Judge Mike Pinsky once wore an eyepatch, got a sidekick, and set off to save the world. But then his mom told him to clean his room and get washed up for supper.
Colonel K: "Something funny's going on, DM."
Danger Mouse: "Funny ha-ha or funny peculiar, Colonel?"
Colonel K: "Bit of both really…"
London: home of fish and chips, tea and crumpets, Guy Ritchie and Madonna. And it is also the home of another dynamic duo, housed in an unassuming Mayfair pillar box. There lives the world's greatest secret agent, Danger Mouse, and his faithful assistant, Penfold. Colonel K is about to call with a mission. What nefarious plot does that terrible Toad, Baron Silas Greenback, have up his sleeve this week? Can Danger Mouse save the world once again? Will Penfold ever manage to get through the day without weeping uncontrollably? How can I get all those stains out of my wash without bleach? For the answers to these and several other inopportune questions, tune in to this week's exciting episode of Danger Mouse!
Even Ian Fleming saw it coming. By the end of the 1950s, the former intelligence agent had retired to Jamaica and created a new career for himself as the author of the James Bond novels. These pulpy Cold War thrillers seemed altogether too serious at first. But as the Cold War became increasingly tense to the point of absurdity, Fleming's Bond novels started to smack more of espionage satires, with the Soviet threat taking a back seat to the wild antics of Blofeld and SPECTRE. By the time Ian Fleming died in 1964, the spy genre was well on its way to becoming self-parody.
Danger Man, The Man From UNCLE, and the James Bond movies themselves—espionage was all about car chases and fistfights and whiz-bang gadgetry. When more serious spy novelists like John Le Carre tried to show how mundane the lives of secret agents could be, they were the ones that looked out of place. So in 1981, when British animators Brian Cosgrove and Mark Hall decided to base a television series around a superspy mouse, the idea probably did not seem particularly fresh. After all, Disney beat them to the punch only four years before with The Rescuers, which featured secret agent mice. And don't forget Eve Titus's Basil of Baker Street in which a great mouse detective resided below the apartment of a certain Mayfair-based detective team named Holmes and Watson.
Indeed, Danger Mouse (voiced by David Jason), in spite of his eyepatch and zippy car, is more like the indomitable Sherlock Holmes in temperament and ability than the suave ladykiller James Bond. And trusty sidekick Ernest Penfold (voiced by Terry Scott) is more Watson—at least Nigel Bruce's bumbling version of Watson—than anything Ian Fleming came up with. Still, the rest of the Bond elements are in place: single-initialed boss with his old school tie (Colonel K, voiced by Edward Kelsey), Blofeld-type villain Baron Greenback (also Edward Kelsey) with fuzzy pet Nero and sinister foreign-accented assassin Stiletto (voiced by Brian Trueman), and amazing spy gear, including a flying car that could probably put a beat-down to Speed Racer's Mach 5.
All this was enough to make Danger Mouse a staple of UK children's television for a decade. This in spite of what seems, in retrospect at least, cut rate production values. You can see for yourself on A&E's release of the first two seasons of Danger Mouse on DVD. The prints are a bit grainy and even retain cigarette burns from their 16mm origins. There is plenty of cel recycling. To liven up both the animation and limited sound mix, explosions are often punctuated with KA-BOOMs and ZAPs. And the animators love to dip the characters' mouths below frame to avoid having to animate dialogue. But it is ironically the dialogue at which Danger Mouse frequently excels. While the adventure plots are often thin, the banter, particularly between Penfold and Danger Mouse, is often quite amusing. Consider this offhand exchange, one my brother and I quoted for years (and which I reconstruct from memory, since it is evidently from a later episode than appears in this set):
Colonel K: "Danger Mouse, I don't like the look of the Albert Hall!"
Danger Mouse: "Well, sir, that's not the way I would have built it either."
Okay, maybe you had to be there. Or maybe it is the delivery, the perfectly droll performances by the voice cast. The chemistry is particularly sharp between David Jason and Terry Scott, who could easily spend entire episodes just sitting around DM's flat jabbering, if adventure did not call only a few seconds into each story. As to these adventures: they are a mixed bag, and honestly often a distraction from the characterizations. Season One sticks primarily to Danger Mouse's battles to stop whatever Baron Greenback cooks up to conquer the world, each story clocking in at about 11 minutes (paired up to make a single show). Rather than rattle of a synopsis of each of the 11 episodes that make up the first season, I will give you a couple of examples to show you the level of writing characteristic of the series.
