Underground, overground: The return of the Wombles

As the furry TV superstars re-emerge from a 30-year hibernation to play Glastonbury, the man behind their greatest hits relives the pleasures and pitfalls of the glory days – and reveals how he survived 'career suicide'

Nick Duerden
Sunday 12 June 2011 00:00 BST

Somewhere in a cottage in the middle of, no, not Wimbledon Common, but the New Forest, an 85-year-old woman is busy with needle and thread, her handiwork bringing back to life a bunch of costumes that haven't had a proper airing since the mid-1970s. "Although I'm not sure you should write that," she worries, "in case any children might be reading. We want them to believe they're real, don't we?" Reassured that it's unlikely any under-fives will be studying this text when they could focus on the pictures instead, she continues. "They've survived rather well, I think, but Orinoco and Wellington need some new school caps. And just look at their feet! They're worn through. But then they always were rather energetic, weren't they?"

The woman is Elaine Batt, sometime seamstress and mother of Mike Batt, the genial, copper-haired man behind the Wombles band. As well as being one of the highlights of 1970s kids' television, the Wombles were also, between 1973 and 1975, a frothy bubblegum-pop act that sold more singles than anybody else. "Three songs in the top 50 at the same time, something only the Beatles also managed," Batt (Jr) points out. "We were a phenomenon: eight top-30 hits, Top of the Pops every other week, millions of records sold."

Anything but a precursor to that other TV puppet with delusions of musical grandeur (the Mr Blobby nonsense of the mid-1990s), Mike Batt took his Wombling terribly seriously. Over the course of four studio albums, he stitched tales of gentle Womble antics into some highly ambitious musical styles including rock ("Banana Rock", number nine), seasonal ("Wombling Merry Christmas", number two), and even classical ("Minuetto Allegretto", number 16). One could argue that he overstretched himself.

"Well, if I was going to get any fun out of the whole enterprise I wasn't going to do so by making dinky-winky, Pinky- Perky records," he argues. "I was going to make records as ambitious as the Beatles. Of course, it was an uneven playing field – one man against the Fab Four – but I did my best."

It may have started out as a kiddies' project, but it soon transformed into outright flamboyance, permitting Batt, then a struggling singer-songwriter, to flex his musical muscle. "I have rock-star friends, who I won't name because they are very famous, who used to say they wished they could do the things I did, but their public wouldn't let them. They were a prisoner to their genre; I wasn't."

It was, he recalls, a momentous time, but also, occasionally, miserable and, briefly, hampered by controversy, not least when one of the band was kicked out after a drugs bust. But its success was to prove damning for Batt, casting a lengthy shadow that still looms today. "Career suicide, people told me," he says, shrugging.

Regardless, and with a little help from his mother, who made the original costumes back in the 1970s, he is reviving them now, rereleasing all their old albums on his own label in time for their Sunday-afternoon slot at the Glastonbury Festival, where, he hopes, a belated reappraisal of their worth will occur. "Now I'm reaching the evening of my life, shall we say, I realise what great fun we had, and what great fun we offered. And who knows, perhaps we'll even get a little respect, the respect we always deserved..."

The 1970s are often regarded, by those who had to live through them, as a beleaguered decade, blighted by bad music, bad fashion, endless strikes and an awful lot of power cuts. All quite true, but it also threw up children's TV shows that we regard as classics today: Paddington, Mr Men, Mr Benn, Bagpuss and The Wombles. In many ways, the Wombles, essentially teddy bears with hedgehog faces and legs too short for their bodies, were ahead of their time, ambassadors of the Keep Britain Tidy movement, their collective effort helping to spark an interest that, a generation later, would become a mandatory way of life: recycling.

They were dreamt up by Elisabeth Beresford, a journalist and novelist who wrote more than 100 titles for children. She had been commissioned by her publishers to come up with a competitor to Paddington, and achieved it, recalls her son Marcus Robertson, quite by chance. "I can still remember, vividly, when she first hit upon the idea," the 55-year-old sports PR says. "She had taken my sister and I for a walk on Wimbledon Common, only my sister mispronounced it and called it Wombledon. My mother's eyes lit up: the Wombles of Wimbledon Common. She asked us what they looked like, and what we thought they'd do. Because the Common was strewn with litter, we said they would pick it up, then return to their burrow..."

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And so a timeless classic was born. It became a series of books first, and, soon after, a BBC TV show. By the time it hit our screens, Robertson was a teenager, for whom it was wincingly personal. "As with all great fiction," he explains, "it was born out of an awful lot of fact. Great Uncle Bulgaria, for example, was my grandfather down to a T." And Robertson himself was also there. "I was Orinoco, I'm afraid, the fattest, greediest and laziest of them all – a perfectly accurate description of me, as it happens."

And which presumably sent him to the psychiatrist's chair as a result? He shakes his head. "I know Christopher Robin was never very happy having served as inspiration for the Winnie the Pooh books," he says breezily, "but it never bothered me. We all have quirks, and I always rather liked the fact that mine had been immortalised in this way."

At first, the Wombles lived a peaceable BBC1 existence at 5.35pm on weekday evenings. What ensured they would go on to have a wider cultural impact were the efforts of Mike Batt, a then-21-year-old songwriter with aspirations of becoming a rock star, composer and classical conductor. He had already written the winning theme tune, "The Wombling Song", for which he was offered a standard fee (£200), but which he rejected in favour of the character rights instead. "I thought it might be fun to release an album of Wombles music," he says.

