Part Four: “Here is a Box, a Musical Box…”

By TJ Worthington

First published February 2006

Like many of the puppeteers who worked on the early Watch With Mother shows, Gordon Murray’s background was in live theatre. His interest in the art form was more than simply professional, and as a child his hobby had been making and operating puppets to perform shows for his friends and family. In adulthood he formed his own puppet theatre company, Murray’s Marionettes, and it was at one of their performances he met the BBC’s Head of Children’s Television, Freda Lingstrom.

Impressed by his skill and knowledge, she initially employed Murray to operate Spotty Dog in The Woodentops, but such was his enthusiasm and ability on several levels it soon became clear he had far more to offer. Within months Murray had graduated to the role of producer, one of his charges being John Ryan’s animated series Captain Pugwash, and in time would be appointed head of the BBC Puppet Theatre. Although such a department would no doubt operate on a far smaller scale nowadays, back in the early days of television the BBC Puppet Theatre was held in very high regard, and their lavish productions were frequently held up as examples of the versatility of the developing medium. Indeed, it is believed one of their productions – The Emperor’s Nightingale in 1957 – was filmed in colour at the instigation of the upper echelons of the BBC.

Between 1955 and 1964, Murray produced live performances of over 50 original puppet plays for the BBC (not counting the re-performances that were commonplace in the days before repeats were a realistic possibility) initially in the same “tin shed” at Lime Grove where Westerham Arts produced their early Watch With Mother shows, but later moving operations to a purpose-built facility in Television Centre. Many of these were adaptations of traditional folk tales from around the world, but they also included a long series of interpretations of SG Hulme Beaman’s Toytown stories featuring Larry the Lamb (which had previously been adapted to great success for BBC Radio), and 33 plays based on his own concept The Rubovian Legends, set in a magical medieval Middle-European kingdom. Also contributing to these shows were a great many of the puppeteers, designers and musicians who had worked on the initial Watch With Mother programmes, along with young husband and wife set design team Andrew and Margaret Brownfoot, puppeteer John Hardwick who had previously been part of Murray’s theatre company, and fellow puppeteer Bob Bura, who had a sideline with Hardwick in producing animated cinema advertisements and inserts for Blue Peter and Rolf Harris television shows.

Although his early productions had used string-operated marionettes, by the early 1960s Gordon Murray was developing a strong interest in the possibilities of filmed stop-motion animation. However, others within the BBC were not quite so keen, and a detailed proposal for a series called The Minute Men about tiny characters living in a full-scale human world (and for which some test footage may even have been shot) was ultimately turned down. Already unhappy with the direction the department was taking, Murray grew further disillusioned when increased competition from ITV’s live action-orientated children’s shows led to the BBC Puppet Theatre’s operations being scaled down. Soon afterwards, a reallocation of resources following a partial merger between Children’s Programmes and Women’s Programmes resulted in the Theatre being effectively disbanded and its new purpose-built studio falling into disuse.

It was as a direct result of this that Murray opted to leave in 1964 to pursue a career as a freelance film-maker. He had discussed the idea of making a series for Watch With Mother with Andrew Brownfoot as early as 1961, but such was the complexity of mounting the project, coupled with the BBC’s apparent reticence to meet the cost of producing new shows for the timeslot, that nothing came of it until he had left the organisation. One of his concepts was a stop-motion animated series set in a rural village populated by realistic characters. Early in 1965 the BBC expressed interest in seeing a pilot film based on this premise. Due to a fortuitous typing mistake that infiltrated this early correspondence, the series that had been pitched as Candlewick Green became Camberwick Green.

Even just this one 15 minute undertaking was a huge professional and financial risk for the now self-employed Murray, but one that paid off when the BBC were sufficiently impressed to commission a full run of 13 films (a number that would soon become the standard commission for new Watch With Mother shows). Bearing in mind the circumstances under which the pilot and series were made, it is perhaps unsurprising that Murray should have called on the services of old colleagues whose skills and work-rate he was familiar with. He himself penned the scripts and designed and created the puppets, and although they were moving in the direction of theatrical and academic work, Andrew and Margaret Brownfoot were brought in to create the sets. Many of these were based in part on real-life buildings whose architecture the Brownfoots admired, although sometimes practicality became an issue, and largely for convenience a key windmill set took on the form of a tower mill rather than the more commonplace and traditional post mill. Despite its old-fashioned design, much of the scenery was constructed using materials that would more normally be utilised in the manufacture of modern prefabricated furniture and fittings, giving the series an unusual and distinctive look that seemed somewhere between traditional and modern architecture.

