Ivor Wood talks Wombles in Radio Times

This post needs me to do very little talking. Whilst browsing Ebay the other week I stumbled across a great find! A Radio Times magazine article from 3-9 February 1973. This was the week that The Womble’s first appeared on air on British Television. Both Ivor and Womble creator Elisabeth Beresford held an interview on the subject of bringing The Wombles to life. Along with some words from the man himself there’s also  a rare photo of him with his trademark pipe and also some candid Womble puppet shots.

So here it is. Enjoy!

Radio Times - 3-9 February 1973

Radio Times – 3-9 February 1973

Interview with Elisabeth Beresford and Ivor Wood on The Wombles first TV appearance - Radio Times - 3-9 February 1973

Interview with Elisabeth Beresford and Ivor Wood on The Wombles first TV appearance – Radio Times – 3-9 February 1973

Interview with Elisabeth Beresford and Ivor Wood on The Wombles first TV appearance - Radio Times - 3-9 February 1973

Interview with Elisabeth Beresford and Ivor Wood on The Wombles first TV appearance – Radio Times – 3-9 February 1973

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The Wombles fur

A rare and interesting treat for you all today with a find from Josiane Wood. After last weeks post on the designing of the Wombles it seemed like the perfect time to share this little nugget.

Whilst digging around in her cupboards Josiane, Ivor’s wife, found a piece of the very same  gold velvet material that was used for the fur of the Wombles. As you can see from the picture below it’s still in remarkable condition and is unmistakably Womble.

The Wombles fur

The Wombles fur

In Ivor’s creation of The Wombles puppets he didn’t have much to go on in terms of colour. The book illustrations only give away one coloured image on the front cover where there is a hint of the gold/brown that we’ve come to recognise. Like all of Ivor’s work, his colour choices are spot on and The Wombles are no exception. The gold and grey fur perfectly contrast against either the green of brown of their surroundings making sure they always stand out. What we also have to imagine is that most of the TV sets would have shown in black and white and on a small screen back in the early 70’s so a good idea of colour contrast would have been key in the design to make sure that the characters were easily recognisable.

Lots more to come so stay tuned for more treats and don’t forget to follow the blog on bloglovin too!

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Ivor Wood designing The Wombles

In the early 1970’s Ivor Wood embarked on what would become his most successful show to date, The Wombles. Ivor had just shipped over from France to head up the animation department at FilmFair. The new London offices were set up under the watchful and creative eye of producer Graham Clutterbuck, a man always on the hunt for investing in new shows and ideas. On their arrival he was given a copy of Elisabeth Beresfords, The Wombles and the knowledge that the BBC was set to commission it under the proviso that the characters changed their look. This may sound like an easy task for the king of characters Mr Ivor Wood but this was not to be as easy as first made out.

The Wombles by Elisabeth Beresford - Illustrations by Margaret Gordon, Puffin 1968

The Wombles by Elisabeth Beresford – Illustrations by Margaret Gordon, Puffin 1968

After some digging I’ve unearthed the very first book with the original Illustrations of The Wombles by Margaret Gordon. Within these illustrations you’ll instantly see that they are very different from The Wombles that we’ve all come to know and love. From the outset we are given a description by Elisabeth Beresford that sounds a little similar to our familiar Wombles…but not quite.

The Wombles are a bit like teddy bears to look at but they have real claws and live beneath Wimbledon Common…

Perhaps it’s here that we see why the BBC didn’t like the current look. Maybe the teddybear was too cute or maybe the idea of claws was a bit scary. The juxtaposition of these characteristics also poses a problem. Are they cute and cuddly or something to be a little afraid of. Ivor certainly had his work cut out.

The Wombles by Elisabeth Beresford - Illustrations by Margaret Gordon, Puffin 1968

The Wombles by Elisabeth Beresford – Illustrations by Margaret Gordon, Puffin 1968

The Wombles as we see them in Margaret Gordons illustrations are a lot rounder and fluffier than once would come to expect. They also have little button eyes and small paws, not so good for making and inventing you might think. In Ivor’s final Womble designs he presents characters that are both faithful to the book descriptions and also in keeping with his design sensibilities. Ivor switched up those small paws, changing them to bigger more workable appendages. This more than likely would have been an animation choice as smaller limbs can be tricker to manoeuvre and ultimately create and fix.

After speaking to Barry Leith it was the noses that were a sticking point and it took a few, frustrating, back and forths with the BBC to get it right. The second design “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. Finally Ivor elongated the snout, made the ears floppy and made them all a little less rotund. Interestingly they kept their little button eyes, which in my opinion helped their aesthetic. As a whole The Wombles are quite large limbed, nosed and eared and cleverly keeping those eyes small creates difference and makes them all the more cute and cuddly. No claws also makes a huge difference.

