Roberta Leigh: Romantic novelist who also created innovative children’s TV shows with puppet master Gerry Anderson


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Roberta Leigh was a best-selling romantic novelist who brought much-loved children’s stories to the screen in the early days of ITV  – and earned a place in the history of the so-called Golden Age of Television.

The Adventures of Twizzle (1957-59), Torchy the Battery Boy (1958-59), Sara and Hoppity (1962-63) and Space Patrol (1963-64) were landmarks in television puppet series – the first two also helping to put their director, Gerry Anderson, on the road to success with his own marionettes in Thunderbirds and other productions.

Twizzle, a boy doll with extendable arms and legs, was created by Leigh over lunch with a publisher. He asked her to create a humorous plot from his idea about a boy walking down a lane and seeing an apple tree whose fruit he could not reach. “So,” Leigh said, “he crk-cricked his legs and made them longer and longer, and then he crk-cricked his arms and made them longer, too.” She stretched out one of her own arms and took the steak off the publisher’s plate. His response was positive.

Before its appearance in books (1958-60) and comic strips, Leigh took The Adventures of Twizzle to the fledgling ITV, which commissioned 52 episodes over two series. They were produced by AP Films, a company set up by Gerry Anderson and Arthur Provis to make movies. However, none was forthcoming and Leigh arrived just as it was facing collapse.

Twizzle was seen on the run from a toy shop in an attempt to avoid being bought by a spoilt girl and his gang included Footso the cat and Candy Floss the doll. The characters had thick strings, papier mâché heads and a looping walk, but Anderson compensated for this lack of sophistication by using innovative film-making techniques such as cuts and close-ups not previously seen in puppet series, as well as marionettes being operated from an overhead bridge rather than from behind a backdrop.

The programme was so popular that ITV commissioned Torchy the Battery Boy,  whose title character has a magic lamp in  his hat and travels by rocket to Topsy Turvy Land, where toys talk, animals walk and  cream buns grow on trees. He is accompanied by two children, Bossy Boots and Bogey,  and a dog, Pom-Pom. The puppets were  much more refined this time, with moving eyes and mouths, and the wires were finer, but Leigh and AP Films ended their association after the first series and the second  run was made by Associated British-Pathé. Torchy books (1960-62) followed the television programmes.

Leigh then teamed up with Arthur Provis to form Wonderama Productions and make a television version of her Sara and Hoppity books (1960-61), about a girl called Sara Brown who has adventures with a singing, dancing, mischievous clockwork boy doll whose lost leg has been replaced by a shorter one.

Interestingly, all of Leigh’s first three popular series included spiteful children among their characters and appeared to subvert the wholesome format of the rival BBC’s Watch with Mother productions.

Her last major screen success moved more into Gerry Anderson sci-fi territory. Space Patrol featured the crew of Galasphere 347 and their adventures around the solar system in the year 2100. The series was also a hit in the US, where it was retitled Planet Patrol.

Leigh was born Rita Shulman, daughter of Samuel, a fabric buyer and wholesaler, and Leah, Jews who had fled persecution in Russia. Evacuated from London’s East End to Prestatyn during the Second World War, she was educated at St Mary’s Convent School, Rhyl.

As a child, she enjoyed making up stories and became aware of the popularity among women of romantic fiction, which she started writing at the age of 14. In 1948, she married Michael Lewin, owner of Western Pools, which was sold to Littlewoods four years later.

Changing her professional name to Roberta Leigh, she had her first novel, In Name Only, published in 1950. More than 160 followed over six decades, some under the pen names Rachel Lindsay, Janey Scott and Rozella Lake.

Leigh also had a weekly women’s column in Scotland’s Daily Herald for three years and, with Reg Taylor in 1959, created the teenage girls’ comic Boyfriend, which was sold to the News of the World’s publisher after six years.

She devised the children’s comic Fun ‘n Games for Tesco in 1969 and successfully sued the supermarket giant when it tried to claim ownership of the title. As a result, Tesco gave her a contract and the comic sold up to 150,000 copies weekly in-store.

In the middle of her television success, Leigh wrote other children’s books featuring the characters of Tomahawk (1960-61), Mr Hero (1961) and Storky (1962). She also became Britain’s first female producer to own a film company, National Interest Pictures, and made further puppet series such as Send for Dithers (1966) and Wonder Boy and Tiger (1966-67), as well as the pilots Paul Starr (1964), Mr Hero (1966) and The Solarnauts (1967).

After 10 years, Leigh ended her television career, frustrated at executives’ reluctance to commission ideas sufficiently different from her early programmes. She returned to writing romantic fiction full-time, mainly for Harlequin and Mills & Boon, and achieved total worldwide sales of more than 25 million.

A decade earlier, Leigh had trained as a graphologist and was employed by the police, medical profession and merchant banks to study handwriting. Plagued by depression throughout her life, in later years she sought therapy through painting abstract pictures in oil and watercolour, and proved talented enough to have exhibitions in London and New York. She died of natural causes.

Rita Shulman (Roberta Leigh), writer and producer: born London 22 December 1926; married 1948 Michael Lewin (died 1981; one son); died 19 December 2014.