Roald Dahl was my favourite author when I was a kid, and one of my favourite Roald Dahl books was Revolting Rhymes, which was six classic fairy tales reworked as black comedy poems.
In this animated adaptation for the BBC, it begins when a Wolf sits with a woman in a cafe. The woman is a babysitter, and has a book of fairy tales to tell the children. The Wolf tells her that he knows the real stories.
I think we all the basic plots to these fairy tales, but in this there are a few changes to the traditional versions.
Snow White and Red Riding Hood are childhood friends, and this lasts into adulthood. In fact, it’s all but stated that they are in a couple in a romantic relationship. However, Snow White is now “the fairest of them all” meaning her wicked queen stepmother (named Miss. Maclahose in this version), no longer is. Furious after learning this from her Magic Mirror, the wicked queen orders her huntsman to kill Snow White and bring back her heart. Red Riding Hood sees Snow White taken away, and if that’s not enough she goes back to her home, where she lives with her grandma, to find her grandma has been eaten and a wolf, named Rolf, and he is dressed in her clothes. Before Rolf can eat Red, she “whips a pistol from her knickers” and shoots him dead. She then wears his skin as a coat from then on!
Snow White pleads for her life to the huntsman, saying that she hasn’t done anything wrong. The huntsman is moved, and he lets her go. He buys a bullock’s heart from a butcher’s shop to make Miss. Maclahose think he has killed Snow White. Miss. Maclahose believes him and eats the heart!
Snow White hitches a ride into the city and gets a live-in job as cook and housekeeper for the Seven Dwarfs, who in this version are all are ex-horse race jockeys who have become gambling addicts and keep losing all their money. Snow White decides to go back to the palace and nick her stepmother’s Magic Mirror, so the dwarfs can use it to find out who will win all the horse races.
The Three Little Pigs include a manager of a bank named Porkleys, and despite having a huge safe full of gold and valuables himself, decides to spend all his customers money on useless property development by the other two Little Pigs, one who wants to build a block of flats made out of straw, and another who wants to build one out of twigs. The latter two pigs are both eaten by a wolf Rolf’s brother, Rex. Rex then goes to try to eat the Banker Pig, but the security is much better in the bank.
As he can’t blow the bank DOWN, Rex says he will blow it UP instead, using dynamite! The Banker Pig calls Red Riding Hood to help. She comes down and kills Rex. However, upon finding out that the Banker Pig lied to her about how much money he had and that it turns out he had spent all of her life savings, she shoots him and turns him into a travelling case. The Magic Mirror tells Snow White where Red is, they meet up and along with the dwarfs make money from betting on winning horses.
The Wolf telling the story is in fact the uncle of Rolf and Rex, and he locks the babysitter in the cafe toilets, dresses up as her to take her place. The babysitter is working for Red Riding Hood, who now has two children, and when Red and Snow White leave to go out for the night, the Wolf goes to the door…
The children aren’t fooled by the disguise, but boy isn’t suspicious that the Wolf wants to eat them when he makes a stew. The girl asks the Wolf to read them some fairy tales while the stew is cooking. The boy wants to read Jack and the Beanstalk, while the girl wants to read Cinderella. Again, the Wolf says the storybook versions aren’t how it really happened.
Jack and Cinderella were in fact next door neighbours. Jack had a crush on her for a long time, but neither got to speak to each other much as they had to deal with their families treating them badly.
Jack’s mother constantly berates him, and one day tells him as they have no money he has to go to town and sell their cow. Jack takes the cow and passes a Magic Shop. He exchanges the cow for a magic bean. Jack’s mother is angry, throws the bean away and beats him up using the handle of a vacuum cleaner! But a beanstalk grows overnight, and what’s more the leaves on the top are solid gold. Jack’s mother makes Jack climb the beanstalk to get the gold leaves. But up there is a Giant, who smells Jack. Jack quickly climbs down and tells this to his mother, who says it’s because Jack smells from never having a wash. Jack says to his mother that if she’s so clean, why doesn’t she climb the beanstalk herself. She does, and is smelled out and eaten by the Giant.
