ROOM 39 @ THE NICE ROOMS presents
Follyfoot: Horses and High Production Values
by Sabrina Ferguson
by Sabrina Ferguson
Date of Article: 1st December 2016
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Sabrina Ferguson is a writer and editor with her own web and graphic design company writing fiction under the pseudonym of Caroline Sully - https://carolinesully.wordpress.com.
Sabrina focuses on writing short stories, and has had several published in magazines, including a series for teens/young adults in an equine magazine.
People who remember Follyfoot (1971-73) often remember a specific thing about it: that it had a catchy theme song Lightning Tree , that it was about horses; that it had two young stars in Steve Hodson (Steve Ross) and Gillian Blake (Dora Maddocks) who did unspeakable things to teen hormones; or that Dora seemed to be perpetually in tears.
But Follyfoot was far more than just simply that..
Production values, with Tony Essex producing the series, were extremely high. Quality actors including Desmond Llewellyn (Colonel Maddocks) and Arthur English (Slugger Jones) starred alongside Steve, Gillian and Christian Rodska (Ron Stryker).
Tony Essex not only produced the series, but wrote most of the episodes under the pseudonym Francis Stevens, a fact not released at the time. He had tight control on the entire production, apparently sending knees knocking and teeth chattering on set every time he arrived at the farm in a black taxi. He could be extremely hard to work for - anyone on the production side who didn’t measure up was sent home at the end of the week - but the results were worth it.
Tony brought in quality people such as cameraman Peter Jackson; he had guest directors (and writers) including David Hemmings. He rented the Hollin Hall property from the Harewood Estate and turned it from a dilapidated building and stables into Follyfoot Farm, with barns used as canteens and production areas, and sets inside the main farmhouse. Extensive outdoor location shots formed a major part of each episode. This was clearly not going to be ‘just a children’s TV show’. And it wasn’t. It won a BAFTA in 1972 for the best children’s drama series.
The song The Lightning Tree was written by Francis Essex - brother of Tony - but as Francis was the controller of Programmes for ATV at the time, his name could not be associated with a rival TV company. His son's name was Steven so he adopted the pen name of Steven Essex.
Follyfoot Opening Credits: "The Lightning Tree" (Run time: 56 seconds)
The song was sung by The Settlers who were a folk-oriented group from The West Midlands UK. The group were active between 1964 - 1974 and started out as a trio comprising Cynthia 'Cindy' Kent, Mike Jones and John Fyffe. Mansel Davies, a bassist, joined them later.
Mansel Davies then left the band in 1965 to pursue a career in teaching, and was replaced by Geoff Srdzinski. The Lightning Tree reached Number 36 in the Top 40 UK singles chart in October 1971 and stayed on the charts for 5 weeks.
Follyfoot was filmed in a beautiful setting which adds to its charm. Follyfoot Farm - the main location for the series - was filmed at Hollin Hall on the Harewood estate in Yorkshire, UK
Hollin Hall on The Harewood Estate
I’ve visited the site - quite a few fans have. These days the old farmhouse has been modernised and extended beyond belief to McMansion status, but a public footpath runs through the property and you can see what’s left of the barns, most of which are in a sorry state or have fallen down or been removed.
It was quite a wonderful feeling to tread on the same ground my childhood heroes did in the early 70s. - If you visit the site, please stick to the footpath; the owners have had difficulties with people wandering through onto private property, and it would be a shame if the footpath were closed because of that.
In the early 70s there weren’t a large number of TV shows specifically made for teenagers. Follyfoot was thought of as being a children’s show but realistically it was catering for young teenagers; in the first episode a horse is shot after being injured by the 'Night Riders’, a gang who steal horses to ride before setting them loose again. Certainly not happy viewing for anyone under twelve.
We aimed the series at the young teenage audience - a completely unknown area at the time it first began. The success was quite astonishing to me. Something in the programme clicked with a wider range of viewers.
The series was loosely based on a book called Cobbler’s Dream by Monica Dickens, about a rest home for old horses. Written to raise awareness of animals being mistreated, it’s a book for adults or young adults rather than children. The Follyfoot series Monica wrote following the success of the TV show was aimed at younger readers. Tony decided that Cobbler’s Dream wasn’t the right name for the TV show and his daughter chose the name Follyfoot after spotting the name of a village called Follifoot on a map of Yorkshire where the filming was based. The rest is history.
Follifoot is a village and civil parish in the Harrogate district of North Yorkshire, England. It is situated on the A658 road and 4 miles south-east from the town centre of Harrogate.
Perhaps because Follyfoot isn’t all sweetness and light, it’s stood the test of time well. Follyfoot Farm is a home for old, injured, unwanted and occasionally mistreated horses. It’s no Black Beauty. So you know straight away there’ll be some sad stuff, but there are uplifting, joyful episodes too, particularly in the first two series.
The series centres around Dora, whose father is a diplomat and who has spent most of her seventeen years in boarding school. Her parents are off to Brazil, and Dora is to stay with her uncle The Colonel, who lives in a mansion near Follyfoot Farm. He owns Follyfoot Farm and runs it mostly out of the kindness of his heart.
