Friday 25 June 2021

Puddle Lane

Magic is, as we all know, an illusion. But it’s a distracting illusion and one that we all wish was real. That’s why it’s perfect for the world of fiction. Anything is possible when the shackles of reality and physics are discarded. Cauldrons can come to life, dragons can be treated to never ending bottles of lemonade and magicians can transport grass cuttings across the universe. It may sound a world away from the blockbuster adventures of a boy wizard, but life is just as enchanting down Puddle Lane.

Down at the bottom of Puddle Lane there is a grand, expansive mansion. And living inside there is a quite extraordinary character. The Magician (Neil Innes), clad in regulation flowing robes, is a master of magic and more than capable of conjuring up the impossible. Even a humble sneeze from the Magician is blessed with enough magic to summon up Toby Spelldragon. Together, with the help of the magical Cauldron and Aunt Flo (Kate Lee), the Magician and Toby are here to explore the world around them and develop reading skills.

The first series of Puddle Lane takes place purely within the Magician’s spell room, but later series expand this universe into the gazebo and the garden. These additional locations also bring with them additional characters such as Snodgrass the snake, Mr Hooter the owl, Barrel and Spencer the spider. Regardless of the location, the Magician and his friends always have their hands full. The Magician’s vests and socks are in need of a good wash, Toby dreams of flying through the air and Maple Mouse needs help with her levels of bravery.

Magic is at the forefront of Puddle Lane and it’s with magic that the Magician tackles his many problems. But it’s not as simple as simply waving a magic wand. The Magician has a specific spell casting process which must be followed. First, items relevant to the spell must be placed in Cauldron or Barrel. Secondly, the magic tune of “Pom! Pom! Pom Pom! Pom!” must be sung. Thirdly, the magic claps must echo out. And, finally, the magic rhyme of “Muddle Puddle! Puddle Muddle!” must be chanted to action the spell.

In amongst all this conjuring there’s still time for the magic of literacy. Each story contained within Puddle Lane either takes place down by a puddle in the spell room or the bird bath in the garden. All the Magician has to do is swirl his finger in the water and the illustrated stories begin. The majority of these stories look at the inhabitants of Puddle Lane, such as Old Mrgotobed and his leaky roof, but there’s also time for the adventures of the Iron Boy and the Sandalwood Girl in the land of Zorn.

Puddle Lane was inspired by the Ladybird Books reading scheme created and written by Sheila K. McCullagh. Yorkshire Television's adaptation of McCullagh's stories was spread across four series and ran in the ITV lunchtime slot between 1985 - 89. Just over a hundred episodes were produced with Rick Vanes adapting the stories and adding new layers and characters to the mix. The theme tune, which sounds very much like an instrumental of The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band's song Love is a Cylindrical Piano, was recorded by Neil Innes. Rick Vanes recalls how the series came into being:

"Lesley Rogers - a producer at Yorkshire - was contacted by Ladybird Books who had published the Puddle Lane books by Sheila McCullagh. There was interest in doing a television series and it was a good deal for Yorkshire given the existing publicity surrounding the books. Lesley had been the producer on Get Up and Go! which I had written for and, as I was her favoured writer, she asked me to take a look at the books. I then came up with my own format for the books. I took the Magician, who was one of McCullagh's characters, and paired him up with Toby Spelldragon, a puppet performed by Richard Robinson. We also needed another adult character, so this is where we developed and added Aunt Flo.

Sheila McCullagh didn't have a great amount of input in to the adaptation, but she did use to attend meetings. And she gave the format her blessing. Her stories were lifted exactly and put in the middle of the episodes. The only time she became more involved was when it had been running for a while and she did some more books. These lifted elements of the television series and she placed Toby into one of them. She had a new batch of stories coming along anyway and this was mostly why she used to attend meetings"

Kate Lee remembers her initial entry into the Puddle Lane family:

"I was invited to meet the production team (Mike Harris and co) through my agent, so it was a normal run of the mill television interview. And it was a lovely interview with lovely people, we laughed a lot. And, at the time, I was a happy new mum with young children - a nice characteristic for Aunt Flo. Originally, I was only down to perform as Aunt Flo; narrating the stories came later. After we had started rehearsals, they mentioned that they needed a story reader. I jumped in with “I could do that!” I'm not usually so confident at putting myself forward, but had a good track record of BBC radio drama and voice-overs. I had to audition for Sheila McCullagh; she was involved in every decision made – fortunately she liked my style. I went on to record all the Puddle Lane cassette tapes for Pickwick International"

Puddle Lane is the perfect example of a lunchtime children’s show from the 1980s. Songs, stories and puppets all combine with a charming ease to deliver 15 minutes of simple joy. And with Rick Vanes at the helm, coming off the back of five series of Get Up and Go! and Mooncat and Co, it’s executed perfectly. Not surprisingly, Puddle Lane is well remembered; the series even garnered a slot in Children’s ITV’s ‘Old Skool Weekend’ in 2013. But a comprehensive look at the series has remained elusive. Until now.

The structure of Puddle Lane may not be markedly different to its contemporaries, but it’s the content which marks it out. And it all starts with the foundations put in place by Sheila McCullagh’s stories. As with Tim and the Hidden People – her 1970s reading scheme – the stories of Puddle Lane mix intriguing characters such as the Wideawake Mouse and the Gruffle with magical narratives. And, with education in mind, these narratives translate into the television series as a lesson in literacy.

