LONG before I lived in London, I knew that there were lots of places in the capital that didn't actually exist. Surbiton, for example. Surbiton could not possibly exist. It had been invented for The Good Life, a suitable name for an imaginary and yet quintessential suburb. I later discovered that The Good Life had actually been filmed in Penge, because Surbiton was insufficiently suburban for the BBC's needs. Cricklewood, the imaginary home of the Goodies, was another non-existent London suburb. I could well imagine the Goodies living in Cricklewood, a picket-fenced village sort of place. I just couldn't believe in Cricklewood itself, a feeling that was only amplified when I actually drove through it. But chief amongst these non-existent London landmarks was Wimbledon Common, the home of the Wombles. Wimbledon Common was no more real than the Clangers' homeworld. Oh, sure, it looked quite like other parklands, with benches and pigeons, and oddly useful bits of litter. But it was forever immortalised as an imaginary place where the Wombles lived.
The Wombles are small furry creatures that live in burrows under the common. As originally conceived by Elisabeth Beresford, they were much like teddy bears. They broke out of this mould and into immortality when Ivor Wood designed a series of 5 minute television shows for BBC. Teddy bears weren't outré enough for 1970s children's telly, and the TV Wombles look a little like a cross between an aardvark and a hearth rug.
The life of a womble revolves around picking up litter on Wimbledon Common and taking it back to the burrow, where Tobermory Womble turns it into a variety of useful artifacts. For some reason the Wombles always find unusual litter like broken trumpets and discarded overcoats, and never find ordinary litter like empty fag packets and used condoms. Elisabeth Beresford was apparently inspired by the students at Wimbledon College of Art, who wandered around in their afghans scavenging ingredients for their work from local litter bins and skips.
Each of the original Wombles had an individual defining characteristic. I was always very fond of Orinoco, the fattest and laziest example of, let's face it, a fairly fat and lazy species. Orinoco's New Year's resolutions are to eat more cake and to get more sleep. I can relate to this. But there were lots of others. Great Uncle Bulgaria was the wise patriarch. He kept reminding us that he had been young once, but I'm not sure that anyone believed him. Bungo was foolish, Wellington was geeky, Tomsk was athletic and Tobermory was very handy.
In common with other primitive societies, the Wombles provide a distinctive rite of passage for their young. As each womble approaches maturity, they choose their name from the Atlas of the World in Great Uncle Bulgaria's study. Some careful wombles, like Tobermory and Bulgaria, think for some time before choosing a name which suits them perfectly. Some impetuous wombles just close their eyes and stick their paw in the middle of the map. Funnily enough, Bungo ended up with a name which suits him perfectly anyway.
Of course, The Wombles had to be edited for different countries. Some of my favourite Wombles were removed before the US edition was produced. If you saw the show in America, you would miss out on the delightful antics of Penistone, Phuket, Cockfosters, and Scunthorpe Womble. Also, the removal of Maidenhead the brothelkeeper meant that in the US the only female Womble was Madame Cholet, who kept house and cooked for the rest of the Wombles. This wasn't very politically correct, but it did leave enough room for the American networks to insert the commercial breaks.
The Wombles were fine as a TV show, but they really transcended when Mike Batt was hired to write their theme music. In an early example of the character marketing we have come to know and love, the signature tune of the TV series was released as a single, and did respectably well. An album of songs soon followed. None of the songs on this first album were very inspired, but Mike Batt warmed to his theme. Not spotting anything better on the horizon, he persuaded his mother to run off a set of full-sized fake fur Womble costumes, allegedly installed Steeleye Span inside them, and went touring round the country. A contract to sing a different Wombles song every week on the execrable variety show Seaside Special ensured the bandwagon kept rolling.
And it was a considerable bandwagon. After the first album, Batt had got into his stride. The songs managed to appeal to children while entertainingly spoofing other forms of music. And the hits followed. "Remember You're A Womble", "Minuetto Allegretto", "Superwomble", "Wombling Merry Christmas", "Wombling White Tie and Tails"... The Wombles became the most successful novelty band of all time in the UK. Their singles spent 60 weeks in the top 40 in total in 1975, more than any other act that year. The furry litter pickers were elevated to the status of megastars, and became the mascots of the Tidy Britain campaign. Children would visit Wimbledon Common with bags of rubbish, hide and wait for the Wombles to clean up, presumably with a view to mounting a Womble head on the wall of their baronial hall. The tartan worn by Great Uncle Bulgaria was registered, and can only legally be used on Wombles merchandise.
Eventually, of course, Mike Batt took off the Womble suit and immediately sank back into obscurity. The Wombles were ahead of their time with awareness of recycling and green issues, but were rapidly losing touch with a more politically correct world. By the end of the seventies, they'd largely been forgotten. I had some of the Wombles albums on vinyl or tape, worn out from overplaying, and wanted them all. The year before last, DavE Romm helped out by sending a lengthy tape to be auctioned for TAFF. Truly pirate, of course, but I was pretty sure that a re-release wasn't likely any time soon.
I was wrong. Wombles are springing up all over. A new TV show is out, with new female wombles like Alderney the Girl Power Womble and superfluous technology like the Womblecopter. More Wombles living in other areas of London have been identified. Many of their songs have now been re-released on CD, and there's a new single out. There are even rumours of a new world tour, which sounds like an excellent idea. After all, their promoter could rest easy, knowing that they were unlikely to trash their hotel room. In fact, they could be quite useful -- after Oasis had visited a town, you could send in the Wombles to tidy up the place.