“Everyone Sing His Name”

TJ Worthington on The Adventures of Rupert Bear

First published June 2002

There’s nothing that the cultural history books like better than something that supposedly represents the “end of an era”. Inserted towards the end of a piece of writing, the phrase draws a neat line under whatever has been written before it, providing a definite and effective conclusion to coverage of a certain artefact or genre. It’s easy to see why writers are so fond of adopting such terminology, given that it lends a sense of authority and definition to their work. However, the phrase, and indeed the sentiment behind it, is ultimately a rather meaningless one. Few proscribed “ends of eras” actually constitute anything of the sort, and the influence of said eras – both direct and indirect – often continues far beyond the point where the writer decided to lapse into cliché.

One moment in televisual history that is routinely described by writers as the “end of an era” is when Gerry Anderson moved from using puppets to live actors in his television shows. Having spent the 1960s producing a string of hit puppet-based science fiction shows for ATV/ITC, including Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Anderson was keen to move into live action work, and 1970 saw the launch of his first non-puppet series UFO. Describing this moment provides a clear cut-off point for writers who are then free to make a couple of lazy and badly-observed “jokes” about his live action shows featuring actors that were so wooden that they might as well have been puppets before neatly concluding their piece. However, labelling this change in direction as the end of an era makes it sound as though his conversion from puppetry to live action was overnight and absolute, almost as though viewers went to bed one night after seeing the last ever multi-angle shot of Joe McLaine’s glasses in the end credits of Joe 90, and woke up the next morning to be confused, frightened and disgusted by the sight of Ed Bishop in a Jimmy Saville wig, exploding “fully operational” mobiles, and endless zooms on female posteriors in the opening titles of UFO.

What this oversimplified version of events ignores is not just the existence of The Secret Service – a strange 1969 Anderson show that came between Joe 90 and UFO and starred Stanley Unwin in a peculiar blend of puppetry and live action – but also the fact that the “golden age” that people are so keen to look back on in misty-eyed nostalgia didn’t come to an end just because the producer associated with it had moved on. A considerable degree of the success and popularity of Anderson’s puppet shows can be attributed to the distinctive visual style of the productions, and to the skill and expertise of the puppeteers that he worked with. Anderson had parted company with the majority of this acclaimed technical crew prior to commencing work on UFO, for obvious reasons, but several of the key contributors remained contracted to ATV/ITC. While the company was confident of Anderson’s ability to succeed with UFO, they were also reluctant to dispense with the services of an adept, reliable production team that had played an important part in the creation of some of his greatest successes, and began to look for a suitable project for them to apply their considerable talents to.

John Read and Mary Turner had both been involved with Gerry Anderson’s productions since the early 1960s, the former as director of photography and the latter as a puppet maker and operator. Both had played significant roles in the development of the sophisticated animation techniques that had made Anderson’s puppet productions so distinctive and visually arresting. Turner had devised the technique that allowed the puppets to be operated from underneath the stage rather than from above it, and Read did much of the work on the process of miniaturizing the electromagnets that moved the mouths of the puppets in time to the pre-recorded soundtrack – both of which were important steps forward in the development of the more realistic looking puppets and naturalistic movement seen in later series such as Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Both they and ATV/ITC were quick to realize that such techniques, which represented what at that time was probably the most technologically advanced puppet animation seen on television anywhere in the world, could be used to great effect on programmes aimed at a pre-school audience. Late in 1969, Read and Turner, working with several other former Anderson puppeteers, were commissioned by ATV/ITC to commence work on an initial batch of 13 episodes of The Adventures of Rupert Bear.

