Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Was The Wombles a transmedia narrative?

To celebrate / note the publication of my article 'Underground, Overground: Remembering The Wombles' (in Sue Harper/Laurel Forster's great new book British Culture in the 1970s: The Lost Decade), I was reminded of a particular theoretical link I didn't have time to pursue in this piece -one that has become more relevant given recent teaching and research I've been working on.

Henry Jenkins' work on 'transmedia storytelling' and its influence on current Hollywood narratives was a central (and popular) topic in my recent module 'Film, Television and New Media': in the lecture, I used Superman as a challenge to Jenkins' new media focus, exploring how the narrative development of that universe took place across various 1940s media (most notably comic books, radio shows, animated shorts and serials). I used an American example mainly due to Jenkins' largely U.S. focus, but my work on The Wombles did seem to point to an early British experiment (though possibly not an intentional one) in this kind of cross-media narrative techniques.

For those unfamiliar with the theory, Jenkins recently posted an updated definition. Transmedia storytelling is 'a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.' ( This is (arguably) distinct from branding or merchandising, which often has little narrative impact (for example, a Wombles bedspread or lampshade has no direct narrative relationship with the main 'universe'); and also from adaptation, which makes minimal changes to the original text.

Applying this theory to The Wombles, an earlier (non-internet) example, may not in itself be unique, but given the Hollywood-centric focus of debates around transmedia, it does offer a useful examination of whether British television producers of the 1960s and 70s were able to think about, and exploit, multiple media narratives.

To establish whether The Wombles was a transmedia experience, we should start with the basics. The Wombles' animated television series was based on a series of books by Elizabeth Beresford that featured the litter-collecting, waste-recycling Wombles of Wimbledon Common in adventures both domestic and international. The character line-up remained constant across all formats: six male Wombles (the elders Great Uncle Bulgaria and Tobermory; the four youngsters Orinoco, Wellington, Tomsk and Bungo), one female Womble (Madame Cholet, a French emigre) and occasional guest Wombles (such as Cairngorm MacWomble the Terrible, a Scottish visitor). All the Wombles live in underground burrows, and their 'job' is to collect all the litter that humans leave behind, recycling and reusing it in a variety of ingenious ways.

The TV series (which ran on the BBC 1973-74, with stop motion animation by FilmFair, voices by Bernard Cribbins, and music by Mike Batt) was, however, more than just an adaptation. Most of the stories were set in the same 'universe' as the books, but were new adventures designed for the short four minute animated format. So, immediately, we could argue that the animated shows were a transmedia extension of an existing universe.

Jenkins claims that 'integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels': The Wombles, in both book and television series, stress similar narrative elements, and the re-release of the book series with new covers featuring the FilmFair/BBC Womble designs could, arguably, create the 'unique and coordinated entertainment experience.' The television series also gave the Wombles individual personalities, voices and character designs: again, expanding the universe created by Beresford.

The notion of a systematic delivery across multiple channels grew from this promising starting point: first, BBC Enterprises (a relatively new arm of the corporation), FilmFair and Wombles Inc. (Beresford's company) reached an agreement over merchandising rights that saw multiple Wombles product in stores from 1973 on. While most of these products would count as branding rather than transmedia extensions, there was one major element that caused a transformation in the Wombles universe: music.

Composer Mike Batt (creator of the TV show theme tune) received permission to write more songs about the Wombles. Over the course of three years, he produced over thirty Wombles songs that expanded the Wombles universe in new and unseen directions. Expanding out from the Beresford and BBC verions, Batt painted a wider Womble universe and added depth to existing characters. There were French, Chinese and American Wombles. Wombles in Space. Wombles throughout history. Wombles in every genre of music possible. Batt gave Orinoco and Wellington dreams and ambitions (to be cowboys, super-Wombles), and wrote in a backstory for Great Uncle Bulgaria that included meeting Mozart. By crossing into this new media of pop songs, the Wombles became a band capable of achieveing top ten hits and featuring on Top of the Pops. The Wombles' universe was no more complex and varied, while the Wombles themselves were minor cross-media celebrities, appearing in government sponsored campaigns to 'Keep Britain Tidy', on the Eurovision Song Contest, and finally (in 1977) a feature film Wombling Free (which borrowed from, and expanded, on all previous iterations).

While there may not (yet) be an online ARG, or Wombles slash fiction (oh god, I hope that doesn't given anyone ideas), The Wombles influence is not strictly limited to these media, or to the 1970s. The Queen Mother had a Womble marching band during the parade for her 100th birthday, while more recently the Wombles were used to demand more British children's programming on television. Books, television, pop music, films, personal appearances (I haven't even begun to mention the 6-foot tall Womble costumes that popped up at fairs and fetes across the country in the mid-70s) and political campaigning? While there may be issues around a central cohesive force controlling this univerise, I think there is more than enough here to claim The Wombles as an early British experiment in cross-, or trans-, media narratives.

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