In a new autobiography, guitarist Robin Le Mesurier talks about his time performing in the Wombles pop group in the 1970s, and sets the record straight about why he suddenly lost the job.
The son of comedy actors John Le Mesurier and Hattie Jacques also writes about his unconventional family life and his early love of music, leading to a successful career as a session musician and regular work with Rod Stewart and French rock star Johnny Hallyday.
From the age of 16, Robin was in a band called Reign with brothers Tim and Andy Renton – and presciently played a Flying V guitar. Just as the band came to an end three years later, Mike Batt, who lived around the corner from Robin, “asked if members of Reign could come and ‘fill some costumes’ of a group of furry creatures known as The Wombles”.
Robin says: “The engagement was for a song during the interval of the Eurovision Song Contest that was due to take place in Brighton the following spring. We had great fun being filmed collecting rubbish in the grounds of the Brighton Pavilion, careering around the pier in a speedboat and driving around neighbouring cliff tops in dune buggies.”
This resulted in regular television and public appearances for Robin, Tim and Andy. “The Wombles were a huge success thanks to the many hits that Mike wrote. At one stage the group had two albums and two singles in the charts – even though we didn’t play on these. We did so many shows such as Blue Peter, Crackerjack, and about ten appearances on Top Of The Pops. Most of these were pre-recorded, although we did play live on occasions. We even went abroad and worked on a television show with the James Last orchestra.
“One July, we were asked to open a supermarket in Manchester and about 10,000 people turned up. We weren’t even performing! We just stood there, hardly being able to see anything through the tiny peep holes inside the uncomfortably hot and very heavy fake fur costumes. We were boiling to death in the heat, while signing autographs and having our pictures taken. But it was a living at the time, and not a bad one to be honest.”
Robin’s family background made it more difficult for him to avoid unwanted press attention, despite the anonymity of a Wombles costume.
“Because of our popularity, there was great speculation about the identities of the musicians. For those in the know we could be recognised by our instruments; Andy Renton obviously on drums, Tim playing his Rickenbacker and me with my Flying V, but for those outside the organisation, this conjecture went on for quite some time. At one point some savvy journalist from one of the tabloids discovered that I was a Womble. I was Wellington to be precise. Mum and I were coerced into doing a photo shoot and an interview. Our secret was out and although we weren’t supposed to talk to the press, we got away with it that time.”
One night, the family home was raided as the police had apparently heard that Robin’s younger brother was a dealer. “The police were there for hours and all they found was one ‘joint’ that belonged to Jake. Later on, Mike Batt lightheartedly reported that the joint was hidden in one of the Wombles’ heads and although this was funny, it wasn’t true!”
Taken to the local police station, Robin “pleaded with the sergeant in charge to make sure that the incident wasn’t leaked to the press. I wanted to protect Mum as she was very well known by then and this sort of publicity could be damaging. But of course within a day the story was all over the newspapers under the banner headline, ‘Unwomblish Behaviour’. I wonder how much someone was paid to leak the story.
“A couple of days after the article appeared in the newspaper, I got an apologetic call from Mike Batt, telling me that the Wombles’ creator, Elisabeth Beresford, had decided I shouldn’t be associated with the children’s books and so I was not suitable to be a part of the group. I was stunned that this incident, in which I was totally innocent, could have such an outcome. I had lost a very lucrative job, but that was that. I was no longer a Womble.”
Robin says their solicitor told the boys to plead guilty as they would only receive a small fine. “In retrospect I should have pleaded not guilty as the substance wasn’t mine. In fact I had nothing to do with it. Because of pleading guilty to possession of drugs, I now had a criminal record.” This later affected his applications for working visas and a green card to live in the USA.
Although Robin writes that he was a Womble “for a couple of years”, another book about his mother places the event much earlier in The Wombles’ career, on 24 May 1974, with the court case a month later. Hattie: The Authorised Biography Of Hattie Jacques was written by Andy Merriman, who co-wrote Robin’s biography. This timing would suggest that Robin was only in the group promoting The Wombling Song and Remember You’re A Womble in early 1974. (It also appears to contradict his tale of opening a supermarket in July, though perhaps it was actually in a hot May.)
Tim Renton was also later sacked from The Wombles, Robin reveals: “There was an agreement that we shouldn’t talk to the press and that our real identities should be kept secret, but he became fed up with this lack of recognition and that other people, non musicians, were being employed. Tim spoke to the Daily Express, spilt the beans and inevitably also received the ‘Thank you and goodbye’ call from Mike. Tim’s only regret was that his sacking happened just before a tour of the USA! For those of you who don’t know… Tim was Uncle Bulgaria (and Tim’s wife, Sandy, was Madame Cholet on occasions).”