O Where Are You Now, Gus Van Der Vim?

I sat bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night and realised that I am dissatisfied with the word “post” to describe an individual blog entry. Henceforth, at Hooting Yard, what was once a “post” will be known as a “postage”. That, by way of preamble to this:

In a comment on yesterday’s Gubbinsy postage, Georgy Riecke wrote: Punchy, Zippy, Bangy, Crashy – aren’t they the names of characters from the infamous Belgian kid’s TV show ‘War Zone’? A mean-spirited bunch, make no bones about it, but they’re embarrassingly photogenic and would sell a corpse for a bride if you paid them in jellybeans. Mr Riecke is almost, but not quite, correct. Punchy & co are indeed characters from a Belgian television programme, ostensibly designed for children, but it is not called “War Zone” and they are not mean-spirited. The adjective that best suits these characters is, I think, “bewildering”.

Punchy is an intricately-constructed puppet of wire and cardboard and straw and sandpaper and tin foil and rubber bands. Zippy is a tea strainer the handle of which has been punched through the top of a bag of icing sugar. Bangy is a rag. Not a rag doll, merely a rag, and a singularly grubby one at that. Crashy is a piece of special effects digital wizardry and takes one’s breath away, if one is the sort of person to have one’s breath taken away by special effects digital wizardry. Not all of us are. Some of us are more likely to be breathtaken by, oh, I don’t know, the unbridled energy of Boswell’s London Journal, or, in a different register, the sixteen Revelations Of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich.

Certainly Julian’s classic text inspired Gus Van Der Vim, the creator of Punchy and Zippy and Bangy and Crashy. In fact the entire series of shows, screened between 1972 and 1976, is a thickly-disguised adaptation of the first Revelation, the one with the hazelnut. Although none of our bewildering quartet resembles a squirrel visually, there is something of the squirrel in the personality of Punchy, if a puppet can be said to have a personality as such. Perhaps what it has is, rather, a puppetality. That being so, it allowed Van Der Vim to express his frankly hysterical response to the First Divine Revelation in the form of a weird, knockabout, psychedelic, baffling, and occasionally creepy children’s television programme, in which pursuit of a hazelnut is the starting point of each show.

The fact that the programme was cancelled by Belgian television executives in 1976 has led many soi disant cultural commentators to argue that it was a victim of punk’s Year Zero. Jon Savage and others, who have forged careers based on their real or counterfeit presence at early Sex Pistols gigs, like to claim that Gus Van Der Vim was ousted from Flemish children’s television because he had long hair and wore Lennonite granny glasses. The truth, as ever, is more mundane, but what it is, that shining truth, is clouded in the mystical mists of which Julian of Norwich gave us such a majestic account, an account which gives due prominence, in the First Revelation at least, to the hazelnut.


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