Part Two: Was it Bill or Was it Ben?

By TJ Worthington

First published December 2005

Since 16 January 1950, the BBC Light Programme had been providing its own daily entertainment for the very young in the form of Listen With Mother. Broadcast in the 1.45pm slot immediately prior to Woman’s Hour, this fondly remembered 15 minute show featured a combination of stories, nursery rhymes and traditional songs, read and performed to a sparse musical accompaniment with occasional basic sound effects.

Despite its somewhat spartan approach and much-parodied formal tone, there was a genuine warmth to Listen With Mother that appealed to successive generations of listeners, helping it clock up over three decades on the airwaves. A measure of its success and popularity can be seen in the fact many characters that were originally created for the show made a successful transition into book form. Most notable amongst these was Dorothy Edwards’ “My Naughty Little Sister”, the star of a series of children’s publications that remain in print to this day. However, perhaps the most significant celebrated alumni of Listen With Mother were two individuals who eventually found fame in another medium altogether.

In 1951, amateur writer Hilda Brabben contributed the first of several stories to the programme about The Flower Pot Men, two mischievous little creatures who lived in flowerpots at the bottom of a well-tended garden.

By 1952, Freda Lingstrom was casting around for ideas for the development and possible expansion of For the Very Young, and in particular was keen to assign a more effective name to the timeslot. The established and highly successful Listen With Mother was an obvious source of influence, but there appears to have been some initial managerial resistance to the idea of renaming its televisual equivalent to Watch With Mother, and it would take quite some time for this mooted title to find its way from internal memos to the pages of the Radio Times. In addition to titular inspiration, Listen With Mother was also a useful source of original characters, and having considered but later rejected the idea of new series featuring the Sugar Plum Fairy and Diggle and Flick, Lingstrom turned her attention towards Hilda Brabben’s creations.

The precise details and chronology of events are unclear, but it does appear that at some point in 1952 Brabben had sold the rights to her characters to the BBC for a relatively small sum. Whether or not this was directly for the purposes of their use on television is unclear; according to Brabben, Lingstrom had never heard the original radio stories, and it is entirely possible the purchasing of the rights was a fortuitous coincidence. Certainly it seems unlikely the creator would have willingly relinquished all rights and potential long-term revenue if a television adaptation was in the offing, and by all accounts Brabben never felt any bitterness or resentment at the fact that she did not share in the later profits. Whatever the situation, it was her characters that were chosen as the basis for a new For the Very Young series to be made by Lingstrom’s production company Westerham Arts: Flower Pot Men.

First appearing on 18 December 1952 in the recently introduced Thursday afternoon slot, Flower Pot Men was to prove one of its most enduring occupants. 31 episodes were made between 1952 and 1954 (although again, as with Andy Pandy one was later remade, and also some were produced in several seasonal variants for showing at different times of the year), and these were constantly repeated well into the early 1970s and the dawn of colour television. Additionally, in 1954 the title characters became possibly the only occupants of the timeslot apart from Andy Pandy to take part in a live television broadcast, appearing as part of the curiously named one-off special Radio Show event on 28 August. The production credits for Flower Pot Men were much the same as for Andy Pandy, with Lingstrom and Maria Bird writing the scripts and overseeing production, and Audrey Atterbury and Molly Gibson operating the puppets. Originally the episodes were filmed in a tin shed on the outskirts of the BBC’s Lime Grove studio complex, but production would later move, along with that of several other Westerham Arts projects, to a purpose-built puppet studio in Television Centre.

The Flower Pot Men of the title were Bill and Ben, two noisy and clanking gangly marionettes who shared their surprisingly realistic garden set with Weed, a smiling talking flower who sprouted from the ground between their respective flowerpot homes, and Slowcoach, a bulky and rather aptly-named tortoise. The basic premise of the series was that Bill and Ben would emerge from their hiding places whenever the gardener took a lunchbreak, play a guessing game with the audience and narrator (“Was it Bill or was it Ben?”), investigate whatever object from garden forks to icicles had been left lying around in the garden, and – setting a precedent that many subsequent occupants of the timeslot would follow – scurry for cover when they heard the gardener returning, leaving the adjoining house to smile as though it knew something of their existence.

There had been a clear progression from the earliest appearances of Andy Pandy, as Flower Pot Men gave entertainment equal importance to education. Bill and Ben themselves were highly comic figures (sculpted by Kim Allen, who also made the puppets for Gordon Murray’s BBC Puppet Theatre productions) and were deliberately intended as such, crashing around the set indulging in spontaneous singing and dancing-related horseplay, with the educational content deriving from their amusing misunderstandings of the various items that appeared in the garden. In this context, a small amount of humour can go a long way, and it is for precisely this reason Flower Pot Men holds up so well today.

