ANIMATION SPIN
January 29, 2019 posted by Greg Ehrbar

Lionel Jeffries’ “The Water Babies” (1978) on Records

The soundtrack to this animation/live action fantasy, directed by Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Grandpa Potts, features an eclectic score, two Doctor Who’s and two cartoon Beatle voices.

THE WATER BABIES
Original Film Soundtrack
Narrated by Bernard Cribbins
Ariola Records ARLB-5030 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP with Gatefold / Stereo)

Released in 1978. Album Producer: Phil Coulter. Film Producer: Peter Shaw. Musical Score: Phil Coulter. Running Time: 46 minutes.

Performers: Bernard Cribbins (Narrator); Tommy Pender (Tom); Jon Pertwee (Mr. Salmon, Jock the Lobster); Olive Gregg (Mrs. Salmon); Paul Luty (Claude the Swordfish); Lance Percival (Terence the Sea Horse).

Film Songs: “Try a Little Harder,” “High Cockalorum,” “Luli Lu Li” by Bill Martin and Phil Coulter.
Additional Songs: “Over to Hartover Hall,” “Tom” by Bill Martin and Phil Coulter.
Instrumentals: Main Title, “Do As You Would Be Done By,” I’m Ellie,” “Stop Thief,” “Dead Man’s Pool,” “Old Tom,” “Evil Forest,” “March of the Water Babies” and End Title by Phil Coulter.

Published in 1863, Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies is an early Victorian fantasy novel in which an orphan chimney sweep is changed into a magical creature of the deep. As a feature film the story becomes a Dickensian Mr. Limpet of sorts, in which the young chimney sweep Tom alternates between live action (with a stellar British cast including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’s James Mason, David Tomlinson, Billie Whitelaw, Joan Greenwood and Bernard Cribbins) and animation in an undersea fantasy world. Most of the live actors also play animated characters, though a few are only in the cartoon portion, like Jon Pertwee, who was the Third Doctor on the long-running sci-fi series Doctor Who.

The film—never given wide theatrical release in the U.S. but a staple of early cable, especially HBO—transitions to animation about 40 minutes into the story (perhaps timed to a reel change). Water Babies then shifts back and forth from grim realism to jaunty whimsy in which sharks play cards, characters make friends instantly, and even imposing figures don’t seem all that worrisome.

The live-action was directed by veteran Lionel Jeffries, internationally known as actor in many features like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, First Men in the Moon, The Notorious Landlady and Camelot and as a director specializing for family films based on classic novels including The Railway Children and The Amazing Mr. Blunden.

The animation is very basic, not quite as static as TV cartoons of the seventies, but loose and erratic. This may have been the style of Polish director Miroslaw Kijowicz, who oversaw a Warsaw staff. If the design seems somewhat familiar, it might be due to the involvement of supervising designer/animation director Tony Cuthbert and storyboard/animation director (UK) Jack Stokes, both of whom worked on Yellow Submarine and the original Beatles TV cartoon. There’s even a Beatles TV cartoon cast member: Lance Percival, who voiced the animated Paul and Ringo. The modest budget was such that no real matte work seems evident. The transformation scene appears to be a series of dissolves and double exposures. (By coincidence, the film’s producer, Peter Shaw, was the late husband of the live action/animated Bedknobs and Broomsticks star Angela Lansbury).

David Tomlinson adds a touch of Mary Poppins to the proceedings, doing a polar bear voice sounding very much like his parrot head umbrella character in the 1964 Walt Disney classic. He is not likely to be on the album (unless he joined in the final chorus of “High Cockalorum”) but it’s nice to see and hear him in another family fantasy film.

Speaking of “High Cockalorum,” this was obviously intended to be the breakaway song, and those who do remember the film inevitably can recall some of it. There are two other songs, one sung by a charming salmon couple that encourages Tom to swim, and another sung by the water babies themselves. The lovely melody, “Luli Lu Li,” is set in a sequence that anticipates the Candy Land-ish Strawberry Shortcake/Care Bears/Rainbow Brite properties of the eighties.

The live action story sections of the finished film have no songs, but the album provides two additional pieces that could have been used (and theoretically could have been in the original plan). A Celtic-sounding ballad and a plaintive tune for Tom’s young lady friend are the two extra tracks, all written by multi-gold and platinum record award winning Irish composer/performer Phil Coulter and Scottish lyricist and music publisher Bill Martin, once a hitmaking pop songwriting team, whose hits included “Saturday Night” by the Bay City Rollers and “Puppet on a String” by Sandie Shaw.

Tying the LP all together with flawless narration is the beloved British actor Bernard Cribbins. To American audiences, he might be best known as the persnickety hotel guest who ordered the cheese salad in the Fawlty Towers episode “Hotel Inspectors,” the harried writer in The Avengers episode “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One” (also featuring John Cleese), the airline steward in the Jerry Lewis comedy Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River, or more recently, a “temporary Tenth Doctor” on Doctor Who. Cribbins also scored a big pop novelty hit in 1962 with “Right Said Fred,” (yes, the title did inspire the name of the pop band).

The song was made into this stop-motion short:

There was, of course, an earlier animated Water Babies—part of Walt Disney’s Silly Symphony series. Taking very little from the book besides the little stream cherubs (who were in this case able to frolic on land as well as in water), this Technicolor TushieTacular featured an outstanding score by Leigh Harline (more about the Silly Symphony records here. 1938’s Merbabies (co-produced with the Harman-Ising studio), featured similar little beings, only with fishtails. Both films were precursors for more cherub appearances in Fantasia and Make Mine Music.

GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“High Cockalorum” (Character Verses and Victory Reprise)

Named for a U.K. form of leapfrog, the song turns the children’s phrase into a catch-all for happy things, much as “Hakuna Matata” later stood for the freedom from care and worry. Its use as a tune for each successive meeting of the heroes and their adventure onward is also structurally reminiscent “We’re Off to See the Wizard.”

BONUS! LITTLE LISTEN
Charles Kingsley’s “The Water Babies” (1963)

This is a U.K. musical adaptation produced originally for HMV (RCA) Records in Britain, and later released on LP in the U.S. on the Riverside/Wonderland and Golden/Wonderland labels. Narrated by Ann Todd (Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case), it features a full cast and original songs by stage composer Vivian Ellis. Note the somewhat creepy tune, “Clear and Cool;” it comes directly from the 1863 book, and it’s a little bit like that “Be Careful” choral moment in The Incredible Mr. Limpet that comes at the same transformational point in the story.

3 Comments

  • Hate to be THAT guy but… They misspelled Pertwee’s name on the album cover!

  • I have “The Water Babies” on the Golden/Wonderland label (with “Red Riding Hood” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” on the flip side)…which was my introduction to the story!

  • I have an antiquarian book of The Water Babies with Warwick Goble illustrations, but my introduction to the movie was through research of movie adaptations of this peculiar story.

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