| When French animator Serge Danot began work on a small scale animated
series called "La Manege Enchante" back in 1963, he can hardly
have realised that he was creating something that would become an integral
part of popular culture in another nation altogether. The series that he
produced is famous and well-known enough in France, but it was to be in
Britain that "The Magic Roundabout", as it was retitled through
the miracle of translation, really found its way into the affections of
the public. So much, in fact, that in time it would become possibly the
only product of French popular culture to have a major geographical feature
in this country named after it (unless, of course, there's a Johnny Hallyday
Avenue out there somewhere).
The story of what would eventually become "The Magic Roundabout
" began when Serge Danot was commissioned by the French television
channel RTF to create a short animated series for children. Danot and
his film crew (which included a young British animator named Ivor Wood,
who would later return to Britain and go on to create the similarly successful
"Postman Pat") spent most of 1963 working on the first set of
episodes in the appropriately bohemian setting of a derelict Parisian
house, where the huge studio lights that they used kept blowing the fuses.
Danot's basic concept for the series was that it would be set in a Magic
Garden owned by roundabout operator Pere Pivoine and a strange creature
on a spring known as Zebulan, which attracted such visitors as a girl
called Margotte and a rabbit named Flappy.
Ivor Wood suggested that Danot's
characters should be joined by Pollux the dog, mainly because he had created
a dog puppet with no legs (instead, it moved around on wheels that were
obscured from view by long hair) that would allow them to save time and
money on animating it. The bright and sharply contrasting colours (which
were obvious to viewers even though the early episodes were shot and transmitted
in monochrome) and charming stories ensured that "La Manege Enchante"
was to become a huge success with French audiences, and the beautiful
semi-psychedelic theme song, with its mesmerising organ work and vocals
shared between a child and a Charles Aznavour soundalike, embellished
the engaging otherworldly nature of the series. However, the "La
Manege Enchante" was not to meet with its largest acclaim until it
was spotted by chance by an overseas broadcaster.
Doreen Stephens, Head of Family Programmes at the BBC, saw a selection
of episodes of "La Manege Enchante" in 1965 and decided to buy
it for transmission in an early evening weekday pre-news slot. However,
the series as it was transmitted over here was different to the French
original in several significant respects. The theme song was sped up drastically
and turned into a manic organ instrumental by a gentleman named Alain
Legrand, but the most important work in reshaping the series was undertaken
by the actor selected to provide the narration, Eric Thompson. Also a
presenter on BBC2's pre-school programme "Play School" at that
time, Thompson had notoriously strong ideas on what he thought constituted
suitable entertainment for children, and was tireless in his quest to
treat his audience with as much intelligence as he possibly could. He
loathed the original French stories, which it is claimed he regarded as
simplistic and dull, and refused to work with a straightforward translation.
Instead, he watched the episodes with the soundtrack turned down, created
new names and personalities for the characters, and invented completely
new storylines to match the on-screen action.
The resultant scripts were
sharp and witty, and traded in language and humour that was far in advance
of the level of sophistication that might usually have been expected in
a programme of this nature. This inevitably drew some criticism from concerned
parents and educational experts, but Thompson refused to listen to their
reasoning (or, to be more accurate, their lack thereof). He once replied
to a viewer who complained that he used too many long words by writing
them a letter using all of the longest words that he could find in the
dictionary, and is said to have sent a 'strong' letter to a mother who
had written to express her concern over the fact that her son had started
to refer to his sister as a 'mollusc'. In a peculiar echo of the way that
Scott Walker's contemporaneous interpretations of Jacques' Brel's compositions
added an entirely new depth that complemented the originals, the imagination
and hard work that Eric Thompson put into his interpretations of the visuals
created by Danot's team resulted in what was, to all intents and purposes,
a new programme.
Initially thirty nine episodes of "La Manege Enchante" were
reworked for the BBC by Eric Thompson, and "The Magic Roundabout"
made its debut in the British television schedules late in 1965, somewhat
typically misdescribed by the "Radio Times" as something along
the lines of "an exciting new foreign series". This rather sober
and lacklustre description might have made it sound superficially similar
to such tedious imported eight million episode children's drama series
as "The Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe", but "The Magic
Roundabout" was refreshingly different - due as much to Danot's attractive
and distinctive visual style as Thompson's scripts - and the series made
its mark straight away.