Bob Bura and John Hardwick were already well experienced in the production of stop-motion animation – indeed their animation company was named StopFrame Productions, and they also owned the registered trademark of the phrase “stop frame” – and it was to them that Murray entrusted the filming of the series. However, 13 episodes of Camberwick Green was a huge undertaking on a virtually unprecedented scale, not least as they were responsible for all other aspects of the shooting process including lighting and camera operation. Studio assistants George Debouch, Pasqaule Ferrari, Colin Large and Len Palace were brought in to work on the animation, while Murray devised a clockwork camera mechanism that would take a still frame at regular intervals without any need for time-consuming camera maintenance, although this proved impractical and was soon dropped.

Other innovations were more successful. Bura and Hardwick rebuilt Murray’s original puppets (constructed from foam, ping pong balls and a poseable metal framework) to give them greater flexibility, and came up with the idea of pinning the creations to a soft base rather than the traditional and much more time-consuming method of screwing them in place. The scripts were carefully tailored to avoid the inclusion of any effects that could not easily be replicated in stop-motion animation, although sometimes their demands still managed to outweigh the available resources. In one episode, a shot of a bees’ nest being sprayed was noticeably filmed in real time, with the puppets themselves remaining motionless throughout. There were also some unforeseen complications which did not become obvious until the finished film was played back. For example, keen-eyed viewers may be able to spot trees descending menacingly as they warped under the heat of the studio lights. Eventually Bura and Hardwick were able to produce an average of two minutes and 30 seconds of footage a week, and, such was their dedication and attention to detail, no further editing was ever required. Also it was they who encouraged Murray, who had been toying with using using black and white film to reduce costs, to make the series in colour to ensure a longer shelf life.

Murray intended each character in Camberwick Green to have their own brief introductory song, and the man chosen to set his lyrics to music, and also provide all of the requisite sound effects and numerous instrumental pieces besides, was classical guitarist Freddie Phillips. Like Vernon Elliot, who worked on a great many of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin’s animated series, Phillips was highly respected in his field and during his career he would play with many prominent national orchestras and with the Royal Ballet. He had previously provided music for Lotte Reiniger’s acclaimed series of shadow puppet films (which drew from much the same source material as Murray’s BBC Puppet Theatre productions), and had also composed and performed a series of short instrumental “Network Opening” pieces for the BBC which were used constantly in television continuity throughout the 1960s. More curiously, he contributed to the soundtrack of the 1960 British horror film Peeping Tom, now recognised as a classic of the genre but critically reviled at the time of release. Despite his classical leanings, Phillips also had a strong interest in new and developing recording techniques and exploited the opportunity to experiment with these while working on Murray’s series. The musical items were assembled using an early version of multi-tracking technology, and there was also extensive use of techniques such as adding reverberation effects and varying the speed of tape recordings. It was through this method, for example, that an ordinary alarm clock could be made to sound like an incredibly realistic alarm bell, or that a looped combination of percussion instrument sounds could convincingly pass for the noise of machinery in operation. Other sound effects however were the genuine article, which Phillips himself captured whilst out walking with a portable tape recorder.

Narrator Brian Cant had started his career as a commercial artist, but through an interest in amateur theatre eventually found his way into professional performance. In the early 1960s he was often cast in small roles in shows like Dixon of Dock Green and Doctor Who, but it was while playing a figure on a Roman urn in a BBC Schools production that his career took its most significant turn. On set, he fell into conversation with producer Cynthia Felgate, who had recently created Play School for BBC2. Felgate felt he had the makings of a presenter, and invited him to an audition which famously consisted of him being thrown a cardboard box and told to get in it and pretend to row out to sea. This began his lengthy association with children’s television, most famously Play School and its comedic spinoff Play Away, but also on a number of other fondly remembered programmes.

