The Singing Ringing Tree

Creepy bear and terrifying goldfish

For a certain generation in the UK, The Singing Ringing Tree, an East German take on a Grimm-style fairy tale is indelibly carved on our psyches, giving us all the screaming habdabs for years. Many of us still wake up crying in the middle of the night over fading visions of large plastic goldfish, grizzly bear ones-ies and false lemon-coloured beards.

The Golden Age of Children’s TV in the UK stretched from the late 1950s to the mid 1970s and was dominated by BBC1. Between 4.20pm and 6pm every weekday they showed programmes for kids. As part of their schedules they included serials from abroad,. Anyone who was a child in the 1960s will instantly recognise the theme tune to the French version of Robinson Crusoe, or The Flashing Blade. The Singing Ringing Tree was unusual in that it came from behind the Iron Curtain. How it made its way onto British TVs during the Cold War is a mystery, perhaps it was a KGB plot designed to paralyse the nation with terror like Sadako’s video in Ringu.

Haughty princess and stunningly thick prince
Haughty Princess and stunningly thick Prince

The plot is pretty straightforward. A haughty princess tells a handsome prince that she’ll marry him if he brings her the famous Singing Ringing Tree. The suitor finds the tree in a fairy kingdom in the mountains, presided over by a dwarf who tells him that if the tree refuses to ring by sunset then the prince will be his, oh and by the way the tree will only ring if the princess loves the prince. The prince, whose boundless faith in human goodness is only outdone by his utter stupidity, takes the tree to his beloved. The tree doesn’t oblige and the prince ends up in thrall to the dwarf. He also turns into a bear. Understandably miffed at the way things have turned out the bear captures the princess and takes her back to the kingdom in the mountains. I won’t give the rest of the plot of the way for those who summon up the courage to watch it, this site covers it in far more detail than I feel comfortable with.

What makes the film especially creepy is the hysterical artificiality of the production. It was shot entirely in the studio using technicolor cranked up several notches. The costumes, sets and make-up have no pretensions to any kind of realism (I know it’s a fairly tale but other kids programs from the same era did have a stab at suspending belief). The prince’s bear suit is rubbish – you can see his fingers poking out of the end of the fake paws and the giant plastic goldfish with rolling eyes is precisely that. The overall impression is of a bunch of creepy playroom toys come to life, and therein lies (I think) the reason for The Singing Ringing Tree‘s enduring terror.

Creepy bear and infinitely more attractive princess
Creepy bear and infinitely more attractive Princess

Years ago I wrote an article on the Grotesque in Dickens, Kafka and Mervyn Peake. The Grotesque is a sub genre of fantasy which is characterised by absurdity, sudden frightening shifts of perspective, a sense of helplessness and an inability to distinguish between inanimate objects and living things. It’s a type of art which whips away all normal frames of reference, and is typically associated with the viewpoint of children, or an arrested childhood consciousness (both Dickens and Kafka suffered from this as a result of their dysfunctional relationship with their fathers). Essentially Grotesque art is a dream plonked into reality, and this description fits The Singing Ringing Tree perfectly. Everything looks fake, odd and saturated in disorienting colour. Take the goldfish, it’s obviously a big phoney cellophane fish with rolling eyes, which makes it far more frightening than a realistic 3D CG fish, because it shouldn’t be moving around of its own volition. Combined with some neat cinematic tricks (reverse photography, time lapse and double-exposure cellophane fire) obviously influenced by La Belle et la Bête, the overall impression is disturbing to say the least. You half expect everyone to rip off their masks and reveal Lovecraftian horrors at any moment. In the original TV viewing the BBC recorded a narrator telling the story over the top of the original, so you can hear the actors saying stuff in some outlandish foreign tongue, probably incantations to summon Nyarlathotep.

Tyrion Lannister's dad
Tyrion Lannister’s dad

High spots include,

1) The scene where the princess behaves like a brat in fairy land, punctuated by mocking laughter from the dwarf who, at one point, sits in a bunch of cotton wool clouds.

2) The fact that the princess with green hair and an upturned nose is infinitely prettier than the heavily made up plastic blonde that signifies her beautiful self.

3) The deeply weird bit where the dwarf sticks his head through a cliff face, which then re-assembles itself over his face in reverse motion.

4) The idiot prince who despite taking four days to find the fairy kingdom, blithely accepts that he must give the tree to the princess and get it to sing by sunset on the same day that he found it.

5) The musical bridge with the prince’s horse turned into stone.

The Singing Ringing Tree is available on DVD, fully restored to all its glory and with an interview with the actress who played the Princess.

The British comedy series The Fast Show did a wonderful spoof – Ton Swingingen Ringingen Bingingen Plingingen Tingingen Plinkingen Plonkingen Boingingen Triee



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20 responses to “The Singing Ringing Tree”

  1. Jane Dougherty Avatar

    I wish I could remember where I saw an article about the making of The Singing Ringing Tree. Sounded as though it was a top secret project with the actors and even the studio being spirited away after the event, living on only in the folk memory of the locals.
    If you compare it with something like Jason and the Argonauts made around the same time,(okay, it’s not Hollywood) there is a dream-like quality to it that I still find makes my skin creep.The scenery is so obviously plastic, the costumes are tacky and unconvincing, but that is what makes it frightening. Nightmares have that quality, familiar objects instilled with a sinister intent, bare lunar landscapes, and adult characters that even children find stupid and untrustworthy.
    I’d need nerves of steel to sit thought it again.

  2. Stewart Brown Avatar
    Stewart Brown

    Thanks for this information. I thought it was only me that has been haunted by this programme for nearly fifty years. I feel a bit more normal now I’ve read your comments. It’s not me, it’s them that are weird. Phew!

