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Wombles Pick Up A New Series: Interview With Co-Producer Genevieve Dexter

// Interviews, News

Underground, overground, wombling free, the Wombles are returning to TV. This week, it has been announced that the The Wombles will be roaming back onto our screens in a brand spanking new series on Channel 5’s Milkshake in 2015.

The new incarnation of loveable London litter-pickers, will appear in CGI form for the first time.
Musician Mike Batt, who now owns the rights to the eco-friendly furry family through his Dramatico label and who also wrote the music for the original BBC series said: “It will look more like stop motion but with great fur. We believe that there are audiences of new children who missed The Wombles the first time around and will be thrilled to see the brilliant high quality animation and new musical productions.”

Channel 5 has struck a deal for two new series of the popular show, consisting of 26 episodes, each one 11 minutes in total. “This show was so loved by generations of children and the time is right for it to gain a whole new following,” said Jessica Symons, head of children’s programmes at Channel 5. “The stories and characters are as compelling as ever and we’re excited to welcome The Wombles to Milkshake”.

The Wombles began life in a series of books by children’s author Elisabeth Beresford, which were inspired by her young daughter mispronouncing “Wimbledon” as “Wombledon”.

womble1.jpg

The characters made their TV debut on an episode of Jackanory in 1968 before landing their own stop-motion series for the BBC from 1973-1975 directed and animated by veteran children’s animator Ivor Wood. During the seventies The Wombles also made a successful transition into the British pop charts, scoring eight top 40 singles and becoming the top-selling singles group of 1975.

They returned briefly in 1995 for new episodes produced for ITV, as well as appearing in live form as a novelty addition to the bill at Glastonbury in 2011.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Genevieve Dexter, whose company Serious Lunch is co-producing the new series and ask her how plans to bring back The Wombles came about…

How long have you been planning to bring to Wombles back to our screens?

We have been working on this since 2011, the main task being assembling all the rights and control into one place – no mean feat I can tell you!

Will the characters be as we remember them or are there plans to modernise their world?

The characters will be the same 7 with the addition of Alderney who features in the original books but was not included in Ivor Wood’s series.

Classic kids show remakes have been attempted before and failed. Why do you think the tale of the Wombles will still resonate with today’s young audiences?

Surprisingly many kids already know and love the Wombles. My neighbour’s kid was singing the song the other day – unprompted I might add! I think their parents show them on YouTube, plus of course the band reformed and played Glasto in 2011 and had the biggest crowd of the day!

The new series will be created in CGI rather than the tradition stop frame. What made you choose to do this and what do you hope this new medium will bring to the project?

If you look at the mobility of stop frame it is very limited in terms of facial expression and movement unless the features are very exaggerated. The Wombles really only have eyes and noses and so we need the muscles of the face to move a bit, otherwise they can only express themselves in a very muted way. We also want to have great fur that moves with the body rather than being wooly and static. Also the episodes will be twice as long as the originals and have dialogue, so for all of these reasons we think this is the right way to go.

wombles2.jpg

How many animators will be working on this project and what software will you be using?

We will be using Maya, although in the animation test we did we also used after fx for backgrounds, but I think we will finally go full CGI – the details of the team size will follow – we have to raise the money first!

Will you be keeping Mike Batt’s original theme tune or will it be having a makeover?

Keeping the same of course!

The original series was famously voiced by Bernard Cribbins, will he be involved with this project?

We would love him to be Great Uncle Bulgaria when the time comes.

How many episodes will you be making and when can we expect to see them back on our screens?

52 episodes x 11 minutes long for Spring / Summer 2015

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  • Frederick W Harrison

    The new CGI Wombles are lacking the fine detail of their eyes – specifically the colour of the iris. I don’t know whether this was done to look more like the costumes worn by the “band” but its a detail that ought to be changed to the original look – especially since there will be an attempt to show emotions instead of the static facial expression. At least the eyes bulging-out-of-the-head look of the 1997 series has been abandoned. Alderney may not have shown up in the original TV series but the Wombles Annuals that used the Filmfair models for the cover photos (specifically 1979 and 1980) show models for her, Shansi, Miss Adelaide, Cousin Botany, Cousin Yellowstone, and MacWomble. Were these models made for a third series of episodes that was later cancelled, possibly because of the departure of Ivor Wood who would go on to make “Postman Pat”? One of the two Womble specials added some new characters from around the world – Obidos being one of them, along with Cousin Winnie (Winnipeg) from the cold north (Canada) who flew to Wimbledon to make a surprise visit to celebrate Great Uncle Bulgaria’s birthday.

    What most of the naysayers regarding CGI fail to realize is the amount of time needed to do stop motion animation with models, in addition to the time needed for the preparation of sets and model design, which, in the case of the original Womble series, took a year prior to shooting the first episode. Falling between traditional hand drawn cell animation and stop motion animation, CGI is able to combine elements of both. The difference (as one post put it) is that watching stop motion animation is like watching a toy (real model) come to life, whereas traditional and CGI animation is watching a drawing come to life.

    I’m glad to hear that Bernard Cribbins will be involved, provided he’s still with us when the time comes to record the dialogue. His involvement has been cited as a sine qua non to watching the new series for many fans. His absence was one of the most heard complaints of the 1997 Cinar series and his involvement (or not) is already trending as the most common (…sorry…) comment submitted to the various news articles regarding the new series. I think the new series needs him for more than his voice, however. He brings with him a lifetime of storytelling for TV and audiobooks; he knows how to tell a story so that people – especially children – will listen. In an age of shortening attention spans, learning how to listen to a lengthy spoken narrative with visuals, as opposed to a soundbite, becomes even more vital. He can advise the writers as regards the personality of the individual characters because he not only voiced them, but was tutored by Elisabeth Beresford as to how to portray them, since most of them were based on members of her family.

    Further to this, he can make suggestions as regards vocabulary and story line, which will prevent the oversimplification that robs the charm of the original books and TV series. While the new series is being made for a preschool audience specialty channel, there is no need to “dumb it down” to the point of alienating older viewers. (Montessori schools are noted for using the proper names for things instead of using “baby language” e.g. horse vs. horsey, duck vs. ducky, toilet instead of potty. It allows children to converse with adults using the vocabulary that they will use as they mature instead of one that traps them in a specific age group and stage of verbal development.) The original series included adults as the intended audience, as it was known that the show would precede the supper hour news, and occasionally made reference to that fact. That scheduling would not be possible today and, as Filmfair owner Graham Clutterbuck said in an interview shortly before he died, a childrens’ program would now be automatically relegated to a specialty channel for children, which is indeed the case with the new series.

    Part of the charm of the original series was Cribbins improvising dialogue (asides, muttering to themselves, speaking their thoughts, singing snatches of song) to add depth to each character and fill up the gaps of silence between the original scripted dialogue.

    I don’t know if the episodes will feature some of the wonderful music that Mike Batt wrote but inventing a back story to showcase specific songs (as was done in the Beatles A Hard Days Night movie and especially the Monkees TV series) would be a great basis for writing a script for an episode.

  • lenscareFX

    So the wombles will go down the same route as many other traditional animated characters and might lose their originality and cuteness during the process.
    Look at Fireman Sam, which now is a mere shadow of the previous series. Poorly textured and lit characters.
    The people working on the CG Thomas the Tank engine seem to have got it right though. Well textured and lit, with a lot of attention to detail.
    This kind of quality work costs time and money.
    I am looking forward to the new series and my children too.

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