Glastonbury organizer stirs up “Womblegate”!

By on June 17, 2011

In a few weeks, Mike Batt, one of England’s most consistent hitmaking
writers and producers will be putting one of his earliest and most
whimsical creations on stage at the prestigious Glastonbury Festival,
this being the Wombles. The Wombles were an eco-conscious British
version of the Banana Splits, and hugely successful for many years and
much beloved of Great Britain’s youth. Batt wrote and sang the songs, 
produced the records and eventually would go on to conduct symphony
orchestras, score the film Watership Down, organize the music for the
original London production of the Phantom of the Opera and most
recently put on a show at Buckingham Palace at the request of the
Queen, post Royal Wedding – ETC. This all is a mighty big deal in the
UK and I include some recent press. Batt is also releasing his lavish
production of the Lewis Carroll poem, “The Hunting of the Snark” in
the U.S. for the first time. This features an all star cast including
Art Garfunkel, Roger Daltrey, George Harrison, Captain Sensible,
Stephane Grappelli, Deniece Williams, Julian Lennon, Sir Cliff
Richard, Sir John Gielgud and John Hurt.
I’m hoping you’ll consider covering this remarkable gentleman and his
work via feature or CD review.
———————————-
These days, it takes an extraordinary rock band reunion to capture the
public imagination. “Reunion fatigue” has long since set in. However,
the news that the Wombles, heroes of mid-1970s pre-teen pop, are to
perform their first ever live set at this year’s Glastonbury Festival
has been met with hilarity, disbelief and outrage.
For those who are too young to remember, or have somehow blotted them
from their memory, the Wombles arose from a BBC stop-motion animation
series, circa 1973-75. The programme was based on children’s books by
Elisabeth Beresford, in which a bunch of furry creatures inhabited a
burrow in Wimbledon Common, only breaking cover to clear away litter.
The band was the brainchild of Mike Batt, who won a commission to
write the theme song, but, waiving his £200 fee, opted instead to
secure the character rights for musical production. So, concurrent
with the series, Batt’s “band” unleashed four Top 20 albums, and a
string of hits, including The Wombling Song, Remember You’re a
Womble, and Superwomble.
The Glastonbury appearance was enmired in controversy last week,
though, when Michael Eavis, the festival’s head honcho, said that he
was “cross” that his minions had booked the Wombles. It was, he
fumed, “a bit of a mistake”. As the story spread, even the NME leapt
to the Wombles’ defence, suggesting that Eavis might have mislaid his
sense of humour. Batt responded that the show must go on, but that
the Wombles, who are due to appear at 2pm on the festival’s closing
day, may now think twice about helping with the clean-up operation.
When I meet Batt a day or two before this war of words, he is
revelling in the mirth which surrounds the project. Frequently, he’ll
talk about presenting Wombles music, only to halt mid-sentence. “But
obviously,” he’ll say, “it’s not people inside costumes – they’re
real!”
– Andrew Perry/London Telegraph 6/17

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/glastonbury/8578125/The-Wombles-at-Glastonbury-2011-interview.html

