My friend is sitting in the comfortable green leather chair. I squeeze him till he sings. His hat is jammed on his head and his scarf is wound round his neck, as if he is about to brave the elements of an English summer day. He won’t do that. He has developed a reputation for not doing much at all. That doesn’t matter. I first saw him over 30 years ago and he is funny and charming today, as he was then. He doesn’t say anything. But he will break into song, and wrinkle his snout, if you press his paw. I don’t have any other friends who can do that – or any other friends who are named after a South American river.
Orinoco is one of the Wombles who live on Wimbledon Common, picking up ‘things that the everyday folks leave behind’. The Wombles came into the world in 1968 (like me), in the first of a series of books by a journalist named Elisabeth Beresford. After the first book featured on the BBC’s Jackanory series, the Corporation commissioned producer FilmFair to make a series of animated Wombles episodes. Actor Bernard Cribbins supplied the narration and all the voices, Mike Batt wrote the music and lyrics for the theme tune and millions of small children found a new set of furry friends. Each episode brought five minutes of adventure as the Wombles did their bit to keep the world in order.
It seemed like a wonderful world to a small boy in the early 1970s. My older brother had left home at the earliest opportunity. My older sister showed no interest in the Wombles as far as I can recall. The posters in her bedroom were of Snoopy and Barry Manilow. Years later, she married a man with a prominent nose.
So it was my younger brother and me watching TV while sitting on a black leather sofa, which squeaked the house down if you dared to move a muscle. From time to time, we would run upstairs to the main living room – a vast territory which our parents had attempted to shrink by decorating it in black and importing ever more items of bulky furniture. There was a piano, on which my mother would practise classical compositions. For inspiration, she played recordings of performances by Alfred Brendel. One day, the maestro’s rendition of Für Elise drifted down the stairs as our grandmother came to visit, leading her to conclude that Mother’s practising was beginning to pay off. I would ascend to the heights of piano grade 1 (118 marks out of 150), while my brother would murder various tunes with the aid of a trumpet, in our bedroom at the other end of the first floor.
My father was stationed in the newsagent’s shop which he ran at the front of the house, looking out onto Harrow’s main street. My brother and I would run into the shop on daily raids for crisps and Opal Fruits, to tell him if England had lost another wicket or to read one of the magazines. At one stage, the shop stocked selections of children’s books, enabling me to enjoy the entire Famous Five canon for free. Sometimes my reading would stray into more adult material such as the Sherlock Holmes short stories. But it was never long before I returned to children’s literature, much of it from the local library – though not for a while after the discovery under my bed of the library copy of Noggin the Nog, four years after it should have been returned.
The term ‘hyperactive’ didn’t apply to my brother or me. We walked to school, but showed little talent for sport, apart from cricket in which I bowled off-spinners so slow that the batsman was out of form by the time the ball reached him. Our lack of outdoor exercise was influenced by a desire to avoid being run over by the never-ending traffic on the high street. The upstairs living room hosted Scalextric competitions, but for the most part our books and the TV were enough.
There was plenty of TV for us to enjoy: the 1970s had a wider range of children’s programmes in Britain than ever before. Oliver Postgate was busy narrating the Norse saga of Noggin the Nog, the tales of the Moon-based mice known as The Clangers and stories of Bagpuss, an old cloth cat who lived in a shop and who – along with various other toys which came to life – would inspect a different lost or broken object in each episode and attempt to deduce its origins. Eric Thompson’s gentle voice related The Magic Roundabout’s tales of little girl Florence and her friends Dougal the dog, Brian the snail, Dylan the rabbit and Ermintrude the cow.
There was the battle of the magazine format shows, with children defining themselves as Blue Peter or Magpie fans with all the fervour of sports supporters. Our household watched Blue Peter. Despite having no artistic ability, I sat glued to Vision On and its examples of other children’s artwork which, the presenters told us each week, couldn’t be returned. Doctor Who (made by the BBC’s Drama Department, but loved by children) got a new lease of life with Tom Baker in the title role. Thirty years later, children who had watched him as the Doctor were making TV programmes themselves and hiring Baker as a voiceover artist.
