Saturday, 7 January 2012
The Magic Roundabout (known in the original French as Le Manège enchanté) the classic kids programme created in France in 1963 by Serge Danot. Some 450 five-minute-long episodes were made and were originally broadcast between 1964 and 1971 on ORTF.
The BBC produced a version of the series using the original stop motion animation footage with new English-language scripts, written and performed by Eric Thompson, that had no relation to the original storylines. This version, broadcast from 18 October 1965 to 25 January 1977, was a great success and attained cult status, being watched by adults for its dry humour as much as by the children for whom it was intended.
Although the characters were common to both versions, they were given different names depending on the language.
The main character was Dougal (Pollux in the original French-language version) who was a drop-eared variety of the Skye Terrier.
In the French version Pollux was a British character who spoke somewhat broken French with an outrageous English accent, as a result of Ivor Wood's role as co-creator. His sweet tooth, shown through his fondness for sugar lumps, was based on a French belief that one of the traits of the English is a liking for sweets.
Other characters include Zebedee (Zébulon), a Jack-in-the-box; Brian (Ambroise), a snail; Ermintrude (Azalée), a cow, and Dylan (named after Bob Dylan) (Flappy) a rabbit, who in the French version was Spanish. There are two notable human characters: Florence (Margote), a young girl; and Mr Rusty (le Père Pivoine), the operator of the roundabout. Other less well known human characters, only seen on the roundabout itself during the credits, are Basil, Paul and Rosalie. There is also an adult character, old Mr McHenry who is seen only a couple of times.
The show had a distinctive visual style. The set was a brightly coloured and stylised park containing the eponymous roundabout (a fairground carousel). The programmes were created by stop motion animation, which meant that Dougal was made without legs to make him easier to animate. Zebedee was created from a giant pea which was available in the animation studio and was re-painted. The look of these characters was the responsibility of British animator Ivor Wood, who was working at Danot's studio at the time (and who subsequently animated The Herbs, Paddington Bear and Postman Pat).
The British (BBC) version was especially distinct from the French version in that the narration was entirely new, created by Eric Thompson from just the visuals, and not based on the script by Serge Danot. A former BBC employee, interviewed on BBC Radio in 2008, maintained that the original contract with the French owners did not include the scripts which accompanied the original animations (contrary to BBC assumptions). The BBC, instead of making a further payment to acquire the scripts, which would have required translation, decided to commission its own version - without access to the original French, and the English-language version therefore bears no resemblance to it.
The first BBC broadcasts were stripped across the week and shown at 5.44pm, just before the early evening news each day on BBC1. This was the first time an entertainment programme had been transmitted in this way in the UK. The original series, which was a serial, was made in black-and-white. It was made in colour from series 2, although the series was still broadcast in monochrome by the BBC up until the first colour episode was transmitted on 5 October 1970.
Fifty-two additional episodes, not previously broadcast, were shown in the United Kingdom during 1991 on Channel 4's News Daily. Thompson had died by this time, and the job of narrating them in a pastiche of Thompson's style went to actor Nigel Planer.
The British Dougal was grumpy and loosely based on Tony Hancock, an actor and comedian. Ermintrude was rather matronly and fond of singing. Dylan was a hippy-like, guitar-playing rabbit, and rather dopey. Florence was portrayed as courteous and level-headed. Brian was unsophisticated but well-meaning. Zebedee was an almost human creature in a yellow jacket with a spring instead of feet. He always appeared and disappeared with a loud "boing"-sound and usually closed the show with the phrase "Time for bed". In the first episode he was delivered to Mr Rusty in a box which he burst from like a Jack-in-the-box, hence the spring.
In the foreword to the recent re-release of the books, Emma Thompson explains that her father had felt that he was most like Brian of all the characters and that Ermintrude was in some respects based upon his wife, Philyda Law.
Other characters included Mr McHenry (an elderly man who rode a tricycle), Uncle Hamish and Angus (in "Dougal's Scottish Holiday"), and a talking Train with a 4-2-2 wheel arrangement and a two-wheel tender. Three other children, Paul, Basil and Rosalie, appeared in the original b/w serial and in the credit sequence of the colour episodes, but very rarely in subsequent episodes.
Part of the show's attraction was that it appealed to adults, who enjoyed the world-weary Hancock-style comments made by Dougal, as well as to children. The audience measured eight million at its peak. There are speculations about possible interpretations of the show. One is that the characters represented French politicians of the time, and that Dougal represented De Gaulle. In fact, when Serge Danot was interviewed by Joan Bakewell on Late Night Line-Up in 1968 his associate (perhaps Jean Biard) said that in France it was thought at first that the UK version of Pollux had been re-named De Gaulle, mishearing the name Dougal (as seen in the Channel 4 documentary The Return Of The Magic Roundabout (broadcast 08:50 on December 25th 1991 and 18:00 on January 5th 1992), and in the BBC4 documentary The Magic Roundabout Story (2003)).
In 1998, Thompson's stories were published as a series of four paperbacks, The Adventures Of Dougal, The Adventures Of Brian, The Adventures Of Dylan and The Adventures Of Ermintrude with forewords by Emma Thompson (Eric's daughter). The paperbacks were a major success for Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
For years, the series had re-runs on Cartoon Network (UK & Ireland), and was later moved to its sister channel, Boomerang.
In 1971 BBC Records released The Magic Roundabout (RBT 8) an LP containing 10 stories taken from the soundtracks of the TV series as told by Eric Thompson. Scripts by Eric Thompson, Original Music composed by Alain Legrand, Luc Aulivier, Serge Danot and Jacques Charriere, Musical arrangement and orchestral direction by Alain Legrand. The stories were:'Dougal's Experiment/A Starry Night/The Moody Concerto/Dougal's Adventure/The Stiff Necked Heliotropes' on side one and 'The Birds School/The Piano Carrier/Banana Skin/The Musical Box/The Announcer' on side two. This album has been re-released twice by the BBC on CD, in 2005 (BBC Audio:Children's) to coincide with the 'new' film and again in 2010 (Vintage Beeb) with a bonus interview with Eric Thompson and featuring the original LP artwork.
French soundtrack recordings were also issued in France in the 60's on three EP's and again on an LP 'Pollux' in 1983 along with an original single 'C'est moi Pollux'.