Wrapped up in Books

TJ Worthington on Belle and Sebastian

First published September 2008

It’s something of a recurring theme among the dubbed imported children’s serials shown by the BBC in the 1960s and ’70s that they went on to find additional fame in another, entirely unrelated and unexpected, medium. The Flashing Blade, for example, later enjoyed a new lease of popularity through a comic redubbing that attained cult status, while Belle and Sebastian, almost by accident, went on to enjoy a cult status of a very different kind.

Born in August 1928, Cécile Aubry was one of France’s first major film stars, noted for her looks as well as her acting ability, and gaining enough international popularity to appear on the cover of an issue of Life and to star alongside Tyrone Power and Orson Welles in the 1950 historical epic The Black Rose. Aubry was also a talented writer, and later began to move away from performance in favour of a career as a novelist. One of her earliest works was a children’s novel, Poly, relating the adventures of a youngster and a free-spirited horse. Not only did this lead to a long string of sequels, it also gave rise to a television version, for which Aubry adapted the scripts herself, that would run from 1961 into the early ’70s.

In 1964, Aubry completed a new novel, Belle et Sébastien, about a young boy (loosely based on her own son) who befriends a stray dog. Though this is a well-worn thematic device in children’s literature, Belle et Sébastien is distinguished by a an unusual combination of a bleakly existential back story and an idyllic yet remote setting. Sébastien had become an orphan when his young mother died, shortly after giving birth, while attempting to cross the border between France and Italy after a night of heavy snowfall. He is rescued by a pair of customs officers and an elderly mountain hunter named Cesar, who offers to raise the boy with his family in a nearby Alpine village, though over time the youngster struggles to fit in with the locals.

Six years later, a dog starts to roam the surrounding area after escaping from cruel owners, and the authorities, mistakenly believing it to be dangerous, issue instructions to shoot it on sight. Sensing a fellow misunderstood outsider, Sébastien shelters and befriends the dog, naming her Belle and enjoying a series of adventures, from assisting in daring mountain rescues to uncovering a smuggling plot.

No doubt as a result of the success of Poly, Aubry was already in talks about a television adaptation of the book, before it had even been published, and again wrote the scripts herself. Jointly produced by Gaumont Television and ORTF, Belle et Sébastien was filmed on location early in 1965 (the timing lending an extra credibility to the harsh climatic conditions that play a large part in proceedings), and ran for 13 25-minute episodes from 26 September that year. “Medhi”, the young boy credited with playing Sébastien, was actually Aubry’s nine-year-old son who had previously appeared in Poly. Though nepotism clearly played some part in his casting, it has to be said his performance is near flawless and ideally suited to the role.

As Medhi El Glaoui, he has gone on to enjoy a distinguished career as both an actor and director. The remainder of the cast were well known from French television and European cinema, though none ever really found international fame and it is likely international sales of the series and the awards it won gave them their most significant worldwide exposure.

This acclaim and popularity is not difficult to understand. Shot in black and white and taking full advantage of the vast sweeping locations that formed part of the plot, Belle et Sébastien is a moody and atmospheric work that finds poignancy and beauty in both its geographic and conceptual senses of isolation. Visually mesmerising, it has often been likened – not entirely fancifully – to the films of Ingmar Bergman. Complementing all of this was a haunting acoustic theme song, written by Aubry and performed by Medhi and later released as a single (and not to be confused, though it often is, with a similar song by the children’s choir Les Poppys which served as the theme to the sequel serials).

Like many other European-made long-form children’s serials at the time, Belle et Sébastien was purchased for broadcast by the BBC early in 1967, with a view to transmission later in the year. As with all of these series, Belle et Sébastien – or rather Belle and Sebastian – was dubbed for UK transmission, although it proved to be a rather atypical example of the artform. Not only was the original French language theme song left intact, the actual dubbed dialogue was kept to an absolute minimum, with the bulk of the vocal duties taken by a female narrator with a suitably thick French accent, possibly suggesting it was all either done hurriedly or with a limited budget. As usual, none of the voice artists were ever credited and their identity remains a mystery, though eagle-eared viewers may just notice a remarkable similarity between Norbert’s voice and that of Francis Matthews, better known to audiences for playing Paul Temple in the television version of the BBC’s long-running radio detective serial, and providing the voice of the lead character in Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons.

Belle and Sebastian was first shown by BBC1 in Monday afternoon slot from 2 October 1967, concluding on New Year’s Day 1968, with the evocative, picturesque setting and unusually melancholy mood doing much to attract young viewers who were not normally taken with serials featuring children having everyday adventures. This initial transmission was accompanied by a hardback novelisation, published by BBC Books and written by Peggy Miller from her own reworked English language scripts, rather than a direct translation of the original novel. Wrapped in a striking photographic cover, this book was primarily aimed at libraries rather than high street sales, and as a result is now very hard to find.

Belle et Sébastien was followed in 1968 by Sébastien Parmi Les Hommes, shown by the BBC as the self-explanatory Belle, Sebastian and the Horses from Monday 16 September 1968. French viewers would get to enjoy another instalment, Sébastien et la Marie-Morgane in 1970, though the BBC appeared to think two series’ worth of human-canine antics was quite enough, and despite their monochrome nature repeated them both in near-constant rotation (particularly during the school summer holidays) up to the late 1970s.

Surprisingly, despite enjoying just as much school holidays ubiquity as its dubbed contemporaries, Belle and Sebastien is not really as well remembered as the likes of The Flashing Blade and The Singing Ringing Tree. A significant part of the reason for this may lie in the fact an entire generation associates its name with an entirely different series…

Made as a co-production between France and Japan in 1981, the 64-part Meiken Jolie was to all intents and purposes a loosely interpreted animated version of Belle et Sébastien, made with the consent of Cécile Aubry but diverting significantly from the original storyline. This was later dubbed into English and retitled Belle and Sebastian, and from 1986 onwards was repeated by the BBC almost as many times – and indeed in roughly the same timeslots – as the original.

Another, perhaps more pertinent reason is the name no longer really “belongs” to the show, more commonly associated these days with a band who drew inspiration from the series. Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch had been a fan of the show as a youngster, and though he originally borrowed its name simply for the title of a song, it was later judged appropriate for the group. Though an unusual choice – and one that initially confused a number of radio presenters and journalists – for those who remembered the series the name fitted well with the band’s pastoral and introspective brand of guitar pop (often, it has to be said, not a million miles away from the actual Belle et Sébastien theme song). Indeed, many of their early releases featured stark monochrome photographic covers that recalled the visual feel of their small-screen inspiration.

Though the band and their management made several attempts at getting proper permission to use the name, even going as far as to contact Viacom (who distributed the English language version of Meiken Jolie), no constructive leads were ever forthcoming and contact with Cécile Aubry was not established until their records began to be released in France. Initially, due to the intensely personal nature of the stories, she was unhappy about the matter and reluctant to allow them to continue using it, only relenting after meeting Murdoch and bandmate Isobel Campbell in person to gain assurance of their intentions.

As it turned out, their use of the name was to have greater benefit than perhaps was envisaged during that uneasy meeting. From being scarcely recalled and seldom mentioned by the early 1990s, the show went on to be regularly namechecked during mentions of the band, cementing hazy memories for some fans and arousing the curiosity of those too young to have seen it. Rescued from obscurity, the English language version of Belle et Sébastien is now available on DVD and has been a surprisingly consistent seller, doubtless to as many fans of the band as fans of the show itself.