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Woodentops, The (1955-57)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Woodentops, The (1955-57)
BBC Film Unit
26 episodes and 4 remakes (black & white)
WriterMaria Bird
MusicMaria Bird
PuppeteersAudrey Atterbury
 Molly Gibson
 Gordon Murray

Voices: Peter Hawkins, Eileen Browne, Josefina Ray

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The puppet adventures of a family of wooden dolls who live on a farm.

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The Woodentops - "stories about a family of wooden dolls who live on a farm" (Radio Times) - first aired at 3.45pm on Friday 9 September 1955. It was the final piece of the Watch With Mother jigsaw, giving it a daily line up of programmes showing Mondays to Fridays.

This string-puppet series was broadly intended as a primer in family inter-relationships, hence its large number of characters (all of them with that curiously 'topless' style of dress). Each episode began by introducing the extended family: "There's Mummy Woodentop and the baby. Daddy Woodentop. Willy and Jenny, the twins. Mrs Scrubbit, who comes to help Mummy Woodentop and Sam who helps Daddy Woodentop. And last of all the very biggest spotty dog you ever did see. And they all lived together in a little house in the country." The inclusion of domestics seems very upper middle class, although to be fair the two 'servants' were very much included as part of the family. The series also aimed to introduce children to the ways of the country, and a number of puppet sheep, ducks, cows and pigs guested in the episodes.

Episodes were made in a 'tin shed' at Lime Grove and, like the other Watch With Mother programmes intended for constant repeat use, were shot on film. With so many characters to control (as many as six in any given shot), the programme required slightly more dextrous puppetry than Andy Pandy or The Flower Pot Men. There is some evidence of rare film editing, although the takes are still fairly long and the voice artists sometimes appear to ad-lib over brief delays in the action.

The main difference between this and earlier Watch With Mother puppet series was the voice given to the puppets. The use of narration was minimal, with inter-character dialogue driving, unlike the mute Andy Pandy or the gibberish-talking Bill and Ben.

The emphasis was more on narrative than before, but the format also allowed several songs each week - Mummy Woodentop played the piano for example. Some songs were written for the series, others were familiar tunes that children at home could join in with.

The puppets, preserved by the BBC, were stolen, along with Bill and Ben, in 1983. They were missing for a year until spotted on a shelf in Phillips' auction room in London by a member of the Blue Peter production team.

Alistair McGown

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Video Clips
Complete episode (15:01)
Extract (1:53)
Murray, Gordon (1921-)
Watch With Mother