not real, it's just shiny."
Bourne (sorry), a brother Grimm played by Matt Damon
not put your faith in a cape and a hood.
They will not protect you the way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers.
Even flowers have their dangers.
And though scary is exciting,
Nice is different than good…"
Red Riding Hood in Stephen Sondheim's
sublime theatrical musical Into The Woods
have in my hand (I really do, I'm typing this with one finger),
still cellophane wrapped, a DVD of what I can only describe
as the most powerfully, longest lasting, horrific viewing
experience of my life. Not that I knew this at the time
(duh!). Being subjected to it was like being blasted by
a dose of radiation poisoning. It didn't feel scarring and
unhealthy when it happened but the effects are currently
lasting almost four decades on. The last time I was really
frightened in a cinema (that marrow-deep dread that feels
like nothing could be warm in your life ever again) was
in 1979 at a California-based cinema trip rustled up by
my Godmother's son. Needless to say, his particular entertainment
was simply watching me watching Alien.
But for true horror (the stuff that moulds you, bends you,
breaks you, any way it wants to) you have to go back to
when you were at your most susceptible. I do not know how
old I was when I was subjected to the contents of this DVD.
I must have been between five and seven. Uncanny. I just
checked its broadcast dates and I was (you guessed it) six.
We are talking indelible impression here. Yes, there were
televisions in 'those days'. I was at my most vulnerable
when my grandparents had delivered this odd box with pictures
shining through its glass frontage.
their finite wisdom, the BBC screened an innocent 'Tales
From Europe' series made in an innocuous Bavarian TV studio.
It was shot in colour but I saw it in black and white (yes,
we had a TV, but colour ones were the 42" HD plasma
screens of 1967) but even now I can still see all too clearly
the images seared into my nascent memory. Three are outstanding:
a mean redemption-seeking princess struggling to help a
large stranded fish; a close up of a terminally sad man
who'd been transformed into a bear; a bridge upon which
shuffled (in that inimitable way 'persons of restricted
growth' move) a dwarf. It's OK. The DVD calls him a dwarf.
It's the face of this character – sometimes thwarted, sometimes
successful in his evil deeds – which is my most powerful
memory of the series. I cannot, to this day, stop his face
popping up like traumatic toast whenever I see who's inside
R2D2 or re-watch The Time Bandits. God
bless the diminutive Kenny Baker and David Rappaport et
al, but may The Singing, Ringing Tree's
malevolent bastard, Richard Krüger get locked away
by Pandora once more. It's that walk (and I know how prejudiced
this may sound) but I was a child and the world of PC (and
indeed PC World) was a long way off. Dwarfs scared me. Apologies
but there it is. Not just dwarfs, clowns too. You can just
tell how much fun I had at the circus. And I have just found
out that the DVD has the original BBC narration (oh joy!).
I mean if you are going to break open your own Pandora's
Box, it's best if the contents are identical to what caused
the damage in the first place. But not the circumstances.
It's 70 minutes long and I can drink a few large vodkas
in that time, something to soften the blow… At six
years old, vodka was strictly verboten. I was a gin tot.
justifiably noted 70s tome 'The Uses Of Enchantment' written
by fairy tale guru Bruno Bettelheim states that fairy tales
are good for children (helping them navigate through their
stages of psychological development). Boy, you could have
fooled me… The Singing, Ringing Tree was based on a Brothers Grimm story and having recently
seen the new Terry Gilliam take on the storytellers I was
curious to re-visit the haunted woods of my childhood to
see if those Bavarian studio images really are that terrifying
(or rather to see if I could believe something as crass
and old fashioned as a studio based fantasy could scar me
for life). I have yet to open the cellophane. How sad is
that? Gilliam's film is a fun, post-modern romp with our
two con-men brothers who have been fleecing the superstitious
locals by warding off evil, evil in the form of their two
accomplices dressed up like witches and ghouls. Suddenly
along comes the real thing and they are, shall we say 'challenged'
to believe, to make things right. Apart from one image,
the film is not scary (not that this was a particular aim,
it's far too light) but there is that image that stands
out – a small child is swallowed by a horse (trust
me, the CGI's not perfect but still, it's a real 'euw' of
an image). I wondered after seeing that – and musing on The Singing, Ringing Tree…
what is giving our children nightmares in today's pop cultural
overload? Not wearing white soccer boots? Not being thin
enough to shower and stay dirty? Not knowing who the only
gay in the village is?
son is nine. He breezed through Jaws (and
on a full surround sound, no interruptions presentation).