Somewhere in a cottage in the middle of, no, not Wimbledon Common,
but the New Forest, an 85-year-old woman is busy with needle and
thread, her handiwork bringing back to life a bunch of costumes that
haven’t had a proper airing since the mid-1970s. “Although I’m not
sure you should write that,” she worries, “in case any children might
be reading. We want them to believe they’re real, don’t we?”
Reassured that it’s unlikely any under-fives will be studying this
text when they could focus on the pictures instead, she continues.
“They’ve survived rather well, I think, but Orinoco and Wellington
need some new school caps. And just look at their feet! They’re worn
through. But then they always were rather energetic, weren’t they?”
The woman is Elaine Batt, sometime seamstress and mother of Mike
Batt, the genial, copper-haired man behind the Wombles band. As well
as being one of the highlights of 1970s kids’ television, the Wombles
were also, between 1973 and 1975, a frothy bubblegum-pop act that
sold more singles than anybody else. “Three songs in the top 50 at
the same time, something only the Beatles also managed,” Batt (Jr)
points out. “We were a phenomenon: eight top-30 hits, Top of the Pops
every other week, millions of records sold.”
Anything but a precursor to that other TV puppet with delusions of
musical grandeur (the Mr Blobby nonsense of the mid-1990s), Mike Batt
took his Wombling terribly seriously. Over the course of four studio
albums, he stitched tales of gentle Womble antics into some highly
ambitious musical styles including rock (“Banana Rock”, number nine),
seasonal (“Wombling Merry Christmas”, number two), and even classical
(“Minuetto Allegretto”, number 16). One could argue that he
overstretched himself.
“Well, if I was going to get any fun out of the whole enterprise I
wasn’t going to do so by making dinky-winky, Pinky- Perky records,”
he argues. “I was going to make records as ambitious as the Beatles.
Of course, it was an uneven playing field – one man against the Fab
Four – but I did my best.”
It may have started out as a kiddies’ project, but it soon
transformed into outright flamboyance, permitting Batt, then a
struggling singer-songwriter, to flex his musical muscle. “I have
rock-star friends, who I won’t name because they are very famous, who
used to say they wished they could do the things I did, but their
public wouldn’t let them. They were a prisoner to their genre; I
wasn’t.”
It was, he recalls, a momentous time, but also, occasionally,
miserable and, briefly, hampered by controversy, not least when one
of the band was kicked out after a drugs bust. But its success was to
prove damning for Batt, casting a lengthy shadow that still looms
today. “Career suicide, people told me,” he says, shrugging.
Regardless, and with a little help from his mother, who made the
original costumes back in the 1970s, he is reviving them now,
rereleasing all their old albums on his own label in time for their
Sunday-afternoon slot at the Glastonbury Festival, where, he hopes, a
belated reappraisal of their worth will occur. “Now I’m reaching the
evening of my life, shall we say, I realise what great fun we had,
and what great fun we offered. And who knows, perhaps we’ll even get
a little respect, the respect we always deserved…”
The 1970s are often regarded, by those who had to live through them,
as a beleaguered decade, blighted by bad music, bad fashion, endless
strikes and an awful lot of power cuts. All quite true, but it also
threw up children’s TV shows that we regard as classics today:
Paddington, Mr Men, Mr Benn, Bagpuss and The Wombles. In many ways,
the Wombles, essentially teddy bears with hedgehog faces and legs too
short for their bodies, were ahead of their time, ambassadors of the
Keep Britain Tidy movement, their collective effort helping to spark
an interest that, a generation later, would become a mandatory way of
life: recycling.
They were dreamt up by Elisabeth Beresford, a journalist and novelist
who wrote more than 100 titles for children. She had been
commissioned by her publishers to come up with a competitor to
Paddington, and achieved it, recalls her son Marcus Robertson, quite
by chance. “I can still remember, vividly, when she first hit upon
the idea,” the 55-year-old sports PR says. “She had taken my sister
and I for a walk on Wimbledon Common, only my sister mispronounced it
and called it Wombledon. My mother’s eyes lit up: the Wombles of
Wimbledon Common. She asked us what they looked like, and what we
thought they’d do. Because the Common was strewn with litter, we said
they would pick it up, then return to their burrow…”
And so a timeless classic was born. It became a series of books
first, and, soon after, a BBC TV show. By the time it hit our
screens, Robertson was a teenager, for whom it was wincingly
personal. “As with all great fiction,” he explains, “it was born out
of an awful lot of fact. Great Uncle Bulgaria, for example, was my
grandfather down to a T.” And Robertson himself was also there. “I
was Orinoco, I’m afraid, the fattest, greediest and laziest of them
all – a perfectly accurate description of me, as it happens.”
And which presumably sent him to the psychiatrist’s chair as a
result? He shakes his head. “I know Christopher Robin was never very
happy having served as inspiration for the Winnie the Pooh books,” he
says breezily, “but it never bothered me. We all have quirks, and I
always rather liked the fact that mine had been immortalised in this
way.”
At first, the Wombles lived a peaceable BBC1 existence at 5.35pm on
weekday evenings. What ensured they would go on to have a wider
cultural impact were the efforts of Mike Batt, a then-21-year-old
songwriter with aspirations of becoming a rock star, composer and
classical conductor. He had already written the winning theme tune,
“The Wombling Song”, for which he was offered a standard fee (£200),
but which he rejected in favour of the character rights instead. “I
thought it might be fun to release an album of Wombles music,” he
says.
Immediately prior to this, the married father of one had sunk his
life savings into a rock’n’roll extravaganza that had tanked, leaving
him in financial crisis. No one had ever achieved much of note by
fronting a band of musical cuddly toys, but Batt was convinced that
he could rewrite the rule book. And he did.
It is a bright spring afternoon when I meet Batt in his huge London
townhouse. He leads me from the living-room, where a wall-unit houses six
Ivor Novello awards, and into what he calls the Womble Room, the walls
full of platinum discs. He is a small, portly man of 62, and possesses the
fizzing enthusiasm one expects more of teenagers than someone three years
shy of his free bus pass.
“It was like being Clark Kent and Superman,” he says. “Nobody cared if
they saw me wander down the street, but if I was dressed as Orinoco, they
were all over me.” He recalls a promotional trip to America, and running
up to a beautiful girl to give her a big hug, who reciprocated in a way
she wouldn’t if it was just Mike Batt, flesh and bone. “She thought she
was hugging a cuddly teddy bear, but the truth was I was enjoying it more
than… well, more than perhaps a Womble should.”
He laughs out loud, and you cannot help but feel relief that
Elisabeth Beresford isn’t alive to hear him say it (she died last
Christmas, aged 84). But for the most part, he insists, Batt was a
well-behaved children’s entertainer, which is more than can be said –
or at least alleged – of one of his fellow Wombles. Though the other
people in the outfits were session musicians whose identities were
never revealed but often speculated upon, one member’s cover was
spectacularly blown after he was arrested by the drug squad.
“Ah yes, Robin, bless him,” Batt says. “I seem to remember his house was
raided and a stash found inside his Womble head, or something…?”
Robin Le Mesurier, the man in question, recalls the episode more
accurately. Then a 20-year-old fledgling guitarist, he was coming
home one night from a Wombles gig to the house he still shared with
his brother and parents, the comedy greats John Le Mesurier and
Hattie Jacques, to find the place swarming with police. “I suppose I
should have taken off and come back later,” he says from his home in
Los Angeles, where he has resided for the past two decades, playing
guitar for various acts, Rod Stewart among them. “But I didn’t. Seems
they thought my brother was a dealer, but they only found a joint, a
single joint. They arrested him, and for some reason they dragged me
along too. We got fined £20. It could have been worse, I suppose, but
Elisabeth Beresford still decided that being arrested for the
possession of cannabis was very un-Womble-like behaviour. I had to
vacate the position.”
Marcus Robertson, who was 14 at the time, barely recalls the episode.
“If it did cause a fuss in the papers, it must have been over very
quickly,” he says. “But I’m sure my mother would have put a positive
Womble slant on it. She would have had Great Uncle Bulgaria turning
it into a moral lesson: it is a very unwise thing to do, young
Womble, to pick up spliffs left behind by humans. Don’t do it.”
Batt replaced Le Mesurier easily enough, but by now the cracks were
beginning to show. He was tired of all the forced jocularity, and
tired, too, of having to run all the lyrics by Beresford’s husband,
the former BBC sports commentator Max Robertson, whom Batt describes
as the “self-appointed arbiter of all things Womble; everything I did
needed his seal of approval. I did get it, mostly, but it was
exhausting.” After two years of success, he hung up his head, elated,
he says, “to finally become a human being again”. But he would find
it difficult to shake off the legacy.
“John Peel used to be a fan of my early work, but he was never going
to be interested in the solo output of a former Orinoco, and I simply
couldn’t get a booking on [1970s music TV show] The Old Grey Whistle
Test.” A while later, he was set to produce a heavy-metal act that
later backed out when his ignominious past was revealed. “Who wants
to work with a fucking Womble?” was the reason given.
Batt sighs resignedly. “I was the court jester who wanted desperately
to be taken seriously.” He would never have a proper solo hit in the
UK again, though his albums performed well in Holland and Germany.
Back at home, meanwhile, he started writing singles for artists such
as David Essex and Cliff Richard. He penned “Bright Eyes” for Art
Garfunkel, wrote rock operas and orchestral pieces, and now owns one
of the UK’s most successful record labels (Dramatico, home to Katie
Melua) and is vice chairman of the BPI. In other words, he survived.
Flourished, even. “So don’t get the impression I’m bitter and
twisted,” he insists. “The Wombles was something I did, not something
I am.”
Robertson says he is overjoyed that Batt is resurrecting his mother’s
creation, and hopes it might prompt a major revival. He is still
regularly in touch with Bernard Cribbins, who so wonderfully brought
the characters to vivid life with his narration in the original
series, but Robertson has already lined up a potential successor
should he succeed in bringing them back to the small screen: Stephen
Fry.
“I met him at a darts final recently – Stephen is a huge darts fan –
and I said to him that when Bernard finally drops off his perch, he
would be the perfect man to take over. And Stephen said to me, ‘It
would be an honour, old boy.'”
As for the Wombles at Glastonbury, he says, “I think it’ll be fantastic.
Admittedly, you could write my knowledge of music on a postage stamp, but
it’s quality stuff, I know that much. It puts a smile on the face.”
Though Batt himself won’t reveal who else will step into the costumes
on the day, he will admit that he is looking forward to taking centre
stage again, albeit hidden inside a huge costume so lovingly mended
by his mother. “I can’t wait. There’s always ego in art, right?
Picasso had an ego, the Sistine Chapel wouldn’t have existed had
Michelangelo not had one, and I’m sure the Pope has one. Well, I do
too.”
Even as a Womble? He looks, suddenly, deadly serious.
“Even then, yes.”
-Nick Duerden/Sunday London Independent 6/12

