Part Five: “Do You Live in a Town?”

By TJ Worthington

First published March 2006

The late 1960s were exciting times for the British animation industry. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of independent producers like Gordon Murray, who had proved that financially and technically ambitious projects could become successes, enthusiasm for the art form had increased dramatically. Television companies took a keener interest in working with independent outfits on longer form projects, and film directors were similarly keen to experiment with incorporating animated elements into their live action works. Additionally, colour film was becoming more widely and cheaply available, and the opportunity to experiment with new techniques coupled with the design influence of the “psychedelic” scene fired the imagination of many animators.

It was into this heady atmosphere Ivor Wood arrived to work in Britain. Although born in Leeds, Wood was raised and educated in France, and started his professional career as a designer with the Parisian advertising agency La Comete. While working there, he met animator Serge Danot, and in 1964 they began toiling on Danot’s idea for a children’s television series. Like many similar ventures around this time, including Camberwick Green, this was a huge financial and technical risk, and Danot’s team seemed to feel the pressure more than most. The initial batch of episodes were made in a derelict house where the intense studio lights regularly caused power outage. Wood’s suggestion that a puppet dog should have hair-covered “legs” and move around on cogs was more of a time-saving measure than an artistic decision. However, such was the dedication of the production team and the originality of Danot’s ideas that this initial adversity was easily overcome.

Le Manege Enchante, as the series would come to be known, was a huge hit from its first broadcast on the French station ORTF in 1964. Ultimately over 400 episodes would be made and subsequently seen all around the world, but the following year it would also take on a curious new lease of life when purchased for broadcast by the BBC.

Head of Children’s Programming, Doreen Stephens, was impressed by the look and feel of the series, but was less keen on the actual storylines and characters. Her approach to this problem was a novel one; Play School presenter Eric Thompson was brought in to provide a new soundtrack, entirely redefining the characters and simply making up the narration based on what he thought was happening onscreen. Aside from the visual elements The Magic Roundabout – as it became known – had little in common with Le Manege Enchante, yet once installed in a daily slot immediately prior to the BBC’s evening news broadcast it proved to be equally successful, the combination of the distinctive visual style and Thompson’s droll narration appealing to viewers of all ages.

If The Magic Roundabout was both an unexpected and unprecedented success, then in some respects it also pointed towards how much another corner of the BBC’s children’s output was in need of an overhaul. Not that there was anything particularly wrong with the programmes that were then running under the Watch With Mother banner – they were certainly popular enough with their audience and some new shows had been brought in to replace two of the more outmoded efforts – but for the most part they were already out of step with the huge creative leaps that were being made in animation. More pertinently, The Magic Roundabout had switched to colour film very early on in production (some sources claim that Danot had in fact used colour film from the outset), and while the BBC’s redubbed versions were, for the moment, being transmitted from monochrome prints, it would theoretically be easy enough to switch over to colour when the time came.

In fact, that time was getting very close indeed. Plans for experimental colour transmissions were already at an advanced stage and, in fact, certain ITV companies were making many of their programmes in the new format with a view towards long-term overseas sales and repeat value. By the time BBC2 conducted its first experimental colour broadcast of a tennis match on July 1967, Watch With Mother could still only boast two series that weren’t being made in black and white, and one of those had literally only received its first showing in the past couple of months.

That the BBC would be broadcasting in the new format by 1970 was pretty much a certainty, but for many programme departments, there was considerable speculation over how they would would respond to it. For the Children’s Department, Watch With Mother posed particular problems in that there was never very much finance available for new programming. However, the success of Gordon Murray’s shows had indicated working with independent production companies might be less administratively complex, and in the longer term more cost-effective than making programmes wholly or partially in-house.

It was with this very much in mind that Doreen Stephens began casting around for ideas for new Watch With Mother shows in 1966. One of the first people she contacted was a best-selling children’s author who also happened to be a former colleague. Michael Bond had worked as a BBC cameraman for many years before his first book, A Bear Called Paddington, published in 1958, became an instant success. He would follow this up with a great many further publications detailing the comic exploits of the mishap-prone creature from Darkest Peru.

