Part Ten: “Proboscis Monkeys We”

By TJ Worthington

First published October 2006

On Wednesday 14 February 1973, a little-remembered series named In the Town was added to the Watch With Mother line-up. Produced in-house at the BBC, this was a set of seven documentaries – directed by Peter Wiltshire, filmed by Eddie Best and narrated by former voice of The Herbs, Gordon Rollings – about light industry in British towns. Among those profiled were a dairy in Stoke-On-Trent, a sawmill in High Wycombe and a bakery in Cupar, while one edition took a more general look around the New Town of Killingworth.

Although In the Town had much in common with the earlier documentary-based Watch With Mother shows Along the Seashore, Along the River, Along the Trail and On the Farm, the fact it examined modernity rather than the rural and traditional concerns of its stablemates marked a significant turning point. While there had been a trend towards depicting modern urban and industrial life in some recent Watch With Mother shows, this had always been within a narrative context, and In the Town set out simply to profile reality. While it would be fanciful to suggest this small scale series was some sort of progenitor of things to come, it nonetheless reflected a growing belief within the BBC Children’s department that both the title and the content of Watch With Mother were becoming increasingly out of step with the changing audience.

In the Town was just one of several attempts at introducing new ideas and production techniques into the format, other significant examples being Ragtime, Ring-a-Ding, and an animated series based on a hugely successful and distinctly modern set of children’s storybooks. Formerly creative director of an advertising firm, writer and illustrator, Roger Hargreaves had created the Mr Men after his young son had asked him what a “tickle” looked like.

In 1971 Mr Tickle became the first of over 46 Mr Men books, each dealing humorously with a different character with a unique physical or mental disposition. Some of these, such as Mr Mean or Mr Greedy, featured a personality who was initially unhappy with themselves before discovering their true worth. Others, like Mr Daydream and Mr Happy, simply went around spreading cheer, while, in a somewhat post-modern diversion, Mr Small grew tired of constantly being ignored due to his lack of stature, seeking out Roger Hargreaves and demanding he should have a book written about him.

Hargreaves initially balanced the expanding series with books featuring his other creations, John Mouse and Roundy & Squarey, but it was clear from the outset it was the Mr Men that had captured the public’s imagination. The distinctive, detailed and colourful illustrations were clearly going to lend themselves well to animation, and it did not take long before a television version of the Mr Men was under consideration. Eventually, Hargreaves – operating under the business banner “Mr Films” – came to an arrangement with Flicks Films, an animation house formed by director Terry Ward and producer Trevor Bond in 1972.

Ward and Bond were assisted by editor Jean Morrice and camera operators Bob Cheesman and Doug Weymouth, and were able to secure the services of Arthur Lowe as narrator. Now remembered primarily (and deservedly) for his role as Captain George Mainwaring in the long-running sitcom Dad’s Army, Lowe was a comic actor of great versatility whose screen credits included such diverse examples of humour as the slapstick silent comedy The Plank, the broad farce No Sex Please, We’re British, Spike Milligan’s surreal The Bed-Sitting Room and Lindsay Anderson’s bizarre horror/satire crossover, O! Lucky Man. He was particularly adept at playing a certain type of stuffy, pompous and frustrated middle class man with a tedious life – perhaps best exemplified by his lengthy stint as comic relief character Leonard Swindley in Coronation Street, and the later spinoff sitcoms Pardon the Expression and Turn Out the Lights. As such, his droll, dry voice was ideal for realising Hargreaves’ stories.

Equally well suited was the theme music provided by, as the end credits had it, “Mr” Joe Campbell and “Mr” Tony Hymas. A bittersweet melody given a simple but effective arrangement for woodwind and stand up bass, it is distinguished by its use of an unusual chord structure based around a major chord with a descending bass line, as also heard in such pop records as Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale, Oasis’ Whatever and Neil Innes’ How Sweet to be an Idiot, not to mention the works of JS Bach. Indeed, when Mojo magazine ran a feature on this chord pattern in the mid-1990s, they singled out the theme from The Mr Men as a particularly impressive use of it.

Campbell and Hymas would later write an entire album’s worth of Mr Men Songs (including a vocal version of the theme) for BBC Records and Tapes, and indeed would go on to enjoy distinguished musical careers, the former amassing a long list of screen credits that most famously includes the demented theme from the BBC detective series Rockliffe’s Babies, and the latter forming PhD with Jim Diamond before becoming a respected artist in the avant-garde jazz field.

