Commie Kids Telly
March 13, 2008 4:07 AM   Subscribe

One rather strange minor cultural phenomena you experienced as a kid growing up in 60s and 70s Britain was a number of television programs that originated from beyond the Iron Curtain. Most infamous was the downright scary The Singing Ringing Tree from East Germany (Radio4 doc), later spoofed by the Fast Show but there were several others...

including The Little Mermaid from Czechoslovakia, The White Horses from Yugoslavia (with its beautiful and much loved theme tune) and The Mole, also from Czechoslovakia, by acclaimed animator Zdeněk Miler … of which there are many many examples on Youtube.

I doubt it the BBC at the time were really trying to further world revolution (MI5 put a stop to that) the documentary explains that is was just trying to fill up the schedule with cheap imports. And apparently The Singing Ringing tree was criticised by the powers that be in it’s own country for being too bourgeois with its princesses and princes and certainly The Mole was pretty subversive in its own way:

"Mr. Miler said he steered clear of politics, but as Krtek became his life's work, the films did not shut out the real world, before or after the fall of Communism. Bureaucrats were poked fun at. He lamented the destruction of the environment. He showed a rabbit graphically giving birth. One film had Krtek travelling the world, stunned at an American mole's superior burrowing technology."
posted by fearfulsymmetry (25 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
What about Ludwig??? Man, that was trippy.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 4:46 AM on March 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also the Flumps, but that doesn't really count as I think it was a British show. But that fucking tune still goes around my head, along with the intro theme to the Open University. What a fucking era!
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 4:49 AM on March 13, 2008

I was just headed in here to mention Krtek, who went by other names in other places. The birth episode is here. Krtek was maybe a little weird, but always essentially sweet.

I have to mention the Mézga Család, too. You can get an idea of the cleverness that went into it from the famous (well...) Eszperente Jelenet - do read the "About the video" section in the sidebar. Virtuoso writing, but it obviously didn't lend itself to being exported.

Pityke Őrmester was not exactly virtuosic, but the theme song was catchy and it has a likability that's a little hard to explain.

And, of course, Vuk, as fine a film as ever made anywhere.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:58 AM on March 13, 2008

For real iron-curtain-era flavor it's hard to beat Gusztáv, too. Or the Polish Lolek i Bolek.
posted by Wolfdog at 5:01 AM on March 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

70s British children's TV was the greatest kids' tv evar, anywhar. It just set you up for a splendidly twisted adulthood in an endlessly bizarre world. Kids shows today just don't have that blithe weirdness. They can be weird, but deliberately so. Teletubbies had nothing on The Clangers, for instance.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 5:01 AM on March 13, 2008

Correct Vuk link.
posted by Wolfdog at 5:03 AM on March 13, 2008

Nice and odd.
Perhaps it inspired this sculpture.
posted by podwarrior at 5:03 AM on March 13, 2008

What the hell was with Murun Buchstansangur?
posted by Mocata at 5:15 AM on March 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

What about showing some love to the French? Is there no love out there for Robinson Crusoe?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:28 AM on March 13, 2008

France: not traditionally considered "beyond the iron curtain".
posted by Wolfdog at 5:31 AM on March 13, 2008

Wow. That Singing Ringing Tree clip is... is... damn! That is some freaky shit! I had no idea the East Germans were producing anything like this, way back in the year I was born! That crazy bear getup, that giant fish... brilliant!

Thanks for this great post.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:31 AM on March 13, 2008

There's one I've not been able to track down and can only vaguely remember about a princess whose blonde hair was so nice it played a tune when she took her veil off (cue much smutty playground humour on what might happen when other body hair might be revealed)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 5:32 AM on March 13, 2008

Also, the children's TV show with the best theme tune ever was French Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds?

France: not traditionally considered "beyond the iron curtain".

True, but it did make a significant contribution to body of cheap imported childrens TV that filled our screens during the 70's and 80's. It had similar production values and crappy overdubbing that the Eastern European stuff had, so from a viewer's perspective, the difference was that it was all European -- and as such, a welcome change from the banal US pap that we were fed on commercial TV. I'm pretty sure that nobody even noticed that the Eastern European stuff was specifically Eastern European. It was all just 'foreign stuff'.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:39 AM on March 13, 2008

Also: did you never hear of Eurocommunism? I bet *everyone* working in French TV during that period would have been a member of the PCF.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:42 AM on March 13, 2008

The best thing about all this bizarre kids telly (especially stuff like Murun Buchstansanger and Ludwig) is that it didn't seem strange at all at the time.

