I think my first encounter with a Smurf wasn’t with the comics or even the cartoon series, but with the little plastic figurines of the Smurfs that were given away as part of a promotion with a petrol garage. Wikipedia claims it was BP, but that’s only partly right. It was actually a chain of garages called National, which admittedly BP happened to own, but as far as the general public was concerned it was National. They even had a little musical slogan “you’ll get service with a Smurf“. Thanks to Kitty’s Cavern for clearing this one up for me.
There obviously wasn’t a National garage close to us though, as I remember we only had a couple of the freebie Smurf toys. My sister had a Smurfette one, and I remember having a Smurf that was black instead of blue. It always puzzled me at the time why he was black, but in this case I have to thank Wikipedia for putting my mind at rest, as the black Smurf was actually a blue Smurf who was bitten by a fly and went a little insane. He was the central plot for one of the Smurf comics.
Before National used Smurfs as a promotional aid though, I had never heard of them, despite the fact they were actually created way back in 1958 by Belgian cartoonist Peyo. Whilst they are known in Belgium as De Smurfen, which is where the English name for them comes from, they were first given a French name, Les Schtroumpfs.
This odd name came from Peyo asking a French friend to pass him the salt at a meal, but he had forgotten what the French word for salt was, so said “pass me the schtroumpf” instead. This led to Peyo and his friend continuing their conversation substituting the word schtroumpf in place of other words, thus inventing the manner in which the Smurfs tend to speak, substituting the word Smurf for other verbs and nouns. Whilst you could normally work out what they were saying from context, “I’m smurfing my smurf to the smurf” could mean anything really.
The Smurfs are of course little blue creatures who run around wearing funny little pointy white hats and white trousers (which appear to encompass the feet as well). Many of the Smurfs add to this ensemble to reflect their character, such as Brainy Smurf wearing trousers, or Smurf elder Papa Smurf having a beard and wearing red instead of blue.
Quite how the race has survived so long is a bit of a mystery given there appear to be no female Smurfs. OK, Smurfette is quite obviously female, but she isn’t actually a true Smurf, as she was actually created by Gargamel the wizard, the Smurf’s main enemy who was always trying to eradicate them, eat them or, bizarrely, turn them into gold…
In 1981 Hanna Barbera created a cartoon version of The Smurfs, and I certainly remember enjoying watching it. As with most TV shows from my youth it had an infectious theme tune (Laaaa-laaaa-le-laa-laa-laaaa, laaaa-le-la-la-laaaaa, come on you remember it, and I bet you’ll be singing it now after reading this).
So popular was The Smurfs cartoon that it ran until 1989 and notched up an impressive 256 episodes, containing over 400 individual stories.
At the time of writing, there is also a live action/CGI mix Smurfs film in the works, due for release in the second half of 2011.