Uglee-Wuglees

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I still have a very few memories of things from childhood I saw on TV but don’t know what they were. One was a silent adventure film excerpted on Paul Killiam’s Movie Museum, which used to turn up erratically to fill gaps in the schedules. The clip featured a rope bridge and the characters were all different shapes, I have a sense of papier mache ragged rock settings, and that’s all I remember.

But I sort of knew what this one was — an E. Nesbit adaptation on the BBC, though I’d forgotten what it was called until I cam across it recently. The Enchanted Castle. It stuck in my 12-year-old brain because it had statues coming to life, and one of them was a dinosaur statue. Very cool stuff.

Seen today, it’s clear that the TV crew were struggling somewhat to visualize Nesbit’s wild imaginings. The plot involves a group of kids who find a wishing ring, and the trouble that ensues. Characters get turned to marble statues (white body paint and wigs), somebody grows two four yards high (low-angle/high-angle shot reverse shot filming), and some dummies made of old clothes come to life. These are the uglee-wuglees. Their paper mask faces are alarming, as is their impedimented speech — they sound like deaf people who don’t know what consonants are. This is explained as a consequence of their paper mouths.

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I don’t recall finding the series funny, but it is, in a very deadpan way I obviously didn’t get. It’s certainly mind-expanding though. The wishing ring starts by making people invisible, first for twenty-one hours, then fourteen, then seven. The kids realize that the decreasing times will mean that next it will make somebody invisible for zero hours, then for minus seven. What will that be like? “Maybe you’ll become more visible — thicker, somehow?” theorizes one youngster.

The kids themselves are school play material mostly, but they all improve whenever they have a scene with an adult. I think it’s timing — most child actors are not good at picking up cues in a natural way and when four of them are in a scene the thing tens to get very floppy unless tightly cut. But put a decent adult in and you have one person taking up the slack and the others start to tighten up too, and the pitch of the performances adjusts to the right level also. You could see the phenomenon of kids being at their least convincing when they’re in a bunch in the HARRY POTTER movies too, even the last one where all the children were 37.

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Who remembers this?

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6 Responses to “Uglee-Wuglees”

  1. This!
    I have such a vivid and traumatic memory of the Uglee-Wuglees gibbering en masse as they chase the kids round a theatre or something.
    Oddly, only last week I was searching for this show in the BFI Mediatheque, but I couldn’t remember its name. Happily, that meant I stumbled instead across a film from 1952 called “the Pleasure Garden” in which John Le Mesurier, dressed as an undertaker, attempts to put a stop to all covorting in the ruins of Crystal Palace, while Hattie Jacques, literally playing the spirit of Spring, thwarts him, ushering in the sixties ten years early. Lindsay Anderson plays an artist who looks a bit too much like Keith Moon’s Uncle Ernie. I think it would be right up your street.
    E. Nesbit is brilliant. Mystery of the Disappearing Schoolgirls, despite its – now I think of it – ominous title, also stands up very well for a show made with no money.

  2. Nesbit’s ghost stories are the greatest cultural product of the Edwardian era, he said boldly (and with very little knowledge of the period).

    I’ve been meaning to see The Pleasure Garden for years. I believe David Ehrenstein knows a thing or two about the filmmaker.

    Gotta hunt out those Missing Schoolgirls now!

  3. I tracked the Uglee Wuglees down on Youtube recently – not as disturbing as I recall, but there were traces. Their irritation and entitlement made them pitiable – they didn’t know they were nothing.

  4. La Faustin Says:

    I grew up on E. Nesbit books! This is a nice letter on the subject: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1964/dec/03/the-writing-of-e-nesbit/

  5. All the effects stuff is pretty badly realised, and the uglee-wuglees unforgivebaly so, as the one thing needed was to completely conceal the actors, not a very difficult task one would have thought.

    But conceptually they’re so creepy, much of this being due to the dialogue ABOUT them…

  6. Phoebe, have you read the ghost stories? Available in a handy collection. With many connections to the children’s stuff, particularly in the unbelievably creepy, ambiguous Man-Sized in Marble, which repeats the trope from Enchanted Castle of statues coming to life and walking about “in their marble.”

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