The absurdist, rather hallucinogenic cartoon series remains a bizarre highlight of 1970s TV.
There’s an eccentric piece of music – a bouncy, slightly lurid bit off deranged, off-kilter nonsense – that will always make people of a certain age smile. It’s the opening theme to Roobarb (often mistakenly referred to as Roobarb and Custard), the kid’s cartoon show that launched at the end of BBC1’s children’s slot in 1974, bridging the gap between the kid’s slot and the news. This was a slot that had previously brought us the likes of The Clangers and The Magic Roundabout, so viewers – young and old – were certainly used to a touch of eccentricity. But Roobarb was something else entirely. As the demented theme tune (by Johnny Hawksworth) hinted, this would be a chaotic, anarchic cartoon – one that looked and felt like nothing else.
Animated by Bob Godfrey – who until this point had been better known for more adult fare like Kama Sutra Rides Again – Roobarb has a (deliberately) wobbly look – a felt-tip aimation style known as ‘boiling’ – and for anyone used to the smooth lines of US cartoons, this was something of a culture shock, as the lines were far from straight, the colours shook unevenly and the whole thing took on the feel of delirium tremens. To add to the feel of madness, each week’s adventure often took place to a chorus of cackling, hysterical birds, who generally played witness to Roobarb’s mad schemes. The effect, even now, is pretty mind-bending – you probably won’t want to sit through the entire series in one go, as I did when it was released on DVD.
Roobarb is a bright green dog, who each episode is driven to come up with hair-brained schemes and create wacky inventions. As well as the audience of birds, the other regular character is Custard, the fat pink cat with a voice like Ken Livingstone, who lives next door. While everyone remembers these two characters as rivals, it’s interesting to see that for the first few episodes, Custard is in fact little more than a side character, on the same level as the birds. He only develops into Roobarb’s nemesis / friend (they have a complicated relationship) as the series continues.
The series has a decidedly surrealist sense of fun about it – it takes place in its own weird world, without human presence. Roobarb lives in a house, which seems to be his own, yet still sleeps in a dog basket and drinks from a bowl – he’s only semi-anthropomorphised. He’s portrayed as a well meaning – if short tempered – bumbler and would-be inventor, who tends to fail miserably at everything he does, much to the amusement of Custard and the birds. Sometimes, he’s allowed to win, usually at Custard’s expense. And a few supporting characters pop up in various episodes to propel the story forward. In common with BBC animation of the day, each story is narrated – in this case perfectly by Richard Briers, who also voices all the characters. Narration, it seems, elevated the mere cartoon into the world of respectable story telling, rather than empty-headed entertainment, this making it worthy of the BBC, which was a serious public broadcaster back then. How times change.
What’s fun about the show is how slight everything is – the stories are only vaguely developed, and often fizzle out entirely, but this actually adds to the cuteness. And they are a lot of fun – the haphazard visual style gives it an amateur feel, and the excess of noise and colour makes it the most punk rock of all British cartoons, and pretty essential viewing. If you haven’t seen Roobarb in years – and you probably haven’t – then we definitely recommend reacquainting yourself with the show’s weird and wonderful world.
You should probably give the 2005 sequel, Roobarb and Custard Too, a miss, however. This computer-generated version attempts to recreate the look of the original show, but fails – the wobbly lines and white backgrounds are there, but the uneven colours have been replaced with a CGI pulsating block that manages to reproduce the headache-inducing element of the original without any of its charm. These episodes are rather hard work, frankly – though younger viewers might take to them. The original remains a unique and trippy experience that will probably never be repeated, given modern TV’s obsession with demographics and commerciality.