The Magic Roundabout: from A to Zebedee
What's in Dougal's sugar cubes, who would name a snail Brian and what's Kylie got to do with it? As a film of the BBC classic arrives in cinemas, Adrian Turpin spells out the facts
Saturday 29 January 2005
A is for Argyll, the unlikely birth place of a children's TV cult. In 1963, Eric Thompson was handed films of an obscure French children's animation when he was presenting
Play School and asked to create a version in English. Instead of trying to translate, he sat in the kitchen of their house on Scotland's west coast, turned down the volume and made up words to match the pictures. His widow, the actor Phyllida Law says: "While I was skimming stones in the loch with the girls, Mr Thompson would set himself up by the range with his cricket table and a wee whisky and rewrite the show. He'd play the original on an old Steinbeck projector... and he'd operate it with his feet. It was a laborious job." This way of working explains two things: Dougal's otherwise perplexing obsession with his Scottish heritage and some of the scripts' surrealism. Thompson's eyesight was such he often could not tell the difference between, say, a sugar lump and a house. The girls, incidentally, grew up to be the a
A is for Argyll, the unlikely birth place of a children's TV cult. In 1963, Eric Thompson was handed films of an obscure French children's animation when he was presenting Play School and asked to create a version in English. Instead of trying to translate, he sat in the kitchen of their house on Scotland's west coast, turned down the volume and made up words to match the pictures. His widow, the actor Phyllida Law says: "While I was skimming stones in the loch with the girls, Mr Thompson would set himself up by the range with his cricket table and a wee whisky and rewrite the show. He'd play the original on an old Steinbeck projector... and he'd operate it with his feet. It was a laborious job." This way of working explains two things: Dougal's otherwise perplexing obsession with his Scottish heritage and some of the scripts' surrealism. Thompson's eyesight was such he often could not tell the difference between, say, a sugar lump and a house. The girls, incidentally, grew up to be the actors Emma and Sophie Thompson.
B is for Brian the snail. "Snails," as Brian himself says, "are underestimated." It is hard to imagine how many of Dougal the dog's harebrained schemes would have ended in disaster without the measured mollusc. Thompson chose to call him Brian because he hated soppy names for animals, and he believed he was closest in character to Brian (though Law has suggested that her husband more closely resembled Dougal). Jim Broadbent does the voice in the movie, not that great such a leap from playing John Bayley in Iris when you come to think about it.
C is for cow. Ermintrude the Ayrshire is Brian's biologically unlikely love interest and has been credited with inspiring Molly Sugden's performance as Mrs Slocombe in Are You Being Served? (though whether that is a good thing is up to you to decide). According to Law, the barking bovine was based on her "theatrical and vague" self.
D is for Danot. The son of a tanner from near Sevres, Serge Danot might well have spent his life as a decorator if he had not broken his foot in an accident. But by the time he came up with the idea for Le Manege Enchante, in the early 1960s, he was working in advertising. Teaming up with the British animator Ivor Wood (see W), Danot filmed the early episodes in a derelict Parisian apartment block. Unlike the British adaptation, the original version had a separate actor playing each part. By comparison, it was also low on jokes. Yet the tale of a deserted merry-go-round brought back to life through the magic of a jack-in-the-box called Zebulon proved an instant hit, though that may have had as much to do with the dreary output of the state broadcaster ORTF as it did with Danot's storytelling. About 700 five-minute episodes were made.
E is for Eiffel Tower. One of Danot's early jobs was to help paint the Parisian landmark. It is said to have left him with an abiding hatred of green paint, which legend has it accounts for the red, white, blue and orange colour scheme of the "Bois Joli" and (excepting whatever Dylan the hippy rabbit may or may not be smoking) its lack of grass.
F is for Florence. Any resemblance between the tough but tender heroine and Emma Thompson is entirely intentional. (See also K)
G is for Gandalf. Spot the difference. In The Lord of the Rings, the future of Middle Earth lies in the balance. The plucky hobbits cross treacherous mountains to stop the evil Lord Saramon obtaining the ring he needs for world domination. In The Magic Roundabout movie, the fate of the enchanted kingdom lies in the balance. Brian, Ermintrude, Florence and Dougal brave volcanoes and icy wilderness to recover three diamond rings which the malign ice sorcerer Zebad (voiced by Tom Baker) needs to bring perpetual winter to the world. The struggle between good and evil even includes a scene in which Zebedee and Zebad fire lightning bolts at each other. And who plays Zebedee? None other than Sir Ian "Gandalf" McKellen. No wonder the film has already been called Lord of the Springs.
H is for Hancock. Eric Thompson based both Dougal's character and voice on Tony Hancock, although the dog has also been compared to another comic legend. The New Statesman once memorably described Dougal as like "Alf Garnett's moustache out for a walk". (See also X)
I is for Iran. Among 28 countries to which the show has been exported, though what the ayatollahs make of a cow that wears women's clothing is anyone's guess.
J is for Jasper Carrott. In 1975, the Brummie comedian released the single "Funky Moped", which reached number five in the charts The real reason for its success was the B-side. This scatological sketch about dark goings-on in the enchanted garden questioned Florence's virginity and saw Dougal relieve himself on her. The BBC banned it, and predictably, it sold 500,000.
