Monday, 31 October 2011

Retrospective: Dougal And The Blue Cat (Movies, 1970)


[This article was first published on Flixist]

It's Halloween, which means it is the perfect time to take a retrospective look at one of the scariest films ever made. There's a good chance you will never have heard of it and after taking one look at the poster above, will assume I either have a very strange definition of the word 'scary' or am the most easily terrified human not born in France. 

Dougal & The Blue Cat may be a children's film, but I would wager that the last time many of you reading this were legitimately, overwhelmingly terrified by a film was as a child. No matter how much blood or loud noises are packed into the average horror film, few match the effect of being a child thrown into a world filled with creatures out to do you harm and too strange to be rationalised by your limited knowledge of the world. It's the same formula which made Doctor Who such compelling viewing from behind the sofa for several generations of British children.

As a child, Dougal & The Blue Cat was the scariest thing I had ever seen. As an adult, it is an unsettling and often inspired work of Seventies abstract art.
  
One of the things that would have significantly increased the fear factor for anyone exposed to Dougal & The Blue Cat at the time of its release is that it was based on a popular children's television show, The Magic Roundabout. Anyone who has seen it will know that Roundabout is not exactly the sort of material from which nightmares are woven: it largely consisted of stop-motion animals interacting in softly-spoken voices around the eponymous roundabout. The colours were bright and cheerful, with barely the faintest hint of danger. Each episode was only five minutes long and worked mostly on the basis of offering the chance to reconnect with a beloved cast of characters, especially the shaggy Skye Terrier, Dougal, rather than trying to tell any sort of story.

The Magic Roundabout's world was a safe and comfortable one. Children tend to divide real life up into safe places and scary places, such as hiding under the bedsheets to get away from the monsters in the wardrobe. The idea of a safe place being invaded by something from a scary place is about the worst thing imaginable and in 1970, a blue cat named Buxton arrived in the very safe world of The Magic Roundabout.

One of the film's cleverest tricks is that it only reveals its hand gradually. It starts with a cheery theme tune and grumpy Dougal, wearing an excellent yellow night cap, being woken up by a cuckoo clock. He thinks something strange happened the night before, but his visit to all his old friends is a reassuring sign that this is the same old safe Roundabout world that children remember.

It's not, though. Dougal goes back to bed and is awoken by a strange voice, leading him to an old factory that had long since been abandoned. The shift in tone from light and jolly to suspenseful and sinister happens quickly and doesn't last long. Like Dougal, the immediate reaction is to wonder whether it really was just a dream. Yet the next morning, there is a new visitor to the Roundabout world: a blue cat, the same colour blue as the landscape from Dougal's nightmare. His name is Buxton (there's a joke in there about his regional accent).

As children often are when faced with a newcomer, Dougal is jealous of the attention the cat receives. Yet where children learn to socialise and define boundaries with people in real life, Buxton slowly starts to take away not only the attention that Dougal so adores, but his friends and safe places as well. Remember how I mentioned children hiding in their bed? Well, guess what prized possession of Dougal's Buxton takes for his own in an almost sinisterly happy scene. The film does not telegraph its horror with violent music or imagery, but lets it slowly seep in below the surface of a world that still seems so carefree from the outside.

Eventually, Dougal's friends are even repeating Buxton's slogan: "Blue is beautiful." There has been a great deal of debate as to what this means. The idea of blue as representing an oppressive force was a common feature of British productions at the time, most notably also turning up in The Beatles' Yellow Submarine (1968) in the shape of the Blue Meanies. This has been widely linked to the fact that the nation had a Conservative government at the time, whose policies were strictly antithetical to the prevalent youth culture of drug-induced psychedelia. One of Dougal's first lines in the film is a shocked call to 'Vote Conservative!' when awoken suddenly and assuming disaster is on the way. It is rather telling that an inhabitant of a tie-dyed world that includes a stoner rabbit would associate a centre-right political party with impending doom.

Being of centre-right political persuasion, the Conservatives were also associated with the power structures and hierarchies which the hippies were determined to break down - or, at least, loosen up. When Buxton first receives his calling to the Blue cause, he is made to go through seven tests (in possibly the film's most famous and outwardly scary sequence) which grant him a new title with each one he passes - Sir Buxton, Baron Buxton, Lord Buxton, all the way up to King. In case it isn't already obvious, the Conservatives are also the party most closely linked with the monarchy. It is also surely no coincidence that the 'Blue Voice', which functions as the film's primary antagonist, speaks in cut-glass aristocratic tones.

There are many other possible readings, though, which take the story in quite different directions. At first, Buxton is just a scraggly, slightly weird cat whose otherness makes him fascinating to Dougal's friends. He becomes entranced by a voice convincing him that his colour is beautiful and best. England at the time was struggling to reconcile itself with a massive influx of immigration that had literally brought new colour to British streets, which was still seen with hostility and suspicion by many. Buxton's Yorkshire accent also hints at the British North/South divide, which was as much a political split - North being the more left-wing working class, South being middle-class and typically Conservative - as cultural. The 'British New Wave' film movement that had started in the early Sixties was very much concerned with such ideas.

On one level, the film is a story about a scruffy dog having his world taken over by a devious cat; on another, about children's worst nightmares coming true; on yet another, about the divides tearing a post-Colonial Britain apart during the transition to a more modern culture. As an adult watching now, the film seems to be suggesting that the greatest evil comes through ideas of conformism and losing identity, which were seen by the hippies as represented in political form by the governing Conservative Party.

Even though its slow pacing and low-rent animation will make the film a challenge for modern children raised on the thrill-a-minute likes of Disney and Pixar, Dougal & The Blue Cat is fascinating not only for the nostalgic value of revisiting a film that, intentionally or accidentally, caught onto the very things that define fear in a young child's mind and made for a terrifyingly formative experience for all who watched it, but also as an artefact of its time, representing in eerily abstract form the fears of a country fighting through an era when it was fiercely beset by cultural, political and territorial divides.

While those who champion it are relatively few in number these days - the most well-known among them being the acerbic British film critic, Mark Kermode - its influence can still be spotted in the most unusual places today, such as the journey to the moon undertaken by Wallace and Gromit in their first adventure, A Grand Day Out, which borrows a number of visual cues from Blue Cat. As one of the scariest children's films ever made, a political polemic disguised as creepy psychedelia and a fascinating cornerstone in the history of British animated film, there's only one thing left to say about it.

Blue is beautiful. Blue is best.


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