Part Six: “These Hands Were Made for Making”

By TJ Worthington

First published April 2006

Although many of his contemporaries were left behind, including his original Teddy, Andy Pandy was not the only character from Watch With Mother‘s monochrome past to make the transition into the brave new world of “BBC TV Colour”. The need to come up with a substantial amount of new programming to replace the soon to be phased out black and white shows provided the Children’s Department with the perfect opportunity to revisit a somewhat problematic programme they had been intending to revive for some time.

Joe, a series of stories about a young boy whose parents ran a transport cafe, had made its debut in 1966. Within a few years, though, it had been unofficially withdrawn from the schedules following viewer concerns over the suitability of its setting. Despite this adverse reaction, the BBC remained keen on the series. Creators Alison Prince and Joan Hickson were actively encouraged to become involved with other Watch With Mother shows with a view to resurrecting Joe in the longer term, while the Children’s Department themselves had flown in the face of public brow-furrowing and brought back the series for a one-off repeat run in 1970, covering an otherwise awkward gap in the schedules.

This repeat showing may well have been connected with the fact that Joe was soon to return to the schedules on a more permanent basis. Prince and Hickson had recently commenced work on a new set of 13 colour episodes, under the auspices of the independent production company Q-3 London. Although its name, and indeed its none-more early 1970s logo, are doubtless etched onto the collective memory of a generation of viewers, surprisingly little background detail is known about this prolific animation house.

It would appear Q-3 London was set up by then-producer of Vision On Michael Grafton-Robinson, to handle projects that were intended for the BBC, but which would have been difficult to find funding for if produced in-house. The first known Q-3 London production, and indeed the one that may well have provided the impetus for the company to be set up in the first place, was Crystal Tipps and Alistair, a series of animations created by Play School illustrator Hilary Hayton, which would run for many years in the same pre-news slot that also played host to The Magic Roundabout and Captain Pugwash.

The new colour series of Joe, which was first shown from Tuesday 23 February 1971, retained the original art and animation style and indeed music, but was otherwise very different. Lee Montague, who had narrated the original version, was not available and so was replaced by Colin Jeavons, a popular character actor who made many appearances in shows like The Avengers and Z-Cars, but is perhaps best known for his appearances in several Dennis Potter plays. Whereas the original set of episodes had been made on videotape, a nerve-wracking experience for all concerned as they essentially had to be recorded “as live”, the new ones were shot on colour film and production was far less fraught as a result. Most significant, however, were the alterations made to the actual format of the series. Mindful of the criticisms of their earlier choice of setting, Prince and Hickson relocated Joe and his family – now with baby sister Rosie in tow – to a coastal boarding house.

This was certainly an effective response to the earlier problems, but unfortunately it would also prove to be rather restrictive. Whereas the original setting had involved a constant stream of traffic in and out of the main location, with the resultant benefits for the storylines, the new setup did not provide a similar window of opportunity. More waspish commentators have remarked that it seemed every single episode involved the family waiting for a repairman to arrive, and in fairness this isn’t too far removed from reality. This was certainly felt by Alison Prince, who has since remarked that the second series never quite worked as well as the first.

It is perhaps for this reason that while Joe was extremely well known in its time it is not now as well remembered as the majority of its contemporaries. The superior original version only received a couple of showings, and the colour remake, while seen into the mid-1970s, never really had the same sort of impact. Prince and Hickson would continue to work in children’s television for many years, their various credits including such popular shows as Jackanory, Tots TV and Rosie & Jim.

In the mid-1970s they made another pilot show with Q-3 London. The BBC initially expressed interest in The Seven Sparrows, but would ultimately turn it down. However, by this stage a book deal had already been agreed, and the first of a proposed series of tie-in publications was duly published as planned.

Like Crystal Tipps and Alistair, the idea for Q-3 London’s next contribution to Watch With Mother came from within the Play School production team. The talented husband and wife partnership, Michael and Joanne Cole, had worked in both advertising and children’s books before joining the Children’s Department in 1969 (although their relationship with Play School stretched back some way before that point, several of their storybooks having been adapted for the programme from the late 1960s onwards). In their collaborative efforts, Michael would generally write the stories and Joanne would provide the illustrations and, where relevant, models and puppets. However, theirs was a truly combined working relationship which extended beyond their partnership, with their equally creative children often helping out with show production, assisting with animation and sometimes playing small parts on camera.