In 1966 he was also busily putting the finishing touches to the debut appearance of his latest literary creation, an enterprising mouse named Thursday. By his own admission, Bond was in the habit of staring at his garden through the window while searching for inspiration, and it was while doing this he came up with the idea for stories featuring characters named after, and sharing certain characteristics with, a variety of garden herbs. Stephens liked the idea enormously and asked to see a pilot script in two weeks’ time. Bond, who hadn’t actually got as far as coming up with any characters yet, put it together with the aid of a copy of the noted reference work Culpeper’s Complete Herbal.

With the pilot script hastily completed, Bond was called in to the BBC to discuss plans for a series with Stephens and fellow Children’s Department producers Monica Sims and Ursula Eason. Significantly, this was the first time a projected Watch With Mother series had not been pitched as a fully formed production. Bond had visualised the series being presented by a human chef, who would prepare food while telling the story and drop the relevant herbs into the dish as they appeared in the narrative. This was quickly ruled out on the grounds of cost, and as traditional cel animation would have proved similarly financially prohibitive, the producers suggested the use of marionettes. As a former cameraman, Bond had reservations about their suitability, so Eason suggested stop-motion animation as an alternative. All parties were enthusiastic about this idea, particularly once Joy Whitby revealed one of the animation team from The Magic Roundabout was now working in Britain.

Ivor Wood had only spent a couple of years working on Le Manege Enchante, opting to remain in Paris when the production base relocated elsewhere, but had more recently joined forces with producer Graham Clutterbuck at the London-based animation house FilmFair. Although mention of its name and output inevitably invokes mental images of quirky and eccentric “Britishness”, FilmFair actually started out as an offshoot of a large US advertising agency. The freewheeling Clutterbuck had worked for the parent company in America before being put in charge of an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to establish a Paris-based European office. Quickly realising that the venture was going nowhere fast, and having noted the international success of Le Manege Enchante, Clutterbuck somehow managed to convince his paymasters that there was money to be made from animated films in Britain, and that they should establish a new London office with him at the helm. An unconventional operator who worked out of an office resembling a living room, Clutterbuck loved Bond’s proposal for the series, and work soon commenced with Ivor Wood assisted by Rafael Esteve and Claude Copin. Clutterbuck would later confess to Bond that he had known little of either television or animation before starting work in London, making the fact that he would go on to produce a string of highly successful animated series all the more impressive.

Each episode of The Herbs centred around Parsley, a “very friendly” but also very taciturn lion who lived in a well-appointed walled herb garden with a large cast of fellow seasonings. Among them were the hyperactive Dill the Dog, the well-heeled Sir Basil and Lady Rosemary, Sage the Owl, Bayleaf the Gardener, Constable Knapweed, Tarragon the Dragon, and the schoolmasterly Mr Onion and his classroom of Chives. Also seen from time to time were the likes of Aunt Mint, Miss Jessup and Senor Solidago.

At the request of the BBC – echoing earlier experiences with Pogle’s Wood – the appearances by Belladonna the Witch were kept to a minimum, but in her place came a new character named Pashana Bedhi (suggested by a waiter at Veeraswamay’s, a Regent Street restaurant Bond frequented), an Indian snake charmer whose conjuring skills came in extremely handy whenever Bond ran into problems with the storylines. Not that he was ever short of inspiration. Like his children’s books, The Herbs was exceptionally well written and accessible to audiences of all ages. His great skill, as had been displayed to such great effect in the Paddington books, was to take a simple concept – Sage’s nest blowing down, some freshly picked strawberries going missing, or Parsley being mistaken for an escaped circus lion named Curry – and build a series of comic misunderstandings around it as characters wandered in and out of proceedings, with the hard-of-thinking Bayleaf and humourless procedure-obsessed Knapweed generally coming off worst. In fact, The Herbs boasted an unusually strong element of humour for a Watch With Mother show, and some of it had clearly been included with slightly older viewers in mind. For example, Bayleaf leafing through a book of herbs in search of a suitable escort for the prim and proper Miss Jessup, and denouncing one of his peers as “too common”.

