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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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]

The making of The Wombles by animator Barry Leith

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.

Barry Leith making props at FilmFair

Barry Leith making props at FilmFair

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”

Barry Leith making props at FilmFair

Barry Leith making props at FilmFair

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.” 

Barry Leith at home with Uncle Bulgaria

Barry Leith at home with Uncle Bulgaria

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]