Story Pile: Orson & Olivia

A recent conversation on twitter kicked around with the question of ‘hey, do you remember a television program that it seems nobody else remembers?’ and that led to a lot of people sharing the ways that television, for all that it’s this heavily documented and mass produced resource that feels infinitely replicated in our streaming now, is still a massive sprawling media space of things that didn’t necessarily stick to the culture at large. Of course, there are always some people who remember everything. The people who made works are often the people who will always stand by and recognise the part they had in the place of things.

For example, Orson and Olivia is remembered, at the least, because of the voice actors.

Orson and Olivia is a 1994 cartoon series about a group of orphans that live in Victorian-era England. And I mean Victorian, like, Queen Victoria is in the opening and appears in multiple episodes, because the kids interact with her (kinda). Then again, the opening also includes other things from the series, like the regular appearances of one Sherlock Holmes, a man who listens to the kids and uses the information they bring him to solve problems. Don’t worry, he’s not in every episode. Something of an irregular appearance.

Anyway, it’s weird because it’s this kind of fantasy offering to kids. See, Orson and Olivia don’t have to go to school – they get to run around London all day, and there’s no parents around to boss them around. They have a dog, they have their friends and they get to find new and interesting things to do all day. Oh and they make a living by just catching rats, with their dog and a little wooden cage, which they comically hand over in exchange for cash money bills. One of their friends sells newspapers! And they time to time wander through the park and watch rich people doing things, which is the most fun thing in the world.

Yeah, no really, this is a funny comedy series about homeless ratcatcher orphans eking out a subsistence existence in the one of the worst sets of living conditions that white people could have in the British Empire. For kids! And it’s so… wholesome and fun? Like, the story isn’t exactly bursting at all seams with what a great life it is to be like this, but despite it being about poor and deprived people, everything in it is quietly sanitised in its projection, while not sanitised in its material.

Like… they’re rat catchers. They catch rats, you know. They just put them in a box and sell that box to an off-screen character, and like, that’s kind of a thing that happened, but rat catchers would keep a cage of rats to show what they were doing as a job, and then the rest of the time they were collecting rat corpses to show the job they were doing destroying stuff. That means that Orson and Olivia wants to show off this idea of hey, people were rat catchers, but then and it was pretty okay. You know, it wasn’t like they were literally crawling under houses and killing sick rats with a stick.

But then it swings back the other way, with things like ‘wow, Suffragettes were kinda assholes’ and ‘we need to put this noble on suicide watch because she’s heartbroken’ or ‘well no, girls can’t actually say they like people.’ Just this weird mix of horrifying realism reflecting the actual miserable, hateful values of the period filtered through a jovial tone that made it all a jolly pasttime to go and collect rats covered in poo to make enough pennies to live in your filthy boat because these kids are absolutely going to die soon.

That in the opening? Yeah, that’s actually Sherlock Holmes. These kids are part of the Irregulars. They also interact with Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, and Lewis Caroll. Hey, maybe that’s their route out of poverty? Maybe they’re not doomed to live out the lives of rat-catchers in a period of history where people of their class typically died before the age of ten.

Nope!

Despite that intersection with the wealthy and landed, these kids still end the series living on a punt in the river. They’re going to live there as long as they can, even while Olivia has her daily nightmares, giving visions of the trauma of the world around her, every single day. They’re going to take every day they can, doing work for Sherlock Holmes as he addresses the crimes of nobles and not at all the crime that these children live under a tarp on a board in a river full of scum. They’re going to last until they don’t any more, Orson bald but for two hairs and it not seeming in the slightest bit strange, because who knows what chemicals he’s had to swim through?

Orson and Olivia has only 30 episodes, and the entire idea of them is just really weird. I can’t imagine who in 1994 thought that it was time to take the Victorian Suffragettes down a peg for being assholes, but I bet he’s into NFTs now.

Anyway, Olivia was one of the first voice roles of Karen Strassman, fantastically prolific voice actress and the current voice of Rouge The Bat.

Never underestimate the archival capacity of the Sonic fandom.

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