An initial batch of 12 seven-minute adaptations of the original books were shown as part of Watch With Mother from Tuesday 31 December 1974, with “Mr Snow” held over until the following Christmas. A further 13 films were then made, but rather than broadcast in their own right, they were compiled into double episodes with the first batch, containing two stories bridged by a special linking section recorded by Lowe (“… What a lot of Mr Men there are”). These were shown continuously up to 1982, when they were again subjected to re-editing. Flicks Films had been intending to produce a series based on Timbuctoo, a new range of Hargreaves books about animal characters, but when this fell through they turned their attention instead to another of his recent projects.

Mindful of growing criticism of the original Mr Men range, the author had launched an equivalent series of Little Miss books, starting with Little Miss Bossy in 1981. Flicks made animated versions of 13 of the books, narrated by Pauline Collins and John Alderton, and combined them with 13 of the original episodes of The Mr Men to make Little Misses & The Mr Men, first shown from February 1983. Flicks Films would go on to produce several further new series featuring the Mr Men and Little Misses, as well as the long-delayed Timbuctoo in 1998, and a popular series based on the DC Thompson comics character Bananaman.

Possibly because of its more prominent literary origins, The Mr Men is often overlooked in retrospectives of Watch With Mother, and rarely listed alongside the other shows that shared the banner. It is, however, at least remembered by large numbers of viewers, which is more than can be said for another short animation based on a popular series of books that made its debut around the same time.

Totte, adapted from the series of storybooks about a young boy by Swedish author Gunilla Wolde, was made by Sveriges Television in 1973, and two years later purchased by the BBC for redubbing as part of Watch With Mother. Although the original books do not appear to have been published in the UK by this point, the main character was renamed Thomas (a name which was retained for subsequent translations of the books) and a new narration was provided by Play School presenter Ann Morrish.

Thomas had much in common with the earlier adventures of Joe, chronicling the title character’s adventures – with his friend Sarah (Emma in the original books) in tow – in such activities as tidying up and looking after pets. Something appeared to have become lost in translation, though, and his exploits never really caught on with viewers the same way that they had in his native Sweden. The BBC only purchased seven episodes of Thomas, and after their first broadcast from Tuesday 6 May 1975 (coupled with Ring-a-Ding to make up the 15-minute slot) they were only shown on a handful of further occasions before being retired from the schedules.

Similarly short-lived was, surprisingly, a new series from Trumptonshire creator Gordon Murray. Since completing work on Chigley in 1969, he had been concentrating on other non-television work and raising a family, although one attempt at pitching a series to Thames Television in 1973 did have a rather unexpected result. One of the voice artists working on the pilot film was Roy Skelton, and while Thames eventually passed on the show itself, they were sufficiently impressed by him to offer him the role of Zippy’s voice on Rainbow.

In 1975, the BBC Children’s Department contacted Murray to enquire if he would be interested in making some new films reviving his earlier pre-Trumptonshire series, The Rubovian Legends. Needless to say, he was interested, but it was obvious from the outset this new version would be very different to the original.

The Rubovian Legends had been set in the mid-European mediaeval kingdom of Rubovia, presided over by King Rufus and Queen Caroline, their son Prince Rupert and pet dragon Pongo, and their various associates such as the Lord Chamberlain, Mr Weatherspoon the Magician, Rubina the cat, Farmer Bottle, neighbouring King Boris, and the strangest character of the lot, MacGregor, an Indian with a Chinese accent who dispensed wisdom over the garden wall. The original BBC Puppet Theatre productions had taken the form of pantomime-esque comic plays depicting the peculiar magical goings-on in the kingdom, aimed at a young audience and indeed broadcast in much the same Saturday afternoon slot as Pinky & Perky, The Sooty Show and The Telegoons.

On a basic level, the new series adhered closely to the original. The “new” episodes were in fact adapted from existing scripts, and all of the original characters were retained, although MacGregor changed nationality from an Indian to a Native American. This alteration was reportedly made for reasons of political correctness and recognition of the increasing ethnic diversity of the likely audience, and ironically – by simply replacing one stereotype with another – shows just how far such progressive thinking still had to go. Whereas the original series had used large and often rather grotesque string marionettes, the new episodes instead utilised Bob Bura and John Hardwick’s stop motion technique familiar from the Trumptonshire shows, and the puppets and sets were redesigned to match. Similarly, whereas The Rubovian Legends had utilised a large cast of voice artists, the new episodes were narrated by Murray himself with all the character voices provided by Roy Skelton (who had also worked on the original series). Freddie Phillips was once again called on to provide the acoustic guitar-driven soundtrack.

