Bill and Ben the Flower Pot Men

Long before the days of gaming consoles, mobile phones, social media and digital TV channels, for kids growing up in the 1950s, entertainment was provided by the likes of Bill and Ben the Flower Pot Men. As was one of the first television shows aimed at young children, it was launched by the BBC on 18th December 1952, as part of the Watch with Mother series.

The puppet show was created by a duo called Westerham Arts, comprising Freda Lingstrom (the BBC's head of children's programmes) and her friend Maria Bird. They had already collaborated on another children's puppet series, Andy Pandy, when they created the Bill and Ben show.

Origins

The exact origins of Bill and Ben the Flower Pot Men have been the subject of much dispute. Three stories featuring the characters were written by school teacher, Hilda Brabban. She was said to have based the characters and antics of Bill and Ben on her brothers, Benjamin and William.

She also reportedly based the character of their chirpy friend, Little Weed, on her younger sister, Phyllis. Her brother, Bill Wright, has backed up this story.

Brabban sold the original three stories to the BBC for one guinea each and they were broadcast on Listen with Mother in 1951. Her daughter, Diana Chamberlain, described her as an "inspired teacher" who was a storyteller her entire life.

However, some of the head teacher's relatives said that although Brabban had originally invented Bill and Ben, other aspects of her stories had been changed dramatically for the puppet series, including the way they spoke.

Since she died in 2002, at the age of 88, it has been a source of dispute between her family, with some members claiming the flower pot characters in the TV show were significantly different from Brabban's original duo.

Regardless of the exact origins of Bill and Ben, the rights to the stories were sold to Ben Productions and they were turned into the long-running 1950s children's TV series.

Puppet characters

Westerham Arts adapted the stories for television and created the puppets. Episodes were always based in the garden, with Bill and Ben living in large flower pots and Little Weed growing behind them.

Bill and Ben were identical puppets made out of lots of flower pots. Their hands were made of gardening gloves and they wore hobnail boots on their feet.

The trademark of the Flower Pot Men was their strange and largely unintelligible version of English, which was called Oddle Poddle. Their voices were provided by Peter Hawkins, who was also the voice of cartoon character Captain Pugwash and the Daleks and Cyber Men on Dr Who.

The language added extra syllables such as "ickle" to words, so that an icicle became an "ickle-kickle", for example. Ben would often say the nonsense word, "flobabdob".

At the end of every episode, they would say goodbye to each other and to Little Weed by saying, "Babap Ickle Weed," before going back in their pots.

Little Weed, who looked like a sunflower or giant dandelion with a smiling face, would squeak "weeeeeed" all the time, elongating the word. At the end of the episode, she would say this in reply to Bill and Ben's "bye bye". Educationalists criticised the language, claiming that it hindered children from learning how to speak "proper" English.

The plot

Although each episode had a different story, essentially the plots were very similar. The action always took place in the garden. The gardener was working there every day, but when he went for lunch, Bill and Ben would pop their heads out of the flowerpots to check the coast was clear. Then, they would sneak out of their flowerpots to begin their adventure, although the merest hint of his return would send them scurrying back.

Every story would involve Bill and Ben having some kind of humorous mishap, but because they were identical, the narrator would always say, "Was it Bill, or was it Ben?"

Later in his career, Hawkins made up the language of the Teletubbies, 45 years down the line ? another show that was criticised for encouraging children to speak nonsense English.

The original puppets from Bill and Ben now reside in the Museum of London.

Series reboot

A new series of Bill and Ben was launched on 4th January 2001 and ran for three series and 78 episodes on the BBC's CBeebies network. It wasn't a puppet show and instead featured stop-motion animation that was filmed in full colour.

New characters were introduced, including a tortoise called Slowcoach, who would amble over to visit Bill and Ben; a magpie named Pry, who loved shiny objects; a mischievous plant called Thistle; Scamper the squirrel; a spider called Whimsy and many more.

Weed had transformed into a giant sunflower and spoke normal English, often helping Bill and Ben with their problems. Although the show was well received, it hasn't achieved the same cult status as the original.

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