When Noddy and Twizzle met Lew Grade and a High Definition Television System… 

24 June 2022 tbs.pm/76220

 

Ian Fryer reveals a fascinating story which takes us through the birth of commercial television in Britain, how Lew Grade was shut out of, then invited into ITV, a little-known 1950s high-definition television system, and why The Adventures of Twizzle is a much better series than it is given credit for…

You might be surprised to learn that Supercar was not Lew Grade’s first experience with commissioning a children’s television series made with marionettes. His ATV company (or ABC, as it was known in its earliest days) was responsible for The Adventures of Noddy over two years before AP Films’ first puppet production, The Adventures of Twizzle, was first shown by Associated-Rediffusion. It was also around four and a half years earlier than Grade’s first Gerry Anderson production, Supercar.

The Adventures of Noddy disappeared from British television screens in 1960, until recently the only reminder of its existence segments from a single episode appearing on a VHS compilation of classic children’s TV shows. Now a complete episode, Noddy and the Moon, has appeared on YouTube, which is of interest to Anderson fans for several reasons. Firstly, Gerry Anderson’s initial contact with the world of puppetry came when his company of the time, Pentagon Films, were hired in 1956 to make a television commercial for Kellogg’s Sugar Ricicles using the same Noddy puppet seen in The Adventures of Noddy series – the puppet was used in several Ricicles adverts over the years.

Another reason we should be interested at the re-emergence of the 1950’s version of Noddy is that it gives us a fuller picture of the state of children’s puppet programming into which emerged AP Films’ first puppet series, The Adventures of Twizzle, which debuted in November 1957. Both Noddy and Twizzle could be seen on various regions of the ITV network for around three years before The Adventures of Noddy vanished from view, so children of the era had plenty of opportunity to decide which they preferred.

 

Courtesy of The Lost Media Wiki

 

Muffin the Mule: Superstar

The BBC began a regular television service on 2 November 1936, initially only to an area of 35 miles which could pick up the signals from the Corporation’s Alexandra Palace transmitter in North London. Furthermore, in order to have the opportunity of squinting at the tiny 10-inch screens of the television sets available at the time, potential viewers needed to be able to afford the £100 cost, which is the equivalent of over £7,000 in 2020 money. Even in the earliest days of this fledgling television service programming for children was included: in fact the final programme shown before the service was suspended on 1 September 1939 was the 1933 Walt Disney cartoon Mickey’s Gala Premiere, which featured a host of animated representations of 1930’s movie stars all going to see the premiere of the latest Mickey Mouse film. The authorities were worried that television transmitters might prove a navigational aid to enemy aircraft, so television went off the air for the duration of the war.

BBC Television returned to the air, on 7 June 1946 at 3pm, and one of the first programmes shown that day was Mickey’s Gala Premiere. Children’s television was back, and not just in the form of imported cartoons: the BBC found its first home-grown marionette star in the form of Muffin the Mule. Presenter and pianist Annette Mills, older sister of actor John Mills, had the brilliant idea that the lid of her piano would make a perfect miniature stage for marionette puppetry. She chose an existing mule puppet from the stock of the Hogarth Puppet Theatre and, along with puppeteer and scriptwriter Ann Hogarth, presented an increasing array of puppets and songs. Some of Mills and Hogarth’s secondary characters, such as Prudence Kitten, proved so popular that they were given series of their own.

 

 

Muffin the Mule was performed live from 1946 until 1952, at which point production was changed to film, which allowed the 15-minute episodes, directed by Jan Bussell, to be repeated regularly. It cannot be understated how popular Muffin the Mule was in 1950s Britain, with a large range of merchandise, a Muffin Club, and a regular strip in TV Comic. Production on the series ended in 1954, with Annette Mills suffering from a brain tumour. Tragically, Mills died on 10 January 1955 after undergoing brain surgery, only eight days after her final TV appearance, a live New Year’s special which also featured another of the BBC’s puppet stars, the naughty bear glove puppet Sooty and his straight-man/puppeteer Harry Corbett. Muffin the Mule continued to make appearances after Mills’ death, notably on We Are Your Servants, a gala programme shown in June 1956 to celebrate ten years of post-war television broadcasting in which Muffin once again interacted with Harry Corbett and Sooty.

