The History of Willoughby Drive


I created the thirteen episodes of Willoughby Drive in a converted garage at the bottom of our garden The idea of making this series came from stories which had originally been published weekly in Punch in the 1920s, and were later published as two books called Simple Stories and Simple People “for grown ups and children” (for more infomation click here). They were funny little satirical sketches about diverse characters, such as a detective, a burglar, an inventor, a brigand and many more. In each episode I introduced one of these characters into the lives of three lots of next-door neighbours who lived in a suburban road called Willoughby Drive.

Mr Mrs Gumble Bump
The Watherspoon Family
Mr & Mrs Barraclough
Mr & Mrs Gumble Bump
The Watherspoon family 
Mr & Mrs Barraclough

Since the series was not commissioned for TV it was made very differently from most animation series, which are backed by a proper budget and with professional constraints.

Before I started making puppet animation films we had a family puppet theatre. It had three stages, a larger middle stage for live puppetry and two smaller stages on either side. One of these we used for animation for flashbacks or journeys. This ultimately led me into puppet animation.


The puppets were 16 –18 inches. In order to be able to use the theatre puppets and props in the films I kept to the same scale as the theatre. This differs from most puppet animation companies whose puppets are usually about 9 – 12 inches.


To make the series I needed actors for the puppets’ voices, craftsmen to make the props for the sets, puppet-makers, artists for the backcloths, dressmakers for puppets’ clothes, an editor, a composer, a sound man and a good lab. I was lucky in the team I got, many of whom have remained the same over the years.


Working roughly 45 hours a week, I took 10 months to a year to make one episode.  Willoughby Drive with all its innumerable changes, cuts and remakings took somewhere near fourteen years to complete.



Before animation can begin, the following steps must be completed:


Writing and recording the film script

Breakdown of the recorded voices

Puppet heads and bodies

Sets and Props

Storyboard and setting the scene



Writing and recording the film script


I wrote the scripts, two or three at a time and recorded the first six. Our actors, Jonathan Cecil and Anna Sharkey. who did nearly all the voice-overs for the thirteen films made a formidable team and the series owes much of its success to them.

As with the theatre plays recordings continued in our kitchen, times that were full of fun and laughter. After, when listening to Jonathan and Anna’s recorded voices I was filled with such pleasure and excitement I could hardly wait to start animating the actions to their voices. Although a year or more might elapse between recordings, Jonathan and Anna never forgot the voice of a character. This gift was particularly lucky for the series, since the lives of the neighbours are portrayed as an on going saga. By the end of the series between them they had done 66 different voices.

After six episodes, our recording machines failed to match the more modern microphones so all later recordings were done in London with Peter Hodges, our sound-man (see Finishing the film). I entered the finished episodes into film festivals, so we were receiving some useful feedback. We learnt of the difficulty people were having in distinguishing between the two children's voices. So Gillie Robic, (actress and puppeteer) joined us. She is a master at doing children’s voices and solved that particular problem with great success, as well as taking on other parts.

On the tenth episode we changed the name of the series from Simple Stories to Willoughby Drive and made a new introduction. All reference to the Punch magazine was dropped as too out of date to mean anything to children. Jennie Muskett, (see sound and music) who had composed the music for all the episodes, now composed some new and magical music for the new introduction. 
Gillie Robic


Breakdown of the recorded voices.


I now had to break down every second of recorded voice into frames. (Twenty-five frames per second.) The puppets’ mouths can thereby be animated in lip sync with the dialogue. The way I did this was to put the tape with the voices through the editing machine I used for voice breakdown which was plugged into a loudspeaker. It has two gears, which allows me either to hear the voices at normal speed or, if I wind it through frame by frame, I can listen to the sounds of the syllables of each word. I then note on my dope sheet the number of frames each word will require. A very slow job.


Dope Sheet
The editing machine I used for voice breakdown
Dope Sheet (click image to magnify)


Puppets - Heads.


Head modelled for the Centaur (not used) and Mr Gumble Bump (white)

Meanwhile puppet heads with moving eyes and mouths had to be started, an expensive process which often involves several experts in its many stages. The first stage is to sculpt the head. Mrs Gumble Bump, the first puppet to be made, was modelled in clay by Lilian, a Maidenhead sculptress. The clay face that stared back at me totally captured the unpleasant qualities of Mrs Gumble Bump that has made her the most loved to hate character in the series. I took this model to Bob Keane at Pinewood Studios where she was made. Bob endorsed her nasty personality with a mechanism to make her frown.

Brandon Corns was another puppet maker who lived in a tiny room in Birmingham and made the heads in his spare time, doing each stage himself. Over several years, he made me eight wonderfully expressive puppets, with easy to animate mouths and eyes.