Michael Cole had arrived at the idea for what would become Fingerbobs through a rather unusual route. Working in his garden shed office, he was attempting to find inspiration for material for another programme when he noticed how much he was gesticulating as he searched for ideas, and was struck by the potential in a programme based around the versatility of the human hand, particularly in relation to arts and crafts. The Children’s Department shared his enthusiasm, indeed, this was one of their key imperatives, and a great deal of their output around this time was specifically geared towards encouraging creativity and an interest in art. But whereas traditionally similar programmes had been aimed at a slightly older audience, Fingerbobs was intended for Watch With Mother from the outset.

Fingerbobs, it was decided, would be fronted by a human presenter (perhaps indicating why it was farmed out to Q-3 London – only a couple of years previously, the idea of using a human presenter for The Herbs had been considered prohibitively expensive) who would send finger puppet “helpers” out to collect the raw materials needed to create images to accompany a story told at the end of the programme. There were some obvious parallels with the earlier Watch With Mother show Picture Book, which featured a human presenter and a puppet accomplice demonstrating “makes”, but the two programmes had entirely different approaches which underline their origins in very distinct eras. Unlike Picture Book, which had featured rather simplistic “makes” and expected viewers to follow instructions to the letter, Fingerbobs was rather more free-form and gently encouraged viewers to use their imagination in making their own entertainment. In one episode, for example, pebbles were collected for use as props in a story, but some were also set aside on account of their superficial resemblance to the shapes of various animals.

The original intention was to have four helpers, each representing one of the elements, although a “fire” character was ruled out very early on for obvious reasons. Thus it was that Gulliver the Gull took to the air, Scampi the Prawn scoured the ocean depths, and Flash the Tortoise slowly made his way across the land, while the vacant slot for a fourth helper was filled by the scene-stealing Fingermouse, whose laid-back yet overenthusiastic self-confidence was such that he would never for a second have considered himself to be merely limited to the land. Fashioned from little more than conical pieces of card and colour coordinated gloves, these creations had more character than many other “proper” puppets, something that was helped in no small part by their somewhat tongue-in-cheek introductory songs. Gulliver’s operatic yodeling (“I like to flyyyyyyyyy, and spread my wiiiiings”), Flash’s laconic drawl (“Slowly, steadily, I move at my own pace”) and Scampi’s chirpy high-pitched minimalisms (“I live on a hand in the sand, by the sea”) were all entertaining and amusing enough, but once again it was Fingermouse who stole the show with his boisterous and somewhat self-aggrandising effort. As well as introducing himself as “the never stop to think-er-mouse”, Fingermouse proudly boasted of how he is “the mouse with guts and verve” who could “get past cats so easily with my famous body swerve” – which he then handily illustrated by darting past a huge static cardboard feline.

The fingers that this strange assortment of characters were mounted on belonged to Rick Jones, a long-serving Play School presenter who like many of his co-presenters had emerged from the singer-songwriter folk music scene rather than theatre or radio. Jones, whose appearance and hippyish attire called to mind the sort of artist that might well have shared the BBC’s enthusiasm for the do-it-yourself approach, proved to be ideally suited to Fingerbobs. He overcame the obvious limitations of being stuck behind a desk in a small set with only finger puppets for company with ease, and developed a fondness for improvising around the basic script to add an element of free-form spontaneity.

Speaking on the Radio 4 documentary series Trumpton Riots in 1995, Michael Cole recalled how impressed he was with Jones’ ability to “play” with the camera, judiciously inserting pauses and hesitations to create a more realistic feel.

Although Jones was credited under his own name in the closing titles, within Fingerbobs itself he was always referred to as “Yoffi”. This was a conscious decision by Michael Cole and was intended to make him more of an obvious “character” than a moonlighting Play School presenter, with the unusual name derived from an Israeli slang word (apparently meaning either “great” or “delicious”) that he had become taken with while on holiday. His character, and indeed the main imperative of the series, were neatly summed up in the fondly-remembered opening song – “Yoffi lifts a finger, and a mouse is there, puts his hands together, and a seagull takes the air, Yoffi lifts a finger, and a scampi dives about, Yoffi bends another, and a tortoise head peeps out. These hands were made for making, and making they must do”.

The original intention was for Jones to adopt a less subtle form of disguise, and the original test footage that was shown to the BBC featured him wearing an oval-shaped cardboard mask bearing the features of a cherubic old man. In keeping with the overall approach of the programme, this was an ordinary mask which could have been made by any viewer with the aid of some string and an old cereal packet, however, the idea was quickly dropped.

