When I first became a major fan of Belle And Sebastian the band, courtesy of the staggering Dog On Wheels EP which cut through a fairly monotonous post-Britpop/pre-Big Beat music scene as ferociously as it was polite and intense as a record (I had heard some of their earlier stuff courtesy of Mark Radcliffe’s Radio 1 show but honestly, you try getting hold of Tigermilk back then), my thoughts inevitably turned to Belle And Sebastian, the dubbed imported black and white serial about a boy and a dog and their mountain range adventures that I very hazily recalled from its last couple of BBC showings towards the very end of the seventies. After all, given their moody acoustic musical leanings, the stylings of their cover art and the very lyrical themes of Dog On Wheels itself, that’s what they had to be referring to, surely?
Well, you’d have thought so. Only nobody I mentioned this to seemed to have any idea of what I was on about, frequently pointing instead towards a late eighties Japanese animated adaptation with jaunty synth chirruping in place of that plaintive acoustic lament and Sebastian constantly being knocked to the ground going ‘a-a-aaa’ that the BBC had repeated with a similarly alarming verve. In the days when the Word Wide Web was just a few people going on about Star Trek and a couple of Fred Harris jpegs with with some wry commentary, all that I had to convince me that I hadn’t just made up that black and white serial was the tie-in novel, which I’d found in a charity shop some years earlier (and you can read more about that in Can’t Help Thinking About Me). Until, that is, I ended up playing some records before one of the band’s then-rare live shows later in the year, and took the opportunity to catch the ear of their cellist; who, perhaps wisely sensing that she had also caught my eye, enthusiastically answered my questions about how they got their name before remembering a pressing engagement she had at the bar.
Belle And Sebastian had been released on DVD by the time that I came to write this history of the series, but it was amazing how little-remembered it still was and the response to it suggested that I’d at least done something to redress the balance. I later included this alongside features on a number of similarly once-ubiquitous and now forgotten programmes (including its close contemporary The Flashing Blade) in my collection Well At Least It’s Free, which you can get in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
It’s something of a recurring theme among the dubbed imported children’s serials shown by the BBC in the sixties and seventies that they went on to find additional fame in another, entirely unrelated and unexpected, manner. The Flashing Blade, for example, later enjoyed a new lease of popularity through a comic redubbing that attained cult status, while Belle And Sebastian, almost by accident, went on to enjoy a cult status of a very different kind.
Born in August 1928, Cécile Aubry was one of France’s first major film stars, noted as much for her commanding screen presence as her striking looks, which saw her gain sufficient popularity with international audiences to appear on the cover of an issue of Life and to star alongside Tyrone Power and Orson Welles in 20th Century Fox’s 1950 historical epic The Black Rose. By the end of the decade, claiming that she had only really enjoyed the travel opportunities, Aubry had retired from acting in favour of a career as a novelist. One of her first published works was Poly, a children’s novel about the adventures of a youngster and a free-spirited horse; Poly would give rise to several sequels and in 1961 a television adapation by the French station ORTF, which Aubry herself scripted and which would continue to run into the early seventies.
Poly was followed in 1964 by Belle Et Sébastien, a novel about a young boy – loosely based on Aubry’s young son – who befriends a stray dog. Aware that this was a familiar thematic device in children’s literature, Aubry intentionally gave the pair an unusual combination of a bleakly existential back story and an idyllic yet remote – and challenging from a narrative point of view – setting. Sébastien had become an orphan when his young mother had died, shortly after giving birth, while attempting to cross the border between France and Italy following a night of heavy snowfall. He is rescued by a pair of customs officers and an elderly mountain hunter named Cesar, who offers to raise the boy with his family in a nearby Alpine village. Sébastien struggles to fit in with the locals, until one day a large dog starts to roam the surrounding area after escaping from abusive owners. The local authorities, mistakenly believing the dog to be dangerous, issue instructions to shoot it on sight. Recognising it a fellow misunderstood outsider, Sébastien shelters and befriends the dog, naming her Belle and enjoying a series of adventures, taking in anything from assisting in daring mountain rescues to uncovering a smuggling plot.
No doubt conscious the success of the television version of Poly, Aubry was already in talks about a television adaptation of Belle Et Sébastien before it had even been published Jointly produced by Gaumont Television and ORTF, and again with scripts by Aubry, Belle Et Sébastien was filmed on location early in 1965 – this timing would lending an extra credibility to the harsh climatic conditions that play a large part in the narrative – and ran for thirteen twenty five-minute episodes from 26th September 1965. ‘Medhi’, the young boy credited with playing Sébastien, was in fact Aubry’s nine-year-old son who had also previously appeared in Poly. Although Medhi’s relationship to the scriptwriter clearly had some influence on his casting, it has to be said he was ideally suited to the role; working under his full name Medhi El Glaoui, he would go on to enjoy a distinguished career as both an actor and director. The remainder of the cast were well known to audiences from French television and European cinema, though none of them ever really found international fame, and it is likely international sales of the series and the numerous awards it that it won as a consequence gave them their most significant worldwide exposure.
