Timm Thaler

Well, I stop posting for a bit and the blog’s hit rate increases dramatically. Perhaps you prefer it when I’m not here. I think it’s actually because Benjamin Grosvenor has been in the news. There’s a super interview with him here in case any pianophiles are interested. I think the thing I like most about Grosvenor’s approach to performance is his great appetite for learning from the pianists of the past. I would feel the same way if only I could play the piano well enough for it to matter. Anyway, on with the show.

One of the good things about going abroad is that it always prompts me to do things that I feel I ought to do regularly but normally fail to, namely watching films and reading books in foreign languages. I’m off to spend a week in Cologne very soon, and have been dipping into a book of Ostfriesenwitze (East Frisian jokes) in preparation. The East Frisians are the Irish of German culture, a perennial butt of jokes. They are big drinkers of tea, which perhaps marks them out as odd. Sample Witz, with my translation:

F. Warum haben die Ostfriesen einen Knoten im Penis?
A. Damit sie das Pissen nicht vergessen.

Q. Why did the East Frisian man tie a knot in his penis?
A. So he wouldn’t forget to piss!

I will also be taking some Böll and Mann in translation on holiday with me. I know how to have a good time. As far as watching films is concerned, I’ve seen a couple of desperately depressing Fassbinders recently, and also revisited Charlie Brown und seine Freunde, which is a tremendous film in any language; but most of my revision has consisted of watching the 1979 ZDF TV series Timm Thaler, based on the 1962 novel of the same name by James Krüss. The series was broadcast in a dubbed version on CBBC in the late 1980s, renamed The Legend of Tim Tyler, which is where I first encountered it.

Timm Thaler, die Hauptperson unserer Geschichte, hat sein Lachen an den mächtigsten Mann der Welt verkauft, den Baron. Zugegeben, für einen fantastischen Preis. Timm Thaler gewinnt jede Wette, und sei sie noch so ausgefallen. Doch, dann merkte er, daß sein Lachen sein kostbarster Besitz war. Er will es wiederhaben.

These are the words that open nearly every episode. For the benefit of those who do not speak German, permit me to explain. 13-year-old Timm is approached by a mysterious stranger, the Baron. The Baron is the most powerful man in the world, but his business interests are suffering because his inability to laugh inhibits him from forming alliances with other powerful businessmen. He proposes to buy Timm’s laugh, in exchange for which he will provide Timm with the ability to win any bet. Timm is in a pickle. His father has just died, and his mother has been saddled with an expensive mortgage to pay off. Timm consents to the Baron’s offer, and proceeds to amass a pile of money, but he comes to realise that a life bereft of smiling and laughter is no life at all, and sets out to find the Baron and get his laugh back.

The Baron (Horst Frank) and Timm (Tommi Ohrner)

It’s a fun enough premise, but when it was on TV in my childhood I didn’t manage to stay with it past a couple of episodes, despite my good intentions. Hardly surprising. The first episode is superb, and ends with a chilling and brilliantly realised scene that on rewatching made me shiver. It writes a cheque that the remaining twelve episodes cannot cash. Thirteen episodes! It should have been four, maximum. Timm takes forever to work out the obvious solution – that he must make a bet that he can win his smile back. There is a scathing assessment of the UK version here. It’s hard to argue with many of its criticisms, and there’s no doubt that the dubbing dulled the programme’s impact. It is more fondly remembered in Germany.

You can’t get hold of the programme in English now, so I was compelled to try out the German release. It’s undeniably overlong and rambling, and I lost interest as I waded through episode after episode devoid of plot development, but it benefits from not being dubbed, and there are at least a handful of excellent things about it. Firstly, Tommi Ohrner, who plays Timm, is greatly charismatic. He must have been the pin-up of every German tweenage girl in 1979, and might have been chosen to play Timm on the basis of his smile alone. Of course, he has to spend almost all of the series frowning, which must have been tricky. I imagine take after take having to be discarded because of accidental smiling.

Die Hauptperson unserer Geschichte, up to mischief

Even better is the late, lamented Horst Frank as the glassy-eyed Baron. Baron de Lefuet (try spelling it backwards, speakers of German) is basically a Bond villain, if a somewhat lacklustre one (think Drax rather than Blofeld). He has a futuristic lair, Lunopolis, built on the exotic volcanic island of Aravanadi, from which he is able to survey the movements of apparently everyone via his special video screen. He may not be the most malicious man in the world, but he’s certainly the most voyeuristic. The Baron is both stylish and irresistibly magnetic. One almost welcomes his purchase of Timm’s smile. It is marvellous to watch this heretofore humourless man practising his smile, and eventually mastering his own demonic brand of laughter.

The Baron, flanked by his bungling assistant Anatol (Richard Lauffen)

Everything comes back to music with me, doesn’t it? I’d forgotten it, but presumably what made me love this series in the first place (apart from an infantile crush on Tommi Ohrner) was Christian Bruhn’s score. The regular theme tune plays not at the start but at the end, and it is fabulous. The greatest TV theme tune ever? I tentatively suggest. For me it’s right up there with this and this and this. And this. Bruhn is presumably better known in Germany than elsewhere. His synthy score is mesmerising throughout, by turns atmospheric and knockabout. In some respects it’s not unlike the music that the immortal Roger Limb was writing for BBC children’s programmes around the same time. Take the incongruous but delectable tierce de Picardie at the end of the theme tune – it might have come straight out of Look and Read.

Anyway, all of this means that when I finally get to Germany I will know what to do if I am propositioned by an evil genius. If you fancy seeing what all the fuss is about, the first episode (auf Deutsch) can be watched here.

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