With the exception of ‘Oooh, Matron’ Kenneth Williams' voice was probably never put to better use than as the characters from the original series of Willo the Wisp. The name of the cartoon comes from ‘will-o’-the-wisp’; the lamp-like flickering light seen by night time travellers in English folklore.
Doyley Woods was a strange and slightly eerie place; home to a collection of motley and magical creatures. The narrator of each short tale was the all-knowing Willo the Wisp; a floaty blue spectre with a startling resemblance to Mr Williams himself (it was the nose that was the giveaway).
Mavis Cruet was a fairy that was never likely to make it to the top of the Christmas tree. Slightly too plump to really get away with wearing that leotard and tutu, and with unfortunate teeth, her magic was also a bit off kilter. Spells that she cast often backfired or went adrift of the mark, meaning that the wrong person or object received the fortune (or misfortune) intended for another. She had a kind heart and always meant well however, and was very fond of one of the Gnomes who occasionally appeared in the wood.
Other inhabitants included Arthur, a world-weary cockney caterpillar; Carwash the bright blue and extremely skinny cat who wore glasses and spoke like Noel Coward, and the Bookworm, who increased his intelligence by eating facts written in books. Joining them was The Moog, a kind of pudgy pink sausage dog with orange ears and bright blue eyes who didn’t have much in the way of brains and was often a victim of Edna’s cruel humour.
Ah yes, Edna. Obviously everybody’s favourite character (although they were at the same time slightly terrified of her) was Evil Edna, the television set witch with narrowing orange eyes and a bad attitude. Stomping moodily around the woods, she used her aerials to zap anybody who got on her nerves (which was nearly everybody she encountered), most noticeably Prince Humbart the Handsome. Not particularly intelligent to start with and with an inability to pronounce the letter ‘r’, the Prince had the temerity to ride his bicycle straight into Edna one day and, instead of apologising, called her a ‘wotten owld television set.’ This obviously angered the easily upset Edna and she immediately changed him forever into ‘The Beast’ – an almost-toothless cross between a Muppet and the Honey Monster.
The only time Edna is uncharacteristically nice to everybody is the episode where she falls in love with a newsreader appearing in the programme on her screen. Wanting to keep Edna in her new good mood the hapless Mavis tries to bring the newsreader to life by casting one of her unreliable spells; a 2D newsreader falls off the screen and bounces away, leaving a hole in Edna’s face. This puts Edna back into her usual foul mood, and she changes Mavis and Arthur into frogs. Normal service was resumed.
Willo the Wisp was actually originally created for another purpose entirely; the animator Nick Spargo came up with him for a British Gas educational cartoon in 1975, explaining how UK gas networks were used (yawn...bet Willo was glad when he finished that job), before his entertainment potential was seen. Doyley Woods were based on a real wood in Oxfordshire.
The first series broadcast BBC1 in 1981: 26 five minute episodes were made and shown after the children’s programmes had finished, and before the early evening news. Audience figures averaged nine million, which shows how much the nation loved this tiny eccentric cartoon, and that hasn’t been surpassed by a children’s animation series since.
A second series was created by Nick Spargo’s daughter Bobbie in 2005 which went out on the Playhouse Disney UK channel. Voiced by James Dreyfus in much the same manner as Williams, the new animation stuck pretty faithfully to the original version although it was given several more modern twists; Edna is now a widescreen digital television (not sure what kind of subscription package she has however) who now zooms about the woods using her stand as a kind of skateboard.
The biggest difference is Doyley Woods; in the 1981 version the trees and surroundings were a dark, bluey-grey colour, with a slightly creepy presence. In the later cartoon there is greenery, blue sky and sunshine – which definitely takes the menace out of it. Perhaps it was a decided move by the creators to make it lighter and less scary for a young audience, but it did take something away from the programme. Half the fun of watching the hilarious yet nasty Edna was being slightly scared of a cartoon version of the thing you were watching the programme on!