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.
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.
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.
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