Charlie and Lola

Monday, October 2, 2006 by

Forget Jane Eyre, forget the new series of Extras, forget the return of Cracker; for a substantial chunk of the population, the most significant event television of this season happened on Monday afternoon, on the CBeebies channel.

Unless you have pre-school children, or you’re an exceptionally lucky channel surfer, the debut of the second series of Charlie and Lola has probably passed you by. If you feel like dismissing it as a kids’ show here and now, fair enough. But in doing so, you’ll have let the most distinctive and imaginative British animation of the past few years drop completely off your radar.

For the uninitiated, then: Charlie, the narrator, is seven years old. As we’re told at the start of every episode, he has this little sister Lola (very nearly five) who is small, and very funny. They, and their friends, inhabit a world which is a colourful collage of pencil-sketched drawings and real objects. They first entered children’s consciousness through Lauren Child’s I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato, which in the year 2000, won the Kate Greenaway Medal for children’s book illustration.

In 2005, the then three Charlie and Lola books were taken as a starting point for 26 self-contained 10-minute animations. And from the off, with the theme tune’s five sing-song glockenspiel notes of “Char-lie … and Lo-la”, the TV series’ attention to detail was clear. It gave an almost perfect translation of Lauren Child’s work to the screen, ensuring that it looked like no other animation before or since. It fleshed out her supporting characters, adenoidal Marv and giggly Lotta. And it turned Lola’s special friend, Søren Lorensen into a finely realised imaginary character. In the books, he was a thin laminated sheen. In the TV series, he was drawn entirely in transparent black and white, only becoming slightly more opaque when Lola was alone in the room with him.

In short, it was a winning formula, but the advent of the second series and the realities of working with child voice talents must have caused some jitters. Both Charlie and Lola’s voices would have to be changed. A further 26 episodes would have to be scripted and created, the fallback of the original books having already been used.

Thankfully, episode one of series two bore all the hallmarks of a textbook episode. Charlie expressed horror at the state of their shared bedroom. Lola protested (“… it’s just properly spread out!”). Charlie moved his bed into the corridor. Left alone for half an hour, Lola distracted herself, but eventually managed a frenzy of tidying and clearing. In one particularly inventive scene, a pencilled peacock popped up, its tail made from Lola’s felt pens, and once she had swapped two pens to balance the colour wheel, disappeared just as quickly. The bedroom immaculately tidy, Charlie pushed his bed back into the room, only to send Lola into a panic at bedtime when a book teetered on the edge of his quilt. Admonished by his sister to “sleep tidily”, Charlie (and Lola) would wake up again in the next adventure.

On the strength of the second series so far, it’s quite possible that Charlie and Lola will never jump the shark. In any case, they’d far rather jump alligators, their imaginations having conjured them out of stepping stones. It’s true that the series and concept aren’t flawless: the children do seem unusually eloquent, imaginative and mature for their respective ages, Charlie in particular occasionally having the forbearance of someone three times his age. But it’s a cartoon, not a developmental textbook, and on any level, it’s a joy to watch.

Charlie and Lola deserves your attention not only because it sounds and looks like nothing else on television, but because it’ll stay the test of time. 25 years from now, today’s four-year-olds will inaccurately remember it in pub conversations, or write about it authoritatively on sites such as this.

Who knows, they might visit the episodes afresh on BritMediaCorps’ download sites. It’s even possible that they’ll let their children watch them too. All together then: “Char-lie… and Lo-la…”


Comments are closed.