Running to just six episodes, Rubovia was first shown from Friday 20 February 1976, but did not catch on with viewers in the same way as Camberwick Green, Trumpton or Chigley. This came as little surprise to Gordon Murray. Asked to make the series without any specific timeslot in mind, he had pitched it at the same sort of audience level as the original plays, and envisaged it being used to introduce the BBC’s afternoon children’s programming. Despite his insistence that it was too sophisticated and word-heavy for such a young audience, Watch With Mother was where it ended up and this was possibly the only instance of an unsuitable show ending up in the timeslot. This was a shame, as Rubovia was as visually impressive as any of the Trumptonshire shows (if not more so, on account of the intricate colourful designs) and sufficiently amusing to have found favour with the same sort of audience who enjoyed the likes of Play Away and Rentaghost.

Numerous manufacturers also clearly believed it had some potential. Among a surprisingly large amount of items of Rubovia merchandise were a board game, jigsaws, storybooks, a plasticine modelling set, and a long-running comic strip in Pippin, which continued in one form or another up to 1982. Unlike the strips based on his other series, however, this did not boast any involvement from Gordon Murray – owing to the origins of The Rubovian Legends as a BBC production rather than an independent effort, he did not own the copyright outright. BBC Records and Tapes issued a now extremely rare album featuring the soundtracks of two episodes, and later included Freddie Phillips’ full unexpurgated score on Music From BBC Children’s Programmes.

Rubovia was only shown a handful of times and is now barely remembered. Even when it is, it’s often confused with the ITV series Cloppa Castle and with the Trumptonshire shows themselves. Its failure to resurface in any form is surprising, given its close resemblance to Murray’s more famous efforts, but hopefully the recent strong sales of the latter on DVD might result in a long overdue reappearance.

Murray went on to make Skip and Fuffy (a pun-heavy collection of comic rhymes and dialogues) and The Gublins (a curious series about a race of monkey-like creatures who told tall folk tales – with tongue very much in cheek – in song), both of which found a much more suitable home as inserts in Noel Edmonds’ Multicoloured Swap Shop. There appear to have been vague plans at one point to repeat Rubovia in a similar fashion, but these eventually came to nothing. Perhaps not having been tremendously well served by a BBC that was still happy to continually repeat his old shows, Murray effectively retired from television in 1980, concentrating instead on his acclaimed Silver Thimble series of miniature storybooks.

Far more enduring were The Flumps, a family of animated woolly-hatted furry creatures made up of Father Flump, Mother Flump, “Flumpet” virtuoso Grandfather Flump, and youngsters Perkin, Posie and Pootle. The Flumps all spoke in broad Northern accents (provided by acclaimed comic stage actress Gay Soper), which reflected the nature of the storylines – droll Northern storytelling whimsy, which was not tremendously far removed from the style of humour adopted by the likes of Mike Harding, Peter Tinniswood and Victoria Wood. Each episode would see the family speculate on some unlikely topic or other, be it the distance to the moon by bicycle or why Perkin seemed to have acquired a rain cloud in permanent residence above his head, accompanied by countless comic songs, witty remarks and tall tales. Although it does not perhaps sit as well with an older audience as some other Watch With Mother shows, primarily because it is presented in a rather twee manner, there is nonetheless much pleasure to be derived from the offbeat narrative style.

The Flumps was created and written by Julie Holder, and animated by David Yates Productions. Yates had previously worked on Bod and would go on to produce many other animated television favourites, while each episode of The Flumps also featured two-and-a-half minutes of additional drawn animation provided by Alan Rogers. He would later form the prolific Cut-Out Animation company with Peter Lang. Cut-Out Animation’s extensive list of screen credits includes such fondly-remembered series as Ludwig, Pigeon Street, Rub-a-Dub-Dub and Doris; many of them produced in collaboration with David Yates. Other contributors to The Flumps included animator David Kellehar (who had previously worked with Ivor Wood at FilmFair), designer Ruth Collier and musician Paule Reade, whose other credits include the theme tunes for Victorian Kitchen Garden and Play School.

