It’s four decades since the Wombles hit our screens. Now the man who made them sing is resurrecting them. Miranda Jessop meets Mike Batt
As a child who grew up in the 1970s, I have a special place in my heart for the Wombles. So when I hear that the quirky creatures are returning to our screens, and that my own children will have the chance to get to know them, I can’t wait to meet Mike Batt, the songwriter and music impresario who is going to make it happen.
Mike lives in Surrey, where he has a large Victorian property in the country just outside Farnham, but he also has a smart house in London, where we arrange to meet. There is a long pause after I ring the bell and I worry that he may have forgotten our appointment. But no. Here he is now, apologising that he can’t shake my hand because a pen has leaked blue ink all over his fingers. He ushers me into the front room and heads off to wash his hands.
There is no mistaking that this is the home of someone in showbusiness. A large keyboard takes up one side of the room and framed silver, gold and platinum discs adorn the walls. There are stunning photographs of Mike’s second wife, the actress Julianne White, taken on the set of the film Sexy Beast, in which she starred with Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley. As for Mike, he looks younger than his 64 years and is approachable, chatty and warm.
For those too young to remember, the Wombles were fictional, pointy-nosed, furry creatures that lived in burrows on Wimbledon Common, helping the environment by collecting and recycling rubbish in creative ways.
Created by author Elisabeth Beresford, they first appeared in a series of children’s novels back in 1968. But it was in the 70s that the characters became really popular, when the BBC launched The Wombles: an animated children’s television programme narrated by Bernard Cribbins.
Mike was writing jingles and living on a houseboat in West Byfleet with his first wife and baby, when he was approached to write the theme music.
“Instead of just composing a simple tune, I decided it would be more fun to write a song introducing some of the characters,” he explains. “The BBC offered me a fee of £200, which was pretty good in those days.”
Even so, he decided to turn it down, requesting the rights to the characters for musical purposes instead. It turned out to be a brilliant move.
“We released The Wombling Song in 1973. Then, one Tuesday, I got a call from Top of the Pops, asking if the Wombles could appear on the show that Thursday. I quickly rang three friends who played bass, drum and guitar and asked them to join the band, and my family rallied round to help my mum make some costumes. She had a superb theatrical streak and used to make us fabulous dressing-up outfits when we were kids. The costumes were ingenious. They were just made from bits and pieces that my mum found around the house, including painted ping-pong balls for noses.”
Cue one of my favourite family stories. One day, while playing at a friend’s house in Bracknell, my brother was invited next door to try on the Womble costumes. He duly dressed up as Wellington – the one with the school cap and glasses.
“Oh yes,” chuckles Mike, immediately catching on. “That would have been my mother’s house!”
Following the Wombles’ appearance on Top of the Pops, the record shot to No 4 in the UK charts and the band went on to have eight hit singles – including Remember You’re A Womble and Banana Rock – as well as four gold albums.
We’ve heard less of the Wombles in recent years, but the band came out of hibernation for Glastonbury 2011 and Mike loved being back in his Orinoco costume.
“My wife refused to come, in case I did a ‘Tommy Cooper’ on stage and keeled over,” he laughs. “We drew a huge crowd and it was an amazing experience.”
No doubt we shall be seeing much more of the band, as there are exciting developments in the pipeline. Recently Mike’s production company, Dramatico, acquired the TV and film production rights for the Wombles. There are now plans for a new 26-part television series, a feature-length movie and an interactive online experience, Wombles World.
“The characters are timeless, funny and loveable,” says Mike. “There are new audiences of children who missed the Wombles first time around and will be thrilled to see the brilliant, high quality animations.”
All my favourite characters will be featured, Mike assures me, along with a new female Womble who appeared in the original book, but who never made it onto our screens.
However, Mike’s career as one of Britain’s best-known songwriters is not confined to his work with the cuddly Wimbledonians. Looking back, he sees his greatest triumph as the composition of Bright Eyes for the film Watership Down. Sung by Art Garfunkel, the track went on to become a No 1 hit and was the biggest-selling UK single of 1979.
“After the Wombles, Bright Eyes gave me real credibility as a songwriter,” he reflects.
And, aside from composing, Mike is also an established musician in his own right. In 2008 he performed and released A Songwriter’s Tale, a compilation album of his hits, newly recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It went to No 24 in the UK album charts.
“I still love performing,” he says. ”Just this morning, I had a call about a possible tour in South Africa.”
Mike is also famed for discovering singer Katie Melua, and then successfully guiding her career.
“I had recently started Dramatico, and set out to find a solo artist. I went to The Brit School in Croydon, where I listened to about 40 performers. As soon as I heard Katie, I knew instantly that I had heard something very special.”
Originally from Georgia (formerly part of the USSR), Katie had just turned 18. Her first album, Call Off The Search – featuring six of Mike’s songs, including The Closest Thing to Crazy – was released on the Dramatico label in 2003. Six weeks at number one in the UK, the album sold six times platinum – over 1.8 million copies – in the UK and three million copies in total, making Katie the biggest-selling UK female artist of 2004. Since then she has sold more than 11 million records and had six consecutive top ten albums, including her latest, Ketevan.
Although Mike has a base in London, he spends more time at the redbrick house in Surrey that he bought with Julianne 17 years ago.
“We chose Farnham because we had connections with the area and it’s so accessible to London. We are very lucky. Our house has a spectacular view of the countryside.”
And there is another benefit: the property can quickly be turned into a recording studio.
“The drawing room is wired up for sound, so all we need to do is roll back the carpets, take out the furniture and we have space for a 25-piece orchestra.”
Mike’s four grown-up children (two from his first marriage and two with Julianne) have all inherited his musical ability.
“Whilst Robin has chosen a career in business, Sam works as a singing teacher, Hayley is fast becoming one of the most sought-after bass players on the Manhattan live music scene and Luke is a brilliant songwriter and musician,” explains Mike, who also has three grandchildren so far.
And the family love to spend weekends and holidays together in Surrey.
“Farnham is a beautiful, historic town. There’s even an old record shop where I like to spend time thumbing through vinyl.”
2013 was particularly poignant for the Batt family. Mike was commissioned to write a special piece for Katie Melua to sing at the Coronation Festival Gala at Buckingham Palace in July. He wrote it for the Queen, but also for his beloved mother, who was dying of cancer.
“The song I Will Be There was driven by emotion,” he reveals. “While I was writing the song downstairs, my mother was ill in bed upstairs.”
And then, the day before his mother died, Mike learned that he had been awarded an LVO (Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
“It was a complete surprise,” he says. “I felt very touched and I wanted to burst into tears.”
Mike has certainly achieved much in his life, making good use of his gifts, in true Womble fashion. Now, with the Wombles themselves about to re-emerge from their burrows, there will be a whole lot more for the everyday folks to enjoy.