This level of acclaim and popularity is not difficult to understand. Shot in black and white and taking full advantage of the vast sweeping locations that featured in the plot, Belle Et Sébastien is a moody and atmospheric work that finds poignancy and beauty in both its geographic and conceptual senses of isolation. Visually mesmerising, it has often been likened – and not entirely fancifully – to the films of Ingmar Bergman. Complementing all of this was a haunting acoustic theme song, written by Aubry with composer Daniel White and later released on a soundtrack EP by Phillips.
Like many other European-made long-form children’s serials at the time, Belle Et Sébastien was purchased for broadcast by the BBC early in 1967, with a view to transmission later in the year. As with all of these series, Belle Et Sébastien – or rather Belle And Sebastian – was dubbed for UK transmission, albeit with the French language theme song left intact, and the actual dubbed dialogue kept to an absolute minimum with the bulk of the vocal duties taken by a female narrator with a suitably thick French accent. As usual, none of the voice artists were ever credited and their identity remains a mystery, though eagle-eared viewers may just notice a remarkable similarity between Norbert’s voice and that of Francis Matthews, better known for playing Paul Temple in the television version of the BBC’s long-running radio detective serial, and providing the voice of the lead character in Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons. Belle And Sebastian was first shown by BBC1 in Monday afternoon slot from 2nd October 1967, concluding on New Year’s Day 1968, with the evocative and picturesque setting and unusually melancholy mood doing much to attract young viewers who were not normally that taken with serials featuring children having everyday adventures. This initial transmission was accompanied by a hardback novelisation, published by BBC Books and written by Peggy Miller from her own reworked English language scripts rather than a direct translation of the original novel. With a striking photographic cover, it was primarily aimed at libraries rather than high street bookshops (although a paperback edition was later briefly available), and is now quite difficult to find.
Belle Et Sébastien was followed in 1968 by Sébastien Parmi Les Hommes – with a theme song sung by Mehdi – which was shown by the BBC as Belle, Sebastian And The Horses from Monday 16th September 1968. French viewers would get to enjoy another instalment, Sébastien Et La Marie-Morgane, in 1970. The BBC however appeared to think two series’ worth of human-canine antics was quite enough, and declined to purchase this third series. Despite their monochrome nature, both series were regularly repeated, particularly during the school summer holidays, with Belle, Sebastian And The Horses surviving in the schedules through to 1973, and Belle And Sebastian making it all the way up to 1978.
Surprisingly, despite enjoying just as ubiquity as its dubbed contemporaries, Belle And Sebastian is not really as well remembered as the likes of The Flashing Blade, The Singing Ringing Tree or The Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe. A significant part of the reason for this may lie in the fact an entire generation associates the title with an entirely different series. Made as a co-production between French and Japanese television in 1981, the sixty four-part Meiken Jolie was to all intents and purposes a loosely interpreted animated version of Belle Et Sébastien, made with the consent of Cécile Aubry but diverting significantly from the original storyline. This was later dubbed into English and retitled Belle And Sebastian, and from 1989 onwards was repeated by the BBC almost as many times – and indeed in roughly the same timeslots – as the original.
Another, perhaps more pertinent reason is the name no longer really ‘belongs’ to the series, and more commonly associated nowadays with a band that drew inspiration from it. Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch had been a fan of the BBC version as a youngster, and although he originally borrowed its name simply for the title of a song, it was later judged appropriate for the name of his group. Though an unusual choice – and one that initially confused a number of radio presenters and journalists who presumed them to be a duo – for those who remembered the series the name fitted well with the band’s pastoral and introspective brand of guitar pop; often, it has to be said, not a million miles away from the actual Belle Et Sébastien theme song. Indeed, many of their early releases featured monochrome photographic covers that recalled the visual feel of their small-screen inspiration. Though the band and their management made several attempts at getting proper permission to use the name, even going as far as to contact Viacom, who had distributed the English language version of Meiken Jolie, no constructive leads were ever forthcoming and contact with Cécile Aubry was not established until their records began to be released in France. Initially, due to the intensely personal nature of the stories, Aubry was unhappy about the matter and reluctant to allow them to continue using it, only relenting after meeting Murdoch and bandmate Isobel Campbell in person to gain assurance of their intentions.
As it turned out, their use of the name was to have a greater benefit for Belle Et Sébastien than perhaps was envisaged during that uneasy meeting. From being scarcely recalled and seldom mentioned by the early nineties, the show went on to be regularly namechecked in articles about the band, cementing hazy memories for some fans and arousing the curiosity of those too young to have seen it. Rescued from obscurity, the English language version of Belle Et Sébastien is now available on DVD and has been a surprisingly consistent seller, doubtless to as many fans of the band as fans of the show itself.
Dubbed imported serial The Secret Of Steel City is featured in the edition of Looks Unfamiliar with Andy Lewis, which you can find here. There’s also a look at The Legend Of Tim Tyler in the edition with Martin Ruddock, which you can find here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.