Part Three: “Now Where Shall We Find The Pogles?”

By TJ Worthington

First published January 2006

By the time The Woodentops had made its debut on Watch With Mother, it had grown from being an unsteady experimental tryout into a sturdy and durable cornerstone of the BBC’s television scheduling. They had amassed a library of five separate popular shows amounting to well over 20 episodes each, meaning that even with just two showings of every edition, they had an entire year’s worth of pre-school output available with – the odd necessary remake aside – no further financial outlay needed.

Watch With Mother itself may have been subject to the occasional variation – in 1959 it was moved to 2.30pm, and in 1962 it would have its timeslot changed on no less than three occasions, first being shunted back to 2pm, followed by a brief spell at the somewhat unusual hour of 10.30am, before finally arriving back at 2.30pm towards the end of the year – but its personnel of yowling dogs, moth-eaten teddy bears and interactive books would remain constant for almost a decade.

10 years, however, is a long time in television terms. As enduringly popular as the original shows may have been, they were nonetheless the products of more technologically limited times, when producing television for a very young audience was still a new concept and in stylistic terms heavily indebted to its equivalents in other media. In addition to this, the 1960s were to prove a time of huge social change and artistic innovation, and while it would be fanciful to suggest this had a direct effect on Watch With Mother (although, as shall be seen, its influence did inform some later occupants of the slot), all the same it is true to say broadcasters were becoming increasingly aware of the possibilities of their chosen medium and audiences were getting used to more sophisticated forms of entertainment. Most significantly, a full colour television service was extremely close to becoming a reality. The upshot of all this was that certain of the Watch With Mother shows – and Rag, Tag and Bobtail in particular – were starting to look somewhat anachronistic.

Perhaps reluctant to tamper with an established formula, not to mention wary of the associated costs, the BBC avoided making any changes to Watch With Mother for quite some time. By 1963, however, it was obvious some new shows would have to be added to the roster sooner or later, and to facilitate their eventual smooth and unobtrusive introduction a second Watch With Mother slot was established at 10.45am, to complement the afternoon showing which was also brought forward to 1.30pm. For a time both slots were occupied by the original five shows, albeit in a shuffled order, but in December a new programme was finally introduced.

Produced by Riverbank Productions in Canada between 1959 and 1963, Tales of the Riverbank was an ambitious show that used live animals in lieu of more easily controllable (although, on the evidence of some of the earlier Watch With Mother productions, this was scarcely obvious) puppets. The show centred around three rodent friends – Hammy Hamster, Roddy Rat and Guinea the Guinea Pig – who lived rather urbane and sophisticated lives in an authentic riverbank setting, not only residing in fully furnished houses but also owning such unlikely lifestyle accessories as motorised jeeps and typewriters. Production of the shows was doubtless a complicated affair, involving as it did miniaturised props, unpredictable animals (although one highly successful trick for getting them to give the required on-camera performance was to smear the object they were supposed to be “using” with cheese or jam), and double-speed film so that their movements would actually be intelligible when played back at normal speed. However, the effort required was well worth it as Tales of the Riverbank turned out as a beautiful and charming series with remarkable cinematography.

The creation of producer Roy Billings and director Dave Ellison, it would eventually run to 52 episodes, the majority of which were written by Ellison, Charles Fullman, and veteran screen writing duo Paul Sutherland and Cliff Braggins (probably best known for writing the Buster Keaton feature The Scribe). Sutherland also performed narration duties, joined by Peggy Mahon when female characters were introduced in later years. In this format the series was sold to 34 countries around the world, but while the BBC were extremely keen on it, they were reluctant to install a series that made such prominent use of Canadian accents into a slot aimed at impressionable young viewers, and set about producing their own more suitable adaptation.

26 episodes of Tales of the Riverbank were purchased by the BBC to be adapted by staff writer Peggy Miller and provided with fresh narration by Johnny Morris. Something of a children’s television veteran even in those early days, Morris had first come to prominence as “The Hot Chestnut Man” in the BBC’s Playbox strand (which also gave early exposure to Rolf Harris and Tony Hart) between 1953 and 1961, a storytelling role that he had apparently initially improvised when technical problems required a slot to be filled in the live broadcast at short notice. His most famous work, Animal Magic, began its 20 year-plus run in 1962, but it was earlier that same year he first demonstrated his wonderful talent for “personalizing” animals by lending his vocal talents to Tales of the Riverbank.

