For many hundreds of thousands of years, cats and dogs waged an unrelenting battle with each other to determine just who were the rightful owners to back gardens the world over. Then, suddenly, in 1985 a cat and dog were found to be living together in perfect harmony.
Shock waves were sent around the world and the BBC immediately tasked Mike Amatt with investigating this phenomena. Probably. Or he just came up with a canny idea about basing stories, music and animation around his beloved pets. Either way, a man, a dog and a cat came together to make Mop and Smiff.
Transmission: 04/04/1985 - 06/06/1985
First broadcast in April 1985, Mop and Smiff was a 13 episode series produced by BBC Manchester. Mike Amatt took control of the narration reins and real life couple Timothy West and Prunella Scales provided voice duties for Mop and Smiff respectively.
Mike Amatt already had a fairly successful career behind him as a session musician and he incorporated his songwriting into Mop and Smiff. The episodes were bookended with live action - usually Mike getting up to something with Mop around the village of Belmont - and in between this was an animated section featuring Mop and Smiff's dreams.
Although Mike Amatt was shown drawing the cartoons, the animation duties were actually taken on by Simon and Sara Bor. Only one series of Mop and Smiff was produced, but it was repeated several times over the next few years. A spin off series - Mike, Mop and The Moke - followed in July 1985 minus Smiff. This appeared to centre around Mike and Mop driving around in the 'Moke' and visiting various seaside towns.
It's a little unclear about the exact number of episodes transmitted and when. The original run starting in April 1985 was only ten episodes long - as per the Radio Times - but this does not include the snow episode which is available on YouTube.
The Radio Times article promoting the series also mentions the binmen from the snow episode, so this doesn't help to make things any clearer. It may be that three episodes were not shown in the original run, but we can't fathom out why.
In the repeat run of Mop and Smiff from 1986 there is an episode titled 'Leaves' which was not in the 1985 run, so perhaps these other three episodes were spread throughout repeat showings. Mike Amatt's website states that 13 episodes were produced in total, so a little more research is required before the matter can be resolved.
Mop and Smiff is one of those shows that managed to keep a constant grip upon the dark recesses of Curious British Telly's memory. The memories were vague, but there were feint traces of an animated show - from our preschool years - where a dog and cat would describe their dreams.
Under the impression, for many years, that the show was simply called 'Cat and Dog', nothing turned up whilst searching online. Then, whilst browsing a 1986 edition of the Radio Times, we found a listing for a childrens show called Mop and Smiff. Being curious chaps, we investigated this and found it was the show we remembered!
One complete episode of Mop and Smiff is currently on YouTube and gives a decent taster of the show. Rewatching the show brought back those quiet, gentle afternoons where the extent of the world was our house and the local playgroup.
Mop and Smiff is very much of its time with the innocent antics of Mop, Mike and Smiff all soundtracked by wonderful songs from Mike Amatt. The music is probably our favourite aspect of the show; Mike's avuncular charm transfers seamlessly into his music - all dreamy, 60s melodies with hints of The Beatles and The Kinks.
Curious about what exactly Mike, Mop and the Moke consisted of, we booked in to the BFI Archives to view the one copy they hold. The episode is entitled 'Promenade' and was first transmitted on 12/08/1985. The emphasis of this show is similar to Mop and Smiff in that it sees Mike and Mop meeting various people and seeing what they get up to.
In this particular episode they meet some donkeys at Scarborough Fair and some of the local children. There's no animation in this series, so Mop is rather relegated to just posing and barking every now and then; Mike is left centre stage. He's extremely enthusiastic throughout and gives it his all to keep the children entertained.
His songs, once again, are charming nuggets of 60s joy and our favourite aspect of the show. Our main criticism of this series is that the there's less priority given to the imagination. The dream sequences in Mop and Smiff were always something we could relate to as a child, but here we just see children playing games on the beach. It fails to hold the same attention as Mop and Smiff and is probably why it's not as well remembered.
We recently got in touch with Mike Amatt to chat about his background and the origins of Mop and Smiff.
CBT: Hello, Mike! It's always a pleasure to chat to someone connected with a show from our youth, so many thanks for agreeing to take part. I trust we find you in good spirits?
Mike: Yes! Thank you! I am in good health and good spirits!
Now, I believe you were a professional musician throughout the 1960/70s, so I'd be very interested in hearing a bit more about this portion of your life – feel free to namedrop!