My puppet mouths open and shut in two different ways.  The first is by a camera cable release, which pushes the mouth open and shut in easy stages. Mrs Gumble Bump was made this way with a second cable release for her frown.

Mrs Gumble Bump

The cable must be out of sight and when animating I must not touch the puppets’ clothes, or a flutter of movement will show on the film. Mrs Gumble Bump’s head was made of foam rubber with an armature fixed inside.  The children and their mother Amelia were also made like this by Neill Gorton (of Millennium fx, Chesham) since this method  provides a smooth face with no downward lines from mouth to chin. This differs from Brandon’s heads like Mr and Mrs Barraclough, which were made of a hard material with a simple hinge joint in the jaw to open the mouth.

Mrs Barraclough

The eyes fixed inside the head, are moved from in front either by my finger, or with a long hatpin, which fits into a tiny hole, drilled into the centre of the eyes. I have separate eyelids I stick on for shutting the eyes or for blinking. Also I have lids of different sizes which widen or narrow the eyes to change the expression of a character.

Four out of the thirteen birds and animals in the series were main characters with moving mouths and eyes. These heads were made like Mrs Gumble Bump’s. Much of the originality of these is thanks to John Woodbridge, the sculptor who created them.  The cow and the parrot had special attention in the later stages from Garry Holmes which included the tricky job of painting them for their appearance on the screen.                                     



The rest of the birds and animals (eight in Wobblejuice) had no moving eyes or mouths but their legs or wings were wired for movement.  They were made by Colin Dunn (Newbury) who also taught me how to make and paint large props like mountains and precipices.


Puppets - Bodies.

The bodies of my puppets were always a challenge. Properly made bodies for animation have very precise joints, accurate and strong enough to control fine movements. These were far above my budget. However  Timon Maniolis, an animator himself, made me four simple bodies which had jointed plastic limbs. These were by far the best I had and were always being swapped into main parts. The rest of the bodies were adapted mannequins I bought in art shops or others I made mainly with wire. This motley selection of skeletons  I  covered with padding to shape the body.  To keep them upright their feet were weighted with leaden shoes. On the whole, with a bit of trickery and luck they behaved themselves and did as I bade them.

Clothes for the puppets were mostly made by wonderful Maidenhead ladies who turned out endless suits, shirts, dresses and hats as well as curtains and chair covers.

I had eight puppets for the neighbours, the main characters, who stuck to their same roles throughout the series. In each new episode of the first six a new character was introduced for which Brandon Corns made a new head.

The first episode I started was Wobblejuice. The new puppet made for Wobblejuice was the star of the episode.  The next episode was The Baby Snatcher with Brandon’s second new puppet for the baby snatcher.  So now the baby snatcher took the star role while Wobblejuice was demoted to a less important one. By the 6th episode, I had five new puppets (apart from the neighbours) all of whom had played star roles. They became like a regular troupe of actors who would take on any part I wished.

The head made for Wobblejuice  became an American woman in the next film, a chemist in the next, and so on.


The Baby Snatcher 
The Conman
The chairlady (The Grand Sale)

The head made for The Baby Snatcher became The Conman, the only new puppet head to graduate immediately into the star part. Subsequently he played nine roles.

The Centaur
Seventeenth century trader (the Genie)
Carpet Seller (Magic Carpet) 

  The head made for The Centaur was  lovely to animate and therefore took many of the star roles in subsequent episodes.

The Brigand   
Mrs Gumble Bump’s sister
The Genie 

The head made for The Brigand also had many different roles, sometimes two in the same episode. In a few of the films there were so many speaking parts that even the neighbours were called upon to take a part. – a lot of re-painting and sticking for me.

The mad bus driver (Mr Barraclough’s role in The Talking Horse)

Pioneers (Horace and Amelia Watherspoon’s roles in  The Genie)


The Sets and Props

I needed to find craftsmen who would make doors, windows, and furniture for three houses besides all the other 101 props needed for the sets. So I roamed round craft fairs talking to woodturners, metal workers, toymakers and any other craftsmen who were selling things I needed to be made in miniature. Those who agreed to help me worked in their own homes where I visited them with my measurements on a scale drawing.

Set of eighteenth century chairs and table made by Stuart King, artist, wood turner and photojournalist.
( )
Staircase, table and windows made by Tom Field.(Maidenhead)

Tom Field was a wonderful craftsman and my first model maker.  Long before the start of the series he had made windows, doors and furniture for a film called The Burglar, bought by Channel 4. Mr Field continued with me until, sadly for me, he left the district.  

Secret Garden was another excellent model making team in Tunbridge Wells who did a lot for those early films including the Gumble Bumps’ house seen in every episode. They also put me in touch with Dick Dwelly who proved to be a real bonus to the series.

Dick Dwelly  (Tunbridge Wells) was a brilliant model maker who could make anything, a kitchen sink, a dustbin, hills, roads, cars, a milk float, a furniture van and so much else.


