Sing “Barnaby The Bear’s my name!” to anyone within a specific age bracket, and – regardless of their actual name and whether anyone was actually attempting to address them as Barnaby or not – chances are that they will immediately respond with “never call me Jack or James!”. Well, a few of them might recall with infectious delight instead that he was called Colargol where they came from, and twenty thousand people on Twitter who don’t follow you will point out that sometimes in some English language dubs he was sometimes called Jeremy and maybe you should have mentioned that I think you’ll find et cetera et cetera, but nonetheless the point still stands. At one time, Barnaby – and his strict demand to call him by his correct name with absolutely no toleration of minor etymological derivations whatsoever – was all over television. And then he wasn’t.
Except he didn’t disappear completely. For reasons that the now slightly older younger viewers were simply unable to fathom at the time, Barnaby made the briefest of subliminal cameo appearances in the infamously ominous opening titles of imported French educational animation Once Upon A Time… Man, emerging from the blue cosmic swirls that emanated outward from the Big Bang before dissolving into burbling lava as the Earth lurched into existence. Others may have found the opening of Once Upon A Time… Man troubling for more deep and existential reasons (as you can hear Will Maclean recall with a certain degree of shudder on Looks Unfamiliar here), but many simply wanted to know what in the name of sanity Barnaby was actually doing there, and what if anything he had to do with the gravitational collapse of the presolar nebula and the Friedmann–Lemaître–Robertson–Walker Metric, but even A Brief History Of Time could offer no answers and if anything only led to the conclusion that for all his staggering intellect, Stephen Hawking had been asking entirely the wrong questions. Meanwhile, what would have happened in Avengers: Infinity War if Thanos had also acquired the Barnaby Stone does not bear thinking about.
That was just a diversion though. Admittedly a diversion with terrifying implications for everything that we thought we knew about the Phanerozoic Eon, but a diversion all the same. Barring that bewildering cameo – and yes, alright Barnabysplainers, sodding ‘Jeremy’ – Barnaby has consistently averted the collective conscious whilst remaining symbiotically embedded into the collective unconscious at the same time ever since. It’s probably statistically impossible to calculate just how many times he was seen exiting his house via the window in the BBC’s Watch With Mother timeslot between 1973 and 1981, but following then he has only made one appearance – and suitably instantaneous disappearance – in public.
Released by BBC Video in 1989 to capitalise on the unexpected runaway success of their original fifties-heavy Watch With Mother compilation, Watch With Mother – The Next Generation – and yes, they did ill-advisedly use the corresponding Star Trek font in the cover artwork – shifted its focus towards the late sixties and early to mid seventies, a timeframe for which the target audience had yet to start feeling any stirrings of nostalgia and most of them probably couldn’t actually afford a sell-through videotape on a past-remembering whim anyway. Alongside episodes of Tales Of The Riverbank, Pogle’s Wood, The Herbs and Mary Mungo And Midge (also very nearly joined by, if the back cover blurb that somebody forgot to update is anything to go by, an episode of the colour Andy Pandy), Barnaby broke his meditative seclusion and made his lone foray back into public life with The Circus, the fourth instalment of his ongoing excursion into the inner conflict between private ambition and public expectation, originally broadcast by BBC1 on 25th April 1973.
Since then, there has been only silence. The kind of silence that, Dark Elves and that devil slash highland cow thing that shouted at The Doctor and Rose from inside a vase or something notwithstanding, must have existed – if existed is the right word – prior to the hydrogen inrush that propelled Barnaby into the rapid acceleration of Hubble’s Law. Only the universe itself is not silent, and Barnaby has simply travelled as it expanded, lost somewhere in a cosmic realm of pure thought, like someone had ejected the unfinished fragments of SMiLE by The Beach Boys into the Stargate from 2001: A Space Odyssey accompanied by a couple of complicated-looking theosophical diagrams scribbled in the margin of a page from Radio Times. Or, for those who haven’t got around to reading How The Universe Got Its Spots by Janna Levin yet, you can’t get it on DVD, Bluray or any streaming platform, or even as a comet fragment-level bootleg. Somehow, Barnaby is still whizzing around somewhere in para-reality while every last second of Clare In The Community has burned up on re-entry more times than could be considered cosmologically possible.
