British politics in the last few months has seen a hardening of attitudes towards Europe. Only half a dozen years ago, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was regarded as a weirdo minority faction populated by Daily Mail readers that had only two policies, getting Britain out of the European Union and bringing back hanging. Correspondingly, it seemed to have only two members that anyone had heard of, tanned former Tory MP and egomaniac Robert Kilroy-Silk and aging glamour-puss actress Joan Collins.
(These days Joan Collins is best remembered for playing villainess Alexis Colby in the overwrought 1980s soap opera Dynasty. But personally, I’ll always cherish her appearances in a string of low-budget British horror and exploitation films that she made in the early 1970s – Tales from the Crypt, Fear in the Night, I Don’t Want to be Born and Revenge, in which she had a fight with James Booth meagrely but spectacularly clad in her underwear – though no doubt Joanie herself would rather forget this part of her CV.)
Now, under the leadership of Nigel Farage, a figure more media-savvy but no less ridiculous than Kilroy-Silk, UKIP regularly shows more support in opinion polls than the hapless Liberal Democrats and can claim to be Britain’s third-most popular party.
In addition, David Cameron’s Conservative Party is riddled with ‘Euro-sceptic’ MPs who are as keen for Britain to head for the EU’s exit door as UKIP is. Small wonder that many political and economic commentators are now pondering what the consequences of a Britain-free EU might be: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21567940-british-exit-european-union-looks-increasingly-possible-it-would-be-reckless.
The irony is that in terms of social expectations and cultural tastes, Britons more closely resemble their fellow Europeans than ever. In fact, it’s been 40 years since Britain joined the European Union, or the European Economic Community (EEC) as it was then. It’d be wrong, however, to believe that 1973 was when Britons got their first exposure to Europe’s continental culture and from then on they gradually evolved into a nation of expresso-drinkers, pasta-eaters and watchers of TV crime shows featuring Danish lady detectives in chunky jumpers. Indeed, 40 years ago, one area of British life had already been culturally colonised by the Continent. That area was children’s television.
In my boyhood, in the 1970s, the BBC felt obliged not only to broadcast juvenile programmes from 4.00 to 5.45 PM, to entertain kids after they’d arrived home from school, but also during the mornings of school-holiday periods. The morning schedules of the seemingly-endless summer holidays in particular were a challenge for the BBC to fill with kiddie-related material. As a result, the channel had to regularly raid its archives for old, dubbed children’s shows from France, Germany and elsewhere and broadcast them.
Let’s begin with my least favourite. Growing up on a Northern Irish farm where there weren’t many neighbours to mix with, I depended for company during the summer holidays on the elderly couple who lived a few hundred yards along the road from our farmhouse – more precisely, I depended on their two granddaughters, who were around my age and usually came to spend part of the summer with them. Aged seven or eight years old, the neighbours’ granddaughters were a pair of Tomboys who were dependable for games of cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians and other activities that normal ‘girlie-girls’ didn’t like playing. However, they had one weakness, a fondness for a show called White Horses. This was a co-production between German and Yugoslavian TV that’d been made back in 1965 but that rarely seemed to be off the BBC’s children’s holiday schedules in the early-to-mid-1970s. It followed the adventures of a girl from Belgrade, Julia, who was staying on her uncle’s horse ranch. Populating the farm were handsome white steeds that made girls only slightly too old for My Little Pony swoon with adoration.
As a boy, and not a fan of horses (white or otherwise), I thought this was the dumbest programme ever and it constantly annoyed me that on those summer mornings the games of cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians would suddenly stop and my two playmates would run indoors to sit goggle-eyed in front of their television the moment White Horses came on. I have to say, though, that while I generally remember other kids’ TV programmes from then but not the details of individual episodes, two episodes of White Horses remain etched on my mind. In one episode Julia found a metallic, saucer-shaped object on the grounds of the farm and carried it to her uncle, who immediately screamed, “It’s a mine!” and flung it away as far as he could – at which point it exploded. In the other episode, the farm’s dog was seen frothing at the mouth and in the ensuing pandemonium all the ranch-hands tore around on (white) horseback, trying to hunt the rabid beast down. Come to think of it, for a silly girls’ show, White Horses was actually quite dark. It left me with the conviction that the European continent was riddled with unexploded World War II landmines and overrun with rabid mammals. I’m sure Nigel Farage would’ve approved.
