Nearly 20 years after it last appeared on UK television, Wizadora remains one of the most popular childrens’ TV series ever. With more than 1 million YouTube hits, it has found a new generation of followers who have fallen under Wizadora’s spell.
Here, for the first time, Wizadora’s creator CAROLYNE CULLUM talks about the history of the show, and the future for Wizadora.
© the Press Association
What is it about Wizadora?
Well, she doesn’t always get it right. In fact she almost never gets it right! She’s a trainee witch – she gets her spells wrong while she’s learning how to do them. Her spells sometimes fly off at a tangent out of the end of her wand and hit various objects around her home which then come to life.
There’s a wonderful array of completely off-the-wall characters – Hangle, Very Old Fish, Phoebe the talking telephone, Dusty the voice under the fridge – where did they all come from?
Well they all came out of the end of Wizadora’s wand, as a matter of fact. Except Hangle – she must always have had Hangle about the place because he’s her major-domo, he keeps her clothes in order, especially her magic cloaks, and tries to keep her in order as well. A difficult job – she almost never listens to him.
And the Drawer People – they’re anarchists, aren’t they?
We all have Drawer People in our lives – haven’t you ever missed a sock? If you can’t find it, you know the Drawer People have got it. They’re mischievous characaters who will take anything they take a fancy to, and leave you hunting high and low while they laugh at the back of their drawer. Absolute anarchists!
I had have some difficulty developing the characters because, being a television programme for small children, I wasn’t allowed to say they stole things, I had to say they borrowed them – but that isn’t the true nature of a Drawer Person, you know. A Drawer Person doesn’t borrow – he takes.
Your co-writer, and the co-creator of Wizadora, was Don Arioli. Tell us about him.
Sadly Don died in 2005. He was a wonderful man with an extraordinary sense of humour. He was only 5’2” and yet he managed to become a US Marine, where they demand a minimum 5’10”. I asked him once how he managed to get into the Marines – he said, “I lied about my height.” He was hilarious, and we shared a sense of humour – we both loved a bizarre 1950s American comic called Pogo.
Don was an animator and cartoonist with a long and successful career working on Sesame Street among many other productions. His imagination helped bring Wizadora to life, and we worked together to develop the other characters.
On one occasion I travelled down to Totnes, where he was living, and we spent the day going from tea-shop to tea-shop coming up with wilder and wilder inventions – one of which was a Hoover which suddenly developed a load of hoses like an octopus, causing mayhem everywhere. We were rocking with laughter over this when an elderly lady came over and said, “I’m sorry, I have to ask you – what are you talking about?” It was impossible to explain.
There’s an extraordinary secret attached to Wizadora – that both John Cleese and Connie Booth were involved at the beginning. Tell us about that.
Well of course they’d co-written and co-starred in Fawlty Towers, and John had become a colossal star. But he still found time to show an interest in Wizadora when I told him about it – he was extremely nice and helpful and from him came Connie’s involvement – she was the very first Wizadora!
We made a pilot show and Connie was completely brilliant – she brought something very special to the character of Wizadora and was wonderfully amusing. I look back on her participation with admiration and gratitude.
But the pilot didn’t go on to become the TV series?
At the time I was developing the idea of a video/book combo which these days is a very easy thing to sell, but not back then – and the idea stalled.
Later I was working with a TV company in Winchester which was looking for material which might be used as an early-learning vehicle for children starting out to learn English. So the first airing for Wizadora was via Oxford University Press, who produced our first series of shows as a teaching aid. It starred Cathy Lawday, and you can find those videos – which were never broadcast and so still have a novelty value – on YouTube.
It was a great challenge – we had to write funny scripts but we weren’t allowed to use many words! The first episode we weren’t allowed to use both ‘the’ and ‘a’ – we could use one or other. We had a ghastly situation where somebody rang the doorbell and Hangle has to tell Wizadora there’s someone at the door. What you’d normally say is, “Wizadora! The door!!” – but we weren’t allowed to. You couldn’t say, “Wizadora! A door!!” so he ended up saying “Wizadora! Door!!”
But we still managed to make jokes even though our choice of words was limited – and I think the characters we’d created helped a lot getting us through those early difficult stages.
Later our idea was taken up by ITV and watched by millions. Wizadora had finally arrived.
You’ve had a million hits on YouTube – people are watching Wizadora even as we speak - the show has never gone away. What sets it apart from other children’s TV series?
I think it’s to do with the zany nature of the characters and the fact that anything could happen – and did. We had a good set of characters who were funny in themselves but then odd things could happen – like a pair of Wellington boots being hit by a stray spell whizzing out the end of Wizadora’s wand and turning into two characters, Lefty and Righty, who crashed round the kitchen kicking things and tripping people up.
Children like to see mayhem, they find it funny. They love the idea of everything going wrong and things getting into a mess – I think Wizadora found a way to tickle their sense of humour in a way that few other shows have been able to do.
But sometimes you had difficulty in being allowed to express that sense of humour.
Yes, the television broadcasters weren’t keen on anarchy! So we had to watch our step with the Drawer People. They were very keen that right must always triumph which I found rather limiting.
Also, there was a lot in the newspapers at the time about Satanic abuse and they were very worried about Wizadora being described as a witch, so we had to be very careful to say that she was a wizard – how that made it better goodness knows! But there were rules, and we had to find our way around them – Wizadora isn’t making rules, but breaking them.
You had a wonderful character in Stan, the shopkeeper, played by Brian Murphy. He’d been famous for his role in Man About the House and George and Mildred.
At the time he was a big star and a household name. I think he was quite worried about playing in a children’s series but he was excellent, he brought a real edge to it – it needed somebody else to add a extra dimension, and he provided it very successfully.
So this extraordinary following Wizadora has on YouTube, twenty years after the last broadcast of the show?
It’s amazing. People have shown their loyalty in the most wonderful way – if you read some of the tributes they’ve written, you realise what a lasting effect Wiz and Hangle and Phoebe and all the others have had on people’s lives. It really is very rewarding to think that, all this time later, Wizadora is still alive and kicking.
And so will she be making a return?
Only Wizadora knows that! But I hope so – the children who watched her all those years ago are now grown up with children of their own. Characters like Worzel Gummidge came back to entertain a whole new generation, and maybe Wizadora will, too.
* For a fuller history of the making of Wizadora, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wizadora