Jack decides that maybe he had better have a good wash. After he has done that, he climbs the beanstalk and the Giant can’t smell him. After the Giant has fallen asleep, Jack harvests all the gold leaves and uses them to buy the Magic Shop.
Meanwhile, Cinderella has been locked in a cellar by her Ugly Sisters while they go to the ball. The Magic Shop owner, who is also a Fairy Godmother, overhears Cinderella. Cinderella tells the Fairy Godmother she wants to go to the ball in a beautiful dress. The Fairy Godmother grants her wish, but tells her she has to leave by midnight. Cinderella goes to the ball, dances with the Prince, but when it is midnight she runs to leave. The Prince grabs her dress and ends up ripping it all off. She runs away in her underwear, leaving one slipper behind. The Prince declares he will marry the girl who fits the slipper. One Ugly Sister decides to swap the slipper, flush it down the toilet and replace it with one of her own!
None of the girls who try on the slipper can make it fit, because it much too big and wide. But when it comes to the Ugly Sister’s turn it fits, much to the horror of the Prince. Rather than marry her, he orders that the Ugly Sister’s head is chopped off immediately! He chops the second Ugly Sister’s head off before she even gets a chance to try on the slipper.
Overhearing the commotion, Cinderella takes a look. She is shocked the Prince chops off people’s heads, and is disillusioned. She thought she was in love with him at the ball, but she can’t marry someone as psychotic and cruel as him. The Prince decides he want to chop Cinderella’s head off too. Luckily, the Fairy Godmother is around, and changes the Prince and his soldiers into frogs before they can do anything. She then tells Cinderella she will grant her a wish. Cinderella says that princes and money aren’t important to her. What she wants in a man more than anything is that he is decent.
The Fairy Godmother takes her to sometime in the future, at a Christmas where the Magic Shop is now a jam and marmalade store called Jack’s Jams. Jack is now an adult. He and Cinderella are married, have two children and live happily ever after.
Red Riding Hood returns and sees a stew cooked, her children are asleep in the living room… then comes face to face with the Wolf! But he simply says goodbye to her, and goes back to the woods.
In some ways this adaptation is very close to the book, the poems are quoted more or less word for word, with a few alterations to make it more like dialogue, or to give some characters names. Though in the book the stories don’t intersect and cross over, the only ones that are linked are Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs, with Red Riding Hood appearing in both. The poems are all separate stories, and there is no framing device.
The one poem that wasn’t adapted was Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I was a bit disappointed as that was one of my favourites from the Revolting Rhymes book. It raised a fair question really, in that it’s a bit strange that we are supposed to root for Goldilocks. She a trespasser in the Bear’s house, she eats their porridge, sleeps in their beds and breaks the Baby Bear’s chair! In the Revolting Rhymes version she’s definitely a horrible brat, because she eats ALL the porridge, doesn’t give a damn that she’s broken the Baby Bear’s chair, her response is to utter an apparently unprintable swear word, and climbs all over the Bear’s beds with shoes that have dog dirt and grime on them.While Goldilocks isn’t given a full adaptation, it is referenced in a newspaper called The Pun. (I see what they did there). It shows that Goldilocks has been sent to prison,”ten years hard labour in the clink!”, for breaking into and vandalising the Bear’s property and stealing their porridge. But she got off lightly compared to the Revolting Rhymes book version. In that, the Bears eat her!
Thinking about it, Jack in traditional versions of Jack and the Beanstalk is a bit of a git really. I mean, wasn’t the Giant was just minding his own business in his castle up in the clouds, then Jack comes along steals his stuff and kills him! The Jack in Revolting Rhymes however gets his fortune by harvesting solid gold leaves from the top of the beanstalk, and well it is Jack’s beanstalk in the first place.
This version of Jack is quite similar to Cinderella, in that both are treated badly by their families, so it was quite a good idea of the TV version to pair Jack and Cindy up in the end, and they both end up being part of each others happy endings. Having Snow White and Red Riding Hood as a couple was an even more interesting and inventive idea, and it worked very well. It seems to have been one of the most popular parts of this programme.
Though the animation style is a little different, the character designs are inspired by the Quentin Blake illustrations from the book. The idea of having the Wolf read the stories to the children might have been a reference to the original front cover, which had a Wolf reading Revolting Rhymes to two children.