It was in fact Play School producer Joy Whitby who picked out Cant for Camberwick Green after being approached by Gordon Murray for suggestions. Murray himself could not have been happier with the choice, feeling Cant’s tone – which he likened to that of a young father – was perfect for the series.

While Bura and Hardwick worked away on the visual elements, ultimately taking the best part of a year to complete all 13 shows, the soundtracks were recorded at Freddie Phillips’ home studio. With the music and sound effects already largely completed, Brian Cant recorded the voiceovers and added vocals to the songs while sitting in a soundproofed cupboard (even going to the extent of removing his shoes to prevent any extraneous noise from being picked up on the soundtrack, although other less controllable intrusions came courtesy of the house’s positioning directly under a major flight path), with Murray on hand to guide him through the required emphases and pauses in the script.

Each episode essentially took the form of a loose story based around an average day for one of the village’s inhabitants, and as with the majority of early Watch With Mother shows, generally featured third person narration, reported speech and very little in the way of anything resembling actual dialogue. Cant, who had not seen any of the puppets at this point, nonetheless strove to give a distinct sense of character to each individual “voice” featured in the scripts through adopting different intonations for each.

The characters in question all lived in and around Camberwick Green, the titular village dominated by a handful of old-fashioned shops. These were all occupied by tradesmen with an air of traditionalism in their dress, surroundings and working practices; Mr Carraway the fishmonger, Mrs Dingle the postmistress, Dr Mopp, and Mickey Murphy the baker, whose children Paddy and Mary often helped in the bakery. Nearby lived Windy Miller, proprietor of Colley’s Mill who dressed in an old-fashioned hat and smock and enjoyed a friendly rivalry with “modern mechanical” farmer Jonathan Bell, while the outskirts of the village played host to Pippin Fort, a military academy run by Captain Flack and Sergeant Major Grout, and Mr Crockett’s garage.

Regular visitors included gossiping housewife Mrs Honeyman, milkman Thomas Tripp, postman Peter Hazell, village policeman PC McGarry (number 452), Roger Varley the chimney sweep, and Mr Dagenham, a trendily attired sports car-driving salesman who supplied equipment to Farmer Bell and Pippin Fort.

At the start of each episode, one of these characters would rather surreally emerge from a music box (“Here is a box, a musical box, wound up and ready to play, and this box can hide a secret inside – can you guess what is in it today?”) before being transported into Camberwick Green, and would return there at the episode’s conclusion. The characters themselves were an unusual assortment who not only represented a combination of rural and industrial lifestyles, but also seemed strangely chronologically jumbled. Mr Dagenham may have worn a Carnaby Street-style suit and driven a sports car, and Mr Crockett’s garage might well have been a textbook example of modernist design, but others were less attuned to the styles of the present day, and Roger Varley and Dr Mopp (who drove a vintage car registered “1901″) were practically Victorian in appearance.

The plots of Camberwick Green were relatively free-flowing and unstructured, following an individual character through their working day and having them call on several other inhabitants along the way. On the whole they were more concerned with depicting a profession or a way of life than actually telling a substantial story – usually involving little more than a delivery to be made or a gift to be arranged – but there are a couple of occasions on which a more coherent narrative is employed. One episode revolves around a race between a tractor and a bicycle, pitting Farmer Bell against Windy Miller in a friendly battle between modernity and the “old ways”, while another sees all of the characters rally round to prevent an electricity substation from being built on the green. Fortunately, this alarming prospect turned out to have been a misunderstanding on the part of an eavesdropping Mrs Honeyman.

Introduced by a half-page feature in the Radio Times and accompanying illustration of the music box, Camberwick Green made the first of many appearances as part of Watch With Mother on Monday 3 January 1966. Initially the series was shown in black and white (Bura and Hardwick having devised a method of filming in black and white and colour simultaneously using adjacent cameras), but by the end of the decade these monochrome prints – which presumably show the familiar action from a slightly different angle – had been superceded by their colour equivalents. Although it had taken considerable effort, dedication and financial outlay on the part of what Gordon Murray referred to as his “Cottage Industries”, Camberwick Green was genuinely pioneering for its day, and still impresses even despite the passage of time and increasing sophistication of animation technology. The detailed settings and intricate animation, the visually striking puppets and Brian Cant’s bright narration have all been the subject of acclaim, yet it was arguably Freddie Phillips’ quaint folky guitar score that played the largest part in cementing the series’ position in the audience’s affections.

