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Way back in November last year I wrote up a little of Annette Mills' life story whilst trying to track down information about her daughter, Molly Blake. It struck me whilst watching the first part of the new BBC4 series Children's TV on Trial (27 May) that I'd rather left the Annette Mills story hanging in the mid-1940s. Since Annette -- and her most famous partner Muffin the Mule -- are a useful starting point for a number of threads I've tried to research, I thought I'd have a bash at completing the story...
During the early months of the Second World War, Annette Mills had scored a considerable hit with the songs 'Boomps-a-Daisy', which was a featured number in the film Band Waggon (released in March 1940) and 'Adolf'...
A certain German chancellor has lost his head,
He's going to get a headache somewhere else instead,
And he will be retiring very soon,
To join a certain Kaiser down in Doom,
Adolf, you've bitten off, much more than you can chew.
Come on, hold your hand out,
We're all fed up with you, Gor Blimey,
Adolf, you toddle off, and all your Nazis too,
Or you may get something to remind you
Of the old red, white and blue.
The sheet music, which sold at sixpence, featured an unhappy looking Adolf over the knee of a smiling Tommy who was administering a sound whacking to the Fuhrer's behind with a boot.
Annette had also made appearances as a successful cabaret artist in Paris and, after it fell to the Germans, wrote the song 'Un Jour' at the request of the BBC French section. She also appeared in the revue Come Out of Your Shell (1940) and broadcast to the Forces. A serious car accident in November 1942 -- she broke both legs -- meant that she spent the next two years undergoing a series of operations in hospital. She turned to writing short stories and plays, many of them broadcast by the BBC and overseas. One of her plays, the comedy Rotten Row, was turned into a TV play and broadcast in May 1947.
BBC Television had been silent for nearly seven years: closed down on 1 September 1939, it was finally revived on 7 June 1946. Annette's abilities as a singer, pianist and composer meant that she was the perfect choice to appear on the BBC television's For the Children slot and her first appearance on 4 August 1946 marked the beginning of a new career. Rehearsing for the new show, the bare expanse of her grand piano was thought to be a problem and Annette was advised to "get something to put on the top." Thinking over the problem, Annette suggested that her piano could be used as a stage populated with the characters from her stories. The idea was to create one of the very first stars of postwar television.
Also working for the BBC at Alexandra Palace was Jan Bussell, a radio producer for BBC Manchester before moving into television as a drama producer in 1936. Three years earlier, Bussell had married Margaret Ann Gildart Jackson, the two having met when actress Margaret -- professionally known as Ann Hogarth -- became stage manager at the Players' Theatre where Jan was working as a producer. Jan had become interested in marionettes years before and had been a puppeteer with the London Marionette Theatre and, shortly before they married, Jan and Ann had set up The Hogarth Puppets, booking halls, building their own scenery and puppets and putting on shows around the country.
Annette Mills and producer Andrew Miller Jones approached Bussell, then recently demobbed from the Royal Navy. Writing many years later for the Muffin the Mule Collectors' Club Newsletter, Sally McNally recalled: "Subsequently, Annette came to our house and met my mother, Ann Hogarth, and she asked if they could make puppets to illustrate her songs -- no, they replied, but perhaps you could write songs to illustrate our puppets! She agreed to this and my parents showed her all the puppets that they weren't actually using at the time. Annette immediately chose the mule and named him Muffin -- then she also selected the clown and called him Crumpet. My mother sat down and wrote a twelve minute script, Annette wrote the songs, including, of course, the signature tune "We want Muffin" and they made their first appearance together the following Sunday..."
Muffin had originally been designed by Jan Bussell in 1933 and created by Fred Tickner, a well known carver of Punch puppets, for use in Hogarth Puppet Circus. Now he was about to embark on a new career, making his debut on For the Children on 20 October 1946 alongside Crumpet the Clown. The puppets were operated by Ann Hogarth as Annette sang songs and told stories to the audience, with Muffin whispering suggestions to his co-star, dancing and stamping his hoof.
Over the next few years many other characters were introduced -- Crumpet soon disappearing to be replaced by Peregrine the Penguin, Sally the Seal, Poppy the Parrot, Louise the Lamb and Oswald the Ostrich. Tours in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa inspired the arrivals of Katy the Kangaroo, Kirri the Kiwi and Zebbie the Zebra (all made by Stanley Maile). The star, however, was Muffin, who received huge amounts of fan-mail -- enough to keep two secretaries constantly busy. Young fans would enclose carrots for him to eat or fancy hats to wear. The parents of one child revealed how their television had been ruined when their child had stuffed the back full of food for Muffin.
Annette and Muffin compered the very first Children's Hour when it was launched in January 1948 and Muffin was soon to become a huge commercial success with the release of the first Muffin merchandise. The Muffin Songbook contained eight songs, including Muffin's famous signature tune...
We want Muffin, Muffin the Mule.
Dear old Muffin, playing the fool.
We want Muffin, Ev'rybody sing,
We want Muffin the Mule!