This weekend I’ll be rehearsing with one of my acts at Music Bank
near Tower Bridge in London – not Katie Melua, although I’m often
here with her, but the Wombles.
They’re reuniting to play at Glastonbury – on the Avalon stage for an
hour on Sunday at 2pm – and, without wanting to blow the surprise,
there’s a lot of paraphernalia to sort out. Doing a live show is very
hot for a Womble; it’s like running a marathon. This is all very well
when one is 23, but as you get older it becomes a bit more of an
effort. You’ve got to train yourself into it.
When I say “Womble”, I’m not referring to myself, of course, because
Wombles are real. Or at least they’re real when they wear their costumes,
which have been hanging in the garage at my home in Farnham for the past
40 years. I don’t like talking about it because it blows the dream but my
mother makes them all – she’s 85 now – along with an assistant called
June.
She made 16 Womble guardsman to parade in the march past at the Queen
Mother’s 100th Birthday in 2000 and I got the Boys’ Brigade to put
them on. There was a picture on the front page of pretty much every
paper of the Queen Mother giggling with Prince Charles as these
guardsman Wombles did the salute.
I was more sensitive about my associations with the Wombles when I was 23.
I was always saying “let’s talk about something else”, but as my career
has matured, I’ve become more relaxed about it. When a Womble is around,
everyone smiles. It would be great if you could bottle the delight on
people’s faces when they come on stage. I firmly believe that had they not
been there, my life would have been slightly less colourful.
– London Telegraph 6/16

