And The Ones That Florence Gives You Don't Do Anything At All

Well, that last instalment was very definitely One We Made Much More Boringly. Anyway, we're not going to be spending any more time than we have to on Blue Peter. Instead, it's time to move on to track four of Music From BBC Children's Programmes, and a show that is probably going to end up being discussed in such depth and from so many different angles that it will most likely leave you feeling as though the coverage of John Noakes and company was almost insultingly fleeting.

It's been journey of somewhat mixed fortunes through Music From BBC Children's Programmes thus far, remaining resolutely rooted in the shallow end of any hoped-for psychedelic blast of retro-iconographic pre-school far-outness, with only the Play Away team and their bubblegum pop funkateering really coming up with the Toffo-infused psychoactive goods. Throughout all of this, though, there have been hopeful and continual references to other more suitable shows - and one in particular - that would not merely fit the theoretical bill but blast all thoughts of that jolly stylised sailing ship out of the water in a shockwave of primary-coloured stop-motion puppetry and badly aligned end credit slides. But as Barnaby has yet to put in an appearance, it's time to turn instead to the show that played Chemical World to his For Tomorrow - The Magic Roundabout.

The Magic Roundabout, as doubtless most of you reading this were aware already, began in France in 1963, where it was known as Le Manège Enchanté. When the BBC bought the series for transmission in 1965, they decided not to go for direct translations of the original scripts - which had a more simplistic and educational quality that was sort of lost in, um, translation - and instead roped in Play School presenter, absurdist, jazz enthusiast and all round Father Of Emma Eric Thompson to make up his own storylines and characters based on what he thought was happening onscreen. The result was a surreal and dryly humorous exercise in Zen-based storytelling set to distinctively offbeat visuals, which remained lodged in a pre-news slot at the tail-end of the BBC's children's schedules right up to the end of the seventies, and infamously found as much favour with adult viewers as it did with its target audience. Sometimes with good reason, sometimes with decidedly less than good reason, but we'll get round to all that in due course. More to the point it was, in its own unselfconscious way, about as psychedelic as the BBC's children's programming ever got (discounting Zokko! as a 'bad trip'), though again this was much misunderstood and again we'll be coming back to that in due course. For the moment, all you need to know is that The Magic Roundabout was, give or take the occasional power struggle with Barnaby and Mr. Benn, the high watermark of exactly the sort of sub-cerebral mindset that I was hoping to unlock within Music From BBC Children's Programmes' grooves. Though not by means of chemical assistance.

Let's get the tedious bit out of the way, then. The Magic Roundabout, so conventional 'wisdom' has it, was at best the acid-frazzled creation of someone who had scoffed a hazardous quantity of hallucinogens and had 'seen' the hat-sporting pink cows lurking on the periphery of human sensory awareness, and at worst crafty pro-drug propaganda for the under-fives with Dougal cast as a sugarcube-scoffing acid visionary, Dylan as a weed-smoking layabout, Mr Rusty as a cart-toting pusher in the mould of Bubbles from The Wire, the Roundabout itself as a giant psilocybin mushroom, and Ermintrude/Brian/Zebedee/The Train/Delete Where Ohhangonaminute somehow representing 'speed', however that works exactly. Notice, however, how this perfect fit analysis invariably omits Mr McHenry, Florence, Paul, Basil and Rosalie, not to mention Penelope The Spider and Tweet & Tweet Tweet. Notice also, more importantly, that there is absolutely no truth in this nonsense whatsoever, and no amount of nudging and winking from third-rate standups nor indeed bare-faced insistence from 'talking heads' on clip shows will ever make it so. If you were alighting on these pages hoping for some zany lolz about how they must all have been on those crazy drugs!1, then please go elsewhere and take that bloody Half Man Half Biscuit song with you.

What all this sub-Michelle From Dazed & Confused rumourmongering annoyingly obscures is that, well, The Magic Roundabout really did chime with the times. Like all of the best 'accidental psychedelia', from Colour My World by Petula Clark and The Great Jelly Of London to The BBC Schools Diamond and Bedazzled, it was made in all 'straight'-ness but still allowed itself to be influenced by the fashion, design and style of the day, and as such ended up more effective in its kaleidoscopic otherworldliness than many more humourless and contrived attemps at 'being psychedelic'; this was even more true of the Thompson-reworked version, which was far from averse to throwing in chortling references to countercultural totems. What's more, it had across-the-board appeal, drawing in as many appreciative adult viewers who understood the idiosyncracies of Thompson's wit as it did target audience members fresh from taking their Pelham Puppets Dougal for a 'walk'.

Oddly enough, it found itself unexpectedly chiming with the times in the early nineties too. Not only were Channel 4 screening some previously unseen episodes with writing and narrating dutes taken on by Nigel Planer, but it had also been adopted on a more iconographic face value by the post-Acid House 'rave' generation - who, let's face it, were so blatant in their 'E'-centric hallucinogen propaganda that they didn't need to look for any 'hidden' messages anywhere else - not just as fashion-appropriate t-shirt fodder but also in musical terms. No less than three superb examples of neo-psychedelia - Too Much Fun by The Chillin' Krew, Summers Magic by Mark Summers, and Everlasting Day by, erm, Magik Roundabout (who also apparently did a cover of The Porpoise Song that nobody seems to have heard) - either making lyrical references to or sampling the theme music of The Magic Roundabout. But could it chime with the times a third time? Was that all-too-familiar eighteen-note refrain what was needed to forge a psychotropic pathway to Cheggers Plays Zen and obliterate all memory of sodding Barnacle Bill?