Unusually, this initial set of episodes contained a running storyline
of sorts, and they have a strangely different feel to that of the more
widely-remembered incarnation of "The Magic Roundabout". The
series opened with Mr. Rusty, an old roundabout operator, feeling sad
because no children ever seemed to visit his Magic Garden any more. Zebedee,
a jack-in-the-box with magical powers, arrived in the post and announced
that he had sent himself to help Mr. Rusty overcome his problems. Together
they repaired and rebuilt the roundabout, and before long the Magic Garden
had attracted a new group of regular young visitors - Florence, Paul,
Basil and Rosalie - and a curious (or, to be more accurate, nosey) dog
named Dougal. Other characters may well have enjoyed a proportionately
greater share of the screen time, but it was Dougal who was to emerge
as the true star of the series.
World-weary, cynical and imbued with major
delusions of self-importance, the character of Dougal was intentionally
based on the comic persona of the brilliant Tony Hancock, even down to
Thompson's deliberate approximations of his vocal inflections. As time
went by and further episodes were bought and shown by the BBC, the evolving
plotline was abandoned in favour of self-contained stories. However, the
subsequent episodes also saw the arrival of many other well-loved characters,
including the terrifyingly over-energetic cow Ermintrude, the guitar-wielding
beatnik rabbit Dylan, and most memorably the irrepressibly chirpy snail
Brian, whose cheerful nature and permanent smile never failed to be a
major source of annoyance for the relentlessly dour Dougal.
At its peak, "The Magic Roundabout" was attracting audiences
of eight million viewers; this was almost twice as much as most other
BBC childrens' programmes could manage at the time, and almost as high
a figure as that of the day's main news bulletin that invariably followed
it. The distinctive visual style of the series made it ideal fodder for
tie-in merchandise, and an enormous range of spin-off products were soon
available. These ranged from heavily stylised toy cars containing plastic
models of the series characters (which are now highly collectable) to
books written by Thompson which, reflecting his aims and intentions for
the series, were packed with those controversial 'long' words and adopted
a structure more commonly associated with books intended for adults. At
one point in the 1960s, the BBC (for reasons best known to themselves,
as always) decided to move the series back an hour in the schedules, and
were amazed to recieve sackfuls of letters of complaint from adults who
were no longer able to see it.
Similarly, a competition relating to the
series staged by the BBC's children's magazine programme "Blue Peter"
generated more than one hundred thousand entries, and a short gap in the
series' transmission was met by a petition from an Army Barracks demanding
its instant return! Serge Danot was both aware of and extremely proud
of the success of his creation in Britain, although legend has it that
he was initially somewhat less than happy with the naming of Dougal, which
he took to be a pun on the name of French Defence Minister Charles De
Gaulle. Nonetheless, he made several promotional visits to the UK, and
on one occasion in the late 1960s took part in an edition of BBC2's arts
review show "Late Night Line-Up" devoted to the origins and
success of the series. Amazingly, this edition still exists in full in
the BBC's archives, and some tantalisingly fascinating interview clips
with Danot have been used in various documentaries in recent years.
In 1971, after one hundred and sixty episodes had been made, "La
Manege Enchante" came to an end in France in 1971, as the television
networks began to favour hand-drawn animation over the stop-motion variety.
However, the BBC still had a plentiful supply of 'new' episodes to show
(they did not begin to transmit the colour episodes, which Danot had been
making since the mid-1960s, until October 1970), and in fact were able
to continue showing previously unseen episodes of "The Magic Roundabout"
until 1977. Even after the end of the series, Danot continued to work
with the characters, and in 1972 he produced the full-length feature film
"Pollux Et Le Chat Bleu", which arrived on these shores through
the unique translational filter of Eric Thompson as "Dougal And The
Blue Cat". This bizarre film treads a fine line between being charming
and genuinely chilling, relating the thought-provoking story what happened
when the inhabitants of the Magic Garden put their trust in a mysterious
blue cat named Buxton, whose friendly demeanour masked a sinister plan
to recolour the entire world blue.
Dougal, who was never taken in by his
posturing, eventually manages to save the day (by way of a surreal visit
to the moon, and an even more absurd sequence in which he poses as a blue
lookalike of himself), but "Dougal And The Blue Cat" is a genuinely
exciting and even at times disturbing film, veering wildly between such
comic pieces as Dougal arguing with his abrupt and impolite cuckoo clock
and such upsetting images as the well-loved characters being locked in
a dungeon by Buxton (even then, though, they manage to inject a little
humour into proceedings when they pretend to taunt the 'blue' Dougal).
"Dougal And The Blue Cat" is often unfairly disregarded as a
nondescript, standard cinematic interpretation of a popular childrens'
television programme, but it deserves far greater recognition than that.