Up against such stiff competition for our attention, the Wombles more than held their own, with their domestic eccentricities, accidents and adventures. They have stood the test; they’re as quirky, endearing and funny as ever.
The patriarch of the group is Great Uncle Bulgaria, in his tartan shawl and hat. Bulgaria runs the burrow and it’s his initiatives that drive many of the stories – whether instructing Tobermory to repair the telephone system, conducting an impromptu Wombles orchestra or reminiscing about the age of steam. Bulgaria is hard to disconcert, although he does get cranky if the young Wombles don’t find him a copy of The Times each day. Behind the sternness is a twinkle: he is still sprightly enough to play golf on the common, and mischievous enough to get a cardboard cake baked for the younger Wombles, as a ‘Womble Fool’s Day’ joke.
The resident engineer, Tobermory, makes everything work with ingenuity and imagination. Where Orinoco sees a hammerhead shark, Tobermory knows it is a vacuum cleaner. And when Bulgaria’s rocking chair breaks, Tobermory repairs it with a tyre that Orinoco finds on the common. Like Bulgaria, Tobermory has a childlike side to him. After the younger Wombles steal some buttercup crumpets from the kitchen, Tobermory does the same, with the same result – hiccups. For all his inventions, Tobermory is fallible like anyone else. His paper-transporting hotline is a failure, as Madame Cholet does not appreciate the ‘borrowing’ of her washing line and clothes pegs.
The nearest Womble to Great Uncle Bulgaria in age – or so it seemed to me as a child – is Madame Cholet, the cook with the frilly hat and French accent. She seems to have the classic chef’s temperament, too: the kitchen is Madame Cholet’s domain, and she is not shy of telling all and sundry to leave. Otherwise she fulfils a traditional female role, cleaning and dusting, or ‘rearranging the dust’ as the script put it.
Among the young Wombles, Wellington is the class swot; small, shy, bespectacled and with a blue and black school cap. The other young Wombles respect him for his creativity and intelligence. Give Wellington two tins and a long piece of string and, hey presto, he’ll give you an inter-Womble communication device. When Tobermory needs help creating a new system for Great Uncle Bulgaria, he enlists Wellington first. And Wellington isn’t only a scientist: he can paint – albeit in an abstract fashion which renders Bulgaria in the style of a fried egg. In recent years, my wife Helen has pointed out a disturbing similarity between Wellington and Sven-Göran Eriksson, the phlegmatic Swedish football coach. Maybe it’s the glasses.
If Wellington is the intellectual heavyweight of the young Wombles, there is no doubt who provides the muscle: Tomsk. His enthusiasm exceeds his brainpower, and he has a dangerous tendency to take ladders away without checking if anyone is at the top of them. Tobermory’s instructions on how to fix the burrow pipeline confuse Tomsk, who mixes up the telephone and water systems, with soggy results. But there’s no Womble better for mixing cement or tossing the caber in the Womble Highland Games… even if it does end up in Madame Cholet’s vegetable garden. Tomsk does get the occasional bon mot: when he sees Bulgaria’s head stuck through a painting, he tells the old Womble that ‘You’ve been framed’. But Tomsk’s strength is his strength.
Bungo’s role, on the other hand, is less obvious. The events of the original book The Wombles are seen through his eyes. As the newest and youngest Womble, he is chided by Great Uncle Bulgaria for choosing such a silly name. In the TV episodes, by contrast, Bungo isn’t the most intelligent, or the strongest, or even the funniest – although he is inclined to be bossy. He has his heroic moments, such as his rescue of Wellington when a human comes onto the common (possibly the only rescue in literature by a character disguised by a cardboard box). For the most part, though, Bungo is just one of the gang.