The show was narrated by Gordon Rollings, a veteran Play School presenter who had also appeared in a number of broad comedy cinema films, and as such was perfectly positioned to capture the idiosyncracies of the series. In a neat touch, each episode would begin outside the herb garden, with Rollings describing the various herbs who would appear in the episode, before using the magic word – “herbidacious” – to open the door and venture inside. The evocative music was provided by Tony Russell, better known for providing the boisterous theme tune for the television sitcom On the Buses, but here responsible for a series of sprightly pastoral pieces that made heavy use of woodwind, harp and pizzicato strings. The lyrics for each character’s introductory song were provided by Bond’s wife Brenda, working under her professional name of Johnson, and made interesting use of what might be termed “long” words in the midst of their overall simplicity. Sage, for example, was defined as, “a rather fat feathery” owl, while Parsley told of how he always took care not to treat his tail “harshly”.

The puppets were designed by Ivor Wood from the descriptions in the scripts, and while they turned out somewhat differently from how Bond had originally envisaged them, the writer was nonetheless delighted with the results.

The 13 episodes of The Herbs were first seen on Monday 12 February 1968, and still make for impressive and engaging viewing today. Much of this is of course down to the dry wit of Bond’s scripts, but the visual flavour is equally important. While much of the scenery, and in particular the “brickwork”, is of deliberately antiquated design and calls to mind some crumbling but well-attended stately home, the characters dash about the screen in a riot of bold colours, and the result is a series that seems to have one foot in olde worlde English traditions and the other in the brash exuberance of “swinging London”.

FilmFair would later go on to make many further animated series for both the BBC and ITV, including The Wombles, Hatty Town and, perhaps most famously, a long-running adaptation of Michael Bond’s Paddington books. In 1972 they also revisited the Herb Garden for The Adventures of Parsley, a series of 32 five-minute episodes the BBC transmitted in their daily pre-news slot. This new series was again written by Bond, who found he knew the characters so well he could generally finish off a full five-minute script within a couple of hours.

Mary, Mungo & Midge, the next colour series to be added to the Watch With Mother roster, had somewhat more traditional origins. Although he had been drawing cartoons as a hobby since childhood, John Ryan began his professional life as a schoolteacher, but changed direction after receiving a rather unusual wedding present. One particularly hard-up friend who couldn’t afford a gift decided instead to introduce Ryan to The Reverend Marcus Morris, a pastor who was then in the process of setting up a new boy’s comic named Eagle. Noting the popularity of somewhat morally dubious American action comics among his younger parishioners, Rev Morris developed the idea of a publication that would use the same stylistic devices to mask a more positive and improving message.

From its launch in 1950, Eagle was an immediate and massive hit with the comic-buying readership, debuting several characters who would go on to become internationally famous. Ryan was asked to contribute potential ideas and eventually two of his strips appeared – the tongue-in-cheek “Harris Tweed – Special Agent”, and “Captain Pugwash”.

“Captain Pugwash” lasted less than a year, ultimately deemed to be slightly juvenile for Eagle’s intended audience, but the bumbling, nervous, good-natured pirate and his not-especially-motley crew proved ideal for the children’s pages in Radio Times and began a lengthy run there in 1951. Gordon Murray was quick to spot its suitability for transfer to television, and after some discussions with Ryan commissioned a series of films using an unusual style of animation known as “caption animation”, in which characters and backgrounds are constructed from individual pieces of paper and operated “live” as the cameras roll, effectively using the same sort of paper engineering as a pop-up book.

From these low-key origins, Captain Pugwash would go on to become one of the most successful and best-loved BBC children’s programmes of all, giving rise to over 80 episodes made between 1957 and 1975, not to mention all manner of books, comic strips and other items of tie-in merchandise.

