Friday, August 22, 2008

Back to The Magic Circle Club

Last night I was lucky enough to see three half-hour b/w episodes of "The Magic Circle Club". I can only make guesses at the dating of them, and the order, because there were 550 episodes made (110 serialised stories, plus the live pantomime, "The Stolen Smile") over three years.

The first episode I revisited started with a close-up of the inaugural Logie Award the series won, so it was probably from the 1966 season. Claude Clumsy, Episode 1: A Smashing Time, with a "script and original material" by John-Michael Howson, had lots of physical comedy and featured a guest appearance by Mother Hubbard's youthful and accident-prone great-nephew, Claude (played by Max Bartlett).

Since I hadn't seen this episode since 1966, it was amazing just how many memories came flooding back! Sir Jasper and his wooden club, top hat and sequined, striped vest, Fee Fee Bear going shopping at the Pixie Village to buy Japanese china, Fredd Bear feasting on bananas, and puppets Cassius Cuckoo and Leonardo de Funbird giving out the full street addresses of young children who sent in riddles and limericks.

Favourite quote: when Fee Fee happens past Leonardo on his stump, he tells her his limerick instead of Nancy. As Fee Fee leaves for home, he mutters "Nice hairy girl, that."

Things I'd forgotten: Sir Jasper's sidekick Gaspar Goblin with his little gonk-like, furry creature, Oscar. So that's why my brothers and I were so determined to own a "Yukk" each from a certain gift store in Sydney's Imperial Arcade. (Product placement?) I'd also forgotten the frequent inference of violence (Sir Jasper urges that Gaspar takes Oscar with him or he'll "smash it to pieces") and teasing. Poor ol' mute Fredd cops a gentle teasing from everyone, including Nancy.

Cast of the Magic Circle Club, part a

On Youtube, I found a snippet of an episode of similar vintage:

The next full episode I watched started off with the previous season's opening sequence, with that episode's cast walking in a circle around Nancy as they sang. This was King Size, Episode 3: Sir Jasper Takes Over with a "script and original material" by Max Barlett, featuring a guest appearance by elderly King Size of nearby Enchantmentland (again played by Max Bartlett).

This episode has a great duet, "Copycat", lip-synched by Mother Hubbard and Fee Fee (but not John-Michael's singing voice!), some hilarious, unscripted banter between Nancy, the bird puppets and the wall-sized IKAN computer, and another song, "Call of the Sea" by Sir Jasper, with Gaspar in a hula skirt accompanying (very badly) on ukulele, as they plot to kidnap the king. There was also the gnarled Wicked Fairy, who intends to turn King Size into a robot for expelling her from Enchantmentland.

More product placement! Sir Jasper's Hideaway, temporarily disguised as a seaside vacation guesthouse, has two summery posters advertising "Hayman Island's Carousel '65".

Favourite quote: another gem from cheeky Leonardo, after IKAN shows a film on the origin of racehorses. Leonardo asks Nancy, "You running in the Melbourne Cup?"

Things I'd forgotten: The whole IKAN computer segment. I recently saw the description of IKAN in the program I bought on eBay for "The Stolen Smile", but I'd quite forgotten Leonardo frequented anywhere other than his papier mache tree stump. IKAN stands for Instantaneous Knowledge Accumulation Network, and his computer screen functions similarly to the infamous round, square and arch windows of "Play School", and the monitor on Gus the Snail's shell in "Mr Squiggle and Friends".

There was also reference to Sebastian, a character I didn't remember at all. King Size previously suggested that he would make a good court jester for Max, who's gone off somewhere.

The episode concludes with an amazing shot, done almost in widescreen, with all the characters in silhouette, wandering through the Magic Forest, looking for the Wicked Fairy and clues as to King Size's whereabouts.

Cast of the Magic Circle Club, part b

The third episode started with the same opening sequence, but this time only Fredd and a smaller bear parading in a circle around Nancy as she and her offscreen background singers vocalised. This episode, seemingly a Monday episode, was anticipated by Nancy to be a very quiet week (Ha! As if!) so she decides to read Fredd - and Sebastian! - a pirate story from the Barbary Coast. Again, the "script and original material" of this Episode 1 was by John-Michael Howson. Nancy warns the bears that the characters in her story might remind them of some familiar people. And sure enough, we have a guest appearance by nasty Simon Sneak (again played by Max Bartlett), keeper of an inn called the Cross and Bones. The Magic Cottage doubles as the inn, with a cellar in place of Mother Hubbard's cupboard.

Nancy herself is seen as Sweet Nelly, a serving wench and Fee Fee is Daphne Drudge, the cleaning woman. Fredd turns up in a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, as Little Lollylegs, who is seemingly addicted to contraband food: rum cakes and toffee apples! A very clean cut Colin McEwan (not a bit like snivelly Gaspar) is the very clean cut Soldier Jim. The pirate villain is Captain Crook, a character (or at least a namesake) who returns in "Adventure Island" on the ABC a few years later. Of course, the inn has its own Barbary Coast version of Cassius, who lives in the clock.

Magic Circle Club's IKAN computer
The Magic Circle Club's IKAN computer

Leonardo and IKAN feel abandoned by Nancy and so they answer three viewers' letters themselves. Strangely, three separate letters have requested information on the unlikely topic of King Alfred the Great! The handwritten letters (and full addresses) are even shown, as if to prove their authenticity.

Favourite quote: Nancy mentions that children she meets say they are scared of Gaspar Goblin and she lectures that they just laugh at Gaspar, and that no one should be frightened of someone "who makes out that he's something he's not."

Things I'd forgotten: Sebastian. I have absolutely no memory of him! (Presumably played by Gael Dixon?)

Also, the sheer versatility of Colin McEwan and Max Bartlett. As a kid I had no idea that they doubled up in so many parts. McEwan's voice was all over the show, in so many accents and personas. And Max was my favourite character, but here were three episodes, all featuring him heavily, but none were actually his "Max" character. Did I ever realise that Max was all these people? No, I don't believe I did. I'm so impressed!

Cast of the Magic Circle Club, part c

How I'd love to see a company such as Umbrella Entertainment release a "Best of..." DVD set, perhaps with a cast reunion commentary track? Sadly, you'd have to be over 48 or so to even remember the show.

I hope you enjoy the cast pics and bio extracts from my old theatre program.

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