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).