Part One: Andy Pandy’s Coming to Play

By TJ Worthington

First published November 2005

For all its importance as a pioneering force in British broadcasting, the early BBC was never much good at coming up with programme names. Housewives’ Choice and Sports Report, to name but two, may have served well as straightforward descriptions of their intended content, but they never really had the evocative panache of, say, Sing Something Simple or Grandstand. With the possible exception of the almost comically blunt variant For Deaf Children, the pinnacle of this dearth of imagination was almost certainly For the Children, a strangely unappealing umbrella banner for a timeslot that was routinely packed with energetic animation, slapstick comedy, Wild West yarns and mild espionage thrillers.

When the decision was taken in 1950 to introduce a complementary slot to cater for a slightly younger audience, the humourlessness only deepened and For the Very Young made its debut appearance on 11 June 1950. The name may conjure less in the way of fond reminiscence than it does images of paint drying very slowly, but this unepochal-sounding corner of television history in fact represents the first stirrings of one of the most-loved television strands of all.

Despite its somewhat simplistic title, the genesis of For the Very Young was a rather complicated affair. The BBC had apparently prevaricated over such a move for some time, expressing concern about the possible effects of television on a child left to watch on their own, and seeking the advice of The Ministry of Education, The Institute of Child Development, The Nursery Schools Association, and respected figures in the field of educational child psychology. Eventually it was established that any such programme should be developed in such a way as to actively “involve” both parent and child; should present a small and enclosed “familiar” setting and be based around a handful of recurring characters; and should also be placed directly after a programme parents were likely to be watching (in this case, the by-now predictably unimaginatively named For Women).

As is often the case, such rigid restriction was rather appropriately the mother of invention, and the character who would ultimately prove to be the lone occupant of the thankfully short-lived For the Very Young had far greater enduring appeal than that original banner title, and can in fact still be seen on television to this day.

Andy Pandy was created specifically for this new experimental slot by the versatile pairing of Freda Lingstrom and Maria Bird. In hindsight, it is perhaps unsurprising that this challenging broadcasting innovation should be left in the experienced and extremely capable hands of these largely unsung industry pioneers. Having started her career as an illustrator and occasional novelist, the late 1940s saw Freda Lingstrom take up a position on the editorial team of Junior, a periodical containing “a collection of stories, articles and pictures for the junior members of the family”, where her fellow contributors included Maria Bird. It was through their experience working on the publication that Lingstrom and Bird found their way into broadcasting, with the former joining the BBC as Assistant Head of Schools Broadcasting in 1949. Together they would play an important role in the shaping of the nascent medium into the service we recognise today, but what is less acknowledged is the fact they were amongst the first women to reach positions of respect and influence in what was then a male-dominated industry.

Lingstrom and Bird had been heavily involved in the instigation of a certain regular radio programme aimed at pre-school listeners, and recognising their experience and aptitude in this field, the BBC’s curiously titled Head of Television Talks, Mary Adams, commissioned them to create an equivalent show for TV, with particular emphasis on the encouragement of awareness of music and movement. Although the show was to be created and owned by the BBC, the actual production duties were to be handled by Westerham Arts, the nascent production company that Lingstrom had recently formed with Bird, named after the Kent village in which they both lived.

Lingstrom and Bird wrote the scripts, with the latter also composing and arranging the music. The third important member of the Westerham Arts team was puppeteer Audrey Atterbury. Atterbury had originally met Lingstrom on a train, and after striking up conversation and establishing common interests, she was persuaded by Lingstrom to train as a puppeteer (which she did with the noted practitioner John Wright). Atterbury’s vital experience as a young parent was often drawn on by her artistic partners, and it has been claimed that a large proportion of the format and resultant storylines for Andy Pandy were arrived at by observing the actions of her own children. The original puppet itself, meanwhile, was sculpted by a local professional based in Westerham.

Also on board were narrator Vera McKechnie (then better known as an in-vision BBC continuity announcer and presenter of the children’s magazine show Studio E), who provided all of the verbal activity in the absence of any actual character voices, and classically trained singer Gladys Whitred who was generally accompanied by Maria Bird on piano. As more characters were later introduced into the show, the roster of puppeteers would expand accordingly to include Molly Gibson, who had worked alongside Atterbury on the prestigious BBC Puppet Theatre productions overseen by Gordon Murray, and the family outfit The Stavordales, who ran their own puppet theatre company.

