Friday, 27 February 2009

Rupert the Bear considered as a Spaghetti Western

The Daily Express is one of those middle-brow tory tabloids that demands higher reading skills than the Red Tops and lower thinking skills than the broadsheets. It lacks the heel appeal of The Daily Mail's pantomime facism and can only ever get over its Diana obsession when there's Madeline McCann NotNews to report, to the extent that they might as well be done with it and rename the thing 'The Daily Dead Blondes'. I don't have much time for The Daily Express.

So it annoys me a bit that it's home to something truly beautiful.

"Rupert, Rupert, Rupert the Bear... everyone knows his name" went the theme tune to the crap 1990's TV adaptation of the 1920's strip. TV executives get so excited over brand recognition that they sometimes forget it's a tool for indirectly manipulating audiences rather than something the audience is supposed to get directly excited over too. "Hey Kids! Check this bear out! He's got brand recognition!"

But the other day I say an episode of a slightly less crap TV adaptation, one that knew more than the name. On the surface, Follow the Magic, 2006's CGI take on Rupert, looks like what you'd expect a 2006 CGI take on Rupert to be - a hollow monstrosity come to feast on the souls of pre-school children. But on another level it's got something very right.

Here's the basic premise of Rupert (we'll elaborate later) : Rupert's a bear. An anthropomorphised bear seen at a point in his childhood vauge enough to allow children of various ages to identify with him. He has mild adventures with his social circle of anthropomorphised badgers, elephants and so forth.

Here's the premise of the particular episode I saw: Rupert has illictly borrowed his mother's cuckoo clock to show his friends. There is some excitement. The cuckoo clock is broken.

What happens next?

We've all seen pre-school children's telly, so we all know where this story is going. Rupert must confess what he's done to his mother, right? Then he must repair or replace the clock, right? Learning valuable lessons about honesty and responsibility, yeah?

Oh no. The clock is broken and so...








He fails and is trapped forever, like at the end of Saphire and Steel. Oh alright, no he doesn't. He turns his elephant friend's trunk into a giant sundial and fixes the universe. But I put it to you that this is nevertheless a departure from what one might have expected from a "Little Bear steals Mummy Bear's old clock" story.

This is what the 2006 adaptation got right - Rupert the Bear is bloody weird.
It's also what it's got wrong, because Rupert the Bear isn't weird at all.

Lots of fantasies show us 'our world made strange', and lots of others take place in some strange new world. Sometimes these secondary worlds exist with no reference to ours, and sometimes they're connected to ours by magic wardrobes or police boxes. What the Rupert the Bear newspaper strips do is something more curious. They show us a secondary world that has access to a tertiary world of its own.

TV adaptations have either just shown the secondary world, or (like Follow the Magic) tried to integrate the secondary and teritary worlds into one strange place. But here's how it really's a map of Rupert's realites...

Rupert the Bear lives in Nutwood. It's an idealised 1940/50's English village and, mysteriously, seems to have been an idealised 1940/50's English village since the strip began in the 1920s. The home, the garden, the church, the common and the village shops are the extent of this universe, and the backdrop for a quaint life of cricket, fetes and sandwiches. Most, but far from all, of its inhabitants are smartly dressed humanoid animals who look like the English cousins of the Sylvanian Families.

That's the secondary world in which Rupert is set. But it's cracked. Someone dropped Plush England and now it's full of little holes. Gaps in the hedge, loose planks in the fence, paths through the woods and points on the horizon. Little holes that a tiny bear might fall through. Little holes through which other things might crawl.

First contact between the twee and the primal.

The clouds in the sky above Nutwood are ships with strange pilots and stranger cargos. The ground beneath it is riddled with the tunnels of an underground railway system, taking the imps who turn the seasons from their work in the fields to their rest in the blue mountain. You've only to step over the river and you've left the twentieth century for a world of knights and castles.

Nutwood is a consistent and integral conceptual space, but it's built on top of something. It's a sunny, Anglican, post-Victorian myth of England that's left the cellar door unlocked and allowed its adventurous children to sneak down into the darkness of a Pagan, Celtic myth of Britain. Then climb back out again, for tea and scones.

