Part Eight: “I Think I’ll Have … Strawberry”

By TJ Worthington

First published August 2006

Despite the boom in new programming over the previous few years, the early 1970s were a time of mixed fortunes for Watch With Mother. The timeslot enjoyed a sufficiently high status to be extended to cover the whole week in 1972, with 9am Saturday and 1.15pm Sunday slots established to complement the regular weekday showings at 1.30pm.

Less than 12 months later, however, the future of Watch With Mother in its current form was in doubt. As early as 1969, some senior figures within the Children’s Department had voiced concern that the assumption children would actually be watching with their parent was rapidly becoming an anachronism, as indeed were some of the older programmes still lingering under its banner. Their concerns took a long time to gather, but in 1973 Radio Times took the bold step of dropping the Watch With Mother umbrella title from their listings, using a change of weekday scheduling to 1.45pm as a convenient excuse to do so.

It is most likely no coincidence that this period of uncertainty also saw some radical changes to the production set up. With only two exceptions, all previous Watch With Mother offerings had been wholly or partially the work of independent production companies. Virtually all of them had been dominated by animation, and only one had been shot on videotape rather than film (and even that was transferred to film for broadcast purposes). In 1972, however, the decision was taken to experiment with in-house productions fronted by human presenters, and recorded on videotape in the BBC’s own television studios. In effect, they would have the same sort of budget allocation and production schedule as the BBC’s long-running pre-school programme Play School.

With this in mind, the first programme to be made under the new regime was entrusted to that programme’s veteran producer, Cynthia Felgate, and a presenter and director who had also worked on the show for several years: Derek Griffiths. Like many of his contemporaries on the programme, Griffiths had started his professional career as a teacher, but his aspirations as a singer/songwriter and ability as a boisterous physical performer saw to it that by his mid-20s he had abandoned academic life in favour of the theatre and folk clubs. One of the first black performers to become a recognisable television “name”, much of his early television work was in fact in adult-orientated comedy, notably Up Pompeii! and the one-off Private Eye TV. He was also frequently seen in sitcoms that explored race relations issues such as Mind Your Own Business (starring Griffiths and Tony Selby as a pair of mixed-race brothers) and, somewhat more provocatively, Till Death Us Do Part.

Early in 1971, a recommendation from a producer he had worked with saw him join the team of regular Play School presenters, and later that year he was a natural choice to join the cast of Play Away, a newly-launched spin-off aimed at older children and featuring improvisation-based slapstick comedy.

Peter Charlton, the original director of Play Away, had worked on Play School as a writer and Felgate felt he and Griffiths would be an ideal pairing for the new show, Ring-a-Ding. Compared to the complexity of production of some earlier Watch With Mother programmes, the format of Ring-a-Ding was simplicity itself – on a spartan studio set furnished with a handful of props, a few basic items of costume and a couple of illustrated boards, Griffiths improvised around a story and accompanying song. In some regards this had much in common with Cabbages and Kings, a 1972 Play School spin-off in which Griffiths and his fellow presenters acted out simplified versions of famous historical stories. But by all accounts Ring-a-Ding – so spartan in its approach that its opening titles consisted of nothing more than a static caption card – made its contemporary look like a big budget epic in comparison. The reasons for this were not entirely budgetary. As with the earlier Fingerbobs, the intention behind its ultra-basic approach was to encourage imaginative play among the viewers.

Although Charlton planned and scripted the episodes proper, the actual stories were mostly the work of other writers. Many of these would already have been familiar to the audience. Both Janet Lynch Watson’s “All the Fish in the Sea” and Charlton’s own “Ricky’s Aeroplane” had been regularly featured on Play School, while other Ring-a-Ding writers like Richard Greening and Jean Watson had also contributed stories. The illustrations were also provided by regular Play School artists, including Lawrence Henry, Mina Martinez and Hilary Hayton. It’s therefore entirely possible Ring-a-Ding was originally conceived as an effective way of recycling existing artwork and story material in a new format.

Running to a mere seven minutes apiece, the 13 editions of the show were combined with Teddy Edward to fill up the 15-minute Watch With Mother timeslot, and were first seen on Friday 5 January 1973. The series would be repeated many times during the 1970s, but has since seemingly been all but forgotten. In fairness, there were so many programmes featuring Derek Griffiths telling stories in a similar setting around that time it’s perfectly understandable it would not have stood out in the memory.

