This week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Scottish kids saving Scooby-Doo from the BBC axe… but there’s one puzzle Mystery Inc. never solved for me as a youngster. Why was Top Cat called Boss Cat by the Beeb?
I mean, every week, there it was, TC and the gang. Said it right in the lyrics, over and over. Top Cat, he’s the leader of the gang.
Yet the title card, which looked a bit different to the rest of the opening titles, said Boss Cat.
Turns out it was because at the time Top Cat, sorry Boss Cat, was airing in the 60s, there was a leading cat food brand called, you guessed it, Top Cat.
So an entire generation grew up unable to believe the evidence of their own ears, lied to by the national broadcaster. It was a pre-cursor to the fake news so beloved of today’s generations of politicians. Maybe they, too, were watching Boss or Top Cat or whatever.
Woven into the fabric of life
But the commercial considerations aside, TC (that’s what his gang called him in the show) was a mainstay of any kids viewing habits more than 50 years ago.
He was part of the stable of cartoons launched into the world by Hanna-Barbera, the animators who created a stable of legendary cartoons – including the aforementioned, Scooby-Doo.
They were woven into the fabric of life for any child of the 60s. I mean, who didn’t love The Flintstones?
Fred and Barney were an all-time genius double act – although I was never convinced Barney really was the dim-witted one. Then there were the cars that you had to run along the road to get going and the fact their pet dog was a dinosaur.
And which little kid didn’t at some point in their lives shout “yabba-dabba-doo!” while going down a slide?
Basically, it was 60s suburban America transported back to the Stone Age and played for laughs.
It was also a complete knock-off of the hugely popular Stateside sit-com, The Honeymooners. So much so that the actor Jackie Gleason was told by his lawyers he could sue Hanna-Barbera for copying his show and have The Flintstones cancelled. Mind you, they also told him: “Do you want to be known as the guy who yanked Fred Flintstone off the air?”
Which is probably why it was the longest-running cartoon show in the States until The Simpsons came along.
When Yogi Berra became Yogi Bear
Funnily enough, The Honeymooners also inspired another legendary Hanna-Barbera character. Yogi Bear is the animated version of Art Carney’s Ed Norton from the sitcom. Carney didn’t sue, but Yogi Berra did. Who he? A baseball star of the age who hit headlines with quotes like “half the lies they tell about me aren’t true.” He withdrew the claim when Hanna-Barbera said it was all just a coincidence. Yeah, so Yogi Berra is a household name when Yogi Bear hit the screens and it’s mere happenstance? Yep, Yogi is fibbier than your average bear.
On the subject of ripping-off material, let’s go back to Top (Boss) Cat. Ah, TC, Benny, Fancy-Fancy, Choo-Choo and Officer Dibble. They made kids TV (especially in the summer holidays) a bit more bearable.
But they were also a straight lift from The Phil Silvers Show and his Sergeant Bilko character. If you get the chance, compare and contrast, from the voice to the scrapes they get into, they’re virtually identical. But as a seven-year-old I was blissfully unaware. In fact, the first time I saw clips of Sergeant Bilko, I thought he was ripping off Top Cat.
For the record, I’ve always had a special affinity for Top Cat. We were born in the same year, 1961. I even have a treasured little plastic model on my desk to prove it.
Also in the mix for any square-eyed urchin in the Swinging Sixties was The Jetsons. Basically, it was The Flintstones in the future. Different characters, of course, but same idea. Suburban 60s America displaced in time. I think it was The Jetsons that helped cement my still firmly-held belief that by 2021 we should all have flying cars and jetpacks. And that’s about as much as I remember.
Protect you from the Hooded Claw
I do, though, remember Wacky Races. This was must-watch viewing for me and my mates and we’d often sit and watch it together taking bets (no money involved) on who would win at the end of the episode.
Funnily enough, I never voted for Peter Perfect. Too wholesome for my tastes. I was a Boulder Brothers fan, while most of my mates went with the Ant Hill Mob. Like, I said, there wasn’t that much to keep you engaged in the telly back in the day.
One safe bet was never to go for Dastardly and Muttley. Losers to the end. Although they did win their spin-off series, the one about men in the their flying machines. I can still sing the “Catch that pigeon” theme tune. Even if I did wish that one day they would actually “nab him, grab him, jab him.” I always thought the bird was too smug for its own good.
Penelope Pitstop went solo, too, fending of the Hooded Claw… thank goodness she did. It gave Frankie Goes To Hollywood one of their best lines in The Power Of Love.
Hanna-Barbera were also the blokes behind a diverse range of, let’s face it, fairly rubbish characters. Touche Turtle, anyone? Wally Gator? Atom Ant? Secret Squirrel?
Anyone of a certain age will have a sharp pang of recognition on hearing those names. But can you actually remember much about them, beyond, say, a vague recollection of a squirrel in a mac and a fedora?
There’s a reason none of these have seen a big screen reboot over the decades.
But for all the chaff in the Hanna-Barbera back catalogue, one creation stands out head and shoulders above the rest. Tom and Jerry.
William Hanna and Joseph Barbera earned their place in the pantheon of animator gods when they created the scrapping cat and mouse in 1940 for MGM.
Tom and Jerry run through my childhood memories like a rich, golden thread. In fact, I remember more about the cartoons than I do about my days in primary school. Perhaps that’s because, like everyone else, I saw the constant repeats back in the day when you watched what the two TV companies offered and that was our lot.
But they were genius. I still laugh like a drain at Tom trying to sneak around behind Spike the Bulldog with bike horns on his feet. Same with the one with the escaped circus seal, where Tom dresses up as a seal to try to catch the little runaway
At times Tom and Jerry reached genius level – like Mouse In Manhattan, a Gershwin-infused score as Jerry runs away to the big city, or The Cat Concerto, where Tom’s big classical concert in the Hollywood Bowl is foiled by that pesky mouse. No wonder the latter won an Oscar.
Case of diminishing returns
Sadly, Tom and Jerry was a case of diminishing returns. The hallmark of quality was when you saw “directed by Fred Quimby” and “music by Scott Bradley” in the titles. After that the shine came off, and vanished altogether when it was being made in Czechoslovakia. The animation was appalling, the duo lost their charm and it was all just weird.
Was it violent? Well, the Itchy and Scratchy parody in The Simpsons says it all. But the clue is in the term “cartoon violence”. These days it’s the racism of early Tom and Jerry that has me reaching for the off button. Very much “of its day”.
As for today’s cartoons? Well, there are lots of them for all manner of tastes, aren’t there?
My kids grew up with the Rugrats and Spongebob, morphing into Rick and Morty – a series that has everything I should like, time travel, alternative realities, dark humour – but it just doesn’t land for me.
So on those dismal snowy days when you want to just sit in the house and watch cartoons, I’ll might just have to take a trip back to my childhood with a bit of Top Cat. He’s the boss.