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One of the wombles; Bungo, in UK television series The Wombles
|Illustrator||Margaret Gordon (initial book illustrations)|
|Published||1968 - 1976|
|Media type||Print, audiobook|
|No. of books||6|
The Wombles are fictional pointy-nosed, furry creatures created by author Elisabeth Beresford, originally appearing in a series of children's novels from 1968. They live in burrows, where they aim to help the environment by collecting and recycling rubbish in creative ways. Although Wombles supposedly live in every country in the world, Beresford's stories are concerned with the lives of the inhabitants of the burrow on Wimbledon Common in London, England.
The characters gained a higher national profile in the UK in the mid-1970s as a result of a BBC commissioned children's television show which used stop motion animation. A number of spin-off novelty songs also became hits in the British music charts. The Wombles pop group was the idea of British singer and composer Mike Batt.
Elisabeth Beresford took her young children for a Boxing Day walk on Wimbledon Common, where her daughter Kate mispronounced it as "Wombledon Common", sparking the idea of the Wombles in her mother's mind. On getting home, Beresford wrote down the idea and started developing the characters and storylines. She developed most of her Womble characters around members of her family, and named them after places the family had associations with.
Wombles are essentially burrowing animals. They have retractable claws (like cats), but as they mostly live in long-established burrows, they rarely use these even for digging. Their size and physical appearance has changed somewhat over the years: in the original editions of the books, Wombles are pictured as bear-like and between 3 and 5 feet (about 1-1.5 metres) in height, making them only slightly smaller than adult humans. This changed with the TV series where they were portrayed as being about knee-high to humans, with pointy snouts like those of raccoons. In the book and movie Wombling Free they are described as "short, fat, and furry", roughly between three or four feet (about 1 metre) in height.
Wombles are herbivores and are very fond of mushrooms. They eat a variety of plants, fungi, and tree products that human beings cannot (or will not) eat, so daisy buns, acorn juice, fir-cone soufflé, elm bark casserole and grassbread sandwiches are part of the Womble menu - augmented by any food left behind on the Common by human beings. All Wombles are strong swimmers and can even survive for long periods in ice-cold water. Several sub-species of Womble are revealed throughout the books: the Loch Ness Monster is actually part of a clan of water Wombles and the yeti of the Himalayas are giant snow-white Wombles. Wombles have a sixth sense which allows them to sense green spaces and wildlife; this is first mentioned in the Wandering Wombles but developed to a keen long range telepathic sense by Dalai Gartok Womble in The Wombles Go Round The World.
Wombles are long-lived. In The Wombles Great Uncle Bulgaria recalls being "a young Womble" at the time of Queen Victoria's coronation in 1837. In the feature-length special World Wide Womble Day Great Uncle Bulgaria's 300th birthday is celebrated.
Culture and society
Though it is stated that Wombles live all around the world, Beresford's collection of stories, as well as the television series and the music, focus on a group living in Wimbledon Common in London, England, with the sole exception of The Wombles Go Round The World.
Wombles care for and educate their young at a communal level. Like human children, immature Wombles are taught reading, writing and athletic skills, which they learn by playing a game called "Wombles and Ladders". (Some older Wombles play this game too, though most regard it as childish.) Below a certain (unspecified) age all Wombles are nameless; upon being deemed to be of working age, a Womble chooses his or her name by looking through Great Uncle Bulgaria's large atlas until they find a name that suits them. Some (Bungo for example) "merely shut their eyes tight and point and hope for the best." They then leave Miss Adelaide's "Womblegarten" and join in the communal work of the burrow, which is mostly clearing up and recycling human refuse.
Wombles are very careful to keep their existence secret from human beings - at least in the books and TV series - fearing that discovery of their existence will lead to the Great Womble Hunt. For the most part, adult Human Beings rarely take notice of them, or fail to distinguish them from humans. In the movie Wombling Free this is reversed as the Wombles seek to get humans to listen to their "make good use of bad rubbish" pleas.
