If you grew up in England in the 60s and 70s, you had the opportunity to have been exposed to the most mind blowing children’s TV series ever, The Magic Roundabout. In the five minutes it was on in the evening, you found yourself completely detached from reality as if you had been smoking something you shouldn’t have. From the outside, it looked innocuous, with simple characters moving around a scenery of paper trees and flowers. The closest you came to being drunk before the age of 10, it should have come with a PG-13 certificate. When the BBC tried to move it from the 5:55pm slot just before the evening news, there was a huge backlash from the parents. This wasn’t just a kids show; this was CRT crack. The source of addiction wasn’t that it was a perfectly crafted masterpiece; it was because it didn’t make any sense whatsoever.
Akin to the story of champagne, the show was originally French (a stop-frame animation piece called Le Manège Enchanté), but it turned into something amazing when they gave it to the British. The source of the secondary fermentation was that the British public’s grasp of the French language in the 1960s usually extended to shouting a lot. So while the French animation studio provided the films, dubbing was necessary in order to have it viewed by more than a few people in Footlights. However, the films did not come with the scripts, as they apparently would have cost extra. So instead of translating the video, they just threw out the audio track and started from scratch. Eric Thompson (Emma Thompson’s dad) was charged with writing a whole new series of scripts which, whether deliberate or the result of some heavy drinking down the pub, bore little, if any, resemblance to the originals.
The French cartoon was already a little off kilter thanks to the creativity of Ivor and Josiane Wood and Serge Danot. Thompson’s script’s technically fit the visuals, in the same way that chicken fried steak is technically breakfast, if eaten before 10am. Names changed; plot lines changed; and some decidedly questionable language was included. Regardless, whether he was partaking in the sixties one puff at a time, the results were outstanding.
In addition to traditionally inanimate objects like cannons, lamp posts, oil lamps and a whole plethora of bric-a-brac taking on personalities, there were some key characters who would be in each episode.
The main one is Dougal, a terrier dog who fortunately lost his outrageous British accent from the original version but retained his love of sugar lumps. Generally grumpy, he is typically the center of the chaos which is going on around him. Always wanting to get ahead, win, or be seen as important, the stories typically end up with his plans going haywire and him stomping off or sedating himself with sugar. Walking the fine line between cardiac arrest and diabetes, he was a role model for us all.
Other characters include Zebedee (Boing!) who is obviously a jack-in-the-box, without the box. If you could get over his prehensile mustache, ability to accelerate at several hundred G and achieve orbit, and intense interest in the only human girl in this microverse, you could start to question what his purpose was in the show. In fact, I am fairly sure that this was the model for Sportacus in Lazy Town. However, I am glad that the latter did not go around saying “Time for bed!”
There was a pink cow called Ermintrude, who sounded like an extreme form of Hyacinth Bucket and expected the whole world to revolve around her. Given her grip on reality, either she had escaped from an insane asylum, or, as soon as her relatives turned up, she was going to be introduced to some very nice men who would take care of her. Given most British children had at least one relative who fitted the bill, our laughter gave us an opportunity to purge some tension.
We also met a snail called Bryan who was almost always cheery, optimistic and generally clueless. The fact that he was pink, had a shell that looked like it was glued on, and wore a scarf and straw-hat brings up the question whether the idea came from a schoolboy’s prank. Basically, he looked like a dressed up penis. Bryan was always my favorite character, todger excluded.
Joining the crowd was a rabbit called Dylan (actually named after Bob Dylan) who was either high or asleep, sometimes both. As with most stoned lagomorphs, he tended to hang around in trees and say ‘Man’ a lot. As accents go, his was almost as far as you could get from Elvis and still be able to connect it to the source. Given his narcolepsy, his role seemed to be more one of scenery than story development (if there was a story).
As if they weren’t enough, tack on a train, who is never seen carrying anyone or anything in her carriages. A complainer at heart, she seemed to have no practical purpose, operated on her own timetable, and became unable to move as a result of the smallest impediment. As characters go, she was perfect British Rail.
There were also two main humans. The first was a young girl called Florence (the aforementioned focal point of Zebedee’s hormones). Her main tasks seem to be taking a passing interest in what was going on, commenting about her hair or apparel, asking Zebedee questions, and doing her best to maintaining some level of sanity. Given that her surroundings generally consisted of cows driving buses, dogs making films, obnoxious trains, walking violins, and talking snails, she too was probably destined for the looney bin.
Finally, there was Mr. Rusty who operated the roundabout. Not sure how they ended up in this world, but, given his confused and detached nature, I wouldn’t be surprised, if we were just watching Mr. Rusty’s hallucinations after having made himself an omelet with some mushrooms he found out while walking.
Unfortunately, due to the committees and focus groups which help chose today’s line-up, we will probably never see anything like The Magic Roundabout again on mainstream TV. It took a well animated show and that needed that extra something special. It was born out of a period where costs were lower; there was less choice (only 3 TV stations, kiddies); and there was a time slot which needed filling. It was the chicken and waffles of the BBC. Something that shouldn’t have worked, but someone gave it a go.
“Boing! Time for Bed!”