It is no small irony that while The Flumps was nowhere near as heavily marketed as Rubovia – a story record, an annual, a book of sheet music and a lone storybook are pretty much the only items of merchandise based on the show that were ever issued – it proved to be far more successful, and the debut showing of the 13 episodes from Monday 14 February 1977 was followed by a great many repeat runs. This perhaps confirms Gordon Murray’s belief that Rubovia was not really suitable for the Watch With Mother audience; stylistically it has much in common with The Flumps, but the latter is noticeably tailored towards a younger age group and in that regard it’s hardly surprising that it found greater favour.

As had been proved on countless previous occasions, Derek Griffiths and Michael Cole both had an instinctive grasp of how humour should be fashioned for the Watch With Mother audience. Heads and Tails, produced and written by Cole with music and narration by Griffiths, was essentially an adaptation of the technique that Johnny Morris had been using for many years in the long-running BBC series Animal Magic, namely setting comically interpretative voices to footage of animals. There were, however, some significant differences. While Animal Magic generally visited zoos and safari parks and featured some sort of human interaction with the animals, much of it provided by “Keeper Morris” himself, Heads and Tails relied primarily on specially-shot footage of animals in their natural habitat. Also, the series was characterised by a very different sort of humour, namely the Goon Show-inspired quasi-surrealism previously essayed by Cole and Griffiths on the likes of Play Away and Ragtime. The animal “voices” were intermingled with songs by Griffiths that sought to explain complex zoological facts in simple terms (“Butterfly wings slow down as they rest on the flowers their feet have just pressed”). The musical styles ranged from gentle ballads to knockabout comedy lunacy, the latter most famously manifested in the well-remembered sequence of a group of close-harmony Proboscis Monkeys explaining why their oversized nose was not in fact a nose at all (also memorable for Griffiths fluffing a note and muttering, totally in character, “Oooh, I can’t do this harmony”). As much importance was given to the sound content as to the visuals, evidenced by the fact that the accompanying Heads and Tails album is, like Ragtime before it, an entertaining listen in its own right.

There is little doubt that Heads and Tails is now best remembered for its energetic theme song (not to mention the startling free-jazz version yodelled by Griffiths over the closing credits), and it cannot be denied it succeeded in its intention to simultaneously entertain and educate. The series won several prestigious awards after the 13 episodes were first transmitted from Wednesday 16 February 1977, leading the BBC to commission a second set, first seen from Friday 6 April 1979.

Between the two series of Heads and Tails, the rather less well known How Do You Do! also joined the roster of Watch With Mother programmes. Devised by Children’s Department veteran Cynthia Felgate, the series was a collaborative effort by artist Joan Hickson (previously responsible, with Alison Prince, for the earlier Watch With Mother series Joe) and producer and director (and also former Play School presenter) Carole Ward. A collection of rhymes, stories and counting games, each episode of How Do You Do! was built around a story featuring Annie, Louise, George, Kevin, Caroline, Cheng, Scott, Mary, Toni and Sandra – a group of young children who all attended a playgroup “where there is plenty to do and room to play”.

As well as adopting production techniques that had recently been pioneered in the BBC’s schools’ programming and magazine shows aimed at older children, the structure of the show was consciously designed to mirror the sort of activities viewers might well have partaken in at a real life playgroup, and was one of the first stirrings of an imperative within the Children’s Department to introduce a greater element of inclusivity into their output, to reflect a changing Britain of varying social groups and increased ethnic diversity. The children featured in the stories were of various cultural backgrounds, and the show was fronted by black actress Carmen Munro, another former Play School presenter but better known to many viewers from the sitcoms The Fosters, Mixed Blessings and Desmond’s. Also working on the series were designer John Holland, musicians Peter Pettinger and Greg Knowles, and artist Julek Heller.

Another studio-based videotaped programme, running to 13 episodes and first seen from Tuesday 4 October 1977, How Do You Do! met with a fair amount of praise (including, unusually for Watch With Mother, a couple of appreciative letters printed in the Radio Times), but in retrospect it was perhaps too sudden and radical a departure for a young audience who were used to a very different style of programming. Certainly many erstwhile viewers who have clear recollections of other contemporaneous shows in the timeslot struggle to recall much about it, and with repeat runs only just extending into 1980, How Do You Do! ranks as one of the least enduring Watch With Mother programmes.