Muffin the Mule made his last BBC appearances in 1957, latterly presented by Jan Bussell. The character returned in 1961 for a run of screenings on Sunday afternoons from 19 February, broadcast only in the Anglia Television region, the ITV franchise covering the East of England. It is unknown whether these were newly-produced for Anglia or were screenings of the BBC-produced episodes.

Watching with Mother

The ending of Muffin the Mule was far from the end of the medium of puppetry on the BBC, as during the run of Muffin the Corporation had developed a group of much-loved puppet series. These series were repeated to generations of viewers, their upper middle class atmosphere developing a uniquely English charm which only grew as the shows became seen as more and more old-fashioned. Andy Pandy made his television debut on 11 July 1950, with Flower Pot Men following on 18 December. While these two series may seem dated now, they did represent a development of the television puppet series on British television compared to what had come before. Both series were aimed at pre-school children, but unlike Muffin and Sooty there was no on-screen human presenter. Instead the two programmes used a narrator, whose soothing but firm feminine tones carried the unmistakable atmosphere of the nursery governess.

This meant that the entire story was told through puppets, though in the case of Andy the off-screen narrator did most of the actual storytelling. The same narrator, Maria Bird, along with Gladys Whitred and Julia Williams, even sang during each episode with an unmistakably trilling, refined English accent. Flower Pot Men took the format slightly further, giving the puppets their own voices, and in the case of Bill and Ben, their own special language. This proved a touch of genius, giving the characters an easily-copied set of sounds that any child could imitate.

Andy Pandy and Flower Pot Men (the actual on-screen title of the series known to generations as Bill and Ben, thanks to the show’s irresistibly catchy theme song) were initially shown as part of a strand of BBC afternoon programming called For the Children. This was replaced on 21 April 1953 with much more famous title Watch with Mother, an extension of the highly successful BBC Light Programme radio strand Listen with Mother, which had begun on 16 January 1950.

The cosy television monopoly enjoyed by the BBC was about to be challenged however, that challenge coming from a most unexpected source: one of the Corporation’s own most senior executives.

Norman Collins – Television Pioneer

Norman Collins

Norman Collins

Five years hence The Adventures of Noddy would begin filming at Highbury Studios in North London, a facility owned by ATV board member Norman Collins. This reveals a fascinating story which reaches back to the formation of ATV, and even further back, to the birth of commercial television in Britain. Without Norman Collins, Lew Grade might not have found a way to enter the television business, and indeed there might not even have been an ITV network.

In 1950 most people within the BBC were perfectly happy with the Corporation’s monopoly in British television broadcasting, but opposition came from a surprising source – the aforementioned Norman Collins, who happened to be the head of BBC television. Collins was a hugely influential figure within British broadcasting whose influence is still felt to this day. In 1946 he was appointed as Controller of the BBC Light Programme, the Corporation’s national radio network that produced largely entertainment-based programming. This was a new network that replaced the wartime BBC Forces Programme which, under Collins’ control, became a powerhouse of popular broadcasting. Among the programmes he personally created were the thriller serial Dick Barton – Special Agent, which became a national craze, fondly remembered to this day, and Women’s Hour, which transferred to BBC Radio 4 and remains on the air today.

So successful was Collins as Controller of the Light Programme that in 1947 he became head of BBC Television, just getting back on its feet after the interruption of the Second World War. Although audiences for BBC Television were growing, Collins was frustrated in his new role. It became clear to him that television would always take second place to radio under the current system, and the output of BBCtv would remain limited in scope as a result. The only way this would ever change, Collins reasoned, would be if competition was introduced. Thus, in October 1950, resigned from the BBC – quite a shocking move in an organisation where executives tended to stay for their entire career – and set about campaigning for the introduction of a rival television service which would be funded by advertising.