Hammy Hamster and friends were initially seen on the BBC as part of the regular afternoon children’s programming on Friday 23 November 1962, but the following year the decision was taken to relocate the show, and Tales of the Riverbank made its debut as part of Watch With Mother on Monday 30 December 1963. Oddly this seems to have been the cause of a minor furore, with several correspondents contacting the BBC and various newspapers to express their disapproval at the thought that The Woodentops and company might be phased out to make way for new programming. The BBC’s diplomatic response was to reassure viewers their intention was to run new shows alongside old ones in a rotating cycle, but even then it was obvious some were not to remain part of this cycle for long. Rag, Tag and Bobtail made their last slow-paced shuffle along the screen in December 1965, while Picture Book was subject to a rather more unexpected development.

Early in 1963, the decision was taken to replace the long-serving 12 original Picture Book films with a set of 17 new ones. Westerham Arts were perhaps unsurprisingly entrusted with the responsibility for producing these, and in fact the only major change to the cast and crew for this remount was the introduction of Vera McKechnie (whom of course had previously worked with Westerham Arts as the narrator of Andy Pandy) as presenter to replace the unavailable Patricia Driscoll. Watching examples from the two distinct eras of Picture Book back to back is an interesting experience; structurally, very little changes between the two (barring the absence of characters from other Watch With Mother shows from the animated inserts, itself perhaps another indication that major changes to the content of the timeslot were under consideration), but the 1963 editions have a much more technically smooth and accomplished feel to them, and proceed at what modern audiences would find to be a more familiar pace.

In truth, this revival of Picture Book says more about the prohibitive cost of the projected plans to expand Watch With Mother than it does about any belief in the lasting worth of the series itself. While remaking an existing programme that had been quite happily repeated for years on end may seem like an unnecessarily expensive move, in actuality it was far more cost-effective than commissioning a new show outright, as all of the scripts and puppets already existed and nothing had to be developed from scratch. In effect, these new episodes had the added benefit of creating the illusion of something “new” being added to Watch With Mother, and it is clear that at first the budget to develop new shows simply was not available. Tales of the Riverbank had already been purchased and adapted for broadcast by the BBC before it ended up in the timeslot, and when newly-made shows finally did start to appear three years later, even one of those had to all intents and purposes been appropriated from elsewhere on the BBC.

Oliver Postgate had been trying to break into television animation since the early 1950s, when he pitched the idea of a series featuring a violin-playing pig to the BBC (who ultimately rejected it), but it wasn’t until later in the decade, while working as a prop designer at Associated Rediffusion, that he managed to get a foot in the door. The first animated series he worked on was Alexander the Mouse, a live programme involving magnetically operated puppets. While the series benefited from the first flourishes of Postgate’s flair for imaginative storytelling, displaying considerable ambition in the unusual narrative about a mouse who discovers he has royal ancestry, it was severely hampered by its rather unconventional approach to animation, and according to the animator it was not unusual for broadcasts to be interrupted by the puppets toppling over when put into contact with the wrong magnetic poles, or, more distractingly still, by intrusive human hands setting them back the right way up. Undeterred, Postgate went on to construct his own equipment for film-making at home, and in 1958 he created The Journey of Master Ho, a dialogue-free serial that he was keen to ensure was as accessible to deaf children as it was to other viewers.

Also working at Associated Rediffusion at this time was Peter Firmin, an artist who provided hand-operated card animations for The Musical Box, a storytelling programme hosted by Rolf Harris. Postgate and Firmin began to work together in 1958, later adopting the production banner Smallfilms, and their first joint venture was Ivor the Engine. This hand-drawn animated series about an intelligent steam engine working in a remote corner of rural Wales was not only their first major success but also introduced several elements that would become synonymous with their productions; most notably the idiosyncratic musical scores of classical bassoonist and head of the Birmingham Philharmonia Vernon Elliot, and Postgate’s expressive, archaic and faintly otherworldly style of narration, which he modelled on Richard Burton’s celebrated 1954 reading of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood for BBC Radio.

In total, 32 episodes of Ivor the Engine were made for Associated Rediffusion (they would be remade in colour for the BBC in 1975), which were much loved by the company. It is reputed their boardroom meetings were scheduled to avoid conflicting with the broadcasts, and they would continue to repeat the series regularly right up until they lost their broadcasting license in 1968. Associated Rediffusion in fact wanted even more films to be made, but Postgate and Firmin felt Ivor the Engine had run its course and were keen to explore a new idea, which was promptly rejected by the company. Smallfilms promptly took their series to a more receptive BBC, and, in 1959, produced the first of many sagas of Noggin the Nog. They did, however, return to ITV the following year – by which time they had constructed an entire home studio in a disused barn on Firmin’s farmhouse – for their first stop-motion animated puppet series Pingwings.