Although the mask was never seen on screen, it is nonetheless indicative of just how pleasingly rough and ready the design and animation of the series was. The sheep that Fingermouse encounters in one episode is a large cartoonish cardboard representation, Scampi’s undersea kingdom is created from little more than strands of cellophane and wire-mounted drawings of fish, and the story about some cowboys who affix honey and feathers to their feet to allow them to dance on prickly ground is realised with nothing more complex than a couple of cut-out paper chain silhouettes moving about above some actual holly and feathers. Even the opening titles consisted of little more than paper letters on top of a wicker basket lid, and the overall effect is quite remarkable. In keeping with the original aims of its creators, Fingerbobs really does give the impression that anyone could create their own similarly evocative visual universe using only a couple of scraps of card and a bit of imagination.

Reflecting on this for Trumpton Riots, Michael Cole cited the influence of both Heinz Edelmann’s designs for The Beatles’ psychedelic cartoon Yellow Submarine, and the surreal animations fashioned from “found” images that Terry Gilliam created for the television comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, pointing out that both of these pioneering animators had changed the general perception of what was possible within the art form. As if to underline this connection, Fingerbobs was filmed in a studio that overlooked Charisma Records, who at that point were preparing Another Monty Python Record for release.

The influence of both Yellow Submarine and Monty Python’s Flying Circus was also detectable in the dry and often surreal wit that ran through each episode. Sometimes this was verbal, as best exemplified by the conversations between Yoffi and his helpers, but a great deal was also visual and remarkably subtle. For example, Fingermouse and Gulliver flinging feathers at each other (and managing to get some lodged in Yoffi’s beard) or, perhaps most famously, the borderline slapstick story of Scaredy Crow, a glove puppet determined to drink some unreachable water he had found in a jar. Where this humour really took off, however, was when the helpers were sent off to look for storytelling materials. Scampi’s patronisingly chauvinistic attitude to his giggling-prone daughters, Gulliver’s attempts to outsmart a pompous peacock (“Patience is a virtue, which will be rewarded by … a feather”), Flash listening in to a brainless gossipy conversation between two birds in a tree, and just about everything Fingermouse did – from making the self-satisfied observation that “Sheep and holly bushes … it’s just a matter of bringing them together”, to trying to lift a ‘very heavy stone’ (ie. a human toe) before being booted away off the edge of the screen – were never short of hilarious.

While it is always depressing to hear yet another third-rate stand-up comedian drone on about how radical or “druggy” an old children’s television series was, it is certainly true that in its own way Fingerbobs was as close as the BBC ever came to being in tune with the trends of the “psychedelic” scene, at least outside of programmes that did actually feature progressive rock bands.

Quite aside from the alignment with cutting edge comedy and the boom in interest in traditional arts and crafts, there was also the small matter of the musical backdrop to Yoffi’s paper engineering. Played on a combination of acoustic guitar, woodwind, cello and assorted percussion instruments, the overall score was not unlike the sort of arrangements that would have been heard on records by Nick Drake and Van Morrison at the time. As such, this is one of the few Watch With Mother soundtracks to bear repeated listening in isolation (and indeed to last longer than a couple of minutes) and it’s a shame it’s never been dusted down for commercial release in its own right.

As the music was provided by veteran composer Michael Jessett, whose previous credits included work on the first ever set of stories for Jackanory, it can be assumed that, along with the rest of the programme, its apparent countercultural leanings were a happy and timely coincidence. Other members of the production team included animator Maureen Lonergan, cameraman John Abbott and dubbing mixer Derek McColm (whose other credits include such decidedly less wholesome feature films as The Ups and Downs of a Handyman and Adventures of a Taxi Driver), while Michael Grafton-Robinson acted as director.

Fingerbobs was given the first of a great many showings from 14 February 1972, and was seen continuously right up until the mid-1980s. Even then it proved impossible to keep the series down, as Michael Cole – who had been responsible for a phenomenal amount of other BBC Children’s shows in the interim – was immediately commissioned to produce a new series featuring Fingermouse in the company of Play School presenter Iain Lauchlan. The focus of Fingermouse was on music rather than art, with the revamped “musical paper mouse” proving himself highly adept with woodwind, string and anything else that came to hand.

Q-3 London’s next project was one of the few Watch With Mother shows to have originally been conceived for another medium.

