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The Nice Rooms Webzine: Music Film & Cult TV

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 Room 45 @ THE NICE ROOMS presents

"Catweazle - Under The Wizard's Spell"

By Alan Hayes

Date of Article:   17th June  2017

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Sixties' child Alan Hayes is a writer and designer who has been involved in cult TV fandom since the late 1970s, and who has written books about The Avengers, Police Surgeon and Doctor Who. He also runs the websites The Avengers Declassified, Randall and Hopkirk (Declassified) and JSFnetGB (about the It’s A Knockout game show). He has designed promotional materials for theatre productions and books including The Prisoner: The Essential Guide (Quoit Media). He lives in Hertfordshire, is happily married, and is slave to a bolshie feline called Zoe.


If I cast my mind back to my childhood, several things bubble to the surface: my primary school in Plumstead with its imposing clock tower, my school friends and neighbours, kickarounds in the park, childhood crushes, teatimes at my parents' house in my Nan and Grandad’s rooms (the walls of which were a sickly browny yellow from their cigarette smoke) and of course children’s television programmes of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

At that time, I had yet to discover the likes of Doctor Who and The Avengers – both of which I came to love and eventually write about in teen and adult life – the latter too sophisticated for the young me, and the former too frightening, or so I thought. Doctor Who was scary by reputation rather than in reality, as I later discovered, but what people kept telling me about it was enough for me to keep it at arm’s length until the mid-70s (I now regret listening to them!). Instead, it is series like The Sagas of Noggin the Nog, Mary, Mungo and Midge, Blue Peter, and even – unusually – Out of Town, the rural magazine show fronted by Jack Hargreaves (I was, and remain, very much a ‘town boy’) that resonate to me now as strong, cherished memories from that period in my life.

One series, however, made a deeper impression on me than all the others that were beamed to the telly in the corner of the lounge – Catweazle, a charming series about a time-travelling wizard from 1066 that was just a magical as he was himself.

Catweazle Intro (Run time edit: 24 seconds)

When I was introduced to Catweazle during its first run on British television in 1970, I had yet to turn five years of age. Even though my recollections of my early days are sketchy at best, my memories of watching Catweazle on Sunday afternoons are surprisingly clear – and bathed in warm nostalgia. I adored the show and, in retrospect, had found it at exactly the right time in my life, when I was young enough to find it completely entrancing and yet old enough to appreciate a programme that was clearly designed for older children. I was the child who didn’t realise that the Adam West Batman series was a tongue-in-cheek comedy; to me it was a thrilling adventure, but Catweazle I understood from the get go. I remember thinking that our hero, the eponymous wizard, was funny, strange and different, though sometimes perhaps a little round the bend. Without fully realising it, I was mirroring the reactions of Carrot, the boy who became Catweazle’s friend in the series.

Looking at Catweazle today with much older eyes, I can see the sheer brilliance of writer Richard ‘Kip’ Carpenter’s creation. It is hard to believe that it represents his first written work for television (he had previously been an actor in series such as Knight Errant), as – in its first year at least – it is practically perfect and a cut above the other children’s shows on offer at that time. The character of Carrot is pitched exquisitely by Carpenter and Robin Davies, the young actor who played the role, as the audience’s surrogate – you not only identify and empathise with him, but imagine you could very easily be him. Hell, I still want to be Carrot!

The series premise is this: Catweazle, a raggedy cave-dwelling Saxon wizard, unwittingly falls through time to the present day of 1969 during an attempt to escape from a horde of Norman soldiers who have hunted him down. In evading them, he finds himself in a much-changed England, populated by strange people with strange customs, and full with modern inventions that to him are both magical and befuddling – and sometimes terrifying! But Catweazle does not have to face this confusing century alone as he has brought with him his familiar, a toad he calls Touchwood, and also finds himself befriended by a young boy on his summer holidays, Edward Bennet, who prefers to be known as ‘Carrot’ – a nickname he gained due to his ginger hair. Carrot lives with his father at Hexwood Farm, not far from the spot where Catweazle materialised. However, he elects to keep Catweazle’s presence a secret from his father and others, such as farmhand Sam Woodyard, as he knows that his dishevelled friend will likely end up arrested on vagrancy charges should he be discovered. As the pair get to know each other, Catweazle explains about the Norman invaders, something that Carrot takes as a tall tale, but he is fascinated by the man’s claim to be a wizard. Catweazle, for his part, regards his young friend as a magician also, who controls perplexing and magical things (which to Carrot are everyday objects). When Catweazle finally realises his predicament, he plots a return to his own time and regularly enlists Carrot’s aid in a series of bizarre schemes, on the understanding that he tutors the boy in the art of sorcery.

