Torchy the Battery Boy

Gerry Anderson had become a victim of his own success. Although he wanted to work in live action films the success of The Adventures of Twizzle had delighted the creator of that series, Roberta Leigh, so much that in October 1958 she commissioned Anderson’s company, AP Films, through her own newly formed company, Pelham Films Ltd., to make 26 episodes of a brand new puppet series called Torchy the Battery Boy.

Mr. Bumble-Drop sits down for  
tea.When the children playing in Mr Bumble-Drop’s garden decided to tie the toys that he had just made them to the strings of their kites, they didn’t expect a strong gust of wind to carry them away along with Bumble-Drop’s toy poodle, Pom-Pom. As if poor old Mr Bumble-Drop wasn’t feeling bad enough, matters were made worse when two of the children, Bossy Boots and Bogey Meanymouth, refuse to play in the lonely man’s garden again unless he finds their toys. And so, the old toy-maker makes a wind-up puppet boy to search for the missing toys and he names it Torchy because of the magic torch built into him that projects a beam onto any lost object. Torchy immediately locates the missing toys and Pom-Pom on a twinkling star. Bumble-Drop builds Torchy a rocket out of cardboard, and our hero flies to the star where he discovers Topsy Turvy Land, where cream buns grow on trees, puddles are filled with chocolate, and lollipops grow in fields. In this magical land, the toys can walk and talk and Torchy makes lots of friends. Eventually they all decide to stay and build a village called Frutown, named so because all the houses are made of giant pieces of fruit. Torchy still returns to Earth every now and then (only Torchy and Pom-Pom can return home as they are clockwork moving toys; the other toys would simply revert back to their original static form), helping Mr Bumble-Drop with his problems and teaching naughty children how to behave themselves.

Gerry Anderson and his partner, Arthur Provis, had already raised the standard of children’s puppet series’ to one never seen before on television, and with an increase in the budget this time round to £27,000, nearly double of what they had to spend on Twizzle, the incentive was there to see how much further they could go with the format.

Christine Glanville took charge of the puppets and puppeteers. She made the puppets herself in the garage of her own home sculpting the heads in plasticine before casting them in a mixture of cork dust, glue and methylated spirits which could then be sanded down to get a much smoother finish than had been possible with the papier maché heads used previously. The puppets bodies were cut from wood by Glanville’s father, her mother then made the costumes and the finished article was then given back to Christine to add the finishing touches.

The puppets were further improved with moving mouths and eyes, and finer wire was used to make it less obvious on screen (even though it was still visible). The puppets mouths were opened by pulling one of these finer wires, and a hidden spring was inserted to snap them shut again. To enable the mouths to open and close smoothly, a light flexible material was required beneath the lower lip. After giving this much thought, Glanville decided that the only suitably flexible material for this was the rubber in a condom. As ladies were not expected to purchase such unsavoury items back in the 1950’s, Christine sent her father around the chemists of Maidenhead, Berkshire, to find as many different varieties as he could. Ultimately, any embarrassment caused to the gentleman proved unnecessary, as a light soft strip of leather was used on the final models. Of the four actors who put words into the puppets mouths the most famous was future 'Carry On' star Kenneth Connor who voiced no less than eight of the characters. Olwyn Griffiths voiced Torchy only while Patricia Somerset and Jill Raymond shared the rest.

Bob Bell organizes the crew as  
they bring in props and sets via punt during the floods.The sets were also improved by Reg Hill and his new assistant, Bob Bell, giving the whole series a much more three-dimensional feel. Extra puppeteers were bought in: Cecil 'Buster' Stavordale and his wife Madge had worked with Glanville at the British Puppet Model Theatre Guild. In addition to the increased budget, the team were given more time to complete filming, which turned out to be quite fortuitous. During the winter of 1958, a heavy snowfall had virtually bought the Thames Valley region to a standstill. This didn’t bother the production team too much until it started to thaw. As the level of the nearby river started to rise, flood warnings were issued. Within days the Thames swelled to three times its usual width and lakes began to form in the grounds of Islet Park. In no time at all the production team were surrounded by water. Delivery vehicles had to park on a hill and props and sets were unloaded onto punts in order to get them to the mansion. If this wasn’t bad enough, a flock of ferocious looking swans decided to take up residence within the grounds, menacing the crew who had enough to contend with negotiating the strong currents of the deluge. In time the water levels returned to normal and the crew continued a little less harassed.

King Dithers lived in the Orange  
Peel Palace.In fact, the crew managed to finish the filming of all 26 episodes two months ahead of schedule. Delighted by this, Roberta Leigh promptly asked for 26 more. However, Anderson and Provis had already decided to branch out on their own and produce their own puppet series. Anderson still wasn’t enamoured about working with puppets, but realised that his company was creating more and more sophisticated methods working with them. Under the conditions of her contract with AP Films, Roberta Leigh retained sole copyright of Torchy the Battery Boy as well as ownership of the entire compound elements used to make it, including all the puppets, sets and music. The two companies parted amicably and Leigh took the series to Associated British-Pathe to produce the other 26 episodes of series two, under the direction of Vivian Milroy.

Gerry Anderson now took a good long look at the type of show that was popular on television at the time, before deciding on the subject of his next series. It was a genre that had always appealed to him, as well. For his first solo puppet series he would turn to...the Western, and the fictional town of Four Feather Falls.

Review: : Laurence Marcus. April 16th 2005.

for Television Heaven