By the late 1960s, Ryan had plenty of work as an illustrator, but had also established John Ryan Studios to handle his animated projects, which by this time included not only Captain Pugwash but also inserts for numerous BBC Schools programmes and some new character ideas. One of these was Mary, Mungo & Midge, about a young girl, a dog and a mouse who lived in a tower block in a modern “new town”. Unlike Captain Pugwash, this was conceived as primarily a television project from the outset, although it is not clear if it was always intended for Watch With Mother. Some of the earlier books and comic strips depict Mary as being considerably older than she eventually appeared on screen, perhaps suggesting she was originally envisaged as a more independent teenage character. Watch With Mother was where it ended up, though, and the first of many showings of the 13-episode series commenced on Tuesday 7 October 1969.

While John Ryan created the characters and provided all of the artwork, the scripts were written by Daphne Jones, a producer at the BBC Children’s department who would later spend several years at the helm of Jackanory. The animation was conducted by Bob Bura and John Hardwick, who had previously worked with Ryan on Captain Pugwash, and of course had animated Gordon Murray’s three “Trumptonshire” series. Narration was provided by the somewhat unlikely but perfectly-suited figure of Richard Baker, a veteran BBC news and current affairs presenter best known for fronting rather more sober offerings such as The Last Night of The Proms, Radio 4′s Start the Week and the BBC’s main daily news bulletin. Mary’s voice was provided by John Ryan’s daughter Isabel.

Although she was generally the focus of the storylines, whether seen shopping with her parents, making her own entertainment in her playroom, or in one episode breaking her leg and having to go to hospital for an x-ray, Mary had little active involvement in events. Instead, that was left to her two talking pets, lugubrious dog Mungo and high-spirited, inquisitive, flute-playing mouse Midge. Usually they would be overcome by bouts of curiosity regarding Mary’s activities, or else take it upon themselves to perform an errand and, despite Mungo’s inevitable misgivings, invariably create some sort of confusion that required the intervention of Mary and her parents. Their comic bickering over the correct course of action to take was always entertaining, but it is likely the pair are better remembered for the weekly sequence in which they would exit the block of flats by sneaking off into the lift, with Midge perching on Mungo’s nose to operate the controls and counting down the floors as they went.

Opening with a fondly-remembered monologue (“… Do you live in a town? Mary, Mungo and Midge live in this town”) over some beautifully realised animation of a bustling city centre, Mary, Mungo & Midge had – the presence of a talking dog and mouse aside – perhaps the most realistic setting of any Watch With Mother show. Obvious parallels can be drawn with its close contemporary Joe, but while it was certainly true both series boasted much young viewers could readily identify with, Mary, Mungo & Midge also featured less caricatured and more detailed artwork, a decidedly modern sense of design, and a far wider “universe” to explore. This feel was compounded by the excellent musical score provided by prolific composer Johnny Pearson (whose numerous other television credits include the theme tunes to programmes as diverse as Owen M.D., News at Ten, All Creatures Great and Small, 3-2-1 and Superstars, as well as a lengthy stint at the helm of the notorious Top of the Pops “orchestra”), which closely resembled the sort of easy-on-the-ear muzak that might well have been heard in the real-life equivalents of the various places that Mary and company visited.

The gallic-flavoured opening theme, the sprightly electric-piano led closing theme and the various short pieces used to punctuate the episodes were all based on a similar musical motif and came from a collection of shorter items known as “The Mini Suite”, which, like many of Pearson’s compositions, ended up being made available as library music intended for use in films, television, radio shows and stage productions. Therefore it was the cause of no little confusion to younger viewers when the opening theme from Mary, Mungo & Midge also turned up alongside the “Nancy the Nannygoat” inserts in Sesame Street, and no little alarm and surprise for fans of trashy cinema when one of the incidental pieces was included in one of director Doris Wishman’s notorious “Chesty Morgan” films.

Despite these strengths, Mary, Mungo & Midge has worn less well than most other Watch With Mother shows. At nearly three times the length of most of John Ryan’s other programmes, and sorely missing their outright comic leanings, the caption animation loses much of the dynamic, fast-moving quality that it bore elsewhere and there are some points where the programme seems to drag interminably. On the other hand, its jaunty soundtrack and simple yet upbeat nature retains considerable charm, and from a visual point of view it still looks nothing short of arresting.