One thing that really annoyed me about White Horses was the sickly theme song. This wasn’t a feature of the original German-Yugoslavian show but had been recorded by the Dublin singer Jackie Lee and stuck onto the dubbed BBC version. The lyrics went:
On my horses let me ride away, to my world of dreams so far away, let me run, to the sun, to a world my heart can understand, it’s a gentle warm and wonderland, faraway, stars away, where the clouds are made of candyfloss, as the day is born, when the stars are gone, we’ll race to meet the dawn…
Even at the age of seven or eight, I found the song so asinine that I felt a Pavlovian urge to barf every time I heard it issuing from a TV set. Despite my intense dislike for it, however, the song is now regarded as a kitsch classic and has been covered many times, usually by ‘knowing’ indie-pop bands like Kitchens of Distinction and the Trashcan Sinatras. Even Catatonia’s Cerys Matthews has had a go at singing it. Here, if you can stomach it, is the original version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iR6z8GUywyc
Now if you wanted a Euro-kids’ TV show with a seriously bad-ass theme song, you didn’t have to look any further than The Flashing Blade, a historical swashbuckler that’d been made under the title Le Chevalier Tempete by France’s Office de Radiodiffusion Television Francaise (ORTF) in 1967. Set in the early 17th century, during the War of Mantuan Succession between France and Spain, the show’s theme song was accompanied by footage at the start of each episode showing the principals tearing manically across a battlefield on horseback – their manic-ness, of course, increased by the fact that the film was grossly speeded up. The singer implored:
You’ve got to fight for what you want, and all that you believe, it’s right to fight for what we want, to live the way we please, as long as we have done our best, then no one can do more, and life and love and happiness, are well worth fighting for.
Here’s the show’s blood-stirring opening on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-ZEDNkZ2L4.
Unlike White Horses, I don’t remember much about the story of The Flashing Blade, except that to my impressionable mind it was very like The Three Musketeers. For some reason, however, I’ve never forgotten a scene where two characters – one presumably villainous because he sported a pointed beard – were playing chess and the villain made a comment about the uselessness of pawns with regard to the outcome of the game. The other player immediately came back with an observation along the lines of: “Even the smallest pebble can shatter the most beautiful of mirrors.” This struck my seven-year-old self as being rather profound. Obi-Wan Kenobi should’ve said that to Luke Skywalker before he tackled the Death Star.
Also originating with France’s ORTF in 1967 was Les Chevaliers du Ciel, which ran on Gallic television for the next three years. By the time it turned up in anglicised form on British TV it’d been retitled The Aeronauts and given a new, hard-rockin’ – by BBC standards – English-language theme song by Canadian Rick Jones. (As well as being a singer, Jones was a BBC children’s show presenter. Balding, bearded and disturbingly intense-looking, he hosted Fingerbobs, which must’ve featured the cheapest and most low-fi puppets in the history of television.) His Aeronauts song went:
Better than best, boys, we pass every test, you’re ahead of the rest, when those crime-fighting Aeronauts are cutting those bounds, in a fury of sound, you’re a loser all round, against the crook-catching Aeronauts, so play in the wind, boys, you better give in, because your troubles begin when those two daring aeronauts fly!
I can’t find the opening sequence for this one, only the song itself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9QbouM44t4&feature=related
Once again, though I remember the theme music well, I can’t recall much of what went on in the show’s storylines. Maybe with The Aeronauts that was just as well, since the show was about two hunky young guys called Ernest and Michel who were pilots in the French Air Force. As such, they might’ve spent the episodes bombing la merde out of insurgents in North Africa or Greenpeace activists in the South Pacific.
I’ve spoken ironically about the music on The Flashing Blade and The Aeronauts, but there’s no disputing the fact that the theme tune of Belle and Sebastian – the Anglicised version of Belle et Sebastien, which ran on French television from 1965 to 1970 and was based on the novel by Cecile Aubrey about a boy and his big Pyrenean mountain dog – had a genuine haunting quality. It’s fitting that wistful Glaswegian indie-pop band Belle & Sebastian took their name from this show. And apparently its theme song was covered by New Zealand singer-songwriter Bic Runga on an album only a year ago. Here’s the original version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myEnMERmbJg.