Catweazle: Series 1

L-R: Geoffrey Bayldon (Catweazle) Robin Davies (Carrot) Neil McCarthy (Sam Woodyard) and Charles 'Bud' Tingwell (Mr Bennet)

Image courtesy of Wise Old Goat

The series, essentially a family comedy-drama, is brimming with invention, not least in how the present day is seen through the eyes of someone from a millennium earlier. A light switch is a source of wonder, lighting a “tiny sun in a bottle” (a light bulb), which is powered by “electrickery” (electricity). Vinyl records are “black wheels” that spin and emit voices. Telephones are “telling bones” and other modern creations are also seen through the prism of Catweazle’s medieval experience. Richard Carpenter’s central conceit of a man nine-hundred years out of his time produces a magical role reversal: in terms of education and knowledge, Catweazle, an adult, is the child, and the boy his teacher and guide. It follows, therefore, that the children watching also have an advantage over Catweazle in many ways, with the wizard’s wild reactions to the unfamiliar being a great source of amusement to them. As a child, my enjoyment came from predicting and seeing how Catweazle and Carrot would succeed in their weekly adventures while keeping the other adult characters in the dark. Let’s not forget that those watching are party to Carrot and Catweazle’s clandestine friendship, when other characters in the series are not.

Catweazle is a captivating character, its origins dating back to 1968, when Richard Carpenter visited his brother-in-law’s farm in East Sussex with his wife Annie. [Richard and Annie are pictured left]. On their journey home, the couple took a detour and became lost, finding themselves at a cottage with the intriguing name ‘Catweasel’. The name lodged itself in Carpenter’s mind, and he began wondering what a person called Catweasel would be like. When he chanced upon a reproduction of Hieronymous Bosch’s late fifteenth century painting Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns) in a National Gallery publication and noticed an odd, bearded figure in its bottom left hand corner, he got his answer – this Catweasel was surely a wizard! Carpenter set about drafting the plot outline, changing the name subtly to Catweazle, as he felt that this had more of an authentic historical ring to it.


In terms of casting, Carpenter had just one person in mind, Geoffrey Bayldon, but the company who had agreed to produce the series – London Weekend Television (under their newly formed London Weekend International subsidiary) – had other ideas, as Carpenter later recalled in Time Screen magazine: “First of all they wanted Jon Pertwee. [He] was flavour of the month, but they couldn’t get him or he’d turned them down or he might even have got the role of Doctor Who by then. So I said ‘What about my original idea, Geoffrey Bayldon?’ And they got him in, and of course he was so obviously right as by that time I was writing for him. Geoffrey was an old friend of mine. We both trained at the Old Vic theatre school at different times, but I’d worked with him as an actor on several plays. He was a good friend and I knew he could do it and that nobody would be better.”


Geoffrey Bayldon

The Jon Pertwee / Doctor Who link is somewhat ironic, as Bayldon himself had been in the frame to play the Doctor at the very start of the famous BBC series. In November 1986, I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Geoffrey Bayldon at his home in Barnes, South West London, along with my friend Martin Holder. We asked him about the Doctor Who casting and he responded: “At the very beginning, before Doctor Who was cast… I’d been playing old gentlemen since I was knee high to a grasshopper. I was bored with playing old gentlemen, and I’d been playing a lot of old gentlemen on television, particularly in Shakespeare and so on. And my agent rang up and said, ‘Geoffrey, the BBC would like to know if you’d be interested in playing in a children’s series, a mad scientist / doctor called Doctor Who. It’d be for 52 weeks. He’s an old man.’ I said I couldn’t play an old man for 52 weeks as I’d be stuck with playing old men for ever more if I did. It wasn’t a direct offer; I wasn’t the first choice, but obviously I was one of the first choices. Of course it went to Bill Hartnell. I didn’t regret it, except in moments of being out of work. And then Catweazle came along, and I thought, ‘Thank goodness I didn’t play Doctor Who’. If I’d played Doctor Who I wouldn’t have got Catweazle.”

Geoffrey told us about his casting in the role: “My then agent rang and said, ‘Geoffrey, I’ve got a script here. It’s another old gentleman, I’m sorry to say; a magician. But I’ve read the first page and I already think it’s wonderful.’ Now, this wasn’t the kind of agent who said those things every day; in fact, he played everything down. And so I was prepared for it being wonderful, but I was prepared for it before he rang because the author, Richard Carpenter, was an old friend, not a close friend, but we used to meet about once a year – and he’d told me that he was… writing something for children, about a tramp, someone in rags, I believe vaguely connected with someone he used to see in Hastings as a child. But [after Richard had thought more on the idea] the tramp got forgotten and the wizard was created. I thought, ‘Oh dear, I do hope he gets it accepted by someone, because I’m sure he needs the money’. And he said, ‘Oh, you’d be marvellous in it,’ and I thought, ‘You’re just saying that’. It was not the case at all. He’d written it with me in mind. So when the script eventually arrived, here at home, I just couldn’t wait to start. Even before the first line of dialogue, it had got you into a world of romance, mystery, fun and danger. It was something very original.”

