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Curses and black pudding!


Dougal and the Blue Cat


On the one hand, children’s fare simultaneously produced with an eye to its appeal to adults – or by adults with no business dabbling in that market – runs the risk of being outright unsuitable. Just look at the history of Disney animation, with its subliminal sex in clouds and nob-shaped heads. And that’s the Mouse House at its most innocuous. At its best though, you end up with filmmakers (or programme makers) who don’t feel there’s any need to talk down to the kidz; it needn’t simply mean masking something very rude. Undoubtedly, there are psychedelic vibes to Dougal and the Blue Cat – as there are to the preceding Yellow Submarine – but that doesn’t make it dangerously subversive or explicitly pro-hallucinogens, however much Dylan the rabbit is patently stoned out of his gourd (and “watching these crazy mushrooms grow”). It’s rather a sign of the imagination fuelling the proceedings, since any children’s fare worth its salt will at least be aware of the importance of flights of fantasy.

Dougal: That cat is a cat!

Eric Thompson’s legendary status re The Magic Roundabout is such that his writing the scripts based on the French animated series’ visuals alone is top of the show’s trivia points (the French version included the conceit of the Zebedee magicking Florence et al away to the Enchanted Wood/Magic Garden – hardly conceptually distinctive, as escaping the oppressive real world is a children’s literature staple – but it isn’t something I recall ever gleaning from the English version). This feature version was produced about halfway through the show’s French run (1964-74), with the Thompson-ified version released in 1972. And it’s an impressive achievement, in that Dougal and the Blue Cat works absolutely seamlessly as a film; there’s no sense of a five-minute animation extended beyond its means to seventeen times its length.

Dougal: Man the lifeboats! Ban the bomb! The dam’s burst! Is me nightie on fire? Vote Conservative! Keep off the grass!

There’s also a feeling – because he did, by necessity – that Thompson by-and-large followed the original’s outline this time. Why blue is a symbol of evil in Danot’s conception, I’m unsure. The tradition in UK animation – “Heaven is blue” in Yellow Submarine – is referenced by Thompson when Dougal awakes in confusion and utters “Vote Conservative” (although, given the dog wants a knighthood and writes to The Times, he probably does anyway. Or would, were he not a dog).  Madam Blue (Fenella Fielding) is extremely authoritarian on the subject – she dreams of a blue universe – and once Buxton has been appointed her monarch, he martials an army of blue soldiers for this task (the troops are whips for the purposes of beating children in the original!) Blue is often granted many positive qualities, but it can also be considered cool, cold, emotionless (it’s also, it seems, the world’s favourite colour…)

Dougal: Blue cats, indeed! It’s against nature. It’ll be blue snails next, and then where will we be?

Lest we get up in arms about the implications of decrying blueness, though, there’s more than enough to be getting on with elsewhere. Buxton, is, as the title suggests, a cat. And as we know, cats are traditionally vilified on the screen, big or small, whilst dogs are held aloft, drooling incontinently. Buxton, then, who proudly boasts of how wicked and evil he is, fits right in. He’s also, inescapably, northern. An evil northerner: a belligerent Chris Eccleston, as essayed by David Thewliss.

Buxton is immediately very popular due to his odd aspect. He is, if you like, an immigrant. An outsider to the Magic Garden. And he is not, therefore, to be trusted. More than that, his very colour proclaims him unnatural and not to be tolerated. And, it turns out, Dougal’s prejudices are proved correct. Buxton is preying on the goodwill of those in the Garden – his covert intent is to wipe out all the other colours, “like heliotrope” – with only Dougal immune to his exhortations.

Most notably, when Buxton eventually comes to his senses, he’s turned that most inclusive of colours, white (George Soros would be livid!) This comes at the opposite end of the movie to Dougal’s impression of a Chinese person (bizarrely, Florence appears to be Chinese in the French version, so her devoted dog clearly isn’t above racially caricaturing his owner). Daughter Emma will doubtless be inspired to pen another impassioned tirade against Brexit in response (see Last Christmas). If she gets time between stripping off for her pre-pensionable art (see Google images).

Madam Blue: Blue is beautiful.
Blue is best.
I’m blue.
I’m beautiful.
I’m best.

