With apologies to both my wives (mainly the current one!) who have each shaped my life in their own way – it can’t be denied that Elisabeth changed my life dramatically and irrevocably when in the late sixties, long before I knew her – she dreamed up the Wombles while walking on Wimbledon Common with her children Marcus and Kate. One of the kids mis-pronounced “Wimbledon Common and called it “Wombledon Common”. When they got back home, Liza (as we always called her) made a list of Wombles characters based on members of her family. In her mind, they didn’t yet have pointy noses and grey fur. That would come later, when the great stop-frame animator, Ivor Wood – he of Magic Roundabout and subsequently Paddington and Postman Pat fame, would design the “look” of them for the first BBC TV series) They were just…Wombles. They lived underground and came up at times when they were unlikely too be spotted by humans, and would convert all the old rubbish left behind by us, into useful items to use in their daily life.
The first book “The Wombles” that appeared caused quite a ripple of interest and was featured on the TV programme Jackanory. After that the BBC commissioned a series of 5 minutes Wombles episodes which were aimed at a pre-school audience but which had the good fortune to be narrated by Bernard Cribbins and also to be broadcast just before the six o’clock news, – a peak crossover spot when the whole family would be watching. Ivor Wood had redesigned them from the book illustrations, in which they were really nothing more than Teddy Bears, – so that now they had the familiar pointy noses and hats and scarves to distinguish between the characters of Bungo, Orinoco, Wellington, Tobermory, Great Uncle Bulgaria, Madame Cholet and Tomsk. Ivor had correctly worked out that seven characters were plenty for a pre-school audience to get to know.
I was brought in to write the music. I was asked by Ivor Wood , and producer Grahame Clutterbuck Managing Director of FilmFair Ltd, the producers, , if I could come up with a signature tune. I suggested that a song might be better, because I could sprinkle it with Womble names and make it sound intriguing. So I came up with “The Wombling Song” (thus becoming the inventor of the word “Wombling” as a verb, which did not exist in the first book). The company liked it, and offered me a fee. I said I would prefer to have the character rights for promotional entertainment and recording purposes instead. They thought that was fair enough, as they were worth nothing to them. So I made a record, which I then had great difficulty selling to a record company. It’s a long story, which I’ve written about on many occasions, but it led to my forming the Wombles pop group and having so many hits that we became the biggest selling singles group of 1975 according to Music Week Magazine, with me as Orinoco, the lead singer, and all of us wearing costumes made by my mother.
Even though the Wombles took up only two years of my 42 year career to date, even to this day I am still referred to as “The Man Behind The Wombles” a fact which I would imagine must have irritated Liza as much or more than it irritated me (although she never showed it).. I guess I was the man in front of the Wombles, being the singer and songwriter.
There was quite a lot of contact and discussion between Liza’s company “Wombles Ltd” and myself in those first days of Wombles’ success. The combined force of the books, the TV show and the pop group had launched the Wombles into a special place in people’s hearts and they had become a national phenomenon.
I did not always agree with decisions made by Wombles Ltd. It wasn’t Liza herself, but the two businessmen who ran Wombles Ltd together with Liza’s husband Max Robertson with whom I often crossed swords. I pulled my hair out with frustration when, at the height of the Wombles pop group’s success, they mounted NINE Christmas stage shows – of very poor quality – all over the UK. Because I was “The Womble Man:” I was deeply embarrassed to think that people would blame me for the shows, – and they did. They were horrible, scruffy shows, badly directed and produced on a shoestring budget. More importantly, they destroyed , in people’s minds the idea of the pop group being unique. There were nine Orinocos, Nine Wellingtons, Nine Uncle Bulgarias . Good grief!
To us (although probably ONLY to us) it seemed like having nine John Lennons and Nine Paul McCartneys. The specialness of “a pop group” had gone. Consequently, on the day the story of the shows hit the press (and it was front page stuff), we began to lose the race for “Christmas Number One” with “Wombling Merry Christmas”. Our daily sales figures halved, and the record which was heading steadily for number two “Lonely This Christmas” by the group Mud – overtook us and snatched the number one spot. That was when I lost interest in being a Womble for any more of my life. I was A CHARACTER in a band called The Wombles. I was “their” lead singer! Would I ever escape that? Probably not.
So I stopped doing it. And the Wombles disappeared from TV screens and the spin-off merchandising activity ground to a halt.
Through all of these ups and downs, Elisabeth and I had nothing but good conversations. She moved to Alderney, and when the children were grown up, she was divorced from her rather domineering husband, Max, and lived on the island until the end of her life. She always called me “Dear Heart” in the way characters in an Agatha Christie novel might. But I am absolutely sure it was nothing special; I’m sure everyone was “Dear Heart” to Liza, – rather like some people call everyone “Darling”. But she herself was a darling. She would write to me occasionally. She lost a lot of money – as did her husband – in the “Lloyds Name” scenario, and lived for many years in relative poverty.
I visited her once on Alderney, with her son, Marcus – who had been about thirteen when the Wombles had happened, in the seventies. He was by then grown up and had his wife and his own young son, Charlie, with him. Charlie’s Grandmother, Liza, was her usual charming, maternal self and we had a very pleasant couple of days thinking about the impending remake of some Wombles material, this time by ITV.
Recently, I’ve been talking to the even more grown up Marcus and Kate – the two children who had been walking on the Common with Liza on that fateful day, – the day that changed their lives, their mother’s life, and mine. We’ve been talking about the possibility of a Wombles revival. None of us was particularly enamoured by the quality of a remake by a Canadian company about twenty years ago, and we have been talking about making something special. Something Liza would be proud of. Liza had been ill for some time, but aware of our discussions. I know Marcus and Kate would particularly have liked their Mum to have seen the new, high quality incarnation of the Wombles, and to have shared in the fun.
Alas, that is not, now, to be. But I do think Marcus and Kate will have kept Elisabeth up to date with our progress, and now, all the more, I feel a duty to help to bring about a new awakening for the Wombles – in memory of the very special woman who created them.