Perhaps the most famous element of the programme was the distinctive dialogue. Whereas in Andy Pandy all of the characters had remained essentially mute, this new venture saw the narrator (Julia Williams) and singer (Gladys Whitred again) bolstered by the gibberish chattering of the title characters. The original inspiration for their voices has been the subject of much speculation and urban myth over the years, but while it is certainly true Hilda Brabben based the characters of Bill, Ben and Weed on her younger brothers and sister, her original stories did not feature the, speaking and so the more outlandish stories about the origins of their language are clearly untrue. In fact, it was thought up by veteran voice artist Peter Hawkins, better known to audiences at that point for providing the voices for long-running BBC childrens’ magazine show Whirligig, and also later to give voice to the Daleks and Cybermen in Doctor Who, Captain Pugwash, the original incarnation of Zippy from Rainbow, and a great many animated series besides. Hawkins, who always referred to the invented language as “Oddlepoddle”, had a very definite verbal structure building on original scripted words, and employed much the same sort of technique as the nonsense-spouting comedian Stanley Unwin, “riffing” in the manner of a jazz vocalist. Testing his considerable abilities further still, he also gave Bill a high-pitched squeaky voice and Ben a much lower baritone. As popular as this may have been with viewers, there were those who expressed concern the duo were in danger of having a negative influence on child language development, and several letters of complaint can still be found in the BBC production file for the programme.

Andy Pandy had of course been a great success, but it was the phenomenal popularity of Flower Pot Men – which gave rise to storybooks, toys and much more spin-off merchandise – that really helped to cement the position of this still relatively unsteady slot in the schedules. In 1953 the full change of name to Watch With Mother was finally given the go-ahead, and by the end of the year Flower Pot Men had been moved to a new Wednesday slot to keep Thursdays free for a third Westerham Arts production – Rag, Tag and Bobtail.

First seen on 10 September 1953, Rag, Tag and Bobtail were respectively a hedgehog, a mouse and a rabbit, and they appeared in a total of 26 films (a couple of which, for unknown but presumably technical reasons, were never transmitted) made up to April 1955. Again there is some confusion over their origins, caused on this occasion by the fact that Enid Blyton had written a storybook of the same name some years earlier. However, Blyton’s tales were actually about a trio of rabbits who inhabited a typically humanlike sphere of existence, and additionally, Freda Lingstrom is said not to have been keen on Blyton’s approach to storytelling and was keen to exclude her works from BBC childrens’ programming. Despite the similarity in name the televisual Rag, Tag and Bobtail were in fact created by Louise Cochrane, an American-born prolific writer of educational novels.

Lingstrom and Bird again acted as producers, but this new show marked something of a departure for Westerham Arts, utilising glove puppets instead of the more familiar marionettes. To this end, New Zealand-born puppeteer and former cinematic costume designer Sam Williams and his wife Elizabeth were brought in to operate the title characters, and would also go on to produce some of the storybooks based on the series. Narration was provided by Charles E Stidwell with additional voices by David Enders and noted character actor James Urquhart. Most of the episodes were directed by David Boisseau, who would go on to make something of a name for himself in high-powered television drama. In contrast to Westerham Arts’ earlier productions, which may have been filmed “as live”, but did involve some changes of scenery and the addition of opening and closing titles, Rag, Tag and Bobtail appears to have been shot in a single take, with all of the action occurring on one set and the credits simply being superimposed over the moving picture.

The three woodland chums are not quite as well remembered as their forebears in the same timeslot, and there are several good reasons for this. Even aside from the significant lack of a memorable introduction or character songs – partly because of the mode of puppeteering and partly because of the laid-back simplicity of the storylines which barely became any more robust than demonstrating how to wash mud off baby rabbits – the shows seem exceptionally slow-moving even by the standards of the day. Reviewing a video release for Radio 4′s Loose Ends in 1987, broadcaster John Walters claimed that Rag, Tag and Bobtail made Waiting for Godot look action-packed. Unlike Andy Pandy and Flower Pot Men, where at least some attempt had been made to explore the possibilities of the new medium, Rag, Tag and Bobtail seems stuck in an earlier era of children’s storytelling and has the feel of an antique book simply held up in front of the camera. Not entirely surprisingly, the unfortunate hedgehog, mouse and rabbit did not make quite so many inroads into the realms of mass merchandising, and more tellingly would later become the first show to be dropped from the Watch With Mother line-up.

Early 1955 brought yet another addition to the ever-expanding slot, in the form of a Monday broadcast and a new programme, Picture Book, first seen on 14 February. This was perhaps Westerham Arts’ most ambitious venture yet, combining inserts featuring several different types of animation with studio sequences involving live performers. The shows were presented by Patricia Driscoll (also familiar to viewers from her appearances as Maid Marian in ITV’s The Adventures of Robin Hood) in the company of a puppet dog called Sossidge, the owner of another manic nonsense voice provided on this occasion by veteran voice artist Roy Skelton (who like Peter Hawkins would also go on provide voices for Daleks and Zippy in Rainbow), and together they would turn the pages of the titular Picture Book and stop at various stories and articles. The regular tales included “Bizzy Lizzy”, a paper cutout animation of a girl who owned a dress with a magic wishing flower pattern, and “The Jolly Jack Tars”, marionette sailors and their pet monkey who would stop off at various ports and bays, and were involved in an ongoing storyline of sorts.