Most of the character designs take their cue from the Quentin Blake illustrations, Red Riding Hood is the exception, she doesn’t look anything like the illustrations, and her character is most changed too.
In a 1995 a live-action version of the Little Red Riding Hood story in Revolting Rhymes was made. It made even more changes from the book and was very weird generally. They added Red Riding Hood inheriting a lot of money and the house from Grandma, and popping champagne bottles and being rather smug flaunting around her new wealth and her “lovely, furry wolfskin coat”. She was a bit like Cruella DeVil in some ways. It is pretty close to the character in Revolting Rhymes though. But this new version when Red Riding Hood says “Hello, and do please note my lovely, furry wolfskin coat” it’s to the Wolf narrator, and it’s not flaunting so much as giving a message of “Don’t mess with me!”.
Red is given more of a reason to do away with the Third Little Pig in this new adaptation too. In this she shoots him because he’s taken all her life savings. In the book, she just kills the Third Little Pig because, well, she thought he’d make a good suitcase. I still don’t think the reason used in this adaptation really justifies what she does to him to be honest, but hey.
That said, I think the changes with the pigs were my favourite changes made in this adaptation. There is a Piggy Bank – literal in that everyone gives their money in piggy banks, and metaphorical in that it is a bank run by a pig. In the book the Three Little Pigs aren’t much different to traditional versions, in this TV adaptation they were used in a satirical way, with the Banker Pig being a literal greedy pig, and the two property developers wanting to invest money in useless projects doomed to failure, in this case a house made entirely of straw and a house made entirely of sticks.
They managed to link all of the different stories to each other, even some blink and you’ll miss it moments, such as Jack’s Mother applying to be the King’s new wife and that as well as being the person who sells Jack the magic bean, it is Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother who gives Snow White a lift back to the palace.
The baddies were the most fun in terms of voice acting performances. Rob Brydon as Rolf, Tamsin Greig as Miss. Maclahose, David Walliams as Rex and Jack’s Mother. The Wolf, voiced by Dominic West has the most important role in a way, as he is also the narrator, and his voice had the right amount of gravitas and creepiness.
This TV version of Revolting Rhymes was split into two parts. The first part was quite sinister in tone in places, which worked. It was a little tricky to follow everything that was going on though. They had three different plots running alongside each other (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs), plus the framing device.
The second part was a little lighter in tone. It had echoes of pantomimes, what with the Ugly Sisters, the Fairy Godmother, and Jack’s Mother all being voiced by male actors. In pantomime, those parts are often played by panto dames. Jack had a bit of a Buttons role in Cinderella’s story too.The second part is the better of the two. It stuck a lot closer to the book. It is unexpectedly sweet towards the end, which is a good note to leave a festive TV programme on.
Some elements from the book were toned down. That’s not say that they left out some of the gorier parts of the book, but they were referred to by other characters rather than shown. The exception is the Prince chopping off the Ugly Sister’s heads, but that was toned down in that the Ugly Sisters survive and with them like headless chickens and running after their heads bouncing along the street.
They cut a bit of innuendo with the King choosing his new wife (in the book, he says with a “shifty smile [he’d] like to give each one a trial”). The Prince also calls Cinderella a “dirty mutt” rather than a “dirty slut” as he did in the original version of the book, but apparently some newer reprints of the book use the “dirty mutt” version.
I think it was probably the right call for this adaptation to make these alterations. Apparently even with these changes made, they still got some parents complaining it was “too scary for kids”, so it’s likely they would have complained even more if those things had been left in or shown.
I think also the programme makers wanted to make it festive family viewing with it being broadcast on Boxing Day and Bank Holiday Tuesday.
I definitely prefer the book Revolting Rhymes. It is a lot funnier in tone, and I found that this adaptation was like a lot Roald Dahl adaptations, in that they get the surreal dark fairytale element, but miss the humour. Revolting Rhymes is one of his funniest works too, so it’s a pity in that way. That said, , I like a lot of the changes they made, or more specifically I liked a lot of the stuff they added in. As a TV programme in its own right, this TV version of Revolting Rhymes was good, and has been regarded as one of the TV highlights of the last festive period.