  3. Frankie Lassut Avatar

    Well, I thought it was brilliant, and years ago had that ‘need to re-live childhood because TV programmes now are crap’ feeling. I ordered it after a bit of trouble. I want the fish. I’ll get the house with the bath to fit it in. I wrote to the Princess and got a nice signed picture and a reply and a bit of complimentary stuff about my own work .. I write the same sort of fantasy. Her names Christel Bodenstein. Even with my photography I like to tweak the colours a bit and leave things obviously amateur .. more fun. I WANT the fish! It’s in a cupboard somewhere.

    1. John Guy Collick Avatar
      John Guy Collick

      If you still have Christel Bodenstein’s signed picture send a scan of it for the blog. She is a legend among terrified 60s kids.

  4. Antonia Avatar

    I’ve been trying to find this film for years! I remember watching it as a child and loving it on one hand and being totally freaked out by it on the other!

    The only thing I could remember was the oversized Goldfish and the Magic Roundabout style bridges and other scenery! None of my friends could remember it, and looked at me as though I was mad when I described it to them! Now I can prove it is a real film – hurrah!

    Oh and Frankie Lassut – I too want that fish 😉

  5. Rachel Avatar

    The Singing Ringing Tree – I have yet to find someone of a similar age to myself who does not go a bit wild eyed as they remember the hairy bear man, the menacing dwarf and the even weirder princess and the goldfish! I have an indelible image of the dwarf emerging from under the tree that makes go clammy just thinking of it. This combined with Twizzle and Dear Old Sarah and Hoppity goes a long way to explaining why I am in therapy! What were they thinking of!

  6. Sue Avatar

    It was like nothing else I’d ever seen and it stuck in my mind, never to be removed. I agree it is weird and dreamlike, even scary, but it is EPIC! A true one-off that repays watching again and again…. Like now, and then again in a year or two’s time, for many years. It’s a remarkable piece of cinema.

  7. Linda Freedman Avatar
    Linda Freedman

    I poohed my pants in the classroom when I was six I was too scared to go to the toilet by myself because of that horrible little dwarf….had to walk all the way home like a duck…yuk. Who thought that was suitable for children? Everyone was traumatised by it.

  8. Wendy Morrison Avatar
    Wendy Morrison

    I dreamt of the Singing Ringing Tree for years after watching it as a child. It still haunts me. It had menace and innocence all mixed up. The set looks ridiculous now but in the 60’s seemed to work as a perfect backdrop to a disturbing set of characters. I actually loved it. Always felt sorry for the Fish who seemed permanently trapped. Terrified of the Dwarf. A masterpiece burnt into my memory.

  9. julue Avatar

    This shit me up big time and still does. I have a phobia about dwarfs to the point that I have hit them!
    Awful programme!!

  10. kate prendergast Avatar

    Thanks! I had wondered what this was for so many years! It terrified me, but I loved it. Weird sound track, bubble eyed fish, beautiful princess, things stuck in my mind in flashes. Plus of course it was in black and white, looking forward to seeing in technicolor. A bit fearful, I don’t know whether to watch it now will burst the bubble, irresistible though.

    1. John Guy Collick Avatar
      John Guy Collick

      I don’t think it’ll burst the bubble – even at 55 I find it an extremely strange movie – though for different reasons from when I was 6.

  11. Jacqui Wilford Avatar
    Jacqui Wilford

    It has taken me over 30 years to find out the name of this film. It terrified me as a child. But I would love to see it now.

    1. Andy Avatar

      the whole 1957 colour version is on Youtube

  12. stuart glass Avatar

    An Unforgettable experience which seemed to pass the parents by, we were transported to our own world of make believe and just left to get on with it. still not sure what made it quite so magical and mesmerising, but it touched a part of our soul that other childrens programs just could not reach. touching, thought provoking,and a bit like playing with fire!. an epic for sure!.

  13. Nick Avatar

    Gosh, this clippet took me back to a childhood nightmare I had recurring in my dreams. So much so, that I imagined he lived under thr roof of a bridge under a canal I lived near. And on so believeing he was going to jump down and throw me into the canal one day, I jumped in myself and very nearly drowned until a nearby friend pulled me out. 5 yrs old and lucky to be alive, but so powerful was this devilish dwarf that he haunted me for years. Powerful stuff back then. Now I have real demons to live with….

  14. Paul Hawkins Avatar
    Paul Hawkins

    It always haunted me what happened to the fish – it was left gasping for air the last I saw it and the dwarf was terrifying. I could not remember the name of this programme , but there was a BBC4 programme on the other week which brought it back. Like myself , Chris Packham was upset about the fish. Evocative stuff.

  15. Paul rayner Avatar
    Paul rayner

    Phew like most it was a vaguely half remembered early childhood memory and finally I will very soon be able to see it again. Of course we all saw it in film noir black and white back in 60s Britain and it looked amazing. Will be keen to see the tinderbox again too in the takes from Europe box set. Still remember that huge outsize dog which In real life was a chihuahua or similar!

  16. Teresa Stokes Avatar
    Teresa Stokes

    This programme has recently been part of a big discussion on a Facebook group I belong to, and everyone remembers getting nightmares from it. The whole thing can now be seen on YouTube and so I watched it again recently, because as a child my sister and I were too terrified to get past the first couple of episodes, and I wanted to know how it ended! It seems to have traumatised a whole generation of school children.

  17. Veronica Grey Avatar
    Veronica Grey

    I loved The Singing Ringing Tree when I was a child. I didn’t know it was made in colour originally. I never found it scary but I liked ghost stories, witches, and thinks of that sort. It was The Song of Bernadette that scared me. I remember leaping onto my bed from the doorway of my room after seeing that. That was the film that gave me nightmares

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