Was Zebedee on acid? Was Ermintrude based on Janis Joplin? Serena Mackesy hears the story behind `The Magic Roundabout' from the wife of its creator
PHYLLIDA LAW is in full swing. A beautiful woman, 65, grey-white hair piled loosely on the top of her head, searingly bright blue eyes, loud and spontaneous laugh, she is remembering Dougal. "My favourite remark was in the New Statesman. It said that Dougal was like Alf Garnett's moustache out for a walk. He was deeply curmudgeonly and very, very xenophobic."

Dougal, Ermintrude, Zebedee, and Brian are part of Law's family, extra offspring of her late husband, Eric Thompson. The first two of the couple's children are the actresses Emma and Sophie. In 1965, Thompson (Law, having never liked the name Eric, always refers to him as Thompson or Tom), a Play School presenter and scriptwriter, was asked to script and voice- over a French animated series, La Manege Enchante, for the BBC. That series, The Magic Roundabout, broadcast in a prime-time slot just before the Six O'clock News, introduced generations of children of the joys of the surreal. Bloomsbury, the publisher, has just issued a compilation of scripts, The Adventures of Dougal (pounds 5.99), guaranteeing that another generation will be served.

"He got pounds 15 an episode. That charming `it's not acting, you're just reading it' thing. He had no rights to anything but his scripts: not even to the names, although they were his," Law says. "Still, The Magic Roundabout helped us move from a flat to a heavenly house just up the road."

What nobody expected was the degree to which the hippies would adopt the series. Legends still abound: that the whole thing is an acid trip (and those mad sets do have a ring of Lennon and McCartney's navel-gazing period), that Dylan was based on Bob Dylan, that the roundabout is a reference to group sex, that Ermintrude was Janis Joplin, that Dougal was a radical free-thinking revolutionary.

Some of this would have to be put down to the chemicals the fans themselves were ingesting at the time. "Thompson was astonished. There were these extraordinary clubs all over the place. The army named a helicopter after Dougal. You still meet the odd student who can quote things at you. I couldn't do that. And I don't think Thompson would have been able to, either."

So where did the inspiration come from? A combination, it seems, of eccentricity and short-sightedness. "He used to work on a little old-fashioned editing machine. He worked it with his feet, and there was a tiny wee picture in the middle. Sometimes the pictures were so small that he would get the object wrong. He would write something based around the idea that it was a house, and it would turn out to be a sugar lump."

Most of the characters are, in fact, based on family members and personal heroes. Dougal was a combination of the writer and Tony Hancock. "He never listened to the French script. Thompson would never take us to a French restaurant. It was partly a joke, and a very Dougalish, Hancock sort of joke. He always thought he was like Brian the snail because he was irritatingly cheerful, but without doubt Dougal was to a great extent him.

"I'm supposed to be the cow, being theatrical and vague and calling people `dear thing'. I do call everybody darling, because I can't remember their names. The odd name was put in to amuse us: Auntie Megsie was my mother. Mr MacHenry was our local chemist. Buxton the evil blue cat was a cousin of mine: Tom thought it was an extraordinary name. Buxton was quite put out, I think. The French thought that Dougal was De Gaulle and were very offended.

"Thompson was rather surprised to hear that Dylan was a cokehead, or whatever. He was just asleep a lot, this rabbit. He never smoked or anything. Tom just shrieked with laughter. Not that he shrieked, because he was a straight man. It was me that did the shrieking."

Thompson was 35 when he had his first heart attack, almost concurrently with the The Magic Roundabout's inception. He died in 1982. "There was one way in which he was like Brian: he didn't impose his ill-health on people. He was cheerful, even when he had a stroke. It didn't change him a bit. Emma and Sophie taught him to speak again, and did it marvellously.

"He died when Emma was pushing 22 and Sophie 18. Children are odd creatures. It's the glances and atmosphere they pick up on rather than words. Emma says - we weren't a family that had rows to any extent - that she thinks we didn't because we were aware that it was a waste of time. We're a good- humoured family, and that's his legacy. He never imposed any sense of being an ill person on anybody. Extraordinarily courageous. If I'd been the one who was stricken, I'd have been in ribbons. But he absolutely ignored it."

Since his death, family fortunes have continued to rise, with Emma's international stardom, and both mother and younger sister working frequently. Sophie, given away in marriage by Phyllida and Emma in 1995, walked up the aisle to strains of the Roundabout theme tune.

But in spite of cheerfulness, the loss of husband and father at such a young age still pains. Law has never remarried: "I've never been asked. Not a smidgeon. Not a lover, nothing. I've not been avoiding it, not consciously. Except that a friend recently observed that I had the bedroom of a racy nun." And though her flat, with its leather-grained walls and sunny garden, is rich with the mementoes of an interesting life, she avoids, if she can, stirring up memories too vigorously.

"It's very interesting. We've got a video of our early lives, when the kids were little, and we've got all his work, but we never listen to them. We can't. We're all the same. Isn't that funny? I think I could have done it more easily soon after he died. I loved his voice. But I don't think I'd find it easy."

revealed: the truth about dougal & Brian

Hancock the dog

Who did Eric Thompson base the characters in The Magic Roundabout on? Speculation has always been rife, but his wife, Phyllida Law, says that although the New Statesman claimed at the time that Dougal was like Alf Garnett, the dog was in fact partly inspired by the comedian Tony Hancock (right) - although she says there was much of the author himself in Dougal.

A cheerful snail

Ermintrude the cow was based on Phyllida herself. "I'm supposed to be the cow, being theatrical and vague and calling people `dear thing'. I do call everybody darling, because I can't remember their names," she says. She believes Thomson (right) saw Brian the snail as rather like himself, because he was "irritatingly cheerful".

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