Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[29] ‘Was it Bill or was it Ben?’

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Because it was when I was very young, my early impressions of TV come from Children’s Television. I will try to be approximately chronological. As you read, remember my introduction to television [27] ’Normal Service will be Resumed …’ and remember that pictures were live, black and white, and poor resolution and quality all the way through the fifties and sixties. Almost all of my memories come from BBC (or, later, BBC1).

_39102965_muffin

Muffin the Mule

I have fond memories of Muffin, even though I don’t remember much more than him dancing across the piano. According to Wikipedia, that was about it. Annette Mills (sister of the actor John Mills) played the piano. Muffin danced. Even with the poor quality pictures, the marionette strings were visible. There were several other animal puppets, appearing occasionally in support of Muffin.

Muffin appeared on BBC television from 1946 until 1955. At first he was part of ‘For the Children,’ and from 1952 there were 15-minute episodes, ‘Muffin the Mule’ broadcast from 1952, with his signature tune ‘We want Muffin’. Muffin became a television star, with a range of spin-off merchandise, including books, records, games and toys. The BBC decided to discontinue the show in 1955 after Annette Mills’ death.

Watch With Mother

The early Children’s Television for younger viewers was Watch With Mother, which ran every Monday to Friday for twenty years from 1953. For the first ten years or more it showed the same series of programmes, cycling every six months.

On Mondays it was Picture Book (from 1955); Tuesdays were Andy Pandy (from 1950); Wednesday: The Flower Pot Men (starting in 1952); Thursday: Rag, Tag and Bobtail (from 1953); and Friday: the Woodentops (from 1955). Some were 12 to 15 minutes, Andy Pandy ran for 30 minutes.

I could never get interested in Picture Book, but I followed the others. I will take them in the order in which they started.

andy-pandy

Andy Pandy (1950)

Andy Pandy was obviously a marionette, with strings just as visible as Muffin the Mule. She lived in a picnic basket that she shared with her co-star, Teddy. The other regular character was a rag doll, Looby Loo, who only appeared when Andy and Teddy were not around. The characters had their own songs, a bit like catchphrases. Shows ended with Andy and Teddy waving goodbye in their basket.

[It has been suggested that Andy and Teddy were both male characters. It did not really matter but I always assumed that Andy was a girl. I knew that Andrew was a boy’s name, but I never heard an Andrew being called Andy]

Flower Pot Men

The Flower Pot Men (1952)

The characters, again marionettes were two ‘men’ made of flower pots, called Bill and Ben. I think they were identical twins. They lived in large flower pots, between which was the third character, Little Weed (who looked like a sunflower). They came out for a short story when the man who worked in the garden had gone to have his lunch.

They were absolutely obviously puppets carried round on strings, and they never looked like anything else. But that didn’t matter to young children watching – we just followed the stories and saw them as real ‘people.’

There was always a bit of trouble every episode and the inevitable question was: “Was it Bill or Was it Ben?” I never knew – they both looked the same! (They were more naughty boys than men.)

The voices came from Peter Hawkins, who invented the unintelligible language spoken by Bill and Ben. He was criticized for making it more difficult for children to learn proper English – but I don’t think the children treated it as an English lesson! (I managed to learn to talk, despite watching the series.) The Little Weed spoke rarely and only ever said, ‘Weed,’ more accurately written as: ‘Weeeeeeeeeeeed.’

rag-tag-bobtail

Rag, Tag and Bobtail (1953)

Of the five, I think Rag, Tag and Bobtail was my favourite. Rag was a hedgehog, Tag was a mouse, and Bobtail was a rabbit. Wikipedia sums it up very well: “All the characters were glove puppets, created and operated by Sam and Elizabeth Williams. The stories were simple and there were no catch phrases as there were in other programmes in the cycle, but the series is still remembered with affection. Twenty-six 12-minute episodes were made, two of which were never broadcast, each shot in a single take.” I am one of those who still remember it with affection! I think Rag was my favourite character.

TheWoodentops

The Woodentops (1955)

By now, it won’t surprise you when I say that The Woodentops were puppets, and it will probably not come as a surprise to know that there were wooden. I think by today’s standards, Watch with Mother was done on a low budget. Wikipedia says that The Woodentops was filmed in a tin shed at the studio. Again there were only 26 episodes, repeated for about twenty years!

The characters were: Daddy Woodentop, Mummy Woodentop, Jenny Woodentop, Willy Woodentop, Baby Woodentop and Spotty Dog (“the very biggest spotty dog you ever did see”). The children, Jenny and Willy, were twins. They spoke, walked and did many things together.

They were a middle class family, living on a farm. Sometimes we saw Mrs Scrubbitt (who came to “help” Mrs Woodentop), Sam Scrubbitt (who helped Daddy Woodentop with the animals) and Buttercup the Cow.

I am surprised to find out from Wikipedia that: ‘The aim of the programme was to teach pre-school children about family life.’ I thought it was just to entertain and amuse us!

Picture Book (1955)

I never managed to get so interested in the last two of the five weekly Watch with Mother. Picture Book was a precursor to the art and craft bits of Blue Peter. I’m not sure that anyone in our family watched Picture Book after the first few.

I will move on. As we grew up, we stopped watching Watching with Mother, and moved to programmes aimed at older children. For most of the period from the fifties onwards, the period from about 5:00 to 6:00 was used for children’s programmes, long before it became officially Children’s BBC (and later CBBC).

Crackerjack_EA

Crackerjack

You may remember Stu Francis or Michael Aspel presenting this programme, but travel back in time, past Ed Stewart, Leslie Crowther and Max Bygraves. I remember it with Eamonn Andrews. (He didn’t do too badly for an Irish amateur boxer. He was also very famous for the long running series, What’s my Line and This is Your Life, which I may mention in another post.)

Crackerjack started in 1955 and ran, on and off, for thirty years, always performed with a live audience of mainly children. I was once lucky enough to be in that audience (but I have no idea when.)

The format was much the same throughout, with a mixture of music, comedy and competitive games for children, but the best bit, towards the end was the quiz game, ‘Double or Drop.’ Each contestant was given a prize to hold for each question answered correctly, but given a cabbage if they were incorrect. They were out of the game if they dropped any of the items held or received a third cabbage.

DoubleorDrop

I am glad that Wikipedia notes the other important point about this programme: “It was an accepted unwritten rule that whenever a presenter spoke the word ‘Crackerjack‘, the audience would shout “Crack-er-jack!” loudly. This custom has passed into popular culture.” Sadly, except for the old, like me, it may have passed out of popular culture by now.

Having completed my reminiscences about Children’s Television, I have decided to split them into two posts. The other half may come next. I haven’t decided yet …

 

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

8 thoughts on “[29] ‘Was it Bill or was it Ben?’

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