Looking back at the heyday of the imported, dubbed European kid’s TV shows that left an indelible impact on a generation of British viewers.
With another welcome Bank Holiday just gone, please forgive me as I indulge in shameless nostalgia of the analogue TV kind. During those long departed days of either Easter, Summer or Christmas Holidays of the 1970s, you could be sure that BBC1 would wheel out an obscure series or serial for children from some exotic Foreign land, dubbed rather questionably into English by RP-voiced actors or with an accompanying commentary over the original soundtrack. These would be innumerably repeated for new generations of children to enjoy and be captivated by, initially under the umbrella title of Tales From Europe and not just shown during school holidays (in the mornings) but also at the usual times for children’s programming (mid-afternoon-teatime).
Such cultish viewing for both children and adults, however, was borne under the usual mantra ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ as in the early-mid 1960s, the BBC children’s programmes department was unable to make drama programmes of its own and began to buy films that were not made for TV but regional cinema, a great portion of them made behind the then Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe (Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, East Germany), though on occasions it went even further afield to Russia and even Asia via a Mongolian film, The Golden Tent, which was adapted into a serial broadcast in the autumn of 1967.
Such films were fairly cheap to buy and adapt into serial form and had the persistent end credit ‘Presented by Peggy Miller’, of whom very little is known except a reputed East London birthplace in 1919; she passed away in 1993. The very first tale broadcast was an adaption of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Tinderbox, starting on 1 October 1964 and adapted into three episodes.
After a perfunctory version of the Swiss children’s story Heidi, the brand really took off with the legendary The Singing Ringing Tree, made by the East German production company DEFA as was the subsequent story The Tinderbox. The Singing Ringing Tree has previously been covered in vast detail on The Reprobate so there’s little more to be added, only that it was easily the most remembered and most repeated of the dozens of examples that were an essential staple of the BBC’s programming for children until late 1978 (even though the Tales From Europe soubriquet was dropped in 1969), most of which vanished into immediate obscurity after their broadcast.
However, it was the imported series made for television rather than cinema that have survived in the memory more permanently for people of a certain age. The Aeronauts and Belle and Sebastian were just below the highest tier, with the former now surviving only in its original French-language version as the dubbed English soundtrack is now lost; a less remembered Anglo-European series, Kim and Co, recalled mainly for its solarized opening title sequence, was originally made in English but rather oddly now is known to exist only in its dubbed German version.
It is arguable that the three most remembered shows, in no particular order, were The Flashing Blade, The White Horses and The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. The first mentioned was a blood and thunder story set in the French-Spanish war of the 17th Century and the only one in colour, though it’s not always necessarily recalled for the right reasons as the English dubbing involved was often so poorly synchronized as to be comically inept – so much so that in the mid-1980s, the children’s sketch show On The Waterfront did an affectionate send-up featuring brief snippets of the show dubbed this time in broad Northern accents. (The Nineties adult-orientated sketch series The Fast Show similarly featured a parody of The Singing Ringing Tree, retitled “The Singing Ringing Binging Plinging Tinging Plinking Plonking Boinging Tree”).
The latter two series are remembered with rather more affection, both having Austrians playing the lead roles – Helga Anders in the former, Robert Hoffmann in the latter – with a division in loyalties decided by gender; The White Horses tended to be more popular with girls, whereas Robinson Crusoe was more inclined to be watched by boys.
Crusoe was produced by Franco-London Films, a company that had produced Laurel and Hardy’s final film at the beginning of the 1950s – Atoll K was an ill-fated project marred by various production difficulties and a gravely-ill Stan Laurel, though the film interestingly bears certain similarities with the classic adventure story by Daniel Defoe, as the duo are shipwrecked on a desert island for most of the time; it was even released under the title Robinson Crusoeland in the UK.
Franco-London’s version of Crusoe, however, was a much less troubled project, filmed partly in France but mostly in Gran Canaria, well before it became a tourist destination. It was the blond and handsome Hoffmann’s first major role after studying acting in France. He was virtually the same age that Crusoe was depicted as in the novel, and with the authentic location filming, fine production values and a faithful adaption of Defoe’s tale, it became arguably the most definitive version made for either TV or cinema, with the dubbed English version surpassing the French original. The fact that most of the time there was little interaction between Robinson and other characters and instead had a voice-over expressing his thoughts was of great help in the English version, avoiding the dubbing pitfalls that blemished The Flashing Blade for example, with the resonant, thoughtful tones of the French-based American actor and musician Lee Payant a seamless complement to the visuals.