Part of this, I think, is because Rupert the Bear is Britain's Spaghetti Western. Those films took the most American of myths, myths so rooted to their location that they took the name of a compass point, and transplanted them to an alien landscape. The cowboy in southern Spain, singing the lord's song in a strange land, demythologising himself by finding his apotheosis in a place where he could never exist.

Rupert's world is just the same. Nutwood is the most immaculate, Picture Postcard representation imaginable of England's Dreaming, of its self-conception of its "Good Old Days." Except that it isn't England at all. Alfred Bestall, the strip's definitive illustrator, created this world by looking out of his window and drawing the landscape he saw. He saw Wales.

"It's not where you're from
It's not where you're at
It's not where you've been
It's where you're between." - Super Furry Animals.

The form of a Rupert story, also invented by Bestall, is important here too.

Each strip (or, when collected, page of an annual) would be a short prose story accompanied by four little illustrations. The illustrations were then accompanied by four rhyming couplets which summarised the story.

So, lets say Rupert was on an adventure to bring home a potion that would attract rare butterflies to his garden. The text would go...

In his excitement over the phial of essence Rupert forgets all about his bunch of flowers as he starts for home.
"Mind you keep that thing tightly corked," laughs the Professor, "or you won't be able to see where you're going because of butterflies!"

The picture would look like this...


And be captioned thusly...

He's told, "Be careful not to fall,

That scent will spill - you'll lose it all."

(Anyone who's read the wonderful Doctor Who story, 'Once Upon a Time Lord' will recognise this format from the beautiful sequence in which the Doctor and Frobisher pass through a Rupert story)

The idea here is that there are three different ways to read the story (four if you count each strip's title which was always a summary of what followed - this one's called "Rupert Heeds a Warning"), with young children being able to follow the pictures, older children able to read the verse and even older children able to read the prose.

I've never been convinced by this. To me it seems harder to read the rhymes - the constraints of space force them to be more eliptical than the prose (where did the bunch of flowers go?), and the constraints of rhyme force them to employ a wider selection of words. The rhymes are the more challenging way in which to follow the story.

When we look at a Rupert strip we're not really looking at different ways of comunicating the same thing. We're looking at one thing becoming something else. It's obvious that the prose was there first and the pictures and verse followed it, so what we're seeing on the page in front of us is a transformation.

We're watching adaptation happen before our eyes as a story becomes a different story (worrying about a swarm of butterflies isn't quite the same as worrying about a spillage) but never completing that transformation because it never replaces the original form. The original text remains right there next to the imagery and poetry it has become.

Rupert the Bear depicts an inescapable moment of transition. Captured between modes of storytelling, between moments of cultural history, between nations and between comfortable domesticity and dangerous, mythic proto-psychedelia.

Maybe it does belong in the Daily Express after all. Maybe it changes the whole of that tedious, conservative, Little England newspaper into a magic eye picture. Stare through it and watch things change.


  1. Speaking as someone who's getting exposed to children's television on a regular basis I'm so glad I'm not the only one who finds the entire load of it entirely weird. Sesame Street alone is so loaded with potentially weird and frightening premises that I have to toon it out as the kids watch it so that I don't start writing some really weird stuff. Monsters exist and are playing with children. And don't even get me started on Elmo.

  2. I've been quite lucky in my Cub's choice in telly. The only shows she's really obsessed over are Scooby Doo and Peppa Pig, both of which I heartily approve of.

    Rupert's TV antics haven't grabbed her at all, but Daddy's Little Discerning Reader is very much enjoying the classic Bestall strips. Though she's doing that wonderfully childlike thing of expressing wonder over the bits the text doesn't anticipate.

    We read "Rupert and the New Pal" this week, in which the little bear befriends a tortoise who's never been outside his garden and accidentally takes him on an adventure that climaxes with a heartbreaking scene in which the two are sat on the quay at the docks, looking out at the sea and apprehending that the world isn't just bigger than we know, but bigger than we'll ever have the oppertunity to fully experience.

    What did she take away from this story?
    "Mummy Bear gave Rupert SANDWICHES for lunch."

    Good for her. She loves sandwiches.

    She's not seen Seasame Street yet as the only Muppetry she's been exposed to is 'Christmas Carol'. No Nightmare Fuel there...

