After the sweeping Hazardous Products Act of 1971 was authored by Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s ruling Liberal Party, it fell to the Ministry of Consumer and Corporate Affairs (CCA) to educate and inform the public as to its finer points, including the creation of the new Hazardous Product Symbols: four icons that were to appear on the labels of items which contained corrosive, flammable, poisonous, or explosive materials. And who better to educate young people about these au courant symbols than a pair of inquisitive little green aliens named Binkley and Doinkel, and their lone Earth companion, a talking dog named Sniffer!
JC Sulzenko worked at the Ministry of CCA at the time, newly arrived from a private company which specialized in Public Service Announcements, and remembers her assignment well. “I was tasked with creating what I now would call a marketing program with young children as the prime audience. The thesis was that if kids recognized the four new symbols, they would be forewarned to stay away and not play with the containers. In reaching them with this information, it was also likely that we would be able to inform their caregivers and families at the same time about the dangers.”
Renowned Toronto advertising agency Vickers and Benson (famous at the time for their breakthrough William Shatner fronted “More than the price is right” Loblaws TV spots) had established a close relationship with the Liberal Party of Canada in 1968 after Trudeau’s ascendency to Prime Minister, and were hired to devise the creative concept behind the hazard awareness campaign. Starting with the idea that the best vessel for seeing things through fresh eyes might be that of outer space travellers, the simple yet highly effective modus operandi of Binkley and Doinkel was determined – they have come to Earth, and need to learn about potential dangers that should be avoided.
Meanwhile, around the same time, puppeteer Noreen Young was making waves at the Provincial broadcasting network of TVOntario (TVO). An Ottawa native who had built puppets from a young age and manipulated them into “incredible plots that would have rivalled Dallas,” Young was busy working on the flagship TVO children’s series entitled Read-A-Long, which was TVO’s attempt to mould a Sesame Street styled educational stew of live action, animated and puppet vignettes. Impressed by her wonderful creations, scope and ambition, Sulzenko approached Young to work on the Binkley and Doinkel project, to realize the characters in puppet form and help train the young players of “The Binkley and Doinkel Safety Show”.
CCA’s first wave plan was to barnstorm the country, coast to coast, with live puppet shows hosted by “The Mayor”, and featuring Binkley and Doinkel and an evil snake named Slither. These Punch & Judy puppet shows were staged in schools, parks, gyms, and playgrounds during the summer months in the early 1970s, under the aegis of the Government’s summer student employment program. While the puppets were built and repaired by Young, the operators were University students looking for a summer job, which allowed them to tour Canada and build up some live entertainment credibility. Although there was a fair amount of freestyle ad lib, the scripts for these live shows were in fact written by a young Vickers and Benson employee by the name of Barbara Amiel, better known nowadays as Lady Conrad Black. This travelling Binkley and Doinkel roadshow proved so popular that the National Film Board of Canada recorded a live performance, struck a 16mm film print and created video tapes allowing every school in Canada to screen the “The Binkley and Doinkel Safety Show.”
To reinforce the messaging presented in the live show, a comic book was produced and handed out at events and in schools. It re-told the story of Binkley and Doinkel, with two major changes: The evil character of Slither was replaced with that of a more Vaudevillian villain, a top-hatted, monocle wearing Basil Rathbone type blagard named R. Pugsley De Pugh, owing to the fact that the CCA had heard objections about stereotyping snakes and did not want to be seen encouraging kids to fear and wish to destroy them (JK Rowling later missed that memo).
Also added to the mix was Binkley and Doinkel’s Earth guide, a talking canine named Sniffer who dutifully served the exposition role vacated by the Mayor character in the live puppet show. The comic book included games and puzzles, and more detailed information on the new hazard symbols. Illustrated by legendary Canadian comic book artist Owen McCarron and his company Comic Book World, “The Adventures of Binkly (sic) and Doinkel” was first published in 1974.
In 1978, a second comic book was published, however this edition was illustrated by noted Quebec erotic-artist Diane Desmarais, and bore little resemblance to the first edition. Although the messaging remained consistent, Binkley and Doinkel looked far more alien and less kid friendly. The comic was titled “Haunting Signs”, and certainly struck a far more frightening and mature tone than its predecessor.
Also around this time, Binkley and Doinkel made the leap to broadcast television. The CCA collaborated with noted television production company Glen Warren (famous for such Cancon classics as The Starlost, The Littlest Hobo, and The Waterville Gang) to create four Public Service Announcements, one for each of the Hazardous Product Symbols, which went on to air nationally on CTV for almost a decade. For these PSAs Young created new Binkley, Doinkel, Sniffer and R. Pugsley De Pugh puppets. For Canadians of a certain age, these remain the definitive renderings of the characters. Owing to the sheer number of times the PSAs were broadcast, Binkley and Doinkel became forever associated with the Hazardous Product Symbols, and the spots went on to become the stuff of playground legend, especially after they vanished in the early 1980s. However, the story of Binkley and Doinkel was far from over.
A third and final comic book was produced in 1981, returning to Young’s original character design and drawn by Owen McCarron once again. Young was also contracted to create life-size Binkley, Doinkel and Sniffer costumes which went on to tour schools, malls and fairs, where the new comic (and stickers) were handed out to eager children. A new 12-minute live-action video was created by the National Film Board in 1982 to replace the aged “Adventures of Binkley and Doinkel” puppet show.
In 1984, Binkley and Doinkel were retired. It was felt that after more than a decade, the goal of educating young people and the populace at large about the hazard symbols had been achieved. Young continued to work with other Government agencies on puppet-led PSAs, most famously the travelling Geese used by Revenue Canada, Customs and Excise.
Although thirty years have passed since they last appeared on television, Binkley and Doinkel are still revered today, and remain an integral part of the fabric of uniquely Canadian safety characters such as Astar, Blinky and Elmer who helped kids at the time understand the dangerous world we live in. A similar project undertaken in Pittsburgh, PA in the early 1970s created the character of Mr. Yuk as a symbol of danger, where he lives on in infamy on YouTube to this day. It is hoped that by presenting these PSAs, long thought to be lost in time forever, Binkley and Doinkel can once again be enjoyed by new and old fans alike.
After a successful run in the civil service, JC Sulzenko left the CCA and became a popular author of both poetry and fiction for children and young adults, which she credits to working on the Binkley and Doinkel project. “There was scope, daring, creativity, fun – freedom to go where no other agency had dared to go. I gained a window on the world of puppetry and on working with children which has become my vocation as a writer in my non-retirement, post-government life. And Noreen was a joy to work with, soft spoken, brilliant, and memorable. Her expertise and word were golden. No wonder she was awarded the Order of Canada in recognition of her artistry.” recalls Sulzenko.
Noreen Young went on to great acclaim creating many beloved puppets for TVOntario programs such as Today’s Special, Téléfrancais!, We Live Next Door, and Calling All Safety Scouts, CBC’s long running Under the Umbrella Tree, and other varied series for The Disney Channel, BBC America, Canal Famille and Much Music. In 1995, Young was awarded the Order of Canada for her outstanding contribution to puppetry and children’s television. She is currently the Artistic Director and Founder of the Puppets Up! International Puppet Festival which runs August 10-11, 2013 in Almonte, Ontario, a two-day event dedicated to the art of puppetry.
Fans of the unforgettable green duo of Binkley and Doinkel will be glad to know that they are still on Earth, safe with their creator Noreen Young and living amongst her vast cadre of Canadian puppets, safe from the dangers of poison, explosive, corrosive and flammable materials.
Special thanks to JC Sulzenko and Noreen Young