Electronic Telegraph, 17/04/2001

Email from Russia

From Marcus Warren in Moscow, exclusively for Electronic Telegraph
(Filed: 17/04/2001)

BACK in the USSR even bedtime was a chance for the state to instil a sense of discipline in its toddler citizens. Parents might plead with their children to go to bed in vain. But when the state, in the guise of a puppet TV piglet, wished them "Good Night, Little Ones" generations of Soviet boys and girls obediently repaired to the bedroom.

The opening title sequence from Turn the Lights Out

Khryun Morzhov [left] and Stepan Cabbage

The three friends discussing the great issues of the day in their old NTV studio, [from left] Khryun Morzhov. Lev Novozhenov and Stepan Cabbage

Khryusha ("Little Oink") and his friends have filled the slot before the main evening news for 30 years or so and are still going strong. There was a brief period while the Soviet Union collapsed when it looked as though the pig was for the chop, condemned to make way for what was termed "more contemporary programming" (ie western imports).

Thankfully, the puppets survived. "Good Night, Little Ones" also features a goody goody bunny rabbit called Stepasha, a dog and a raven. But the real star has always been Khryusha. "He's a little imp, a little hooligan, but he always repents in complete sincerity," his creator told me when the programme was at risk of being shelved a decade ago.

Peter Pans of the animal kingdom, the puppets never grew old. At least, they remained their delightful, innocent selves until some inspired satirists decided recently to bring the characters up to date.

Many years have passed. From good natured mischievous child, Khryusha has turned into a loud mouthed lout with gaps in his teeth, a male chauvinist pig (of course) and, in a word, a swine. No wonder hundreds of Russian women believe the new Khryusha to be modelled on their husband.

His sidekick with the Bugs Bunny voice is Stepasha. A goody goody in childhood, the rabbit has metamorphosed into that Russian phenomenon of the cowardly liberal intellectual, "an appeaser and conformist" in the words of the human referee who tries to keep the peace between the two animals, Lev Novozhenov.

Four nights a week all three of them discuss the pressing issues of the moment in a parody of both the chat show and the kitchen table debates which, in Russia's past, were the only safe forum for speaking one's mind.

No disrespect intended to "Kukly", the local version of "Spitting Image", but, for my money, "Turn the Lights Off" is the funniest satire show on Russian television. Broadcast for less than a year, the programme is already more than cult viewing. It is a phenomenon, with the pig's catchphrase "Impressive" now firmly embedded in the language.

Once again the star is Khryusha, known in his adult incarnation as Khryun Morzhov (an obscene pun that only Russian speakers will appreciate). As a symbol of Everyman, he is up there with the Good Soldier Schweik, Sancho Panza and Dickens' Sam Weller. ("He has never heard of any of them", quipped Vladimir Nekhlyudov, one of his creators.)

And yet Khryun needs both a straight man in Mr Novozhenov and the specifically Russian figure of Stepasha, now Stepan Cabbage, representative of the dithering, snivelling educated classes, to feed off.

Thus, the rabbit, as predictable as always, argues that the Bolshoi Ballet projects a positive image of Russia to the rest of the world. A misleading one, snorts Khryun, "as it makes out that our women are attractive, graceful and never open their mouths".

No one is safe from their barbs. And, having four legs rather than two, they get away with jokes that few human beings would dare tell in public, at least not on national TV. The punchline at the end of the edition marking President Putin's first year in office was typical. Another joke for Russian speakers, it left unanswered the question: who has more balls, Napoleon or the Russian president? (Stepan was suitably scandalised.)

A devoted fan, I spent several hours last week following a day in the life of "Turn the Lights Off". A race against an evening deadline, the script is written, Mr Novozhenov filmed in an empty studio, the dialogue recorded and Khryun and Stepan added all in a hectic 36 hour cycle.

(On the day I dropped in, the special guest commenting on the fate of the US airmen on Hainan was a dusky female cat with an American accent called Mona Lisa Price.)

At first glance, the beasts who appear on the show look computer generated. In fact Pilot TV, the programme's maker and an animation world leader, uses a technique of its own. Humans in special suits wired to a computer control the characters' body movements and facial expressions, the latter created by a multi-dexterous actor using both hands and both feet to manipulate a pair of gloves and a special pedal and joystick.

"Turn the Lights Off" has received popular and critical acclaim but morale at Pilot's offices and the Ostankino TV centre where the programme is put together was low when I visited last week. It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Russian media that Khryun and Stepan went out on NTV, the commercial station at the centre of an ugly dispute between journalists and new management backed by the Kremlin.

"NTV is the best TV company in Russia," said Mr Novozhenov, an avuncular former journalist, once hailed as a classic of popular television. "This programme could only have been born on NTV, although I suppose it could die a death on another channel."

Only NTV would allow "Turn the Lights Off" complete creative freedom, the team agreed. Even if state-controlled channels did commission so subversive a programme, which is highly unlikely, they would try to dictate who could be lampooned and how, the writers said.

Now Mr Novozhenov's words are to be put to the test. I bumped into him and his crew again over the weekend, this time in the crowded corridors of another station, TNT. This was the second-tier channel which gave asylum to dozens of NTV staff who walked out on Saturday when the new management took control of their station.

"I just don't see how we can do Monday's programme on NTV," Lev admitted over some vodka later in the Ostankino canteen. "What would the script say? Khryun: 'the bastards have taken over NTV'. Me: 'the bastards have taken over NTV'. And Stepan: 'yes, but we have to start a dialogue with them' It would be absurd."

Late last night they were due to make their debut on their new channel and at the time of writing the nation was waiting impatiently to see its heroes in their new format. This much I can reveal. Deprived of their spacious, state-of-the-art studio, the friends have had no option but to retreat to the site of so many passionate, private arguments in Soviet times - the kitchen.