To this end, Collins set up High Definition Films Ltd., based at Highbury Studios in North London. This had originally been a musical conservatoire built in 1896 which was subsequently converted into a sound recording studio before, in 1933, becoming a film studio. Eventually the Rank Organisation bought Highbury Studios, using the building both as a film studio and as the home to its famous ‘Charm School’, where young men and women thought to have potential were taught how to speak and comport themselves in the ‘correct’ manner. At the end of the 1940s Rank found itself in a dire financial situation, closing several of its famous studio names (including Gainsborough, which put the studio’s young Sound Editor Gerry Anderson out of work and into the freelance market) and concentrating production at Pinewood. As a result, they sold the increasingly dilapidated Highbury Studios to Norman Collins.

 

A camera points through a car windscreen

Reg Dixon being recorded by High Definition Films Ltd in c1955

 

Despite the fact that there was no television production sector in Britain outside the BBC, Collins had big plans. His campaigning activities included the production of mock advertisements to show to MPs, many of whom remained convinced that the introduction of commercial television would be ruinous not only to standards of broadcasting, but also add to what they saw as the unwelcome Americanisation of British culture and life. As well as demonstration films for the very concept of advertising, Collins and his technical team produced films explaining the revolutionary idea which gave the company its name – making films using a high definition system many decades before this became standard practice in the television industry.

The system used three special cameras made by Pye, with a fourth as spare, as they were prone to breaking down, capable of producing images with up to 1000 lines, in an era when the standard in British television was a mere 405 lines, and would be until the launch of BBC-2 in 1964. The images from the three cameras were fed to a central mixing desk, where the director chose the shot he wanted, and from there to a large flat screen television monitor – another major technical innovation. A 35mm camera was locked off in front of the monitor recording the images. This final part of the process was necessary as video tape recording did not yet exist in a useable form. Until the development of the Collins High Definition Process, television has either to be made live, or shot like a movie, an expensive and time-consuming process. Collins claimed that with careful planning and rehearsal, his studio could shoot a complete dramatic film plus a simple quarter-hour musical in a single day’s shooting. It also allowed for individual sequences to be shot more quickly than with traditional methods, rather than shooting the entire production in one go.

The Collins system was up and running even before British commercial television finally began its first broadcasts on 22 September 1955, with several High Definition Films productions screening on American television and one, a production of Chekov’s The Baby, on BBCtv.

Finally the pressure of Norman Collins and others began to have an effect and parliamentary discussions on the introduction of commercial television resulted in the Television Act 1954, which gained Royal assent on 30 July 1954. Collins and his backers formed the Associated Broadcasting Development Company in order to bid for one of the franchises, and if successful the word ‘Development’ would be dropped from the name, leaving the nascent broadcaster with the catchy name ABC. Collins was such a major figure in the push to introduce commercial broadcasting to the United Kingdom that ABDC was indeed awarded one of the new franchises, but at this point things began to get complicated.

 

Five men pose around a desk covered in paperwork

Harry Alan Towers, Norman Collins, Richard L. Meyer, Val Parnell and Lew Grade of ATV.

 

Enter Lew Grade

Kemsley WinnickStrange though it may seem with the benefit of hindsight, the whole concept of ITV was regarded as a very risky financial proposition by many, and there was active parliamentary opposition to commercial television right up until the channel went on air. Much of this came from the Labour party under the leadership of Clement Attlee, who had lost the 1951 general election to the Conservative Party under its leader Winston Churchill.

One of the main problems Labour had with the new network was that much of the financial backing for the franchise holders came from prominent Conservative supporters: Associated-Rediffusion, covering London from Monday to Friday took the first half of its name from Associated Newspapers, publisher of the right-wing Daily Mail. The Kemsley-Winnick group, which won the contract for the midlands and north of England at weekends, was backed by Lord Kemsley, who had been owner of the conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph and The Times newspapers. One of Norman Collins major backers was Sir Robert Renwick, who was a powerful figure within the Conservative Party. The only company to escape this criticism was Granada Television, which won the contract to broadcast to the north of England on weekdays and was formed by Sidney Bernstein, a Labour Party member.

