Travels inspired by the Wombles

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

A shortage of knitting

This is a figurative comment; whether there is a shortage of true knitting I wouldn't know.  Let's hope not. The comment is a reference to one of the very few useful things that management 'gurus' [sic] have ever said, namely Tom Peters' advice to business to 'stick to the knitting' i.e. stick to what they know.

What, you ask, has this to do with Wombles? Well, it is connected to Wombles via - (somewhat implausibly) Newsnight.  Yes, Newsnight, the late evening BBC2 current affairs programme where issues in the news get a closer examination and, from time to time, politicians get grilled, turned over and grilled some more.  Newsnight, which got into trouble recently over the investigation-into-Jimmy-Savile-that-wasn't. Yes, that Newsnight.

You might think Newsnight has more important things to discuss than the Wombles (even though we all know they are important).  Apparently not. The other night, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the first broadcast on BBC1 of the original Wombles TV series, Newsnight closed with a clip from the Wombles - and a comment from presenter Kirsty Wark that 'surprisingly, [they] weren't strangled at birth'. You can see it here.

This led to a number of complaints, some on the inevitable Twitter, including one from Mike Batt. Eventually Kirsty Wark apologised and explained the remark had been a joke.  I'm grateful to Tidybag for collating the various tweets here.

We do, of course, live in a ridiculous 24/7 news-eat-news culture where news is no longer news, but news which is going to be news ('The Government is set to announce...') or news of people commenting on other people's comments on something ('David Cameron has said that Hilary Mantel is wrong about...'). But I am still bound to ask:

1. Why was Newsnight discussing the Wombles at all? OK, it was a significant anniversary of a TV broadcast - but of a light entertainment programme.  If any late night BBC2 programme should mark such things, it's The Culture Show.

2. What on earth did Kirsty Wark think she was doing? Why would the BBC introduce a clip of one of its own programmes in order for a presenter to make a rude remark about it (ahem, sorry, 'joke')?

Some people will condemn this as another example of modern TV journalists editorialising when they should be reading a script. There might be a grain of truth in that. But I wonder if it's just one more symptom of a news culture which no longer has any discipline. You're a serious news and current affairs programme, Newsnight, so stick to the knitting. And Kirsty: next time you think a joke is a good idea... just shut up, eh?

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Forty years on...

In just over an hour's time, it'll be exactly 40 years since the original broadcast of the first episode of the first TV incarnation of The Wombles. Happy anniversary!

This isn't the place to recount that episode in detail, nor to re-summarise the whole success story - aside from anything else, the summary on the Tidybag site does that better than I could - but here are a few thoughts and suggestions about why the Wombles have been so successful, and so enduring:
  • They prove that families come in all shapes and sizes. There are no parents as such, nobody is married to anyone else and the vexed question of where baby Wombles come from is never addressed.  (There is a pecking order, of course, but that will happen wherever people or animals congregate.)  At a time when some of our MPs seem quite determined - to their shame - to argue that some forms of love are more equal than others, it's a gentle reminder that one size of family does not fit all.  Some of the greatest animations and children's TV have made this point in different ways.  Think of how often the Simpsons are described, for example, as 'dysfunctional'.  Funny, then, that they stay together, isn't it?
  • The significance of the TV series success (although the books were very well received in the first place) lies partly in design.  If the TV adaptation had stuck with the teddy bear-esque look of the book illustrations, it's doubtful whether the Wombles would have captured so many hearts.  Although he did many other things in his life, Ivor Wood's Wombles designs were genius.
  • The idea is so strong that it even survived a not terribly good revival in the 1990s.  I understand a new TV series may be in the pipeline, under the aegis of Mike Batt's production company.  Let's state the obvious here and now: get Sir Bernard Cribbins to do the voices. Please.
Above all, I wonder if any set of fictional characters for children engender the same levels of affection as the Wombles.  When doing the UK travel and research for Journeys from Wimbledon Common, I didn't come across a single person who disliked the Wombles, or thought they were cheap or tacky or any of the other criticisms which get thrown at other children's TV programmes of years gone by.

I hope Elisabeth Beresford is looking down on all this with a smile.  Wish you were here, Liza.