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/my-perfect-weekend/8579454/My-perfect-weekend-Mike-Batt.html

With just two weeks left before its kick off, Glastonbury organiser
Michael Eavis has expressed his regret at booking The Wombles for the
festival. Wimbledon Common’s clearers of rubbish are scheduled to
appear at the Avalon Stage on Sunday, 26 June.
Speaking to the BBC, Eavis thinks that booking the children’s
characters was “a bit of a mistake”. He grumbled: “I’ve got about 25
stages and managers and bookers for each of the stages. I can’t
control every single one of them but I do get cross about that kind
of thing,”
Wombles supremo Mike Batt responded to Eavis’ commets saying: “He
probably doesn’t realise what a fantastic live act The Wombles are.”
He continued: “Uncle Bulgaria told me he thinks Mr Eavis is probably
perfectly aware that festivals like his are so popular because they
offer an eclectic mix for everybody. It isn’t very nice to think that
you have been booked at a festival where you aren’t welcome, but we
hope Mr Eavis will pop along to the Avalon Stage on Sunday to check
out the reaction for himself.”
He added: “Contrary to what he says, the Avalon is a substantial
stage and there is huge excitement about The Wombles’ appearance.”
The Wombles were assembled after the success of the 70s children’s TV
programme which was based on the books by Elisabeth Beresford. The
band featured legendary session musicians such as guitarist Chris
Spedding and drummer Clem Cattini and scored nine UK hit singles
including ‘The Wombling Song’, ‘Remember You’re A Womble’ and
‘Minuetto Allegretto’.
-by Julian Marszalek,/Music.AOL.co.UK 6/10
http://music.aol.co.uk/2011/06/10/michael-eavis-wombles-glastonbury/2

