When I was very young, children’s television was Watch with Mother, though my mother generally got on with more productive things while I watched. Monday was Patricia Driscoll with something called Picturebook. Tuesday was Andy Pandy, a dubious character in a stripey romper suit, who slept in a basket with a doll called Looby Loo and a bear. I expect he’s a retired banker these days, calling himself Andrew Pandrew. Wednesdays was the Flowerpot Men, Bill and Ben (with Weed), the first television programme I ever saw. Thursdays was Rag, Tag, and Bobtail, and the viewing week finished on Fridays with the Woodentops, a completely unmemorable set of characters with names like ‘Mummy Woodentop’ and ‘Daddy Woodentop’.
The Magic Roundabout came along later, when I was at boarding school, and we watched it between tea and evening prep. Compared with Watch with Mother (or even Popeye), the Magic Roundabout was magic (as it were). It had originally been made in French, but the English version, narrated by Emma Thompson’s dad, made little or no attempt to adhere to the original story lines, lending the whole series a slightly surreal tone. As schoolboys we loved it. It was like hallucinogenic drugs without getting expelled. For all I know, Camberwick Green and Hector’s House were the same for my younger brother, but I never watched them.
Whether it was Ernest Thompson or someone else who gave the characters their character (as it were), the end result was a success. The kindly Mr Rusty, Dylan the dozy rabbit who sounded as if he’d been trying rather more traditional hallucinogens (like Weed), Brian the Snail, and Dougal, the philosophical dog. Zebedee was a moustachioed Jack in the Box, who announced at the end of the episode that it was ‘time for bed’, or in our case, evening prep. My favourite, however, was Florence. Admittedly, at the time, I fancied girls, but Florence was a puppet, and if you fancied puppets, Lady Penelope probably had the edge. Most of my schoolmates favoured Dylan or Dougal, but I just liked Florence.
When my daughter was a baby, a friend gave me her old toys, including a Florence puppet. It’s one of my more treasured possessions. Some years later, New Look did a range of T shirts featuring Magic Roundabout characters, but only in young girls’ sizes. For a few moments, I tried to convince myself that I could wear an ‘age 10’ girl’s T shirt, but I didn’t even have to try one on to see that it wouldn’t fit (besides, I doubt they’d have let me into the fitting rooms to find out). It’s one of the great disappointments of my life. I so wanted a Florence T shirt bearing the slogan, ‘Go with the Flo’.