If you were a late sixties pop fan, the concept of ‘witches’ must have appeared confusing to say the least. If terrifyingly unhinged recording levels-botherers The Sonics roaring over a thinly-disguised rewrite of the Batman theme were to be believed, you could identify a witch through her having black hair, being new in town, driving a big black car and, ahem, making you itch. On German prog-stoners The Rattles’ cackle-festooned stray sorceress-troubled hit, poor old Edna Bejarano can hear a voice shouting everywhere, causing her to run for her life and wonder aloud what she’s done that was so bad that “the witch does care”. For reasons best known to Raymond Douglas Davies, The Kinks decided that their satirical homage to the mythical Merrie England that ‘the sixties’ was consigning to the past just wasn’t complete without a village witch planning to possess the local youngsters. And then there’s shouty mod girl Sharon Tandy, who credits herself with fulfilling pretty much all of the standard cliches including broomsticks, black cats, spell books, making mirrors crack by looking in them, causing children to run and hide and, of course, drinking red wine from a tin. Whatever any of them were actually on about, this confusing The Love Witch-evoking conflation of mysticism, sexuality and frequently baffling rhymes was probably a more effective dissuasion from the practice of ‘free love’ than any letter to The Times.
If you were a late sixties young television viewer, though, there was no such acid-ravaged erotically-charged ambiguity. Witches were terrifying and that was that. Which makes it all the more surprising that they were all over any given channel at the time. From twitchy-nosed chore-circumventer Samantha in Bewitched, through the nightmarishly Postgate-croaked Tog-trounced botherer of The Pogles, right through to The Princess in The Singing Ringing Tree being transformed into a weirdly more attractive green-haired crooked-nosed variant of herself, witches were as commonplace as square-jawed space adventurers and rapier-wielding historical noblemen. They may have had to settle for the silver behind two particular clowns in the TV Scariness stakes, but even so, there were enough witches around to send any self-respecting youngster scurrying behind the sofa that nobody ever hid behind because of The Daleks.
You could even find one in the nice, gentle, pastoral Watch With Mother animation The Herbs. Named after the delirium-inducing offshoot of the solanaceae family, Belladonna The Witch only actually appeared in one episode – and there’s some dispute over whether it was even included in some of the later repeat runs of the series – but brought with her an element of alarm and terror that you certainly wouldn’t have found in, say, Mary, Mungo And Midge or Joe, and indeed made such an impression that she’s very nearly as well-remembered as Dill, Parsley and Bayleaf. Originally broadcast on 26th February 1968, Belladonna The Witch is such a departure from the surrounding storylines about snakes mistaken for hoses and inaccurately labelled boxes of strawberries that it’s difficult to believe it was actually part of the same series. Or indeed that it was actually considered appropriate for very young children at all. In fact, it’s something of an aberration – or, if you will, Vietnamese Coriander – amongst the wider works of writer Michael Bond and animator Ivor Wood and his prolific FilmFair studio, and there’s very little comparable in the extended oeuvre of either. Lord knows what had got into the water back in 1968, though it may have been a particularly potent strain of Thai Basil. Yes, I know what you were expecting me to say. Shut up, it’s starting.
Yet another example of the most effective ‘psychedelia’ utilising the mundane, detached, esoteric and tranquil rather than a barrage of strobing clashing colours assisted by pills that alternately make you ‘larger’ and ‘small’, The Herbs takes place within the quasi-transcendental confines of a walled Herb Garden punctuated by antique brickwork, wood-framed greenhouses and garden statues, neither identifiably modern nor ancient and seeming to exist outside time; much like the average Garden Centre does when you find yourself wandering around the same three aisles in search of the elusive yard brushes and finding only row upon row of every other possible garden utensil and a huge pile of Paddy McGuinness Live DVDs. In all seriousness, though, ornate gardens are generally specifically designed to create a sense of being cut off from the outside world and elevated to a more cerebral and elemental state of existence, and there are similar qualities to the sprightly strings-and-woodwind chamber music soundtrack to The Herbs; it’s difficult to say whether it should be entertaining cultured guests at an Edwardian afternoon gathering, sitting in the background of a mid-sixties pop single, or lurking at the back of Damon Albarn’s mind some time in early 1993.
Needless to say, Belladonna The Witch starts with the usual swirl of oboe, harp and pizzicato strings and plant-labels-blowing-about opening titles, but it soon becomes clear that this is no ordinary episode of The Herbs. Narrator Gordon Rollings does his usual introduction us to the main characters in the form of actual (well, not actual, but you know what I mean) herbs sprouting out of the ground. There’s Parsley, Rosemary, Basil, Bayleaf, Dill… and a crackle of lightning as a nasty looking stringy threadbare thing akin to those weeds you find poking out of the guttering looms over them. Alarmingly, the other herbs all wilt and topple as Gordon introduces ‘bad herb’ Belladonna, and notes that there was “quite a to-do” when she appeared in the garden. As we will find out, this is something of an understatement. In a move that can hardly have helped youngsters approach the episode with a song in their heart, Gordon momentarily forgets the time-honoured magic word – Herbidacious – required to open the garden gate. “Must be all this talk of witches”, he muses in a faintly spooked voice.
As ever, Parsley The Lion is waiting behind the gate to greet the boys and girls and by extension Gordon, and indeed sing his song about how useful his tail is for doing ‘jobs of every kind’, but on this occasion he’s visibly not his usual self. Looking around nervously, Parsley first growls at and then hides from a ferocious-sounding gust of wind. “I’ve a feeling Parsley knows there’s a witch about”, muses Gordon, and he’s not wrong as the wind keeps howling for what feels like an absolute age before giving way to a clap of thunder and the appearance of Belladonna herself. Giant, purple and crookedly-featured, she is, as her disconcertingly minor key song makes only too clear, highly toxic and will never be content until all the Herbs are in her power. Which is a tad inconvenient for dear old Bayleaf The Gardener, who stumbles backwards onto the screen obliviously sweeping his broom in total ignorance of the witchcraft afoot.
