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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 October, 2004, 12:27 GMT 13:27 UK
Magic Roundabout's French connection
by Victoria Lindrea
BBC News Online entertainment staff

The Magic Roundabout
A film based on The Magic Roundabout will be released in February

Next year sees the release of a feature-length film based on The Magic Roundabout, 40 years after the original children's show debuted on French TV. BBC News Online looks back at its roots.

The brainchild of Frenchman Serge Danot, Le Manege Enchante proved an immediate hit with young audiences all over France.

Graphic designer Danot was born in 1931, near Nantes, and learnt the basic techniques of film and animation while working in the advertising industry.

It was 1964, only 20% of French households owned a television set and programme schedules largely consisted of news and public service information.

But intrigued by Danot's original pilot episode, French television channel ORTF (Office de Radio Television Francaise) commissioned 13 five-minute episodes of Le Manege Enchante, and a raft of TV superstars were born.

Crossed the channel

Pollux, the sugar-addicted cocker spaniel, Zebulon and the sensible Margote were among the heroes of the Bois Joli, the enchanted wood that was home to Serge Danot's surreal tales.

Before long, Pollux was the best-seller in a line of hugely popular spin-off merchandise, the like of which France had never seen before.

Eric Thompson
Eric Thompson voiced the original UK TV series

Following the lead taken by US studios like Disney and Hanna Barbera, soft toys, T-shirts and toiletries dedicated to Le Manege Enchante sold by the lorry-load.

But few would have predicted the way in which the series would be embraced by British audiences.

In 1965, Pollux was reborn as Dougal, in what is considered, at least in France, as a cheeky reference to General De Gaulle.

"It was completely adopted," Francois Ivernel, head of Pathe UK which is co-producing the forthcoming 2005 film, told The Times.

Student favourite

"In England, everyone thinks it's English. In France, they're not sure what nationality it is, because Dougal speaks with an English accent."

The adaptation for the BBC was entrusted to Eric Thompson - father of actress Emma Thompson - who narrated each of the roles.

But instead of translating Danot's original scripts, Thompson turned down the sound and made up his own dialogue according to what he saw on screen.

The Magic Roundabout
Sir Ian McKellen will play Zebedee

Soon the adventures of Florence (Margote), Zebedee (Zebulon), Dylan (Flappy), Ermintrude (Azalee) and Brian the snail (Ambroise) were cult viewing on the BBC.

Slotted between the end of children's TV and the start of the Six O'Clock News, and spiced up with Thompson's eccentric script, the show acquired a following among children and adults alike.

Thompson's oblique references to Dylan's permanent tiredness and Dougal's penchant for sugar, combined with the psychedelic hue of the set, ensured a devout adult fanbase in the drug-lavish 1960s.

Peter Lord, founder of Aardman Studios and co-director of Chicken Run, cites Dougal as his "childhood hero" and Serge Danot as one of his three key inspirations.

Global success

Similarly Ivor Wood, an advertising colleague of Danot who worked with him on the original series, later produced a string of successful animation series, including The Wombles and Postman Pat.

The Magic Roundabout's influence was clear. It was translated into 28 languages and sold to 68 countries including Iraq and Japan.

But the series' popularity began to wane with the advent of Japanese anime in the early 1980s.

Moreover, Eric Thompson - whose off-beat script had proved the mainstay of the show's popularity in the UK - died in 1982.

Dougal the dog
Dougal, pictured here with The Goodies, was a big hit

Still, the series' cult following ensured a British revival in 1990, when former Young Ones star Nigel Planer took over as narrator on a Channel 4 version of the show.

Meanwhile, students continued to set up clubs and societies in tribute to Danot's creation.

Now a 14m 3-D feature film, The Magic Roundabout, hopes to bring the characters to a new generation.

The plot will revolve around a new character, the evil oppressor ZeeBadDee, played by former Dr Who Tom Baker, and will feature all the old favourites.

The production is a collaboration between France and the UK and will be dubbed separately by a French and English cast.

Star names

The actors include Sir Ian McKellen as Zebedee and Joanna Lumley as Ermintrude.

Pop stars Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue will voice Dougal and Florence respectively, while in France, singers Vanessa Paradis and Eddy Mitchell will be among the cast.

But in the light of the recent box office failure of children's favourite Thunderbirds, it remains to be seen whether Dougal and friends can work their magic once more.

The Magic Roundabout premieres in the UK on 11 February 2005.

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