Wombles generally have a low opinion of other animal species, though they are never unkind to them. They have a poor opinion of humans in general, though there are exceptions; royalty for example, especially the Queen. They also have a respect for human literature; the Wimbledon Wombles maintain a large library of books left by humans on the Common, and Great Uncle Bulgaria is fond of reading The Times.
- Great Uncle Bulgaria – the oldest and wisest of the Wimbledon Wombles and their leader. He is based on Beresford's father-in-law and named after the country. He terrifies the younger Wombles with his stern manner (and particularly his habit of glaring at them through two pairs of spectacles) but is actually very kind. He is over 300 years old by the final book.
- Tobermory – an engineer, based on Beresford's brother, a skilled inventor, and named after the capital of the Isle of Mull, in the Scottish Inner Hebrides islands. He has a gruff and surly manner but like Bulgaria (with whom he has been friends for many years) he has a very kindly heart.
- Orinoco – a shirker who loves sleep and food, styled on Beresford's teenage son and named after the river in South America. Though slothful by nature, Orinoco is capable of some surprising acts of moral and physical courage.
- Bungo – over-enthusiastic and bossy, named after the Bungo Province (now the modern day Ōita Prefecture) in Japan. He is Orinoco's best friend and based on Beresford's daughter.
- Tomsk – an athletic Womble with a rather low IQ, named after the city/federal subject Tomsk in Russia. He is extremely keen on golf, and plays on the London Scottish Golf Club course situated on the common. He is the largest of the Wombles.
- Wellington – scientifically inclined, but very insecure and absent-minded. Named after Beresford's nephew's school: Wellington School, Somerset.
- Madame Cholet – a prim and proper female Womble. The Womble cook, styled on Beresford's mother and named after the town of Cholet in France. She affects a French accent, though she is actually no more French than any other Wimbledon womble.
- Miss Adelaide – schoolmistress, named after the city of Adelaide in Australia.
- Alderney – Madame Cholet's assistant, named after Alderney in the Channel Islands where Beresford lived towards the end of her life. She appeared in the early books, but did not make it into the first TV series. Her character was revived in the second TV series, when many viewers wrongly assumed she was a new character.
- Cousin Cairngorm the MacWomble the Terrible – named after the Cairngorms, a mountain range in Scotland. He was introduced in the second book (The Wandering Wombles) as a Highland Womble clan chief. He appeared in the TV series when he visited the Wimbledon burrow.
- Shansi – often paired with Alderney, as Bungo was with Orinoco, named after the Shanxi province in China.
- Stepney – East Ender with dreadlocks, who got his name from the Stepney area in London's East End where he came from.
- Obidos – named after the town Óbidos, Pará in Brazil.
Some other characters were detailed in the books but never appeared in the television series.
- Cousin Yellowstone Boston - named after Yellowstone National Park in the north of the United States. Cousin Yellowstone originally appeared in the first book when he visited the Wimbledon Wombles, and was subsequently revealed to be one of the only Wombles noticed by a human, resulting in what became known as 'The Great Kidnapping of 1915', when Yellowstone boarded a boat from Britain after being chased by police, and travelled through most of the world, meeting other Womble tribes and nearly starving to death before finally arriving in America. He says that he always meant to return to Wimbledon, but ended up settling into his life in America more than he had imagined, later becoming the leader of the tribe of American Wombles. He is roughly the same age as Tobermory, and introduced the Wimbledon Wombles to American novelties such as a deep freeze. Though he still loves his original home, he considers 'the States a great country if you're a Womble'.
- Cousin Botany - named after the scientific study of plants. He does not make an appearance until the fifth book (The Wombles To The Rescue), and was a quiet and surly Womble who has been living alone in the Wimbledon burrow prior to the Wombles' return to it. He does not have an active role until Tomsk and Wellington attempt to draw out oil from the bottom of Queen's Mere, when it is discovered that he had been attempting to grow water-plants there as a sustainable food source for the burrow. He is furious with them for destroying his plants until an alternative is offered, and he spent the rest of the books tending to his water-plants in new specialised tanks in the back of the burrow.
