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.
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 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…