The Lion and Bear – a masterpiece in horror without even trying

The lion and the bear

The lion and the bear

Teletubbies was a children’s TV show that originally aired on BBC 2 from 1997-2001 based around four multi-coloured bear-like creatures with televisions in their stomachs that do…… erm, stuff? Having been born the same year that the show aired Teletubbies was one of the first shows I really became familiar with. As I watched the show when I was very young there’s very little I remember about the show as a whole, except for one episode, one episode that I could never truly forget: the infamous Lion and Bear sketch. This sketch first aired on British television during 14th episode of the show titled See-Saw on the 14th April 1997 and repeatedly gave me nightmares throughout the early stages of my life. This sketch was in fact so controversial that it was actually banned in 1999 after being deemed too inappropriate for children. Despite the trauma that this episode caused me and many other children of the time, I hadn’t thought about the Lion and Bear for many years until I unearthed the clip on YouTube about 2 years ago. Upon re-watching this sketch at a much older age, I have a very dif

ferent perspective on the Lion and Bear. Whilst attempting to make something entertaining for children, the writers of Teletubbies might have accidently made what could be the greatest horror film of all time.

If you’re an adult watching the Lion and Bear for the first time you probably don’t see what the fuss is all about, that’s because when watching this sketch it’s important to put yourself in the mind of a child, as it’s the kind of horror that only a child can really comprehend. What makes this sketch scary is it’s hard to distinguish what appears to be real in the sketch (in the context of the show) to what isn’t. Let’s face it, a lot of what is scary to a child often isn’t particularly scary to an adult, mostly because adults have a much clearer understanding of what is real in comparison to a child, where everything is much more ambiguous and your imagination can much more easily run away with you. At some point in your life you’ve probably heard of the uncanny valley, so what is it? When something resembles a real, life-like entity (usually an animal-like or humanoid figure) on a surface level but lacks the subtleties to be completely considered real or truly “alive”, this phenomenon can be unsettling and scary to some people. This is why mannequins and porcelain dolls are often a common trope in horror as they evoke this feeling of the uncanny valley. Take the lion and the bear in this particular Teletubbies sketch; they both appear to be living, possess some kind of consciousness and have human voices, but they lack the subtleties in order to be completely considered truly alive or realistic. This is mostly because of their stiff, unnatural movements, the speed at which they move and their unblinking eyes. The lion and the bear are neither alive nor dead, but appear exist in some hypothetical realm in-between the two states. This is what makes them seem scary as they are both a complete unknown entity. What also enhances the uncanny quality of the sketch is that both the lion and the bear move at incredibly high speeds in an unnatural manor, an effect which is created by accelerating the standard real-time footage of the creatures moving. This effect is incredibly obvious to anyone playing close attention to the sketch, which only makes the whole thing seem even more unnatural and uncanny that it already is. This is probably why I used to have nightmares of the bear chasing me when I was a child, as it could theoretically chase me to the ends of the Earth without very little effort. What also doesn’t help is that the bear has the ability to teleport to wherever it pleases, emphasised at the beginning where the bear pops in and out from behind the hills, meaning that it could theoretically stalk you wherever you go. There’s no escape from the Lion and Bear.

Proof that God isn't real

Proof that God isn’t real

There are many other oddities present within this sketch. For example, the high speed effect is used once again in a segment in the sketch where the lion is first introduced. When it first enters the scene, it roars multiple times over speeded-up footage of the sky moving quickly. This scene suggests that the lion’s roar is so powerful that it effects the rotation of the Earth itself, causing it to spin faster. I imagine the intention of this scene was to build up the lion as somewhat of a threat but it works far too well. Instead of a “big scary lion with big scary teeth”, we witness a creature that is so powerful that it is able to control the forces of nature as well as alter the passage of time. The overall cinematography is a curious choice as well. Everything is very vague and obscure, making it hard to tell where everything is in relation to everything else. All the shots seem very disconnected from each other with no real continuity, creating an even greater sense of ambiguity throughout the sketch. This style of cinematography actually reminds me of some of Maya Deren’s work such as At Land or Meshes of the Afternoon, where throughout clever editing techniques the scenes are cut and arranged in a way to create and illogical and deliberately inconsistent space and time, similar to that of a dream. The voices are pretty unsettling as well, in fact Penelope Keith’s voice of the bear still haunts me to this day. The music is also far too dark and sinister for a children’s programme, which only further goes to show how poorly the writers of this sketch understood their target audience. Easily the most controversial part however was the chase sequence that plays at the end where the lion chases the bear off into the distance. During this part of the sketch, all the obscurities of the Lion and Bear blend together to create one complete nightmare sequence. The kind of tone that this creates make me question what is actually going on here. Why is the lion chasing the bear? Their motives are not clearly established. One could assume that the lion wants to eat the bear, but since they are both bizarre animatronic creatures it’s unlikely that they need to eat. I imagine that the intention of the writers was to show them playing a game of tag, but throughout all this obscurity I can only assume that the lion wants to drag the bear into its pocket dimension SCP-106 style, where it can torture the bear for all eternity. Some say that if you listen closely enough at night you can still hear the screams.

In the edited version of the sketch released in 2000, several changes were made to the Lion and Bear to make it more age appropriate. For example big changes were made to the overall cinematography of this sketch, which included extra scenes to make the shots seem less disconnected from each other than before. Perhaps the most notable changes however were to the sound design. As well as redone music and voices to create a much more child-friendly tone, new sound effects were added to the lion and the bear such as squeaking and scraping noises when they move their limbs and move across the screen. These sound effects were added to make the lion and the bear seem much more artificial and therefore less real, reducing the overall ambiguity of the sketch. Throughout all of these changes the edited re-release of the sketch is just annoying rather than absolutely horrifying. Arguably the greatest strength of the Lion and Bear (as a horror film and not a children’s show), is that it manages to be scary without really trying to be. This is likely just personal taste but I’ve often found unintentional horror can be more effective than intentional horror, as it allows the horror to come far more naturally because it isn’t trying to “force” a scare. This is probably why I always found the bear to be scarier than the lion, as the lion is deliberately depicted to be somewhat scary, whilst the bear is scary in ways that the writers of the show likely didn’t intend. The Lion and Bear is the kind of horror that can’t be created intentionally, only through completely misunderstanding your target audience can such a masterpiece be created. Although the sketch was an absolute failure as part of a children’s show, I think that the Lion and Bear could pave the way for a brand new kind of psychological horror never seen before.

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