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The dark shadow cast by Rainbow’s Zippy

Rainbow’s complicated Zippy wore his boastful persona as a suit of armour against the feeling he didn’t deserve love, writes Sam Delaney.

Someone recently sent me a YouTube clip entitled ‘Zippy being An Asshole For Five Minutes’. It was sent by a stranger on social media. They didn’t explain why they’d sent it but I’m glad they did.

People who grew up watching Rainbow often like to look back on it with a wry take on the peculiarities of the show. They chuckle about the hidden innuendos and speculate ironically about the sexual proclivities of the main cast: Geoffrey and his puppet harem; George, the camp neurotic struggling with his own desires; Bungle the bear, striding about on his hind legs with a sexual boldness that verges on the sinister.

Yes, yes. Ha ha. Rainbow – like so many weird shows created for kids in the 70s and 80s– can have its meaning twisted by clever-clogs grown-ups with too much time on their hands.

But all of that misses the real point of Rainbow. Because there really was something deep and meaningful hidden beneath the sugary veneer of afternoon children’s entertainment. But it wasn’t a sexual subtext. It was a detailed and powerful character study of one of the most complex and richly textured characters in the history of television: Zippy.

Zippy is a creature of indeterminate species, with great big unblinking eyes, no nose and a zip for a mouth. He lives with the human Geoffrey plus his puppet friends George (a hippo) and Bungle in what appears to be an ordinary suburban home. While his housemates are naive yet personable, Zippy is conflicted, highly strung, volatile and wildly egocentric. He is loved by the other three unconditionally despite his infuriating antics. Zippy ruins games, shouts over people, sometimes steals and imposes his own emotional state – good or bad – on to every single situation in the house. Zippy wants and needs everything to be about him.

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I could watch this show forever and still never fully understand Zippy

He veers from one emotional extreme to another in almost every single episode of Rainbow. After watching the aforementioned five-minute Zippy supercut, I fell down a rabbit hole and watched numerous episodes, tracing the evolving psychodrama that played out in the Rainbow house between 1972 and 1992.

In one episode, Zippy has the measles. Tucked up in bed, covered in big red spots, he is consumed by self-pity. He is, as always, hungry for love, validation and acknowledgement from his friends. But when they visit him to express their sympathy and offer him kindness, he drives them away with hostility and anger. Why? They’re not to blame. But Zippy can’t help it. Perhaps he struggles to accept love because, deep down, he feels as if he is not worthy of it.

Zippy does have kindness within him; he demonstrates love and affection for his friends in flashes before retreating into a boastful, larger than life persona that he wears like a suit of armour.

I could watch this show forever and still never fully understand Zippy. That’s what makes him so special. Nuanced, complicated and multifaceted: we might not know what sort of animal Zippy is actually supposed to be but, in his soul, he couldn’t be more authentically human.

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