This was the third in my series of features on Children’s BBC Christmas Specials from the seventies, this time taking a look at one of the most peculiar series ever broadcast in the Watch With Mother timeslot. Although many of the other shows that shared the timeslot are still subject to ridiculous and patently false rumours that they were inspired by the free and easy availability of hallucinogens in the rather suspiciously late psychedelic era (in itself something of an urban myth of sorts), it is nonetheless true that Bod was heavily influenced by Taoist philosophy and post Terry Gilliam/Yellow Submarine animation techniques, and also employed a refreshingly lo-fi make do and mend approach to its own distinctive strain of animated presentation. The rather unexpected upshot of this is that everybody seems to remember the stories that were actually directly based on zen tenets, nobody ever seems to recall Bod’s Present, which had the temerity to weld its Neo-Daoist philosophies to the season of goodwill and gift-giving. All the more ironic then that, for a long time, this was one of the few editions of Bod to survive in its original extended broadcast format with the Alberto Frog story and the game of snap intact. Of course, while some Children’s BBC shows of the era are still frustratingly and needlessly absent (as you can read more about here), broadcast quality copies of all of the extended editions of Bod have since been recovered. But that’s another story…
You can find an expanded version of this feature on Bod’s Present, with more on the actual Christmases that surrounded it and why I came to be so fond of it, in my collection Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Bod’s Present, the twelfth episode of much-inaccurately recalled Watch With Mother show Bod, probably hasn’t been on anyone’s Christmas List for a long time. Until recently, it was one of only five of the original thirteen episodes still to exist in its expanded Alberto Frog-accompanied fifteen minute format – if you want to know how and why the others came to be missing in the first place, you’ll be wanting to have a read of this – so nobody really had any particular reason to be looking out for it. On top of that, the seasonal nature means that it’s not really as well remembered as the other episodes; and it’s for precisely that reason that we’re wrapping it up and ‘regifting’ it to you now.
In a sense, Bod’s Present was in fact a bit of a regifting in itself. Although the actual episode was first seen on BBC1 in December 1975, the basic storyline of the main animated section dated back to 1965 and the original series of Bod storybooks; indeed by that point it had already been read on Play School on a couple of suitably festive occasions. This is probably not too surprising when you consider that Bod’s creators Michael and Joanne Cole were involved with Play School on the production side for many years, and that by the early seventies they had started to produce their own children’s programmes for the BBC, amongst them Fingerbobs, Ring A Ding, Ragtime and, through a somewhat more roundabout route, Bod.
Like many other animated children’s shows of the time, the thirteen Bod stories narrated by John Le Mesurier had already been made by the appropriately named ‘Bodfilms’ when the Coles took them to the BBC, presumably with the five-minute slot just before the news in mind, though it was suggested that they should expand them for the lunchtime Watch With Mother slot by adding an extra ten minutes of puzzles, games and new stories with other characters. Each extended edition still opened with one of the original Bodfilms Bod films, however, and in true zen fashion that’s right where we come in…
Given that the mid-sixties were something of a boom time for exploring alternative religions, when everyone from The Beatles and Peter Sellers to The Small Faces and probably even Basil Brush briefly fell under the spell of tosspot conmen wrapped in orange curtains, it should probably come as no surprise to learn that the original Bod stories were very much influenced by the somewhat more established and worthwhile teachings of Taoism. All of Bod’s Daozang-derived escapades are based around the concept of action-through-inaction, as he pursues a simple thought or task secure in the knowledge that the fundamental interconnectedness of all things will lead him directly to his spiritual destination (or, if raining, head first into a giant bowl of strawberries and cream). Bod’s Present is no exception and it opens with a balaclava-sporting parcel-carrying Bod trudging through the snow towards Aunt Flo’s house, joined en route by the similarly-tasked PC Copper, Frank The Postman and Farmer Barleymow. As they travel onwards, the snow keeps falling in true In The Bleak Midwinter fashion until they are entirely submerged by it.
It’s at this point that a curious cross-belief-system intersection occurs, as midnight chimes and a decidedly Bod-canon Father Christmas with, you can’t help but notice, a bright red nose rides into view. Presumably having been flicking through the Tao Te Ching on his way from the North Pole, Santa spots the apparently discarded parcels in the snow and resolves to deliver them to Aunt Flo himself. As he lifts them, up come Bod, Copper, Frank and Barleymow, who offer to help him with his deliveries in exchange for a lift to Aunt Flo’s house.
After a night spent squeezing down chimneys, they finally alight at Aunt Flo’s joint, where it soon becomes apparent that everyone has bought her the same hat, only in slightly varying shades. “What a Hatty Christmas!”, Aunt Flo declares, before revealing that she’s bought them all handkerchieves, upon which an exercise in lazy unimaginative gift-buying finds its harmonic purpose as they have all caught colds as a result of their overnight exposure to the elements. “It was worth catching a cold”, says Bod, “to meet Father Christmas and see Aunt Flo in all those hats”. If you say so, Robert M. Pirsig.
There goes Bod. And here comes…?