He was ingenious at making things for one purpose do for another. Thus when I needed different cars he made aluminium covers of various designs that fitted over the one basic car.


Basic Car Basic car, which was transformed into other models
Horsebox and bus made later by Paul Robbens (Maidenhead)  

Unfortunately for me, at the end of the 6th film Dick emigrated to Australia.  However he and Tom Field had furnished me with most of what I needed for the rest of the series, except for a few specific models for later episodes. For these I found some new craftsmen who again came up with just what I needed for the next seven films.


D.G.Belsten (Maidenhead), a wood turner, made things for two films including the stocks and the gallows for The Genie.

Roy Wood (Reading) is a prize-winning woodturner and produced many props for The Diet and The Grand Sale. He had a lovely sense of humour. In The Diet  he left a  little joke at the top and bottom of the blood pressure gauge he had made. This was nearly missed by me and certainly was not visible in the film. (Oh dear! At the top and R.I.P at the bottom)

Click image to magnify

He made the parrot cage for The Grand Sale

Roy loved solving problems. Before he made the cage I had told him the relevant part of the story in which some thieves steal from the parrot cage the perch.

In this is hidden a £5,000 diamond bracelet. Roy with great skill hollowed out the tiny perch and put some fake diamonds inside. Alas I couldn’t show this feat since it was too early in the plot to reveal this fact. 

Click image to magnify

The tricycle, beautifully made by Reg Day of Cranbrook, Kent, can be seen  from the first episode. Originally I had thought of it as a way of avoiding walking my puppets but it became more than that and was an important feature throughout the series. 

I welcomed any appropriate prop that excused my puppets from walking or helped them walk more naturally. So the children had a go-cart, Amelia pushed her baby’s pram or mowed the lawn.  Alternatively I arranged the scenery to mask the puppets legs by, for example, a low wall, a log or a bush. With a near shot I filmed above their knees – one advantage of having tall puppets.

Phil Williams, a gifted glass blower from Oxford fulfilled the sociable needs of the neighbours by making wine glasses, a water jug, tumblers and two beautiful decanters .

Click image to magnify

He also made me a huge amount of glass jars for the Willoughby Drive old-fashioned chemist (based on the one in Ironbridge, Shropshire) which comes in The Conman.

Click image to magnify

Often I got carried away when poking about in bric-a-brac or antique shops and found something the right size. This was often not justified since the viewers’ eye is on the characters, not on the props.  I once got a tiny set of Shakespeare plays,  5 by 3 cms  bound in black leather. When filmed they could hardly be seen while the little raisin packets I covered and titled were far more visibly convincing.

Click images to magnify

The Meissen looking-glass, wickedly extravagant but so right for the Gumble-Bumps' ornate sitting-room, appears often but is probably seldom noticed.
I searched in vain for a carpet special enough to use as my magic carpet. No luck, until one day I was looking for something in our attic and there, carefully wrapped, I found a beautiful piece of embroidery worked with love and care by a great aunt.  It was perfect.

The outdoor sets needed backcloths of skies and occasionally painted scenes. These were placed behind the background of model roads, fences, fields, distant houses and mostly real trees. In the foreground, the main scene with the characters was taking place.

Diana Johnson (Bourne End), my artist friend who contributed nearly all the art work and most of the backcloths always at a moment’s notice.

Diana Johnson


Katy Fletcher, our daughter, painted skies, some backcloths and gave invaluable help in the model making.


The storyboard and setting the scene

With sets, puppets and all their words recorded and charted on the dope sheet, I made the storyboard, drawing every camera shot of the film.  Now I can begin to visualize the shape and structure of the film. Next I choose the sequence I’m going to film and put up the set, placing the puppets ready for action. I light it and angle each of the two  cameras for the shot.  One of the cameras takes the whole scene I want to shoot, the other takes a closer view of one part of the scene,  for example, a  person or object  we want to see more clearly. Many a wide shot with a mistake is saved in the editing in this way. Everything I do I write down. But can I animate it?  I practise the movements with a stopwatch in real time. Then I translate this into animated time. (25 frames a second.) So if for example I want to raise the puppet’s arm, I raise mine (1 second) and multiply this by 25 and then move the puppet’s arm 25 times while the camera takes 25 still photographs. One second’s worth of animation.  In fact it’s not as bad as that as I usually do two frames a movement.

There is one more important job before starting to animate. This is to stick down anything that might get moved while I’m animating.  If for example I jog unwittingly a pair of spectacles  as little as one millimetre, or a picture on the wall slips unnoticed, these tiny movements stick out like jumping frogs when seen on film. In the large exterior sets, lit by layers of lights, one light fails, again unnoticed.  Later I spot it but when did it fail?

