Master of Uncertainty and Doubt
Apr 6, 2014
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On slightly scary childrens' TV, or straightforward TV shows with a "twist", I have to mention an off-the-wall example I discovered while researching for fiction. For the purposes of the story I was writing, (set in a Fantasy Counterpart Culture based on South Africa in our world), I wanted to find out more about the history of witchcraft and occult practice in the Republic of South Africa and by extention in other former European colonies in the region, such as Zimbabwe/Rhodesia. Things like - the legal status of witchcraft? I imagined in apartheid days the authorities would have kept a tight lid on any manifestations among black people, and in a land where the Dutch Reformed Church was a state religion, the relevant authorities would not have appreciated any explicitly non-Christian stuff going on among white people - I'm guessing legal and social sanctions applied in both sides of the race divide, especially in a very conservative white society. (Answer - yes and no. It was more complex than that).

Anyway. A pleasant diversion in the journey was when I discovered a TV puppet show aimed at children called Die Liewe Heksie, "The Beloved Little Witch".

Puppet shows have always had an Uncanny Valley edge to them, and this one is no exception. South African TV was a relatively new thing that didn't begin until the late 1970's; the Saffies had to start a TV network from scratch and do everything from new, and children's author Verna Vels (1933 - 2014) must have been in the right place in the right time, as her Liewe Heksie tales, which had been in print since 1961 and dramatised for radio, became a TV property.

Watching them, they have a real guileless charm to them. Production-wise, they have an unavoidably amateurish edge - you can see what the producers are trying to do on a limited budget, which is to imitate Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation. Considering SA was under international sanction at the time, I guess they couldn't buy the technology or the skilled help - anyone working in broadcasting at any level who went to South Africa/Rhodesia would have been kissing their career goodbye. So it's interesting to see how well they did, all things considered. (Quality picks up exponentially by the time of the second series, it's fair to say)

So what can you say? It's pleasant, it's engaging, and I suspect even at five or six or seven I'd have picked up on some of the gaping plot holes. But the essential story is that Livinia is a little-girl witch who lives in the Land of Flowers, whose role, which predates Terry Pratchett's conception of Witches by at least a decade, is to guard her idyllic homeland from intrusion from the wicked dark elves of the Poisoned Apple Country next door to Bloemmieland.

Bloemmieland is, to be frank, a bit sugar-bowl and saccharin. Livinia is helped by childlike gormlessly smiling Elves, keeps a conventional pet cat, her best friend is a humanised cat called Karel who dresses human, walks on his hind legs, drives a car and has access to a helicopter. The grumpy King and the Fairy Queen live in the nearby castle and life is never-changing Stepford (with one or two hiccups) - until the cackling, elderly, ugly-as-sin Yellow Witch turns up with her goblin henchmen and makes trouble. Although they never create so much trouble that Livinia can't see them off without too much bother. (Frankly, the five year old me might have found Karel the smarmy talking cat to be scary...)

But damn, Gifappeltjieland, the Poisoned Apple Country, looks genuinely menacing, the barren wasteland which is the polar opposite of the Land of Flowers. Don't ask me why, but it makes me shiver. Maybe the intrusion of adult worries into childhood innocence is presented visually, or something, or else it's a visual metaphor for "do not let these people win, or our country will be reduced to a wasteland". Or so as to appreciate the tales, part of your mind has to regress to the level of a four or five year old, and you see it as a child of that age might.

It's easy to get into; the stories can be inferred and the Afrikaans is necessarily simple, which makes it ideal for a learner. Shame sanctions applied - Holland and Belgium might have appreciated this.

I've asked South Africans I know if they got a scary "off" edge to this show, or if it was just me reading things into it. My colleague Heidi said she'd watched repeats - apparently SA TV kept it on a perpetual repeating loop, at least till Harry Potter made it old hat - while she was growing up in the late eighties and nineties. She said yes, it could get scary, the idea of Bloemmieland being turned into a desert. She thinks she was picking up on adult worries about her - the economy tanking, the never-ending border fighting, with two of her brothers in the military, uncertainty about when apartheid was going to end, what would replace it, and so on... she wondered if adult insecurities were getting into her six-year old world ...

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