In "Who Stole the Bagpipes?" DM and Penfold check into a Loch Ness inn to investigate the theft of bagpipe herds in Scotland. Yes, herds. Apparently bagpipes are animals. Baron Greenback sends a mechanical Nessie after our heroes, but the attack fails. DM discovers Greenback's nefarious plan: the bagpipes form the core of a sonic cannon Greenback intends to use to blackmail the world. Danger Mouse defeats the weapon with the help of his opera training and a singing counterattack. Now, granted that this story is reworked from the series' original pilot cartoon, which ran several minutes longer and featured different voice casting (and lacked the clever narration from David Jason), but the episode seems pretty much at the kiddie show level of the rest of the season. What makes it work is Penfold's constant and often inane chatter. His whining, bad puns, and silly asides often exasperate Danger Mouse and provide valuable comic relief for the adults watching.
For instance, in "Ice Station Camel," Penfold and DM get some extended banter about all the rare animals governments reward our mouse hero with instead of medals. Yes, instead of a convenient certificate, or even oversized novelty check, Danger Mouse ends up with, say, a panda. Later in the episode, while DM is running around trying to stop Greenback from turning off Earth's gravity by stopping its rotation, Penfold chats up a polar bear. Moments like this are few, though, since mostly our heroes must be put through their paces for the short length of each adventure.
The second season of Danger Mouse marked a change in format for the series. Each of the six half-hour stories is broken into five chapters of about five minutes apiece, strung together in serial fashion much like the format of the old Bullwinkle show: opening credits (abbreviated from the opening sequence of Season One), recap, new plot advancement, cliffhanger, closing credits. I am not sure why each segment requires its own full credit sequences, other than to pad out the running time. In any case, the longer stories allowed the Cosgrove Hall team to expand beyond the simple "foil Greenback's latest scheme" formula to allow some subplotting. Unfortunately, the shortened lengths of the segments and need to move the story quickly left less room for the clever banter that made the first season episodes come alive.
For example, "Custard" begins with Greenback's attempt to flood the world with—you guessed it—custard. Danger Mouse and Penfold head into space to find a custard-eating mite. Parodies of Alien, Star Wars, and the video game Space Invaders follow. There are also some odd postmodern touches, with aliens watching Danger Mouse on television and some Pythonesque lumage animation. This latter point—the dada style that seems to turn up quite a bit in the second season space adventures—marked one of the first season's more ambitious episodes, "The World of Machines," in which DM visits a planet of sentient machines (all lumage clip-art) with working class accents. Apparently, Cosgrove and Hall must like space and science fiction quite a bit, since DM leaves Earth in four of the six stories for the second season. And one of the remaining stories ("Day of the Suds") features rebellious washing machines that smack of a Dalek parody. The final story of Season Two, "The Four Tasks of Danger Mouse," is notable as the first appearance of Count Duckula, later to spin off (with major personality changes) into his own series. Here he is little more than a Daffy Duck knock-off, with a camera-hogging ego and speech impediment.
I have to admit that I was never a fan of Count Duckula, nor of the later seasons of Danger Mouse, when the show focused too much on pleasing the kids and not the grown-ups. But I have fond memories of the easily seasons of the show and was pleased to hear that A&E was bringing it out on DVD. But watching Danger Mouse again after all these years, I am not sure it holds up so well. Part of the problem might be the lackluster presentation. The prints suffer from some fading and audio hiss. The only appreciable extra is the uncut pilot episode. But mostly I find that the problem is the show itself. The plots of Danger Mouse tend to be more frustrating than entertaining. For instance, watching "The Bad Luck Eye of the Little Yellow God," I spent more time wondering why there were herds of elephants tramping around South America than caught up in DM's plight. And the wordplay of the narrator, or the snappy patter between Penfold and Danger Mouse—these moments seemed too few.
Danger Mouse is not a bad show, but there are too many better series out there on DVD that demand your time and attention. In the end, I had a few laughs watching the first two seasons of a show I used to enjoy quite a bit, but not enough to feel a strong connection to those long-gone teen years. I suspect that Danger Mouse, with its dated animation, is not likely to win many new converts. Die-hard fans may want to wait until A&E finishes its collection of individual seasons and puts the entire series out in one set, which they usually price less than getting the separate discs.
Danger Mouse and Penfold are released for their meritorious service to the nation. A&E is fined for indifferent presentation of a show fondly remembered by many animation fans.
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