Mike Batt at the BFI celebration of Children’s BBC

A Celebration Of BBC Children's CharactersMike Batt was interviewed about the Wombles at a special BFI event, A Celebration Of BBC Children’s Characters, on 13 July.

The BFI also announced the winners of the recent Radio Times poll to find the nation’s favourite BBC children’s TV characters. Sadly in the 1970s category the Wombles were beaten by Paddington Bear – though we were told it was “incredibly close”.

The poll winners from each decade are:

  • 1950s: Sooty And Sweep
  • 1960s: The Magic Roundabout
  • 1970s: Paddington Bear
  • 1980s: Postman Pat
  • 1990s: Bob The Builder
  • 2000s: Shaun The Sheep

The full results and the overall winner will be revealed in the Radio Times on Tuesday, 15 July.

The two-hour BFI event screened episodes of some of the shortlisted children’s programmes, ranging from 1957’s black-and-white Captain Pugwash, which was made with cardboard cut-outs and levers, to an exclusive preview of next month’s brand new series of Sarah & Duck.

Between clips, the BFI’s Justin Johnson chatted to guests about the making of some of the programmes: Andrew Davenport (creator and writer of Teletubbies and In The Night Garden) and Pui Fan Lee (Po in Teletubbies); Jamie Badminton, Sarah Gomes Harris and Tim O’Sullivan (creators of Sarah & Duck); and of course Mike Batt (songwriter and now executive producer of The Wombles).

Though this was billed as a family event, most of the young children in the audience were restless and chattering while the boring grown-ups were talking between episodes. But the prize giveaways went down very well (and very noisily), and it was nice to see kids enjoying gentle classics like Bagpuss as much as the newer productions.

The very first Wombles episode from 1973 was shown, which introduces the four young Wombles and Great Uncle Bulgaria. By the time Orinoco was swept into the air by the big black umbrella, there was plenty of laughter in the audience.

Justin Johnson interviews Mike BattIn a five-minute interview, Mike Batt spoke about how the Wombles music first took off in the 1970s, and about the new TV series that he’s making now:

“I so much enjoyed writing the music for Elisabeth Beresford’s characters, they’re such good characters, that I couldn’t stop myself from suggesting that I make an album – you know, a song for Great Uncle Bulgaria, a song for Orinoco…

“I got my mother to make me a Womble costume because nobody would take me seriously, and I would go around and be Orinoco. And then Top Of The Pops rang up one day and said, ‘is there a band called The Wombles?’, and of course I said yes when there actually wasn’t. So I told a little white lie, and they said, ‘well that’s good because you’re on Top Of The Pops tomorrow’.

“So I had to get my mum to make me three more Womble costumes overnight. My mum and my dad and my two brothers and my sister, we all converged on my mum and dad’s house and made the three extra costumes. So we made a pop group! That took it away from just the children into the teenage market – market’s perhaps a dirty word to use; teenage appreciation – and it became a family thing. We had lots of fun with it, and in fact we’re just about to start to have quite a lot more fun with it too.

“Having spent my life in a certain amount of denial about the Wombles, and wanting to be taken seriously as a songwriter, as I enter the tea-time of my life, shall we say, I’m a bit more relaxed about it. When people came to me and asked me if I would write the music for a new series, I said, ‘well actually I’d really prefer to make the new series’ – perhaps I could buy the rights from the people themselves.

“That’s what we’ve done. We’ve put all the rights together in one company for the first time ever, and we’re going to be making a new series. It’s actually for Channel 5, and it’ll be going out in the autumn of next year. We’re already in scripting, story-boarding and model-making stages, and we’re having heaps of fun. There will be a film as well, some time soon, so lots of fun to be had – for us, and hopefully for other people as well.

“I sometimes find myself using an apologetic tone for this, but I’m not an apologist for CGI. We’re using CGI, but we’re going to make it look as much like that [pointing at the screen] as possible. In other words we’re going to give it that kind of jumpy look, and a cuddly look. CGI is so good these days – for those who don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s computer graphics to make it, like you would see in a Pixar movie. It will look like that, but it’ll just be a bit more sophisticated for the modern audience.

“We’ve actually made the puppets, but instead of making them with physical, real fur… My mum used a ping pong ball for the noses that we used to wear, and Ivor Wood was an absolute genius at making these puppets and animating them. Instead of doing that, we’ve done it within the computer, and they’re manipulated by puppeteers who are actually computer operators.”

  • Frederick W Harrison

    Note that Ivor Wood animated the winners from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. I suspect the publicity regarding the new Paddington film helped his (Paddington’s) position in the poll.