After leaving school I went to study at Salford Art College. At the same time I was also playing guitar in a group called The Rogues (See www.manchesterbeat). In 68 we went professional and re-named ourselves “Sunshine”, so you can see that art and music were the most important part of my life. By the end of 69 I wanted to move on from Sunshine and I moved into the world of “cabaret” which was thriving in “theatre clubs” and working men’s clubs. I joined a group called “Shane Fenton and The Fentones, as lead guitarist. I spent a couple of years with Shane and then left, on the grounds that “Well he’s been famous once in the early 60s, he’s not going to be famous again.”. In 1974 Shane became “Alvin Stardust”, a big star in the glam-rock period. How wrong was I??? No big deal though… it was only “Alvin” who was famous, he didn’t take his musicians into the higher echelons of stardom. In 73 I began, under the stage-name of Wellington Boothe as a guitarist vocalist doing a cabaret show in clubs and theatres etc all over the country. I frequently worked in Southern Africa at the Holiday Inn group of hotels.
Mop and Smiff was based upon stories involving your cat and dog, but where did the idea of basing a show around them spring from? And how tough was the commissioning process?
I married in 75 and immediately after the honeymoon we bought Mop at a kennels in Lancashire, and the day after decided he needed a friend so we rescued Smiff from the cat shelter here in Bolton. Mop was so named because it is short and sweet and we knew he would grow into a shaggy mop coated adult. Smiff was named after my friend’s band who played at our wedding. They were called Smiffy after the Beano character. For the next few years I continued to work as a cabaret act and on one of my trips to Lesotho Holiday Inn I became bored and homesick, so I wrote a story about Mop and Smiff. At the time I believed that writing for kids was easy. People tell me it’s not… but I think it is!!! Like all dogs, Mop’s appetite ruled his very existence - this became a big part of the story. Also like all successful double acts they were opposites. (Laurel and Hardy – Morecambe and Wise – Holmes and Watson etc.). When I finished the story, handwritten, I thought to myself “I do art!!!! I should create visual models of them.”. When I had done that, I thought again that I should write songs about their antics. This was inspired by a cartoon that Harry Nillson wrote called “The Point”. I sent a tape and some pictures off to a company in Walthamstow called “The Picsa Music Group”. They were making cassettes for small children. They liked my stuff so I went to them and we made four cassettes. This gave me a finished product that I later sent to the head of children’s programmes at BBC Manchester, David Brown. I was invited to the BBC to discuss things and I expected to be in for about 20 minutes. I left after about an hour and a half, walking on air. Another trip to Southern Africa, and I came back to a letter inviting me to a script conference. Then things began to happen. When I realised we could have “names” doing the voices, I wanted Brian Glover to be Mop’s voice (He was in Kes, I think) and I wanted Polly James to be Smiff (She was in the Liver Birds). David Brown met Timothy West and Prunella Scales on a train to London and asked them if they would do the voices. They were wonderful in the studio and lovely people.
The songs within Mop and Smiff are one of the highlights of the show and really show off your skills as a songwriter and musician. I can detect a strong 60s influence – particularly The Beatles – in amongst the melodies, but wondered if there were any other influences present and why you chose this particular style for the show.
Lots of people have said the same thing as you have, about the songs and music. I’m happy that The Beatles influence comes out in my music. I suspect it’s mainly the harmonies I chose. I don’t hear it like that myself. If I re-wrote the music today I don’t know how it would turn out, there may be a bit of Pink Floyd in it…Who knows.
Providing the voices for Mop and Smiff were the real life couple, Timothy West and Prunella Scales. How was it working with a married couple? Did this bring a natural chemistry or just squabbles about who was driving home?
Tim and Pru! As I said, lovely people and very professional. I divorced in 1980, my wife didn’t want children and I did. C’est la vie. By the time I met Timothy West and Prunella Scales in 1984 I had met my present wife, Veronica. We had dinner with the Wests and Veronica mentioned to Pru that I happened to be crazy about British Wild Orchids. I photograph them and paint them etc. Some months later a book arrived in the post. It was called “The Orchid Trilogy” and was sent by Prunella. She didn’t have to do this but she did. Lovely woman.
Watching Mop and Smiff back, there appears to have been a lot of work put into producing each episode. There's a busy mixture of live action, animation, voicework and finally the songs. Just how hectic was it on the production side of things to meet deadlines? And how long did the episodes take to get polished and ready?
Looking back, there was no hectic schedule for me when we made the series. I had my multi-tracking equipment in my music room and could write a “kiddie song” at the drop of a hat. One day as we were filming we noticed that the local Bobby’s house had a garden full of gnomes so Sid Waddell the director suggested a song title “A Home for Gnomes”. We filmed the garden knowing that I would be writing and producing the song that very evening. Which I did. Don’t forget that I was inspired by the knowledge that I was on the brink of having my own national BBC1 TV show. I was also a lot younger.
Smiff was ever present through Mop and Smiff, but was not on board for Mike, Mop and the Moke. Was this decision to leave Smiff out brought about by the show's change in format to purely live action? Or was it simply down to Smiff's wage demands being too high for the BBC?
