Keith Guvara challenged me in the comments to my review of Stalker to write about the Magic Roundabout. So he must share some responsibility for what follows.
Pity the child of the 1970s, growing up in a time before DVDs, VHS tapes, satellite television and the internet. Actually, don’t pity the child of the 1970s, because not having these things doesn’t necessarily make life worse, just different. For a start, in the 1970s the recent past seemed a lot further away – the 1960s, just ten years before, seemed like a strange, distant world. For a start, a lot of the people were in black and white. And that’s just confusing for a child.
But there’s not a strict cut-off between black and white and colour, because colour film had been around for a while and some shows that we in the UK first saw in black and white (like Star Trek, for example) had been shot in colour. And broadcast in color in America. The Magic Roundabout was another show that I first saw in black and white in the ’70s, mainly because my parents didn’t own a colour TV until relatively late on. It was still brilliant though.
The past also seemed further away because we couldn’t access it at will. Yes, we had records, but TV was a strictly linear experience – you watched what you were given, on one of three channels. There were repeats and films would come around again at the cinema – Saturday matinees of children’s movies and the like – but we couldn’t buy a DVD or even a VHS tape of a film and choose when to watch it.
No, we had to rely on the soundtrack album. Now these varied wildly – many were conventional musical soundtracks. I remember being massively disappointed when my father bought the Star Wars soundtrack. There was no talking on it, just music! Can you imagine? Why would anyone want an album without the talking on it?
Much better was the soundtrack album of Dougal and the Blue Cat – the Magic Roundabout film. But of course, at the time, I didn’t know that it was a film. To me, it was just a record. A slightly weird record with some spooky voices on it. Particularly Fenella Fielding as the Blue Voice, the mysterious benefactor of the eponymous Blue Cat. Now Fenella Fielding’s great, even when you can only hear her. I mean, okay, she’s pretty distinctive to look at (I’m thinking now of her classic turn in Carry On Screaming, that most non-Carry On of Carry Ons) but that voice. Oh, that voice. You don’t need to see Fenella Fielding for her to have a real presence in a piece. For example, she was the voice of the public address system in The Prisoner. And, as the character the Blue Voice in the Magic Roundabout film, also just a voice. But no less scary for being just a voice. More scary, in fact, as she puts the evil blue cat Buxton through his paces in the old treacle factory on the hill.
The hairs on the back of my neck have stood up, just typing that phrase ‘the old treacle factory on the hill’. It’s impossible to write about the Magic Roundabout without waxing lyrical about Eric Thompson, Emma Thompson’s father. It’s also impossible to mention Eric Thompson without also mentioning the fact of his paternity. Although that inevitability is in itself nowhere near as depressing as the moment when I realised people had stopped describing Nigella Lawson as ‘Nigel Lawson’s daughter’ and started describing him as ‘Nigella Lawson’s dad’.
But that phrase ‘the old treacle factory on the hill’ sums up Eric Thompson’s whole approach to the Magic Roundabout.
It’s well documented that his method of working was to sit down with silent copies of episodes of La Manege Enchante imported from France and write a script to fit the pictures. Now this kind of layered working, where you’ve got multiple levels of creativity triggering off each other, leads to the kind of richness that still makes watching the Magic Roundabout such a rewarding experience. Something’s being added at every level. Remember that, I’ll come back to that.
And it’s interesting how he rises to the challenge of expanding what is a short-form TV show into a feature length narrative. Now, this is the perennial problem of the film spin-off and at this point I am again contractually obliged to mention both Mutiny on the Buses and Ali G Indahouse. Or whatever it was called. Anyway, we all know that it’s very difficult to expand a TV piece into a feature length narrative. But Dougal and the Blue Cat does work very well.
The original reason that Thompson made up new stories from the silent French film reels is that the BBC had overlooked the fact that they’d failed to buy the rights to the scripts when they bought copies of the pictures. Rather than pay the French TV company an extra fee for the scripts, they got Thompson to make up new stories as well as provide new voices. I suspect that with the movie he was working to an existing plot, as it seems to fit very well. Although it lacks the lightness of touch of the original TV series, it makes up for it with a sense of the sinister and the dangerous that is usually absent from the TV show. And as a child I loved that – the introduction of threat to a previously safe environment.
And how much more frightening it is when all you have is the soundtrack record. As a listener, you’re forced to add in the visuals, to imagine what the old treacle factory on the hill actually looks like and what kind of terrible things might have gone on there under the reign of the Blue Voice. So again, as the audience you’re adding something new to the mix, layering in more detail.
When the film was finally released on VHS in 1989 it was a bit of a disappointment. Perhaps not due to the film itself, but due to me. I’d grown up and lost some of the capacity for imagination that made the soundtrack album such a potent force in the ’70s. Even so, there were moments that pushed through from my repeated listenings in the ’70s. Moments that seemed oddly familiar (because they were) alongside moments that seemed completely new (because the soundtrack album had inevitably been abridged to fit on to a standard LP).
Nostalgia is often seen as the enemy of innovation – the retreat to the comfortable ache of the past, rather than pursuing something genuinely new. I’d argue that it doesn’t have to be an opposition. Every time you read, watch or listen to something you can have a new experience. New aspects appear that you hadn’t appreciated before. New connections are made. New resonances with things that have happened to you (obviously in this case, this would have to be a little abstract – I’ve not yet met a blue cat named after a market town in Derbyshire. There’s still time.). You can add new layers to old media. And now that the past is always with us, in the form of the internet, we have the chance to do that more than ever before.