Also putting in occasional appearances were the likes of Andy Pandy and the Flower Pot Men, who featured in inserts designed to stress the importance of such activities as cleaning your teeth. Each episode would also feature some sort of basic “make” that the children and parents watching at home could copy in real time, and a more directly educative feature involving a practical demonstration of an everyday object, or an in-studio appearance by a live animal.

In some regards the polar opposite of the long drawn-out and unchanging setting of Rag, Tag and Bobtail, the compartmentalised structure of Picture Book gave it a much more energetic pace that largely sets it apart from the stereotypical view of television from the time. Even viewed nowadays it barely has time to become tedious or monotonous as the programme moves on to something else almost straightaway. There were also a significant number of shifts in mood during the course of each edition, from the straight-faced factuality of the demonstrative sections to the energetic slapstick of the Jolly Jack Tars, and there was a sense of interactivity and viewer involvement that had been largely absent from the earlier shows – something that was reflected in the practical arts and crafts-leaning nature of the various tie-in books.

Picture Book was produced by Lingstrom with Bird credited as Editor, while Gibson and Atterbury returned to operate the puppets and Charles E Stidwell provided narration for some of the inserts. 26 editions were made between 1955 and 1957, and a further new batch would be made nearly a decade later. Their constant repeat rotation would later cause some amusement to Patricia Driscoll, who received letters from viewers offering to buy her a new dress to replace the one that they had seen her wearing week in, week out for years on end.

Although again somewhat less well-remembered than its contemporaries – several viewers actually wrote in to the BBC’s mid-1980s trivia show Fax asking what the show in the Monday slot was as they were unable to remember – Picture Book was a well-realised programme that represented forward-thinking use of the possibilities of television for the entertainment of very young children. Its one weak point when viewed from a modern perspective is the use of stiffly formal classical music over an equally formal illustration of a static kaleidoscope image as an introduction, but even this was to have a lasting and important influence. Recalling this image, the producers of Jackanory would later elect to use a moving kaleidoscope to introduce their own programme.

With four days of the week occupied by Watch With Mother, the fifth could not realistically remain unoccupied for long, and Friday 9 September 1955 brought the debut appearance of The Woodentops. As was explained at some length in the opening titles, this told the story of a wooden family (mother, father, baby, twins Willie and Jenny), the employees who worked on their farm, and their over-energetic pet Spotty Dog. Their adventures were generally of a rather mundane and uninspiring variety, usually involving nothing more exciting than the baby’s insistence on throwing its blankets away and including an awful lot of singing and dancing by the twins, but having taken notice of what worked well in their earlier ventures, the producers made sure to include a good deal of Bill and Ben-style knockabout comedy courtesy of the manic, oversized, ear-flailing Spotty Dog. Generally seen thundering across the set, howling insanely and “reacting” to events in an alarming fashion, Spotty rapidly became the focal point of the show, and it is partly through his endearing presence that they have a noticeably less archaic feel than the other Westerham Arts productions. There were also several episodes in which he was heard to sing, an event that really does defy description.

The Woodentops was created by Maria Bird, who also wrote the scripts and the music, and production duties were as ever handled by Bird and Freda Lingstrom. The puppetry was by Gibson and Atterbury, with – significantly – the assistance of Gordon Murray, supervisor of the BBC Puppet Theatre and later himself to become heavily involved with some of the most memorable Watch With Mother shows. As if to signify that the practice of providing pre-school television entertainment was a constantly evolving process, The Woodentops was the first Watch With Mother show to feature “proper” dialogue and individual character voices. The tones of Willie, the baby and the mother were provided by radio actress Josefina Ray, with longtime Listen With Mother presenter Eileen Browne as Jenny, and Peter Hawkins as Spotty Dog and all of the male characters. 26 episodes were made between 1955 and 1958, with the usual handful remade for unknown reasons.

Westerham Arts were also actively involved in many other television productions of the day, such as The Magic Doll’s House for ITV, which featured input from Whitred, Gibson and Atterbury, and indeed they would continue to contribute new shows to the Watch With Mother roster for years to come. It is this original set of five programmes, however, that remains their greatest achievement and contribution to broadcasting history. As pioneering efforts they are virtually without equivalent, and the fact that each show effectively held a different set of strengths and weaknesses, and thereby complemented each other well in the weekly schedule, confirms just how untested this form of entertainment was and how much of a success they managed to make of their endeavours. Albeit with varying degrees of clarity, the five shows themselves are remembered with an enormous amount of warmth and fondness, in a manner that stretches beyond the usual confines of straightforward nostalgic value. They were not simply perfect for their time – and as shall be seen, this original line-up of shows would remain constant for the best part of a decade – but also were based around timeless and highly original and imaginative creations, some of whom would find their popularity outlasting even that of Watch With Mother itself.

<Part One