In 1978, the first change was made to the Watch With Mother timeslot in over five years, as the Sunday morning slot was moved back to 9am and the Saturday slot dropped altogether. Shortly afterwards came the launch of what would prove to be the last “new” programme to appear under the Watch With Mother banner – Over the Moon. Another videotaped studio-based show, Over the Moon had a similar production style to How Do You Do!, although Michael Cole’s involvement as producer saw to it that these new techniques were used to frame a more traditional approach.

Introduced by a bouncy synthesiser-led theme song and some rather abstract animated opening titles, Over the Moon saw presenter Sam Dale spin a magic disc to introduce animated songs and stories. Much of these were provided by Alan Rogers and Peter Lang’s Cut-Out studios, alongside contributions from such other notable animators as Trevor Bond, Vision On veterans Mirek Lang and Anna Fodorova, and Leo Beltoft, who would go on to work regularly with Mr Benn creator David McKee.

The songs and stories presented here were of a very high standard indeed, with Cole bringing in not just regular collaborators like Rick Jones and Derek Griffiths, but also such unlikely figures as up-and-coming actress and singer Kim Goody, professional chorister Barbara Courtney-King and comedian Jasper Carrott to write and perform for the show. Griffiths contributed the highly memorable “Obadiah Blank”, a catchy tale set to Yellow Submarine-inspired animation, of an eccentric inventor (responsible for, among other things, the electric spoon and growing poppies on the moon) who had the world exclaiming, “We have our lucky stars to thank, for Obadiah Blank”, and whose final creation before a well-deserved retirement was a robot that could continue his inventing work for him.

Elsewhere, Rick Jones revived his Radiophonic Workshop-assisted musical story “Splodges”, first heard in Play School back in 1969, while Kim Goody sang of Rat Van Winkle who visited an alternate Earth where a minute lasted for a year, and Jasper Carrott serenaded Angus McBluff, a wildlife expert who dressed up as animals in order to get close to them.

Over the Moon sat more easily with its target audience than How Do You Do! had done, yet while it played comfortably alongside the older Watch With Mother shows that were still around, in many respects it was as different from Ragtime or Ring-a-Ding as they had been from Picture Book. Over the Moon pointed towards the fresh direction that BBC Children’s programming was about to take, and in that sense it was a fitting point for the conclusion of the Watch With Mother strand. Following its first transmission covering 13 weeks from Wednesday 14 October 1978, and the appearance of the second set of Heads and Tails a couple of months later, there would be no further content generated under the Watch With Mother banner.

On Wednesday 1 October 1980, the inaugural broadcasts of King Rollo and Bric-a-Brac – the first new series to appear in the timeslot in two years – appeared under the umbrella title See-Saw. This had first been mooted as a replacement for Watch With Mother some five years previously. Indeed, for a short time in 1976 the BBC had published a comic of the same name through IPC Magazines, containing strips based on several Watch With Mother shows as well as their close contemporaries from the pre-news slot. However, the proposal to rebrand the timeslot progressed at much the same speed as every other modification made to it over the years, and after the comic folded the BBC went on to publish a couple of hardback annuals that, while featuring much the same content, reverted to using the Watch With Mother title.

As the characters in How Do You Do! would no doubt have appreciated, the BBC explained that the name had been changed in recognition of the fact that society had changed and the automatic assumption that a child would be watching with their non-working mother was no longer a valid one. Listen With Mother, the radio series that had inspired Watch With Mother in the first place, was also coming to an end, and its final edition was broadcast early in 1982. These actions provoked an inevitable flurry of short-lived tabloid outrage, but to the audience itself the change of name made little difference – in fact, by that stage many were no doubt puzzled by the phrase Watch With Mother – and See-Saw was here to stay.

Prior to the midweek launch of See-Saw, two final programmes had gone out as part of Watch With Mother – an episode of Bagpuss, and “Peter The Postman”, the first episode of Camberwick Green. While their positioning was doubtless entirely accidental, it is difficult to envisage a more fitting farewell to the three decade old umbrella title. Yet even while Watch With Mother retreated back into the Music Box with Peter Hazel, this was not quite the end of the story.

<Part Nine