A few months’ time will mark the 25th anniversary of the end of one of my favorite childhood TV series, Count Duckula, which ran on ITV and Nickelodeon from 1989 to 1993. The Cosgrove Hall production was a spinoff of the popular Danger Mouse series, but for me it was the funnier and more informative series. It was my first exposure to British humor, and also to many of the tropes of imperialist science fiction, fantasy, and Gothic horror, setting the stage for many of my later interests. It also featured a magnificent art style that was also highly influential on my own art style
I was only eight years old when Nickelodeon commissioned Count Duckula as a companion piece to reruns of Danger Mouse, which had been a major hit for the network since the channel imported the show in 1984. Duckula was its first Anglo-American coproduction, and it featured a predominantly British cast and writing team, a Spanish animation team, and one American-accented character, the Count himself (though portrayed by English action David Jason), to appeal to American audiences. Reportedly, a Nickelodeon executive had seen a drawing of Duckula from his appearance on Danger Mouse and decided then and there that he would be the star of their new show.
On Danger Mouse, Duckula was a vampire duck with delusions of grandeur, foiled in his attempt to become a movie star by the fact that vampires can’t be caught on film. His appearance was brief and memorable, but not the kind of character that could carry a series meant for kids. In the course of adapting him for his own series, the production team softened him considerably, turning him into a vegetarian vampire, the result of a faulty mad science experiment that led to a flawed resurrection when his faithful retainers Igor and Nanny accidentally substituted ketchup for blood.
Count Duckula drew on a wide range of mostly public domain influences, and most of these revolved around Victorian fantasy, adventure, mystery, and horror tropes. Episodes featured parodies of Tarzan and the Frankenstein monster, the Phantom of Opera and, above all, Dracula. While Duckula himself represented the impetuous American teenager, vain and consumed with materialism and entertainment, he was matched by family retainer Igor (voiced by Jack May), who represented the Gothic tradition in all its horrific glory. When I was a kid, I of course identified with Duckula, but as I have grown older, I find that I am more inclined to side with the tradition-bound, world-weary Igor (minus the bloodletting and torture, of course).
The series’ first episode set the stage for what would follow, sending Duckula and his crew to Egypt, where they enter a pyramid in search of an ancient and mystical saxophone that Duckula thinks will make him famous. The very British humor of the episode offers an Anglophile version of the famous “Who’s on First” bit with Duckula and some immortal Egyptian retainers confusing one another as “Hu-Mite” and “U-Bee” try to find out “Who might you be?” Notable, though, is the use the episode made of the tropes of Victorian adventure fiction and early twentieth century mummy movies, with the elaborate maze of rooms within the pyramid, the death traps therein, and the curse of the pharaohs. These are the elements of Victorian fantasy, not reality.
Count Duckula also taught me about the familiar elements of Victorian adventure, notably the imperial assumption that civilization, as represented by British men, and Empire span the world and sit uneasily atop the wild and the native. I encountered very proper gentlemen taking tea in pith helmets in some outrageous African jungle, and aristocrats with stately homes in the far reaches of the Arctic. Libraries, opera houses, European capitals—all the hallmarks of a certain type of masculine adventure that fell out of fashion a century ago. The old British Empire was played for laughs, but it is testament to the enduring influence of Victorian fiction that its tropes are at once so familiar and so powerful, even in jest. By the time I was old enough to read the original stories, they were already familiar from the jokey version, as filtered through a distinctly British set of influences, namely the Hammer Horror films that inform many of the plot themes throughout the series.
But just as importantly, Count Duckula also introduced me to the tropes of science fiction, with episodes dedicated to Atlantis, time travel, space exploration, and mad science. It served as a primer for the various genre works I would soon read in their original form, from Mary Shelley to Jules Verne, and from Tarzan of the Apes to The Prisoner of Zenda. Add to that cryptozoology including the Loch Ness monster and the Yeti, and basically it covered pretty much everything you find on modern cable “documentaries,” but in a way that made clear that these were elements of a fantasy universe, one where ducks talk and there are places with weird names like Cluj. I kid. I only learned as an adult that Cluj is an actual city in Transylvania, the former Austro-Hungarian Klausenburg / Kolozsvár.
The show’s artistic masterpiece is Castle Duckula, the Count’s monumental ancestral seat, equal parts English stately home and Universal Horror vampire castle. The entrance hall is modeled on Universal’s Dracula, but the décor in much of the rest of the ramshackle castle is bizarrely Georgian, with Victorian accents. It heavily influenced my idea of what a castle should look like, and sadly it has meant that most other castles fail to measure up. In the cartoon, the castle could teleport around the world for 24 hours at a time, providing the impetus for the show’s globe-spanning adventures.
I could go on about my favorite Duckula episodes and jokes and gags, but to do so would ruin the fun of watching them, and what astonished me in watching the show again as an adult is how sophisticated it was for a kid’s show on what was then an obscure cable channel. It holds up remarkably well, a few outdated ’80s references and a marked decline in the last batch of episodes aside. It is genuinely good as a cartoon for adults, and not just good in the way parents tolerate halfway decent kiddie fare.
Count Duckula was canceled after its third series, but it never had a series finale. Instead, the story of Duckula continued in a short-lived comic book series, and, for strange reasons of scheduling the dénouement occurred not on Duckula but on its own spinoff series, Victor & Hugo four months before the parent series ended. Because the spinoff never aired in America, I was blissfully unaware of sad, miserable ending the Cosgrove Hall team concocted for Duckula. In a pair of episodes, Victor & Hugo revealed that Igor had grown sick of the Count’s globe-trotting adventures and refused to participate any longer, while in a second episode revealed that Duckula had sold Castle Duckula and abandoned his lifelong nanny, Nanny, to live out a miserable existence in the castle attic. The only saving grace is that the castle teleported itself back to Transylvania to restore the status quo, though following the rules laid out in Count Duckula, the plot made no logical sense.
Duckula, or a version of him, returned in the recent Netflix Danger Mouse revival, but I have not seen it.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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