The blend of humour, music (a highly collectable soundtrack album was
issued at the time of release, containing songs and incidental music interspersed
with Thompson's narration), strangely disquieting moments and brilliantly
composed visuals make it far closer to The Beatles' "Yellow Submarine"
than it is to any standard shoddy cash-in piece. From the opening argument
with the beligerent cuckoo clock right up to the closing fall of snow
as happiness is restored to the Magic Garden, the brilliantly crafted
film is nothing short of excellent.
As is usually the case with 'cult' children's television programmes,
"The Magic Roundabout" has in later years found itself dogged
by bizarre rumours - namely, in this instance, the suggestion that it
was somehow inspired by the ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs and that
its characters contained those elusive, Beatles album cover-like 'coded
symbols' that supposedly refer to the favoured mind-altering substances
of the day. Many a superficial individual blessed with the ignorance of
a selective memory will swear as if giving evidence in court that such
wild allegations were genuine and true, but unfortunately for them and
their weak imaginations, all of the available evidence points to the contrary.
Not only was Serge Danot at least well into his forties by the time that
he began work on the series, but at the time that "La Manege Enchante"
first went into production in 1963, many of the 'substances' that were
supposedly being referred to were in fact only just becoming known even
to scientific researchers. Numerous members of Danot's team, including
Ivor Wood, have laughed off the suggestion that drugs were invovled in
the creative process, and Phyllida Law (Eric Thompson's widow) treats
the pathetic rumours with similar disdain. Stick that in your so-called
'pipe' and smoke it.
Even after the BBC had stopped showing "The Magic Roundabout",
the series and its characters remained lodged in the public's affections
and enjoyed enduring popularity. Many years before the current boom in
sales of videos of old childrens' television programmes, the popularity
of a compilation of episodes of "The Magic Roundabout" took
the BBC completely by surprise, and the title was reissued on at least
two occasions. In 1991, the series made an unexpected and much-publicised
return to British television. Discovering that several of the original
episodes had not been translated or transmitted by the BBC, Channel 4
bought the rights to a total of thirty nine episodes which they intended
to add to their own children's programming. Eric Thompson had sadly died
in the early 1980s, and for this new set of episodes his place was taken
by Nigel Planer, whose Mr. Rusty-lookalike brother Roger was acting as
producer for the project. In addition to translating and redubbing the
episodes, the Planers also produced "The Return Of The Magic Roundabout",
a tongue-in-cheek 'documentary' shown on Christmas Day 1991. The bizarre
storyline follow's Planer's life as he finds himself haunted by the programme,
which hounds him eventually to the extent of leaving cryptic messages
on his answering machine.
A riot of jokes based on 1960s conspiracy theories
(including an amusing cameo by Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour), interviews
with everyone from John Craven to Roy Hattersley, visits to archives with
ominously missing tapes and files, and a final climactic encounter with
Michael Grade ("Sir Michael... Your Gradeness"), the programme
was seen by few but stands as one of the most genuinely individual and
downright surreal comedy shows of the decade, and really deserves to be
dusted down and given a repeat showing. The Planers also produced an equally
amusing book, "Zen And The Magic Of Roundabout Maintenance",
which told the same story from the point of view of the characters, and
also posited a disturbing new conspiracy theory about the series: 'da
da', as in the phrase that most people use when attempting to sing the
theme tune of "The Magic Roundabout", was also the name of a
nihilistic 1960s European art movement.
Although the original Eric Thompson episodes are not currently available
on video or being repeated, which seems a bit strange in light of the
fact that videos of old children's television shows are selling so well
at the moment, the Nigel Planer episodes are in constant rotation on terrestrial
and cable television. While purists might feel that the latter don't quite
manage to scale the exact same heights as Thompson's originals, they are
still highly enjoyable and very much in the style and spirit that always
characterised "The Magic Roundabout". Thompson's original storybooks
and scripts have recently been issued in book form, they are highly recommended
to anyone who has ever enjoyed the series. In fact, despite the initial
merchandising goldrush that surrounded the original broadcasts, "The
Magic Roundabout" seems to have escaped the superficial adoption
of inconography that has dogged many other vintage BBC childrens' programmes,
and the majority of present day interest in the series comes from those
who show proper appreciation for the series rather than just deciding
that its characters would look good as a mobile phone cover. If only the
BBC would dig out the original episodes...
Note: Many thanks to Tim Worthington for his kind permission to
reprint this article.
(Copyright © Tim Worthington).