1981: Detail from the original opening titles of Willo The Wisp.
It wasn't in quite the same league as The Magic Roundabout, but in my humble opinion Willo The Wisp, a creation of one Nicholas Spargo and brought to us courtesy of the BBC in 1981, was the best piece of pre-Evening News whimsy since Florence and Dougal made their screen debuts in 1965! Here we see the Willo The Wisp characters displayed on the back cover of a book based on the series.
The show's star was the voice, or should that be voices, of the very excellent Kenneth Williams.
Willo The Wisp, a floaty, smoggy little thing, popped up at the start of each programme to narrate the latest tale from Doyley Wood. The origins of this character can be traced back to a ten minute British Gas tuition film called Super Natural Gas, in 1975.
Nicholas Spargo, a highly experienced script writer and animator, who had set up his own company - Nicholas Cartoon Films - with his wife Mary in 1954, thought that the British Gas character could be developed, but it was a long and arduous process. A new setting, new characters, financing, new animation and backgrounds - all had to be sorted.
But finally, in that quirky September of 1981, Willo debuted on our TV screens in the scenic setting of Doyley Wood. This is a real wood in Oxfordshire, England. Don't bother going there to seek out the Wisp and his friends though. They all keep well out of the way when the likes of us are around.
Sliding down a moonbeam with Willo The Wisp.
Willo the Wisp seemed to benefit from its lengthy gestation period, because what was launched upon us unsuspecting viewers in 1981 was rather brilliant, and earned huge ratings for a BBC teatime five minute show.
So, what was it all about?
We'll start with Willo himself. He was a bit of a gossip, giving us telly viewers a daily up-date on the doings of the local residents. But he seldom became involved in the happenings himself, and seldom interacted with the other characters.
A teatime treat! Willo the Wisp appears to give us all the latest gossip.
In the decade when Frankie went to Hollywood, Car Wash went to Catford. I was so intrigued, I wrote a short story on the subject.
Car Wash - the figurine!
The other somewhat odd characters who lived in Doyley Wood in the '80s TV series included Mavis Cruet, a fat, good natured, but largely ineffectual fairy; Mavis's great friend and confidante, the gloriously down-to-earth Arthur the caterpillar; The Beast - previously Prince Humbert the Handsome; Car Wash (sometimes written Carwash) - the bespectacled, posh and slightly supercilious cat - who went on holiday, staying with a very dear friend in CATford; and the dog-like Moog, very good natured but not the brightest of sparks ("DON'T THINK, MOOG, DON'T THINK!").
The adorable Moog, a loveable creature indeed. Well, he wasn't quite so loveable when he got a You-Know-What, but never mind.
Detail from the box cover of a 1980s Willo The Wisp jigsaw puzzle: the Astrognats blast off, watched by The Beast, Mavis Cruet, Willo, Evil Edna and Arthur the caterpillar. They boldly went where no gnat had gone before.
Dear old Arthur the caterpillar was such a good pal to Mave the fairy, but his dearest wish was to become a moth. Well, it takes all kinds to make a world. Sadly, when Arthur built a chrysalis, squatters moved in. He was quite proud of his appendages, and not pleased when they got singed off by a small but belligerent dragon.
Last, but by no means least on our list of 1981 Doyley Woodians is Evil Edna, a wicked witch who looked like a telly. Why? Ask me another! Edna performed her wicked spells by zapping people with her set-top aerial antennae. Mind you, she didn't have it easy. There was that dreadful time her feet went rusty at the seaside, and what about the time she went all the way to Cockfosters? I ask you!
I ate this programme with a big spoon! Glorious!
"Sucks boo to you!" She didn't mince her words didn't Edna.
Did Car Wash the cat go to a car wash when he wanted to clean himself up? Really, what an uncouth idea! No, he did not!
It's curtains! Willo The Wisp curtains, that is.
A page from 'Holidays' - one of the series of books which accompanied the series. Arthur the caterpillar is enthusiastic at the prospect of climbing a tree for his holiday - after all, his father always went on climbing holidays, and if it was good enough for Dad... Car Wash, heading for Catford, decides tree climbing sounds dull. I wonder if Car Wash was an admirer of the Catford Centre Cat? Mind you, he might have thought it vulgar... he was a bit of a Noël Coward type, our Car Wash.
Twit was one of the local birds. When Mavis tried to make his pin-up bird reality, disaster followed...
Evil Edna - busy being evil to Car Wash the clever cat, the adorable (but never clever) Moog, Mavis Cruet - the fat fairy - and Arthur, the down-to-earth caterpillar.
Kenneth Williams, who gave voices to all the Doyley Wood characters so brilliantly, was a complex man, very much a creature of moods. He wrote of the series in preparation in April 1980:
Must say, I admire Nick Spargo's industry and inventiveness! His ideas are charming.
When Mr Williams performed the dialogue for the final episode on Thursday, 5 March, 1981, he wrote:
Met Nick Spargo and the rest and we did the last 'Willo' script; it was an amusing one too, apropos Christmas and Mavis Cruet hanging up BOTH her stockings. Nick produced a bottle of champagne and we all had a celebration drink for the occasion of the 26th and final script.
On viewing an episode on 23 September 1981, Mr Williams lamented:
Watched 'Willo The Wisp' and one's heart sank 'cos one realised that it's 1) technically indifferent with recording levels wrong 2) it lacks drive and energy 3) there's nothing with which the young can identify 4) the jokes aren't good enough. Oh! One could go on and on.
But the show was a tremendous success, with an appeal to both young and old which also crossed class barriers. Mr Williams was surprised on 5 November 1982:
When I was walking down Bolsover St some men were digging in the road and they cried out 'Here's old Willo The Wisp!' as I came along and shouted 'Hallo Kenny!' I'd never have thought navvies would watch 'Willo'! It's extraordinary the audience television attracts.
Mr Williams also acquired at least one new fan through Willo The Wisp - me! I'd never liked the Carry On films, which had brought the man fame, but Willo The Wisp was so excellent and Mr Williams's character voices so wonderful that I joined his vast audience of admirers.
Kenneth Williams with presenter Sarah Greene and Evil Edna, Arthur the caterpillar and Mavis Cruet on 'Blue Peter', circa 1982.
Mavis Cruet - called "fat fairy person" by Evil Edna, Mave didn't like being called 'fat'. She preferred 'obese' because she didn't know what it meant. Mavis was too fat, er, sorry, I mean obese, to fly and her magic wasn't as powerful as Edna's, but she was very kind hearted and always meant well. Even if her magic didn't always turn out that way. Bless her. Mavis was a great romantic and wanted to be married, but sadly her Prince Charming never arrived.
The cover of a 1980s Willo The Wisp book - Evil Edna turned nasty with handsome Prince Humbert, and The Beast was born. Wugged Wocks? If only he could pronounce his r's! Here, he's about to become an ice lolly. Edna scared me a bit. Well, I was only sixteen at the time!
Evil Edna got her own storybook in 1984.