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Herbs, The (1968)

Courtesy of The Cookie Jar Entertainment Inc

Main image of Herbs, The (1968)
Filmfair for BBC TV, tx. 12/2-5/5/1968
13 x 15 min episodes, colour
Director / AnimatorIvor Wood
ScriptMichael Bond
Executive ProducerGraham Clutterbuck

Narrator: Gordon Rollings

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The adventures of some magical herbs who live in a secret garden guarded by Parsley, the 'Herbidaceous' friendly lion.

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One of the new breed of Watch With Mother programmes of the late 1960s, The Herbs was also the first series to unite writer Michael Bond and animator Ivor Wood, who would later gain fame for their adaptations of Bond's Paddington children's books (BBC, 1976-86).

While perhaps less fondly remembered than its contemporaries in the same strand, such as Camberwick Green (1966), The Herbs draws on Wood's previous experience in France animating The Magic Roundabout (BBC, 1965-77) to construct a fantastical, antiquated atmosphere with memorably eccentric characters. It retains cult status today.

Each episode follows the adventures of various characters, all represented by a unique herb whose traits they supposedly (sometimes tenuously) embody. They live in a secret garden that can only be entered once narrator Gordon Rollings utters the magic password, 'herbidaceous'. The central character, Parsley, a friendly but shy foliaceous lion who guards the pathway into the garden, is joined by a host of other herbal characters, each heralded by their own signature song, sung by Rollings, who voiced all the characters.

The idea for the programme originated with Bond, who noticed that a sprig of parsley in his herb garden resembled a lion. Taking the idea further, Bond consulted Nicholas Culpeper's 17th Century compendium, The Complete Herbal, to search for the characteristics of the various herbs that would populate his fantasy garden.

The third episode takes the evocation of 17th century folklore further, focusing on the attempts of witch Belladonna (also known as Deadly Nightshade) to transform all the herbs into weeds. Eventually they are saved by Dill the Dog - in accordance with the mediaeval belief that dill warded off evil spirits. BBC executives were so concerned that Belladonna would frighten young viewers that the character never returned.

While adult-humanoid herb-characters such as Basil, Rosemary and Bayleaf are comically incapable of perceiving the children viewing at home, the animal characters possess the ability to communicate directly with them by staring out of the screen, reinforcing the fairytale atmosphere by having the children and animals privy to a magical world denied to the adults.

Culpeper's philosophy of herbalism expounded that knowledge of the medicinal properties of herbs should be freely available to all. During an age in which 'flower power' politics had been absorbed into the mainstream, The Herbs revived that tradition in an enchanting form for early learners.

Stuart Heaney

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Video Clips
Complete episode (13:46)
Paddington (1976-86)
Pogles, The (1965)
Wood, Ivor (1932-2004)
Watch With Mother