Dora, who is sad, lonely, and rejected by her parents once again, mopes around the big house until her uncle suggests she rides down to see Follyfoot Farm, and suddenly she has a purpose in life and asks to live there and help with the horses.
Slugger (Arthur English) – who is terrified of the ‘big hairy brutes’ – is the housekeeper who becomes Dora’s father figure. He lives in the farmhouse.
Helping out in the stables, and doing as little as he can, is Ron Stryker (Christian Rodska), whom the Colonel has employed as a favour to Ron’s father.
Steve comes into the scene as a stable hand for the local Squire, whose horses the Night Riders have taken and injured. He is sacked by the Squire who believes he is one of the Night Riders, but the Colonel believes he isn’t and gives him a job and home over the stables at Follyfoot Farm.
In the first series we also see a lot of Gillian Bush-Bailey, who plays Callie, a young girl who volunteers at Follyfoot Farm, but her character doesn’t develop as strongly as Dora’s or Steve’s, and her roles are fewer as the series moves on.
Gillian Bush-Bailey also starred as Billie in "Here Come The Double-Deckers!"
Gillian Bush-Bailey talks about her acting role in Follyfoot: Radio Interview Segment (2011) courtesy of BBC
(Edit Run time: 1 minute 38 seconds)
Circus horses, point-to-point horses, gypsy horses, carters' horses, pit ponies, stolen horses, unwanted horses, foals … Follyfoot definitely appealed more to the pony-mad girl than to boys, except the ethereal beauty of Gillian Blake usually won them over. Especially the rare times when she wore a mini dress or hot pants.
Weaving into the series is a growing attraction between Dora and Steve. It’s star-crossed and can’t come to anything, as Dora is from a posh family and Steve a miner’s son who realises they come from two different worlds and it’s never going to work.
In addition, Dora is a dreamer, Steve a realist, and he makes this clear to Dora. That doesn’t stop her falling for him, and in the episode Treasure Hunt in series two they come as near to a kiss as they are ever likely too. I have a vision of every viewer, seeing the episode Treasure Hunt for the first time, yelling “Kiss her!” at the screen. I’ve seen it many times, and I still do!
As the characters grow and develop, so does the show. Tony Essex clearly believed his viewers from series one were sticking by the show and growing up, so the themes for each series became either a little darker or more adult.
By the end of series two the Colonel is very ill in hospital and has given Follyfoot Farm to Dora. She’s still very young, and headstrong, and her decisions lead to major clashes in series three with Steve.
The most dramatic episode in series three is probably Rain on Friday, when Steve and Dora, stuck indoors on a relentlessly wet day, have a massive fight about whether or not to build more stables (Dora’s idea) or send extra horses out to someone else (Steve’s). Everyone has cabin fever and Steve and Ron come to blows.
Follyfoot: From the episode Rain On Friday (Edit Run time: 2 minutes 40 seconds)
It’s the beginning of a breakdown between Steve and Dora. Neither will back down on how they think Follyfoot Farm should be run. While he states he doesn’t love her, Steve sees himself working beside Dora as a partner to run the farm. Now he believes that she, having finally given up on gaining Steve’s romantic love, sees him as a hired help with her in charge.
Things come to a head in the final episode, Walk in the Woods, where Dora tells Steve to leave, and he asks to stay, and for Dora to bear with him and give him time.
The ending is ambivalent. Dora nods to indicate Steve can stay at Follyfoot Farm, then collapses beside the Lightning Tree in a flood of tears, close to a nervous breakdown. To make matters worse the farm’s oldest horse Lancelot has breathed his last without Dora being there to comfort him …
It’s an odd finish for a final episode in a final series. You want to know if Steve and Dora manage to patch things up between them and are able to work side by side at the farm. The more romantic wonder whether they’ll find true love together.
It’s probably that odd last episode – what happens next? – that has helped keep this series in people’s minds for more than forty years.
A film was planned to follow on from series three, and Tony Essex had written a script. Very sadly, he died before any production could be started and the idea died with him.
Tony Essex's daughter, Tamara Essex explains:
We'd been in Australia finishing the post-production work on Luke's Kingdom, and returned at the beginning of May 1975 to live in a temporary rented flat in London while Dad decided what to do next.
Unusually he had been offered a fabulous job as Head of Documentaries at the BBC - this was the first time ANYONE who had "absconded" from the Beeb to commercial TV had ever been invited back.
But he'd also been offered a very unusual job in India, working for the government to strengthen their TV structures and programming.
He was very stressed (which was not like him) because either of these jobs would have been very exciting and challenging, but each would involve very different lifestyles.
I believe it was because of the stress of having to decide, that led to his fatal heart-attack on 16th May 1975.
He was only 49.
Ignoring the defiantly 70s fashions – which are a gem! – Follyfoot is still relevant viewing today. The storylines, the moral issues, the compassion; this hasn’t changed.
It’s a testament to Follyfoot that quite a number of long time forum members have either chosen a career with horses, owned horses or worked with animal charities as a result of the impact Follyfoot had on their lives as teens.
And that tells you: Follyfoot is THAT good - It’s worth a watch.
Sabrina Ferguson 2016
Follyfoot 40th Anniversary Weekend (2011)
(Run time: 2 mins 06 secs)