Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Ant and the Aardvark

Kiyo and Misha
The challenge was to pick a word at random from the dictionary and do something relating to that word. Dani's dictionary, however, had a lengthy introduction and language section at the start, so it fell open at the very first page, and the word she found herself pointing at was 'Aardvark'. So we went to London Zoo to view the newly acquired aardvarks there. Named Kiyo and Misha, they were born in different zoos, but have become inseparable. They are beautiful animals, and I recommend going to see them. After our visit, we got on to the subject of The Ant and the Aardvark.

Memories of obscure children's TV programmes will always bring people together, because they carry such potent emotional content in an innocuous form and because, in the UK especially, many people study or work a long way from where they were raised as children. We may have very different upbringings, but certain small things unite us. And it is these minor experiences that affect us most deeply, because they sneak up on us. Part of growing up means consciously laying the ghosts of childhood to rest. Strong memories, both negative and positive, are processed and turned into aspects of our adult personalities, but we neglect to come to terms with daft trivial things, and their evocative power carries the unnerving, uncanny quality of wistful, even raw, nostalgia. This quality is intensified by its apparent inscrutability. (In fifty years time, Rebecca Black's 'Friday' will send chills down people's spines and bring tears to their eyes in a manner quite different to the way it does today. They will cherish its naïve charm and wonder how the art of simple song writing was lost.)

The Ant and the Aardvark was a footnote in the history of children's animation even when it was first broadcast. It began life merely as an entr'acte in The Pink Panther Show, acting as an undemanding interval piece in a programme that was not itself excessively highbrow. Only fifteen episodes were made, between 1969 and 1971, shamelessly borrowing plotlines and tropes from Warner Bros and MGM cartoons, while cheerfully dispensing with high artistic production values. On rewatching the show on YouTube, my attention was drawn especially to that unmistakable non-naturalistic soundscape underneath: the pops, boings and whistles that have constituted the aural lexicon of modern cartoons ever since. Creeping up on someone is indicated by high-pitched xylophone semiquavers; dashing off in a hurry, by a bullet ricochet; a lump on the head emerges to the sound of a balloon being scraped. But more striking still were the voices. The (unnamed) Aardvark is voiced as Jackie Mason and the Ant (named Charlie) is voiced as Dean Martin. Jackie Mason and Dean Martin? I would never have picked up on the reference when I was little, but both voices have an inbuilt recognizability that works remarkably well. It is the American impressionist John Byner (1938–) whom we have to thank for these voices and for creating such an unusual yet engaging double act. (You wouldn't normally associate Martin and Mason with each other, but there is a clip available of Jackie Mason appearing on The Dean Martin Show in 1966. Sadly they don't appear on screen together, so it's not quite possible to shut your eyes and imagine an episode of The Ant and the Aardvark.)

Dani remembers the same show from her childhood. When dubbed into German, a female voice was used for the aardvark, who was named Elise. This seemed almost inconceivable to me – such a bizarre counter-intuitive choice that it bordered on the heretical. But there is always genius behind bold choices, and I have been rewatching all the episodes of The Ant and the Aardvark in German in order to retrain my ear to appreciate what amounts to an entirely different show. You know what? It's better in German. Despite the fact that I can't understand a word of the language, there's something distinctly funnier about the blue hairy punching bag being played as a middle aged woman. So successful was this reinterpretation of the concept, that the the German title of the show – Die blaue Elise ('Blue Elise') – indicates the aardvark as the protagonist, and Charlie the ant isn't credited at all. The actor behind Elise's brilliantly deadpan delivery was Marianne Wischmann (1921–2008), who later became more famous for providing the voice for the German Miss Piggy in Die Muppet Show. As with John Byner's interpretation, the aardvark's voice was recognizable, but in Wischmann's case the recognition became applied retroactively.

The Ant and the Aardvark, in both its English and German versions, is a below-average cartoon improved vastly by its talented voice actors. It is those voices and their uncanny associations that follow us into adulthood, and we can be sure that nostalgia for absurd and trivial things will continue its ridiculous, clumsy pursuit of us into later life as relentlessly as Elise/Aardvark* will maintain his or her chase after that complacent ant. And speed will not not assist our escape so much as cunning.

* The male and female versions of this character, born in different countries, deserve to be reunited, as Kiyo and Misha were.

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