The songs are short but expressive, with memorable refrains and some interesting use of scansion and alliteration. The best remembered are those that introduced Windy Miller and PC McGarry and accompanied the Pippin Fort soldiers while “riding along in an army truck”. However even the less well-recalled examples were remarkable pieces, although the boast that Mr Dagenham can sell “a bathtub or a button, a bugle or a bike” remains decidedly perplexing. One other factor did prove equally memorable to the public, though, and much to the surprise of all concerned: Windy Miller’s uncanny ability to avoid being hit by the sails as he emerged from his windmill. This fondly-recalled detail came about by accident rather than design, as the Brownfoots designed the mill with the entrance at the rear, but Bura and Hardwick assembled it back to front by mistake.

Not all of the target audience were quite so taken with the Camberwick Green. It is reputed that the BBC received a number of letters over the years from parents whose children were frightened by the music box or by the clown figure who appeared operating a credit-bearing roller caption (something that was not helped by the fact that each episode ended with a jarring unresolved guitar chord, although this was merely a byproduct of Phillips’ closing music being heavily edited down), while other viewers recall disliking the downbeat presentational tone or being unable to relate to the rural setting. Regardless, Camberwick Green was soon established as a strong favourite with viewers and inspired a huge amount of tie-in merchandising, which would eventually encompass everything from storybooks with specially created images of the puppets to flavoured toothpaste.

The initial showing of the series was immediately followed by a repeat run, and the BBC wasted no time in commissioning Gordon Murray to make a follow-up series.

In contrast to the tranquil confines of Camberwick Green, he opted to set the new series in Trumpton, a bustling modern neighbouring town. In addition to the existing production team, Alison Prince, writer of the recently-introduced Watch With Mother series Joe, was asked to look over Murray’s proposal and ensure it did not contain anything that would draw criticism from the educational authorities. He was so impressed with Prince’s work and approach that he invited her to write the actual scripts, and despite the inherent problems of penning a series that featured a fire brigade but could not feature any smoke, fire or water (due more to the difficulty of animating such effects than any concern on the BBC’s part) she agreed and provided all 13 episodes.

Set in and around a thriving town square dominated by a huge clock tower (“Telling the time, steadily, sensibly, never too quickly, never too slowly, telling the time for Trumpton”), this new series was perhaps more identifiable to the majority of its audience than Camberwick Green. Local residents, tradesmen and dignitaries included the mayor, town clerk Mr Troop, mayoral chauffeur Philby, carpenter Chippy Minton and his apprentice son Nibs, Mrs Cobbitt the flower seller, Miss Lovelace the milliner (and of course her three noisy dogs Mitzi, Daphne, and Lulu), Mr Munnings the printer, Mr Platt the clockmaker, Mr Clamp the greengrocer and Mr Craddock the park keeper. However, the undoubted stars of the piece were the local fire brigade – Captain Flack and firemen Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grubb. This collection of names, barked rhythmically by Captain Flack as they lined up for duty each week, is perhaps the single best remembered feature of Trumpton, although oddly there are differing accounts of how it came about.

Gordon Murray has suggested that it was his invention, noting on the BBC Radio 4 documentary series Trumpton Riots in 1995 that the preponderance of rhythmic rhyming verbal “hooks” in his series was influenced by his wife’s career as a ballet dancer, and that he often used to use a telephone directory as a source of interesting and unusual names. Freddie Phillips, however, claimed the original scripts simply read “Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grubb”, and that he added the second “Pugh” because the line as it stood did not fit the pattern of the music he had written to go with it. Meanwhile, Alison Prince maintained she came up with at least some of the names after being shown early test footage of the fire brigade.

