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Classic TV Revisited: Magic Roundabout

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Sorely missed cult ’60s puppet show Magic Roundabout was set in Mr Rusty’s blue, red and white garden with a cast of unforgettable characters. It aired on BBC1 from 1965-1977 and on Channel 4 from 1992-1994. Eric Thompson provided the voices for the BBC and Nigel Planer for C4.

Why was it so good?
A kids’ classic with a pioneering mix of animation and marionettes. Who can forget the bed-obsessed Zebedee, sensible Florence, stubborn dog Dougal, dopey rabbit Dylan, Brian the snail, Ermintrude the cow and biker Mr McHenry?

How did it begin?
It was created by French animator Serge Danot. Shot in a derelict house in Paris, fuses kept blowing because the lighting for it used so much electricity. Play School’s Eric Thompson, late father of Emma Thompson, provided the British scripts and narration. The five-minute episodes were shown on BBC1 before the 6pm news and seen by a staggering eight million viewers.

Didn’t it have a subversive message?
What “Boing”! Seriously, some suspected it was about French politicians and that Dougal the dog was actually De Gaulle! Others thought it was a chance for pre-schoolers to learn about drug culture. Mr Rusty was always going on about “trips” on his roundabout, while hippy rabbit Dylan seemed permanently spaced out on some substance or other. And it had very psychedelic colours.

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What was it actually about then?
The original French stories were aimed at kids but the BBC version was spiced up. Eric Thompson made it into a vague satire on ’60s pop culture, especially with Dylan. As a result, millions of adults loved it – particularly when springy Zebedee ended the programme with the words “Time for bed”. When the BBC tried to move it back to 4.40pm there were howls of protest and the plan was dropped.

Why is it so timeless?
Who could fail to love Dougal the dog who lived on sugar? Then there was Dylan’s languid catchphrase “Hey, mannn!!” and the wide-eyed innocence of Florence. Ermintrude the cow constantly chewed a flower and had a distinctive revolving head, while Brian the snail drove a Citroen and Mr Rusty had a train. But best of all was spring-loaded, moustachioed Zebedee.

Could it be revived?
The original show, which ran for 252 episodes between 1965 and 1977, has been constantly repeated. Another 52 episodes, narrated by Nigel Planer and made by Serge Danot, were screened by Channel 4 from 1992-4 but they weren’t a patch on the original. There was a spin-off film, Dougal And The Blue Cat and in 2005 there was another big screen outing with voices that included Tom Baker, Joanna Lumley, Ian McKellen, Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams, Bill Nighy and Lee Evans.

Distinguishing features?
Springs, dog hairs, sugar cubes, rumours of subconscious drug references.

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Do say:
One of the best kids’ series ever.

Don’t say:
Wasn’t that Dougal a canine drug dealer?

Not to be confused with:
Black magic; The Magic Roundabout in Swindon (a real road system); Florence, the Italian city; Bob Dylan.

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Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.

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