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Page last updated at 13:01 GMT, Friday, 24 October 2008 14:01 UK

They're Smurf a fortune


By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

The Smurfs celebrate their 50th birthday this week with a feature-length movie and new television series in the making. But what makes the blue goblin-like creatures so popular?

It doesn't sound like the most promising of creative pitches - the adventures of a cartoon tribe of bright blue elves from Belgium who lived in mushroom houses in the Middle Ages. But that, in a nugget, is what the Smurfs are about. And half a century after they emerged, the Smurfs are still finding new fans.

Not that their patriarch, Grandpa Smurf, would be very impressed by these claims of longevity. After all, he is 500 years old.

The Smurfs have sold more than 10 million albums in the last three years alone; their television series is currently showing in 30 countries and they recently bagged a Hollywood movie deal, according to their makers. They have a fanatical following, with some fans shelling out thousands of pounds as they build their collections. They're also instantly recognisable to people of all ages, in most countries.

Rugby fans dressed as Smurfs
Smurfs are instantly recognisable
The Smurfs were the creation of cartoonist Pierre Culliford, known as Peyo, and made their first appearance in a 1958 edition of Belgian comics magazine Le Journal de Spirou. From the start, it was a big cast list, with 101 different Smurfs - although just one was female.

They soon secured their own comic series, which ended up being translated in 25 different languages and is estimated to have sold 25 million copies worldwide.

But, unsurprisingly, it took American involvement - in the shape of a Hanna-Barbera TV cartoon series - to catapult the Smurfs on to the global stage. In Britain, at least, they were pushing at an open door. Sandwiched between Police 5 and reruns of Happy Days on ITV during Sunday lunch times, there was little else on TV to hold the attention of anyone under 35 years old.

The series recounted the adventures of Papa Smurf and his fellow Smurfs as they try to survive the evil plots of the (human) wizard Gargamel. They lived in the aforementioned mushroom houses and, inexplicably, peppered their conversation with the word "smurf". Their favourite snack was the plant sarsaparilla.

In fact the Smurfs televisual debut in the UK had been presaged by what, in the late 1970s, was rather ambitiously billed as the "most exciting promotion of the decade" - free Smurf figurines given away by National garages with every X gallons of petrol bought. The promotion quickly turned the two-inch-high pixies into the hottest currency in school playgrounds since cigarette cards.


Their timeless appeal is largely down to their cuteness and the fact they don't date, say enthusiasts.

"They exist in their own little universe without any of the trapping of the modern day," says Alan Mechem from the British Smurf Collectors Club.

Fans even argue the early stories of these humble creatures were a metaphor for a tolerant, Utopian society.

Smurfs are now highly collectable

"The series wasn't just about sweet looking elves," says Mr Mechem. "Pierre Culliford wanted it to highlight things like racism and promote tolerance.

"The fact there was only one female Smurf in the village was used as a way to highlight and promote discussion about women's role in society and sexism."

However, these levels of complexity were lost in the television series, he believes.

And while some Smurf fans may continue to believe the meek shall inherit the earth, the wealthiest among them are willing to part with anything up to 1,000 for a rare figure.

"I have up to 5,000 Smurfs in my collection," says Mr Mechem. "But I don't keep them in my house because they are too valuable. They're in a safe place where I can go and look at them."

He refuses to be any more specific.

Collectors' fairs are held across Europe and hunting them down is a way of life for some.

The next generation

"I search every day on Ebay or mail with other collectors to buy Smurfs," says Christy Utterwulghe, an enthusiast from Belgium who has set up her own website in homage to them.

The original Papa Smurf - Peyo, who died in 1992

But, she insists, it's not about a profit motive.

"Since I made my website there a lot of collectors writing me e-mails to buy Smurfs from me but I don't do that, they are too special for me," says Ms Utterwulghe.

Mr Mechem is of a similar mind - he says he has never sold one of his Smurfs.

But despite a high profile tie-in between the Smurfs and the UN's children's charity, Unicef, there is growing disillusion among purists that the Smurfs have sold out.

With a movie and new television series in the pipeline, Smurfs are being brought into the 21st Century by the company which owns their licensing rights. A new range of Smurfette - the original lady Smurf - is also being introduced.

Ardent fans say the late Smurf creator's wishes are not being honoured.

"Peyo was against making them modern and I believe he's right," says Mr Mechem. Others, though, say even elves must to move with the times.

Below is a selection of your comments.

The Smurfs a platform for anti-racism and bigotry? I always assumed they were crypto-Nazi - they're a group of ethnically pure (all blue) men living in a utopian agrarian community with a solid work ethic. The only woman in the village is introduced as an evil plot to subvert the Smurfs, but she (as a pure Aryan with blonde hair etc.) turns out to be chaste and pure, and a "good guy". Gargamel, the evil sorcerer who attempts to destroy the Smurfs, bears an uncanny likeness to Nazi depictions of Jews, and the "only gay in the village" (that's the camp one, I think he's called Vanity Smurf) is forced to wear a pink flower to mark him out from the others. Have I read too much into this?
Tim Black, Oxford

I swapped heads between a Smurf kayaker a smurfette to make a smurfette kayaker. Is that sacrilegious?
HarryA, Forest Lake, PA. USA

The smurf collecting is well remembered - BP in New Zealand in the early-mid 1980s were giving these away. I still remember the taste of them. I'm sure the paint isn't very healthy. I've stopped sucking smurfs a long time back now.
Sam Brown, Helsinki, Finland

I think there is something to the idea that The Smurfs have been sold out by the company that owns the licensing rights. It's far less risky for a company to acquire a property that has a built in fan base than to create something new and have to build a following for it. Look at what's been done to Dr. Seuss' work: he was reluctant to make filmed adaptations of his books, because the whole point of the books was to get children to develop their reading skills; the second he passed away, Dr. Seuss' estate pimped his legacy out to Hollywood. The Smurfs' current rights holder might do right by them, but it's an interesting coincidence that the company's abbreviation, I.M.P.S, is "pimps" without the first "p".
Scott Duprey, Lower East Side, USA

I remember sitting in front of the TV every Sunday lunchtime waiting for 15 minutes of Smurf fun! The Smurfs don't need to be brought into the 21st Century - quite often remakes ruin the memories we had as kids. As for a range of Smurfette's. There is only ONE Smurfette, and there only ever will be.
Joby, Woodford, London

Such a shame that another licensing company has bought the rights to an enduring classic yet feels the need to 'update' it. The Mr. Men had a 21st century update, 20 new Enid Blyton books are on the way - it just shows how unimaginative marketing departments are nowadays. They haven't the guts to risk promoting anything remotely new so they churn out feeble remakes, relaunches and imitations - the easy option. It may earn them a fast buck, but it won't discover 'the next Harry Potter', will it? Do these licensing companies ever create anything? I wish the Beeb would stop being suckered into reporting their marketing campaigns.
Adam Linley, Bury, Lancs

Would selling smurf figures for large profits be elf-ishness?
Nigel Macarthur, London, England

After reading this I'm going straight round to my neices to retrieve the 1980's smurfs and smurf houses I let them have.
Amanda, Bristol

You say that there was 1 female Smurf, but Smurfette was in fact created by Gargamel, so she wasn't technically a Smurf at all.
Robert Hall, Plymouth, England

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