The Magic Roundabout holds a very special place in the heart of anyone who grew up in Britain from about the mid-sixties up to around the late-seventies. Over five-hundred delightful five-minute episodes were made of this charming stop-motion animated series, and screened regularly on BBC 1 just before the early-evening news each night -- sending a generation of toddlers happily on their way to the land of nod when the series’ spring-loaded, moustachioed jack-in-a-box character Zebedee bounced on screen at the end of each fluffy adventure to declare that it was ‘Time for bed!’ The reassuringly soothing voice of ex Play School presenter Eric Thompson provided the narration and all the voices for an oddball ensemble of characters led by favourites such as the curmudgeonly sugar-lump obsessive Dougal the Dog and the bohemian, hat-wearing Ermintrude -- a large oval-shaped purple cow. Their adventures took place in the magic garden: a whimsical haven of candy colours and pastel-shaded psychedelia which was also home to Brian the permanently happy snail; Mr Rusty, the Roundabout operator; Mr McHenry, a tricycle-riding gardener; Dylan the buck-toothed, and apparently always stoned, guitar-playing hippy rabbit; and Florence – a frizzy-haired little girl who visits the garden each day to pick posies and whom a besotted Dougal absolutely worships!
Thompson’s stories fulfilled the duel function of fleshing out the brightly coloured animated images with gentle humour and simple homilies for the children, while also dealing in a sly, sophisticated level of word-based, punning humour that adult audiences also quickly came to appreciate as they tuned in for the evening News which was scheduled to follow. The show regularly drew an audience of eight million or more. One of the strangest facts about this perennial favourite, which has become ingrained in British consciousness due to the depth of its familiarity to UK family audiences, is that originally it was a French-produced animation called Le Manège enchanté (The Horse-gear Magic) and was written and made by a man called Serge Danot. All the characters and the stories which British audiences came to know and love have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the tales Danot authored, and which gave the series its initial success with the French public in the early sixties.
Eric Thompson never listened to the original French soundtracks or read Danot’s scripts for the episodes, but instead crafted his own stories to accompany the silent animated visuals, and supplied all the characters with their voices and personalities from scratch out of his own creative imagination. Most likely this was a cost- and time-saving measure by the BBC in order to avoid the need for French-to English translations to be made, although some claim that Thompson hated the French version and simply refused to use the original scripts. In either case, the series that ended up on British screens is a hybrid: a peculiar mishmash of sixties French psychedelic visual surrealism and Thompson’s whimsical British humour. Dougal was originally named Pollux in the French version and was meant to be a comical English character, but in Thompson’s hands he quite obviously transformed into a clever impersonation of the great British comedian of the 1960s Tony Hancock, with Thompson copying both the tone of Hancock’s world-weary manner of delivery and the persona the comedian developed -- in his popular series Hancock’s Half Hour -- as a self-regarding narcissist with little self-awareness of his own vanity.
Thompson’s wonderful narration and his distinct voices and characters are, of course, completely essential to the show’s long-running success, but the importance of Serge Danot’s animation cannot be discounted either . The look of the show is quite unique to this style of stop-motion animation, despite subsequent attempts to copy it, and the visual appeal of the characters is no better demonstrated than by the huge range of commercial spin-off products the show generated which exploited the images of these popular characters, particularly the hugely endearing Dougal (who looks like nothing so much as a sausage wrapped in a shaggy hair appliance that’s been mounted on wheels) and the primary coloured, ever-happy snail, Brian.
By 1972, the series had ceased production in France, but undeterred, Danot continued to embellish the world of the magic garden and its occupants in this full-length feature film version called Dougal and the Blue Cat, which was also released in the UK, again with Eric Thompson’s own unique take on Danot’s inimitable brand of visual magic, and which includes a soundtrack of outlandish musical numbers (also performed by Thompson). For years the film has been unavailable for home viewing, but in the meantime the cult surrounding it has almost eclipsed the original series. It takes the gentle characters into unexpectedly unsettling territory in which the mild, candy-coloured surrealism of the original series seems almost to blur and then plunge into the ultimate bad acid trip during some of its more bizarrely nightmarish moments.
The film starts off with all sorts of unusal encounters and strange flights of fancy after a grumbling Dougal is woken up by his talking cuckoo clock when it inconveniently drops its pendulum on top of his head to rouse him from his bedtime slumbers. Dougal quickly remembers something strange happened during the night, so he takes a trip on a magic talking train to see Zebedee, who he hopes will be able to explain it all to him. On the way, he meets most of his friends from the magic garden and eventually finds the bouncing Zebedee conducting a choir of French schoolgirls shaped like lollipops (‘they do look very delicious’, opines Dougal). In flashback, Dougal relates to Zebedee how he was woken in the night by strange noises issuing from the old abandoned treacle factory on the hill, and the peculiar chant: ‘Blue is beautiful. Blue is best. I am blue. I am beautiful. I am best!’
Zebedee dismisses the whole thing as a dream and even the sensible Florence isn’t very interested in listening to Dougal’s strange story when the little dog pays her a visit in her brightly coloured home. This is because all of the occupants of the magic garden have found something else to be excited about. Out of nowhere, somebody new has unexpectedly appeared curled up on the Roundabout fast asleep. The new arrival wakes, unfurls and presents himself as a spindly-looking blue cat that goes by the name of Buxton and speaks in a lazy Northern drawl. Florence, Brian and all the others welcome him with joy and are delighted to learn that he plans to stay.