Two short movies were made for the Rank Children's Club in 1948 and an album of songs released by Decca. The first Muffin the Mule book arrived from the University of London Press in 1949 written by Annette Mills with illustrations by her daughter, Molly Blake. A new book appeared each year by Mills and Blake until 1954. Ann Hogarth, meanwhile, was also writing stories for the annual Muffin books published in association with Hodder & Stoughton which ran to four volumes, The Red Muffin Book (1950), The Blue Muffin Book (1951), The Green Muffin Book (1952) and The Purple Muffin Book (1953). Muffin was also available as various toys, birthday and christmas cards, postcards, badges, plates, biscuit tins and the Moko Muffin Junior puppet. Muffin merchandise generated a turnover of three-quarters of a million pounds in 1952. (Some of the many spin-offs are pictured at the Muffin the Mule Collectors' Club website.)
Muffin also became one of the stars of the newly launched TV Comic in 1951 and, in December 1952 and January 1953, Annette and Ann staged The Muffin Show at the Vaudeville Theatre, a series of Christmas matinees in which Muffin and many of his television co-stars made an appearance. The show was something of a spectacular and the reviewer for The Times (24 December 1952) was highly impressed:
"The entertainment also runs to two puppet circuses and a miniature ballet which goes further into the regions of imaginative fantasy than most puppet-makers venture. Sportive lions, strong men, cowboys and cowgirls, clowns that turn the tables on disintegrating skeletons by disintegrating themselves, acrobats, performing dogs -- all the eventful apparatus of the proper circus is skilfully reduced to the proportions of the puppet stage. The flower ballet depicts the dispersal of morning mists -- represented by shining and transparent figures with an elevation and an ability to remain in the air that can hardly have been surpassed by Nijinsky -- and the behaviour of a rose when exposed to an anti-cyclone, a deep depression, and Jack Frost. It even boasts a comic pas de quatre by red hot pokers."
Muffin's television appearances were broadcast live until 1952 when a new series entitled Muffin the Mule was launched. The new 15-minute show was filmed so that it could shown, usually around Sunday teatime, and then rebroadcast. These shows were usually scripted by Ann Hogarth and directed by Jan Bussell, although the partnership between the Bussells and Annette had almost come to an end in 1950 due to personality clashes between the two creative partners. It was around the same time that Annette Mills introduced Prudence Kitten, a glove puppet, to For the Children on 7 June 1950. Prudence had a sister, Primrose, who was married to Nelson and had a son, Snowy; the kitten family, and Prudence's friend Puffer Dog, were also popular characters and generated their own merchandise including books illustrated by Molly Blake who narrated the first of the TV shows and, after Annette's death, presented the show.
Muffin the Mule continued to appear regularly on the BBC until a few days before Annette's death. In late 1954, she developed a brain tumor but continued to broadcast Muffin, her last appearance with alongside Muffin coming only days before she was admitted to the London Clinic. She underwent an operation on Wednesday, 5 January 1955 but failed to recover consciousness; she died on Monday, 10 January 1955. A memorial service at St. Martin-in-the-Fields was held on 14 January where a replica of Muffin was made from red and white flowers
Annette Mills, who lived at Dumpton Gap, Broadstairs, Kent, left an estate of nearly £21,000. Before her death, she had bequeathed her body to the advancement of surgery and when this became known to the public, the Ministry of Health was inundated with inquiries about how to make such a bequest.
Muffin the Mule, illus. Molly Blake. London, University of London Press, 1949.
More About Muffin, illus. Molly Blake. London, University of London Press, 1950.
Jack and Jill All Colour Gift Book, ed. Annette Mills. London, News of the World, 1951.
Jack and Jill's Farmyard Friends, ed. Annette Mills. London, News of the World, 1951.
Mrs. Cluck and Master Quack. A child's first book, ed. Annette Mills; illus. Yunge Bateman. London, News of the World, 1951.
Muffin and the Magic Hat, illus. Molly Blake. London, University of London Press, 1951.
Here Comes Muffin, illus. Molly Blake. London, University of London Press, 1952.
Jennifer and the Flower Fairies, illus. Molly Blake. London, News of the World, 1952.
Prudence Kitten, illus. George Fry. London, University of London Press, 1952.
Muffin at the Seaside, illus. Molly Blake. London, University of London Press, 1953.
Muffin's Splendid Adventure, illus. Molly Blake. London, University of London Press, 1954.
My Annette Mills Gift Book. London, Heirloom Library, 1954.
Prudence Kitten and Puffer of Children's Television, illus. George Fry. London, Publicity Products, 1955.
Most of the information here is derived from various sources including The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, various obituaries, a number of online sites dedicated to children's TV and the Muffin the Mule Collectors' Club. The poster for the Wimbledon Theatre appearance comes from the PeoplePlay theatre history website (here), as does the autographed pic of Mills and Muffin. The Annette Mills Gift Book image is from a website called Fulltable which has some examples of Molly Blake's artwork (here) and Adolf is from a recent eBay auction. The pic of Annette Mills and Ann Hogarth is from the National Portrait Gallery collection (here).
And for those of you desperate for the lyrics of 'Boomps-a-Daisy', here they are...
In the naughty nineties, ladies were so gay.
In the naughty nineties, this is how they'd play:
Waltzing as light as a feather,
And bumping their bustles together.
Hands, knees, and boomps-a-daisy! I like a bustle that bends.
Hands, knees, and boomps-a-daisy! What is a boomp between friends?
Hands, knees, oh, don't be lazy. Let's make the party a wow.
Now then, hands, knees, and boomps-a-daisy! Turn to your partner and bow. Bow-wow!
Gentlemen with whiskers whirl the ladies round,
Hoping ... bustles ... safe and sound.
Grandma says boomping is shocking.
You might show an inch of your stocking.
Please read on...