He had some trouble with the werewolf in Prisoner
of Azkaban but he's not able to recall the images
that float through and poison his subconscious in the wee
small hours. Fair enough. How many people worry about things
they can't spell (in the case of diarrhoea, quite a few).
He's culturally soaked up images and dramatic arcs that
would have fed and shaped me until I was twenty-five. It's
noting our differences that make the phrase 'generation
gap' snap into focus. And so to the main feature…
I am convinced that if I played The Singing, Ringing
Tree to my son, he'd casually dismiss it out of
hand. Boring. It was boring to me too, but in the sense
of boring into my innermost soul. Not sure if it's gone
yet. Let's find out.
flash of a Swiss Army blade, the cellophane gives way and
the glinting disc of horror slides almost sexually into
my… Let's give the subtext a rest (he says while cueing
up a 1957 East German TV series…). Here we go…
It's all blue and absurdly and abundantly colourful! It
makes Dahl's chocolate factory look drab. It also looks
like it was shot on 35mm (thank you IMDB, it was 35mm).
Sure, there are a few artifacts (dust and scratches) but
it's a solid colour film transfer. And the narration (intruding
on the German sync) is exactly as I remembered it. Excellent.
I mean that was 38 years ago… The set reminds me of
the backdrop to Eric Idle's sensational run to get back
to Gilliam's Baron Munchausen before the
latter gets his head liberated from the rest of his body.
It's a simple road upon which our prince rides his horse.
There are so many 'tree in frame' wipes (clumsy now but
from a six year old's viewpoint they probably worked really
well) that I sort of hoped for a mini dissolve at least
but alas. They are all straight cuts.
cutting to the chase; The Singing, Ringing Tree
is everything I remembered but stripped of its unusually
mesmeric power because of my own age and experience. It's
extraordinary judged by the control of its decades old shadow
but in the end it's a remarkable studio bound fairy tale
blessed with being timed exactly right to scar an entire
nation full of children. Post 9/11, it may be just a few
German actors in tights performing to fibreglass fish and
dodgy bear make ups. But then it may be profoundly significant!
Cripes, what choices! What it has is an indefinable 'otherness'
and was probably my first exposure to a culture so different
to my own (not just the fairy tale milieu but an 'otherness')
I ever witnessed. The effects (for 1957) were actually pretty
good and how a screamingly obvious and fake fish (the memory
of which still makes me uneasy) packed so much power is
beyond me, something I am pleased about. One more unsolved
mystery regarding the power of a medium to affect and scar
is fine with me.
my opinion of this remarkable TV show is shared by a great
deal of my contemporaries, I can only suggest that seen
at a certain age, at a certain time in history, The
Singing, Ringing Tree would give Freud nightmares.
4:3 35mm print looks good, not too dirty with vibrant colours
and solid contrast levels. The mono sound (original German
overdubbed by received pronunciation BBC man) is crisp and
clear rendered in Dolby 1.0.
is a curious animated short film called Sunday that
comes with the DVD (including as it does a Spanish, a French,
a German and the BBC English version of the main feature).
It's a relatively static affair – the world, an adult holds
a child's hand. A queue of people queue up to see a leaf
fall from a sapling guarded by gas mask wearing guards.
Oh, did I mention the free for all sampling from Pink Floyd's
'Welcome to the Machine?' No? I will now. Surreal? You betcha.
Green as Tom Jones' mother's lawn? Tick. The US Theatrical
Trailer is for the trilogy of DEFA fairy tales, all of which
were new to me and full of late 50's wonder and special
effects. A Golden Goose? Go for it.