And what of Madam Blue? There’s something of the warped fantasy landscape of The Prisoner’s The Girl Who Was Death in Fielding’s haunting tones (although she actually guested on The Avengers). Madam Blue invites Buxton to complete a series of tests – surrealist and macabre, complete with unnerving masks – in order to ascendency the ladder of class status, the sort of thing that might seduce Dougal. But her intangible, voice-in-the-head status suggests a demonic force; she wishes to conquer the Universe, to make it in her own image, like a nascent demiurge (Buxton in turn nurses dreams of Luciferian becoming, “when I am master, madam”).

Buxton: Oh, I’m so wicked. Soon, I’ll be king of this garden.

Buxton has taken up residence in the old treacle factory on the hill – where the whips were made in the French version – and when Dougal rocks up there, cunningly disguised with a blue dye job, he’s subjected to a test of his own, to prove he isn’t, in fact, sugar-crazed Dougal at all. He must resist the allure of a room full of sugar lumps. Yes, this movie has everything: drugs, politics, race, class, and… NASA space!

Dougal: What a place. Worse than Barnsley.

In a seemingly random, eleventh-hour development, Buxton (and Dougal) are ordered to conquer the Moon. An onerous task in respect of a plasma projection, obviously, but this one’s more of the endearing Clangers or Apollo 11 variety. There’s possibly some Méliès in here, although more recent antecedents First Men in the Moon and The Mouse on the Moon spring to mind, while the trip is accompanied by the fanfare of Thus Spake Zarathustra (perhaps Danot and/or Thompson suspected that Kubrick faked up the Moon landings for our delectation).

Dougal: NATO must be alerted. The United Nations must be told. The Security Council must be roused. I might even write a letter to The Times, if I can find a stamp.

Dougal is the MVP of this, obviously. As depicted by Thompson, he’s Tony Hancock by way of Richard Briers. He has a lovely dream “about getting me knighthood at the palace”, critiques Buxton’s performance (“Yes, he’d do well at the Old Vic, that one”) and resists the lure of sugar the only way he knows how (“Remember, you’re British!”) The French Dougal, Polix (he should have been a Goscinny and Uderzo character with that name), is much less endearing, but is also English (as envisaged by Oliver Wood, working with Danot). His version of Blue Peter (Dougal’s disguise) is Bleu Bleu.

Thompson throws in very colloquial asides (“Is this the, er, Co-op?”; “I’ll never be able to show me face in Crewe again”). And I know I said there was nothing “dodgy Disney” about this, but a few lines do seem a little suspect. The female train is confronted by Dougal, wanting a lift: “You’re a public service vehicle, aren’t you?”; “That maybe but it doesn’t mean I can’t get taken advantage of” she replies. He promptly climbs inside her. A bunch of singing school children are “French, you know”: “Yes, they looked absolutely delicious”. A comment that makes sense if, per the French version, they’re lollipops (okay, no, it’s still quite odd. No odder, admittedly, than this obsession with whipping children. Or the nightmare room in the treacle factory, from which French Buxton orders “Dreams, scratch, squeal, invade the earth and terrify sleeping children”. Charming).

Also in the French original, the train is male and has transhumanist (transbovine?) inclinations (“What a pretty cow”). Polix has had enough of blue, listing offenders including “rhapsodies in blue”. Besides the Moon, there are plans to “repaint stars and comets”. On the Moon, Polix observes “Thank God there’s a dark side, one less thing to paint”. The cat offers that “I was a victim of my colour”, while Madam Blue pronounces blue “the colour of infinity”.

Mark Kermode, The Exorcist’s number one fan in residence but most pertinently, in terms of his aesthetic sense, a member of a skiffle band, sings Dougal and the Blue Cat’s praises on one of the DVD release’s extras, citing its deeply anarchic spirit, extraordinary visuals and being “very very odd”. Naturally, he refers to its horror devices, and German Expressionist influences (the Buxton test). He also comes out in favour of Florence’s Sad Song, and it is surprisingly good, but so is the score generally, with a flavour of French romantic disco infecting the opening sequence (albeit, before its time; I’ve seen it compared to Rondo Veniziano, which isn’t a bad call).

Buxon: I was the victim of a false doctrine.

The legacy of The Magic Roundabout lives large, of course, with various attempts to reboot, CGI, and movie-fy, but you can’t capture that lightning in a bottle again. Another iteration is in the pipeline. Next, they’ll doubtless be trying to redo Willo the Wisp without Kenneth Williams.

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