WELSH COMEDIAN AND TRAVEL ENTHUSIAST GRIFF RHYS JONES CROSSES CANADA AND TELLS ALL. GRIFF’S CANADIAN ADVENTURE LIFTS THE LID OFF US!
By Anne Brodie Welsh actor Griff Rhys Jones isn’t content to be one of the UK’s leading TV actors. He decided his life would never be fully lived until he’d seen Canada in detail. His BBC series Griff’s Canadian Adventure is now available in Canada for our viewing pleasure. Rhys Jones does it all – cuts cod tongues with Alan Doyle in Newfoundland, reenacts the War of 1812, explores the foods of Quebec, tries his hand at hockey, and more and came away with plenty of thoughts. Meet Rhys-Jones.
You’re bringing Griff’s Canadian Adventure to Canadian audiences. Did you know much about Canada prior to pre-production?
It wasn’t the first time. I was here a couple of years ago, before COVID-19, in January. I had become interested in long train journeys and thought it would be great to cross Canada by VIA. So, my wife Jo and I flew into Toronto and then set off to Vancouver by train. In Toronto, we went to the Art Gallery of Ontario and got hit by a massive blizzard. We crossed town through snowdrifts to get to the incredible show, that had been added to since we last went there by the Thomson Collection. We explored the city in the snow. I had been before to film and recalled the Henry Moore casts. But this time I got fascinated by the Group of Seven. Got impressed by going underground and got lost the next day trying to get to the station from the Hotel, using tunnels. We got on the train from Toronto, heading west and woke up a couple of days later in the prairies. Life changes completely from one part of Canada to the next when you travel by train. It’s just amazing. When we got to the Rockies we got off and explored Jasper, and then jumped back on the next train and spent a couple of days in Vancouver before coming home.
What stands out about our country?
If I had to pick only one thing, that would be diversity. In Britain, we’re used to going down to Barnstaple, which is only 200 miles from London, or up to Norwich, and everybody talks differently! But I had been to Australia. That is a surprisingly samey place, though the distances are huge. I was ready for the same in Canada. I was interested in exploring the idea of big countries from the same perspective. I was amazed by how great Canada is from province to province and region to region and how very different, unique, and distinct each place can be. How many different voices and experiences make up the country; its wonderful for the traveller. You’re in Newfoundland, and then you’re in Quebec, and they are wholly different, everything sounds different. People speak differently and have different priorities. But the diversity of Canada is not just about diversity of cultures, it’s a diversity of places and experiences. It is exciting to go from a region where people are speaking French to a region where everybody is suddenly a cowboy and ready for the Calgary Stampede. And you’ve done it overnight!
How was Newfoundland?
I absolutely love Newfoundland, and what I hadn’t been ready for was the fact that the island and Labrador together are a third bigger than the whole of Great Britain. St. John’s is one of the biggest cities. When I walked into that harbour of St. John’s, I immediately said we had to film it. Huge icebreaking Arctic explorer vessels are tied up waiting to get out into those great big seas, like nothing you’ve ever seen and you really feel you’re on the edge of the North Atlantic and Greenland.
You sang sea shanties with Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea there. Rather like this:
Alan Doyle was such an enormous, welcoming and hearty character. He is a great big man as well and has done so many extraordinary things, but it was as my local guide that he excelled. He was brought up in this once crazy fishing world, which of course has largely departed but showed me how to get at a cod’s tongue, how to fry it up, and how to eat it. It’s yummy I can tell you. It was cool, listening to his sea shanties and the way Alan sings them, which you can tell is truly connected with his origins and the way he was brought up. He was amazing, and he was full of good advice for me going to my first kitchen party.
What similarities did you notice between Canada and the UK?
Although Canada and the UK are both Commonwealth countries, Canada has gone its own way for a long time, quite rightly. So, I was surprised that there was more of a British connection than I had expected – just a tinge, a hint, a slight cultural cross-over. With chocolate bars, for instance. “Inspector Morse” anyone? I revelled in the proper North American Stuff we don’t do, though. There are some leisure activities that British people are always going to find mysterious and enthralling, such as ice hockey. In fact, snow generally. That knocks us out. And I found that it’s not the connection with Britain that bothers Canadians, it’s the connection with the United States, and the idea that they might be mistaken for being American. I was fascinated to learn that Canada has actually engaged in two major wars with the United States, basically in order to just remain Canada. I had no idea that the United States had assumed for a long time that it was only a matter of time before it would take over Canada as well and drag it into the Union. You know, Canadians said, “No, no, no, go away. We’re perfectly happy being Canadians”. I was to discover that they still do.
Any good factoids?
I didn’t know that basketball was a Canadian invention. There are many things uniquely Canadian, right down to the paint roller. Yup. It’s a Canadian invention. But leaving stuff, movie stars, world-beating music and comedy to one side, I suppose the things that truly surprised and delighted me about Canada, were the warmth of people and the distinct history. As I said earlier, the idea that Canada would take on so many immigrants and would use the railways to open the prairies would lead the world in liberalism, and the sheer variety and diversity of the Canadian experience surprised me.
What Canadian experiences would you recommend?
First, I would say don’t miss visiting the West Coast, go to British Columbia and get out into those woods and really get into the Rocky Mountains and see what nature has to offer. Or the backwoods of Algonquin. It is true Canada and very, very beautiful. It’s also really important to get outdoors and go to the lakes when you’re here because the one thing I observed that was important to Canadians everywhere is the idea that you love the outdoors, the True North, the call of the wild. Even if you never leave your office in downtown Toronto.
The second thing I would say is to go to Quebec or Montreal. Revel in “la difference”. It is incredibly special and ancient and delicious wherever Canadians commonly speak French. You’ll get another view of the history of this country. But you will also experience the uniqueness of the present.
The third thing I would say is that I think that people visiting Canada should learn more about First Nations and Haida art. First Nations art is amongst the most exquisite and amazing stuff you will ever see. Visit the in Vancouver. Get a blast of that North West Pacific First Nation Culture.
Who are your Canadian icons?
If I could have walked into the same streets that Joni Mitchell or Neil Young walked, that would have been a real experience for me. I’m of that generation, where I happen to think that the best songwriters in the North American continent come from Canada. And Mike Myers, you know, Canada leads the world in comedy as well. John Candy. But it’s surprising to find how many film stars are Canadians. Ryan Gosling, British people don’t know. It’s terrible. So, Canada is right up there. And when you throw all those museums and other things together, it’s a cultural breeding nursery.
Griff’s Canadian Adventure series airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on BBC First.