This is a cultural oversight of truly macrocosmic proportions, as Barnaby was more than just the adventures of a singing and dancing bear with a Nietzschean fixation on his apparently not actually especially fixed nomenclature. Colargol himself dates back to the late fifties and a series of story records; Les Aventures De Colargol as the series was called in old francs was a reinvention of the character for the post-The Magic Roundabout popular cultural landscape of 1967 where Jacques Dutronc and Francoise Hardy and company had ‘gone’ psychedelic without actually ‘going’ psychedelic, made by French broadcaster ORTF at around roughly the same time as they made Le Chevailer Tempête, a serial that BBC viewers correspondingly might well know better as The Flashing Blade (and there’s much more about that swashbuckling saga and its technical breakdown-prone last episode here).
Much as with their reinterpretation of the three centuries earlier sword-swaggering escapades of Francois, Chevalier de Recci, Barnaby in itself was an attempt to refit the already refitted Colargol for an early seventies Children’s BBC audience. With English language narration from Character Actor Colin Jeavons (as it is apparently a legal requirement to refer to him as), Barnaby‘s Eurostar-anticipating repositioning was handled by the mysterious animation house Q-3 London – whose other productions included Crystal Tipps And Alistair and the song-and-dance-prone bear’s Watch With Mother contemporaries Joe, Fingerbobs and Teddy Edward – and apparently very much under the knowingly witty influence of The Herbs (even to the extent of an occasional undertone that reflected that of the frankly terrifying episode with Belladonna The Witch, as you can find much more about here) and indeed the BBC’s own earlier in-house English language reworking of The Magic Roundabout. It was, in a sense, an almost literal manifestation of the lyrics of Made In France, a song about cross-channel artistic toing and froing by France Gall, a contemporary of Hardy and Dutronc et leurs amis who had thrown herself expanded consciousness first into swirls of dry ice and flashing lights after discovering the swirly sitar-led joys of music and clothing that very much implied you were aware of the probability of one pill making you larger. As coincidence would have it, Made In France appeared on her deeply hallucinogenic album 1968, which oddly enough bears more than a passing resemblance to the music from Barnaby in places. You can find much more about 1968 here, though; in the meantime, what about the actual music from Barnaby itself? It’s time to do what that errant existential extemporisation-prone bear set off on a parapsychological quest for in the first place, and run away – presumably via the window rather than the front door – to join The Circus.
Surprisingly, Barnaby doesn’t actually open with the fully-expected ‘Barnaby The Bear’s my name’ song; instead, there’s a sort of whistle-driven showtune-styled instrumental variant of it straight out of West End Smash Colargol – The Musical starring Killian Donnelly as King Of The Birds, which plays over a self-drawing thick white outlined rendition of Barnaby against an indefinable shade of blue, the overall effect of which is unnervingly if cosmologically fittingly redolent of a scientific formula from a seventies Programme For Schools And Colleges. This resolves into a full colour drawing of Barnaby waving and positioned next to a gramophone for no readily apparent reason; presumably, this is the first of many details that found themselves getting very slightly lost in translation.
A whole three rearranged episodes into a vision quest that will eventually take him to the North Pole, into the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere and across the ocean courtesy of a lift hitched from a disconcertingly grinning whale, The Circus opens with Barnaby and the rest of Mr. Pimolou’s currently disassembled Big Top riding as a convoy into an unidentified town straight out of a late fifties French text book that your school was still using into the eighties. A baker opens his shutters and pulls out a rack of baguettes that, worryingly, appear to have been sat there overnight, a butcher cheerfully hangs a pig’s head freshly disassociated from its body outside his door, a chimney sweep skitters across the rooftops like some cross between Dick Van Dyke and one of those villains in episodes of Torchwood where they had to refer to a case from ‘the past’, the mayor strides out on his balcony to survey the town square – a little familiar, you may well think – and a narky gendarme reclines on a bench and starts snoring. You cannot help but suspect that we will be hearing more from him.
