Underground, overground, Wombling free at 50! It's a big birthday for TV's eco-minded heroes
As BBC's tidy-minded Wombles celebrate their golden anniversary next month, Mike Batt looks back on a very furry, very musical, success story.
“They’re furry, they collect rubbish, they live under Wimbledon Common...” Fifty years ago, Radio Times introduced The Wombles to readers ahead of its debut on 5th February 1973. Based on books by Elisabeth Beresford, directed by Ivor Wood, narrated by Bernard Cribbins and with the catchiest of theme tunes by Mike Batt, the programme and its endearing stars immediately caught on with the public.
Their encounters with everyday objects like umbrellas and tyres, as though seen through the eyes of children, were invested with warmth and humour, not to mention a dash of social commentary.
After two series and 60 short episodes, there was a big-screen outing in 1977 and a '90s comeback. And the broad sweep of characters meant that every young (and old) viewer had a favourite, from practical Tobermory to brainy but shy Wellington, bossy Bungo, ever-hungry Orinoco, athletic but not-the-sharpest Tomsk, kindly Madame Cholet and the old and very wise Great Uncle Bulgaria.
So it was a case of "today, Wimbledon, tomorrow the world", while the Wombles' gift for making good use of the things that they find proved to be admirably pioneering.
Composer Mike Batt, meanwhile, extended the franchise hugely by turning the recycling burrowers into a band – they enjoyed six top-20 hits in two years. Radio Times caught up with Mike, who is still working at 73, to look back on the popular programme and assess its legacy.
The Wombles’ enduring popularity shows what a far-sighted concept it was in the first place. You must be proud of your connection with the project?
I am very proud of my association with the Wombles project. It brought me my first hits and frankly, made me a wealthy young man after five years of playing “dodge-the-bank-manager”. Had we not had these hits, the characters would still be much loved, but would never have become an abiding national treasure. So my role in igniting “Womble mania” and adding a certain amount of my own whimsicality into the characterisations is something of which I’m proud.
How did your involvement come about?
I was freelance, after leaving my job as head of production (A&R) at Liberty/United Artists, aged 19. I made my living doing arranging, and also TV jingles. One day my jingles agent said, "There’s a production company making a kids’ TV series for the BBC, called The Wombles." They asked to see me. I went along and met Ivor Wood, the genius animator and creator of the look of the Wombles – they had looked simply like teddy bears in the first book. He asked me for a tune. I suggested perhaps a song might inject a bit of fun and give some info about the characters. He thought that might be worth a try.
What aspects of the story/characters fed into the music?
I loved the characters. That’s why I embraced them so readily. I liked their green ethos, their Britishness, the way they walked... To me, they Wombled along, even though the first book never used the word as a verb until I did, with "Wombling free". They were only "free" because it rhymed with "...are we"! The rompy sort of rhythm of the first song comes from my general impression of them as friendly, furry, eccentric types.
Did you ever meet The Wombles' creator, Elisabeth Beresford?
I met her many times. She and Max, her husband, and two kids lived in a very posh house, just off Wandsworth Common. Max had been a star TV presenter, tennis commentary being his speciality. His star was waning and Elisabeth, or Liza as everyone called her, was becoming the star of the family now. To keep him happy, they made him chairman of their company, Wombles Ltd. He was an austere figure. I visited Liza in later years at her home on the island of Alderney. Their wealth had not been well managed and she lived a simple life. But she retained the twinkle and joy of the Wombles even in old age.
Bernard Cribbins and Ivor Wood were also major factors in the show’s success. How would you describe their contributions?
Bernie and Ivor were crucial to the success. Ivor took the book drawings and redesigned the characters – later to be tweaked by my mum when she made the band’s costumes. His “take” on them and the pacing of the animation were so clever and “right”. Bernie did the same with the dialogue. He once told me that almost all the dialogue was ad-libbed, because Liza’s scripts were very minimal. His little grunts and sighs, and remarks that tumbled out as he voiced them, were half the charm. It made it witty, and appealing to grown-ups, too.
What was your finest pop-star moment as a Womble?
So many great memories but I think the absolutely finest moment was not until Glastonbury 2011 when we did a full, one-hour live set on the Avalon stage. Not mimed to a track but fully live, with three or four “humans” in civvies to add to the live sound. We shocked the organisers by drawing a massive crowd, at least twice as big as expected; bigger than the Pyramid Stage. It was so well received even by audience members who weren’t alive in the '70s. It was exhilarating. I was always Orinoco, the lead singer. It was incredibly hot wearing a costume, particularly in humid August in New York. And it was a challenge trying to stay in character and ignore the sweat streaming into your eyes. Such fun though.
Do you have a favourite song?
My favourite song changes every day. Maybe an obscure one like Nashville Wombles, or the James Bond Womble song To Wimbledon with Love, from the albums.
For readers who aren't on social media and won’t have seen your Pinned Tweet, could you recount your story of pulling into Wimbledon Tube station in 2018?
I was on the Tube one night on the way home to Wimbledon. Some young drunks got on, and it was a little bit intimidating. As we pulled into Wimbledon one of them started singing, "Underground, overground..." (They didn't know who I was.) I said nothing, but felt better!
Was there a specific moment when you decided your future would be in music?
I was totally unaware of being musical until I was 10 and I started picking out tunes on an old piano my dad bought. I am completely self-taught, except a Polish kid at school taught me to play the accordion and so I was given a second-hand one for Christmas. Although I played piano twice a week in the pub at 14 (illegally) and joined a semi-pro band, it wasn’t until just before I left school after A-levels that I decided to be a singer, songwriter and composer rather than go to Sandhurst to join the Army!
You’ve worked with so many stars and so many orchestras. Does any collaboration stand out in your memory?
It might seem odd because it’s not with a singer or even my own material, but conducting the recording of the first-ever 20-bit digital performance of Holst’s The Planets suite with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was a big musical buzz. Also I was invited to conduct the LSO on several occasions in the '80s – magical memories for me. So I guess the highs are mostly orchestral. But I’ve loved all of it. So far!
What are you currently working on?
My main project at the moment is Croix-Noire, in collaboration with Jean-Charles Capelli. We’ve cast ourselves as characters in a drama, in which he plays Ace Hansel JR, a down-at-heel superhero, and I play old Colonel Talbot, his enabler and guardian. We commissioned a novel from the brilliant David Quantick, and created a comic-book series describing a very dark red light district in France, where “our” characters fight evil characters in search for the Unholy Grail so they can rule the world! We’d like to get it made as a TV drama. But it’s great to have the comics, album and a video game... Maybe it’ll be the next Doctor Who!
Does the urge to create ever really leave?
Never. I think I am as potent now, or more, than when I was in my mid-20s. My list of projects to get done before I kick the bucket gets longer the older I get. If you asked me to write a symphony tomorrow – and I wish you would – it would be on your desk by next Wednesday.
And finally, why do people love the Wombles so much?
I think the British have always loved the absurd – Goons, Python etc – but the Wombles are lovably absurd. Cuddly and crazy. I think that’s why we like lazy young Orinoco and grumpy old Bulgaria. We are looking at ourselves, in a way!