There are a number of things I remember about Belle and Sebastian, apart from its music and its obvious star, the hefty canine Belle. I remember being awed by the sheer, bleak mountain landscapes that formed its backdrop – it’d been filmed around the village of Belvedere in the Alpes-Maritimes. And indeed, years later, when I finally saw the Alps for real, the first association I made in my head was with that old French kids’ TV show.
I also remember how the voices in Belle and Sebastian puzzled me. Not being aware of dubbing procedures or the fact that the BBC employed a small group of actors to do the English dialogue for these imported shows, I couldn’t figure out at the time why the adults in Belle and Sebastian sounded exactly like the adults in White Horses. Incidentally, Sebastian in the show was played by Medhi el Glaoui, who was Cecile Audrey’s son. Little Medhi’s father was Moroccan and indeed his grandfather had been the pasha of Marrakech.
However, musically, the best Euro-kids’ programme of all was surely The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Robinson Crusoe was of course a British cultural property, but this children’s drama version of the story had been made in 1964 by France’s Franco London Films (FLF) and starred Austrian actor Robert Hoffman in the title role. The BBC got its hands on it, dubbed it and broadcast it regularly during its children’s TV schedules from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s.
The BBC added a lovely, mock-classical score composed by Robert Mellin and P. Reverberi, which managed to be both stirring and slightly desolate – I’ve read somewhere that the spiralling opening chords were meant to represent the breakers striking the beach of Crusoe’s desert island. It doesn’t surprise me that when electronica band The Orbital put together 19 of their favourite tracks in 2002 for the Back to Mine compilation series, they decided to close their compilation with this tune: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvuhlrKikOc.
To be fair to The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, a lot more of the show has remained with me over the years than just its theme music. For a long time, Hoffman’s youthful features formed my image of how the character should look – so that when I saw other versions of the story later in the 1970s, such as a BBC adaptation with Stanley Baker and a ‘politically correct’ movie adaptation called Man Friday with Richard Harris and Richard Roundtree, I couldn’t accept them. The series took liberties with Daniel Dafoe’s novel, though. For example, it climaxed with a shipload of pirates invading Crusoe’s island. At which point, Man Friday took off and hid in the island’s jungle, and started killing the pirates off one by one like the title character in the Predator movies.
Finally, for pure weirdness, you couldn’t beat The Singing Ringing Tree, which had started life as a film made by an East German studio, Das Singende Klingende Baumchen. The BBC duly chopped it into TV-serial form. Even by the standards of the other Euro-kids’ shows I saw at the time, The Singing Ringing Tree was particularly venerable, dating back to 1957. It lingers in my mind because, although it was ostensibly a fairy tale, it spooked the hell out of me.
With characters including an evil dwarf, a humanoid bear creature, who was actually a prince transformed by a magic spell, and a gigantic goldfish – I still can’t figure what the goldfish was about – the series resembled a Brothers Grimm story directed by David Lynch. Reviewers, at least those who took the show seriously, noted an influence of German expressionism on how it looked and an influence of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in particular. To my seven-year-old sensibilities, the fate suffered by the dwarf at the end was especially traumatising. He was last seen swooping around in the air and then plunging through the thin-crusted ground and vanishing in a belch of volcanic, sulphurous smoke.
If this makes me sound wimpish, I should point out that I wasn’t alone in being scared by the show. The comedian and impersonator Paul Whitehouse said of The Singing Ringing Tree that it used to make him ‘pee his pants’ when he was a kid. Perhaps as a way of exorcism, Whitehouse staged a spoof of it on his popular comedy programme The Fast Show called The Singing Ringing Binging Plinging Tinging Plinking Plonking Boinging Tree with, somewhat inevitably, the ubiquitous Warwick Davies in the role of the dwarf: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XqMF5ou7hE. Meanwhile, here’s a bit from the original show, involving that bizarre Moby Dick-sized goldfish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YAF3fWo8aoM
And there ends my round-up of kids’ Euro-telly – a set of old, cheap and badly-dubbed TV shows that nonetheless converted me into a good little European, even though at the time I thought Brussels was something you were force-fed at Christmas rather than the hub of one of the world’s most important political and trading alliances.
And speaking of Christmas… As it’s the festive season and as I began this entry with a mention of Joan Collins – here’s that segment from 1972’s Tales from the Crypt in which poor Joanie gets strangled by Santa Claus: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16Xn6B4_srI. Enjoy!