Whereas all of the earlier series that the team had worked on had original formats devised by Gerry Anderson, The Adventures of Rupert Bear was a direct adaptation of the newspaper strip which had been running in the Daily Express to enormous success since 8 November 1920. Created by artist Mary Tourtel, wife of the paper’s night news editor Herbert Tourtel, the stories revolved around the adventures of a young bear that lived in the fictitious town of Nutwood, and his various animal and elemental friends. The characters depicted in the strip were heavily “humanized”, in that they wore clothes, used household implements, and fulfilled roles more familiar from human society – an unusual approach for the time, and one that was undoubtedly a key factor in the phenomenal appeal and success of the stories. Each episode took the form of a few frames of action drawn by Tourtel, with a couple of sentences relating the development of the plot beneath each one and a simplified version of the text in the form of a charming rhyming couplet supplied by Herbert Tourtel to fulfil the same role for younger and less adept readers. The Rupert stories proved to be an instant and massive success, and collected volumes containing several complete adventures were released on a regular basis and sold in huge quantities (and indeed continue to do so to this day). In 1935, Alfred Bestall took over from the Tourtels as both artist and writer, and refined the visual style of the strip into the more distinctive and stylized form that has subsequently become recognizable to readers the world over. Indeed, it was Bestall who actually gave Rupert his familiar red and yellow clothing – before that he’d been dressed in an uninspiring blue and grey.

A vast range of Rupert-related merchandise had been issued since the character made his very first appearances, but perhaps surprisingly, until production began on The Adventures of Rupert Bear there had been no attempt to transfer the character to television.

Like so many ATV/ITC productions during the company’s heyday, The Adventures of Rupert Bear was an astute and inspired choice of format in several respects. Firstly, the character was a long-established one who already enjoyed great popularity and success, and was therefore well known to most of the children who would be watching. Similarly, the enduring popularity of the newspaper strip meant that if the series was to prove to be a success, then it would enjoy a long shelf life and could potentially be repeated many times. Most significantly – or at least what was probably most significant from the production company’s point of view – the international popularity of the character would almost certainly ensure substantial overseas sales for the series.

Most of the company’s previous programming aimed at the pre-school audience, including such fondly remembered shows as The Tingha and Tucker Club, had been produced by ATV on videotape. At that point in time use of this format severely limited overseas sales potential as many countries were not at the same level of broadcast technology as the UK, and could not have worked from high definition colour videotape. However, The Adventures of Rupert Bear was handled by ITC, and produced on colour film. This did not pose the same compatibility problems and when combined with the fact that Rupert Bear was already well known as a character in many of the major overseas markets this practically guaranteed substantial international sales for the series. In this respect, The Adventures of Rupert Bear marked a turning point in the history of the British television industry, as it was the first programme intended for a pre-school audience to be marketed in such a determined and carefully thought out manner. The success of the series on both a domestic and international basis was almost certainly what persuaded broadcasters to channel more money into their pre-school programming from that point onwards; both ITV and in particular the BBC had been relying mainly on constant repeats of existing programmes for several years, but the early 1970s saw both commission and broadcast an enormous number of new programmes.

The astute promotional tactics that were applied to The Adventures of Rupert Bear were not just limited to issues of international marketing. In addition to the expected rush of tie-in merchandising, which included everything from soap to chocolate bars, the series was given an enormous boost by the fact that it came equipped with an infectious, chart-friendly pop song as its title theme. Whereas the majority of similarly inclined programmes made prior to that point had been characterized by the twee, tinkling melodies that comedians later became so fond of parodying, the theme song from The Adventures of Rupert Bear was very much in the style of the post-psychedelic bubblegum pop that was dominating the charts at that point courtesy of bands like Pickettywitch and Edison Lighthouse. The recording boasted the talents of legendary session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan, who conjured up the bright, engaging guitar figure that opens the song, and vocalist Jackie Lee.

