50 years after The Beachcombers first hit Canadian TV screens, Mountain Life celebrates a West Coast slacker icon. Words :: Grant Lawrence // illustration :: Ben Tour.
Before Schitt’s Creek, before Kim’s Convenience—even before Corner Gas, there was The Beachcombers. The Canadian TV show set in Gibsons, B.C. was an international smash hit, all about a group of salty blue-collar entrepreneurs whose lives revolved around their beat-up boats and a diner named Molly’s Reach.
This year, the show celebrates its 50th anniversary. It first aired on CBC Television on October 1, 1972 and ran weekly until 1990, making it the longest-running show in English Canadian TV history. And while plenty of The Beachcombers names and reference points have endured, the one moniker that is arguably the most synonymous with the show is… Relic.
The undisputed star of The Beachcombers was supposed to be Bruno Gerussi, who played protagonist Nick Adonidas, a proud Greek who ran a log salvage company with his First Nations buddy Jesse Jim, played by Pat John of the local Shíshálh Nation. But by the far the most beloved character was Relic who, played brilliantly by Robert Clothier, held a more antagonistic anti-hero role, and was once referred to as “Canada’s all-time most popular scoundrel” in the commemorative book Bruno and the Beach: The Beachcombers at 40.
For this landmark anniversary of the show, we’re here to celebrate Relic’s underlying legacy in West Coast life, lore, and culture. The iconic wharf rat’s look was disheveled and unshaven, with unkempt hair sticking out from under his omnipresent well-worn toque. An unbuttoned mack jacket pulled over layers of colourless shirts. Canvas flood pants held up by suspenders revealed beat-up Converse-style sneakers. If you were to walk into any craft brewing tasting room along the coast today and look around, chances are you’d see many of the staff and half the patrons adorned in that slacker-barnacle-Relic-style clothing. Relic: the hipster template.
Jackson Davies, who played the bumbling and hilarious Constable Constable on The Beachcombers, notes that Relic always existed on a whole other level of classic cool. When I asked him why, Davies put together the following list:
“Relic could drive his ultracool jet boat at 100 kilometres an hour, with one hand on the wheel, and the other resting on the windshield while playing with a toothpick in his mouth, with his knee pushed down on the throttle.”
“Relic was way ahead of the curve on the tiny housing craze, living in a one-room float house named the ‘Chuckchee’ down on the dock.”
“Relic’s actual character name was Stafford T. Phillips. The ‘T’ stood for Taffy.”
“Relic’s woolen headwear was so famous that Roots sold a knockoff Beachcombers toque.”
“Relic had omnipresent stubble long before Don Johnson. (Miami Vice ran for six years, The Beachcombers: 19).”
Relic’s last snarl came in the final episode of the series, entitled “Sunset,” in 1990. In 1996, Clothier suffered a stroke. He passed away in 1999 in North Vancouver at age 77.
Clothier may be gone, but Relic and the show have lived on in popular culture, having been referenced by bands like Relic’s Jetboat, Molly’s Reach, and Bruno Gerussi’s Medallion, as well as gathering mentions on TV shows like The Simpsons and Corner Gas.
This year, Bill Wouterloot, CBC Vancouver’s last remaining crew member from The Beachcombers, announced his retirement. When I asked Bill if he had any memories of Clothier’s Relic, he didn’t hesitate.
“Robert was the consummate professional. He always showed up on set knowing every one of Relic’s lines, and would accept any situation that they threw at Relic—no matter how disgusting.”
Clothier, also a decorated World War II pilot, had to be held back from doing many of the outrageous stunts involving his character, such as jumping the jet boat over a log boom or leaping into a mud pit, but in the episode where Relic does a swan dive fully clothed from the top of the Gibsons government wharf, yes, that’s really Clothier.
And while Relic was the ultimate duplicitous, miserly, grubby hermit, Wouterloot points out that Clothier was a gentleman. “What I always found so endearing,” continued Wouterloot, who did set design for the show, “was that if a small child came by, he would go out of his way to delight them with a story. That’s what I admired the most about Robert.”
So the next time you stop into Persephone Brewing in Gibsons, and the young, unshaven bartender in the toque and mack jacket serves up a cold glass of Coast Life Lager, be sure to raise a toast to the legacy of Robert Clothier’s Relic, icon of the coast.
Grant Lawrence is a CBC personality and the author of the award-winning bestseller Adventures In Solitude, and the recently published follow-up Return To Solitude. Both books were directly influenced by The Beachcombers, Grant’s all-time favourite Canadian TV show. Check out Grant’s live storytelling at An Evening of Stories and Songs in the Mountains on Thursday, June 16 at the Maury Young Arts Centre in Whistler.