Several more series involving mainly drawn animation followed in the early 1960s, and in 1965 they were commissioned to make a new stop-motion series for the BBC. Shown as part of Clapperboard, a showcase of mainly imported short films that formed part of the BBC’s main children’s output, the six episode story of The Pogles was broadcast from 29 July 1965. The Pogles in question were Amos and Edna, humanlike woodland creatures who lived in a tree root and found themselves having to protect the infant son of the Fairy King from a malevolent witch intent on stealing his crown. It has often been claimed that The Pogles had been made for Watch With Mother but was considered too sinister for the timeslot and shoved into a position more suited to older children when the BBC were unsure of what to do with it. In fact it is more likely a pilot edition had been prospectively made with Watch With Mother in mind, and was shown to the BBC who suggested that a later timeslot would be more appropriate; certainly the fact that Postgate appeared on an edition of Clapperboard to discuss the series would seem to bear this out.

Doreen Stephens, who on becoming Head of Family Programming in 1964 had taken on responsibility for Watch With Mother, still felt there was some further potential in the idea and met Postgate and Firmin to discuss ways of making The Pogles more suitable for younger viewers. Postgate had already formulated ideas for a follow-up involving a second encounter with the Witch as the baby boy (now renamed Pippin) was growing up, but this was abandoned when it became clear that such a storyline would not be considered suitable for Watch With Mother. Some accounts suggest the BBC were specifically unhappy with the idea of a witch appearing in a children’s programme, but judging from the sheer volume of other contemporaneous efforts that involved such characters in some capacity (not to mention stories featured on Jackanory), it is more likely the perceived problem was with the dark and sinister tone of the programme as a whole. Stephens’ suggested solution was to make Pippin into the focus of the show together with his newly-created companion, the striped squirrel-like creature Tog, and to base their adventures around semi-educative exploration of the woodland world around them. This was considered a more than acceptable compromise by all concerned, although one unfortunate side-effect was that the original series of The Pogles was dropped by the BBC out of concern unsuspecting followers of the new more upbeat adventures might stumble across it by accident. To this day, it has not been seen since its two showings in the mid-1960s.

Pogle’s Wood, as it was now renamed, made its debut as part of Watch With Mother on Monday 4 July 1966, coinciding with the removal of the additional early morning slot from the schedules. The 13 episodes were filmed in and around Firmin’s home studio, often on sets furnished with real turf freshly cut from outdoors, but sometimes in genuine exterior locations as well. The sophisticated puppets, which boasted interchangeable heads to allow for changes in facial expression, were occasionally joined by neighbouring creatures such as the Pipe Cleaner Family (created from real Pipe Cleaners by Firmin’s wife Joan) and the odd hand or foot of an oblivious human interloper, and their adventures were interspersed with segments of basic drawn animation to accompany stories or songs. As was usual for Smallfilms’ productions, Firmin was responsible for the puppets and settings and Postgate provided the scripts and narration, joined for the latter by Steve Woodman as Tog and Olwen Griffiths (a veteran voiceover artist who had also contributed to Ivor the Engine as Mrs Pogle. The soundtrack was once again provided by Vernon Elliot, whose spindly string and woodwind inserts recorded with his quartet went quite some way towards creating the convincingly realistic atmosphere of the shows. This is hardly surprising; Elliot’s usual working method was to base his compositions on doodles that Postgate had provided to represent the peaks and troughs of the onscreen action.

A second set of 13 largely studio-bound episodes were added to the roster in 1968, and all 26 would continue to be shown well into the early 1970s, but ultimately the monochrome nature of Pogle’s Wood has meant that, although fondly remembered, it enjoyed a shorter shelf life than many of Postgate and Firmin’s other creations, some of which were of course subsequent occupants of the Watch With Mother slot. This is unfortunate, as not only does it represent the first substantial manifestation of the techniques that would inform their best-known works, but it is also a charming and beautifully animated series with a quaint atmosphere. The series gave rise to a good deal of associated merchandise, including a series of storybooks based around specially-created full colour photographs of the puppets in their original settings, but perhaps its most significant legacy is that the series lent its name to a new children’s comic that would run for many years and feature strips based on many Watch With Mother shows – Pippin.

