Magic Roundabout

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As the movie version looms we take a look at the charming original. As long as we don't mention the Blue Cat!

Magic Roundabout

In Paris in the early sixties a phenomenon was created that was to enter the hearts and minds of several generations of children in the UK.

Serge Danot devised the Magic Roundabout with the help of Ivor Wood who at the time worked for the same advertising company. The company had used stop frame animation for some adverts and this led to Danot having an idea for a children's show for French television set in a magic garden.

The series initially had to be made as cheaply as possible so the characters were created from whatever was to hand. Zebedee started life as an oversized prop pea.

The French television channel ORTF who showed the series quickly realised the marketing potential of the show as it could be easily dubbed into any language.

At first the BBC turned down the chance to purchase the series, but as children's television flourished from 1964 onwards with such flagship shows as Blue Peter, Play School and Jackanory, the decision was reversed and the show's potential was seen. Eric Thompson was recruited to rework the stories. He was originally meant to translate the French scripts but in the end he made up new stories by simply watching the visuals. He brought a calmness to the UK version, whereas the original was quite manic and loud. Thus Eric Thompson has become the voice of so many people's childhoods. Even now when an episode is shown I get this warm, safe feeling of being a child again, all thanks to that amazing voice.

In the original version the character we know as Dougal is called Pollux and part of the joke is that he speaks French with an English accent, in the UK version Dougal is loosely based on the comedy actor Tony Hancock. Brian the snail's enthusiasm mirrored Thompson's own and Florence was the link between the children watching at home and the magic world of the garden. Magic Roundabout debuted on the BBC on 18th October 1965 just before the news. The timing was at the insistence of the French who had cultivated the show as family viewing. The time slot allowed adults to watch with (or without) their children, as a shared experience. The show was stripped throughout the week with an on going story meaning that each episode ended with a cliff hanger aimed at hooking the viewer back the next day.

The show was a huge hit with viewers of all ages. In fact when the programme was moved to an earlier timeslot, the Junior Points Of View programme was inundated with complaints from adults who didn't get home from work early enough to watch it. Within a month it was returned to it's pre-News time slot.

The show had very modern values, solutions were found for problems, all those different people and creatures all living together in the Magic Garden, not having to apologise for being who they were. It was certainly very forward thinking for the time.

Magic Roundabout mania struck big time, with endless "makes" on Blue Peter, high demand for merchandising (a concept still very much in its infancy in the mid-sixties) and even the arts show Late Night Line Up interviewed Serge Danot about the whole phenomenon.

As the 60s came to an end UK viewers were finally able to see the colours in the garden, something the French had been enjoying since the second series. It was as it burst into glorious technicolor in England that the new characters of Ermintrude the cow and Dylan the rabbit were introduced. Dylan was named after Bob Dylan and is the probable source for one of the most enduring myths about the show - that everything was about drugs.

Danot had copyrighted the series in his name and when he moved his studios from Paris to the French countryside he and Ivor Wood parted ways. Ivor went on to have a hand in creating many cherished children's television series including The Herbs, Paddington, The Wombles and Postman Pat, all inspired by the UK version of Magic Roundabout and it's gentle entertainment values.

Production of Magic Roundabout ceased in France in the late 60s, though the show continued in the UK throughout the 70s. Danot tried to get another series off the ground but it failed to take off and in 1972 he returned to the Magic Garden for the feature film Dougal And The Blue Cat. This was very different to the TV show as evil comes to the garden in the form of Buxton the cat and the Blue Queen (voiced by Fenella Fielding).

The last UK scripts for the series were produced in 1976 and sadly the world of children's television lost Eric Thompson in 1982. Yet through continuous repeats and videos, the show (and Thompson's narration) still enthrals legions of children today.

Channel 4 resurrected the show by buying 52 episodes previously unseen in the UK and employing Nigel Planer to devise and tell the stories. They were still enchanting but never quite matched up to Eric Thompson's work.

With an all new computer animated film in the pipeline it's just a matter of time before The Magic Roundabout enraptures a new generation, who will hopefully appreciate the inevitable round of repeats of the original series with as much relish as us "older children" will.

Anne-Marie Trace

Page Last Updated Sunday, February 13, 2005 at 12:27:41