With a triumphant fanfare redolent of a certain reminder to adhere to proscribed nominal preferences, Cirque Pimulou rolls into town to leaps of excitement from local youngsters and Mr. Pimolou instructs his animal charges to start assembling the tent – a task that they unexpectedly appear to be both adept at and enthusiastic about. The disgruntled representative of les flics is predictably less than amused by this turn of events, and denotes his consternation by grumpily shifting his moustache around his face and blowing his whistle with such vigour that his head shakes like a member of an eighties hair metal band showing off on Top Of The Pops. After being upended by a singularly overexcitable dog, le policier proceeds to single-handedly chase the circus out of town to the accompaniment of what sounds like Carry On film music gone haphazardly out of control; well, either that or France Gall getting a custard pie in the face and falling over. With Barnaby in the literal driver’s seat, the entourage outsmart and outrun him with full-tilt slapstick pandemonium of the sort that you would not exactly find in Rag, Tag And Bobtail.
Through a combination of copper-baiting cunning and wagon-chicanery sleight of street-sidling hand, the assembled company eventually alight upon the Town Hall, where a display of desk-shifting conjuring tricks and a fanned-out wodge of free tickets – although as we obviously know all local officials are entirely above board and morally opposed to even the most trivial and unserious bribe – is sufficient to persuade the Mayor to allow them to pitch up and put on a show. Le Gendarmerie are not best pleased, especially when Mr. Pimolou bids them a not entirely respectful au revoir with a final wand-waving flourish that turns his ringmaster jacket a Phil Cool-evoking shade of hot pink. Outside of Windy Miller telling PC McGarry in no uncertain terms to mind his own business and go and catch the real criminals, this was probably the closest to two fingers to authority that you were ever liable to find in Watch With Mother. With the unamused officier fuming avec impouissance, some dogs wearing ruffs put up entirely above board posters highlighting Mrs. Pimolou’s tightrope walking act, and with that, we’re all set for the evening’s entertainment.
As the sunset draws in, a full-tilt son et lumiere spectacular erupts both outside and inside the Big Top. Lights flash, crowds roll in, cats usher punters to their seats, and Ricky And Dicky the drumming monkeys bash out a paradiddle and blow the occasional fanfare. They’re joined in the ring in rapid succession by Sara The Seal, who twirls a balanced beach ball and stick which turn into glittery something or other on her nose while rolling around on some sort of a cylindrical stunt-wheel apparently purloined from the cover of a White Stripes album; Ricky And Dicky indulging in dog assisted trapeze acrobatics while Sara impractically stands in on drums; Mr. Pimolou conjuring up a bouquet for the good lady Mayoress and making some playing cards whizz around doing unassisted feats of self-assembly architectural stacking before turning into one giant card which in turn turns into, erm, a lion, which promptly jumps through a paper hoop with unbridled feralness before transforming into a mild-mannered ginger kitten and then, bizarrely, a mouse, without a single comment on the chain of troubling existential contradictions; the cats doing a fan dance on a triple trapeze like a cross between the singing sisters from Belleville Rendez-Vous and something out of a fifties Raymond Revuebar act; and Mrs. Pimolou chucking her coat onto Barnaby in true diva fashion before doing her pouty high wire walk in a flimsy yellow number. All the while, Barnaby is anxiously peeking through the curtains, barely able to contain his excitement about his imminent stage debut debut. We know this because he continually gets about three words into his melodic name-assignation demands before being politely advised to keep it down a bit.
Barnaby’s big moment finally arrives, and following some alarming tricycle-skewed stunt-riding and concurrent hoop juggling, he leaps onto a giant glittery ball and treats the audience to the full-length version of his long-anticipated signature number. Accompanied by a mid-song flourish of trapeze-led aerodynamics, we get a handy recap of the previous episodes’ interlude involving him being taught to sing by birds after disguising himself with a cardboard beak, a handy reminder that if you want to sing you will need to think of what you’d like to say and then add a tune, a bizarre off-topic extra-curricular ramble concerning “treacle pudding, fish and chips, fizzy drinks and liquorice, flowers, rivers, sand and sea, snowflakes and the stars”, all of which are apparently all ‘free’, and blatant filler in the form of two entire la-la-la’ed lines in lieu of any further additions to that not exactly heavily proscribed list, before one final reminder that he is not to be addressed as Jack or James. The audience applaud wildly and throw back the bouquets in appreciation – presumably tacitly engineered by Mr. and Mrs. Pimolou as a crafty cost-cutting ploy – and the show ends on an uproarious high as Barnaby joins the other acts on a revolving platform straight out of Sunday Night At The London Palladium.