Only three months later, Watch With Mother finally abandoned its intentionally timeless fantasy-based world of Pogles, Woodentops and jeep-driving guinea pigs with the arrival of Joe. The series came about as the result of a chance meeting between writer Alison Prince (who adopted her chosen career after winning a story writing competition for the BBC’s Children’s Hour at the age of 12) and illustrator Joan Hickson (not the actress of the same name) when they were both taking their children for a walk in the park. Their meeting was an uncannily close echo of that which had led to the creation of Watch With Mother in the first place, but when they commenced work together it was with a far more contemporary vision and a keenness to engage children with stories that related to their experiences of everyday life. Joe, the inquisitive young son of parents who ran a transport café, first appeared in a series of storybooks, with Hickson’s distinctive artwork lending a strong sense of modern urban design. When a friend suggested the concept would work well on television they took matters into their own hands and made a four minute demonstration film based on one of the original stories. They had envisaged perhaps creating films to be used as short inserts on Play School, but Doreen Stephens was sufficiently impressed to request 13 full-length films for Watch With Mother.

Thus it was that Joe became the first Watch With Mother show to be produced entirely in-house at the BBC. Prince and Hickson worked on the scripts and illustrations before they were recorded, on a video camera that simply panned and zoomed where required to create a rudimentary illusion of “animation”. A distinctive and notably contemporary jazzy score was provided by Laurie Steele (an EP featuring some of his music from the series now changes hands for considerable sums), and the narration was provided by Lee Montague, a young actor who had also recently acted as storyteller for the very first week of Jackanory. Owing to the technological limitations of the day, each episode of Joe had to be recorded as live, and Prince remembers Montague having to have a stiff drink to calm his nerves beforehand.

First shown on Monday 3 October 1966, Joe was quite unlike anything that had previously been transmitted under the Watch With Mother banner, but nonetheless its tales of recognisable everyday life struck a chord with the target audience, with the result that storybooks and annuals based around the character would continue to be regularly published well into the following decade. However, not everybody was quite so impressed. Some adult viewers wrote in to express concern over the fact Joe lived in a dangerous environment and was often seen nosing around the lorries belonging to the café’s patrons. The fact that he was always admonished by his parents for doing so (“Oh Joe, why did you do it?”) seemed to make little difference, and eventually an organised campaign by a pressure group known as The Young Wives’ League saw to it that after only a handful of showings, Joe was dropped from the schedules.

Alison Prince, who like Joan Hickson was a young wife herself at the time, remains mildly critical of the decision and not unreasonably suggests that it was a knee-jerk response to a somewhat disproportionate campaign. The BBC clearly were not acting out of any dislike of the series itself, though and Hickson and Prince were encouraged to develop potential new ideas for Watch With Mother, and also to consider ways in which Joe itself could be brought back. In time both would become heavily involved with other shows for the timeslot.

Doreen Stephens would leave the post of Head of Family Programming in 1967 to be replaced by Monica Sims. Her successor would do much to encourage and instigate a flood of new shows for Watch With Mother, but even in her relatively short stint in the role, it was Stephens who had laid much of the groundwork for this, and one of her final decisions was to drop Picture Book from the schedules. Even in its modernised incarnation it sat rather uneasily with more recent trends in children’s programming, and by the close of 1966 its pages had been turned for the last time.

However, this was not quite the last that would be seen of its contents, as Westerham Arts were asked to make a new series featuring Picture Book alumnus Bizzy Lizzy. Graduating from her humble origins as a rather repetitive cutout animation, Bizzy Lizzy now became a fully three-dimensional marionette, and a noticeably more smoothly designed and operated one than her earlier stablemates at that. The basic conceit of a magic wishing flower on her dress was retained, but Lizzy’s horizons were broadened accordingly to allow for wish-assisted traveling across great distances, and she was joined in this by her doll Little Mo, with her inaugural wish always being for her companion to come to life. The 13 new films, first shown from Tuesday 4 April 1967, featured the usual Westerham Arts team, although perhaps with the repositioning of their traditional style to suit modern audience demands in mind, overall production responsibility was assigned to Children’s Department veteran and producer of the groundbreaking Vision On, Ursula Eason.

Unfortunately, the one thing Bizzy Lizzy couldn’t wish for was a longer stay in the Watch With Mother schedules. Although popular, the shelf life of the series was limited by its monochrome nature, and like many of its contemporaries the series only made it a short distance past the launch of the BBC’s full colour broadcasting service in 1970. With that monumental change on the horizon it was clear a considerable volume of new colour shows would need to be available, but fortunately for the Children’s department, one astute producer had been planning for this for quite some time.

<Part Two