Westerham Arts

Bill Curtis

When Freda Lingstrom joined the BBC in 1940 as a staff pool journalist and script writer working for the ‘Home and Empire Talks’ department of BBC radio, she met Maria Bird, a writer, narrator and musician also working for BBC radio.

Maria, born in South Africa in 1891, had been educated in a Scottish Convent, when her mother decided an English education would be the best for her children. Following school Bird studied the Dalcroze Eurhythmics method of music and dance under Emile Jaques-Dalcroze in Dessau, Germany, during which time she became an accomplished young musical composer and pianist.

Lingstrom was born in Chelsea in 1893 and attended the Central School of Arts  and Crafts which she left as a published author of her first book.

Just after the Second World War she joined the editorial team of the children’s magazine ‘Junior’, whose writers included George Orwell and Maria Bird.
Both Freda and Maria had been engaged to young soldiers in the First World War, but both of them were killed and this may well have cemented the companionship they decided to share at Chartwell Cottage just outside Westerham in the late 1940s.

The couple set up the production company ‘Westerham Arts’ following Freda’s appointment in 1947, as Assistant Head of BBC Schools Broadcasting, a role that quickly led to her creation of the lunchtime radio slot ‘Listen with Mother’.
With the post-war development of television, she was approached by Mary  Adams, Head of Television Talks, and asked if she could create an experimental television strand aimed at pre-school children, to be named ‘For the Very Young’. By 1950 Westerham Arts had been commissioned to produce their first puppet show ‘Andy Pandy’ with Lingstrom and Bird writing the scripts and Bird writing and playing the music.

A chance meeting on the train up to London introduced Lingstrom to Audrey Atterbury who found the project very exciting. By the journey’s end Lingstrom had persuaded Audrey to join their team and be trained under string-puppeteer John Wright of the Little Angel Theatre Company.  In the summer of 1950 production began with Andy Pandy soon being joined by Teddy and Louby Lou. At that point Molly Gibson joined Audrey to be the second puppeteer.

Maria Bird was the narrator for many of the episodes, as well as the piano player.

In 1951 Freda Lingstrom was appointed Director of Children’s Television, and in 1952, the pre-school children’s tv slot was rebranded as ‘Watch with Mother’. That year Westerham Arts developed ‘The Flower Pot Men’, to be followed in 1953 by a break-away from string puppeteering, with the production of glove-puppet animation in ‘Rag Tag and Bobtail’.

In 1955 the final two weekdays were filled with ‘Picture-Book’ on a Monday and ‘The Woodentops’ to complete the week on a Friday.

This seemed a good formula but the launch of ITV in 1955 was to ring the death-knell, offering programmes for young children that were not so ‘safe and cosy’.  BBC ratings plummeted over the following year and by the close of 1956 Lingstrom was replaced as Head of Children’s Television by Owen Reed.

This was not the end for Westerham Arts, however, as they were commissioned in 1967 to produce another string-puppet series for ‘Watch with Mother’ titled ‘Bizzy Lizzy’. Lizzy had originally been a character in Monday episodes of ‘Picture Book’ before getting her own thirteen part series narrated by Maria Bird, then aged 76, and co-produced by Bird and Lingstrom. The final fling followed the launch of colour television in the late 1960s with thirteen colour episodes of Andy Pandy in 1970 recorded at Abbey Rd Studios…

Maria Bird died in 1979 at Westerham, aged 88 years

Freda Lingstrom died in 1989 at Westerham, aged 96 years

On set with Andy Pandy at Alexandra Palace. The puppeteers are Martin Grainger and Audrey Atterbury. Watching the live performance are Maria Bird and Janet Ferber
Freda Lingstrom with Porterhouse Parrot, one of many characters developed by Westerham Arts
Maria Bird at the piano playing background music for 'Watch with Mother'
As one of the principal puppeteers, Audrey Atterbury was a vital presence through all the 'Watch with Mother' series

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