The following morning, everyone in the town – including a courting couple straight out of a Nouvelle Vague movie, some overexcited youngsters, a woman apparently hanging a baby out to dry, the baker, the sweep, the butcher – with the inevitable fresh pig’s head in tow – and even the mayor; though no representatives of les meilleurs du président, funnily enough – are all singing, whistling and la-la-la’ing Barnaby’s song with abandon, but the circus have already packed up and are already on their way, with Mr. Pimolou shaking bags of money with sinisterly quizzical glee as they ride off into the sunset. Where are they off to? It’s not entirely clear, though you can take a fair bet that wherever it is they’re going they won’t need roads, and not even the Time Lords went that far, and they won’t just stop in and watch television because there’s nothing on apart from some bear joining the circus. Then there’s a brief fast jazzy instrumental excursion on that song, an even briefer set of credits… and that’s Barnaby.
To briefly detach from the neo-traditional transcendent plane, while it can sometimes very nearly provoke a literal collapse of the realistic self when you revisit something that you loved watching when you were very young a very long time ago only to find that it now moves along at more or less the same speed as that crow depositing pebbles into a jar of water in Fingerbobs, it’s a fully karmic joy to discover that Barnaby – much like Fingerbobs itself – is still an enormous amount of fun. Even aside from the just that fractionally ‘different’ enough visual style and colour palate, the equally alternate reality-adjacent music, the novelty of a continuing narrative which did get genuinely dark in places with shots of the errant bear sobbing in manacles and so forth, and – with the best will in the world – a more fluid and fast-moving animation technique that calls to mind some form of Multiversal counterpart to Trumpton, it does actually leave you wanting to see more of his antics. Unfortunately, however, you can’t. And to think they’re currently jabbering on at us about how Netflix represents a model model of a model that does everything that the BBC and Channel 4 can’t do and is therefore all that anyone needs did you know there’s a show called Russian Doll my sister’s partner’s brother’s friend recommended it and I’ve put it on my list of things to watch or whatever in the name of wittering imbecility it actually is. Mr. Pimolou would be proud. Or at the very least looking at his bags of money and laughing.
Les Aventures De Colargol continued in France way beyond the thirteen rearranged episodes BBC viewers got to see, taking Colargol/Barnaby/Yes Alright Sodding ‘Jeremy’ to such outlandish locations as the Wild West and Outer Space, and indeed eventually briefly alighting on that fortuitous moment of cosmic alignment in a programme that wasn’t even his. Barnaby himself meanwhile continued his explorations deep into the unchartable realms of the collective cultural consciousness, in an eternal quest for the path to enlightenment by way of one of those ‘White Void’ studio sets that the BBC used all the time in the seventies. Whether he indeed succeeded in transcending his stop-motion physical form to become an entity composed of pure thought is anyone’s guess, but if you see him, try calling him ‘Jack’ or ‘James’. He’ll snap back into reality soon enough.
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You can find a feature taking a look at the entire Watch With Mother – The Next Generation videotape in Well At Least It’s Free, a collection of columns and features from the archives about the archives. Well At Least It’s Free is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Do not ask them to write ‘Jack’ or ‘James’ on the cup.
You can find absolutely tons more to read about Barnaby‘s Watch With Mother contemporaries including features on Camberwick Green here and here, Trumpton here, Bod here, Mr. Benn here, Rubovia here, How Do You Do! here and The Herbs here.
Will Maclean joined me for a chat about Once Upon A Time… Man – and THAT cameo by Barnaby – on Looks Unfamiliar here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.