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...
CAN LEARN THE TIME IT SHOULD BE IN A WORLD WHERE ALL THE CLOCKS ARE STOPPED.
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 looks...here'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.
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.
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."
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.