As such, it isn’t entirely clear whether or not a rumoured Ring-a-Ding storybook and album actually existed, although what is more certain is the opening theme was included on the 1976 BBC Records release Music From BBC Children’s Programmes, accompanied by the “Ricky’s Aeroplane” song as taken from one of the Play School albums. This compilation also featured compositions from several other Watch With Mother shows and some rare BBC Radiophonic Workshop items in the form of the themes and incidental music from Doctor Who, The Changes and, curiously, the adult sci-fi drama Moonbase 3. The inclusion of the latter items has created a huge demand for the now-scarce album in recent years, and it now commands a price tag that is rather in excess of what might be reasonably expected for 40 seconds of obscure Derek Griffiths.

Also featured on the release were two songs taken from another more well-remembered studio-based show that made its debut later in 1973. Michael and Joanne Cole (more Play School veterans) had experimented with surreal wit and low-tech animation in their earlier Watch With Mother effort Fingerbobs, and for their next project both of these themes were pushed to the fore. Not a great distance from what slightly older viewers would have been enjoying in Play Away at the time, Ragtime combined riddles and word games with comic songs and sketches, acted out by two humans and a huge cast of home-made “puppets”. The two humans in question were Fred Harris (another teacher turned comic turned Play School presenter) and Maggie Henderson, a young actress who had emerged from the same comedy revue scene that had previously given rise to the early 1960s satire boom and provided early exposure for future cast members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Goodies.

Their non-human counterparts, on the other hand, almost literally defy description. Created by Joanne Cole from cast-off pieces of cloth, the huge ensemble of gaudy, brightly coloured stuffed performers – some of which were originally toys made for their children – included a Humpty-like rhyming character called Bubble, pun-loving dachshund Dax, brash tiger hand puppet Humbug (who spoke like some sort of relic from the glory days of the British Empire), and a band of wild-haired musicians who looked disconcertingly like they had escaped from Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention.

Accompanying them were a small army of “spoons” – literally wooden kitchen spoons with faces drawn on them – who numbered among their ranks Mr Porridge, Mr Jelly, Mrs Custard, Miss Sponge, Mrs Ragamuffin and, slightly more dubiously, Mr Curry. Added to the main cast were all manner of footballers, chimpanzees, policemen and other supporting performers, and all of the soft toys and spoons alike “lived” in the capacious green Ragtime Bag, emerging as and when they were needed for songs or stories.

The title Ragtime was a deliberate play on words, obviously referring to the home-made “old rags” nature of the puppets, but also obliquely to Joanne Cole’s love of ragtime jazz, an influence that itself would colour the series by virtue of both its vaudevillian tradition and its musical style (most clearly manifested in the energetic piano-pounding banjo-twanging theme song). That it should have such an amusingly punning title was no accident – Ragtime was crammed full of such linguistic tomfoolery, not only in the songs and stories but also in the fantastic linking segments.

Fired by the Coles’ shared enthusiasm for Monty Python and The Goons, these had the air of madcap, freewheeling surrealist lunacy as characters read out impromptu William McGonagall-esque poems, Humbug fared very badly in word games played against Fred Harris, puppets held absurdist conversations between themselves, and puns were flung around as if there was a surplus stock to be disposed of (“This is where a dachshund ducks und gets out of der way!”). Although elements of humour had featured in several previous Watch With Mother shows, Ragtime was the first and ultimately the only one to be played for laughs outright.

In tandem with this approach, the featured stories were noticeably more comical and Edward Lear-inspired than those featured in other Watch With Mother programmes, such as the tale of Oliver Grope, a man who never gave up hope while pursuing some slip-slip-slippery soap halfway across the world. Alongside them, the songs were jubilant numbers inspired in equal measure by soul and music hall. Unsurprisingly, it’s these songs – written by the Coles and set to music by pianist Peter Gosling and percussionist Dave Moses (who had previously played in a folk duo with Play School presenter Johnnie Silvo) – which tend to be the best remembered feature of Ragtime, ranging from the verbal frivolity of “I Bumped into So-and-So” and “Glide Don’t Flap” to the low-key balladry of “Changes” and “There’s a Word For It” the Spoon-rapping funk of “Motorists Are We” and perhaps most memorable and indeed baffling of all, the megaphone-equipped 1920s-style crooning of a group of chimps enjoying afternoon tea and smashing crockery whilst Dax dived for cover.

Again some of the items would have been familiar to viewers. The song “10 Chimney Pots”, for example, was regularly featured in Play School, while the story of Jerome and the Lion, reinterpreted here as an infectious gospel choir singalong, had earlier formed the basis for an episode of Fingerbobs.

