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PART TWO: 'The original Womble illustrations looked like badly thought out Teddy bears'

“It is not possible to relate the story of the Womble films without telling a little of the pre-history regarding the people involved their creation.

In the early 70’s, the publishers Ernest Benn sent a copy of The Wombles by Elizabeth Beresford to FilmFair, which already had a track record for children’s films, all directed by Ivor Wood. The Herbs, Parsley, Hatty Town.

Graham Vine Clutterbuck was the M.D. and producer at FilmFair, a limited company in its own right, albeit ultimately owned by an American parent company with its base in Los Angeles. Initially, it was a service company for its American based directors working in Europe, particularly Holland and Paris.

Barry Leith at his home, just outside Harleston, Norfolk, with the original Womble elder Great Uncle Bulgaria. Picture: Mark Bullimore Photography.
Barry Leith at his home, just outside Harleston, Norfolk, with the original Womble elder Great Uncle Bulgaria. Picture: Mark Bullimore Photography.

Graham fought hard, and successfully, to maintain economic independence from its American owners. He built the London company into a successful commercials set up with a stable of live action directors

I joined FilmFair in 1971 as a model maker to construct a miniature model of a back boiler for Glo Worm central heating systems. An ad Ivor and I animated together. Other than that, I had only really made a primitive attempt at animation at Hornsey College of Art and this was the first professional animation I had been involved in.

As Ivor was redesigning the original Wombles from existing book illustrations (I remember thinking they looked a little like badly thought out teddy bears) I began to do some concepts for the sets.

The nature of the interiors was not a difficult step, not easy to see in drawn form so I built one of the sets – the interior entrance of the burrow. The interiors almost made themselves – lots of nooks and crannies where any errors were covered in papier mache and absorbed into the general interior melange.

The exteriors were more troublesome, it was the stylisation of foliage we stumbled over.

The original treatments were not liked by the BBC, but we had the good fortune to be working with Monica Sims the then head of Children’s TV, and her input was another integral part of the Womble metamorphosis.

With Monica’s help, The Wombles were eventually born. If memory serves, the puppets were the mark III incarnation.Ultimately the look, design and physiology of the Womble characters was a total Ivor Wood creation.

Barry Leith, FilmFair
Barry Leith, FilmFair

A pilot had been scripted by Elizabeth Beresford so we could now look for the voice of the narrator. In the Jacobs Well Mews studio we improvised a sound studio, a Ferrograph, an old mic and a note pinned to the door requesting ‘quiet’. It was all very Fred Carno, very primitive, but highly enjoyable.

I can’t remember all the people we tested but Bernard Bresslaw and Derek Guyler, Leslie Philips stand out for varying reasons.

READ MORE: Barry Leith tells us about his latest project

When Bernard Cribbins came along, one knew immediately the voice had been found.

Once approved FilmFair and BBC contracts for a pilot were drawn up and....the next three or four months was spent making more puppets and building the sets relevant to the pilot.

It would be about now Graham and Ivor were in conversation with Mike Batt, a young aspiring composer, who was to play a major role in
the Womble evolution.”

By Barry Leith

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