  3. I must acquire some of these. Please, tell me there is a good collection of Rupert that I can buy.

  4. They're a bit few and far far as I can tell, those interested in the decent stuff have been expected to forage about for the old annuals, which nowadays go for a pretty penny.

    But! Last year Egmont started putting out themed collections of the classic stories, "The Friends of Rupert", "The Magic of Rupert", "The World of Rupert" and "The Adventures of Rupert."

    They're all handsome volumes and make a good introduction to the particular aspect of the series that the titles suggest.

    "Rupert: A Collection of Favourite Stories" looks promising too, but I've not got hold of that yet.

  5. Though it's got a foreword by Gyles Brandreth. Who's a right twat.

  6. This is as thoughtful and insightful an analysis as ever I've read, and of an unexpectedly high quality for a blog.

    Alfred Bestall must surely be regarded as something of a genius, when you consider the artistic quality and highly imaginative nature of this body of work that he created over a period of almost four decades. His Nutwood strikes me as Edwardian, rather than 1940/50s, but then I'm probably older than you.

    My mother gave my Rupert annuals away to an orphanage while I was at university, without asking me first. They were mostly of 1960s vintage, with some even older ones acquired from relatives.

    Around 2003, I decided to re-buy my missing annuals, plus more besides; I managed to purchase decent original copies thru ebay, all at an average cost of around £10 each. They're up in my loft, and your piece has inspired me to get them out again and re-read them.

  7. A few months ago, I wrote a whimsical little tale to amuse my friends. On reflection, it seems I was mimicking the structure of a Rupert Bear story, by travelling the world but still being home for bedtime. Given the Doctor Who references, it may be of interest to you

    Credit Crunch Travelogue.

    In July 2009, fed up with being stuck in England, I decided to go on safari to the Serengeti. Unfortunately I couldn't afford to, so I did the next best thing and visited Battersea Dogs' Home instead. I'd been hoping to adopt a hyena pup, but I ended up having to make do with a Staffie-hyena cross.

    Before heading home, I took myself off to a local café and ordered an all-day breakfast. Did it last all day? No - only 12 and a half minutes. "And I'll bet the hash browns had no hash in them, either!" I quipped to the waitress. "Oh yes, they did," she snorted. "We only serve the best quality skunk in our hash browns!"

    I left the café and crossed the road to catch the train back to East Croydon. I was just in time. I boarded the train, which went whizzing off as soon as I'd sat down. "This train", said the announcement, "calls at Paris..." (oh no, I thought, in a panic - I've caught the EuroStar by mistake!) "...the Galapagos Islands", continued the announcement, "Reykjavik, and East Croydon".

    Phew! At least I'd get home - eventually. Strangely, I was the only one in the carriage, with only the automated voice for company. "Do not put your feet on the seats!" ... "Stop picking your nose! I can see you, you know..." "Your ticket will turn into a pumpkin if you do not return home by midnight" ... "We are now approaching East Galapagos. Do not feed the giant tortoises!"

    By this time I'd had enough, so I got off at East Galapagos. I wandered past penguins, giant tortoises and a herd of daleks, until eventually I ended up at the local IKEA . The "Doctor Who" series must have been popular on the islands, as they were selling flat-pack Tardises for only 50 Galapagan euros. "After you've finished travelling through space and time, your Tardis doubles as a wardrobe", said the blurb. "Great!" I thought. "Just what I always wanted". So I bought one. I set the controls for Croydon, and it worked a treat. I was back home in no time. I made landfall in the back garden on a beautiful summer's day. There was only one problem: there was a Komodo dragon in the garden, and it was eating our postman. He was screaming in agony, so I took out my mobile and phoned the police. "There's a Komodo dragon in our garden, and it's killing the postman", I reported.

    "Nothing to do with us, mate," said the duty copper. "It's global warming, innit?!" Then he hung up.

    By now I was beginning to suspect something was badly wrong. Why had that policeman mentioned global warming, when it was the first decent day we'd had all summer? And did this affect my statutory rights? Just then my head began to spin, and suddenly all I wanted to do was sleep.... A friendly dalek appeared and carried me up to bed, to the screams of the expiring postman.

    Next day everything was back to normal, but it's definitely put me off travelling. I'm very pleased with my new wardrobe, though.