A throwaway comment by Glastonbury Festival founder Michael Eavis
kicked off quite a media storm – dubbed ‘womblegate’ – after he said
he was ‘cross’ that The Wombles had been booked… although he was
laughing at the time.
Michael Eavis was being interviewed by presenter John Ford on local radio
station BBC Somerset on 8 June (on the Emma Britton show from 9 am to 12
noon).
A listener had asked for Take That to play Glastonbury, and Eavis
replied that they’re “not quite our audience really… they’re hugely
popular but I don’t think that the Glastonbury Festival is quite
their scene really”.
John Ford continued: “Okay, alright then. Well you’ve got The Wombles
there this year, I notice…”
Michael Eavis: “Well, yeah… (laughs) That was a bit of a mistake
actually, I don’t know what they were thinking of. But (more laughter)
no, it’s one of my small stage managers thought…”
John Ford: “And you let The Wurzels in as well!”
Michael Eavis: “…thought it would be fun, yeah. But I’ve got about 25
stages and of course I’ve got managers and bookers for each of those
stages, and so I can’t control every single one of them.”
John Ford: “They got The Wombles past you!”
Michael Eavis: “I do get cross though, about that kind of thing.
(laughs)”
Listener Lucy Wheeler tweeted about the comment: “Michael Eavis is on
BBC Somerset at the moment and said he is cross that the Wombles have
been booked for this year!” Mike Batt responded: “Did Michael Eavis
elaborate on why he’s unhappy the Wombles are doing Glasto? Not very
pro of him or nice for us, if true.” And Lucy replied: “He said that
one of his bookers had booked you. I’m sure he was joking.”
Mike Batt later added: “Feels like being invited to a dinner party
and then hearing your host on the radio saying he wishes he hadn’t
invited you!”
A few hours later, the BBC News Somerset website published an article,
‘Glastonbury boss Michael Eavis regrets Wombles booking’, in which Mike
Batt defended the band: “He probably doesn’t realise what a fantastic live
act the Wombles are. It isn’t very nice to think that you have been booked
at a festival where you aren’t welcome, but we hope Mr Eavis will pop
along to the Avalon stage on Sunday to check out the reaction for himself.
Contrary to what he says, the Avalon is a substantial stage and there is
huge excitement about the Wombles’ appearance.”
Lucy Wheeler tweeted a link to the article, with the comment: “Uh oh,
I think I might have caused this by telling a womble what Eavis had
said.”
James Hall coined the term ‘womblegate’, which soon became a Twitter
hashtag: “Womblegate. Michael Eavis apparently tells BBC Somerset
he’s cross the Wombles are booked for this yr’s Glasto. @Mike_Batt
says not nice.” Mike Batt replied: “Womblegate indeed. Tidy bags at
dawn.”
By the following day (9 June), Twitter was ablaze with hundreds of
Wombles fans defending their honour and saying they’d be great at
Glastonbury. ‘Wombles’ was a trending topic on Twitter by lunchtime,
which led to even more people asking why the Wombles were trending,
or adding their support – or in some cases criticism.
Throughout the day, many news organisations picked up the story,
including Telegraph.co.uk, Guardian.co.uk, Metro.co.uk and the
Reuters news agency. But as the reports spread, the story seemed to
be taken more and more seriously, losing sight of the original
lighthearted discussion. The London Evening Standard website even
claimed that Michael Eavis was “angry at his staff” and that The
Wombles “had been booked without his knowledge but could not now be
cancelled”, while The Sun reported “Glasto boss fury” as Michael
Eavis “slammed staff for booking THE WOMBLES” – though they did have
a fantastic headline, “Uncool Bulgaria”.
Mike Batt ended the eventful day by tweeting: “What a WEIRD day!
Thanks for all your support – those who did. What a funny thing for
the Glasto guy to say. Still, we’ll rock that place!”
The coverage continued on 10 June, with a full-page article on page 3
of the free Metro newspaper and articles in much of the national
press, resulting in yet more Twitter debate. Dramatico Records
proudly tweeted: “#wombles in The Sun, The Metro, The Independent,
The Guardian, The Star, The Mirror, The Express and The Telegraph,
sweet!”
0 Tidybag.co.uk 6/10

http://www.mikebatt.com/releases/huntingsnark.html
www.dramatico.com/us
http://www.youtube.com/user/DramaticoMusic

DaveHHM

Author: DaveHHM

Dave Luttrull: Owner/Editor in Chief of Hellhound Music. Star Wars nerd, Gamer, Destiny homer, blogger, writer and lover of all things music.

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