Elisabeth Beresford and The Wombles
Elisabeth Beresford and The Wombles
The first biography about Elisabeth Beresford, creator of The Wombles, has just been published. The author, Elisabeth’s daughter Kate Robertson, tells us more…
Famously inspired by a walk on Wimbledon Common when children’s writer Elisabeth Beresford heard her daughter Kate mispronounce Wimbledon as Wombledon, the furry eco-minded Wombles achieved global acclaim and are still capturing the imaginations of children today.
Elisabeth Beresford wrote over 140 books and 62 Womble TV shows and even a stage play. The Wombles, who pick up discarded items from the common, with the motto ‘make good use of bad rubbish’, were the original eco warriors. When they became popular on TV in the 1970s, they spurred children into action to organise their own cleaning-up groups. The Wombles’ message is particularly relevant today and the creatures were the mascots for the UK government at Cop26 supporting its Together For Our Planet campaign in 2021. And, of course, they are forever associated with Wimbledon… AFC Wimbledon even has its own Womble – Haydon – as its mascot.
Kate, the author of children’s book series Dilbert and a trade journalist, was approached by publishers Pen and Sword to write the biography. She had considered the idea before but was initially reluctant. “Writing about your mum is so close to home,” she says.
But if anyone was best-placed to do this book, it was Kate. “I had all the material: her diaries which she kept most of her life, and her letters to me and to other relatives, as well as her personal files. My mother had actually started an autobiography a few times in her later years but by then her mind perhaps wasn’t at its best. But I did refer to the first version she tried and you can hear her voice in this book.”
Kate wanted to get across why her mother turned to writing children’s books, what led to the creation of The Wombles and also show what life was like with her. Elisabeth was born in Paris. Her father was a novelist and her parents’ friends included George Bernard Shaw and D.H. Lawrence. But her childhood was not a happy one.
“It deeply affected her. She had three older brothers who had pretty much left home by the time she was around. Her father left home when she was nine and she was left with my granny in Brighton who was running a boarding house to make ends meet – these places at the time used to be called Ladies’ Luncheon Clubs which was a very genteel name for what was a place for women of a certain age with slender means.”
“She would go out with her schoolfriends and have fun but it was difficult at home so she lived a lot in her imagination. Many of her books have characters who have unhappy childhoods. She could relate well to children and she was quite childlike herself.”
Elisabeth went on to marry sports commentator Max Robertson and have two children – Kate and Marcus. The family lived for a long time in Wandsworth – there is green plaque outside her former home on Earlsfield Road. They later moved to a house on Spencer Park.
Elisabeth worked as a journalist and then a children’s writer. Her publishers asked her to create an idea that would be their answer to the success of Paddington. Says Kate: “Mum didn’t have an idea but on Boxing Day we were walking on Wimbledon Common and I said Wombledon instead of Wimbledon and it clearly triggered something in my mum’s imagination.”
The reuse and recycle theme came about because it had been ingrained in her mother during the war. “Every penny counted. You had to make things last and reuse anything you had. Even bits of string were tied up together to make longer pieces to be used again. There was no way to replace things. And so The Wombles would tidy up the litter on the common and make good use of it.”
So, what was it like for Kate growing up as The Wombles started to become popular? She says that not much changed. “All I know is that Mum worked incredibly hard. She was always on her typewriter. She would come to visit me at boarding school in Broadstairs and wrote much of The Wombles while staying in the hotel. Life was quite frenetic at home. My father’s star was going down while hers was rising and it made the marriage difficult.”
“By the time the books came out, I was at university and when The Wombles hit the height of their fame in the 70s I was working in London.” Her friends thought it amusing at parties to put The Wombles catchy theme tune on when Kate arrived… “I would rather have had The Who! But I guess you can’t dance to The Who as much as The Wombles…”
She said that it was a combination of talents that made The Wombles such a hit: “Mike Batt’s music made a huge difference, Mum’s writing skill and imagination and Ivor Wood, who was a very talented animator – he created the look of the Womble. Nobody really knew before that what they looked like and he came up with this long nose. And, of course, dear old Bernard Cribbins who voiced them. He even gave Madame Cholet a French accent.”
In the stories, Wombles pick their names out of an atlas, they aren’t actually meant to be from those places. “Suddenly Mum was writing in a French accent. This was difficult. All Wombles were considered to be the same and you didn’t have to worry about what gender they were or where they were from.”
Many of the characters were inspired by family members. Bungo was based on Kate, Orinoco on Marcus. Kate did not mind: “All the characters were written with love.”
Despite the popularity of The Wombles, it did not make Elisabeth wealthy. She hadn’t asked for royalties and any money she made came from the merchandise around it. Taxation was punitive in the 1970s and so Max wanted them to move to Alderney where they had a holiday home. Elisabeth loved it, but Max was not happy there. They divorced in 1984. Elisabeth died in 2010, aged 84.
2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the first TV series. In 2020, The Wombles’ appearance was changed for a CGI update from the uniform orange and grey fur to look more diverse. Some criticised this as a ‘woke makeover’. What did Kate make of it? The Wombles are now owned by Womble Copyright Holdings Ltd. “They have gone down the eco route which I am very glad about but I don’t like the fact that they have mouths or their appearance and characters are now somewhat different from Mum’s Wombles. I think they are Wombles for today’s audience, not necessarily yesterday’s…”
But while their looks may have changed, Elisabeth’s iconic characters and her message of sustainability live on.
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