I know it wasn't an import but I'd just like to say Roobarb. Once heard, the theme can never be forgotten. Na na na naaah, na na na naaah, na na na na-na-naaaaah.
posted by unSane at 6:14 AM on March 13, 2008

Weird and awesome, a textbook case of a good FPP. Well done!
posted by Scoo at 6:40 AM on March 13, 2008

Getting those crunchy Roobarb keyboard sounds was one of the first things I aimed for on my moog.

I wanted to mention Murun Buchstansangur, but he doesn't count, as that show was deliberately weird and made for early channel 4 by the poms.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 7:21 AM on March 13, 2008

The singing ringing tree was definitely one of those pieces of childhood television that leaves scars - I recently tracked it down in DVD. It is still a pretty haunting tale - but everything takes ages to happen by modern standards.

In the same category I would add the kind of animation that people like Jan Švankmajer (see "Alice") were doing.
posted by rongorongo at 7:44 AM on March 13, 2008

In Dublin we got all the main UK channels (all three of them) and the rather less interesting Irish ones (1, then 2) and I recall being absolutely baffled yet intrigued by the cartoons with not enough vowels in them. I knew something deeply weird was going on because while they borrowed the form and manner of the easy-to-digest US cartoons, I could feel my scalp being tickled as abstruse political metaphors whizzed by, as unknowable and incomprehensible to a child as spirits.

But what really made things get screwy for me was getting, for a few years, HTV (the Welsh version of ITV, aka Sianel 4 Cymru). They got the old campy 60s batman and dubbed it into Welsh, which made me feel like my head was going to explode, and they tended to show a lot of the Eastern Bloc cartoons as well. So you got Welsh and Slavic languages in the same day.

HTV was generally preferable to UTV, the Ulster affiliate, which in the 1970s was forever interrupting cartoons to request "keyholders" in certain areas to present themselves. It took me a while to understand this was because bombs had just gone off, or there had been a bomb scare, and police were securing the area.
posted by meehawl at 10:06 AM on March 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

S4C is not HTV, or was not then. I apologise.
posted by meehawl at 10:13 AM on March 13, 2008

I loved the Singing Ringing Tree. Along with The Flashing Blade and the later Silas (run Godik) - both enthralling and hilarious. Thank you Europe telly.
posted by NailsTheCat at 12:44 PM on March 13, 2008

The fuzzy felt version of Moomins was Polish (based on Finnish stories, with some kind of involvement from a german production company).
posted by Artw at 1:22 PM on March 13, 2008

Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds is japanese, I'm afraid...

I used to watch a show in Portugal (this was post-communist oriented revolution in 74) where they'd present all the cartoons that competed at the Zagreb animation festival. The most amazing animation (especially the stop motion ones) I've ever seen.

Also, I loved Professor Baltazar, the inventor. From Yugoslavia, I think.

For what it's worth, I used to watch the brit show Chorlton and the Wheelies, the french Barbapapa and the german Ferdy. So, although I loved Tom & Jerry, Bugs Bunny and all that, the european cartoons are the ones that left the most fond memories. Also, everything was subtitled. Fun.

Still, I'm guessing 70% of the cartoons shown on TV were actually Japanese.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 4:26 PM on March 13, 2008

I always liked Pat & Mat (Czech). Excellent mindless stupidity.

Also, not eastern-bloc, but the favourite cartoon of my youth was probably Ulysses 31 (French/Japanese). I remain scarred to this day.
posted by kersplunk at 5:17 PM on March 13, 2008

I used to love The Singing Ringing Tree and White Horses (I can still sing the theme tune to that without prompting).

But we had some cool shows in Britain too - anybody remember Ace of Wands and Arthur of the Britons?

I also recall a couple of Canadian shows that used to be shown in the UK - Mr Piper and Forest Rangers.

But the best, the absolute awesome zenith of kids' TV, was Skippy The Bush Kangaroo.
posted by essexjan at 5:20 PM on March 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

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