The main difference between British cartoons and American cartoons is that British cartoons seem to actually be made entirely for children. Shows like Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain, and the films of Dreamworks and Pixar, though ostensibly children’s animation, contain plenty of nudge-nudge wink-wink humour that is intended to fly over the target audience’s heads. But the golden age of British animation made in the 70s by mavericks such as Brian Cosgrove and David McKee had a unique charm to them, being made with children in mind but without pandering to them; no easy feat. It takes a specific mix of technical prowess and childish anarchy to make something that has aged as well and burned as much of a hole in the psyche of a generation as Roobarb and Custard.
Everyone of a certain age will be familiar with the show’s main components. The wobbly fuzz guitar of the theme tune, the equally wobbly animation, and the inimitable voice of Richard Briers. The show, as I’m reliably told, would fill the gap between the end of the children’s TV block and the seven o’clock news, a slot previously filled by two of the other titans of kids’ TV: The Magic Roundabout and The Clangers. But while those two shows were pieces of meditative, Exupery-sque stop-motion loveliness, the demented clang of the opening theme tune immediately tells you that this show is nothing like those. You’re in for five minutes of bright, wild energy.
The show’s untidy, unstable-looking style is known as ‘boiling’. This style was chosen as a deliberate response to the American imports that flooded the British TV schedule. Shows like the impeccably animated cartoons of Hanna-Barbera, like Top Cat and The Flintstones. Those animated sitcoms have always baffled me, as I was never really sure who they were for. Firstly, they weren’t that funny. Sacrilige I know, but those shows were largely tamer cut-and-pastes of American sitcoms – The Flintstones was a rip-off of The Honeymooners, Top Cat borrowed heavily from Sgt. Bilko etc. – and I’ve never been able to work out who they were for exactly. Were grown-ups watching cartoon versions of adult sitcoms? Were children interested in a show about domestic life? Those shows are largely characters standing still in a frame talking to each other, and it doesn’t surprise me that Roobarb and Custard creator Grange Calveley wasn’t too impressed with them, and decided to make his own show that was the antithesis of glossy American cartoons.
Our hero is Roobarb, a green dog predisposed to coming up with zany schemes and madcap inventions that always fail, much to the amusement of next door’s cat, Custard. The show had a lawless spirit and a certain level of outlandishness to it. The world of Roobarb and Custard contains no humans, but the animals themselves aren’t completely anthropomorphic. Roobarb is still a dog who drinks from a bowl and sleeps in a dog basket despite seemingly having no owner. They don’t talk either; all of the characters’ thoughts are provided by the quiescent received pronunciation of Richard Briers, who adds a touch of class to these crazy stories about precocious animals. The show is like your granddad telling you about a mushroom-induced trip he once had, but in a calm, even-handed way as though he were relaying an incident at the post office.
This new disc contains all 30 of the original episodes on the first disc, and the remaining two discs hold Roobarb and Custard Too, the 2005 sequel for Channel 5 that manages to retain the appeal and quality of the originals. If you grew up with this show, this is an excellent opportunity to revisit the crazy world of Roobarb and Custard. But the show works for adults even without the crutch of nostalgia, despite it being aimed at children. In Roger Ebert’s review of Spirited Away, he claims that things that don’t try to cater to everyone are spellbinding because “they are defiantly, triumphantly, themselves.” Roobarb and Custard is a unique part of British TV history, and ought to be preserved and remembered for being itself.
Dir: Bob Godfrey (1974 series), Jason Tammemagi (2005 series)
Scr: Grange Calveley
Cast: Richard Briers
Music: Johnny Hawksworth
Country: United Kingdom
Runtime: 345 minutes (5 minutes per episode)
Year: 1974, 2005
Roobarb and Custard: The Complete Collection is available on DVD from 16 May 2016 courtesy of Simply Home Entertainment