Elisabeth Beresford: Children's author who created the Wombles
Monday 03 January 2011
Elisabeth Beresford was inspired to create the Wombles by her daughter's mispronunciation during a Boxing Day romp across Wimbledon Common.
The idea blossomed and the children's books and highly successful television series went on to conquer the world, being translated into over 40 languages.
The Wombles' motto, "Make Good Use of Bad Rubbish", and their passion for recycling was years ahead of its time and captured the imagination of children everywhere, who began to organise Womble Clearing Up Groups. In all, 35 five-minute films were broadcast on BBC1, accompanied by Mike Batt's music and The Wombles theme song, "Underground, Overground, Wombling Free". There was even pop chart success with "Remember You're a Womble", which reached No 4 in 1974, and then again in 2000 with "I Wish It Could Be a Wombling Merry Christmas Every Day".
The inspiration had come to Beresford when, in order to give her parents-in-law some quiet after Christmas, she took her two young children to Wimbledon Common to let off some steam. While there, her daughter Kate shouted, "Ma, isn't it great on Wombledon Common?" Beresford recalled thinking, "that's it, that's where the Wombles come from." That same day, she made a list of names and based each Womble on a different family member. At the head of the Womble hierarchy was Great Uncle Bulgaria, based on her father-in-law; Tobermory was based on her brother (a skilled inventor); Orinoco her son; and Madame Cholet Coburg-Womble was inspired by her royalty-obsessed mother. The Wombles' names came from sources as different as the town where Beresford's daughter went on a French exchange and the name of the college attended by a nephew.
The first Wombles book was published in 1968, and the stories made their television debut the same year, broadcast on BBC1's Jackanory series. The BBC were delighted by the response and decided to make an animated series. They were, however, less enamoured by Beresford's own character drawings. Thus, the head of children's programming, Monica Sims, commissioned the puppeteer Ivor Wood to create the Womble characters and direct the series. He later animated Paddington Bear and Postman Pat. After some set-backs, Wood's designs for creatures with long pointed snouts, thick prehensile fingers and ill-fitting costumes and headgear were accepted. Characterised by actor Bernard Cribbins's wonderful voices, the first animated series of The Wombles appeared on the nation's screens in 1973. It was an overnight success and the series soon went global. As its popularity grew, fan-mail arrived by the sackful and Beresford found herself on live phone-ins and travelling all over the world. She was tireless in promoting these initiatives around the world, as well as supporting the cause of recycling.
Wombles mania took hold during the 1970s and 80s, spawning all sorts of merchandising including soft toys, mugs, annuals, soaps and stationery – a relatively rare feat at the time. Beresford wrote 20 Wombles books, which were sold worldwide, and she adapted the stories into a stage show herself (1974), one version of which ran in the West End. This was followed by the film Wombling Free (1977), directed by Lionel Jeffries and starring David Tomlinson, Frances de la Tour and Bonnie Langford. In 1998, on the 25th anniversary of their first TV appearance, the Wombles were relaunched in a cartoon version. The food chain McDonald's even went so far as to give away nearly 13 million collectible mini-Wombles in a four-week Happy Meal promotion in 1999. Wombles character Orinoco subsequently featured in several other McDonald's promotions.
Although the family home was in England, Elisabeth "Liza" Beresford was born on 6 August 1926 in Paris, where her family had moved to avoid the Inland Revenue. Her father, John Davys Beresford, was himself a successful author and critic. Perhaps her destiny was foretold, as she grew up around the Edwardian literary greats; her parents' friends included H G Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Hugh Walpole, Somerset Maugham and D H Lawrence. Her godfather was the poet Walter de la Mare and the children's writer Eleanor Farjeon was her godmother. Despite witnessing the comings and goings of the literary geniuses of the time, Beresford seldom had the chance to speak to them – it was an era when children were "seen and not heard". The house, however, was full of books and soon she became a compulsive reader.
Beresford was still a child when her father ran off with another woman, forcing her mother, Beatrice, to move the family to Brighton, where they took in lodgers to make ends meet. Despite this, Beresford corresponded in secret with her father until his death in 1947, although her mother burnt the letters when she stumbled across them years later.
Educated at St Mary's Hall and Brighton and Hove High School, Beresford trained as a shorthand typist and then served for 18 months as a wireless telegraphist in the Women's Royal Naval Service towards the end of the Second World War. Following a stint as a ghostwriter, specialising in speeches for the rich and famous, she trained as a journalist in the 1950s. Her work soon led to writing radio, film and television columns, including in Woman's Weekly and Punch, and working for the BBC as a radio reporter on the Today programme and Woman's Hour among others. She later admitted that it was a somewhat hit-and-miss career – and so she coupled this with writing fiction, as she found herself having to support her family. This included her husband Max Robertson, the sports commentator, whom she had married in 1949 and who was out of work, her mother, who was in a nursing home, and their two children, Kate and Marcus.
Beresford's first book for children, The Television Mystery, was published in 1957, and she wrote over 45 more. Her first for adults was published in 1963; these were largely what she described as "romantic thrillers", although they were never hugely successful. Her last romance was A Passionate Adventure (1983). In 1964, Beresford had her first children's series success when Awkward Magic was published; another eight were to follow.
Beresford was awarded an MBE for her services to children's literature in the 1998 New Year's Honours List.
Beresford died on 24 December at the Mignot Memorial Hospital on Alderney in the Channel Islands following heart failure, aged 84.
Elisabeth Beresford, writer: born Paris 6 August 1926; married 1949 Max Robertson (divorced 1984, died 2009, one son, one daughter); died Alderney, Channel Islands 24 December 2010.
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