Overall it’s an interesting comparison and one that really shows off Ivor’s ingenuity and talent in character design. He ultimately created characters that were simple enough to be shown on those small grainy TVs of the 70s whilst keeping a charming style that mirrored that of the original books descriptions. I’ll leave you with Elisabeth Beresfords original description of Great Uncle Bulgaria and you’ll see that he really hasn’t changed at all.

The head of the Wimbledon Wombles is Great Uncle Bulgaria. He is very old indeed and his fur has turned snow white and he feels the cold rather badly. So during the winter months he mostly sits in his own room in a large rocking-chair wearing a tartan shawl and two pairs of spectacles. He uses one pair for reading The Times newspaper and the other for looking at the young Wombles who have misbehaved…

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Ivor Wood animating The Wombles

Okay, so BIG error on my part today. I started writing a long post on the designing of the Wombles and was all ready with it until I realised that the book I wanted to use as reference is in storage! So you’ll have to do with something more digital from what’s on my computer.

Lucky for you it’s some gold dust which I can’t believe I haven’t already shared with you. You may remember I while back (here) that I shared some amazing photographs of Ivor Wood at work and animating The Wombles. Ivor’s son Sean had dug them out of his mother, Josiane’s, loft or The Archive as we’ve been calling it. Anyway without further ado here are the rest of those images. Hope you enjoy and apologies again for the lack of references. Hope to have everything back in working order in a few weeks.

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Ivor Wood animating The Wombles - 1970-72

Ivor Wood animating The Wombles (Orinoco, Wellington and Tobermory – 1970-72

Elisabeth Beresford looks at The Wombles script Series 1 - 1970-72

Elisabeth Beresford looks at The Wombles script Series 1 – 1970-72

Ivor Wood and Elisabeth Beresford discuss The Wombles - 1970-72

Ivor Wood and Elisabeth Beresford discuss The Wombles – 1970-72

Ivor Wood drawings for The Wombles music

First of all a big thanks to everyone who got in touch about last weeks post on Great Uncle Bulgaria’s Minuetto Allegretto. It certainly stirred an awakening amongst all you Womble fans and it was great get such a response.

Great Uncle Bulgaria illustrated by Ivor Wood

Great Uncle Bulgaria illustrated by Ivor Wood

One person in particular filled in some much needed gaps of knowledge from my part, namely one Frederick Harrison who after commenting on the post followed it up with some great scans of Wombles imagery along with a detailed back story of the illustrations. 

Ivor Wood’s hand drawn picture of Great Uncle Bulgaria (GUB) dates from late 1973 and originally appeared in The Wombles’ Song Book as one of the illustrations for the music for Great Uncle Bulgaria’s March. A variation of this illustration appeared on the back cover of the folio with GUB holding an LP record (minus sleeve) in his left paw. It also appears on the inside of the sheet music for The Wombling Song.

Wombles Warning illustrated by Ivor Wood

Wombles Warning illustrated by Ivor Wood

Then after speaking to the man behind the music, Mike Batt, via twitter, he confirmed that he had commissioned Ivor to produce all the illustrations in the Womble songbooks and sheet music as Frederick goes onto explain.

The Wombles Song Book (first published 1973) is illustrated throughout with black and white photos of the Wombles (models), a colour photo on the front cover (again models), and Ivor’s sketches on the margins of the music and elsewhere. Ivor did them specifically for the songbook, at Mike’s request. These were later used on the individual sheet music and were repeated for the songs from the first album in the Giant Wombles Songbook which added the songs from the second and third albums. The latter folio used pictures of the Wombles pop group instead of the animation models. The songs from the second and third albums in that folio did not have any margin illustrations by Ivor though some of the sheet music used them for the cover illustrations.  

Tomsk, Madame Cholet and Orinoco from Remember You're A Womble music sheet illustrated by Ivor Wood

Tomsk, Madame Cholet and Orinoco from Remember You’re A Womble music sheet illustrated by Ivor Wood

Ivor’s unique and rough and ready sketches are on great form in these pieces. Whilst they are true to the models that he designed they retain a certain character all of their own. There have been many incarnations of The Wombles over the years from Margaret Gordon to Barry Leith and each illustrator had their own take. In many ways Ivor had the most fun and playful approach sticking more closely to his own style than to focus on how they looked before or as models. You can see this in the exaggerated and often comical poses in his drawings.

Frederick has proved that this truly is a blog for everyone so please don’t feel shy in coming forward with any memories or information you may have about Ivor Wood and all his many creations. We’ve been a bit Womble heavy these past months so we’ll be going to pastures new next week so keep your eyes peeled.

