A tidy little earner, at last

The Wombles were a best-selling phenomenon, but their creator saw scarcely a penny. This time, Meg Carter hears, things will be different
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Retirement has been anything but blissful for Elizabeth Beresford, author, journalist and creator of The Wombles. Now 72, she admits to never having quite got round to it, having spent most of the Nineties in a variety of odd jobs - from domestic service to railway station mistress - while continuing to write her children's books.

"I was a name at Lloyds, you see," she grimaces as we chat over mugs of tea in the cluttered kitchen of her home on the island of Alderney. "I couldn't retire so I had to work my way out of it. And it took everything I had, except my pension and the house. I did odd jobs, I wrote anything. It was seven years hard labour. Only now am I starting to keep the money I earn."

It's an unlikely revelation for a woman who's most famous creation, The Wombles, became a worldwide phenomenon in the Seventies and won a celebrity following that included, to name just a couple, Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl.

But, Ms Beresford admits, despite the subsequent Wombles merchandising bonanza - which included the obligatory cuddly toys, Top 40 hits, feature films, nine stage shows and even Wombles washing-up cloths - she came out of it all with very little. "I sold my scripts outright, forever and ever at pounds 50 each, dear heart," she sighs. "It sounds as if I needed my head examined but at the start, none of us quite realised what was happening and by the time we did - it was too late. Some people laughed all the way to the bank. I just kept on working."

All in all, Beresford wrote twenty Wombles books which went on to be published in 40 languages. While she retained copyright for the written word, she had no say over how her creations were exploited in other media. A similar plight was to befall composer and songwriter Mike Batt who rocketed into the Top 5 with "The Wombling Song" back in February 1974.

A former A&R man at Liberty Records, Batt penned The Wombles' theme tune, did all the voices and - once record sales began to take off - happily donned furry suit and corduroy snout to appear as Orinoco for The Wombles' debut on Top of the Pops.

Within weeks, Batt had hired a band and his mum was running up Womble outfits for a nationwide tour. The furry phenomenon gave live performances of such classic numbers as "Remember You're A Womble", "Down at the Barber Shop" and "Wombling White Tie and Tails". So big did The Wombles become that they even beat Bay City Rollers, Sweet and Mud to be names Singles Group of 1975 by Music Week magazine.

Yet it was not all fat cheques and smiles for the music's creator. "First time round I held the music copyright but had no control over TV exploitation or further exploitation of my work in stage shows or on film," Batt now confides. Trouble was, some of these other executions were distinctly, well, mediocre. "Everyone thought if they saw a Wombles pop group it was me - in fact there were a number doing the rounds. It embarrassed me greatly. Before getting involved this time round, the key issue for me was how to retain greater quality control."

And for Ms Beresford, too, who's interests in The Wombles are being managed by her son, Marcus, this time round. "It sounds extraordinary that in the Seventies she got virtually nothing, but it's true," he says. "This time round we're working to make sure she's better rewarded and has the chance to enjoy her retirement should she choose to."

Not that there seems much chance of her putting her feet up: there's so much else to do. Ms Beresford continues to write. Vigorously. Her small study is crammed with her previous 130 books which also include teenage and romantic fiction. Her 131st - a new children's novel, Island Treasures - is published this spring. Having finished the stories for the new Wombles series there's further adventures for her other TV creations, Bertie the Bat and Dawdle the Donkey, to complete.

And there's even talk of an autobiography. Writing is in her blood - quite literally, she says. Her father was the writer JD Beresford; her godfather was Walter de la Mare. Her earliest passion was for the books of E Nesbitt. A journalist by training, she travelled the world with her former husband, tennis commentator Max Robertson, freelancing for various outlets including the Today programme on Radio 4.

"I've still got so many things to write now, even thought I no longer have to," she confides. And Alderney provides a prime source of inspiration. The tiny island is home to a colourful and close-knit community, many of whom seem constantly to wander in and out of each other's houses, rarely thinking to lock a door.

"It's a writer's dream," she enthuses. Not least because the pace of island life is so slow. "Writing children's fiction today is so terribly difficult. You can't have kids going out on their own or talking to strangers or having adventures without setting it in a science fiction or historical context. It's terrible. But that's what makes this island so magical. Children can be children. They can still come up in the street and talk to you."

Times may have changed, she says, but children's taste for stories and adventures remains the same. "Reading a book is the only way to carry the whole world in your pocket. Storytelling still counts," she says. "Over Christmas, my daughter Kate turned on the Teletubbies. She turned to me and said `Mother, they make The Wombles look like War and Peace' And she was right!"

The new series of The Wombles begins on ITV on March 4.

The Best Wombles Album So Far Volume 1 is released by Columbia Records on March 23. Volume 2 will released later in the year. A remixed dance version of Remember You're a Womble is released on March 16.

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