Being far too busy working from early dawn, sweeping up the leaves and indeed tidying the lawn, Bayleaf doesn’t even notice Belladonna, which gives her just enough time to transform herself into a still not exactly harmless looking old lady in a headscarf; “even her best friend wouldn’t recognise her… if she has a best friend… which I doubt”, muses Gordon. Ignoring Parsley’s leaf-upending attempts at warning him of her true intentions, Bayleaf is easily flattered by this deceptively friendly newcomer and her meekly-voiced natter of how hard he’s been working and how thirsty he must be. Belladonna offers the parched gardener a sip of water, and the easily-charmed Bayleaf is only too eager to partake, especially once she denounces Parsley’s increasingly frantic interjections as “only a foolish lion up to his tricks”; “this is going to be easier than I thought”, she offers in a really rather creepy aside made directly to the audience.
A persistent Parsley succeeds in knocking the proffered bottle out of Bayleaf’s hand just in time, but matters are immediately thrown into further complication by the arrival of the hardly exactly intellectually towering combination of Sir Basil and Lady Rosemary. The grand dignitaries of the Herb Garden have barely enough time to rattle through their introductory songs about liking huntin’ shootin’ and fishin’ and having a heart of gold despite a manner that may seem cold before Belladonna gets back in with the harmless old dear act, claiming to have nowhere to stay and weakly asking for somewhere to rest for the night; “one night will be more than enough”, she mutters directly to the presumably few children who were still watching. Typically, they ignore all of Parsley’s attempts at tipping them off and agree to put her up, giving her an opportunity to offer some wine in exchange for their generosity. Once again, Parsley sends the bottle flying just in time, leading a furious Belladonna to literally tell the assembled dupes to look over there, casting a spell to turn Parsley into a weed while their backs are turned. Which does call her need to use a magic potion to bestow the same transformative effect on the others somewhat into question, but let’s move on.
An unimpressed Sir Basil and Lady Rosemary order a baffled Bayleaf to remove this stray overlooked garden-blighting weed with immediate effect; ignoring the fact that it emits an all too familiar growl when uprooted, he carts it off and cheerfully dumps it on a heap of leaves next to Dill The Dog’s kennel, where the mop-headed mutt is busily dreaming of a thickly-rendered cartoon bone. “That’s one herb now within my power, the rest shall follow within the hour”, cackles Belladonna, but she’s overestimated just how much in her power the horticulturally incapacitated Parsley actually is. Tipped off by Gordon that people in the olden days used to plant dill to repel witches – apparently an entirely historically accurate detail – the lion trapped in a weed’s body tries tickling canine co-conspirator’s nose to no avail. Refusing to give up, he somehow contrives to blow the metaphysically-rendered bone away, causing a furious Dill to wake up and go utterly bananas, running off yapping in the direction of the Herb Garden like a dog, erm, without a bone.
Although we’ve conspicuously not actually seen this happen, Sir Basil and Lady Rosemary have apparently glugged down some of Belladonna’s wine and been turned into weeds; Bayleaf is about to join them in this unfortunate state when the enraged canine races in howling and snarling at the wiccan interloper, causing her dill-dampened powers to dissipate and she reverts back to her true form. “Well I’ll be – ’tis a witch!”, exclaims Bayleaf somewhat unnecessarily. Hoping to make a clean getaway and escape their dendtritic retribution, Belladonna zooms off on what she assumes to be her broomstick but which is in actuality Bayleaf’s thoroughly non-magical one, resulting in an almighty off-screen crash. “Good”, notes Bayleaf, “we don’t want ‘er sort in ‘ere!”. Using the magic broom, Dill brings Parsley, Sir Basil and Lady Rosemary back into their correct herbaceous composition, and Parsley returns the favour by conjuring up a huge pile of bones. “Very handy things, magic brooms… in the right paws of course” offers Gordon as we leave the garden, “I should hang on to it – it may come in useful one day”. And indeed they did and it did, although Belladonna herself was thankfully never seen again. And that’s the end of the episode, without a single glimpse of Constable Knapweed, Sage The Owl, Pashana Bedhi or Mr. Onion, though the fact that any one of them would have figured out what she was up to and warned the others straight away should probably be taken into account. And gone into at the correct time.
The Herbs is a series noted for its hefty and unexpected injections of wordplay and dry wit, but there’s very little of it on display in Belladonna The Witch; even the handful of wryly comical lines given to Gordon Rollings fall somewhat flat in this context. It’s not quite a bad trip, but it’s definitely more of a piece with The Kinks’ Wicked Annabella than with the more humdrum exploits of the residents of Trumpton, who never faced up to any more existential a threat than an old chimney needing to be pulled down. Even allowing for the proliferation of late sixties children’s television witches, it’s a baffling enough aberration within the otherwise largely quirky and sedate escapades of The Herbs, let alone the wider Watch With Mother lineup. Whatever anyone involved was actually thinking, it was an experiment they did not really repeat. There were the episodes with Tarragon The Dragon in of course. But nobody really did enough songs about dragons.
You can find a longer version of this article, with a lot more about those psychedelic scamps singing about witches and dragons, in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
You can find me talking about The Magic Roundabout on BBC Radio 4 over at the Audio page.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.