The most popular Womble with my brother, my friends and me was Orinoco. He is fat and lazy and is obsessed with food and sleep, or ‘forty winks’ as he calls it. In one story, when Madame Cholet makes a picnic for the younger Wombles, Orinoco asks for cake, biscuits, buns, a big cake, lemonade, some biscuits and cake, and some sandwiches, and some cake. Bungo and Tomsk join him for the picnic, and Orinoco lightens the picnic hamper… by eating the lot. He is sensitive about his weight, and sometimes tries to do something about it. When Tobermory starts to convert an old grandfather clock into a weighing machine, Orinoco embarks on a frantic sequence of walks and press-ups… only to find that he now weighs ten past three. Much of the comic relief is at his expense. It is Orinoco who is scared by Great Uncle Bulgaria’s ghost stories, and hit by randomly flying objects – though this may be a consequence of Orinoco‘s frequent naps.
Other Wombles share the burrow with this magnificent seven. Miss Adelaide looks after the Womblegarten, and can bring the most unruly young Womble to attention, or for that matter the older ones, including Great Uncle Bulgaria. Younger Wombles include Alderney, Shansi and – in the 1990s version of the TV programme – Stepney. At various points in the books and TV programmes, we meet Wombles from round the world, but that world revolves around Wimbledon.
The Wombles of Wimbledon Common are a family, if an unconventional one – in contrast with the worlds of Charlie Brown or Tom and Jerry, where adults are rare. They live in a world with many attractions for a little boy. Nobody has to go to school and nobody gets hurt – although, unlike their near-namesakes the Weebles, Wombles do fall down – quite a lot, as it happens.
The scripts address their young audience without patronising them. One episode introduces the subject of multiplication and calculating machines while, in another, Wellington asks Tobermory to ‘elucidate’ on his ideas.
The Wombles have tasted the high life of pop stars. Mike Batt wrote the songs and a number of professional musicians have chosen to dress up, on stage or screen, as fictional furry animals to perform them. The songs gave Batt an excuse to run the gamut of musical genres, from the country and western Nashville Wombles through the Beach Boys parody Non-Stop Wombling Summer Party to the Empty Tidy Bag Blues. Several singles got into the top 20, and the Wombles appeared on Top of the Pops on various occasions, exhorting us all to enjoy a Wombling Merry Christmas and to join in with the unforgettable Remember You’re a Womble. Their fame became international; they were the interval act at the Eurovision Song Contest one year. They might have won if they’d been the UK entry.
They weren’t content with books, TV series, a film and a musical career. You could buy Wombles-themed clothing, games, household appliances, furnishings and toiletries. There were Wombles toys, including a singing Orinoco. I bought one, and he’s sitting in my living room all these years later. It’s impossible not to smile when a press of Orinoco’s left paw induces a chorus of Remember you’re a Womble and an outbreak of snout-wrinkling. It isn’t obvious why or how a Womble might forget their essential Wombleness. Orinoco and his fellow Wombles are unique and memorable for two reasons.
The first is something which the most prescient writer might not have predicted back in the late 1960s when the first book The Wombles was published: the extent to which environmental concerns have come into the centre of our lives. Greenhouse gases and carbon footprints weren’t a glint in the eye of mainstream 1970s politics, and global warming had yet to attain the status of having more believers than Father Christmas. The Wombles’ burrow, with its doors made of mirrors and walls decorated with old newspapers, gives a homely vision of recycling.
The second is the mechanism for choosing each Womble’s name. Up to a certain age, a Womble is nameless. But then they have to sit down with Great Uncle Bulgaria and choose a name from his atlas. This stroke of authorial genius brings the exotic to a reassuring and familiar setting. Some Wombles live over 200 years, with a few reaching the grand old age of 300, so it’s just as well there are no Wombles called Constantinople or Leningrad. Imagine having to explain to a six-year-old why they had changed their names to Istanbul Womble and St Petersburg Womble.
I am not a Womble. However, as Orinoco continues to gaze out of the window – dreaming of food or a new concept album – there is something I can do which the Wombles couldn’t: visit the places which gave the Wombles their names. For Chairman Mao, a journey of a thousand miles began with a single step. For me, a journey of 50,000 miles begins with a singing Womble.
Does anything connect the places, apart from Wombles? Do the places match up to the Wombles to whom they gave their names? Is Orinoco full of fat, lazy people? Is Cholet stuffed with chefs? Were the Wombles the forerunners of modern environmentalism?
Let’s go Wombling and find out – starting where it all began…
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