Flobbadob! Storm in a flowerpot over who sowed the seeds for Bill and Ben

By James Morrison
Friday 31 January 2014 04:23
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The root of the problem is the word "flobbadob".

When retired headteacher Hilda Brabban died last month at the age of 88, she was hailed in obituaries as the "original creator" of The Flowerpot Men. Yet for 50 years, the true inspiration for the classic children's series has been a source of dispute between her family and that of the BBC producer who devised the programme, Freda Lingstrom.

Now, the saga over the copyright for the multi-million-pound global TV franchise has resurfaced after lawyers acting for Ms Lingstrom's estate ordered obituary writers to "correct" their tributes to Mrs Brabban.

The main cause of controversy is the word "flobbadob'', the Flowerpot Men's nonsensical catchphrase. It has always been accepted that Mrs Brabban sold three stories about boys called Bill and Ben to the BBC for a guinea each, and that these were broadcast on Radio 4's Listen with Mother in 1951. They were based on the antics of her younger brothers, William and Benjamin Wright.

There, says Ms Lingstrom's estate, the connections with the Flowerpot Men end. The fact that these characters had the same names as those who surfaced a year later on Watch with Mother is, it insists, coincidence.

Mrs Brabban's brother Bill tells a different story. Weed, he maintains, is based on his younger sister Phyllis, who was so slim she was labelled this by her friends. But his most colourful claim is that the word "flobbadob" was invented by him and his brother to describe the sound they made when they broke wind in the bath.

The scatological story has long been dismissed by the family of Ms Lingstrom, which insists she knew nothing of the original tales when she developed The Flowerpot Men. Copies of the broadcast versions of Mrs Brabban's stories exist in the BBC archives, and are understood to include neither the word "flobbadob" nor the character Weed. The latest defence of Ms Lingstrom's legacy emerged last week in the form of an extraordinary retraction of an obituary of Mrs Brabban in the BBC's in-house magazine Ariel. The item, printed at the insistence of her lawyers, Harbottle and Lewis, read: "Hilda Brabben [sic] was not the creator of the popular children's television characters Bill and Ben, as reported in last week's Ariel ... The BBC clarified that, while Hilda Brabben might have written stories for the BBC in 1940, she did not have a connection with the Bill and Ben and Watch with Mother characters created by Freda Lingstrom in the 1950s."

The Independent on Sunday received a letter from Gerrard Tyrrell of Harbottle and Lewis on Friday, stating: "The only similarity with Freda Lingstrom's creations were the names Bill and Ben. The stories do not involve flowerpot men, a garden, a gardener, weed, made-up language or anything else that anyone would associate with the flowerpot men.... The word flobbodob [sic] ... does not appear."

Mr Tyrrell added that the first the Lingstrom estate had heard about Mrs Brabban's claims was in 1997. But Mr Wright, 84, said he had always believed his sister was Bill and Ben's true creator. "I think Freda Lingstrom pinched the stories," he said. "There was one occasion when me and Ben were in the bath together, and one of us made a rude noise. Mother said, 'who made that noise? Was it Bill or was it Ben', like in the series. We used the word flobbadob to refer to the sound one of us had made."

Diana Chamberlain, one of Mrs Brabban's two daughters, believes her mother was "cheated". But Mrs Chamberlain's sister, Ros Ramsden, added: "It's all so long ago that we'll never know the truth."

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