John Ryan would continue to produce animation for children’s and schools’ television for many years afterwards, with his best-known later works perhaps being the witty spoof medieval epic The Adventures of Sir Prancelot, which ran for many years in the BBC’s pre-news slot, and some years later, The Ark Stories, a biblically-inspired show that formed part of ITV’s lunchtime children’s programming.

The “official” launch of the BBC’s full colour television service took place on 15 November 1969, mere weeks after Mary, Mungo & Midge had made their TV debut. However, the tendency of history books to suggest this marked an overnight change from monochrome into colour is somewhat misleading. BBC2 had been conducting test colour transmissions since 1967, and even after the changeover, a lack of available funds and equipment meant many programmes and entire genres would continue to be made and transmitted in black and white for quite some time. Perhaps predictably, this affected children’s programmes and schools broadcasting most of all, but even some primetime flagship efforts like Z Cars, Braden’s Week and Nationwide would have to wait some time before switching to colour.

Watch With Mother was regarded as somewhat problematic, as while little money could be allocated towards new programming, it was also believed – not entirely unreasonably – that the target audience would be less receptive to black and white material once they had been exposed to colour. Fortunately there was already a stock of colour programming to hand, but even if Camberwick Green, Trumpton, Chigley, The Herbs and Mary, Mungo & Midge were given the standard set of three repeat runs a year each, this would still fall way short of what amounted to close to 300 slots in the schedule over the 12 month period. It was obvious new colour material was needed quickly, but the funding was not readily available and the timescale of production made this a practical impossibility anyway. Launching small-scale shows with minimal overheads was certainly an option, as was buying in ready-made programming from other sources, but in the event the black and white shows continued to populate the schedules for quite some time, with Flower Pot Men, The Woodentops, Bizzy Lizzy, Pogle’s Wood and Tales of The Riverbank continuing to be seen as late as 1973.

One remnant from the monochrome era which did not survive the transition was the long-serving “shower scrub” introductory sequence. It is believed the BBC adopted a new animated colour sequence for at least the first part of the 1970s, but details on this are scarce and it certainly did not last for long. As it would turn out, within a few years moves were already being made to retire the Watch With Mother umbrella title.

Of the black and white programmes, Tales of The Riverbank – which was only one of many wildlife-themed shows originally produced for Canadian television by Dave Ellison and Roy Billings – was remade in colour in 1972, but the BBC curiously decided to pass on it (it was eventually purchased by Granada, and screened on the ITV network as Hammy’s Tales of the Riverbank). However, the duo also created a considerable number of light documentaries for children, some of which the BBC did purchase. Along the River and Along the Seashore, became part of the Watch With Mother strand, with the requisite redubbing performed by Tony Soper, founder of the BBC Natural History Unit and former co-presenter of Animal Magic (and, later, the presenter and producer of Wildtrack).

Five episodes of Along the River made their debut from Friday 10 April 1970, immediately followed by two editions of Along the Seashore from Friday 15 May. Filmed and presented in a relaxed and gentle manner, these shows featured children exploring the environment and learning about the plants and animals they discovered. From Tuesday 16 May 1972, they were joined by six episodes of Along the Trail, a rather more esoteric series concentrating on Canadian wildlife in particular. The version of Along the Trail shown by the BBC was narrated by Rick Jones, the Canadian-born presenter of Play School and several subsequent Watch With Mother shows, which if nothing else at least suggested the Corporation were relaxing their attitude towards the use of accents in programmes for the very young. Although largely forgotten now, the three series were popular enough to inspire tie-in annuals, and were repeated into the late 1970s.

