Smells Like Bentine Spirit

Forget Dora the Explorer or Octonauts, get your kids into Michael Bentine’s Potty Time. Once you convince them of the merits of this glove puppet Goonery, you too can start enjoying kid’s telly again.
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It’s the theme tune that gets you first. It’s not a theme tune that’s embedded itself in the popular conscience (like Roobarb or Grange Hill) and it’s nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a chromatic harmonica playing a fruity jig but the second it strikes up it’ll transport (Proust’s Madeleine-style) anyone over about 35 straight to mid Seventies childhood. You’ll think getting in from school, of tea-time, of the hiss from a pressure cooker, of Smash, Angel Delight and tellys that you had to walk up to and touch to switch between the three channels available. Maybe you won’t, but I did and, let me tell you, the afternoon I spent watching Potty Time enabled me to spend a few hours in a fine and magical kingdom.

For those of you unsure of the history of the Potty Time, Michael Bentine left the Goons in the early fifties after 38 radio shows and a film. He made several other well received but little remembered TV shows through the sixties before deciding to create his own kid’s TV show. He took the humour of the Goons, designed an army of little bearded puppets (the Potties) and built some heroically detailed sets on which they could play out wacky takes on famous historical events, classic fiction and silly Boys Own adventure stories. The resulting Potty Time shows are written, voiced and presented (alongside Rowley Birkin-esque puppet sidekick Colonel Potsworthy) by Bentine himself and the madcap humour on display feels very much like the Goons meets Monty Python meets the Muppets. Indeed the wacky takes on historical events share much common ground with The Complete and Utter History of Britain by Python’s Palin and Jones or the Muppets film versions of Scrooge or Treasure Island.

You find yourself watching and willing these invisible superheroes to ever greater feats of heroism or lunacy without ever stopping to realise that they don’t actually exist.

Perhaps the best and certainly most fondly-remembered element of the show is the ‘flea circus’ sections. These are silly action scenes where invisible participants hop, skip, run, climb and jump around elaborate but wonderfully amateurish miniature sets. All of the action is created by means of wires and levers and the end result looks like the best toy set you never had; cars and planes fly around seemingly unaided (if you ignore the very obvious wires), characters climb mountains or swing across chasms and guns and bombs go off all over the shop – all on what looks like the contents of your local modelling shop randomly glued together and stuck on the living room table. You find yourself watching and willing these invisible superheroes to ever greater feats of heroism or lunacy without ever stopping to realise that they don’t actually exist.

For anyone who even vaguely remembers the series it’s all great to see again, for those too young but who like the humour of Boosh or Harry Hill it provides a clue to the comedic ancestry of those shows. But how does Potty Time stand up today in itself? Can a show that features no animation, CGI or have a tie-in series of toys still entertain the fickle blip-vert attention-spanned children of today? As a test I sat down with my Dora/ Octonauts/ Peppa Pig addicted 3 year old to see how long she’d last watching a bloke born in 1922 fannying around with glove puppets. She did very well. She laughed (at the jokes that didn’t shoot over her head anyway), she was amazed by the action and she danced to the theme tune – impossible not to, truth be told. To be fair, she’s a big fan of Wallace & Gromit and the Toy Story films and this, I reckon, holds the key. What Bentine was doing in a Thames TV studio through the seventies, with a small team of model makers and puppeteers and a big tub of UHU is similar to today’s great kids entertainment in two vital ways – great scripts (Potty Time had very good scripts) and genuinely subversive, silly humour. Kids love that sort of stuff, and so will you.