Paul O’Grady’s Favourite Fairy Tales

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Paul O’Grady’s Favourite Fairy Tales begins with Paul O’Grady as a “handsome young woodcutter woke up in an enchanted forest” on top of many mattresses. After waking up, he says “I tell you what, I’m never drinking with that crowd again”. He’s told to go on a quest looking at the origins of famous fairy tales.

It’s not really possible to find the “original” version of a fairy tale, as they tended to be passed through word of mouth, and were adapted by different people, translated into different languages and rewritten for different cultures over the centuries. The plots are similar, but many details change. The programme was on location in Germany, so focused mainly on Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm who collected and published fairy tales and folklore in the 19th century, and standardised many of the versions we know today. Disney films aside, if you see a version of a fairy tale today it’s likely to use the Brothers Grimm version as the source.

Cinderella is the most popular fairy tale in a recent poll, which isn’t surprising. There are so many variations and versions of that story, even by fairy tale standards it has been re-told so many times. (Shakespeare’s play King Lear is an example!) Most versions of Cinderella, like the Disney film for example, tend, to be based on French writer Charles Perrault’s version, which was about 100 years before the Grimm Brothers. But the Grimm’s version has some interesting and gruesome additions. The Stepsisters chop their toes off so their feet can fit in the shoe, and at the end of the story birds peck out their eyes!

The programme noted that interestingly in some even earlier versions the Stepsisters were physically beautiful, but had ugly hearts, so in some ways it seems the tale became more superficial over time.

The programme also made the point that children tend to prefer black and white morality to shades of grey. To be honest, I think adults do too, it’s just that part of maturing is being able to see that sometimes there are shades of grey. I remember a psychological programme once which asked children that if a man who stole medicine to save his wife from death, was that morally wrong? Young children all said yes because it was wrong to steal, but teenagers were more conflicted.

Paul O’Grady’s Favourite Fairy Tales made a lot of good suggestions as to why Cinderella has such enduring appeal to people; that it has a message of hope and a moral about being a good, decent person and how you have to go through adversity to get a happy ending.

Little Red Riding Hood is a fairy tale that, perhaps more than any other, people have seen a lot of metaphor and subtext in over the years. Some versions have used it to show themes of chastity and puberty, with the Big Bad Wolf as a metaphor for wolf-man sexual predators. Certainly the conclusion of Charles Perrault’s version strongly implies this.

In more modern times these themes have been dealt with and explored in adaptations, ‘The Company Of Wolves’ by Angela Carter is a famous example.

In the Grimm’s version it is more literal, as wolves were a danger in forests in Germany. Robbers and exiles were also banished to forests making it a place people had to be wary of. Going even further back, there had also been werewolf trials similar to witch trials. Angela Carter also did another adaptation of the Red Riding Hood story titled ‘The Werewolf’, where the wolf in Grandma’s bed IS actually Grandma as she is a werewolf… except it is very, very strongly implied that Red Riding Hood is lying and she framed her grandma so she could inherit Grandma’s house and her money.

In many earlier versions Red Riding Hood meets her death, but the Grimm Brothers added the huntsman/woodcutter character who turns up to save the day.

The programme mentioned that some versions of Sleeping Beauty have very nasty aspects to them indeed. In those, Sleeping Beauty isn’t awoken by “loves first kiss”. A Prince finds her, and rapes her! She becomes pregnant with twins, and even giving birth to them doesn’t wake her up! The splinter from the spinning wheel has to come out before she wakes up. Then, depending on the version, either the Prince is already married, or his mother turns out to be an ogress, but either way the woman in question wants to have the children killed and then cooked so she can eat them, but is given slaughtered animals instead. It shows how similar the story is to Snow White, with a sleeping princess and the Wicked Queen wanting Snow White’s heart. Though it turns out that itself was a watered down version…

In the Grimm Brothers version of Snow White the Wicked Queen doesn’t want Snow White’s heart as proof she has been killed. She wants her lungs and liver! Snow White isn’t woken by “love’s first kiss” either. The Prince falls in love with Snow White after seeing her in her glass coffin! He takes her back to his castle, and she is only woken after the poisoned apple slice that is still in her mouth is knocked out.

