Thursday, 15 August 2019

Coconuts (1990)

Richard Briers was such a versatile actor. He had the kind of face and voice that could apply to almost any role that was offered to him. From radio to stage to television to voice-overs, there are those who will remember him for one specific show or character - whether it'd be 'The Good Life', 'Roobarb', 'King Lear', 'Watership Down', 'P. G. Wodehouse', 'Monarch of the Glen' and an endless list of audiobooks (my personal favourites being the 'Wind in the Willows' sequels written by William Horwood).

In fact, Richard has starred in so many roles - leading and secondary - that it would be difficult to try and list them all. Some of these end up being sidelined and forgotten for some reason or other. This is one of them.

'Coconuts' is a little gem of a cartoon. Set on the tropical island of Guacamole, it focuses on the (mis)adventures of the clever, self-important Parrot, Minister to the bad-tempered, eccentric King Lion, who dotes on Parrot to do his every Royal bidding. Often, though, Parrot enlists the help of his assistant - the obliging but dim-witted Monkey - to do the jobs that Parrot tries to avoid. But it's not long before things go awry and then Parrot is forced to pull his weight by putting things right. Most of the time, if there is an opportunity for financial or personal gain, Parrot doesn't hesitate in trying to grasp either.

The title of the series seems rather fitting then that things become a little "nuts" in some shape or form!

On closer inspection, much of the humour for this series seems to draw inspiration from the popular Blackadder - ironically, Coconuts was released not long after Blackadder Goes Forth had first aired back in 1989. In fact, it's all too easy to imagine Blackadder and Baldrick reimagined as Parrot and Monkey (with Prince George more-or-less in the role of King Lion). Whether that was intended or not is hard to say. What I will say is that Coconuts is not only cleverly written, but nicely animated, designed and very pleasing to watch, made at a time when made-for-TV animation was slowly starting to pick up in terms of quality. 
In short: it's just plain fun! And bringing Richard in to voice all the characters is the cherry on this colourful cake.

The series was created and written by Graham Garside. Most of his life was dedicated to being Senior Graphic Designer and Animator at Central Television (ITV). These included Cosgrove Hall's 'The Talking Parcel', 'Jamie and the Magic Torch', 'Spot's Magical Christmas' and several title sequences - 'Bullseye', 'Emu's World' and 'Bloodbath at the House of Death' (not one for the kids!). He has also co-written/drawn the book 'Learn To Draw Animated Cartoons' with Janet Nunn.

Another surprise for me was discovering that Paul K. Joyce provided the theme tune and instrumental music here. In fact, this was his first television work as a composer. He would later go on to write music and theme tunes for many other shows afterwards, including 'Budgie the Little Helicopter', 'The Worst Witch' and 'Bob the Builder'.

Coconuts aired on ITV and ran for thirteen episodes. Unfortunately, all that remains is a single VHS cassette tape. I knew nothing about this until I came upon the episodes online by chance, as one often does whilst browsing on YouTube these days. Like many things in life, it was short but sweet, and so deserving of a proper DVD release if the master copies still exist somewhere (Or failing that, new life on a streaming app / service somewhere).

As for Graham: he too seems to have disappeared off the radar. But wherever he is, I'm sure that those that he worked with are grateful for his contributions to the animation world, however small they might have been. And it's only fair that people like me ensure that they don't go unnoticed.

"...And so it was!"

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Mouse and Mole (1996)

There are many characters in children's literature that are considered timeless. No matter how many revivals and adaptations of them are made, the original stories will always be remembered and referenced, and all with good reason. Winnie the Pooh, the Wind in the Willows, Peter Rabbit - each of them still holds a special kind of magic in the characters and their stories that not only entertains but inspires. The kind that makes you stop and think about the world around you. Of how life was more simpler, more kinder, more relaxed before social media and handheld devices.

The same can be said for Joyce Dunbar's Mouse and Mole stories (not to be confused with the books of the same title by Mr Wong Herbert Yee). Although remarkably, Mouse and Mole were only created in 1993, in comparison to Mr. Toad and Pooh Bear who were thought of at the start of the 20th century. However, if you were to read any of the Mouse and Mole stories, you might be fooled into thinking that they actually were.

Joyce Dunbar has been writing children's stories for over 30 years, most of them being picture books. She has been praised for "...her sensitivity, lyrical style and gentle humour..." She has covered various topics and themes in her books, each of them told in their own unique way that not only children but parents can enjoy and learn from. Of all the stories she has written, her most favourite and fondly-remembered are her set of books focusing on the gentle adventures of Mouse and Mole.

Mouse is practical, cheerful, and likes to have things in order. Mole is more thoughtful, rather naive and needs mollycoddling. But in spite of their differences, they're still the best of friends who genuinely care for one another. In much the same spirit as the original Winnie the Pooh books, the Mouse and Mole stories are each a character piece based on a simple premise: one character normally has an idea or thought, and the story develops naturally from that. Whether it's trying to catch a falling leaf for good luck, discovering the secret of happiness or how a game of pebbles can suddenly bring up the poignant subject of how special one truly is among so many...

A few years later, these stories were adapted for animation by TV Producer and Executive Joy Whitby, who was also responsible for Watch With Mother, Play School and The Mousehole Cat. Although 26 stories were written, only 19 episodes were made by Whitby's own production/publishing company Grasshopper Productions. Even so, they are as wondrous and sweet as the books themselves, with the visuals matching the original illustrations by James Mayhew to a tee.

In a time when children's media is becoming more colourful, active and loud, once in a while it's a change of pace to have something calmer to watch with the little ones. The right voice cast helps as well - here we have Richard Briers playing Mouse, and Alan Bennett as Mole. Voices that couldn't be any more perfect!

Sadly, thanks to the growing change in children's media, shows like Mouse and Mouse were quietly pushed aside to the point where only those who have the original books, VHS cassettes or DVDs will remember them.


Joy Whitby was lucky enough to have had one last hurrah with Mouse and Mouse in 2013 when, along with Baird TV and Clive Juster & Associates, a half-hour Christmas Special 'Mouse and Mole at Christmas Time' was created. It would be the last time that Richard Briers and Alan Bennet would be reunited to reprise their roles before Briers sadly passed away. This time, Imelda Staunton joined the voice cast for this one-off special, and for those precious 28-minutes it felt as though the books and the animated series never really went away. In short, it was a lovely way to rekindle those forgotten memories in the back of my mind.

Until only recently, I had though that that Christmas Special would be the only Mouse and Mole-related item still in the public eye (on DVD, with a handful of the original episodes included). But during a Google search whilst gathering my research for this blog review, I came upon the web page of the illustrator of the books, James Mayhew - recently he's posted a blog post of his own, recalling fond memories of collaborating with Joyce Dunbar, sharing her own memories of the stories, and how the books are to be reprinted for 2019...!

Yep, that's right. Miracles do happen.

With any luck, Dunbar's beloved characters will still be around for new generations to enjoy in the years to come. 'Happy Days for Mouse and Mole' indeed!