Tim Worthington's Rubovia article
Thanks to what were, in effect, the world's first 'docusoaps', there are millions of people who know everything that there is to know about the inhabitants and surroundings of Trumpton, Chigley and Camberwick Green. However, even the most noted historians have failed to uncover any significant information about the region in the pre-Camberwick era, and the historical origins of Trumptonshire remain shrouded in mystery. Billions of years before the intrepid Trumpton fire brigade traveresed hill and highway in search of anything resembling a fire, was the green and pleasant land stalked by distinctive mouthless dinosaurs? Did battles over land rage between roaming marauders and the loyal knights of Sir Elfric of Chigley, armed with a ferocious battlecry that sounded more like a lone acoustic guitar? Nobody knows for certain. However, a small amount of documentation exists which sheds the tiniest glimpse of light on one of the cloudiest eras of regional history. Back in medieval times, when Farmer Bell's modern mechanical farm was the stuff of madmen's dreams, Trumptonshire wasn't actually known as Trumptonshire at all. The landscape that would later come to house clock towers and barrel organs was instead dominated by a vast stone castle, home to Rufus and Caroline, the King and Queen of... RUBOVIA!
"Rubovia", in case you weren't really paying attention to the preceding paragraph, was a magical medieval kingdom presided over by King Rufus and Queen Caroline. The Royal couple were spared the usual bloodthirsty attempts at regicide that tended to haunt monarchs in the middle ages, but instead they had to deal with a more persistent and inconvenient problem; namely the liking of the more eccentric members of their court for dabbling in conjuring tricks, which inevitably produced hilariously disastrous results. The main instigator of the ill-fated attempts at magic was Mr Wetherspoon, Rubovia's equivalent of King Arthur's wizard Merlin. Aiding and abetting him in his bumbling magic misadventures were Pongo, Caroline's pampered pet dragon, and the beleagured Lord Chamberlin. Meanwhile, Rufus himself was usually up to no good too, more often than not in the company of his neighbouring associate King Boris.
Created by Gordon Murray, "Rubovia" began as a black and white childrens' puppet series for the BBC in the late 1950s. Working with puppeteers Bob Bura and John Hardwick, and designers Andrew and Margaret Brownfoot, Murray wrote and directed at least twenty episodes of the series between about 1958 and 1960. "Rubovia" was made in a very different style to the series for which Murray is now better known, involving large, string-operated puppets with caricatured features. Among those lending their vocal talents to the series were Roy Skelton, later to become the voice of Zippy in Thames TV's "Rainbow", and radio comedy panel game supremeo Derek Nimmo. The episodes were repeated throughout the early 1960s, almost right up until the moment when Gordon Murray unleashed the first glimpse of 'Trumptonshire' on an unsuspecting nation...
In 1976, with the Trumptonshire trilogy completed, Gordon Murray remade "Rubovia" in the familiar style of his three classic series; stop motion animation, distinctive mouthless puppets, and the fidgety acoustic guitar of Freddie Phillips. The one significant ingredient missing was narrator Brian Cant, who by then was weighed down with the demands of having to sing 'The Ladies Of The Harem Of The Court Of King Caractacus' every week on "Play Away". Instead Roy Skelton returned to handle all of the character voices, while Murray himself handled the actual narration. The familiar characters were all resurrected, alongside some who may not have been in the original version, including the ZZ Top-bearded Farmer Bottle and a very wise owl. In total, six episodes were made of the colour "Rubovia", which were shown in the BBC's lunchtime 'Watch With Mother' slot in 1976, and then given a couple of repeat runs during the late 1970s. However, "Rubovia" was not to prove to be as enduringly popular as its more modern counterparts, and once the repeats finished it simply disappeared from the public consciousness.
There were actually a couple of items of "Rubovia" merchandise released at the time of the colour series' initial broadcast. Arrow Games produced the board game "Rubovia Race Round The Castle", while the similarly named Spears Games released a couple of jigsaws featuring original photographs from the series. There was also a "Rubovia" comic strip in 'Pippin', a largely television-related comic aimed at young children. Whether there was any more merchandise produced is anybody's guess, but as the 1970s was something of a golden age for the mass-produced spin-off, it is probably safe to assume that there might be a bottle or two of Pongo The Dragon Colour-Changing Bubble Bath out there somewhere.
Strangely, there has also been another, more recent item of "Rubovia" merchandise. Late in 1997, the BBC released a CD entitled "Hello Children Everywhere", which gathered together the theme tunes from many of their most popular childrens' series. Needless to say, "Trumpton", "Chigley" and "Camberwick Green" were all on board - and, despite its absence from our screens for over twenty years, so was "Rubovia". The CD segued three different tracks from Freddie Phillips' score for the colour version (not the black and white one!), which is generally more relaxed and intricate than his work for the 'Trumptonshire' trilogy, and at times is bizarrely reminiscent of John Williams' "The Deer Hunter" theme 'Cavatina'! Quite how this selection ended up on an album which otherwise celebrated the most widely-known examples of BBC childhood nostalgia imaginable is something of a mystery, but all the same it was welcome as a reminder of - and as evidence of the existence of - "Rubovia".
Nowadays, "Rubovia" sits gathering dust on a rarely-consulted shelf in the memories of those who saw it - rather like the actual film prints of the series, in fact. The BBC have confirmed that they (and presumably Gordon Murray) still retain copies of all of the episodes of the colour version, and, judging from the appearance of a clip in a 1993 edition of "Telly Addicts", there is at least one edition of the black and white original in existence too. However, these are still languishing in some dark corner of the Film and Videotape Library, waiting for the day when they will once more be pressed into service. In this age of cable television and video, it's surprising that "Rubovia" hasn't resurfaced yet, especially considering that its status as the 'forgotten Trumptonshire series' would be a powerful tool for attracting publicity (not to mention the fact that the entire colour series would fit comfortably on one tape!). Like punk rock, "Rubovia" arrived in a riot of colour in 1976, and fizzled out by 1979. Unlike punk rock, however, "Rubovia" has not been honoured with fawning anniversary celebrations at every turn, and it's about time that the balance was redressed. Channel 4 seem to have done theme nights based around everything else imaginable, so why not a Gordon Murray night incorporating a 'marathon' screening of all six episodes of the colour "Rubovia"? We can but dream...
This article was first published in 'Paintbox'