For many millennials and Gen-Z Brits, the Biff, Chip and Kipper books were a large part of our childhoods. While the stories of the Robinson trio heading out on a picnic, retrieving their mum’s hat from Floppy the dog or finding a magic key may not ring a bell straight away, anyone who learnt to read with the Oxford Reading Tree franchise will immediately recognise the book covers and their characters, with their rosy cheeks and dots for eyes.
Now, the books are being adapted into a TV series for CBeebies after spending 30 years on the shelves of primary schools across the UK – although its star, Gavin & Stacey’s Melanie Walters, hadn’t heard of the books when she auditioned for the part of Gran.
“It surprised me when a producer said that they were written in the ’80s as my son was born in 1998. He’s 22 now so he doesn’t read them now and didn’t read them then. So I was really surprised that they’ve been around for such a long time and also surprised that I hadn’t heard of them.
“I read to my son, we read so many books – I started reading The Hobbit to him when he was three, the poor thing. A bit heavy perhaps.”
It’s a Wednesday morning when I’m speaking to Walters, who is best known for playing Gwen – the omelette-making, mild-mannered mum of Stacey – in hit BBC sitcom Gavin & Stacey. While her Welsh accent isn’t as strong as Gwen’s Barry Island lilt, Walters is Zoom-ing from the Mumbles, a seaside town in Swansea where she’s been based for the last 20 years.
“I’m Mumbles born and bred, then I moved away, went to university and ended up in London for years and years, then Cardiff for years and years,” she says. “I wanted to bring my son up in Mumbles so moved back and have not regretted it for one moment. It’s just a fabulous place.”
As a huge Gavin & Stacey fan, I’m itching to ask about the future of the sitcom (more on that later), however we’re meeting (virtually) to chat about CBeebies’ Biff & Chip, which Walters says is inspired by the books as opposed to a direct adaptation.
“They’re brand new stories and we’ve just sort of enlarged the world of Biff and Chip, using the characters but in completely new, different stories. They’re brilliantly written, I must say, because they’re only 10 minutes long-ish and to get a full arc in that short space of time is actually very clever – and they have. I was really impressed. I wish I’d been in more.”
The role of Gran – who readers of the books will know is the naughty grandmother of Biff, Chip and Kipper – was brought to Walters by her agent and having worked on a CBeebies show previously, she said yes. “I got some books out of the library, so I had an idea of Gran in the books and [played her] more or less along the same lines, because she is such a brilliant character to play.
“I had such fun with her because she’s very quirky, very mischievous, full of energy,” she says. “So I really hope that I brought that out in my character of Gran. I think it’s obvious when you watch it that I’m having a good time.”
Filmed in Manchester during the pandemic (“it was brilliantly handled, we all felt very safe”), the series stars Tilly Kaye and George Robinson as twins Biff and Chip, while Freddie James stars as their little brother Kipper, with Jack Wilkinson (Doctors) and Kellie Shirley (EastEnders) playing their parents.
“The kids are amazing. Tilly, George and Freddie – I don’t think George had done anything else, I think this was his first thing,” she says. “And Fred was just the age of five and he knew all his lines.”
Having been given her Equity card after taking her first acting job with a children’s theatre company, Walters is a big advocate of children’s television and arts. “That’s where my roots are in the sense that that’s where I started in the business, and I do panto every year.
“I think drama and entertainment for kids is hugely important and I would always want to be involved in that. If you think about it, they are our future creatives, aren’t they? They are future writers and our future artists and musicians.
“Biff & Chip is all around make-believe play, imaginative play. The series really hones in on that, so you’ve got episode after episode with dressing up, using your imagination and solving problems and that is just so important. We’d like to think that the kids will be watching Biff & Chip and will be inspired to do their own make-believe and decide one afternoon to go to the moon. It’s really fab.”
Speaking of creatives, arguably two of the biggest comedy writers in the UK are Ruth Jones and James Corden, who gave us three series of Gavin & Stacey. Despite ending in 2010, with Jones going on to create Stella and Corden dominating the US and Hollywood, the full cast returned for a one-off Christmas special in 2019 and broke BBC viewing records in the process – however Walters was initially hesitant to reprise her role of Gwen.
“I think we were quite apprehensive in the sense that we hadn’t seen each other for such a long time. But it was one of those things that when we went into Soho House and had the reading, we went in and within minutes it was like we had only seen each other the other day.
“You know when you have a best friend and you don’t see them for years and then you meet each other and it’s like you haven’t not seen each other at all and you’ve seen each other yesterday lunchtime? It was like that, we just slipped straight back into it. It was absolutely fabulous to see everybody.
“They very cleverly got as many as possible of the same crew as the very first series, so it was like a long lost family when we all got back together. I do think a lot of us have said it, it was one of the best filming sequences of Gavin & Stacey. It really was the best one. We got on so so well. It was just unbelievably brilliant.”
The episode drew in millions of viewers in the evening, becoming the most-watched show on Christmas Day of the decade – although Walters didn’t catch it live on BBC One. “I was coming back up to Mansfield, I missed it live. I was in panto so I was on the M5, M50 at eight o’clock thinking, ‘Oh gosh, how many people are tuning in? Who knows.’
“But then the next day, 18 million people did more or less so that’s quite extraordinary really.”
Walters says there are currently no plans for Gavin & Stacey to return to our screens, but that she’d love to return to the sitcom. “All I can say is that I’d love to play Gwen again. I think we’d all do it if there was one I’m sure, I can’t speak for other people but I’m sure we would. But no plan, no plans at all!”
As for whether Biff & Chip will be back for a second series, Walters would be on board with that too. “Yes, absolutely. I just think it’s good quality children’s TV. It would be lovely.”