As events transpired, ITV’s major appeal was to a solidly working class audience who would have found the feared broadcasting of Conservative Party propaganda unacceptable. Labour Party opposition to commercial television vanished when the channel began broadcasting when it became clear that any threat to close ITV down would be electoral suicide. It also helped matters when Cecil Harmsworth King, Chief Executive of the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror, bought a 26% stake in ATV during 1956.

Daily Mirror, 24 September 1956, page 2

The ‘Daily Mirror’ for 24 September 1956 reveals they have invested in ATV.

Norman Collins’ ABDC was awarded the franchise to broadcast to broadcast in the Midlands from Monday to Friday, and to London at weekends. The regulator, the Independent Television Authority, was unhappy with the company’s funding arrangements, leaving ABDC with a license to broadcast, but without the funds to mount a service. With one of the other franchise holders, the Kemsley-Winnick consortium, having collapsed almost as soon as it was awarded its contract due to Lord Kemsley developing cold feet at the last minute, a solution had to be found.

Lew Grade had been very interested in applying for a commercial television franchise, but had been informed that if did so then he would not be successful. Along with his youngest brother Leslie Grade, Lew was probably the most powerful talent agent in Britain, while his other brother Bernard Delfont was a prominent theatrical impresario as well as being an agent. The authorities in charge of the bidding process were worried that letting Lew Grade own a commercial television franchise would give the Grades too much power over the British entertainment business. Instead, Grade was encouraged to produce programming for the new network, thus he formed the company ITPC (later renamed ITC) to this end.

Now, however, the situation had changed considerably and, with the entire commercial television franchise process in danger of total collapse, Lew Grade was approached to bring his financial backing to Norman Collins’ ABDC. Grade, of course, was more than happy to accept, and soon became the dominant figure within the company. Along with Associated-Rediffusion, the Associated Broadcasting Company was one of the two initial companies of the fledgling ITV network. A further complication was added when the franchise which had been awarded to the now-defunct Kelmsley-Winnick was awarded to the Associated British Picture Corporation. Since they already operated the ABC national chain of cinemas, they argued that they had prior claim to the name and, after a court case, the Associated Broadcasting Company changed its name to Associated TeleVision – the famous name of ATV was born.

 

 

Highbury Studios quickly became the main production base for ATV, the far-sighted Norman Collins having developed one of the very few working television studios on Britain outside the BBC. Not everything shot at Highbury was in the High Definition process, the studio being used for a wide range of productions, especially ATV’s run of thriller serials, which were a regular part of early ITV s schedules. Two of these proved so popular that they were later turned into feature films: The Trollenberg Terror, broadcast from December 1956 to January 1957, and The Man Who Finally Died, which ran during September and October of 1959.

The High Definition Films process can in many ways be seen as a stop-gap until a viable video recording process became available. Experiments into the technology began as early as 1951, and the BBC put a great deal of time and money into a system known as VERA – Vision Electronic Recording Apparatus – which ultimately proved impractical. Ampex video recording machines became commercially available in the USA from 1956, with the ITV channel Associated-Rediffusion buying the first machines in Europe. These arrived in May 1958, and were put to use very soon afterwards.

 

 

Highbury, then, became the obvious place to shoot The Adventures of Noddy when Norman Collins was approached about the project by A D Peters. Peters happened to be Collins’ literary agent, and owned the television rights to some of Enid Blyton’s work. An independent production company, Dudley Productions, was formed to make a series of 15-minute Noddy programmes. A young Collins employee, Rex Firkin, was given the job of production manager on the instructions that if the films could be made for less than £400 [£12,000 today, allowing for inflation -Ed] each then Peters would make a profit. Quentin Lawrence, an ATV staff director, was assigned to direct the films. Lawrence saw himself as a serious dramatic director with a great future ahead of him, and the making of a series of marionette films was therefore very much beneath him. Lawrence set about a self-imposed task of making absolutely the best puppet films ever seen on television, which would be so expensive that he would quickly be fired from the project. When people in the industry would see the Noddy films he had directed, Lawrence would have escaped his unwanted assignment with his professional reputation intact.