- Great-Great-Great Uncle Hohenzollern - named after the county of Hohenzollern in southern Germany. He is the leader of the Black Forest Wombles, and is arguably the most famous Womble in the world, though he likes to keep himself and his Womble clan to themselves. He is also one of the oldest Wombles alive, referring to Great Uncle Bulgaria as 'Young Bulgaria'. His Wombles are noted to be some of the most skilled with their rubbish, as he has more beautiful furniture in his burrow than almost any other and his cook is said to rival even Madame Cholet.
- Great Aunt Thessaly (sometimes Great-Great Aunt Thessaly) - named after the province of Thessalia in Greece. The former leader of the Wombles prior to Great Uncle Bulgaria taking over and presumably deceased, she was noted to be 'very old and very wise'. Her name was occasionally spelt 'Thessally' in earlier editions of the first book.
In the first book, Bungo is the youngest and least experienced of the team, and the story is mostly viewed through his eyes. Later Wellington (who was not introduced until the second book) took over the role of "new boy". Alderney and Miss Adelaide appeared in the earlier books but were not included in the original 1970s TV series. Alderney was re-introduced in the later TV shows produced in the 1990s (the Channel Island of Alderney was actually Elisabeth Beresford's home at the time), along with Stepney (who appeared in none of the earlier versions).
There were five novels and a short story collection:
- The Wombles (1968)
- The Wandering Wombles (1970)
- The Wombles at Work (1973)
- The Invisible Womble and Other Stories (1973)
- The Wombles to the Rescue (1974)
- The Wombles Go Round the World (1976)
- The Wombles Movie (2019)
All of these were out of print for many years, but through 2010 and 2011 they were re-issued (along with the 1973 short-story collection The Invisible Womble) by Bloomsbury with all-new illustrations by Nick Price. The last two books are less well known than the original four, perhaps because they appeared after the successful television series began. In The Wandering Wombles, the setting moved from Wimbledon Common to Hyde Park in central London. However The Wombles to the Rescue saw them return to Wimbledon Common.
Four of the books were illustrated by Margaret Gordon. The Wombles at Work (1973) was illustrated by Barry Leith, who worked on set design for the original FilmFair series. The appearance of the Wombles in the books followed the design of the Ivor Wood TV puppets, with the exception of original editions of The Wombles (1968) and first printings of The Wandering Wombles which preceded the TV series and depicted the Wombles as teddy bear-like creatures. When the 1973 animated Wombles series was in pre-production, a decision was made to change the design of the characters so that they did not resemble teddy bears, as it was felt that there were too many children's shows with teddy bear characters. There is a reference in the first book to dark brown being the colour of their fur (with the exception of the oldest Wombles whose fur turns white) but this was changed to silvery grey, save for the neck, which is black. Some of the toys and book illustrations do not show the black fur on the neck.
There is an audiobook of The Wombles, narrated by Bernard Cribbins.
Beresford also wrote a collection of short stories entitled The Invisible Womble and Other Stories (1973), in which the original Wimbledon Common setting was restored. Although based on episodes from the TV series, these stories occasionally refer to events in the novels.
In addition to these books, many annuals, picture-books and children's early readers have been published over the years, some of which were also written by Beresford.
A stop motion animated series of five-minute episodes was made between 1973 and 1975. There were also two half-hour specials. Narration and all Womble voices for this series and the two half-hour specials were provided by Bernard Cribbins. Further animated episodes using new animation models and sets were made by Cinar/Filmfair in 1998-1999. These were ten minutes in length and had several Canadian actors provide the voices. Background music adapted from the Wombles' records along with new compositions were also featured.
Songwriter and producer Mike Batt wrote the series' theme tune, but negotiated the musical rights to the characters in place of the traditional composer's fee. In an effort to promote the Wombles' first single, he had his mother make him a Womble costume, which he wore for most of the working week. After the Wombles' first chart hit, he went on to perform and produce a number of successful novelty singles as The Wombles in the 1970s. They amassed eight Top 40 singles in the UK and reached No. 55 in the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. They were awarded the Music Week Award for Top Singles Band of 1974. Reissues of the Wombles' music in the late 1990s and early 2000s also charted, extending their number of UK chart hits to thirteen.
