Alison Prince

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Trumpton and other TV

One afternoon when my children were still in the pram-and-toddle stage, I met a woman in a park who seemed to have armfuls of babies. Her name was Joan Hickson, and she’d had twins twice in under three years. She was – and is – an artist, and within a few minutes of meeting, we were talking about doing a children’s book together, in the hopes of making a bit of money.

I wrote a story about a small boy called Joe who was fascinated by vehicles. When a pavement-sweeping lorry goes slowly by, he follows it, and is temporarily lost until a passer-by recognises him as the lad who lives in the local transport café and returns him to his parents. Why a transport café? Because no mother in the world would let her child wander off beside any kind of lorry. Joe could only do this because he lives among lorries, most of which go too fast to let an interested child walk alongside.

A friend of Joan’s was tickled by her drawings of round-faced Joe with hair that reached to his eyes, and made a 4-minute scrap of film from it, which we sent to the BBC. In those days, they used odd bits as ‘fillers’ if the programmes didn’t quite meet up. We had an imperious letter from Doreen Stevens, then head of Children’s TV, summoning us to meet her.

“Love it,” she said briskly, “love it. I want you to make 13 programmes, each 15 minutes long. Write the stories as shooting scripts, OK? Put the camera moves on, won’t you.” We nodded dumbly. Neither of us dared look at the other. What was a shooting script?

That’s when I learned that people love instructing the ignorant about things they know. We duly wrote the scripts and did the pictures, which were filmed on a new-fangled thing called videotape, which at that time could not be edited. We had to do the quarter-hour without a fluff from the actor and without a caption-operator's thumb appearing at the corner of the picture. Lee Montague narrated it after a fortifying couple of whiskies in the canteen, and somehow the thing worked.

Everyone loved it except the Young Wives League, who complained that small children should not live in transport cafes and certainly should not climb into lorries and have adventures. It seems obvious now, but in those days, we were used to things being a bit dangerous. But the YWL’s protests alarmed the Beeb, and they pulled the plug on the series. We did a second one, with Joe more innocuously living in a seaside boarding house, but it was never quite the same.

Trumpton came about casually. Monica Sims was Head of Children’s Broadcasting by this time, and she asked if I’d like to write the scripts for a puppet programme about a fire station. I went to see the puppets, which were like bendy toys, and was shown the opening sequence, where the wee men slide down the greasy pole into the fire engine. They all looked rather alike, so the first thing was to give them names. There could be a pair of twins, to deal with two at one blow, and the rest would have to get whatever characters I could dream up. So there they were – Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grubb. Freddie Phillips, who wrote and played the music, put them into that order, but I invented the names.

There was a big snag. Stop-motion, the process used to film the puppets, couldn’t cope with fire. No flames, no smoke. And no water, either. So I had to write thirteen stories about a fire brigade that could never be seen putting a fire out. That’s why they spend a lot of time getting hats off lamp-posts and cats out of trees. We recorded the sound-tracks in a back bedroom in Chessington. It had egg-boxes stuck on the walls in the hopes of noise-insulation, but we had to stop every time a jet flew into Heathrow.

I never thought Trumpton would become a classic. I was paid £15 per story, no repeat fees. It seemed OK at the time.

Meanwhile I’d written and narrated a week’s Jackanory stories about being at school during the war. Adults were a bit shocked – it was before any kinds of reality hit the children’s market – but kids loved it. So did Marilyn Malin, editor of Methuen Children’s Books. She phoned to suggest a book arising from the TV series, and that was the first of many. It was called The House on the Common.

If anyone is thinking of asking me how to get started, please don’t. There’s only one thing I can say, and that is, Just get on and do it. Write whatever comes to hand, always say yes even if you think you can’t. Don’t waste energy trying to find an agent, you need every ounce you can summon up for doing the job. If you do it well enough, the rest will come.

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