Sunday, July 13, 2014

Follyfoot and the Dreaded Sunday Afternoons...

The "Follyfoot "annual 1977. The series ended in 1973, but lived on in repeats and through the "Look-In" comic strip for some years afterwards. The cover shows Arthur English as Slugger, Christian Rodska as Stryker, Steve Hodson as Steve and Gillian Blake as Dora. A branch of the lightning tree can be seen. The tree was actually dead and planted there for effect. The cast and crew were apparently amazed when it sprouted leaves, but a gardener friend of mine tells me this is nothing unusual in a tree only recently judged to be dead and even when transplanted (legend has it the fake lightning tree was set in several tons of cement!) the 'dead' tree can go on showing signs of life for some time.

Oh crikey! I've been asked to write a blog post about Follyfoot, that much-loved TV series of the early 1970s, broadcast from 1971 to 1973 and in repeats from 1974-1975. And... oh dear... I didn't really like the show and haven't been able to face it since!

The show was repeated again about thirteen years later, but I still couldn't face it.

In the 1970s, morning children's TV in the school holidays abounded with glorious creaky old wonders like Champion The Wonder Horse and Casey Jones. They were in black and white, but that didn't matter because many of us were watching in black and white. In the 1980s, more repeats were wheeled out for morning viewing, and I was horrified when, circa 1988, I was settled in front of the box (with a throbbing hangover) one Sunday morning and the announcer told me the next programme was going to be Follyfoot.

"Not in this house it ain't!" I hissed, and switched off hastily.

What a git, you cry, Follyfoot was marvellous! It's what Sunday afternoons were made for, it's so beautiful, even in retrospect...

Well, let me rush to my own (and possible Follyfoot's) defence.

Back in the early 1970s I was impossibly young (oh yes I was!) and it's since been widely circulated that Follyfoot was aimed at an early teens audience. Golly, Steve! Gosh, Dora! I don't recall that being widely circulated or acknowledged at the time! That case for the show's defence isn't helped by the fact that my wife, who was an early teenager at the time and adored horses, hated Follyfoot, and two girls in my class at primary school loved it. I find the "early teens" audience tag even stranger as Steve and Dora looked to be in their early twenties anyway and none of the stories seemed particularly sophisticated - or even remotely resembled teen life in my neighbourhood. 

I was a precocious child, my sharp-end, lower-working-class early '70s childhood was seeing to that, and I don't think the show ever "went over my head", but I never liked the way Dora kept crying and thought it sad and boring. And I didn't like the Lightning Tree song either. I mean "dub-a-dah, ba-dub-a-dub-a-dah"? Oh, please! And as for "down in the meadow where the wind blows free"... well, certain coarse types, like wot I was, twisted the meaning of that and guffawed loudly. And the pigging tree wasn't even in a meadow anyway.

Apparently the lightning tree was a "symbol of hope", but the atmosphere of the series seemed so miserable it thoroughly chilled me. And the tree looked so grim!

Bah, humbug!

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the show was featured as a comic strip for years in my favourite children's weekly comic, Look-In, but I never read that particular strip.

Having said that, I watched Follyfoot. It used to come on at Sunday teatimes and we always had the telly on then. I remember Dora and Steve and Slugger and the Colonel and Stryker and the lightening tree so well. In fact, like so many things seen in my impressionable childhood years, the show almost feels like a part of me to this day.

 The "Look-In" "Follyfoot" comic strip ran for years.

Curiously, during the mid-1970s, I read the 1963 novel Cobbler's Dream, by Monica Dickens (great-granddaughter of the great English author Charles Dickens) , which inspired the Follyfoot TV series, but although Dora, Slugger, Stryker and the Colonel (then called the Captain) were all present as in a way was Steve (then called Paul), I enjoyed the book far more than I did Follyfoot. It was grittier, far less tearful and far less "arty-farty".

"Arty-farty"? Well, I think that the TV series was afflicted by a slight case of post-1960s "arty-fartiness" (as we called it round my way) - little tweaks and twiddlings - and the fanciful "symbolic" lightning tree, the name Follyfoot, the general wimpishness of Dora, and the notion that some romance might develop between her and Steve (all absent from the book) were perhaps at least partly responsible for my negative response to the show. The plot of the book which provided the inspiration was based at a rest home for horses, dealt with their often sad histories and the people who lived and worked there, but the sentimentality and what I thought of as the "girly" romantic crap of Follyfoot was missing.

The characters in Cobbler's Dream were so much more compelling. And so much less posh in some cases. Dora, for instance, was not the daughter of a bigwig ambassador, her father was a grammar school teacher, she was not the niece of the Colonel (Captain in the book) and the farm was a very poor place, founded by a horse lover years before and run by a committee. Stryker was a bit shadier than in the TV series, and his heart of gold far less evident. And Slugger was also different, and his wife a former all-in wrestler. Beats having a lightning tree around the place any day.

I thoroughly enjoyed Cobbler's Dream, finding it truly to be a dream of a read, and I've re-read it several times since and still have it. Cobbler's Dream is one of my all time favourite books in fact. Follyfoot, despite it sharing the commendable pro-animal stance of the book, I found to be cobblers in comparison. 

Having said all that, there was nothing wrong with the acting in the show. Gillian Blake was superb as Dora - her misery was so real, it reached out from the screen and added to my own.

Our memories of past pop culture are usually coloured by the situations we were in at the time, and I have to say that when Follyfoot was broadcast I was not happy. I was living on a sink estate years before the term was coined, and life was very harsh indeed. That's probably another reason why Follyfoot didn't gel with me. Although upper-middle-class Dora's misery seemed very real, I could find no sympathy for her, shedding copious tears over some horse that had been mistreated or was heading for the knacker's yard. Just getting by from day-to-day was a struggle in my little world.

And Sunday tea times were particularly horrible occasions, with school looming the next day, and family tensions at their worst, especially if my dreadful step-granny was visiting.

As I wrote earlier, the memory of Follyfoot lives within me, so one day I might revisit the lightning tree. But don't hold your breath.


Peter said...

It was a kind of diluted version of Cobbler's Dream, but it had a wide fan base - one girl interviewed on TV said she was 5 when it debuted and she watched every episode. I think you're a bit hard on it. If you liked horses, it had horses, if you liked stories with a message, it had them, it had romance, it had the harsh facts of life. I think it could have stuck closer to the original book, Dora's background did become too grandiose perhaps, but it was one of the best 1970s drama series. The production team were apparently terrified of the producer. If he roared up to the location unexpectedly in a taxi, they always thought somebody was for the chop. He was a real perfectionist.

Andrew said...

Grief! The lightning tree is fascinating. I was looking at pics when I wrote this blog post, and one of the branches appears to have been stuck on! I don't mean to be hard on Follyfoot. It just has miserable associations, and I wish it had stuck to the Cobbler's Dream template a bit more. Slugger's Mrs would have been wonderful to have around and the added poshness (Dora's background) simply underlined the "horsey set" image.

Artois52 said...

I'd forgotten all about Follyfoot. Like Black beauty, it was 70’s TV show that I watched as a kid, but probably wouldn’t have admitted that to my friends at the time!