Animal magic

INTERVIEW: MIKE BATT
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Mike Batt has not always enjoyed his existence as a super furry animal. In fact, he claims that for much of the past 25 years "I've been trying to forget I'm a Womble, rather than remember I'm a Womble".

As the founder, composer, arranger, producer, lead singer and keyboardist of The Wombles pop group, Batt has attracted more sneerers than the Millennium Dome. His life as Orinoco - litter-tidier by day, rock star by night - has not been universally sweet. "In the 1980s, I was appointed by Mrs Thatcher to a committee advising about music on the school curriculum. We got letters from academics saying, 'fancy a Womble being on this committee'. They're supposed to be the most intelligent people in Britain. They should realise I'm not actually a Womble. I don't live down a bloody hole."

Some of his fellow musicians have, apparently, been no more understanding. "There is definitely a section of the rock fraternity who wouldn't consider me to be one of them because of The Wombles," Batt sighs. "People who are, in their estimation, serious rock musicians like Eric Clapton or Phil Collins think of me as, I won't say lightweight, but an outsider. I made some serious solo albums in the 1970s which were very successful in continental Europe, but not here because of the Womble Factor."

The prevailing wisdom was: how could a bunch of do-gooding cuddly toys ever be taken as seriously as such prog-rock philosophers as Yes or Pink Floyd? "If you're sniffy and see someone leaping around in a Womble costume, you think, 'He can't possibly be as artistic as me'," Batt says. "But, of course, you can - it's just a question of different notes. Gilbert and Sullivan versus Beethoven is the same argument. I'm just as serious when I write Womble music as when I write a symphony. One doesn't preclude the other."

Much to his relief, Batt has noticed a sea change recently. Indeed, Batt and his Wombles are benefiting from that most ubiquitous of Nineties phenomena: retro- chic. Back on TV as well as in the charts, The Wombles are surfing on the tide of fashionable 1970s rehabilitation that is engulfing everything from Saturday Night Fever to The Sweeney. According to Batt, "lads are saying, 'let's all get pissed and watch The Wombles together'." Seventies kitsch is cool.

This rodent rethink began a couple of years ago with that bell-wether of trendiness, Channel 4's The Word. "I had a call from a producer on The Word who asked, 'Could you reform the Wombles for our Christmas show?'," Batt recalls. "I said, 'No, I know you're going to take the piss.' But he sold me the idea that it was not going to be thought of as naff or mocked. So we got back together and did 'Wombling Merry Christmas'. The audience was all nose-rings and mini-skirts - and that was just the blokes - but their reaction was brilliant. They were climbing on stage. Seeing the audience behave like that, I thought 'this is good'."

So good that the band reformed and have already had a hit single with the re-released "Remember You're a Womble". A genial presence with a wild and woolly "eccentric musician" hairdo, Batt sits in his hi-tech studio at his smart west London home, facing what he calls his "ego wall", decorated with platinum and gold discs from a recording career that covers the waterfront from The Wombles to the violinist, Vanessa-Mae.

The success of the relaunched rodents - Marks and Spencer are even marketing a Wombles cake - has certainly pleased the composer. "Nowadays we're not getting mockery, just enthusiasm," Batt beams. "The people who were our original fans are now TV directors and journalists. Whenever we've done a TV show recently, the producers have been from that generation and are completely in awe. The other day we went into the offices of MTV in our Womble costumes. People on the mezzanine floor all stood on their chairs and gave us a great, big round of applause. It was like 'The Wombles are in the building'. The person we were with from MTV said, 'I've had Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan and Oasis in here, and no one bats an eyelid. But when the Wombles come in, the place breaks into uproar'."

Batt is not the only one relishing the reunion. "My 72-year-old mum who makes all the costumes is having a ball. She's now working on making a vest with an in-built water-cooling system which we can wear underneath the costumes when we tour in the summer. Otherwise, we'd all have heart attacks. When we do Top of the Pops, I get through four T-shirts in an afternoon."

But just why are we embracing The Wombles like long-lost friends? "The British have a very open sense of humour, which led to Monty Python and The Goons," Batt reckons. "The idea of a group of rodents standing on stage taking themselves seriously appeals. They're like Status Quo in Womble suits with all the head-banging and the Marshall stacks. It's a cross between Spinal Tap and the Bonzo Dogs. Rock takes itself very seriously - and that is easily parodyable. I always tell a new Womble, 'Don't try and be funny. Look serious, because that's funniest'."

But Batt does not urge anyone to probe too deeply in search of a profound inner meaning to The Wombles. "The pop group is just a load of disposable, take-it-or-leave-it nonsense, albeit seriously prepared. It's very throwaway. Perhaps that's why people like it."

In between organising the greatest comeback since Frank Sinatra, Batt has been busy writing the German World Cup song, and consequently rebutting affectionate accusations of grand treason. However, for all his other achievements - hits with Cliff Richard, David Essex, Art Garfunkel and Sarah Brightman, a West End musical (The Hunting of the Snark), and scores to such films as Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Caravans and Watership Down - Batt is still likely to be best remembered as the "Womble man".

Not that he minds now. "My life has been infested with Wombles, but I don't resent it anymore. Fifteen years ago, I would have said, 'Bastards, why don't they understand me?' Now I'm more fulfilled, and I'm having a ball working in different guises. Besides, I enjoy being Orinoco. It beats the hell out of being a human being."

'The Best Wombles Album So Far' is released this week. 'The Wombles' is on ITV at 4.05pm on Wednesdays

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