Lawrence proved absolutely right in his calculations: as soon as A D Peters saw the bills coming in for the first episodes of Noddy he immediately fired his errant director and told Rex Firkin to direct the rest himself. Lawrence went on to a very long career directing for both television and films which only ended with his death at the age of 58 in 1979. A delighted Rex Firkin found that he had achieved his major professional ambition without really trying: the difficult task of being accepted into the broadcasting trade union ACTT as a television director. He made a great success of streamlining the Noddy production and directed the entirety of the rest of the series – as the physical area required to make the series was so small, filming took place whenever studio space was available between the requirements of live action productions.

Firkin also had a long and distinguished career in television production, directing on occasion but mainly operating as a producer on highly successful series such as The Power Game, Budgie and Upstairs, Downstairs.

Harlington-Straker studios

Highbury Studios, being basically a dilapidated Victorian structure repurposed several times over, was no solution to ATV’s extensive production needs. To this end the company bought National Studios in Borehamwood, a purpose-built film studio which had originally been built in 1914. Latterly it had been owned by the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr, himself a pioneer of British television, who used the studio to make films for the American market at a far lower cost than would have possible in Hollywood. His success in this enterprise did not go unnoticed by Lew Grade, who harboured ambitions to repeat the same feat via his ITC production company. Initially the site was used for ITC’s filmed television productions, but by 1960 it was decided to expand the site considerably and have ATV Elstree as the main production centre for the company’s television output. Among the new facilities built at this point was a new administrative building, Neptune House, better known as Harlington-Straker studios in UFO.

Noddy, Twizzle and a New World of Television

By the time The Adventures of Noddy was first screened on the new commercial television service on the first weekend of its broadcasting schedule, Sunday 25 September 1955, the BBC had introduced two new puppet series to complete what is generally thought of as the classic Watch With Mother line-up (Picture Book, a live action series encouraging children to make things, having begun in February 1955). Rag, Tag and Bobtail presented the woodland adventures of a squirrel, a hedgehog and a mouse, while The Woodentops showed a complete family, all of whom were designed to look like wooden dolls. Both shows followed the example of Flower Pot Men in having a narrator plus voice artists for the puppet characters. All four Watch with Mother series display the same basic fault when compared with both Noddy and Twizzle: the weight of the narrative rests entirely on the soundtrack. The simple stories in these series could just have easily have been told via the radio – charming though the visuals are, the viewer could close their eyes and still know exactly what was happening.

Compared to the BBC’s puppet series it’s notable how closer in tone and technique to miniature dramas for children both Noddy and Twizzle are. The visuals take much more of a share of the storytelling duties; while one could never describe either series as utilizing fast editing techniques, much more of the visual grammar of filmmaking is in evidence. Close-ups were difficult, as the cameras used were unable to focus on the short distances required, but at least there are fade-outs and cutaways and the occasional change of camera angle. Even the two new Watch with Mother series seem rather crude and simple in comparison: The Woodentops uses very long takes and almost no camera movement, while each of the 26 glove puppet adventures of Rag, Tag and Bobtail were shot in a single take.

 

 

Twizzle takes things even further, reflecting the fact that the Anderson-Provis team, while young, were experienced film industry professionals. While they might have struggled with the concept of producing a puppet series for children, they still brought a movie sensibility to even their earliest efforts. The surviving episode of The Adventures of Twizzle, ‘Twizzle and Footso’, starts with the camera dollying in and panning towards a toyshop frontage, part of an impressive street setting. The scene then dissolves to a shot of the inside of the toyshop, where the camera continues moving towards Twizzle and the other toys.

This relatively simple shot is by far the most visually impressive sequence in any of the series discussed here – it is clear that, right from the beginning, AP Films were throwing down the gauntlet and showing the television industry that they were capable of far more than this simple marionette series. The episode continues in this vein, with far more variation in camera angles and cutting within scenes than is evident in the surviving episode of The Adventures of Noddy, which itself is somewhat more filmic on scope than the Watch with Mother shows.

