Thursday, 28 May 2009

The last refuge of psychadelia?

Sometimes I look at the kids’ programmes my son watches and I really wonder what goes on inside the heads of the people that make them. Some are just so surreal and way out there that I find it hard to believe that there’s not some kind of chemical assistance involved.

Case in point: ‘Sponge Bob Squarepants’.
For those who don’t know (has anyone escaped it?), Sponge Bob (or ‘Bob o sfoungarakis’ as the Greek kids call him) is a household sponge who wears shorts and lives in a pineapple under the sea (like you do) in a neighbourhood called Bikini Bottom. His friends include: Patrick - a good hearted but terminally stupid starfish; Sandy - a squirrel who lives in an upturned fish bowl on the seabed and gets around in a diving suit; and Gary - his pet snail who meows (well he wouldn’t, wouldn’t he?). His next door neighbour, Squidward, lives in a house modelled on the Easter Island statues.

Oooookaay. Yeah, right….

Then there are other favourites like ‘My gym partner is a monkey’ and ‘Oggie & The Cockroaches’. Aha, OK. All is well in TV-land, I guess.

Looking back, however, such surrealism seems to have been a vital ingredient of kids’ TV for some time now. I grew up during the 1970s in typical middle England , and to be honest, the sights and sounds that coloured that long-ago childhood were probably no less weird. At the time I just took it all at face value – as you do – but looking back, I wonder….

One of my favourites was ‘Mr Ben’. For the uninitiated, it was a series of drawings (they didn’t even move!) following the daily adventures of – yes, you’ve guessed it – Mr. Ben. Every day, Mr Ben would put on his dark suit, white shirt, dark tie and bowler hat, leave the house and go to… ...a dressing-up shop!

There, a bald-headed man with an accountant’s moustache and a Turkish fez would hand him the ‘costume du jour’ and Mr Ben would walk through the magic door to the changing room, where he would enter a phantasmagorical world of crazy psychedelic colours, shapes and swirling patterns for the day’s adventure. Maybe the clothes were dipped in acid, who knows? I was (and still am) too innocent to know the difference.

Then there was ‘The Magic Roundabout’. Star of the show was Dougal, the hairy dog with no perceivable legs and an obsession with sugar lumps. His supporting cast included: Florence (boring and sensible with a freakishly large head), Brian the Snail (Dougal’s long-suffering best mate), Ermentrude the cow, Dylan (the terminally laid-back guitar-twanging rabbit), and Zebedee (who simply defied description!).

Many theories have been offered about the real message behind Dougal & Co, from a parody of Swedish politics at the time (‘really?’) to not-so-thinly veiled references to drug culture. But it was all lost on me in the 1970s. Then, it was just that slightly odd thing that filled the 5 minutes between the end of children’s programmes and the 6 o’clock News. And I never missed it.

Others worth an honourable mention included ‘Rainbow’ (remember Bungle, the world’s stupidest man-sized teddy bear? Or Zippy, everyone’s favourite smart-arse loudmouth?), ‘Bagpuss’ (which I found strangely creepy, I’m afraid), the seriously low-tech but delightful 'Ivor the Engine' & 'Noggin the Nog' (ruined for me by a boyfriend who said it sounded like an act of sexual depravity); and the wonderfully British but slightly defective superhero ‘Danger Mouse’. I guess they were responsible for laying the foundations of my abiding love of Monty Python, Dr Who (memories of hiding behind the sofa to the opening credits), The Rocky Horror Show, Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or even that American upstart, The Little Shop of Horrors.

So maybe I shouldn’t worry about Sponge Bob after all? Maybe it’s just an expression of the imagination that we have to let rip during childhood?

Now, excuse me, I have to go ‘cos it’s nearly time for ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’.

1 comment:

  1. Mr Ben was my favourite as a child but at no point did I ever question why he wasn't at work or indeed why he liked dressing up so much. I love Sponge Bob, anything that includes adult humour in such a way that it goes over the kids' heads gets my vote. I even have Sponge Bob's and Squidward's houses in my fish tank! Have you seen the film? The bit with the Hoff is GENIUS!!!