It’s the early 1970’s and Ivor has just finished up on the successful spin-off series ‘The Adventures of Parsley’ with FilmFair who have now made the move over the channel basing themselves in London. No sooner have they pitched up when a young publisher hands producer Graham Clutterbuck a copy of childrens book ‘The Wombles’ written by Elisabeth Beresford. It’s from here we pick up the story from Wombles model maker and animator Barry Leith, who in our exclusive interview tells us how the little creatures from Wimbledon Common came to be.
It was Barry’s model making skills that had first brought him to Ivor’s attention and it was with these that he partnered up with Ivor for a commercial for Glow Worm Heating. Including this commercial and in Barry’s own words “a very primate attempt at animation I did while at Hornsey College of Art, [The Wombles] was the first professional animation I was involved in”. As Barry stepped onto the The Wombles production he remembers the struggles in creating the characters. The original book illustrations “looked like a badly thought out teddy bears” and this wasn’t what the BBC at the time were looking for. The second round “developed a snout and a bit more of a tail and it was standing on two feet, not on all fours but we looked at it and thought it was a bit bloody rat like” so it was back to the drawing board. Ivor humanised them giving them larger ears, a smaller snout and brought in his trademark big hands which convinced the BBC and the characters were green lit. Having worked with them for so many years Barry still insists that “if you took all their clothes off I’d be able to identify them, because you just get to know them. Of course Uncle Bulgaria had more of a squashed aged face, Tomsk had a bit of a long turn out, as he was big, but not a body builder”
Whilst Ivor went back and forth to the BBC with the puppets, Barry was left in charge of designing the sets. Due to The Wombles being set in pokey little burrows “they were impossible to draw” so Barry mentioned that ” it’d be much better if I could just make a set”, so it was straight into the physical build which certainly proved to be the better approach.
” The first set I made was the entrance and the second was the corridor. I made the entrance because that doubled up as the outside as well, which made it a reversible set. It was all done with the foliage and trees on the outside which I believe was rejected the first time round. The inside was made with a wooden base and I was just sticking cardboard tubes, getting loads of newspaper and getting the papier mache to work. The sets were very much, made up as you went along.”
A bit of pre-planning did however go into how The Wombles would sit amongst all this human waste. “If one was standing in the room next to us, it would be about 2 1/2 feet high, so I got a 12 inch ruler and scaled it down to their height of 2 1/2 feet.” By using this ruler everything was neatly scaled so The Wombles would perfectly fit into a human world.
The world in which The Wombles lived was very much use what you find, so therefore it’s no surprise that the sets were littered with various props from all the shows. ” As the series was made, the place would slowly and slowly get more cluttered because all the models that you made would go on the set somewhere.” So by the time the entire 60 episodes were created the sets were looking more and more busy. As Barry explained, he was making incidental props as Ivor animated the 1st series so there was no big pre-production meeting where things were all decided pre-animating it was very free-form and make them as they came. “I was making all the incidental models collaborating with [Elisabeth Beresford] because some episodes I’d have to make a bicycle and another all I’d have to make was a newspaper.”
Join us next week for Barry’s insight into getting that famous narration and the even more famous theme tune. Plus he talks candidly about how the stories were put together.
[All quotes are from Barry Leith]