Some think that Snow White could have been based on a real historical person, a German countess named Margaretha von Waldeck, who had a jealous stepmother, and is thought to have been poisoned. (Though even if she had been, it wouldn’t have been by the stepmother, as she had already died by the time this happened). Margaretha von Waldeck was due to marry a prince, none other than Philip II of Spain. In England he’s mainly known for his disastrous marriage to Mary I, and his failed attempt at the Spanish Armada during Elizabeth I’s reign, so this was interesting as I never knew about Philip II of Spain’s links to other countries.

The seven dwarves may well have had roots in reality too. There were dwarf-like miners in Germany. Little boys were sent to mines, and the hard labour and lack of time in fresh air and sunlight stunted their growth, and by the time they were 20 they were bearded and looked much older than their years.

Rapunzel, as always with fairy tales, has many earlier versions, but it is the German name which is the most famous. The witch in the story was probably based on old medicine women who would take young girls on as apprentices. In some versions, the witch finds out about Rapunzel letting the prince into her tower when Rapunzel asks her for a new dress as her’s is getting tight around the waist… because she is pregnant!

Paul O’Grady said himself his favourite things about fairy tales are the baddies. He has played them in many pantomimes, and it’s clear he adores playing them. In this programme there were sketches of scenes from fairy tales where he played some of the villains. There was some great black comedy with him as Cinderella’s Stepmother, with a scene of her blood splattered face wielding a meat cleaver, and feeding the chopped big toe to the family dog.

He plays a werewolf version of the Big Bad Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, the Magic Mirror in Snow White (where he said he has a date with the Genie from Aladdin), and as a servant trying not to throw up after serving the Wicked Queen with the cooked lung and liver she had ordered.

He was hilarious as the hag in Rapunzel. When she finds out Rapunzel is pregnant with the Prince’s baby she is unhappy with the “crazy gene pool” that the baby will be a part of, and berates Rapunzel. “Soon as I’m out you’re chucking your plat out of that window and flat on your back!”

Paul O’Grady a huge fan of Maleficent, the villain in Disney’s version of Sleeping Beauty, as are many people, she’s one of the most popular parts of that film, having recently got her own live action remake starring Angelina Jolie.

His favourite fairy tale is Snow White. While he loves her as an adult, as a child he was terrified of the Wicked Queen in Disney’s version (Bit of Disney trivia for you, Disney actually gave her a name, Grimhilde, after the Brothers Grimm).

When you look at earlier versions of fairy tales it’s easy to see why the horror genre is connected to them. But they have always been altered to reflect the world. In more modern versions of fairy tales, such as Disney’s Tangled, an adaptation of Rapunzel, the heroines take a more active role in the story. One reason these stories have lasted centuries is that they moved with the times. A lot of us were told them as children, which means they will have a long lasting effect on us, and as adults people like to tell them to their children too.

I liked Paul O’Grady’s Favourite Fairy Tales more than I expected, and I already expected to like it. It was very enjoyable. They showed “Germany’s fairytale route” tourist attraction with castles and towers said to have inspired the Brothers Grimm, such as a museum with the original versions of the Grimm’s fairytales kept in a temperature and moisture controlled cabinet. There were very beautiful locations too with the forests and villages. Paul O’Grady describes Alfstedt as a “chocolate box town”. Trendelburg had a tower without a door that may have inspired the Brothers Grimm when writing their version of Rapunzel.

Obviously discussing 5 stories in one hour meant it was going to feel a bit rushed. A lot of viewers felt this would have been good as a whole series with an episode focusing on one story each. There is a lot to talk about with them, you would probably need 100 year curse to fit it all in. But it was informative and concise, and Paul O’Grady provided a lot of humour and made a lot of good points about why these stories are so consistently popular.

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