While the AP Films team are able to bring a visual flourish to The Adventures of Twizzle unlike anything scene in a puppet series on British television, the other factor that sets the series apart is the writing of Roberta Leigh. Her contribution to the success of The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy the Battery Boy is often ignored, but is worthy of note, for the world that Roberta Leigh brought to children’s television was often startlingly different to that of Watch with Mother.

 

Courtesy of Gerry Anderson

 

Andy Pandy was set in the world of the nursery, a cosy and safe realm into which the adult world never intruded, while Bill and Ben had their own world by the garden shed, only springing to life when the gardener was away having his lunch. The Woodentops were an idealised version of the post-war middle class nuclear family presented for children, whose idyllic existence on their farm even included a pair of domestic servants; Mrs Scrubbit, who ‘helps’ Mrs Woodentop with the housework, and Sam Scrubbit, who helps Mr Woodentop with the farm animals. This was as near as the working-class world came to the world of Watch with Mother, and at the time these series were originally made, between 1950 and 1955, could be seen to represent the majority audience of the BBC’s television service.

By the time The Adventures of Twizzle went into production in 1957 the television audience had changed considerably. Televisions themselves had become more reliable and their screens a great deal larger. Instead of representing a huge financial investment, their tiny screens helping make television a mere novelty for those with the money to spend, sets were now available via hire purchase agreements or even to rent. This meant that the television now dominated the living room, displacing the old family radiogram, and was affordable to ordinary working families.

David Sarnoff, head of the RCA Corporation and founder of its offshoot NBC, is attributed as saying that “Commercial television, from its inception, was created to deliver audiences to advertisers”, a phrase which remains an axiom in both the television and advertising industries. With advertisers on the newly-launched ITV (which began broadcasting on 22 September 1955 to London and the south east of England) selling ordinary household products such as toothpaste, washing powder and chocolate, as opposed to luxury goods that might have appealed to the traditional BBC Television audience, the new channels required programming that appealed to the widest popular audience.

 

 

Much of ITV’s earliest programming was designed to appear as much like what had gone before as possible, an imperative designed to head-off remaining political opposition to the whole idea of commercial television in Britain. Nonetheless, the need for the new channels to attract advertisers in order to remain solvent meant that the tone of ITV’s offerings soon became quite distinct from what would have been allowed on the BBC. Thus The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy the Battery Boy represent a much tougher and more realistic worldview than anything seen in Watch with Mother: we see that magic toys exist in both settings, but in The Adventures of Twizzle we actually see the shop in which they are bought from and even learn how much Twizzle would cost to purchase – in Torchy the Battery Boy, we even see the process of Torchy’s production. Most importantly of all, we see naughty children, a horrific prospect for any toys unfortunate enough to be owned by one, as Twizzle is warned by one of his fellow toys when a horrible little girl tries to buy him:

“It’s better to run away on your own than to belong to a naughty child. She’ll pull your arms and legs off in no time at all.”

This theme returns as one of the central subjects of Torchy the Battery Boy, in which there is an entire star, Topsy Turvy Land, to which abused toys go when they can stand their treatment at the hands of naughty children no more. One toy, the rag doll Flopsy, has been so abused by her former owner, a child known only as Bossy Boots, that she has lost most of her stuffing. This causes her to fall down frequently and become slow-witted, often forgetting words – in other words the abuse she has suffered has made Flopsy brain damaged. In any other children’s series of this era one might be accused, with some justification, of grasping at straws to find parallels such as these, but in Roberta Leigh’s writing they are placed front and centre in the narratives. This is partly a product of Leigh’s writing methods and extreme productivity: she wrote the 52 episodes of Torchy the Battery Boy in a mere 26 days. One could describe this as resulting in a stream of consciousness approach, in which whatever concerns were uppermost in Roberta Leigh’s mind at the time made it into her scripts.

Roberta Leigh’s contribution to the future success of AP Films tends to be pushed into the background. There can be no denying, however, that the combination of the professional filmmaking skills of Gerry Anderson, Arthur Provis and their production team, allied with Leigh’s unique method of storytelling for children, provided the springboard for the Supermarionation triumphs which were to come.

 

APF logo

Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Friday 12 August 2022