Teddy Edward, the traveling companion of writer-photographers Patrick and Mollie Matthews, had first appeared in print in 1962. The long series of books that followed charted the stuffed voyager’s sightseeing exploits in a variety of exotic locations, sketching out a mild storyline alongside photographs of him against some sweeping panoramic vista or standing in the midst of ancient architecture. What elevated these quirky and evocative books above the level of a mere travelogue was the somewhat laconic nature of Edward himself, perpetually taking the awe-inspiring views or meetings with important global figures very much in his stride.

By the time a television adaptation was considered, Teddy Edward had been joined by a number of regular fellow travelers including Jasmine the Rabbit, Snowytoes the Panda and Bushy the Sheep, not to mention his own personal motorised jeep, all of which would make the transition to the small screen. He had also been replaced by a lookalike, as the original bear had worn out through overuse (which, bearing in mind the fate of the original Teddy from Andy Pandy, seems to have been a common ailment for stuffed bears featured in Watch With Mother), and it was this one that was used in the filming of 13 new scripts provided by Patrick and Mollie Matthews.

Some minor modifications were made to the format – the seasoned travelers were as likely to find themselves relaxing at the seaside as they were to pay pilgrimage to religious shrines in Tibet – but Teddy Edward stayed true to the nature of the original books in more ways than one. Although shot on film, the episodes were essentially composed of what were in effect still images posed for the camera, switching from one to the next in tandem with the narration. This may make it sound rather like a tedious flip through some dullard’s holiday slides complete with an accompanying lecture, but the still photographs in Teddy Edward were enhanced by authentic sound effects, impressive photography, the gentle whimsy of the storylines, and the occasional appearance of an actual moving object such as a butterfly or a steam train.

In this sense the series was decidedly more “ambient” than most of its contemporaries, with a gentle relaxing feel that made it ideally suited to the more tranquil outposts of the Watch With Mother schedules. Indeed, the majority of its broadcasts were in the recently established Sunday slot.

First shown from Friday 15 January 1973, the episodes (which only ran to five minutes apiece, and hence were generally coupled with other shorter shows to make up the full 15-minute timeslot) were narrated by Richard Baker, who had previously done the same for Mary, Mungo & Midge. The direction was left in the capable hands of Howard Kennett, whose skills as an editor had previously been demonstrated on such notable BBC productions as the Derek Nimmo sitcom All Gas and Gaiters and the Dennis Potter play A Beast With Two Backs. Meanwhile, Patrick and Mollie Matthews took full advantage of this fresh exposure for their character, and all 13 of the films were adapted into paperback books.

Also released to accompany the series was a Music for Pleasure EP featuring the soundtracks of two of the television episodes, which also incorporated what is perhaps the most unusual – and certainly the most memorable – element of the series. Originally composed as a piece of library music, Glad Gadabout by John Scott (whose other television credits include the celebrated theme to Nationwide) was discovered on a “sampler” album of music from the KPM label, and was picked out as the theme tune for Teddy Edward on account of its breezy world music leanings. Glad Gadabout fitted the mood of the show perfectly, yet it was also quite unlike just about any other piece of music ever heard within Watch With Mother, coming across as a credible jazz-funk fusion piece with mild ethnic flavourings, and the aggressive yelping flute-dominated ending sounded a rather strange note on which to fade out the programme. For years this theme tune was something of a holy grail for soundtrack collectors, with the original library music album and even the EP (which only featured 30 seconds or so from both the start and end of the track) being highly sought after, although in recent years the full recording has resurfaced on a couple of compilation albums.

Teddy Edward was shown numerous times between 1973 and 1980, in several different combinations with other shows, and also gave rise to an accompanying comic strip in Pippin and in a short-lived series of Watch With Mother annuals that the BBC published in the late 1970s. However it has scarcely been seen since then, and remains the only Q-3 London production not to be given any sort of commercial release on video or DVD. As if to compound this, Teddy Edward himself has suffered a similar sort of archival banishment, sold at auction in 1996 for a staggering sum, he now resides in a Japanese Teddy Bear museum.

Arriving on television a mere three months after Teddy Edward, Q-3 London’s next project was again based around a bear with a long pre-television history, albeit one that would not be readily familiar to British viewers. Olga Pouchine had created the character of Colargol in the late 1950s, originally as the star of stories written for her children but later graduating to a series of published storybooks. Such was Colargol’s popularity in his native France that the stories became the basis for a series of huge-selling story records, featuring songs written by veteran composer Mireille Hartuch and lyricist Victor Villein, and orchestrated by Jean-Michel Defaye.

