That initial conversation
Having just left the BBC's payroll,one morning in 1966 the phone rings ....
".... It was Doreen Stephens,the then Head of BBC Childrens Television.They were thinking of revamping Watch With Mother and did I have any ideas.It so happened that a few days earlier I'd been sitting at my desk gazing out of the window where I happened to glance at the herb bed,and in much the same way that one can often see pictures in the glowing embers of a fire,it struck me that the leaves of parsley blowing in the breeze looked not unlike a lion's mane.
By then I was writing my sixth Paddington book and had the first book in a new series about a mouse called 'Thursday' scheduled for publication.But given the lesson I'd learned in television,it didn't cross my mind to turn away the possibility of more work,so I naturally said,'Yes,it just so happens that....' and found myself outlining an idea in which all the characters were named after herbs.
It all seemed perfectly feasible and the more I talked the more enthusiastic I became about the idea.
'Good !' came the brisk answer.
'Can you let us have a pilot script as soon as possible ? Shall we say in 2 weeks' time ?'
Working on the characters
Wondering what I'd let myself in for,I hot-footed it down to the nearest bookshop where I bought some books on herbs.
Culpeper's 17th century 'Complete Herbal' lists around 400 different varieties,so finding enough characters to populate a television series was no problem at all; rather the reverse.
The setting would be an old-fashioned walled garden owned by Lady Rosemary- tall,willowy, aristocratic and blessed "with a tough bark" -together with her husband,the equally aristocratic,but rather bumbling,huntin',shootin' and fishin' Sir Basil,"with a smell so excellent that it is fit for a king's house."
Since Parsley had inspired the whole thing and was "completely beneficial to man and to other animals who sense what is good for them",he was a natural for the central character.
He would need a friend,of course; someone who could also act as a foil.Dill,"a magician's herb" and a "favourite on the Continent" sounded a suitably cosmopolitan partner.'Dill the dog' rolled easily off the tongue and the appearance of the herb itself was wild and devil-may-care.
The garden would need someone solid and reliable to look after things and keep the place tidy. "Neither witch nor devil,thunder nor lightning,will hurt a man where a Bay Tree is",suggested a gardener called Bayleaf.
Knapweed,"good at restraining distillations of thin and sharp humours from the head",was sworn in as Constable Knapweed- a kind of Dixon of Herb Green.
Sage,with its "aromatic colour and bitter taste",became a dyspeptic,somewhat bloody-minded owl; one of nature's squatters and well placed to give a bird's-eye view of things going on in the garden.
Other characters would follow,but I had enough material to write a pilot episode.
Discussions with the Beeb
2 weeks later I found myself sneaking back into Television Centre for a meeting with Doreen Stephens and 2 other members of her department- Joy Whitby and Ursula Eason -both of whom I knew having worked with them in the past.
I couldn't have wished for a better audience.All 3 said they liked the script but wondered how I saw it being done.
Originally I had pictured opening each episode in a kitchen,with an actor playing the part of a chef who could tell the story over a mixing bowl,adding a dash of dill here,a bayleaf there,in order to help the plot along and at the same time provide a relatively painless educational element.
Somewhere along the line this idea was dropped on the grounds that the budget for Watch With Mother was strictly limited.
For the same reason,cartoon animation was out.
What did I think of string puppets ?
Despite an early love for marionettes,my experience as a cameraman had put me off working with them.
They were lumbering,and their movements too jerky.They would restrict the storylines.
Glove puppets ?
It seemed too much like Sooty.Besides,there would be a lot of characters to handle in a small space.
Ursula Eason had been responsible for suggesting Eric Thompson for The Magic Roundabout,which was enjoying a cult following at the time,and the possibility of using a similar method of stop-start animation came up.
The thought prompted Joy Whitby to suggest I go and see someone called Graham Clutterbuck who had just arrived in London and was in the process of setting up a company.
He,in turn,had working for him a Frenchman named Ivor Wood,who'd been involved in animating the original French series,Le Manege Enchante.They might be interested ....
It seemed an unlikely combination.Clutterbuck sounded like a pre-war northern comic,and the name Wood hardly reeked of Gauloises and garlic.
But the type of animation interested me because it fitted in with the style of script I had in mind in which a simple tale would unfold,with the narrator doing all the voices,much as parents do when reading to their children at bedtime.
The problem with animated children's programmes then,and it remains true today,is that the cost of making the films far outweighs the limited budget allocated by most television stations.Generally speaking,this means they are often made at a loss by outside production companies who have to take a chance and hope that profits will come later out of overseas sales and merchandise spin-offs,which doesn't always happen.
As I came away from the meeting I sensed that,although in many ways it had gone well,the BBC were distancing themselves from the possibility of actually paying me any money.
Discussions with the animators
It was in a spirit of not knowing quite what to expect that I presented myself at the offices of FilmFair in Poland Street.
They looked and,as things turned out,were indeed only temporary.
Although I didn't realize it at the time,it was the one and only occasion when I was to see Graham Clutterbuck behind a desk.Business was normally conducted from a sofa in an office furnished like a living-room.
Accepting a seat,I sat back and listened,first to profuse apologies for the lack of anything to drink- the refrigerator hadn't arrived - then,via a series of compliments on the brilliance of my idea and how much his company was looking forward to producing it,to an outline of the kind of deal they- meaning Clutterbuck,since he was the company - had in mind.
As we entered the realms of percentages,my dreams of the golden pot at the end of a comparatively short rainbow plummeted still further.Even to a mind unschooled in the workings of the film world,they sounded distinctly on the low side as far as I was concerned.
Something about the look on my face must have triggered off the warning bells,for he suddenly paused in mid-flight,looked me straight in the eye and said: 'Of course,if I were wearing your hat I couldn't possibly accept a deal like that !'
Over the years I was to grow accustomed to the fact that Graham had a large selection of hats,which were trotted out as the occasion demanded.The hats and the equally disarming expression,'You're absolutely right !',served him well throughout his life.
We parted on a warm handshake,and although from time to time there would be situations when others felt it necessary to involve lawyers with their forty and fifty page contracts......that was all we ever needed.
It was only later,as we grew to know each other better,that Graham admitted that in the beginning his knowledge of the facts of life concerning the market for children's animated films had been even hazier than mine.
Fortunately for both of us he was a quick learner.
In Paris,he had for a while enjoyed the title of Directeur-General,Les Cineastes Associes,before setting up the European arm of Filmfair,a Los Angeles company involved in making television commercials.When that folded,more as a result of the workings of French television than for any other reason,.......he boarded a plane to California and persuaded the parent company to let him set up an office in London,with no salary,but on a percentage-of-profits basis.
My visit was a lucky break for both of us.