Joshua Lester and Jocelyn Macnab as Tim and Topsy in the new CBeebies drama series. They are looking after a friend’s guinea pigs but they escape. Photograph: BBC/Darrall Macqueen Ltd
Characters who delighted millions of children through books in the 1960s and 70s are being brought back to life for a new generation of TV viewers.
Topsy and Tim, the five-year-old twins who featured in a series of books first published more than 50 years ago, are the latest pair to be updated to appeal to 21st-century pre-schoolers. They will star in a new drama series on CBeebies, which starts on Monday.
The BBC’s decision to back a series of 60 15-minute dramas, starring child actors rather than cartoon portrayals, is proof that classic, simple stories told from a child’s perspective can have enduring appeal and also win the approval of parents who may have grown up with them.
The revival of another set of stories from the past dovetails with decisions by Channel 5 and CBeebies respectively to bring back the Wombles and the Clangers, and follows the success of the “reimagining” of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, first published in 1902, also on CBeebies.
Inspired by the mundane stuff of a young child’s life, the first episodes of Topsy and Tim include Dad making special sandwiches – cheese, lettuce, peanut butter; washing the car together; and looking after a friend’s guinea pigs, only for them to escape. It ends next year with the key rite of passage – starting school.
Jean Adamson, 86, who invented and illustrated Topsy and Tim with her husband, Gareth, said: “Childhood has not changed significantly over the past 50 years. The books reflect the things very young children do, grubbing about in the garden, squabbling.” She said the stories were based on observation, and then on their three young children in the 1960s. “I think we would have run out of ideas … then the children began to arrive.”
As she spoke Adamson was cradling the rough of the first book (Topsy and Tim’s Monday Book, published in 1960), which spawned more than 130 titles and sold 21m copies – it measures three inches by two-and-a-half inches. “I did it small to keep the illustrations simple, not too much background, and to get directly to what was in the story.” She said the new CBeebies drama was “lovely”, but it had to discard some stories on health and safety grounds, including an adventure of falling into a stream, and one about fireworks night, burning the guy and waving sparklers. “They don’t seem to happen any more, do they?”
Kay Benbow, controller of CBeebies, said she had turned down previous suggestions to make cartoon versions of Topsy and Tim and has plans for other original CBeebies drama. However, animation is clearly required for the modern version of Peter Rabbit: a second series with a souped-up Peter and a new female rabbit character, Lily, started last week.
Meanwhile Milkshake, Channel 5’s pre-school zone, is awaiting a revamp of The Wombles in 2015. Channel 5 owner Richard Desmond has said he “can’t wait” to watch the 52 new 11-minute episodes with his two-year-old daughter. In 1973-75, the BBC ran two series, based on six novels written by Elisabeth Beresford. Milkshake’s commissioner, Jessica Symonds, said: “This show was so loved by generations of children. The time is right for it to gain a whole new following.”
Last month CBeebies announced it would bring back the Clangers in 2015. The animated family of mouse-like creatures, who live in space, also originated in a series of children’s books. Their small planet, like the moon, supports them with green soup supplied by the Soup Dragon.
Anna Home, chair of the Children’s Media Foundation and former head of BBC Children’s TV, said: “I welcome the classics – there is nothing wrong with them. Topsy and Tim came out a long time ago, so did Peter Rabbit. They are dealing with pretty universal things, and pretty basic things that are common to all children. All I say is that it is fine, as long as they don’t prevent new things.”
The main challenge in making TV drama from children’s books is casting child actors and the strict controls over their working hours. Maddy Darrall, executive producer of Topsy and Tim, said it meant performances had to be spontaneous. “No on-set rehearsal, we had to make sure the children knew their scripts. They’d come into a set with 360-degree access for cameras, built rather like a real house. We were not marking spots where they must stand, and used documentary cameramen, to follow the children.”
But Topsy and Tim’s home life is updated. Their bedtime story is on a tablet, Dad shares reading duties, Mum is often on her laptop and the twins print out things from the computer. Work did not intrude on Adamson’s stories. Now the parents run a transport business which picks up older people.