If you've ever heard the original French theme music from The Magic Roundabout, or rather Le Manège Enchanté, you'll know that, much like the show itself, it's broadly similar to the version you're familiar with, but at the same time subtly yet significantly different. It's built around the same chords and melody but is performed at a much slower pace, and is bolstered by some very sixties organ work and an arrangement not unlike that of a Françoise Hardy record. At one point it even had lyrics, sung as a duet between Margote and Pere Pivoine (or Florence and Mr. Rusty in 'old money'), which basically just do little apart from describe how a roundabout habitually turns round but at least it sounds nice and exotic in the original French. Later on, for some reason, the producers saw fit to replace it with Pollux (or 'Dougal' in old money) singing a bland song with a peg on his nose about how he was "friend of all adults and children", which sounds about as far removed from a Françoise Hardy record as you're liable to get. Even if she was to stick a peg on her nose.

The earliest Eric Thompson-redubbed instalments did use an instrumental version of the original theme arrangement, but avoided the temptation to hastily pen some mechanic rotation-centric lyrics in favour of swapping it for a manically sped-up reworking that sounded like it was being played on a steam-driven barrel organ held together with springs and on the verge of exploding. The only resemblance that this would bear to a Françoise Hardy record would be if you were to play one at 16rpm while throwing your record player down the stairs. This would stay in place for the entirety of The Magic Roundabout's run, and while the original versions featured dozens of admittedly rather inconsequential songs, Thompson preferred to leave the 'clean' instrumentals on the undubbed film prints simply as vocal-free backing music, and get on with the more serious business of wisecracking about mouthy tea-strainers forming unions. Though he did once see fit to incorporate a self-recorded approximation of Dylan and Brian jamming an instrumental cover of Rainy Day Women #12 & 35. No, really. How and why said worryingly haphazard everybody-take-cover arrangement came to be used for the BBC versions, and indeed where it came from in the first place, are questions to which there seems to be no straightforward answer. There's not even an easily identifiable artist credit, more a confusion of series creators and music publishers and what appears to be some initials too, so it's not so much a research dead-end as something that gives you a headache just by looking at it. But it was used at the start and end - and sometimes in the middle - of close to four hundred editions of The Magic Roundabout, so small wonder that it's come to be so firmly embedded in the national subconscious, and indeed so powerfully evocative of a surreal kaleidoscopic mindset that all of those tedious rumours about it being 'about drugs' could only hope to even begin to hint at.

And here it was, at the start of the fourth track of Music From BBC Children's Programmes, poised ready to evoke that selfsame surreal kaleidoscopic mindset without the aid of psychotropic substances or a peg on Mireille Mathieu's nose. But would it work? And, more to the point, what made up the remainder of that fourth track? Well, the theme from The Magic Roundabout may last little more than thirty seconds, but within those little more than thirty seconds - helped in no small part by the trebly audio-strobing sound quality - there is an entire quasi-hallucinogenic lost world of gaudy crudely-animated entertainment and black and white Radio Times pages. It's a very different kind of psychedelia to that usually ascribed to The Magic Roundabout by tedious drug bores who insist that it's all a drugs analogy about about drugs (drugs), and this ability to tap into 'the past' of popular culture - a phenomenon that itself, ironically, is also becoming a thing of 'the past' thanks to pop-cultural artefacts of yore actually tending to be available these days rather than hovering on the haziest fringes of the collective memory - is, well, exactly what I was hoping that Music From BBC Children's Programmes might provide.

So, how are we scoring so far on the putative, fictitious and not entirely logically applicable Sort Of Chart Rundown Thing-O-Meter Of Just How Pan-Cultural Retro-Symbiotic Music From BBC Children's Programmes Actually Is, then? Well, Mary Mungo & Mindfulness-Pickers, what we have so far is roughly half of the tracks hitting the desired Professor Jordan's Magic Soundshow-esque mark, a couple more sort of but not quite doing so, and one not doing so at all. It's all starting to resemble a Derek Griffiths-slanted take on Tinkerbell's Fairydust, the legendary elaborately-named UK Psych band who recorded the fantsatic singles Twenty Ten and Lazy Day (b/w, coincidentally enough, In My Magic Garden) and an unreleased album, which was the stuff of minor musical holy grail-related speculative music press agogness until it actually eventually was released, and turned out to be a collection of nice-enough-but-nowhere-near-as-good-as-the-singles harmony pop covers. Mind you, it did have a naked fairy on the cover, which at least holds slightly more visual appeal than those loathesome youngsters from the cover of Music From BBC Children's Programmes.

As mentioned several millennia and a lot of references to France Gall ago, though, The Magic Roundabout was merely the first half of the fourth track of Music From BBC Children's Programmes, and if it had acted as a sort of retronostalgic knight in shining armour galloping up to smite Blue Peter, then the cavalry were also about to appear on the horizon, riding on the footplate there and back again...

Top Of The Box, The Complete Guide To BBC Records And Tapes Singles, is available as a paperback here or an eBook here; a sequel covering the albums is coming soon! In the meantime, you can hear me talking to BBC Radio 4 about The Magic Roundabout here.