Looking Back At KING ROLLO - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At KING ROLLO

King Tony rules all.
After the success in the early-to-mid-Seventies of his Mr Benn series – first of books, and then of TV episodes, writer David McKee came back in 1979-80 with a new series, King Rollo.

While it had plenty of similarities to Mr Benn – the animation style, the importance of music cues, the usually concise storytelling, with plenty of fun premises and usually a lesson, King Rollo was a different proposition from Mr Benn in many other ways.

Where Benn was a grown-up who loved to embrace his imagination and his problem-solving abilities in whichever Somewhere-Else he entered through the special door in the costume shop, Rollo always seems inherently younger. More wild, impulsive, enthusiastic, and even though he had a beard, he was much more an avatar of the young audience than Mr Benn ever was.

Mr Benn was always a figure alone when he went into his Elsewhere adventures, and was often the turning-point character in the stories, the one who had the vital idea that was necessary to affect change.

Rollo was both the child-audience’s wish-fulfilment figure (“What would you do if you had all the money and power and were the king, so people had to do what you said?”), and simultaneously a more realistic representation of their likely environment.

While Mr Benn is a free agent, King Rollo, for all his kingly power and money and seeming freedom, is always falling back on the advice of people who are technically servants (try telling us THIS isn’t kid-headed wish-fulfilment) that actually fulfill parental roles, friendship roles, partner roles (for kids who were just realising that boyfriends and girlfriends were Actual Things), and a pet role.

Let’s, for now, try and ignore the patriarchal messaging that, in the absence of actual parents, Rollo’s cook takes on the maternal role, and his wizard – his WIZARD! – took on the paternal role.
Queen Gwen from across the way is both Rollo’s friend and girlfriend, accurately showing that murky territory where the difference is just beginning to explain itself to young people.

And in a trope that survives from witches’ familiars, and that has been used in cult TV as diverse as Hong Kong Phooey, Sabrina The Teenage Witch (original version), Garfield, and…well, King Rollo(!), his cat, the joyously-named Hamlet, is frequently shown as more balanced, talented, goofy, and intelligent than Rollo himself.

Whereas the point of Mr Benn was the changing environments in which an ordinary, British, middle class white man could make a significant difference, King Rollo used the same central environment – Rollo’s castle – for most of its storytelling. That, and the fact that Rollo was more of an audience avatar, meant that where Benn often taught lessons to the people he found through his magic door, most of the point about King Rollo was to teach lessons TO ROLLO himself.

Without getting massively topical about an animated series from 1980, a lot of the lessons centred on exactly what would happen if children, (or pampered adult princes, come to that), were made constantly aware of their own privilege and power, and then took merciless advantage of it.

Both the cook and the wizard would frequently teach Rollo the lessons of common social behaviour, decency, and how to not be an egocentric monster – which was Rollo’s default position, having at least theoretical control over what happened in his world.
In King Rollo and The Comic, for instance, a bored Rollo is at first thrilled when Queen Gwen comes over for tea. But on realising it’s the day his favourite comic is released, he starts reading it immediately – having snatched it from the wizard. He ignores cook’s admonition about not reading at the table, and ignores Gwen’s complaint that it’s rude to read when you have a guest. And he ignores the tea entirely.

The result is that Gwen goes home, Rollo misses his tea, and when he finally surfaces from the embrace of fiction, he’s lost not only the entertainment of a tea, but the company of a friend, and the consequence of his bad behaviour is borne in upon him.

Similarly in King Rollo and the Playroom, when the cook (in a flagrant case of doing unpaid labour outside her specialism) tidies his playroom, Rollo explains that he likes it messy, and instructs her to leave it alone. The result being that he steps on his train set, spills paint over his book, snaps one of his toy arrows, and eventually tidies the room for himself, having seen the error of his ways. (Oh by the way – King Rollo has a playroom full of ACTUAL toys – more proof that he’s designed to reflect the audience of children, rather than any kind of grown-up).

There are, occasionally, episodes that reinforce unfortunate patriarchal stereotypes – when Rollo and the wizard offer to do the dishes after the cook has made them all a sumptuous feast, they end up doing a half-hearted job, getting exhausted because it’s soooo harrrd for boys – and then get them clean by magic, lying to the cook about it in a kind of father-son pact when she compliments them on the job.

Most of the time, though, the lessons are about teaching Rollo the error of his ways – or occasionally, helping the ‘parental’ figures find ingenious ways around problems. In King Rollo and the Bath, the cook tells Rollo he needs a bath. Then she tells him again. Then she practically shouts at him. The wizard more or less magically invents Amazon Prime, so that a courier turns up with a special delivery gift for Rollo. He immediately runs to the bath…to play with his new model ship.
If King Rollo was just a series of simple messages, though, it would bore the brains out of most of the children who were its main audience, and it would bore us now on re-watch. That never happens, though.

Most of the reason that never happens is down to Hamlet, the cat.

In the seconds of otherwise dead air that exist as the breathing spaces between cause and effect in King Rollo, you can guarantee that Hamlet, the cat, will fill the space – he’s more or less the Charlie Chaplin of the piece. Hiding behind pot plants and knocking a door to gain entry in King Rollo and King Frank – and then scuttling past Rollo AS a pot plant. Mocking Rollo and the wizard taking their dishes to the sink – and then doing a comic pratfall off the table.

Probably the supreme Hamlet episode is King Rollo and the Bath. When Rollo has a bat and a ball and tries to get him to fetch the ball, the look the cat gives him is familiar to all cat-owners everywhere. And when he gets his own bat and ball, Hamlet outdoes Rollo’s performance with a virtuoso display of bat-craft, including keeping the ball in the air with his forepaws and his tail.

When you have a team as successful ad the one that made Mr Benn a hit, you try to tamper with it as little as possible, so getting Ray Brooks back to voice King Rollo was a stroke of genius, but an obvious one.

Across the course of just 13 episodes, King Rollo gave children a little wish-fulfilment of the potential power of being a king – and then sneakily taught them life-lessons about how their parents were probably, at least occasionally, right about things.

Rewatched over 40 years later, the episodes thrive more on the fun provided by Hamlet than necessarily the lessons they teach, but the joy of the short episodes themselves, with the jolly joie de vivre of Rollo and the soothing narration of Brooks, still shines through and makes King Rollo an eminently enjoyable nostalgiafest.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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