Immediately prior to this, the married father of one had sunk his life savings into a rock'n'roll extravaganza that had tanked, leaving him in financial crisis. No one had ever achieved much of note by fronting a band of musical cuddly toys, but Batt was convinced that he could rewrite the rule book. And he did.

It is a bright spring afternoon when I meet Batt in his huge London townhouse. He leads me from the living-room, where a wall-unit houses six Ivor Novello awards, and into what he calls the Womble Room, the walls full of platinum discs. He is a small, portly man of 62, and possesses the fizzing enthusiasm one expects more of teenagers than someone three years shy of his free bus pass.

"It was like being Clark Kent and Superman," he says. "Nobody cared if they saw me wander down the street, but if I was dressed as Orinoco, they were all over me." He recalls a promotional trip to America, and running up to a beautiful girl to give her a big hug, who reciprocated in a way she wouldn't if it was just Mike Batt, flesh and bone. "She thought she was hugging a cuddly teddy bear, but the truth was I was enjoying it more than... well, more than perhaps a Womble should."

He laughs out loud, and you cannot help but feel relief that Elisabeth Beresford isn't alive to hear him say it (she died last Christmas, aged 84). But for the most part, he insists, Batt was a well-behaved children's entertainer, which is more than can be said – or at least alleged – of one of his fellow Wombles. Though the other people in the outfits were session musicians whose identities were never revealed but often speculated upon, one member's cover was spectacularly blown after he was arrested by the drug squad.

"Ah yes, Robin, bless him," Batt says. "I seem to remember his house was raided and a stash found inside his Womble head, or something...?"

Robin Le Mesurier, the man in question, recalls the episode more accurately. Then a 20-year-old fledgling guitarist, he was coming home one night from a Wombles gig to the house he still shared with his brother and parents, the comedy greats John Le Mesurier and Hattie Jacques, to find the place swarming with police. "I suppose I should have taken off and come back later," he says from his home in Los Angeles, where he has resided for the past two decades, playing guitar for various acts, Rod Stewart among them. "But I didn't. Seems they thought my brother was a dealer, but they only found a joint, a single joint. They arrested him, and for some reason they dragged me along too. We got fined £20. It could have been worse, I suppose, but Elisabeth Beresford still decided that being arrested for the possession of cannabis was very un-Womble-like behaviour. I had to vacate the position."

Marcus Robertson, who was 14 at the time, barely recalls the episode. "If it did cause a fuss in the papers, it must have been over very quickly," he says. "But I'm sure my mother would have put a positive Womble slant on it. She would have had Great Uncle Bulgaria turning it into a moral lesson: it is a very unwise thing to do, young Womble, to pick up spliffs left behind by humans. Don't do it."

Batt replaced Le Mesurier easily enough, but by now the cracks were beginning to show. He was tired of all the forced jocularity, and tired, too, of having to run all the lyrics by Beresford's husband, the former BBC sports commentator Max Robertson, whom Batt describes as the "self-appointed arbiter of all things Womble; everything I did needed his seal of approval. I did get it, mostly, but it was exhausting." After two years of success, he hung up his head, elated, he says, "to finally become a human being again". But he would find it difficult to shake off the legacy.

"John Peel used to be a fan of my early work, but he was never going to be interested in the solo output of a former Orinoco, and I simply couldn't get a booking on [1970s music TV show] The Old Grey Whistle Test." A while later, he was set to produce a heavy-metal act that later backed out when his ignominious past was revealed. "Who wants to work with a fucking Womble?" was the reason given.

Batt sighs resignedly. "I was the court jester who wanted desperately to be taken seriously." He would never have a proper solo hit in the UK again, though his albums performed well in Holland and Germany. Back at home, meanwhile, he started writing singles for artists such as David Essex and Cliff Richard. He penned "Bright Eyes" for Art Garfunkel, wrote rock operas and orchestral pieces, and now owns one of the UK's most successful record labels (Dramatico, home to Katie Melua) and is vice chairman of the BPI. In other words, he survived. Flourished, even. "So don't get the impression I'm bitter and twisted," he insists. "The Wombles was something I did, not something I am."

Robertson says he is overjoyed that Batt is resurrecting his mother's creation, and hopes it might prompt a major revival. He is still regularly in touch with Bernard Cribbins, who so wonderfully brought the characters to vivid life with his narration in the original series, but Robertson has already lined up a potential successor should he succeed in bringing them back to the small screen: Stephen Fry.

"I met him at a darts final recently – Stephen is a huge darts fan – and I said to him that when Bernard finally drops off his perch, he would be the perfect man to take over. And Stephen said to me, 'It would be an honour, old boy.'"

As for the Wombles at Glastonbury, he says, "I think it'll be fantastic. Admittedly, you could write my knowledge of music on a postage stamp, but it's quality stuff, I know that much. It puts a smile on the face."

Though Batt himself won't reveal who else will step into the costumes on the day, he will admit that he is looking forward to taking centre stage again, albeit hidden inside a huge costume so lovingly mended by his mother. "I can't wait. There's always ego in art, right? Picasso had an ego, the Sistine Chapel wouldn't have existed had Michelangelo not had one, and I'm sure the Pope has one. Well, I do too."

Even as a Womble? He looks, suddenly, deadly serious.

"Even then, yes."

The Wombles' albums are re-released this month on Dramatico. The Wombles play Glastonbury on 26 June

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