When I was a tot, I loved the TV show The Magic Roundabout. Hey - who didn't?
It's legendary. In the 1960s and 70s Le Manège enchanté was a series of short stop-motion animations from France, but with a British-language soundtrack written and voiced by the BBC's Eric Thompson, with little if any regard for the original French script. Really - he just had to watch the whole thing mute (and on a tiny screen), and then make something up, right down to who each of the characters were.
There was no talking down, no life lessons, and precious little story in these jammy reworkings. Surreal? These five-minute reels of madcap fun before the news might just have inspired the word.
When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I loved the repeats of the colour series, and would race home from school to catch them. Sometimes I'd hop off the bus in town to watch it on a TV in Boots. On another occasion, I screeched in at home just as it was ending to find my dad patiently audio-taping it for me.
I listened to the LP of the movie spin-off Dougal And The Blue Cat - which aside from its feature length and Fenella Fielding is virtually indistinguishable from the TV series - and loved it.
At 19 I watched Jo's VHS of the same movie at a church weekend away with John, Rich, Bish and others - again it was considered delightful by all. After this 85-minute epic, none of us could comprehend returning to the meagre five-minute doses.
At 21, after Eric Thompson's sad passing, the later Nigel Planer-led series happened on Channel 4, which I'm sorry to say I found to just not be as good as the original. The characters seemed a little meaner, some of their voices quite similar, and the slower pace struck me as filling time. These opinions hold little authority though, because I only watched a few episodes, one of them ironically on a boat to England from France! Planer's series may well have been genius.
Then at 39 I sat through the awful travesty that was the patronising 2005 remake. Well, nobody liked that, not least my friend Brian, who had actually been named after Brian the snail.
By the time earlier this year when - in Australia - I observed Scottish Dave's kid watching new episodes based upon the rereremake, the original UK version's place in my heart was secure.
Until I watched Dougal And The Blue Cat again on DVD this month. I hate to type this, but… um… I don't like it any more.
The story now makes so little sense. And it's so agonisingly slow. And Dylan… he actually is coming out with sly drugs references.
So that cynical urban legend about him was true after all. And after all my protesting that that was just another lame-o urban myth. Drag.
Elsewhere on this DVD are talking heads telling me how vastly superior the British version is to its original French counterpart. Well, all I really had to do to check that out was turn on the subtitles and watch the film again in French…
Oh yes, the original French version of Le Manège enchanté. I knew that the dog was called Pollux, and that I had the TV theme on a really obscure CD somewhere, but that was about it. So, just how different was Eric Thompson's British soundtrack really?
Well, for a start the French language version is louder. Especially Brian, who yells at everyone like… well, like a really annoying Frenchman.
Promisingly, it turns out early on that the mushrooms line is also in the original French version, so maybe 'our' Dylan's clean reputation is secure after all.
Some of the incidental music in the British version hides more singing in the French (hence that funky train underscore), there's more explanation (the reason they go to the moon is to paint it blue), and for my money the whole story makes a lot more sense. Without narration, the script is a lot tighter, and every bit as intelligent as Eric Thompson's.
There are also aspects that may be lost on the British viewer who doesn't speak French, such as the international flavour of the original. Margote (Florence) is Chinese, hence her look. Flappy (Dylan) is Spanish, hence all his siestas. Pollux (Dougal) is British, hence his love of sweet things like sugar. It's all starting to resemble a summit of the United Nations. When the blue cat becomes King and declares war on everyone, well.
But I guess the really bewildering moments are when you realise that what you had previously thought you were watching, had in fact been something quite different. Zebedee's choir of singing girls, in the French version are Zébulon's choir of singing… lollipops. The room of nightmares is actually there to terrify the world's children in their dreams. And the (nameless) blue cat's minions are… um… well, turn off now if you don't want to know… whips.
On the whole though, for the British viewer, maybe the best way to watch the French version is simply with the sound turned off. As I read the subtitles, I found it quite easy to attribute much of the characters' dialogue to the British incarnations that I knew and loved.
Yes, I've come out of watching the French version with a renewed respect and understanding for the British one. In comprehending the plot better, I think I will enjoy and appreciate the film a lot more if I watch it again in the future. Heck, yes, I'll even say it, my love of the original has been… restored by it!
Because, and I know I'm going to lose friends for saying this, but I honestly thought the French one was better.