Stop motion animation is an expensive means of making a program, due to the amount of time required. Animation production houses, such as FilmFair, used to count on international sales of the series to cover the costs of production and, perhaps, make a small profit. Spin off merchandising was considered a welcome bonus to the success of the series. Rising labour and production costs have led to a situation where merchandising is now a required and expected consideration in creating a new program. The Wombles TV series had been commissioned because of the popularity of the stories on UK children's TV program Jackanory, with little thought given to merchandising. After the success of the Wombles, whose merchandising was conducted in a haphazard way, and, more significantly, the overwhelming success of merchandising for the Star Wars franchise, whose merchandise had a preconceived marketing plan, merchandising became the prime driver of and precursor to new productions. Whereas, prior to Star Wars, the story had come first and its popularity led to the commissioning of a TV series, the situation had now reversed itself and the design of the toy came first, with production and story subjugated to being a vehicle to drive the sales of merchandise. Lack of regulation in the USA with regard to advertising to children led to a glut of programming and accompanying ads whose sole purpose was to drive the sales of merchandise related to the program. Demand for Wombles merchandise in the UK was a side effect of the popularity of the TV program and books but there were restrictions on toy advertising in the UK that kept TV merchandising in check.
The Wombles were merchandised in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Stuffed toys, along with stationery, stickers, small figurines, bath soap, night lights, lamp shades, chocolate bars, gelatin pudding kits, posters, games, shirts, badges (buttons), cloth patches, and other items. The revival of the series in the late 1990s brought with it another wave of merchandise which included lunch boxes, umbrellas, flannels (face cloths), hot water bottle covers, slippers, a Steiff doll, and a set of postage stamps for Alderney, a Channel Island that served as the name for one of the Wombles and the home of Beresford until her death. More recently, the Wombles were part of a set of UK postage stamps honouring classic British children's TV programs.
In 2013, Mike Batt and Elisabeth Beresford's two children consolidated the merchandising copyrights to the Wombles in a new company, Wombles Copyright Holdings, in which Batt became the principal shareholder with creative control held by Beresford's heirs. This included the purchase of the Wombles TV series from DHX Media, who had acquired it with their purchase of Cookie Jar Entertainment, who had acquired it as part of the assets of Cinar following Cinar's production scandal, subsequent to Cinar's acquisition of FilmFair.
A feature-length live-action movie Wombling Free was released in 1977, starring The Wombles, David Tomlinson, Frances de la Tour and introducing Bonnie Langford. A soundtrack album was released in 1978. A region 2 DVD of the film was released by Network DVD in 2006, containing the film in its theatrical aspect ratio, the original theatrical trailer, and archive interviews with Bonnie Langford, David Tomlinson and writer/director Lionel Jeffries.
The Wombles starred in a number of British comics including Teddy Bear (1973), Jack and Jill (1973–81), a number of holiday specials, and as the interval act at the Eurovision Song Contest 1974.
The Wombles were exported to American audiences in the mid to late 1970s when they made occasional appearances on CBS' Captain Kangaroo. The series also ran on TV Ontario (UHF Channel 19) in the mid 1980s in the gaps between programs due to the non-commercial policy of the station.
In 2011 The Wombles performed live at Glastonbury.
Due to the Wombles' association with the area, some local sporting teams representing Wimbledon are sometimes affectionately dubbed "the Wombles". These teams include the Ladies side of Wimbledon RFC (whose mascot is Alderney), Wimbledon Volleyball Club and the Wombles Netball Club.
From 2000 to June 2003, Wimbledon F.C. used a Womble named "Wandle" as a club mascot after the local River Wandle. However, in light of the controversy over the moving of the club to Milton Keynes, the licence to use the character was not renewed. In 2006 the club's spiritual successor AFC Wimbledon agreed a licensing deal, and launched its own Womble mascot. After a naming competition in which the final name was chosen by Elisabeth Beresford herself, the club announced that the new Womble would be known as "Haydon," after Haydons Road, the nearest railway station to Wimbledon's original home ground, Plough Lane.
Beresford also gave permission for a team of Wombles to run the London Marathon every year raising money for Jesuit Missions UK.
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