I wouldn’t let the BBC take Smiff out of the house or neighbourhood. Plus, I came up with the idea called “Mike and Mop – Island Hop”. I wanted to go to The Isle of Man, Isle of Dogs, Wight, Guernsey etc. With a motorbike and sidecar. Mop didn’t like the sidecar so we changed it to the Austin Champ. We called it a moke, not because of the mini- moke but because a moke is a Spanish word for a donkey or goat that goes almost anywhere I think.
There were several books produced under the Mop and Smiff banner, a spin off series in Mike, Mop and the Moke and finally several repeat airings of Mop and Smiff, so the BBC obviously had faith in the show. Sadly, there was nothing new after Mike, Mop and the Moke. Was this decision taken by yourself or did the BBC decide it was time for something new?
When the people at the top at the BBC move on… so do their underlings. Staying in favour at the Beeb was like climbing a greasy pole. Even before I had children of my own, I came to the conclusion that almost all kids shows are made by people with no children. It’s still the same. I put my three kids through Uni and they are all lovely people. I could create and present better formats etc. today but who wants to know an old bloke? Telly is a fickle industry.
You managed to maintain a busy profile on children's television for many years after Mop and Smiff finished, so we'd be grateful to hear a brief rundown of what you've been up to in the intervening years.
I had “Forget-me-not Farm” through the 90s. I also presented Playschool until it finished in 1990. I survive these days mainly by doing gigs as a musician. I backed Wayne Fontana a few times. Last year I joined Herman’s Hermits as lead guitarist but I left last March after touring Germany. I am about to re-invent Wellington Boothe and do gigs on cruise ships as a “multi-instrumentalist. That gets me out a bit and I see some sunshine, and the money is ok. My guitar playing has come on in leaps and bounds these last few years but arthritis is creeping into my fingers.
Finally, owners build very strong bonds with their pets, so I imagine that Mop and Smiff was a big part of your life. How do you feel looking back at the series now?
I loved both Mop and Smiff very much. They both lived to be 14. Mop had a massive stroke one night in March and I had to take him to the vet to be put to sleep. I’d always had an understanding with Mrs Radcliffe whose farm we filmed the kite sequence on, that Mop could be buried there, and he was. I was digging his grave as the sleet was coming at me sideways and tears and snot were dripping down my face. Smiff had died of kidney failure a couple of weeks earlier. She was buried in the family garden. On March 24 my first son was born and we already had an 18 month old daughter… so as one door closes… another opens and life goes on.
Thanks very much for your time, Mike. More information on Mike can be found at www.amatt.co.uk
1. The Hang Glider
Mop wishes a friend would ‘drop in’, and Smiff goes chasing butterflies.
2. The Circus
Mop sees the Big Top Travelling Show, and dreams of stardom.
3. The Seaside
Mop takes a boat trip, and Smiff wishes she had kittens.
4. The Balloon
Mop flies a kite, and Smiff takes an unexpected dip.
5. The Special Day
Mop watches a wedding, and Smiff dreams up a surprise.
6. The Camp
Mop plays hide and seek, and Smiff learns to be a guide.
7. The Carnival
Mop becomes a prince, and Smiff meets the Queen.
8. The Treasure
Mop turns detective, and leads Smiff on a false scent.
9. The Canal
Mop takes charge of Ned the Horse, and Smiff goes along for the ride.
10. The School
Mop catches the Busybus, and Smiff shows him how to sit still.
Mop takes a walk in the woods and Smiff has a sticky problem.
12. The Market
Mop looks to find a sledge, whilst Smiff searches for a cosy nap.
Radio Times 30/03/85 - 05/04/85
Two ordinary pets are going to become stars today – in real life, and as cartoon characters. Mop, a rather laid-back Old English Sheepdog and Smiff, a bright but quite ordinary car, belong to Mike Amatt, who’s a very talented singer and story-teller.
So the adventures of Mop and Smiff, as told and sung by Mike, will soon be famous. Part of the stories are on film, as Mike and Mop wander round the picturesque Lancashire village of Belmont – close to their hometown of Bolton – meeting the milkman, the bin-men, calling in at the school, strolling past the treacle factory. Smiff, of course, goes her own way as cats do.
But when Mop and Smiff get home, and have a snooze after their elevenses, Mike turns their dreams into a cartoon fantasy with the voices of the two animals provided by the actors – and husband and wife – Timothy West and Prunella Scales.
When I spotted Mop watching himself on screen at a preview, he did actually show a bit of interest. He got up, moved about, sniffed and went back to sleep. Says Mike: I think he was just trying to get comfortable. He really does seem totally indifferent to what’s happening!”.
Radio Times (27 July - 02 August 1985)