Daphne Jones was the driving force behind On the Farm, a curious and little-remembered series that only ran to six episodes and was first seen on Wednesday 8 July 1970. Narrated by Keith Barron, better known at that time for roles in adult drama, this took much the same form as Ellison and Billings’ programmes and followed a pair of children named Lucy and Robert around a real life farm. More directly educative than just about any other series ever seen as part of Watch With Mother, On the Farm used its narrative very much as a simple backdrop for straightforward facts about animal and plant life and agricultural procedure, focusing on a different subject each week. It was developed in tandem with a series of BBC-published books with much the same purpose.

To all intents and purposes, On the Farm was essentially little different from the film segments that appeared in many BBC schools’ programmes of the day, and it is perhaps this factor combined with its unusually short run that accounts for its largely forgotten status.

Surprisingly, equally less well-remembered are the 13 colour episodes of Andy Pandy that were first seen from Monday 5 January 1970. The “new” editions were effectively remounts of selected episodes of the original version, and fittingly Westerham Arts (now acting as a wholly independent entity, and filming the new shows in the more impressive confines of Abbey Road Studios rather than a tin shed at Lime Grove) managed to reunite most of the original team, with the exception of Gladys Whitred who had since retired. Her replacement was internationally renowned soprano Valerie Carndell, while Maria Bird’s piano accompaniments were augmented by clarinettist Thea King. Like Freddie Phillips and Vernon Elliott, King was a highly regarded classical musician, who later became the first professional woodwind player ever to be made a Dame. Meanwhile, original puppeteers Cecil and Madge Stavordale were joined by Christopher Leith, who at that point was not quite as well known in his respective field as his fellow newcomers, but has since more than made up for it with an impressive list of credits including award-winning work on feature films such as Labyrinth, Little Shop of Horrors and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Also making its debut was a strange post-credits sequence that Westerham Arts had recently taken to using on their shows (including Bizzy Lizzy), featuring extreme close-up footage of dandelion seeds being blown away against a clear blue sky whilst a disembodied voice intoned “one o’clock … two o’clock …” and so forth. It is not unreasonable to suggest this peculiar footage would have found a more comfortable home in an American election broadcast determined to prove Nixon’s opponents were maniacs with their fingers on the “button” than it did here, where it proved every bit as jarring and disorientating as that atonal guitar chord at the end of the Camberwick Green closing theme. Tellingly, many erstwhile viewers of Watch With Mother have troubling memories of this sequence but no idea of what programme it actually came from.

It has often been claimed these new episodes were made because the original films had become too worn out to use. This seems unlikely, though – far from being worn out, the black and white prints are in fact surprisingly crisp and clear for their vintage, whereas the colour ones are not exactly a model of Oscar-winning cinematography, suffering from ingrained scratches and inconsistent colour matching. It is far more likely the colour episodes were commissioned simply because the Children’s Department wanted to go on showing a much-loved favourite even after the move to colour broadcasting. It is not entirely clear whether Westerham Arts were asked to remake any of their other past successes in colour, but the continued presence of Flower Pot Men and The Woodentops in the schedules – not to mention the fact annuals based on both series were being published as late as 1971 – would seem to suggest the idea was at the very least given some consideration.

However, there was one component of the original series that actually had become too worn out to use – Teddy. The long-serving puppet was made of less sturdy stuff than his playmates, and having not been a model of neatness to begin with, the years had taken their toll on the string-operated animal. Rather than deprive both Andy and the viewers of this much-loved character, Westerham Arts had a new Teddy made, with a smaller and neater bow tie and more comically “soppy” features. Interestingly, this made it possible for viewers who were still watching on black and white sets to be able to distinguish the new episodes from the older ones.

As the colour remake of Andy Pandy used more or less the same sets, puppets and scripts as the black and white episodes, it managed to retain the charm of the original but also ended up looking and feeling rather strange, almost like something from televisual prehistory gatecrashing the present day. The new episodes would be shown pretty much right up to the end of Watch With Mother, but they were already looking rather out of place next to the likes of The Herbs and Mary, Mungo & Midge. When a host of new programmes utilising new technology and new approaches to programming for the target audience arrived in the early 1970s, Andy Pandy would become the only remaining link to the original incarnation of Watch With Mother.

<Part Four