The Tufty Club was supposed to be a gentle way of teaching small children how to stay safe. As far as I was concerned, however, Tufty the squirrel’s world was terrifying. He and his friends didn’t seem to be able to have a normal outing anywhere; every adventure they set out on was undermined by the threat of potential disaster.
Tufty Fluffytail was created for The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) in 1953, by employee Elsie Mills (later made an MBE) to promote simple safety messages for under-fives.
Initially, this was done through short stories distributed in books illustrated by Kenneth Langstaff, with more than 30,000 given out. In December of 1961, RoSPA established a network of local ‘Tufty Clubs’, with monthly road safety stories told live, by characters Dr White Rabbit and Wise Owl the teacher. Alongside the narrators and Tufty, these stories also had a whole host of other fluffy creatures: Minnie Mole, ‘Naughty’ Willy Weasel, Harry Hare, Mrs Fluffytail (Tufty’s mum) and Bobby Brown Rabbit (nothing to do with the music star of almost the same name) and Policeman Badger were always on hand to spread their protective message.
The stories appeared to have a profound effect: RoSPA reported a significant reduction in the deaths of under-fives by the end of 1962.
Tufty was immensely popular and membership of his clubs grew steadily. By 1973 there were more than 10,000 Tufty Clubs throughout the UK, with a membership of around two million children (at their peak there were around 25,000 clubs), prompting the government’s Central Office of Information to ask animation company Stop Motion (they of Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley fame) to bring Tufty and his friends to life in a series of six short films.
The gentle style of these films was at odds with their hard hitting messages. Here’s one of the less distressing ones, to ease you in gently:
‘Mrs Fluffytail is taking Tufty and Bobby to the shops.
Mrs F: “Tufty, what’s the right way to cross the road?”
Tufty: “First, find a safe place where we can see both ways. No parked cars. Stop, then stand on the pavement near the curb and look all round for traffic. And listen.”
“I hear a noise!” says Bobby.
When the lorry has gone, they all look round and listen again.
Tufty: “All the traffic has gone now, so we walk straight across, looking and listening all the time.”
‘But always with mummy!’ says Mrs Fluffytale.’
They weren’t Oscar-winning scripts, to be sure, but the juxtaposition of the cute woodland creatures and the lesson that traffic tragedy is only one careless step away was uncomfortably jarring and certainly stuck in my mind. I still get an image of a flattened football (from the film where Bobby’s ball goes over the hedge and gets squashed by an ice cream van) whenever I hear a tinny version of Greensleeves. And it was narrated by the peerless Bernard Cribbins, who was, and is, such an inspiration that I’m sure he’d have all small children begging their parents for more broccoli if he ever fronted a campaign aimed at increasing toddler consummation of green vegetables.
Obviously the most shocking of all the films were the ones that saw Willy Weasel actually get knocked down by a car. In one, Tufty and Bobby were again safely contained in the garden, while Willy and his mate Harry were running about in the street (where were their parents?). The inevitable happened and we learnt that playing in the road is very dangerous. Which is true, obviously, although as the road seemed completely clear of any other vehicles I do wonder why Policeman Badger wasn’t more keen to check why the driver of the car couldn’t see a weasel in a stripy top and a hare in checked dungarees and a bright yellow hat when they were clearly right in front of him.
Mind you, in another film Willy gets knocked over again, after going to buy an ice cream (from what looks like the same van that flattened the ball), so it’s probably safe to put the blame on him. Or, more fairly, on Willy’s parents, who were clearly shirking their childcare duties.
Most of the films were about road safety but, if your child wasn’t already traumatised by roads, cars, weasels, footballs and ice cream vans, there was also the one about losing your Mummy (no wonder there is such a high demand for therapists among people who grew up in the 1970s). Tufty is out shopping with Mrs Fluffytail when he spots a toy shop that he wants to visit. He wanders off, alone, towards it and we see him reach a road with a lorry fast approaching. In a clever twist, Tufty doesn’t get squished but, in fact, stops to wait for Mrs F’s help to cross and is then unable to find her. We have probably all experienced that full-on moment of panic when we were little and Mum or Dad wasn’t where we thought they were, but in Tufty’s case, if he’d just bothered to turn round he would have seen that his mummy was actually right behind him all along. Still, he will now always remember to hold tight to Mummy’s hand when he’s out. I’ve never forgotten that advice either but my Mum is less keen on me doing it now I’m 42.
(Just to reassure you, if you haven’t seen the films, Willy always pulls through.)
HRH Princess Michael of Kent was appointed president of the Tufty Club in 1979 and in 1982, Tufty turned 21 and held a national road show to celebrate. Two years later, he had the esteemed honour of joining Ted Rogers (host of confusing game show 3-2-1) on stage in panto in Bournemouth, to reinforce his road safety ideology.
In the early 1990s Tufty had an image upgrade to make him more modern and went on a nationwide tour. 25 years later and RoSPA are, rightfully, still very proud of their big-tailed mascot and continue to use him in their educational resources.
I had the Tufty Club badge but I don’t remember anything else about the club other than that and the nightmare-inducing films, so it’s possible I wasn’t a true, paid-up member. However, the work of the little red squirrel and his pals certainly did the trick for me. As the Green Cross Code man was never conveniently next to me when I was out and about (he’s another story) I was left to navigate the traffic system by myself. I could never step off a curb without imagining Willy lying prostrate in the road so I was always ultra-careful when it came to getting to the other side. It almost put me off ice cream too. But not quite.