When I visited Alderney for the opening of the Wombles exhibition in June 2012, I was delighted to meet Elisabeth Beresford’s daughter, Kate Robertson. After she’d filmed an interview with ITV Channel Television, Kate kindly invited me to her mother’s house, where we sat at the kitchen table for a chat about the Wombles and Alderney.
It was you who originally said ‘Wombledon Common’, so you’re responsible for the whole thing! How does that feel?
Well, I only invented the name! My mother was the inventor of the Wombles. But, yes, I did ‘mox ip’ my words – mix up my words – on Christmas Day… no, it was Boxing Day.
We’d had some very elderly relatives staying, and we just wanted to go out – you know, how children do. So we were rushing around on the Common, and I just said: “Oh, it’s lovely being here on Wombledon Common.” And Mum said: “Oh! That’s it! Womble… Womble… Wombles!” Just like that.
And then, she just there and then started to see all the characters, which were all based on my family. And that’s why they’ve got great integrity, because in a way they were real, because they were based on real people – but with the community spirit that perhaps came from being here on Alderney. You know, having a house, we used to come here on our holidays.
You get here – everybody says ‘can I help you?’ or ‘can I do this for you?’. And that’s very different from living in London. So I think the whole ‘burrow’ feel and community feel – and I haven’t really said this before – is due to that.
What was it like for you growing up with the Wombles?
Well, I suppose, when the books started to take off, by the time the music came along, and the television, I’d grown and gone to university. So I was away quite a bit, and it was my younger brother Marcus who took the full force of it. But it used to be quite embarrassing going to parties, and they’d always play the music and things.
Mum, I know, was very busy all the time. She was going and doing interviews on what were the magazine programmes on the BBC then, which I think was Pebble Mill and so on. She was always rushing off and doing that, and somebody would say: “Oh, I’ve seen your mum on television.” You’d just feel embarrassed, you know.
But we loved the Wombles from the start. And when Ivor Wood visualised them, differently from the original illustrations, they just came to life. That was fantastic. And of course Bernard Cribbins… he gave every one of them their right voice. It was just intuitive, the way he did it. And he and Mum worked very well together. She used to write all those scripts and things.
And the Wombles went on and on. And it’s lovely that Bloomsbury have come back and said ‘we want to bring the books out again’.
How did that all come about? I read an article where the editor from Bloomsbury said that she’d just written to ‘Elisabeth Beresford’, and she didn’t even know the address.
That’s right, that’s absolutely right – that’s Emma Matthewson, who’s the editorial director. She had loved the Wombles when she was a kid – she was of that age. She now has two boys – they’ve just got past the Womble age now, but they were that age when she said ‘let’s do the Wombles’.
She said: “Where are the Wombles? Why aren’t they in print? Because they’d be perfect.” And so she wrote to ‘Elisabeth Beresford, Alderney’.
By that time, sadly, Mum was in the hospital, but Marcus got in contact with her, and then said: “All right, Kate, that’s your line of country”, because I was in editorial.
So we brought them out with just slight tweaks in the text, but otherwise nothing… oh, you haven’t noticed, have you?!
What sort of changes did you make?
Hardly anything – well, I shouldn’t really say! I think that things which are PC and not PC these days, you have to be careful about that. But other than that… I think Orinoco’s not considered lazy any more… was it the word ‘lazy’, or was it ‘fat’? Something like that, anyway, but I can’t exactly remember. Just tiny, tiny changes.
And they’ve got the new bits at the beginning and end, for which you were co-credited.
Yeah, I wrote those.
Is it true that there were some special stories about an Alderney Wombles burrow that were written for a local publication?
Yes – Mum was always doing local things which weren’t necessarily published, or whatever. For instance, every Christmas – until, I should think, the mid-’90s – she would do what we used to call ‘The Other Queen’s Speech’. She used to do a Wombles story for Channel Television, I think it was, which was broadcast here on Christmas Eve. And that was usually about Wombles.
And somebody, only today actually, said that her son, who’s now 35 and a lawyer on the mainland, was down at one of the beaches one summer looking for Wombles, in amongst all the brambles and things, in the German bunkers or whatever. And he said: “Come on, Mr Womble, where are you, Mr Womble?” And Mum was on the beach and heard him, and said: “I’m here!” And he, even now, swears that Wombles exist. He never discovered it was Mum.
It was 1962, it says in the exhibition, that you first started coming to Alderney on holiday.
Yes, it was 50 years ago exactly. When we first came here in ’62, for a holiday, I think she thought we were going to Scotland! We got on an aeroplane, at Gatwick it used to be then, in a Heron, and came here. And we just got off and that was it: love at first sight. Because it was a beautiful warm day, blue sky.
But this house, she’d had since about ’64 or ’65, I can’t remember exactly. We stayed at a house down there, and then Mum suddenly thought, ‘right, I’m gonna buy a house’. It wasn’t this size, though. They added on when Dad and she came over. It’s a bit like a burrow!
What was it like when your parents moved over here permanently, in 1978? Obviously you were older by then…
Yeah, I was living in a flat in London… Obviously I knew they were coming over. I don’t think Mum particularly wanted to at that time, and of course once she came over she loved it, and we could never get her back the other side. I don’t think she left the island for 10 years, in the last 10 years of her life. The last thing she went over to the mainland for was to get her MBE.
Whose idea was the Wombles exhibition here on Alderney, and how did that come about?
As far as I know, it was Donald’s idea – Donald [Hughes, the exhibition coordinator] and Fran [Frances Jeens], who’s the curator of the Alderney Museum. Donald’s been the driving force, and Fran has been the one who’s made it look so professional, and had the ideas.
The pair of them have been fantastic. And Donald got a little bit of money off the States of Alderney in order for them to be able to put it on. The idea was to attract people to the island – to come and see the Wombles as well as this lovely island. And here you are!
It’s jollied up the shopping street, to have it there. And it’s really something exciting for the children to look at – and, actually, I’ve noticed quite a lot of old people like it. It’s going to run through until middle to late September, I believe. And I hope that it might become something that they do on a more permanent basis, because it would be lovely to think that the Wombles had got a permanent home here, as well as elsewhere.
And it looks absolutely wonderful. The children of Ormer House School have made this burrow. So everybody’s done something. And tomorrow’s going to be fantastic, because all the kids are going to be dancing, and singing Wombles songs.
It’s really good, and Mum would have been very thrilled, because she loved the island. For children, she always thought it was a safe place for them to be. You don’t lock your doors, and you can send them off down to the beach and not worry. And normally it’s lovely weather. And to have an exhibition that everybody can enjoy and attract visitors to the island and help the economy would have been just her idea of… you know, bang on. Bang on. If she was Madame Cholet she’d have said ‘Oh la la!’.
So you like doing Madame Cholet too! She seems to be Bernard Cribbins’s favourite Womble. He’s always doing her voice whenever he goes on the telly.
Funnily enough, all that came with Bernard. In the books, she was not very French. No, because she was based on my mother’s mother, that’s the one I was thinking of when I think of Mum. Because Mum didn’t really write herself in as a Womble. I suppose there was a bit of her in all of them, of course.