13 episodes of Ragtime were first shown from Wednesday 3 October 1973, and recognition for this unusual and imaginative show came very quickly when, barely two months later, it won the 1973 BAFTA award (or SFTA, as it was still known in those days) for Best Children’s Programme, presented to Michael Cole by Princess Anne. The BBC were equally impressed, and in a rare move for a Watch With Mother show, commissioned a second set of 13 episodes to air the following year. It has occasionally been claimed these were in fact re-edits of the original episodes, with new material shot to replace the rather caricatured Mr Curry. This was not the case, however. The second set featured both Mr Curry and entirely brand new material, and after their debut showing from Sunday 22 December 1974, were intermingled with the first series in subsequent repeat runs.

Repeats would in fact continue into the 1980s and right up to the end of Watch With Mother itself, and while this remarkable series has sadly not been seen since then, tantalising glimpses remain in the form of two superior items of tie-in merchandise. The book It’s Ragtime is filled with poems, lyrics and other material extracted from the series, as well as stunning colour photographs of the puppets, while the Ragtime album released by BBC Records in 1974 deserves special mention. Although specially recorded, the album effectively replicates the show in sound only – insane introductory bickering by Humbug, Dax and The Pianist and all – bolstered by impressive readings of many of the songs. Tackled by a much larger band of musicians that included legendary session organist Graham Walker, the end result is a collection of tunes that genuinely sound like brass and electric piano-drenched offcuts from some obscure 1970s Philly Soul label. The main highlights are the soulful, muted “There Was a Pool of Water” and the startling “Song Sing”, a propulsive funk gem with a wild organ solo that sounds more like it originated from the upper reaches of the pop charts than a children’s television programme.

It’s Ragtime was just one of a long list of children’s books that Michael and Joanne Cole would work on both jointly and individually. Even aside from the many titles based on their television shows, they were involved with a great many others including such noted works as Wet Albert, The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark and the long-running Kate and Sam series, but it was their very first effort that would prove to have the most significant legacy.

In 1962, while the Cole family were living in the South of France, Michael came up with the idea for a story called Bod’s Apple, inspired by experiencing a particularly vivid springtime in the rural surroundings after a correspondingly bitter winter. Working with Joanne as an illustrator, he completed the book upon his return to the UK and was able to secure a publishing deal with Methuen.

Bod, a smooth-headed Buddha-like child figure, lives in a simplistic “town” that is little more than a white void (which would become green for television) punctuated by occasional buildings and objects. His only known neighbours are Aunt Flo, Farmer Barleymow, Frank the Postman and the officious PC Copper, an old-fashioned constable who clearly attended the same training college as PC Knapweed from The Herbs. Their days are generally taken up with Bod’s philosophical zen-like ruminations on ordinary everyday objects such as strawberries, envelopes and, in this debut outing, what would happen if an apple was thrown up in the air but did not come back down again. Influenced by elements of Eastern philosophy, and visually by Picasso’s images of fauns, the Coles were keen to make Bod’s Apple a more timeless work than most other children’s books of the time, and a measure of how successful they were in this aim can be gauged from the fact that many people are surprised to learn it was first published as long ago as 1965.

Over the following two years Bod’s Apple was joined by Bod’s Present, Bod’s Dream and Bod and The Cherry Tree. All four books were also published in the USA and France. By the late 1960s, the Coles had become involved with the production of Play School, which led to the four Bod books being featured as stories on the show.

In 1974, aware the books were enjoying continued popularity, Michael Cole began to think about producing an animated version for television broadcast. Eventually a further nine stories were written and, in keeping with the established BBC policy on animated children’s shows, he formed his own production company Bodfilms to make 13 five-minute episodes. These were directed by David Yates, and animated by Alan Rogers with assistance from the Coles’ young daughter Alison. From these small-scale beginnings all three would go on to become respected figures in the industry.

The dry narration was provided by John Le Mesurier, selected because Michael Cole was a huge fan of his work in Dad’s Army, and the musical cues were composed and performed by Derek Griffiths. Although extremely brief – even when put together they barely scrape a combined total of 60 seconds – these musical cues were to become fondly remembered by virtue of their sheer oddness. Essentially free-form jazz as performed by penny whistle, clarinet, violin, stand up bass, drums and a yodelling Griffiths, the short pieces succeed in conveying the flavour of their assigned characters (especially PC Copper’s militaristic “pa-pa-pa-pom pom pom”), in sounding utterly spontaneous and improvised, and in being maddeningly catchy; qualities that all sat perfectly with the absurdist feel of the show itself.

