As a nine year old when it was first broadcast on ITV in 1984, I was a bit older than the intended audience for Tickle on the Tum, but I do remember sniggering copiously whenever my friends and I heard the lyrics to the theme music, and replaced the last word of the title with another rhyming body part. We thought we were hilarious.
Granada-made Tickle on the Tum was a gentle and imaginative programme for young children, written around the sublime song writing skills of the brilliant and charismatic folk-singer Ralph McTell (fresh from ITV’s other pre-schooler programme Alphabet Zoo). The town of Tickle (which sat on the river Tum; do you see what they did there?) was home to a colourful collection of toddler-friendly characters, all of whom had enough personality for McTell to compose a little ditty about them. According to producer Martyn Day, Tickle was based on the ‘olde worlde’ little town of Woodstock, Oxfordshire (itself sat on the River Glyme) which Granada’s Head of Children’s Entertainment, Steve Leahy, had recently visited.
Each ten minute episode was set in Tickle’s village shop, where McTell lived and worked. To begin with he was joined by assistant Danuschia Harwood, whilst from halfway through the second series Jacqueline Reddin would be his shop-mate. Whilst they were in the shop, a villager would come in and proceed to tell the pair about something that had happened to them that week. Ralph would then sing a song that he had written about either the incident or about the villager.
He accompanied himself on the guitar, and where Tickle on The Tum differed from other children’s programmes (both then and now) was the quality of the songs. No slightly patronising ‘all kids love cheerful rhymes about farmyard animals’ nonsense, expert story-in-a-song-musician Ralph wrote lilting folk melodies with beautiful lyrics to match. Some were really upbeat (Tim Healy’s clumsy handyman Barney Bodger stumbled round the shop breaking things whilst McTell sang ‘If you need a job done in Tickle on the Tum, give Barney Bodger a call’ to a jaunty little tune) whilst others (Kenny Lynch’s Milkman Mike song ‘Bottles and Crates’ for example) was mellow and melodic, and conjured up a simple but evocative picture of a milkman’s journey.
McTell’s voice was always warm and welcoming, and Tickle on the Tum was probably one of the only children’s programmes which could be watched by children repeatedly without the music grating on the accompanying parent’s nerves. The songs were so lovely you always felt that you were only one chord away from McTell slipping into his own back catalogue of folk songs – and re-watching Tickle now makes me want to curl up in a big armchair in front of a fire, with a hot drink and a cosy blanket.
Alongside Kenny Lynch and Tim Healy, a host of other television stars made guest appearances on the show. Nerys Hughes (The Liver Birds, The District Nurse) played the pet shop owner Bunny, Bert Kwouk made an appearance as chip shop owner Willie Wok (yes, we sniggered at that one too…) and Joan Sims (from the Carry On films and much more) showed up as police woman Connie Caper. Penelope Keith (in a slightly more working class role than she had in either To the Manor Born or The Good Life) became Dora the school bus driver, and Mollie Sugden (Are You Being Served?) was launderette owner Bessie. My personal favourite however had to be Bill Oddie’s wonderfully eccentric performance as Dr Dimple. Looking more like a mildly inebriated Morris dancer, he jigged along to the song ‘Freckles and blots and speckles and spots’, and what made it all the more appealing was that you could see the cast themselves found his performance amusing. In fact they always seemed to enjoy what they were doing, and quite often McTell’s voice would break as he laughed whilst singing. Leaving these little lapses of concentration in was a lovely touch, and made it even easier to warm to the programme.
Tickle on the Tum ran from 1984 until 1988 on ITV, comprising of four series. McTell left after the third series, to get back to his recording career, and so Reddin took over as the main presenter. The show did suffer slightly without McTell’s genial warmth and talent, but the overall charm of the programme (and the ability of Reddin as a lead presenter) carried it through.