Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Willo the Wisp

A series of 5 minute cartoons about a group of inhabitants of a forest. Willo the Wisp is a sprite formed from gas who narrates each story. Other characters included Evil Edna (a witch shaped like a TV), Mavis (a rather overweight fairy), The Moog, The Argonauts (strange alien things that flew around in a mushroom), etc.

Willo the Wisp is a British cartoon series originally produced in 1981.

In the first series, Kenneth Williams provided voices for all of the characters, which included these main characters:

Willo the Wisp, the narrator. A blue floating ghost-like creature, Willo had a long pointed nose which caricatured that of Williams. The name refers to the ghostly light will-o'-the-wisp from folklore.
Arthur the caterpillar (as a gruff cockney).
Mavis Cruet, a plump clumsy fairy with erratic magical powers.
Evil Edna, a witch in the form of a walking, talking television set who could zap people with her aerials.
Carwash, a snooty bespectacled cat with a character based on Noël Coward.
The Moog, a supposed "dog" who is unable to think for himself.
Twit, a small bird.

The series was written and directed by Nick Spargo and produced by Nicholas Cartoon Films in association with the BBC and Tellytales Enterprises. The character of Willo the Wisp originated in an educational animation created by Nick Spargo for British Gas plc in 1975 and the stories were set in Doyley Woods, a small beech wood in Oxfordshire, near the director's home. Each of the original 26 episodes lasted approximately 5 minutes and were broadcast at 5:35pm on BBC1, a tradition as short cartoons were always shown between the end of the main children's BBC drama or sitcom for that afternoon, and the BBC Evening news at 5:40pm.

Kenneth Williams narrated Willo The Wisp, a cartoon about strange goings-on in Doyle Woods. The characters included Arthur the cockney caterpillar, Mavis Cruet the Hattie-Jacques-esque fairy, Carwash the intelectual cat, Moog the dim sausage dog and Evil Edna the villainous TV set.
Williams' face was immortalised as ghost-like gossip Willo, the only character with any real brains. He rarely joined in with the action, instead narrating the activities of the forest freaks.
Stories often involved Evil Edna turning a member of the cast into a toad, by using lightning bolts from her antennae.

Of the U.K. cartoons, my favorite was Willo the Wisp, with Kenneth Williams doing all the voices and the late Nick Spargo writing and directing. I still like that one. British TV cartoons had their ups and downs, but at their best they had a trippy absurdity that U.S. kids' cartoons weren't allowed to have at the time, and they could even fit in a little bit of political and social commentary: "Evil Edna," the most popular and famous character, was both a parody of Margaret Thatcher and a warning of the dangers of letting TV control your life.

Debuting in a 1975 animated special for British Gas - Super Natural Gas, obviously - the Willo The Wisp character soon made it to the 5.35pm slot in his own animated show, of which twenty-six episodes were produced. Ah...a time before Neighbours, when children's television extended all the way to the news but, like that later show, Willo The Wisp attracted a mix of kids and adults within its audience. Where one group was doubtless attracted by the bright colours, funny little stories and the mostly sweet characters, adults would have noted Kenneth Williams' arch and witty narration and would have tuned in to hear a distinctly adult tone within a children's animated show. Even in 1981, with his best years, such as those when he was a regular in the Carry On films, behind him, Williams could still attract an audience who realised that, like Peter Cook, he was always best when simply being himself.

And so it proves in Willo The Wisp, with the waspish Williams providing a pointed narration, via a character animated to bear a remarkable similarity to the actor, as well as the voices for the cast. His Arthur is a down-to-earth little caterpillar who is at his happiest when munching on a blade of grass but whose search for an easy life is foiled both by his own inability to metamorphose into a moth as well as the desperate schemes of those around him, such as Mavis the fairy, the Moog, the Beast and Carwash the cat. Hence, an episode such as The Flight Of Mavis, features Arthur reaping the benefits of the summer harvest whilst, beside him, poor little Mavis starves herself until she is light enough to take to the sky. Until, that is, Evil Edna intervenes and the appearance of a Fairy Cake Tree spells an end to Mavis' airborne adventure.

Of course, watching it now, one cannot help but be struck by Evil Edna, the TV-shaped witch, who is, with the exception of one episode, never anything less than mean to her co-habitants in Doyley Wood. Were it any more obvious, each episode would have been accompanied by a warning on the dangers of television and, as such, Willo The Wisp harks back to a time when watching too much television was only considered slightly less hazardous than a return of the Black Death and so this, alongside the BBC's Why Don't You..., asked of the view why they continued to do something as dull as watch television. Indeed, the role of Evil Edna the television set is to spoil the enjoyment of the more innocent pastimes enjoyed by the other creatures in Doyley Wood. It all looks to be rather quaint now, given that many parents would dearly love for their children to be sat inside watching television in preference to being at risk from the paedophiles that the News Of The World suggest live on every street in the land but watching it is a happy little experience, immeasurably helped by the jaunty theme tune that opens and closes each episode.

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