It is not entirely clear whether Bod was originally intended for a timeslot aimed at slightly older children, or if it had been intended to be combined with another shorter Watch With Mother show in the manner of Teddy Edward and Ring-a-Ding, but whatever the case the BBC decided that the five minute shows should be extended to 15 in order to fit the timeslot. This was achieved through the addition of an extra nine minutes of animated material for each show, all of it shot on videotape at the BBC and devised by the Coles and narrated by Maggie Henderson. The most substantial feature of this new material was a set of stories concerning Alberto Frog, leader of the Amazing Animal Band, a touring orchestral ensemble who frequently came to the aid of problem-stricken villagers and entrepreneurs on their travels. Alberto’s chosen reward for helping out was invariably a milkshake, leading to a weekly guessing game in which members of the orchestra speculated on his likely choice of flavour.

Also brought on board were many other counting songs and guessing games, and each episode would conclude with a game of “snap” using playing cards bearing the images of Bod and his friends (“Bod and Barleymow … no, that’s not snap!”).

The peculiar adventures of Bod and company, which have one foot in meditative wisdom and the other in surrealist humour certainly seemed to catch on with viewers, as did the other regular features. First seen from Tuesday 23 December 1975, the episodes were thereafter shown on average twice a year, and Bod became one of the few shows to survive beyond the end of Watch With Mother. In addition to this, nine new storybooks were produced to match the television total of 13, remaining in print for many years and indeed later used as part of the BBC’s late 1980s Play School replacement, Playdays. This ongoing popularity is not difficult to understand. Despite the differing forms of animation involved, the programme is essentially a product of the same approach that had been used to such great effect and acclaim in the creation of Ragtime.

Not long afterwards, Michael Cole acted as producer for Playboard, another 13-episode series that received the first of many showings from Sunday 3 October 1976 (it was, in fact, the only Watch With Mother programme to make its debut in one of the weekend slots). Unusually, Playboard was not named after any character or location in the show itself, but rather after the distinctive puppet theatre company that produced it.

John Thirtle and Ian Allen had formed Playboard Puppets in 1971, starting off with small scale shows in libraries and parks but later graduating to become one of the most successful British touring puppet theatre companies. Their distinctive creations have appeared in many television shows, perhaps most prominently in Button Moon and Rainbow but also in shows as diverse as Top of the Pops and That’s Life!, and in commercials for Harvest Crunch and NatWest.

Devised and designed by Allen and Thirtle, Playboard always began by introducing the viewer to Hedge and Mo, a hedgehog and mole who lived just outside the Playtent, a circus big top-style marquee that played host to entertainment provided by Max the Magician, Lily Kettle the ghost train operator, the juggling family Bill, Arabella and Kathy Bright, Jo the clown and Shahid the snake charmer – the latter perhaps being best remembered on account of his regular coaxing of a puppet snake from a wicker basket. Hedge and Mo would watch as the performers set up the play tent for the day’s main performance, and then the ensuing retelling of a well-known fairy story or folk tale as a song and dance extravaganza. Interestingly, the whole programme was presented almost in “fly on the wall” fashion as seen by the two rodents.

Playboard was written and directed by Judy Whitfield, then the director of Play Away and later to be the driving force behind a number of BBC children’s shows including Lift Off! With Coppers & Co, Bodger and Badger, Dear Heart and Tweenies, while Allen and Thirtle were assisted by puppeteers Chris Hitchens and Angie Passmore, the latter of whom was one of many Watch With Mother graduates to go on to work with Jim Henson. The narration and songs were provided by Christopher Lillicrap. Although he in fact began his television career with a little-recalled stint as a Play School presenter, the versatile actor, writer, artist and musician was to become more commonly associated with ITV’s children’s output, and Playboard represented one of the comparatively few occasions on which he was seen (or rather heard) on the BBC until his move into work on schools’ programming in the late 1980s.

Although Playboard, Bod, Ragtime and Ring-a-Ding were all varied as programmes both in their stylistic approach and in terms of content, as an experiment into the possibilities of small-scale studio-based videotaped programmes they were very successful indeed. Evidence of this can be seen from the sheer number of times they were repeated alone. On a more abstract level, however, the production set up allowed for a sense of energy and immediacy that had never been possible with previous Watch With Mother shows. Even something as simple as basic visuals accompanied by an unseen tambourine-bashing Maggie Henderson singing 10 Green Bottles could seem somehow more direct than filmed animation, and it is interesting to note that from the early 1980s onwards, the BBC would commission an ever-increasing number of similar shows, many of them helmed by Michael Cole, to incorporate into all corners of their children’s output. Indeed, there would later be some further Watch With Mother shows made in similar conditions.

However, while the videotape format allowed all manner of artistic possibilities, by its very nature the one thing it could not ensure was the long-term survival of the programmes themselves.

<Part Seven