Children can be properly scared by stories, but they know that it’s pretend and a book can always be closed. In any case, scary can be exciting. Unless, that is, it’s petrifying.
It was a Grimm brothers story, possibly Hurleburlebutz, that inspired The Singing Ringing Tree, whose creepiness was all the more effective for being made into TV, a new and mesmerizing medium for children in the early 1960s. The Märchen with its ugly and mean characters played out on a peculiar and patently fake set which imbued the tale with a strange and disturbing atmosphere. The dwarf is truly evil, the princess haughty and cruel, and in a scene that appalled me, the prince loses his human nature when he is changed into a bear. He stops being bright and friendly and becomes angry and rough. There’s a grotesque monster of a plastic goldfish and the good horse is turned into stone.
I didn’t trust the narrator with his almost mockingly insouciant delivery, as if he knew what awful things were about happen but didn’t care to break it to you gently. I didn’t even trust the tree. It doesn’t matter that the prince and princess end up living happily ever after because by then you’ve been frightened witless.
I read that a spooky aura of filme noire may have been induced when the film in garish, saturated Technicolor was transmitted to the black-and-white of our grainy TV screen, and an extra outlandishness for an English boy came from the fact that the characters could be heard speaking a foreign language. Because Das singende, klingende Bäumchen was a 1957 East German production, and you have to wonder: what was a studio in the communist GDR doing making a film about a fairy tale prince and princess? Was the disconcertingly faux mise en scène deliberate? A Brechtian deconstruction of traditional storytelling as epic theatre, aiming to educate the audience by distancing them from suspending disbelief?
If so, it failed completely. The amateurish costumes and the weirdness of the production only made it more terrifying because there was no attempt to try and pretend that it wasn’t real, giving it a mocking quality, like a bad dream that carried on after you woke up. When Doctor Who was on, I could at least hide from the Daleks behind the sofa. This tale had me transfixed.