The Wombles Sheet Music, Minuetto Allegretto with Uncle Bulgaria

An Ivor Wood illustrated Uncle Bulgaria for Mike Batt (and Mozart's) Minuetto Allegretto

An Ivor Wood illustrated Uncle Bulgaria for Mike Batt (and Mozart’s) Minuetto Allegretto

Little eBay find for you today. Sheet music from one of Mike Batt’s Womble songs Minuetto Allegretto. The song was first released on the ‘Remember you’re a Womble’ album and featured in the lyrics the many dancing attributes of a young Uncle Bulgaria. It was written with a little help from Mozart and his Symphony no.41 and has since ben released on a couple of Best Of’s.

What is nice to see is that the sheet music is adorned with a lovely drawing of Uncle Bulgaria by designer and creator Ivor Wood. Ivor’s trademark quick, sketchy line is shown in abundance here  and it really lends Uncle Bulgaria a lively and expressive character. Sadly I’m not quite up to speed yet as to when this drawing was produced and whether it was always intended for use on the sheet music. There are other sheet music books out there with the same Ivor illustrations on so once they are tracked down a future blog post will make sure to tell the whole story.

In case you don’t remember this song, please find a little video of The Wombles live at Glastonbury in 2011 doing their version.

Animating The Wombles by animator Barry Leith

We’ve heard from Barry Leith about all the pre-production that went into The Wombles and now it’s time to find out just how he animated the little fellows. Following on from Ivor Wood’s animation of the first series, he handed the reins over to Barry for the last few and the second series.

Barry Leith and The Wombles

Barry Leith and The Wombles

Now days the animation industry is so used to recording the voiceover before animating but Ivor was not of this school of thought and chose to take a very different approach to production. “All the sound was put on after the event. Usually you have the soundtrack first, but there was no lip-sync involved in The Wombles. We’d have the script, Uncle Bulgaria saying ‘Hello Wombles, wheres my copy of the Times’ and I’d have those lines written down and a stopwatch. You’d know the voices, so that’d be 20 frames for ‘Hello’ then 3 seconds for the next bit.. We’d animate by pre-judging roughly how long it took, knowing the nature of the delivery of the voices, and then Bernard Cribbins would fill it in afterwards.” The nature of Bernard’s add lib narration was a real favourite of both Barry and Ivor and as strange as this process may seem today it was so routine to them both. Especially for Ivor who’s previous productions had relied so heavily on the make do and mend, highly collaborative process.

Orinoco from a FilmFair advertisement

Orinoco from a FilmFair advertisement

With no dialogue and no dope sheets to animate to just how did things ever get so polished and how did they plan the scenes? “We didn’t have time to mark [dope sheets], it wasn’t don’t look at the quality, but you were against the lock all the time. We used to rely more on matchstick man type storyboards. Close up, long shots, zoom shots whatever and you’d have the basic script dialogue underneath. The type was on double space so it’s on those gaps that you’d do your timings and pace it out. So we used to work mainly off storyboards, not so much for framing but for the dialogue. Once you start filming you think a close up isn’t right, we need a medium shot or pan across to the other character. So you still had bits of freedom there to do that with. It was never that tight.”

Tomsk from a FilmFair advertisement

Tomsk from a FilmFair advertisement

This animation process worked like a charm but that wasn’t to say that there weren’t a few slip ups along the way. “There was one one lovely scene that Tomsk was in, with about three other Wombles sort of doing their thing. Tomsk was standing there from the scene some time ago and I’m animating away and I go ‘Oh **** Tomsk isn’t supposed to be here! I need him in the next scene, in a totally different part of the burrow!’ .What can I do?  I’m about 5 seconds in to animating this scene and I’ve got another 10 seconds to go… and its a long scene. Im not starting again, so from somewhere he got a comb out and combed his hair and as he’s combing he starts side stepping off screen. Stepping off and out the side of the frame. I think it’s in the first series I really can’t remember. When Woodsy was looking at the rushes he was like ‘Whats he doing?’ ‘I forgot Ivor so I was getting him off the screen so he could re-appear at the right time.'[Oops].

“So you just develop ways and means of doing things. Certainly when you’re doing that sort of programming, a 5 minute episode would take 9 days to animate, that was it. Sometimes you’d only have 2-3 puppets in it but occasionally you’d had all 7 of the buggers. If you’d got 6-7 of them in the same scene you’re thinking what do I do with them all!” Well lucky for us all Barry  and Ivor found a way to make them all move in the charming and characteristic way that we all love, however trying the little ‘buggers’ were.

Sadly that wraps up Barry Leith’s trip down memory lane divulging stories from the making of The Wombles. If you missed any of the the 3-parter then follow the links below. Barry had lots more stories to tell about The Wombles and his time animating Paddington so stay tuned for more.

Making The Wombles – https://ivorwood.wordpress.com/2015/10/08/the-making-of-the-wombles-by-animator-barry-leith/

Scripting The Wombles – https://ivorwood.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/scripting-the-wombles-by-animator-barry-leith/

[All quotes are from Barry Leith]