A former pop singer, Lee had moved into session work in the late 1960s, appearing on a string of now highly collectable easy listening and production line pop-soul records. She had also enjoyed a hit – under the name of Jacky – with the theme song from White Horses, a dubbed Yugoslavian series that was shown by the BBC several times during the 1960s and ’70s. Rupert was released as a single on the Pye label to tie in with the launch of the series in November 1970. ATV/ITC had made at least one previous attempt at invading the pop charts on the back of a successful children’s series. The end credits of Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons had featured a song performed by a pop group named The Spectrum, and it is clear that the intention of all concerned was for the success of the series to translate into record sales. However, matters did not go entirely to plan – for reasons that are not entirely clear, the song itself never made it to commercial release, and none of the band’s other singles quite managed to set the charts alight (despite the fact that they adopted the gimmick of dressing in Captain Scarlet uniforms while performing). However, with The Adventures of Rupert Bear, the experiment paid off. The single climbed to number 12 in the pop charts late in 1970, and the song has arguably far outstripped the fame of the series; in fact, the infectious chorus (“Rupert, Rupert the Bear, everyone sing his name”) is probably what comes to most people’s minds first in relation to Rupert. Although they never quite managed to achieve success on quite the same scale again, ATV/ITC would employ a similar tactic on several other shows that they created for the pre-school timeslot during the 1970s, notably Inigo Pipkin which also featured Jackie Lee on vocal duties. Incidentally, the following year Jackie Lee released Peter Pan, another song by the writers of Rupert and performed very much in a similar style, and it’s interesting to speculate on whether this could originally have been the theme tune to an unsuccessful ATV/ITC pilot show.

The clever marketing tactics that were used to help launch the series might well have played their part in establishing it as a success, but The Adventures of Rupert Bear more than managed to back up this hype with the strength and quality of its presentation. The stories transferred very well into the televisual medium, and the animation techniques that Read and Turner had helped to pioneer while working on Gerry Anderson’s shows were used to brilliant effect in creating a vivid visual realization of the familiar newspaper strip artwork. The distinctive style was further emphasized by the opening of each episode, which featured the camera zooming past a child being read a Rupert story by an adult, focusing in on the Rupert puppet sitting against a bedroom wall, and cleverly mixing into the opening titles. As in the original stories, the episodes focused on Nutwood and its inhabitants, including such familiar figures as Badger Bill, Edward Trunk, Tigerlily and Raggerty.

It has often been erroneously claimed that the latter character was invented for the television series, but Raggerty did in fact feature in the original newspaper strips (as indeed did Rupert’s flying car, which is similarly mistakenly believed to have been invented for television). However, Raggerty unquestionably made more of an impact through his appearances on television than he ever did through the original stories, and in retrospect this is hardly surprising. Ostensibly some kind of tree sprite whose body was composed mainly of sticks and leaves, Raggerty was a far less clean-cut and well-behaved character than Rupert or any of his friends, and their inevitable discovery of his latest mischievous scheme was invariably greeted by him snapping “go away, Rupert Bear!” in a stern voice. Quite why he managed to capture the audience’s imagination to the extent that he did is unknown, but The Adventures of Rupert Bear transformed Raggerty from a minor character into one that is inextricably linked with people’s memories of the series.

The first episode of The Adventures of Rupert Bear, “Rupert and the Flying Machine”, was broadcast on 28 October 1970 in an afternoon weekday slot (although the series would soon move to the equivalent lunchtime slot when ITV commenced daytime broadcasting, and would remain there for many years), and the initial set of episodes proved to be so popular that a further run of the series was immediately commissioned. In total, 156 11-minute episodes of The Adventures of Rupert Bear were made between 1970 and 1976, and they continued to be repeated in the lunchtime slot right up until ATV lost its licence to broadcast to the ITV midlands region in 1981. Turner and Read went on to make several other successful series for ATV/ITC, including Here Comes Mumfie, Cloppa Castle and The Munch Bunch, all of which are recalled with as much fondness as their earlier creation. Sadly, many of the original episodes of The Adventures of Rupert Bear are now missing from the company’s archives, and at last count only 74 episodes still existed in their original colour film format (many of them with unremovable subtitles superimposed), with a further 16 existing in black and white. However, there are more than enough episodes still in the archives to put together a decent set of repeats or a commercial video release, and the fact that what is probably the definitive television adaptation of the Rupert Bear stories – if you’re in any doubt that it deserves that title, then try counting how many people you know can sing the theme tune – has remained unavailable for so long is an unfortunate state of affairs.