The Singing Ringing Tree: scariest kids’ TV show ever?

The Singing Ringing Tree sounded innocent. But it was, in fact, evil, and one of the most downright pieces of TV ever to be aimed at children...

I like to think I’m an unflappable person these days. I find most horror movies silly and laughable. But I’m happy to admit hiding behind the sofa in 1966 when the Daleks appeared, although I was only five. However, a chance conversation unlocked a long suppressed memory, so terrible, so disturbing that it made me shudder to my very core.

Before I utter its name, if you are about my age, find something else to do, don’t read this as it might bring a suppressed traumatic memory to the surface. You’ve been warned…

What is so disturbing that just thinking about it paralyses me with fear?

The Singing Ringing Tree…there…I said it. But I’ll call it TSRT from now on, if you don’t mind.

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If you missed 1960s TV, then you were spared this 1957 East German ‘fairy tale’, which the BBC showed under the quaint series title of ‘Tales for Europe‘. The idea was to balance our American influences with some good old European product.

I’m sure when the BBC bought it they remarked on how whimsical and charming it all sounded. Did they ever watch it? It was about a Prince, a Princess and a king, and an enchanted tree, how scary could it be?

Bloody terrifying, actually.

I’ve since concluded it was part of some horrible East German physiological warfare test, where before sending their troops west they’d reprogram all the children with their mind warping ‘entertainment’. Like the Ipcress File brainwashing for British youngsters.

In retrospect, there isn’t much in TSRT that isn’t either worrying or downright creepy. The story they tell has an authentic Brothers Grimm feel, and I don’t mean the Disney versions of their works. But even Grimm had characters that children can feel comfortable with, but there are none in this outlandish fable.

The Prince starts out charming enough and then turns into a bear, and a nasty bear at that. The Princess is spoilt and cruel, and gets turned into something hideous. These are the nearest to a ‘good’ people you get, everyone else seems to be either mad, ugly or an evil dwarf. The giant fish that totally terrified me is actually ‘friendly’, I’m told, but I hated the way it looked and moved. It was otherworldly, and I didn’t want it anywhere near me.

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To enhance the disturbing characters the entire thing had been shot in vivid Technicolor and then been processed into black and white for transmission, giving it the enhanced contrast of film noire. When you were six it was like your own private nightmare, in three 25 minute episodes. If they’d showed it in one piece, I don’t think I’d have watched TV again until I was in my 20s, or maybe ever.

I’m sure some of you are thinking I’ve either made this up, or it wasn’t remotely as bad as I thought. In my defence Paul Whitehouse once said, “The Singing Ringing Tree used to make me pee my pants when I was a kid”. Paul knows my pain.

I’d liken it to the Wizard of Oz, but with all the remotely funny, charming or musical parts entirely removed, and then edited with dream sequences from Twin Peaks, before adding the soundtrack of Scott of the Antarctic. The happy ending is so brief that I must have seen it at least twice before I even realised it had one. The underpinning moral of TRST is that if you’re not good to people something horrible will happen to you. And dwarves have spiteful scheming personalities, so kill them on sight.

You’ll be glad to know that I’ve written this as part of my first attempt to come to terms with the psychological damage that The Singing Ringing Tree did to me. My therapist says I’m making good progress, and maybe in a few years, I’ll be able to recall more positive aspects of my youth.

If anyone gives you a tape or DVD of this show, burn it, before others are harmed.