, I’ve just moved here.” As I tried to repair the damage done by my little faux pas towards my dinner companions for the evening, I learned that Sharon and Bram are probably the most famous children’s television personalities in Canada.
Sharon and Bram, with their chirpy singalongs, have entertained generations of children since they formed in Toronto in 1978. They were the guests of honour (of sorts) at the official launch of Toronto’s annual Field Trip music festival – one of the city’s more colourful summer fests. I was told quietly that Lois, the third member of the group, had died barely a week before, sending a significant ripple of grief through the collective childhood memories of many Canadians across the country.
The jolliest of their songs – “Skinnamarinkydink” and “Peanut Peanut Butter (and Jelly!)”, which we performed at dinner, complete with Sharon and Bram’s signature dance moves – for many of my Canadian friends who grew up singing them, suddenly became the unlikely melodies of something lost.
Children’s TV may not seem like the most obvious soft-power player at a country’s disposal but the characters and performers from one’s childhood – their songs and routines – can hold a strangely potent place in a country’s sense of itself. The famous red cardigan worn by Mr Rogers, the most recognisable children’s personality in the US, is now in a display cabinet in the Museum of National History in Washington. When Doraemon, a Japanese cartoon character, graced the cover of Monocle a few months ago, a Portuguese colleague of mine could not hide her joy at hearing the jolly theme tune for the first time in years. “That’s how I learned Spanish,” she said, speaking of Doraemon’s dubbed incarnation, broadcast across the Iberian peninsula in the early 1990s. It was homegrown superheroes that were the supporting cast to my childhood in Wales – the teddy-bear turned superhero SuperTed and the unassuming heroism of Fireman Sam.
Whether they become heroes at home or treasures abroad, characters from children’s television can say much about the time we grew up in. They also remind us of what we thought we could become before the inevitable march of growing up began. So, Sharon and Bram, it was a pleasure to have met you and to have sampled some of what childhood was like in the place, for now at least, I call home.
Tomos Lewis is Monocle’s bureau chief in Toronto.