Although recognisably the work of the same production team, Trumpton nonetheless was characterised by a number of factors that gave it a markedly different feel to Camberwick Green. Freddie Phillips’ compositions were more strident and contemporary – notable songs including Mr Platt and Mr Munnings’ explanations of their respective professions, and the gentle number sung by Cuthbert the fireman as he fed the ducks in the park – and his experimentation with sound effects continued apace. Techniques used for Trumpton ranged from simply recording some ducks at the Spring in Ewell Village to dropping a heavy object in his bath and drenching the bathroom in the process.

For the sets the Brownfoots drew inspiration from the Victorian architecture around Harrow, although the baffling inclusion of a map of the area around Florence in Italy in Captain Flack’s control desk was simply due to that map being nearest to hand during construction. Bura and Hardwick were better positioned to cope with the demands of the production schedule this time around, and managed to pull off a number of difficult effects – such as the demolition of a chimney – with ease, but they only had nine months to complete filming in and, as a result, the last couple of episodes were just being finished when the first went to air.

Alison Prince’s involvement resulted in more robust storylines with a strong structural element, bolstered by the fact she also created some of the characters and wrote some of the song lyrics. Rather than profiling a character, each episode was centred around an event or incident in the town square or park, or the arrival of a particular visiting tradesman, which invariably ended up requiring the assistance of the fire brigade. Even aside from this element of excitement the storylines themselves generally involved a concept that the young audience would find fascinating, such as telephone lines getting crossed or a mysterious mechanical fault developing in the clock, and the inventive thinking required to involve the fire brigade in proceedings (“A fire? A real fire? Oh, a bonfire …”) only added to the charm of the series. It is perhaps this combination of strong and memorable storylines, structured repetition and an easily identifiable modern setting that account for Trumpton being by far the best remembered of Murray’s trilogy.

Each episode contained an identical and fairly lengthy sequence of the fire brigade lining up for duty and riding around the streets in their engine. In addition, the previous method of opening and closing episodes was dropped completely in favour of other repeated sequences. The credits took the form of simple white text on black shapes against a blue background, while episodes opened with the town clock’s mechanical figures chiming the hour and the local businesses setting up for the day. They closed with a concert by the fire brigade on the park bandstand, watched by a sizeable crowd, which included numerous residents of Camberwick Green.

The natural assumption is that the music box setup from Camberwick Green was dropped due to complaints, but in fact it is more likely the new sequence was adopted for reasons of practicality (unlike the music box, this did not require partial refilming for every episode) and greater suitability for the tone of the series. Also, as Gordon Murray once pointed out, to have featured two mechanical devices in a row would not have sat well with the viewer. Nevertheless, no doubt less critical correspondence about Trumpton was received, although one mother did later contact Andrew Brownfoot regarding her child’s habit of repeatedly asking why none of the houses that the fire brigade drove past (shot as test footage before the sets had been fully constructed) had curtains.

Trumpton made its debut exactly a year to the day after Camberwick Green, first seen in the Watch With Mother slot on Tuesday 3 January 1967. Once again the show was a huge success, but it would be well over two years before the third and final look at its environs arrived on the small screen.

Chigley was identified in its opening titles as being “Near Camberwick Green, Trumptonshire”; Gordon Murray had envisaged the three imaginary locales as being in an equidistant triangular formation (in fact, it has been suggested close examination of the roads and lanes traversed by the various characters does indeed bear this out), and had based them on a real-life area of Britain that shares these geographical features – although, mindful of the inevitable flood of sightseers, he has always refused to name it.

Unlike the previously seen residential areas, Chigley was dominated by light industry and stately homes. The nerve-centre of its industrial complex, serviced by Treddle’s Wharf, was the Creswell family’s high-tech biscuit factory. Lord Belborough, the philanthropic owner of nearby Winkstead Hall, maintained his own personal steam railway which he often used to help out local businesses or just to entertain the locals, and accompanied the regular 6pm dances held by the factory workers on his ornate Dutch organ. He was ably assisted by his faithful butler Brackett, famed for his lengthy strolls along plush corridors to “summon his Lordship”, and other frequently-glimpsed characters included potter Harry Farthing and his daughter Winnie, wharf supervisor Mr Swallow, bargee Mr Rumpling, builder Mr Clutterbuck, dustmen Mr Gubbins and Mr Sneed, and Winkstead Hall’s gardener Mr Bilton.

