In 1965, an animation programme burst onto our television screens with a cast of characters who bobbed around a psychedelic roundabout chewing on sugar cubes and making wry references to politics and culture while amusing pre-school children with their playful antics.
The Magic Roundabout, with its kaleidoscopic narrative script by Eric Thompson, the late father of the actress Emma Thompson, came to epitomise the hippie ethic out of which it was born. Though a children's programme, it quickly became popular with adults who not only identified similarities to Tony Hancock's hangdog humour but thought they saw allusions to psychotropic drugs in the words and deeds of the oddball cast.
More than four decades later, Dougal the Maltese dog, Zebedee the jack-in-the-box, Brian the snail, Ermintrude the cow and Dylan the guitar-playing rabbit have been reconceived for a revamped Magic Roundabout – and this time they are a squeaky clean crew, circumambulating their fairground ride as computer-generated animations.
Graham Ralph, from Silver Fox Films, was given the task of directing the new show for a modern children's audience. "When I was approached to direct it, I was flattered, but also terrified at first, because it was childhood viewing for me. To have the responsibility to direct a show you have loved so much and considered so precious was daunting."
The aim, he says, was to create a production that lent itself more to an international audience, while keeping its innate Englishness. "We wanted to keep the spirit of the characters – but the original series was of its time," he said.
"Ours is not so psychedelic. It had to be different, because the marketplace has changed. Eric Thompson wrote his scripts as he went along, being wildly creative with little pressure about ratings. Nowadays, we have got to make sure it sells internationally. We can't make references to English parochial humour, which were in the original. If you make references relevant only to Britain, international audiences won't get it. This has clear storylines with international themes of friendship and slapstick humour."
Updated to contain original storylines and state-of-the-art CGI animation, what Ralph says he has created is good, clean family entertainment devoid of the cultural allusions of the original, all in the effort to make it more marketable abroad for its five- to-eight-year-old target audience. The series will be broadcast in 11-minute slots, and premieres today on Nickelodeon's pre-school channel, Nick Jr, with a simultaneous online airing.
Ralph believes that the failure of the 2006 feature film – released in America under the title Doogal and in Britain as The Magic Roundabout, with narration by Judi Dench and the voices of Kylie Minogue (Florence) and Sir Ian McKellen (Zebedee) – to achieve broad commercial success may have been the result of its cultural obscurity. "It did well in the home territories but not abroad," he said.
The original story, Le Manège Enchanté, was created in France in 1964 by Serge Danot. It was adapted for a British audience a year later, and over the following 12 years achieved cult status among an adult following for its dry humour, as well as providing hearty children's entertainment. At the time, Danot summed up its ethos: "It comes from a simple history of everyday life, with characters having humour, poetry and an anecdote, and aims to be as close to the parents as children,which makes it possible to join together various generations."
Ralph says that his new version of the show is a richer visual experience. "It looks expensive," he said. "It's much more lavishly lit, to capture a warm and safe world where the sun always shines. I wanted it to look like The Darling Buds of May with its traditional warmth, and the atmosphere to be like Last of the Summer Wine, to reflect a group of people living together."
The show's iconic elements are still there, he insists, and although Zebedee's famous last line, "It's time for bed", has been removed, Ralph pays homage to it in Dylan's new refrain, "I wish it was time for bed".
The sugar cubes so adored by the original characters have also been removed (due to the dubious nutritional value), but Dougal remains an anti-hero who "sounds a bit like Tony Hancock" and Ermintrude is still obsessed with flowers. For kids, Ralph says, it is a fast-paced comedy; for adults, nostalgia TV that will hopefully transcend nostalgia to entrance them all over again.
But for sceptics, it is the latest in a spate of children's remakes indicative of a growing crisis. The series comes fast in the footsteps of modernised versions of Noddy, Rupert the Bear, and most recently the 1970s Mister Men series, which will launch on Five in January.
Ralph said that while this resurgence is a reflection of the timeless appeal of these programmes, it is also a result of a climate in which investors see original children's programming as a risk, and the remake as a safe bet. "Investors feel more comfortable with classic titles because they have proven themselves to work. There is a tendency at the moment to invest in sequels or remakes rather than risk it with a brand new idea," Ralph says.
"I do believe children's television is in crisis. The Government restriction on the advertising of junk food on television shows imposed last year is really starting to bite hard. ITV is no longer commissioning any children's TV programmes. And even though the BBC is supporting it to some degree with five or six commissions a year, there are 200,000 development ideas out there."
He fears that British kids shows could be sidelined by imported shows that will impact detrimentally on national culture. "If we are not successful, America will be able to export all their programmes, and that's what our television stations will use. Our children will grow up thinking the number to dial for the emergency services is 911."
With The Magic Roundabout, Ralph believes he is fighting back. "We should be producing good local content reflecting the culture of the country, and although this series of The Magic Roundabout has international appeal, it feels very British."Reuse content