Following the conclusion of each of McCullagh’s stories, the Magician and Toby conduct a quick exercise in language. It’s far from intense, limited to condensing the stories down to a few sentences and writing out the words, but there’s enough to stimulate young minds. Preschoolers aren’t expected to begin primary school with a comprehensive knowledge of literacy, so Puddle Lane acts as a worthy stepping stone. And, all these years later, many parents (and their children) fondly remember the educational impact of the series.

When it comes to the entertainment aspect of the series, Rick Vanes’ contribution is crucial. Only the Magician featured in McCullagh’s original books, so the rest of the characters on screen are courtesy of Vanes’ knack for creating memorable characters. Gently lowered into mini-narratives, looking at concepts such as measurements and diaries, these characters engage the viewers with a string of gags and learning. It sounds a simple formula, but crafting a level of simplicity which engages on screen is a tall order.

Equal to Vanes’ and McCullagh’s contribution are the performances summoned up by the cast. Neil Innes is a coup for the series and, despite his limited acting experience, he makes the role his own. And, as you would imagine, he brings a whole new dimension to Vanes’ lyrics for the songs. Kate Lee, whose involvement grows throughout the series, blossoms as warm, friendly Aunt Flo and leaves you wondering why she didn’t star in more children’s television. Finally, Richard Robinson brings a menagerie of regional accents to the puppets to back up his respected puppet skills.

Focusing on Neil Innes, for a second, Rick Vanes has nothing but fond memories of working with the great man:

"Mike Harris, the producer, was a huge fan of  The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and I think he suggested that Neil Innes would be a good choice for the Magician. Mike was in awe of him, so I'm sure that must have been an influence. Neil had done a few acting bits in Monty Python and, though it wasn't his main forte, he did alright. And he really helped with the music. I'd write the lyrics to a song for each episode along with a rough tune, but I'm not a musician. So Neil would take these lyrics and write music to them. It was always a delight in the rehearsal rooms when Neil would breeze in and sing these songs for the first time. I'd seen The Bonzos live when I was younger and I thought they were amazing. And all of a sudden I'm receiving songwriting royalties for Innes/Vanes compositions. It was fantastic!"

I was keen to find out how Kate Lee brought life to the Aunt Flo character and, of course, what it was like working with her fellow performers:

"The initial brief was pretty open. I was told they had had Diana Dors in mind, so a much more BIG character. Not sure how serious that was, but it stayed with me and I felt rather intimidated by it. By the time I arrived at my first rehearsal, they had all been rehearsing for a while. I was told to make it my own, so, to be honest, I think I ended up doing a tame version of Mary Poppins to start with! Looking back now, I can't believe how posh I sound! But standard English has relaxed quite a lot since the 1980s. In series one I think she was only in half the episodes, but then they wrote her into all the episodes. Her character softened and warmed up a lot as I relaxed into the part. 

Both Neil Innes and Richard Robinson were awesomely creative. With that comes challenges too: perfectionism and idea upon idea! Neil's musicianship was wonderful to watch. He had a lovely, warm sense of humour. His sense of silliness was perfect for the child audience who he treated as absolute equals. Nothing was patronising. That's what I loved about the show. Rick Vanes' writing led the way and Neil and Richard were on the same wavelength. Brilliant casting by the producer Mike Harris. Neil performed some fantastic songs. They were underestimated I think. I didn't appreciate, at the start, how brilliant Richard Robinson was. But I soon began to understand the sheer genius of bringing a piece of rubber to life. Richard also had a non-patronising attitude. 1000% professional. Both of their creative contributions were immense"

And, for Kate Lee, working on Puddle Lane is an experience she will never forget:

"It was a dream job. Puddle Lane was pitched at preschool children – the same age as my children who were one and three when it started. I would go to 'Leebs' - as my little one called Leeds - for two weeks and we would film half a series. We would then return a few months later for another two weeks of filming. As a jobbing actor the regularity of work for those four years was heaven – every episode was repeated, so double the money! The whole team from wardrobe, production, techies, directors, producers and writers was lovely. Like a big friendship group.

It also led on to a couple of other nice jobs too. I became the voice of Smart Alice for Bellamy's Bugle and Pickwick International used me to read a lot of other children's stories. The lovely thing about being in children's TV is that you become a memorable part of those children's lives. Billie Piper once said that one of her favourite childhood memories was going home from playgroup with her mum (and a bag of fish and chips) to watch Puddle Lane. A few years ago I was coaching a now very famous BBC news presenter, when I mentioned that I was in Puddle Lane, she exploded with excitement and phoned her Mum!"

Quite why I haven't covered Puddle Lane on here up until now is somewhat of a mystery. It was easily one of my favourite programmes when I was a preschooler. Not only was it satisfying in terms of entertainment but, just at it was for everyone watching, Puddle Lane was an important step in my early education. Coupled with the book series, Puddle Lane acts as an introductory step into the world of reading and literature. And it’s all bolstered by the wonderful, charming action on screen. Using magic as its hook, Puddle Lane ferments an intriguing brew in its cauldron which, many years later, still enchants.

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