Also worthy of a mention is Belborough’s steam engine, affectionately nicknamed “Bessie”, portrayed almost as an intelligent entity and virtually a character in its own right. Interestingly, Gordon Murray’s original pitch for the series also referred to plans to feature a neighbouring doughnut factory, a local candlemaker, a modern housing estate, a private zoo and a Lady Belborough, none of which were even vaguely alluded to in the finished programme.

Part of the reason for this comparative lack of new characters was it was envisaged from the outset that established figures from Camberwick Green and Trumpton would feature heavily in Chigley. In fact, episodes would often begin with a familiar face from elsewhere in Trumptonshire being asked “Where are you going? Camberwick Green? Trumpton? Chigley? May we come with you?”, and over the course of the 13 episodes guest appearances would be made by Dr Mopp, Farmer Bell, Mrs Honeyman, Mr Dagenham, PC McGarry, Mr Crockett, Roger Varley, Thomas Tripp, Mr Carraway, Mickey Murphy, Windy Miller, Captain Snort, Chippy Minton, The Mayor and the Trumpton Fire Brigade. Yet although the reintroduction of old characters no doubt brought some benefits for the production team, this was no mere exercise in time-filling or corner-cutting, and their involvement and interaction with the industrialised setup ensured a lack of repetition. In any case, the programme did not reuse any existing footage, and even the sequence featuring the fire engine driving around the streets appears to have been restaged.

The scripts for Chigley were written by Gordon Murray alone, but while in some respects they harked back to the looser and more free-flowing “storylines” of Camberwick Green, some influence of Alison Prince’s work on Trumpton was detectable. Episodes routinely ended with the 6pm dance and were constructed around a weekly ride in Bessie, and while room was made for diversions into shorter vignettes, each script had a definite plot at its centre, normally involving the supply of raw materials to the local businesses (something that was prone to all manner of delays and setbacks, ranging from simple mix-ups of wooden crates to collapsed bridges) or some sort of entertainment provided by Lord Belborough.

In some respects, Chigley is the most enjoyably written of the three series, combining the stronger elements of the previous two and also adding a modicum of humour, something that had only been hinted at before. Ironically, it also seems to be the least well-remembered of the three, perhaps due to the proliferation of familiar characters preventing it from fully cementing in viewers’ memories.

With the exception of Alison Prince, the production credits remained the same as ever. Bura and Hardwick managed to accomplish some animated effects that were previously avoided, including steam emerging from Bessie’s funnel, while the Brownfoots made an excellent job of realising the large buildings and wide open spaces, basing the biscuit factory (which Andrew Brownfoot remembers as being fun to design) on an amalgam of several real-life factories near to where they lived, and Winkstead Hall on Kedlestone Hall near Derby. With less new characters, fewer new compositions from Freddie Phillips were required, but those he did provide were arguably the peak of his work with Gordon Murray. Mr Rumpling’s tranquil boating song (which cleverly referenced both “Camberwick Lock” and “Trumpton Town Clock”) is particularly worthy of mention, as are the chiming opening music and the uplifting waltz used to accompany the dances (both heavily edited for the screen, but included in full on the by-now mandatory accompanying story album).

The finest offering, however, and the one that most viewers remember, was Lord Belborough’s musing on how “Time flies by when you’re the driver of a train”. Quite aside from the splendidly onomatopoeic lyrics (“Wheezing pistons, smoking funnels, turning wheels go clickety-clack”), the chugging rhythm, flowery guitar work and authentic sound effects – recorded by Phillips from the platform at Sheffield Park Station while he was working with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Glyndebourne – make for an arresting piece and it is perhaps unsurprising that this infectiously jaunty number was reputedly the composer’s favourite of his own Trumptonshire creations.

Chigley was first shown from Thursday 6 October 1969, and while Gordon Murray did briefly toy with the idea of producing a further series set in a coastal location, after a grand total of 39 episodes, this marked the end of the Trumptonshire saga. As for the shows themselves, that was quite a different matter. All three series were broadcast in pretty much constant rotation right through the 1970s (not to mention dubbed into Welsh for regional broadcasts), and indeed would continue to be shown in the same slot some way past the end of Watch With Mother itself.

<Part Three