Have you ever, ever felt like this?
There was a belief once widely-held that children’s television programmes could only be enjoyed by their target demographic, with adult viewers gaining no pleasure from the experience. Recent years have seen this notion dispelled by numerous series that are ostensibly aimed at younger generations, yet have found a captive fanbase of grown-ups who delight in their every intricacy and nuance. This kind of entertainment remains a novelty in most parts of the world; but to Australians, it bears a striking similarity to a TV show of their own creation.
Round the Twist centres on the Twist family – consisting of widowed patriarch Tony, twin siblings Pete and Linda, and youngest son Bronson – who live near the town of Port Niranda on the Victorian coast. Their home is a disused lighthouse that overlooks the sea, where they benefit from the company of their neighbour Nell, a sage, firm woman whose family once operated the tower. Nell and Tony share a nemesis in Harold Gribble, a real-estate agent and aspiring politician who seeks to usurp the lighthouse for financial gain, and whose antagonistic traits are echoed by his only son James, a frequent tormentor of the Twist children.
But the Gribbles aren’t the only problem encountered in Port Niranda, for across four series of Round the Twist, the town is frequently afflicted by otherworldly occurrences. In each episode, the Twist children must contend with a supernatural being or phenomenon that serves as the primary source of conflict, such as a magical pair of underpants that grants the wearer the gift of speed; a machine that allows the user to age or de-age at will; an old radio that doubles as a time machine; and a rare fish that, when swallowed, turns a certain part of the male anatomy into a propellor. (And remember, this is just a sample of the weirdness that Round the Twist has to offer!)
In addition to these self-contained stories, there is always an overarching narrative brought to a head in the finale of a season, with the episodes prior offering subtle hints as to what awaits. In the first series, an ethereal melody heard in the lighthouse is the recurring mystery; in the second, it’s the presence of two ghosts who offer commentary on the family’s shenanigans; in the third, it’s the problems associated with a large book of love poems; and in the fourth, it’s a medieval knight who communicates through the lighthouse’s walls.
Round the Twist initially took inspiration from the works of Australian author Paul Jennings, whose collections of Roald Dahl-esque short stories had proven popular with younger readers – episodes in the first two series are virtually direct adaptations of Jennings’ stories, with the location and characters being substituted for those in the programme. Although he had a good working relationship with co-screenwriter Esben Storm (who also acted in the show as Mr Snapper) and producer Patricia Edgar, Jennings chose not to continue with a third season, leaving Storm and Edgar to go it alone.
The lack of input from Jennings is clear to see in Series Three and Four, which are of a lesser quality than their predecessors since, while there are instances of outright lunacy (such as the aforementioned Whirly Willy episode), most of the stories are short on the wit and zaniness synonymous with the Jennings-penned tales. Additionally, many of the actors behave more like caricatures, heavily exaggerating the more peculiar traits of their personalities at the expense of subtlety and restraint, thereby ridding the characters of their tenderness – but thankfully retaining their charm.
On the subject of characters, it’s worth noting that Round the Twist went through plenty of cast changes over its four-season, twelve-year run, with the child actors replaced between the first two series, and all but two characters being recast for the third. Of the entire ensemble, it is Mark Mitchell who proves most endearing, having played Mr Gribble in the second, third and fourth series with an energy seldom witnessed on Australian TV – unlike the first series’ Frankie J. Holden, who crafted a clean-cut image, Mitchell uses his rubbery face and surprisingly fluid body to make Gribble look delightfully buffoonish.
Given Mitchell’s performance and the absurd nature the stories, one might be inclined to believe that Round the Twist is a vehicle of unbridled, unrepenting wackiness; but to make such a claim would be doing the show a huge disservice, since it is more composed than that. For every instance of lunacy that occurs in an episode, there is a sedate, sombre or heartfelt moment to allow a respite, striking a balance that ensures viewers aren’t left alienated by proceedings. The live-action setting also proves beneficial in this regard, guaranteeing that even the most surreal tales are always grounded in reality.
It’s thanks to these numerous virtues that Round the Twist has endured in the public consciousness, and demonstrated a longevity that is yet to be matched by its contemporaries. Since the Series Four finale aired in May 2001, there has not been a natural successor to fill the void left by the programme, nor has any network produced an equal for it to be associated with – a fact even the ABC is wary of, having simply rebroadcast the older episodes in lieu of commissioning a fifth series, despite the show’s everlasting popularity.
There are series that come close to emulating that magic, with the Eighties pastiche Stranger Things being an oft-cited example, owing to the prominence of a young cast and supernatural elements – comparisons that Netflix itself has been only too keen to draw. Yet in the eyes of this author, a closer approximation would be the animated series Gravity Falls, since both shows have fraternal twins in lead roles; narratives that combine facets of the mystery, fantasy and science-fiction genres; a lot of humour that goes over kids’ heads; and numerous, cleverly-placed clues that point to a larger, future conflict for the protagonists to face.
As uncanny as these resemblances seem, there is unfortunately no evidence to suggest that Round the Twist had a direct influence on Gravity Falls, nor any on Strangers Things, but the programme did have an impact on something that is arguably more important: the Australian psyche. Even today, three decades after the first series aired on the Seven Network, children and adults alike will associate any lighthouse they see with the programme, fondly recall their favourite moments, and engage in impromptu acapella singalongs of the catchy main theme, as performed by Tamsin West, the original Linda Twist – feats that no other Antipodean series has been able to muster.
Those wanting to be part of this shared cultural experience will be thrilled to know that episodes of Round the Twist are readily available, having been released on DVD by numerous distributors, uploaded to YouTube for free viewing and, just this month, placed on Netflix’s Australian catalogue. Although the entire series is a delight, this author most strongly recommends watching the second series above all others, as it contains the best use of practical effects, best cast (pictured up top), best gags, best stories (all written by Jennings), and perfectly balances the silly with the sentimental.
Children’s TV shows don’t come any more special than Round the Twist, Australian or otherwise. It’s a programme that pushes the creative boundaries through its bizarre plot devices and eccentric characters, admirably doing so without ever descending into incomprehension, and gifts the viewer with so many memorable moments that it’s impossible not to be charmed. Truly, it’s one of the best things to ever be produced Down Under.
2 thoughts on “Round The Twist”
Hi, agree, but I say The Wayne Manifesto was a brilliant Aussie show – was hilarious, well acted and produced. My son has been trying to get some form of media to keep, dvd etc. Got the books for my other son. Yes agree lots of kids shows adults love, Wallace and Gromit also come to mind
Yes, ‘The Wayne Manifesto’ is another great show – and like ‘Round the Twist’, it also starred Jeffrey Walker!