In idle half-hours I’ve been watching Danger Mouse on a DVD I picked up for the price of a croissant. As well as being enjoyably daft and wryly amusing, it’s a trip down memory lane; my sister and I loved the cartoon as children.
Browsing its Wikipedia page, I see that it was even more popular than I supposed, placing third (behind The Muppet Show and The Simpsons) in a UK Channel 4 list of the top 100 children’s TV shows of all time. It had a fantastic theme tune too:
Puns and silly wordplay are a constant (‘Shooting star? Crumbs! I didn’t even know they were loaded’). In an episode titled ‘I Spy With My Little Eye…’, written by Brian Trueman and directed by Keith Scoble, there is an exchange rich in overt linguistic humour, excerpted here.
The three characters featured are the main three ‘goodies’: Danger Mouse, aka DM, ‘the world’s most famous secret agent’; his hamster sidekick Penfold, ‘the world’s most useless assistant’; and Colonel K, DM’s boss, a bulky chinchilla who resembles a walrus.
DM and Penfold have been to the Arctic to stop their toadly nemesis, Baron Greenback (pictured below with Nero, his pet caterpillar) from melting the ice caps and flooding the world. Back in London, DM tells Colonel K how he managed to communicate with a group of Laplanders (who are depicted in a regrettably racist and lazy fashion).
Colonel K: Can’t understand how you understood ’em.
Danger Mouse: It was a bit tricky, Colonel, but fortunately I speak seventeen Eskimo dialects.*
CK: Ah, good show.
DM: And they spoke the eighteenth.
CK: Oh, bad show. So uh, uh–
DM: Well, I translated into Ancient Egyptian, out of that into Old High Dutch, into Bulgarian, French, Urdu and… back into English.
CK: By jove! And that did it, did it?
Penfold: No, Colonel, I mean, that’s Morse code!
CK: What’s Morse code?
P: ‘Didit, didit, dah dah dah dah didit’!
CK: Chap’s off his rocker. I mean, DM’s command of languages solved the problem!
DM: No, Colonel. We just settled for sign language.
What exactly DM means by sign language is unclear: perhaps gesture, or more likely some mythical universal sign language that one or some of the Laplanders happened to command. DM himself speaks dozens of languages fluently, but the route of translation he follows is fanciful – at least, I don’t see any system behind it.
I especially like how the tag question Did it? is transformed through reduplication into Morse code, and the fact that dialects are cited rather than languages – a distinction seldom observed in children’s cartoons, as are references to Urdu and early Germanic tongues.
Apparently in certain translations the show’s name had to be changed to retain the ‘DM’ emblazoned prominently on the protagonist’s outfit: Donnie Murdo in Scots Gaelic, Dzielna Mysz ‘Brave mouse’ in Polish, Dundermusen ‘Thundermouse’ in Swedish. It was recently rebooted, but I have no plans to see the new episodes.