Despite these considerable qualities, the series is mostly remembered for its extraordinary musical score by Ukrainian Robert Mellin and Italian Gian Piero Reverberi. The music in the French version was generic and forgettable, but the English version became one of the most celebrated scores created for any television programme, a mixture of the classical and the modern; exciting, touching, inspirational, emotional, atmospheric and uplifting when it needed to be, it gave the series a genuine cinematic feel, as the score would have distinguished many an expensive film production from a major studio, never mind a relatively modest TV serial. The opening bars of the main title music is enough, decades on, to turn people of a certain age misty-eyed with wistful longings for endless summer holidays as carefree children.
If anything, The White Horses was even more remembered for its theme song, as performed by Irish singer Jackie Lee, who later followed suit with the theme songs for Rupert The Bear and Pipkins, though neither had the enduring popularity as the aforementioned. The lyrics have sometimes been described as cheesy, yet Jackie Lee’s ethereal interpretation and the gentle guitar and horn arrangement conquer all and leave the warmest of glows. It was released on the Philips record label, as were the main themes to Robinson Crusoe and The Flashing Blade (the latter entitled Fight, as performed by The Musketeers), and the only one to reach the pop charts, reaching no.10 in 1968.
The song itself became so loved that what occurred in the series itself has often been ignored as an afterthought, which is unfair. Pleasantly filmed in the Slovenian countryside with a mixture of German, Austrian and Yugoslavian actors, the story revolves around a young teenage girl, Julia (Helga Anders), who travels from Belgrade to spend a summer holiday on a stud farm run by her Uncle Dimitri (Helmuth Schneider) where – with the help of the affable head groom Hugo (Franz Muxeneder) – he raises white Lipizzaner horses.
The somewhat contrived plots were not just based around horses, but also other animals such as dogs and squirrels, occasionally even taking a moral if not political stand against rapacious, greedy businessmen – a plotline perhaps alluding to the fact it was filmed in the then Socialist Yugoslavia, rather than capitalist West Germany, the two nations that co-produced the series – with some sporadic, but entirely innocent, romantic interest for Julia along the way.
We see several main characters, such as Uncle Dimitri, smoking numerous cigarettes from time to time, and Julia even knocks back a glass of wine at one point, issues that caused no concern during the ten years (1968-1978) when it repeated many times over, but such indulgences of nicotine and alcohol on children’s TV no doubt would be clamped down on in the 21st Century. Such minor issues aside, The White Horses is such a sweet-natured series that it replicates the lasting affection of its theme song. The English dubbing fell in between two stools, neither as effective as Crusoe nor as distracting as The Flashing Blade, being unremarkable but adequate. After the BBC’s final showing in January 1978, the English version was lost; audiotapes of twelve of the thirteen episodes were found in recent years. There was a similar problem with Crusoe after its final broadcast in 1982, until the English version eventually turned up in a French archive.
So what became of the main participants? Regarding Crusoe, Robert Hoffmann and Gian Piero Reverberi are still with us, now in their eighties, but Robert Mellin passed away in the mid-1990s and Lee Payant died from cancer, aged only 51, in 1976. Of the three main performers in The White Horses, Franz Muxeneder passed away in 1988 aged 68 while Helmuth Schneider was killed in a road accident aged only 51 in 1972. The story surrounding Helga Anders, however, is the saddest and most tragic. In interviews given with the actress, she appeared to confirm that The White Horses may have been the happiest personal and professional time of her life, which in the end was afflicted by a troubled background, broken relationships, and addiction to drink and drugs. Attempts at recovery proved sadly unsuccessful, and she died of heart failure in 1986 aged only 38. She will remain in the memories of many as a happy-go-lucky teenage girl horse riding through idyllic rural scenery that encapsulated the best years of children’s TV in the Sixties and Seventies.
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