No doubt with some degree of weariness at its uninspired moniker, Andy Pandy introduced the very first edition of For the Very Young, shown on Tuesdays at 3.45pm. Early discussions had ruled out the possibility of using a child actor on the grounds of both practicality and expense, and so the title character was portrayed by a marionette with notoriously visible strings. There has always been some uncertainty over what the youngster in a stripy romper suit was actually supposed to be, although a definitive answer is arguably provided by the fact the earliest tie-in book, written by Freda Lingstrom, was entitled “Andy Pandy: The Baby Clown”. Apparently living on his own despite his tender age, Andy roamed around a rather cramped arrangement of a garden set and a couple of indoor rooms (locations chosen to be familiar to a young child), discovering the purpose of everyday objects and encouraging viewers to join him in his dancing and singing – or, to be more accurate, his wordless response to Gladys Whitred’s singing. Although episodes were generally based around a single unifying activity, such as playing with a hobby horse or tidying up the house, there was never a structured storyline of any sort, and Lingstrom in particular was a great believer in the notion that the slow place and employment of a loose theme rather than a proper narrative structure were essential for ensuring the show fell within the comprehension level of the target audience.

Originally, Andy Pandy was broadcast live; a total of 70 episodes went out in this fashion between July 1950 and April 1952, but although some were experimentally telerecorded for repeat purposes (and many were no doubt given several live repeat performances as well), none of them are known to exist in any form today. Reputedly the very earliest shows featured Andy alone, but as time went by the limitations of the format became apparent and a couple of additional regular characters were introduced to offset this – Teddy, a somewhat moth-eaten bear who tried to disguise his shabbiness with a dapper bow tie, and Looby Loo, an inanimate doll who conveniently came to life whenever Andy and chum were off screen.

Between April 1952 and March 1957, 32 editions of Andy Pandy – many of them doubtlessly adapted remounts of scripts that had earlier been performed live – were filmed by the BBC Film Unit. Four of them were in turn refilmed early in 1957, but whether this was due to damage to the original prints or to problematic elements in the shows themselves that needed to be removed is unclear.

Given the perceived need to stay within certain imposed stylistic guidelines noted above, it is perhaps telling that what is most well-remembered about Andy Pandy are the two theme songs, the sprightly opener (“Andy Pandy’s coming to play, Tra-la-la-la-la-la, Andy Pandy’s here today, Tra-la-la-la-la”) and the more lugubrious closing theme (“Time to stop play, just for today, Andy and Teddy must now go away, time to stop play, just for today, Andy is saying goodbye”, although confusingly there seem to have been some slight variations on those lyrics employed at certain points), both of which played over footage of turning blocks bearing the programme’s name and arranged around what appears to be a photograph of the lead trio making their way through a Victorian brickwork sewer. The shows were formulaic and repetitious in a positive way (from an educative point of view), but as a byproduct they contained little that could be termed memorable in the literal sense, not least because the shows had a distracting tendency to focus on a single activity such as swinging on a swing for a substantial amount of time.

Where they really came into their own was in the interaction between the characters, which accounts for what little humour and semblance of a storyline the programme actually had, and therefore doesn’t give a tremendous amount of hope for what the early live Andy-only shows must have been like. Teddy in particular had an endearing tendency to lapse into slapstick whether by design (asking for his favourite song by doing an overexcited high-kicking dance) or accident (receiving an unscripted whack on the head from the swing in the garden), while Looby Loo’s segments helped to break up the otherwise overlong feel of the action.

Although from a modern perspective the limitations of the primitive technological conditions it was made under are all too obvious – from the unmoving painted backdrop on a “set” that is barely bigger than two puppets, to the huge gaps in the narration, during which the muted clank of wooden joints and the faraway shuffle of the studio are glaringly audible – Andy Pandy was well able to meet the somewhat high standards that had been set in advance of its production, and what started out as a once-a-week experiment soon became, as will be related in a later instalment, one of the most enduring programmes in British broadcasting history.

One of the byproducts of its success was that Lingstrom – a formidable figure who was reputedly so concerned by the potential for child audiences to be exploited by television that she insisted that the term “vacuum cleaner” was always used in programmes rather than “Hoover” – was appointed Head of BBC Children’s Television in 1951. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of her major priorities was to expand and improve the slot for very young viewers that she had helped to create, and also to change its name. One of these objectives was to prove more easily attainable than the other, and over the summer of 1952, the still unsteadily-named slot was expanded to incorporate a Thursday broadcast as well as Tuesdays. Although this initially played host to a further showing of Andy Pandy, in December it was given over to a brand new production from Westerham Arts, and that elusive replacement title would follow soon afterwards.