One keen admirer of the spoken word versions was television producer Albert Barille, who began to formulate the idea of producing a stop-motion animated counterpart using the original stories and music. Surprisingly, given the recent international success of Le Manege Enchante, most of the television companies he approached considered the idea to be prohibitively expensive. Undaunted, Barille formed his own production company Prodicis (later responsible for the long-running educative animated series Once Upon a Time …), and engaged the services of Polish-born animator Tadeusz Wilkosz.

Barille’s faith in the project was rewarded when Colargol went on to run for over five years and upwards of 50 episodes in France. The series was also widely sold and redubbed abroad. Many broadcasters opted to retain the name Colargol, but in Israel he became Kolargol, in Canada Jeremy, and in Britain – thanks to an astute purchase by Q-3 London – Barnaby.

Although the original version had run for far longer and seen all manner of storyline diversions, taking in both a trip to the Wild West and a voyage to the Moon, Q-3 London only purchased enough episodes of Colargol to make up the standard Watch With Mother run of 13. The episodes that they chose followed Colargol (or, to be more accurate, Barnaby) in a running storyline as he was taught to sing by the King of the Birds, became the star attraction in a traveling circus and finally arrived at the North Pole, before being taken home by a kindly whale. This was the only occasion in which a Watch With Mother show would feature a running storyline from start to finish, and consequently Barnaby seems much more fast-moving than most of the other programmes in the stand.

Perhaps on account of the fact that precious little additional production outlay was required, Barnaby benefited from an unusually large and distinguished cast of vocal performers. The voice of Barnaby himself was handled by Colin Jeavons, with additional voices provided by Charles Collingwood, Gwenllian Owen and Percy Edwards, a distinguished ornithologist turned radio comic and children’s television presenter, famed for his ability to accurately mimic animal noises.

Barnaby, which also happened to be the name of Jeavons’ young son, was adopted because the BBC were not keen on using either of the existing names for the central character. Colargol was considered unsuitable for an audience in the early stages of language development, whereas popular alternative Jeremy was ruled out by virtue of the fact Quaker Foods were then using a bear of the same name in their advertising. This change required little alteration to the actual scripts, but it did necessitate a rewrite of the naggingly catchy theme song (“Barnaby the Bear’s my name, never call me Jack or James …”), fitted out with decidedly eccentric and very “British” lyrics that were some distance from the blandly descriptive versions heard in other territories.

Yet none of this adaptation for British audiences was able to overshadow the inherent visual thrills of the original version, which held huge appeal for an audience that had not really had much exposure to the idiosyncrasies of European animation. Largely rendered in bold primary colours with a design scheme that calls to mind the gaudy artwork commonly associated with post-War advertising, the settings were highly successful in creating a realistic “universe” of their own, and the individual puppets were bright, cheerful and heavily stylised efforts (although Barnaby himself bore a slightly disturbing facial resemblance to a cake). In addition to this, there was always something going on in the “background” of scenes, whether it was Barnaby habitually entering and exiting his house through the window rather than the door, or lanky chimney sweeps gangling about on rooftops. The overall effect was not that far removed from the boisterous big-screen comedies of the day, and fittingly the series boasted a soundtrack that resembled the lavish, faintly old-fashioned orchestration of the Carry On film series.

Barnaby secured top billing at Mr Pimolou’s circus from Wednesday 4 April 1973, and the series continued to be repeated throughout the 1970s. However, in a very strange turn of events, this was not quite the last that British audiences would see of him. Prodicis continued to use the image of “Colargol” in their corporate logo, causing a great deal of confusion to viewers of the English language version of Once Upon a Time … Man, while some episodes of the Canadian Jeremy would later turn up in ITV regions in the mid-1980s. In addition to the numerous untranslated episodes of Colargol, Prodicis would go on to make several full-length films based on the character, and these have also yet to be seen in the UK.

Q-3 London only appear to have operated for a couple of years in the early-mid 1970s, but during this time they were responsible for an incredible amount of distinctive and atmospheric shows, some of which pushed way beyond the usual expected parameters of Watch With Mother and experimented with very different methods of reaching out to its target audience. Michael Grafton-Robinson had an exceptional talent for spotting interesting and unusual ideas that would “work” for the timeslot, and it is a shame his efforts are not more widely recognised and celebrated. Yet even aside from the sheer number of times they were repeated, his Watch With Mother productions had a significant legacy. The early exposure he gave to several writers, animators and producers would eventually result in the creation of many more well-loved Watch With Mother shows.

<Part Five