K is for Kylie. As well as lending her voice to Florence in the new film, the pop princess sings a new theme tune that is almost as sickly as Dougal's diet of sugar cubes. The original fairground theme was speeded (no pun intended, see L) for British tastes. In 1991, it was used in the dance tracks "Magic Style" by the Badman and "Summer's Magic" by the Badman.
L is for LSD and every other drug under the sun. This is the Magic Roundabout's answer to The Da Vinci Code. In the geekish mythology of children's television only the debate about whether Captain Pugwash had a character called Master Bates generates as much heat. (It did not). Conspiracy theorists have made much of Dougal's sugar-cube habit (LSD?) and Brian's speediness (amphetamines), while the rabbit's name, Dylan, and all-round spaciness have only fuelled speculation on about what he may have been smoking. And why, too, does Ermintrude spend all day chewing flowers which makes her head spin round? In this interpretation, Mr Rusty's invitation to the others to take a "trip" on the roundabout is far from innocent. The set's psychedelic colours and Zebedee's passing resemblance to Frank Zappa are wheeled out as supporting evidence. The only flaw with this theory is that when Serge Danot created the puppets, the 1960s drug culture did not exist. Interviewed last year, Danot's widow, Martine, was aghast at the idea. "On drugs? No, absolutely not. They were all sweet characters created entirely for children, Of course, they were products of their age, the 1960s, but drugs? No, maybe that's the way you saw it in Britain, but I can assure you that here in France nobody thinks or thought that."
M is for merchandising. For all its hippy-dippy vibe, the show was ahead of its time in terms of selling spin-offs, though it is hard to see how the hyperactive Dougal was the ideal role model for Dougal-branded dog food. These days, about £800 will secure you a mint Corgi Magic Roundabout Playground set in its box (although for not much more you could probably get a life).
N is for names. "The odd one was put in to amuse us," Phyllida Law says. "Aunt Megsie was my mother. Mr MacHenry [the gardener, left] was our local chemist. Buxton the evil Blue Cat (see Y) was a cousin of mine. Tom [Eric Thompson] thought it was an extraordinary name. Buxton was quite put out."
O is for old enough to know better. After the BBC moved the programme from its slot at 5.55pm, Oxford University students created a petition, and school teachers wrote to complain. The RAF once named a helicopter after Dougal, and (in the days before such celebrity names were common) a woman from Macclesfield shocked her neighbours by naming her child Zebedee in homage. Expect the Kylie connection to push "Florence" up the baby-name chart in 2005.
P is for Pollux, the French name for Dougal. Confusingly, he speaks and barks with an English accent (that's "bow wow" rather than "ouah-ouah", but musically, Pollux proves to be categorically, 100 per cent Gallic. Can you imagine any self-respecting English dog releasing a single with the lyrics "It's me Pollux, a little bit snobbish but not snobbish for luxury, I prefer my sugar to a cigar, I love the disco of Mr Rusty"?
Q is for queer theory and The Magic Roundabout. Only kidding, though there have been a few uncalled-for remarks about Florence's footwear.
R is for Robbie Williams. The singer's decision to accept the role of Dougal appears to be an attempt to overcome childhood trauma. "I was scared of animation when I was a kid," he says. " Doctor Who was no problem but as soon as Magic Roundabout came on I used to hide behind the sofa."
S is for sex. Another outlandish claim is that the roundabout represents wife-swapping, and the permissive society (no, I do not get it, either). True Magic Roundabout fans get irritated if you even suggest that Florence is Dougal's girlfriend. As one of the many fan sites points out, the makers were not that weird.
T is for terrier. Dougal is a Maltese terrier, not as some have suggested a hairy sausage-dog. True, his lack of legs is not anatomically accurate, but it made life an awful lot easier for Danot to shoot 24-shot-a-second stop-frame animation. Despite being CGI-animated, the new Dougal is still happily legless.
U is for urban planning. The Magic Roundabout is surely the only children's programme in history to have leant its name to a traffic junction. And not any old junction. Invented by some fiends at the Road Research Laboratory in 1972, Swindon's Magic Roundabout is a roundabout that itself contains five mini-roundabouts. Despite a game attempt by the council to call it County Islands, the nickname soon won out, a tribute perhaps to the sense of druggy panic it inspires in many motorists.
V is for verbosity. Eric Thompson, (who by now you may suspect was a little eccentric) did not feel children should be talked down to, and was even known to instigate sophisticated conversations with babies in prams. When a woman once wrote to complain that the adult vocabulary used in his Magic Roundabout scripts, he reached for the Oxford English Dictionary and proceeded to write a reply employing the longest words he could find.
W is for Wood, Ivor. After the animator finished his collaboration with Serge Danot, he went on to create Postman Pat and The Wombles. This can only be meat and drink to dedicated drugs and sex conspiracy theorist, a relentlessly cheerful man with an enlarged nose who delivers packages all day, and a group of characters who wander around a park pretending to pick up litter. It is all beginning to make sense.
X is for Xenophobia. It is often said the French were offended by naming the dog Dougal, perceiving this as a slight to General Charles de Gaulle, although it is hard to believe that anyone would have known or cared. But it is true that Thompson did not trust the French, to the extent that he refused to take his family to French restaurants.
Y is for Young One. Nigel Planer, who played the hippy Neil in The Young Ones, - adapted and narrated 52 "lost" episodes shown by Channel 4 in 1992. Y is also for yawn when everyone said they were not as good as the originals.
Z is for Zebedee. Who always had the last word. Time for bed.
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