Mike Batt visited Cambridge Family Film Festival to talk about the work of his animation company, Dramatico Animation – accompanied by his friend Orinoco Womble.
The half-term event was on 24 October at 11am, at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge, with an audience of children and parents.
To set the scene, Mike introduced two original 1970s episodes: Orinoco And The Big Black Umbrella, the very first episode from 1973, and Bungo Up A Tree, which opened the second series in 1975. (Coincidentally, the final episode was first broadcast on this day, 24 October, in 1975.) Mike said that the cut-out trees were one of the things he loved about Ivor Wood’s original stop-motion animation.
The main event, though, was the ‘world premiere’ of two brand new ten-minute episodes, now produced in CGI. Mike explained that the new series is still a work in progress, using a temporary soundtrack with ‘scratch voices’, in which he’s voiced many of the characters himself to give the animators something to work with. He said Ray Winstone had recorded Tobermory’s voice for the first of these two episodes but not yet for the other one, and vice versa for Bernard Cribbins as Great Uncle Bulgaria (“He’s in his eighties now, and we couldn’t do it without him, so we’ve asked him to be Great Uncle Bulgaria”).
The first episode we saw was Rocket Womble, in which Wellington dreams of going to the moon and builds himself a space rocket out of old dustbins. Full of humorous touches, the episode quickly had the audience giggling in delight.
To Tobermory’s surprise, Wellington manages to fly his rocket high over London – launched with a giant spring (delivered by a Zebedee-like bouncing Tomsk) and then held afloat by a big bunch of balloons in the style of the Disney film Up. The accompanying music, Count Down And Lift-Off (from the Wombling Free film soundtrack) and Womble Of The Universe, enhances the joyous effect as Wellington soars through the sky.
The second new episode was Green Cake, in which Madame Cholet bakes a perfect cake with the help of Tobermory’s rather chaotic new mixing machine. Kids gasped in anticipation as Orinoco’s nose was inevitably drawn to the wonderful smell: could he resist temptation?
Each story focuses on one particular character, though most of the cast put in an appearance (the seven original TV Wombles plus Alderney to boost the female quotient), along with some new-look furball baby ‘Womblies’.
As soon as the credits were over, a little girl behind me asked her mum, “Is there more?” I felt the same way: there are so many little details to spot that I wished I could rewind and watch it all again. For example, Uncle Bulgaria’s newspaper is now called ‘Good Times’. And the Wombles’ red-W-in-a-circle logo pops up all over the place, from their characteristic clothes to stencilled mugs and the tailfin of Wellington’s rocket.
At times the language has been modernised for the kids of today – one of the first phrases we heard was “totally awesome”. But such contemporary expressions are only occasional, and children of the seventies needn’t worry about the overall tone. As Mike Batt explained in a short Q&A at the end: “We wanted to be very sure that there’s a strong message of ‘look after the environment’ throughout the stories. We wanted them to be funny, we wanted them to keep the character of the Wombles, and we wanted them to be loveable. I was delighted to find that, after lots of experimentation, we could keep the nice cuddly, furry look of them.”
Mike has made good use of The Wombles’ back catalogue of more than 50 songs, ‘recycling’ them into storylines and incidental music, as well as having the pop group performing the opening titles. “We wanted to have them playing music,” he said. “We’ve put the two together, so some of the episodes are about them making their instruments and things like that.”
At the moment he hasn’t written any new songs, and he’s written the first set of episodes himself, but he said that in future they’ll bring in new writers who may ask him to write new songs for their stories.
Finally, the big question: when will the new series be coming out? Mike said: “We’ve just made four of them to start with, and we’re working on another six. We’re still having discussions about which television station it’s going to be on, and they’ll also be on video-on-demand platforms, to choose whenever you want to watch them.
“But I have a feeling that we’ll decide to do a Christmas special of about half an hour, at the end of 2017. It takes quite a long time to make these shows, so I think by the time we’ve got the first series finished, it would be rather cool if we could launch it with a lovely Christmas special.”
To finish off the event, there was time for everyone to meet Orinoco and take photos – see other people’s tweets below.