Count Duckula is that rarest of children’s artifacts, unassociated with a toy line or massive advertising campaign. It’s also remarkably witty, to the point of seeming anachronistic (and yes, the cartoon is almost two decades old now). That it couldn’t possibly have been made in the United States goes without saying. It is a thoroughly British production, by the same studio that produced the fondly remembered Dangermouse.
I remember liking the series when it originally came to U.S. TV—back when Nickelodeon ran a good many “foreign” cartoons—but had no clue how well it would hold up. To my great surprise, rediscovering the series on DVD has been a singular delight. Even given the unadorned nature of the set (the only bonus feature is a brief interview with the series’ creators), this release is completely satisfying. This suggests that British children are much smarter than their U.S. counterparts, or American studios consistently underestimate their audiences. I can’t say which is more depressing.
The titular Count (voiced by David Jason) is a vampire duck, the latest in a long line of blood-sucking fowl from the mountains of Transylvania. Except he’s not, due to a slight error in the arcane ceremony that spawned him. He’s a steadfast vegetarian. Attended by Igor (Jack May), a centuries-old family manservant who wishes nothing more than to steer the Count towards the family tradition of ghoulish villainy. Their nuclear family is completed by Nanny (Brian Trueman).
Despite the sheen of ostensible family-friendly cartoon antics, the series consistently hinges on the trio’s passive-aggressive loathing for one another. Certainly, Nanny loves “Ducky-Boos” unreservedly, but both Duckula and Igor regard her as a moron (which she is). Igor and Duckula are forever at cross-purposes, and the constant stream of deprecating one-liners between them frequently crosses from drollery into outright hostility. Each acts as a foil for the others. Duckula is essentially well-intentioned (and often oblivious to the results of his own buffoonish actions), but he can also be petty, short-sighted, and, as the season progresses, increasingly sarcastic.
I am certain that only a small percentage of the American audience originally appreciated the barrage of imprecations aimed at the British class system. The classic dynamic of the foolish master and the longsuffering domestic (see: Wodehouse, P.G.) is buffered here by the fact that while Duckula can sometimes be endearingly naïve, Igor is also a scoundrel and murderous ghoul.
The “Rent a Butler” episode, for instance, features Duckula hiring out Igor and Nanny to a Nouveau Riche couple (literally, that’s their name), with predictable consequences. Duckula sees only the profits to be made by renting out his domestics, without wondering who will feed him; meanwhile, Igor and Nanny are left to fend for themselves in a distorted fantasy of upper-class, Thatcherite-yuppie life. Why, their new masters wonder, is Igor so obsessed with blood-drenched food? “Dear Diary” even features Igor and Nanny selling their tell-all diaries to the media. The juicy memoirs of “downstairs servants” reveal the foibles of the supposed “master class,” even when the employer is a hapless vampire mallard.
The series also attends cleverly to the macabre, enough to startle anyone who may be used to the leveling machinations of American standards and practices departments, who insure that most children’s cartoons are scrubbed free of any hint of malevolence. Even given the violence of today’s Saturday morning cartoons, Duckula‘s lingering on the process of ramming a stake through the heart of a blood-drinker seems wicked. This as the ancestral nemesis of the Duckulas, Dr. von Goosewing (Jimmy Hibbert), repeatedly attempts to shoot a wooden stake through the Count’s heart (he doesn’t succeed, obviously, but not for lack of trying).
Such violence is regularly mediated and contextualized by crisp writing. It’s a rare episode that doesn’t contain some sort of Abbot and Costello-esque “Who’s On First?” routine. The “Who might you be?” exchange in “No Sax Please, We’re Egyptian” is particularly pleasing (or cringe-inducing, depending on your constitution). The excellent “Mutinous Penguins” features a high seas adventure that combines penguins, frozen Vikings, Wagnerian Valkyries, and an unexpected submarine expedition. As this description might imply, Duckula shares a lineage with the greatest British situation comedies (appropriately, there’s even a Fawlty Towers homage in “Hardluck Hotel”). The writers throw a dozen balls into the air to see them come crashing down on top of one another. When Duckula is firing on all cylinders, it achieves irresistible velocity.