The animation process
When Graham and I next met it was at the BBC and this time Ivor Wood put in an appearance,having flown in from Paris with the first of the puppets -Sir Basil and Lady Rosemary.
Once again I felt an immediate rapport.
Ivor not only looked French but thought French too.Although born in Leeds of Anglo-French parents,he was brought up in a small village near Lyon,before going to art school in Paris.Stop-start,three-dimensional puppet animation had long been popular in Eastern Europe,but he was one of the first animators to apply it to children's television in France and the UK.
Constructed on a wire frame,fully articulated,with ball-and-socket joints,his puppets are very distinctive.
The human characters,with their high,domed foreheads are instantly recognizable and,as befits their parentage- Ivor's wife, Josiane,being very chicly French -are always dressed with enormous style.
The animation is painstakingly done a frame at a time,each frame recording a tiny movement of the puppet,so that when the completed film is run at normal speed,persistency of vision makes it seem as though the movements are continuous.
Unlike a book illustration,where if need be you can ask the artist to make minor changes,it was necessarily a case of take it or leave it.
With thirteen 15 minute films already commissioned and on the point of being written into the schedules,it was no time to suggest making fundamental changes.
Fortunately,I found myself dealing with a perfectionist,who would never show anything until he was totally happy with it himself,so at no time did the question arise.
The animation was being carried out on the kitchen table of Ivor's and Josiane's Paris flat,so he rushed straight back on the next plane to start work on building the set and designing the rest of the puppets.
With animated films,the dialogue is normally recorded first so that the result can be timed overall and if necessary edited before the animation begins.At that stage the music and sound effects are also added.
Each puppet was to have its own distinctive four-line introductory song,which could be varied to suit the situations.
Tony Russell,who composed the score for The Matchmaker,was commissioned to write the music and,under her maiden name of Johnson,Brenda * wrote the accompanying lyrics with great facility. [ * Bond's then wife ]
There was an immediate,and frantic,search for a suitable voice.
Just as the big marionette companies of old knew that fat people tend to think 'fat' and thin people tend to think 'thin', casting their puppeteers accordingly,so fat people tend to have 'fat' voices and vice versa.
Gordon Rollings,a lovely north countryman of saturnine appearance,fitted Ivor Wood's creations admirably.
He belonged to that small group of anonymous people who earn their living doing 'voice overs'.One sometimes wonders what they would have done had television not been invented,or what television would do without them.
Highly professional,they remain totally unfazed whatever is thrown at them.
Gordon Rollings is the only man I have ever met who actually turned up at a studio one morning,dead on time as always,but wearing an icepack on his head following what he gloomily called 'a bit of a do' the previous night.Until then I had only seen such a sight in pre-war American 'B' movies.
Unfortunately,the script that day was a complicated one which revolved around a surprise birthday party being given for Parsley.At the very end all the inhabitants of the Herb Garden had to sing 'Happy Birthday',each line being rendered in a voice of a different character.As I remember it,Gordon sailed through the script with a minimum of retakes,although at one point the sound engineer did complain about strange rattling noises every time he moved his head (the ice)
Adding more characters
Graham,Ivor and I continued meeting from time to time,Ivor flying in with his latest creations,which he produced out of his case like a magician taking rabbits from a hat:
Aunt Mint,who was for ever knitting and offering good advice;
sergeant-majorish Mr Onion and his lovely,if perenially tearful,lady wife,along with their long-suffering family of 10 chives; Belladonna,the witch -ultimately written out at the request of a nervous BBC;
Sweet Cicely*,everybody's singing niece [ * never actually made it into the series ]
Signor Solidago,her music master;
Tarragon,the dragon -who used to blow real smoke rings out of his nostrils;
Good King Henry;
and last but not least,for he was a very useful character to have around when the writing reached a sticky patch,Pashana Bedhi,an Indian magician.
Although India is home to many spices,the inhabitants are not deeply into herbs,so I called into Veeraswamy's restaurant off Regent Street to ask their advice.It was early morning,and the consensus of opinion among the off-duty waiters was that such a herb did exist and one of them even wrote the name down for me,but I have to admit I've never come across it in any cookery books.
Somewhere along the way Ivor began sending me photographs of the latest puppets- the journey to and fro between London and Paris had become too time-consuming -politely pointing out at the same time that his Paris apartment was only small and,understandably,Josiane (his wife) was becoming a trifle restive.
In short,could I please not think up any more characters for the time being and,'to tell you the truth',could I also go easy on the chives,who had a tendency to march across the screen at intervals to no great purpose.
It was the classic situation of the writer putting in camera instructions which take only a few seconds to type,but which land the animator with a day's work or more.
Transmission day !
The Herbs began weekly transmissions in February 1968.
In the very first episode I allowed Sir Basil's gun to go off by accident and in doing so blow Parsley's tail away.
The underlying intention was to put children off playing with firearms,which I hope I did.
Unfortunately it also put a sizeable number off watching with mother.Tears flowed and many a set was switched off in desperation without waiting to see the happy ending when Parsley's pride and joy was returned to him courtesy of Sage,the owl,and he was again able to sing,"I'm a very friendly lion called Parsley,with a tail for doing jobs of every kind."
Fortunately the viewing figures recovered the following week.But it taught me not to put messages in stories.
As Sam Goldwyn once wisely said: "Messages are for Western Union."
'S' for "success" .... and "sequel"
The Adventures of Parsley,a series of 32 five minute films starring Parsley and Dill,contained no messages at all,and was commissioned by the BBC to help fill the prime spot between Children's Hour and the early evening news.
From the writing point of view it was a valuable exercise in the disciplines required for that kind of slot.
In practice,because they were scheduled to go out before the evening news,the BBC requirement was for 4 minutes and 45 seconds,which would allow time for a trailer.Take away,say thirty seconds for beginning and end titles and credits,and it didn't leave much time for the story.
There was no question of the news starting late,so if you went outside these limits you knew the programme would be faded.
All the same,despite the restrictions they were fun to write.Knowing that most children go through a period of liking corny jokes,I was able to indulge myself and the series evolved into a kind of Morecambe and Wise cross-talk act.
They were a good example of stories which almost write themselves.With the characters firmly established in the original series,it was possible to wake up in the morning without the ghost of an idea,sit down after breakfast and pluck a line out of the air -'Today isn't a Monday,a Tuesday,Wednesday or Thursday.....it's a Friday.' Almost immediately Friday would become Flyday and by coffee-time I would have hammered out a workable plot about flying* [ *episode = "Holiday's at Home" ]
A quick rewrite after coffee and the finished script would be ready by lunch-time.
After he had finished filming The Adventures of Parsley,Ivor went on to make The Wombles and I returned to my other desk.
Some closing thoughts about his series
One of the nicest things about writing for children is their total acceptance of the fantastic.
However,the parameters of a series are established with the very first story and there is no going outside them.
The action of The Herbs takes place within the four walls of the garden.
While we are within those four walls anything can happen,for it is a magical place and herbs are known to have special powers.But we are privileged visitors and at the end of our quarter of an hour stay we are ushered out again; the door closing on Parsley waving goodbye.