“When I first read [the script], I thought ‘Cat-Weazle’. Something spiky but at the same time graceful. There was also something of a hen in it, I thought! That was indeed mentioned on the first page of the script – the way he looks out of his cave, rather like the cockerel in Pathé Gazette. A lot [of the character was left to my own interpretation], under the free guidance of Quentin Lawrence, who was the director of the first series. For instance, Catweazle became known later for his ‘fizzing’ noises, his ‘che-che-che’, those sorts of things. They were all mine, but how it happened was when we were doing the second episode [Castle Saburac] – the first episode didn’t have any of those in at all, because we were finding our way – and we realised with Catweazle, so long as you remained within the character that you had created, and didn’t go outside for effects, the sky was the limit. And in Episode 2, there was a scene when Carrot, the boy, loses Catweazle and follows his nose – there’s an awful smell – and finds him inside the wardrobe, opens the door, and instinctively I went, “Che!” The crew laughed, and Quentin Lawrence, who we knew as ‘Q’, said, ‘I think we can develop those noises, Geoffrey, so if you feel like doing one, do one’. So, it was up to me [to invent those sounds], but it was due to Quentin Lawrence that they were allowed. Another director might have said that it was a bit too much or whatever.”

While the series was successful in the United Kingdom, producers London Weekend Television, with their eye on the international market, reportedly considered it too colloquial, at least to appeal to the all-important American networks. The first series had sold to European broadcasters (notably in the Netherlands, where it met with considerable success), and others in Australia and Japan, but LWT chief executive Stella Richmond wanted the series retooled to interest American buyers. Richard Carpenter was not happy at this development, but did not have sufficient influence or reputation as a writer to be able to stand his ground. Consequently, the farm locale was dropped, along with all the first year’s regular cast – Robin Davies, Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell (Mr Bennet) and Neil McCarthy (Sam) – meaning that only Catweazle himself (and, of course, Touchwood!) survived the transition to the second series, which was made in 1970. Sadly, Robin Davies thought for many years that he had been dropped because he had done a poor job, and was quite hurt at the dismissal.  It was only much later that he learned the real reason for the series’ change in tack.

Catweazle: Series 2

Back Row: Peter Butterworth (Groome) Geoffrey Bayldon (Catweazle)   Middle Row: Moray Watson (Lord Collingford) Gary Warren (Cedric) Front Row: Elspet Gray (Lady Collingford)

This time, Catweazle was transported through time not to Hexwood Farm, but to King’s Farthing, a country mansion nestled in extensive grounds, the home of well-to-do aristocrats Lord and Lady Collingford (Moray Watson and Elspet Gray) and their bespectacled son Cedric (Gary Warren). The narrative setup of the first series is carried through to the second, with Catweazle and Cedric becoming friends, and the pair endeavouring to keep their friendship and Catweazle’s presence from others, with Catweazle attempting to find the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Once collected, he believes these items will permit him to complete the one spell that has never worked for him – and that he will be able to fly. (And in a heartwarming conclusion to the final episode, The Thirteenth Sign, he does. I still shed a tear or two every time I see that scene.)

All told, however, the second series lacks the heart and warmth of the first, perhaps in part because Richard Carpenter was writing what someone else believed was right for Catweazle, rather than what he himself knew. Seen in isolation, it remains a superb children’s adventure-comedy series with high production values, but it will forever be thought the less of due to the Hexwood Farm adventures which preceded it, and was such a perfect concoction.

Those first adventures, and the unsurpassable partnership of Geoffrey Bayldon and Robin Davies, are right up there with the very best of children’s television – indeed, television as a whole. They deal with friendship, responsibility, trust and selflessness. Catweazle’s loneliness as a man out of time is also addressed, and Bayldon brings great pathos to the screen in such moments; his Catweazle is a fully rounded character with loves, hopes and fears.

From a modern perspective, Catweazle seems entirely of another era, though charmingly so. At a time when my parents were telling me “not to accept sweets from strangers”, here was a young boy visiting a strange, tramp-like man in an abandoned water tower that he’d made his home (in the second year, Catweazle would live in a disused railway station, Duck Halt) and not telling his father.

In the early decades of the 21st century, when so many of those we looked up to as children have been revealed to have behaved quite despicably when making those fondly remembered television programmes, it is reassuring to hark back to series like Catweazle. It celebrates companionship in an innocent, true fashion, and reminds us that the world we grew up in was a great place, and that while it was not perfect, there were certainly perfect things in it. Without a doubt, Catweazle enriched my life and remains one of the shining beacons of hope, joy and fun from my childhood, and whenever I revisit it, I become enraptured all over again. It’s almost as if I’m under its spell… 

Since the time of Catweazle, we have lost almost all its significant contributors, including Geoffrey Bayldon (1924-2017), Robin Davies (1954-2010), Quentin Lawrence (1920-1979) and Richard Carpenter (1929-2012). This feature is dedicated with love and respect to everyone who made Catweazle so special.

© Alan Hayes / The Nice Rooms 

My grateful thanks to Alan Hayes for the article.  gR


Alan Hayes and The Nice Rooms recommend The Catweazle Fan Club - http://www.catweazlefanclub.co.uk/catweazle-fan-club-page.html

 

The Nice Rooms also recommends Alan Hayes' website Hidden Tiger -  http://www.hiddentigerbooks.co.uk/

Picture Acknowledgements: LWT Archive, Memorable TV, Wise Old Goat.