Well, a switch from film to videotape, the Le Mesurier-usurping voice of Maggie Henderson, and the rest of the programme, basically. When it came to making Bod up to transmission length, they simply cued the existing films into a video recording and filled up the rest of the time with charmingly crude real-time in-studio ‘animation’ and sparse narration with the occasional hum and clunk of distant technical goings-on in the background, representing a textbook example of a long-lost style of programme making; and, unfortunately, it was the fact that these extended shows were made on videotape that allowed them to be erased when storage practicalities became an issue, while the actual Bod insert films survived quite happily in Michael Cole’s shed. No, really, his actual shed.
Anyway, the first post-Bod item was invariably a suitably crudely-animated guessing game, on this occasion with the neatly Christmassy slant of trying to guess what’s inside parcels and crackers. In fairness, there is an actual element of suspense to whether that cracker has a whistle, a ring or a paper crown in it, but you do have to wonder about anyone who couldn’t have worked out on first glance that the wrapped-up presents were a piggy bank and a toy car (it’s nice to get a glimpse of what were presumably home-made Cole Family decorations, though), and as for that teddy bearing an unnerving resemblance to a mummified cat, the less said about that the better.
Then it’s time for the usual tambourine-backed variation on Ten Green Bottles – featuring on this occasion Five White Snowmen Standing In The Snow, who take it in turns to ‘melt away, just so’ with a quick accompanying warble of flexatone – with the snowman-depleted backdrop leading into a procession of snow-covered landscapes and a brief and very much zen-inflected bridging poem about how “snow falls on one and snow falls on all, on one twig and all, on all twigs and one”, which itself leads into the establishing image of the programme’s second story. Those of you who are half-musing that this seems ever so slightly similar to Terry Gilliam’s bits in Monty Python’s Flying Circus would be more correct than you are probably assuming you are – the Coles were huge fans of The Pythons, and Terry Gilliam in particular, and often cited his direct influence on some of their other shows. Anyway, you’ll be wanting to know exactly where we’ve linked to. Well, there’s the snow-festooned outside of a familiar building, a bit of tuning up based on God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, and…
Yes, it’s Alberto Frog and his Amazing Animal Band, the travelling orchestral ensemble who enjoyed a series of barely animated in-Bod-Universe escapades without ever actually meeting him or any of his friends. That said, Alberto certainly does seem to share a belief structure with his less anthropomorphic counterparts, with his adventures generally involving a more proactive use of the aligning forces of the universe to resolve a trivial issue, his only real reward for his efforts being a Quinlankian choice of a milkshake from a guessing game-friendly selection of flavours.
On this occasion, Alberto has noticed that, with a busy schedule of carol concerts in the offing, his tuba-toting Hippo pal is missing his usual swing. Hippo confesses that he’s having difficulty deciding what to get for his wife, ‘Mrs. Potamus’, for Christmas, and having decided against chocolates or a hat he’s now all out of ideas. Apparently caught in the middle of an appearance on a chintzy reboot of Mastermind, Alberto sets to work…
Following some worryingly Hogarthianally-rendered evening engagements, the Amazing Animal Band set about mysteriously rehearsing in remote locations where nobody can hear them – presumably inspired by the likes of Traffic ‘getting it together in the country’ – and on Christmas Morning, Mrs. Potamus opens her bedroom door to find them all lined up on the stairs and belting out crescendos like nobody’s business. Everybody’s happy, but there’s something missing – at no point does Alberto ask for his traditional milkshake, Starbucks Yuletide Cranberry And Praline Flavour or otherwise. Come to think of it, none of the characters in the Bod section came accompanied by their usual Derek Griffiths-yodelled walk-on tunes either. Could this barely perceptible deviation from the formula be some arcane Chapter 24-esque Taoist lesson that we’ve not picked up on?
Well, if it is, we’ve missed it, because as per usual here come said characters, zooming towards the front of the screen with their intro tunes blaring out loud and clear, as a lead-in to the weekly game of snap. Surprisingly, there are no seasonal additions to their usual natty playing card poses, and we just get the familiar round of Maggie suggesting “no that’s not snap” a couple of times before noticing that it ‘is’ snap, upon which the assembled cast stride away into a green void behind the end credits. And, well, that’s Bod’s Present.
Unlike the other shows we’ve been looking at in this short series of Yuletide-themed features, Bod’s Present can’t really be considered an example of end-of-term letting down of hair at Children’s BBC, as it was made as part of a series and indeed was occasionally shown at decidedly non-Christmassy times of year. Yet it’s this more than any other that defines just how differently television was made then to how it is now, with the long silences, make-do-and-mend production techniques, stream-of-consciousness yet rigidly structured patchwork format, and odd juxtaposition of hi-tech equipment and lo-tech production values making it feel virtually – yet charmingly – prehistoric. In some ways, that’s actually a better reflection of the intended philosophies and values than anything that was worked into the show itself. What’s more peculiar still is that, despite the heavy slant in its contents, it doesn’t actually feel particularly Christmassy. Which you can’t really say about a certain other closely related programme… but you can read more about that here.
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You can find an extended version of Christmas With Children’s BBC: Bod’s Present, alongside features on festive editions of Play School, Watch, Rentaghost, Quincy’s Quest, The Ghosts Of Motley Hall, Magpie and Chorlton And The Wheelies, in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. You can get Can’t Help Thinking About Me in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Listen With Hamble is an album by album guide to the hidden folky and funky delights on the Play School and Play Away albums; you can find it here.
© Tim Worthington.
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