All of them bar one, that is: Dougal -- noting the unmistakable blueness of this inscrutable stranger, cannot help but recall his disturbing ‘dream’ of the weird goings on at the treacle factory, and immediately suspects that something is not right with this Buxton character. He’s even more distraught when the others elect that Buxton should stay at his house, because it’s the nearest and he has the biggest bed! ‘Call NATO! Bring in the United Nations! Convene the Security Council!’ the outraged dog demands. ‘I might even write to The Times … if I can find a stamp!’ Soon, everybody seems to be obsessed with the colour blue: Florence only picks blue posies and Ermintrude the cow’s artistic endeavours in oils have suddenly entered a trendy blue phase.
But Dougal is right to be suspicious of his new housemate. Buxton is a servant of the Blue Voice (the only character in the series’ history that isn’t voiced by Eric Thompson. Instead, Fenella Fielding provides its disembodied, imperious tones) and is on an evil mission to turn the whole magic kingdom blue and destroy or imprison anything or anyone who won’t comply. Soon, all of the garden’s multi-coloured flowers have been replaced by ugly spiky blue cacti; Zebedee’s magic moustache has been stolen, rendering him powerless; and a bewildered Florence and her simple friends find themselves imprisoned in a dank icy dungeon lair deep in the bowels of the old treacle factory. Only the hapless Dougal remains at large, but can he really pull himself together and save them all, even when being tempted with a roomful of sugar lumps?
A thinly veiled allegory about the dark appeal and the always-present threat of totalitarianism, Dougal and the Blue Cat is entertaining enough to children, but it is adults who remember the comforting charm of the original series from their childhoods who seem to really get freaked out by it. The five-minute long episodes we all remember from the 1970s always seemed fluffy, whimsical and charming and took place in a non-threatening, idyllic never-never land of Danot’s devising, where nothing remotely bad ever really seemed to happen and all problems could be solved in just a few minutes. The feature film suddenly confronts the mystified occupants of this formerly carefree world, with the ruthless, invasive malevolence of evil -- and it’s like watching a Dodo benignly walking into the jaws of its predators. The gentle Florence, dopey Dylan and happy-go-luck Brian and all the rest of the gang, simply have no conception of the disaster that is about to befall their world. ‘Please say it’s all just a game, Buxton,’ pleads a tearful Florence, shackled in coils of heavy chains in the dungeon, imprisoned with a padlock that’s almost as big as she is! The others all start crying too as Florence wonders aloud in song if: ‘we’ll ever play our games again?’ But if the grim fate of loveable childhood totems of innocence isn’t disturbing enough to the adult viewer, watching his/her favourite treat before bedtime suddenly take on a much more pronounced surrealist tone leads to a feeling of creepiness and unease which is probably lost on younger viewers previously unfamiliar with the TV series.
Most of this weirdness revolves around the new character Buxton: an amusingly evil creation who looks oddly emaciated but fiendishly sly and who, in Thompson’s script, can’t resist chuckling to the viewer about how evil he is every few minutes and proclaiming out loud in a pronounced Barnsley accent that, ‘this lot are going to be a push-over,’ after Florence and the gang first welcome him with a round of applause and loud hoorays. At the treacle factory, it transpires that the bizarre Blue Voice has arranged a test for Buxton, in order to see if he is fit to become her blue emissary in the world. A strange Lynchian animated sequence then occurs in which Buxton passes through a series of doors -- after naming their colours aloud -- behind which he encounters bizzare machines engaged in dyeing all clothes blue, a roomful of thunder and lightning, and a room of grotesque, grinning masks. After passing through each one, Buxton is awarded another rank and title, and after being shown a factory where his new blue army is being manufactured, he enters a throne room and is crowned King Buxton. Dougal later cons his way into the position of Prime Minister by dyeing his voluminous coat blue and pretending his name is Blue Peter (another in-joke for British fans: the children’s magazine show Blue Peter was always broadcast just before The Magic Roundabout on Mondays and Thursdays). Buxton attempts to ‘torture’ him first, by locking him in a roomful of sugar lumps, thinking that the real Dougal could never resist giving himself away (‘Blue Peter’ has previously declared a marked dislike for sugar); but Dougal remembers the plight of his friends and resists the temptations of his favourite food item! The film reaches its heights of offbeat strangeness with a 2001: A Space Odyssey pastiche in which the blue-painted Dougal and Buxton are sent on a mission to the Moon in order to claim it for the Blue Voice.
The film has been restored to its original glorious, fluffy candy shades of pink, orange and blue for this release from Second Sight and looks splendid. The English audio track is mostly fine, but suffers from the occasional crackling and popping, with one very brief instance of the soundtrack skipping, but it’s not a major problem. My screener copy featured just the English language version of the film, but purchasers of the DVD proper will also get the opportunity to hear the original French soundtrack with English subtitles, enabling them to compare and contrast the differing styles and approaches of the two versions. The DVD is also set to include a number of extra features, including interviews with: actress Emma Thompson (daughter of Eric Thompson), Phyllida Law (wife of Eric Thompson and inspiration for Ermintrude), actress Fenella Fielding and film critic Mark Kermode, who cites Dougal and the Blue Cat as one of his favourite films … alongside The Exorcist! A gallery of lobby cards and a stills gallery should also be included.
Dougal and the Blue Cat is a wonderful nostalgia blast for grown up children, but remains faintly unsettling, with its warped LSD-tinged visual inventiveness, its odd characters and surrealist comedy -- although the terror of it all should pass merrily over the heads of today’s youngsters and only really scare the adults who remember its much-loved TV forerunner.