Now I can start to animate

Who’d be an animator? Well it can be exhilarating and fun, cocooned in this world of make believe, the characters unfolding their stories before you.  Depending on the number of puppets and their actions and the different camera angles, my rate of progress is laughingly slow - anything from 5 to 20 seconds a day. My budget would not allow for a video playback camera, so for 200 feet of film, that is 100 ft in each camera (about 5minutes) I have little idea how it will look until I take it to the lab to be processed.  The rush print I bring home the next day will reveal all. 


In many of the episodes I had a crisis. One time I knocked over one of the cameras fitted with its three lenses. Panic! I rushed to Cambridge to a good friend who was a camera specialist and had it checked. Everything OK and I breathed again. Usually things went wrong in the middle of a shot. Trouble with the zoom lens; trouble with the motor that drives the film; trouble with a puppet’s mouth which suddenly goes in the middle of a word. Sunday or not, my kind makers and specialists rescued me and solved the problem. One problem that took months to solve was when editing we noticed black squiggles and blobs on various shots over a whole reel of 100 ft roll. Whose fault? The film stock or my cameras? With sinking heart I tested both cameras, then my lights. I shot some film on another camera and took endless frame by frame tests. The lab took tests, the film stock representative called meetings and letters flew from England to France to the French manufacturers. In the end we proved it was the film stock at fault. Phew! 


Post production


Mark Fletcher

Editing is my favourite part. My editor is my son Mark who is shown here editing one of the first six episodes before he went digital. He is an editor of wildlife films for TV programmes.

When I was ready  for the editing we would meet where ever he was working, London, Bristol, Gloucestershire or Wiltshire. I would arrive at 7 o’clock with a casserole for supper and we’d work until midnight or have a whole day at a weekend. Mark is a tonic to work with.  He’s a fast worker and before my eyes the characters became voluble, their words pouring out as Mark fitted the dialogue to their animated mouths. His laughter at words and antics filled me with exhilaration. I saw the emerging film with new confidence.  Gradually the film took shape. My mistakes were cut out or replaced; sometimes whole scenes went and I wailed at the thought of all those wasted hours.

Sound Effects

Next he put in the sound effects.  Many of these I had recorded over the years when  my husband and children obligingly shut and opened doors, clumped downstairs, walked across rooms, screamed, laughed or clapped for me.  Sometimes at the editing we needed one on the spot. A man beJennie Muskettating a horse.  So, thwack, thwack thwack I went, beating my side with savage intent, Mark recording.  Or Mark as a horse eating a carrot, gnashing his teeth,chomp, chomp, chomp, our guffaws as much recorded as the sound we were after.


Now I took the edited picture, dialogue and sound effects  to our composer Jennie Muskett to compose the music for that episode as  she has done for all thirteen.  This is her incomparable gift to the series.

Composer of wildlife films, feature films, plays and television series, Jennie’s music brought a new dimension to the films.  Puppets moved more freely, scenes of suspense were intensified; the atmostphere of our scenes emphasised by the notes of her music.

Finishing the Film

Peter Hodges

I took the nearly finished film to Peter Hodges, our sound-man.  Peter has worked on every episode and like Mark always laughs at the jokes, boosting my confidence. Any sound effects we have failed to put in he finds from his own extensive collection. He adds sounds for the atmosphere of the scene, homely bird song, a desert wind, cicadas, Eastern voices or whatever. Finally he blends the dialogue, the sound effects and the music into to a cohesive whole. A lovely day out for me.

Mike Williams

Lastly I have one or two days at the lab, Todd-AO, to complete the final stages.  One of the high spots was with Mike Williams who, amongst other things, works his wizardry to make the Magic Carpet fly.




Mark FletcherDick Knapman has  been with the series from the first to the last film. He has worked and organised the necessary stages, guided me, rescued me from tight places and saved me money.  “Leave it to me” he always says.  He, with many others at the lab, has contributed enormously to the series, no trouble being too much.

So at last in 2006 the thirteenth film was completed. But there was still more to do since the first nine films were too long or too short and had the wrong introduction. Mark cut them to size, I filmed new sequences, Peter replaced voices and re-did some of the sound while Dick rushed round getting it altogether and finishing the project.



Over three years elapsed between finishing the first six films and starting the next seven. (1996–1999) In this interval The Museum of the Moving Image on the South Bank commissioned an exhibition of photographs on the history and making of Simple Stories (renamed Willoughby Drive) Later I took this exhibition to festivals, art centres and libraries.  I showed the films in schools and societies  with talks. The British Council sent the six films to world wide festivals.

An enthusiastic American took the first six  films to some American schools. (An Idea For Schools)

Soon after this it was suggested I should make another seven to make up a series of thirteen. This would give it a better chance to be bought for television. So I was off again

Tana Fletcher 2007 Tana in the StudioClick to enlarge