Roberta Leigh (1927-2014)

Roberta Leigh, the prolific author and pioneering female television producer who produced AP Films’ first two television series, The Adventures Of Twizzle and Torchy The Battery Boy, died on 19th December 2014 at the age of 87. She was born Rita Shulman in London’s East End on 22nd December 1926, but was evacuated to North Wales during World War 2 and educated at St. Mary’s Convent School, Rhyl. She married the football pools magnate Michael Letwin in 1948, which allowed her to follow her passion for writing. Taking on the professional name of Roberta Leigh and with a keen awareness of the popularity of romantic fiction her first novel, In Name Only, was published in 1950.

Throwing herself into the life of a professional writer, Leigh remained a prolific writer of romantic fiction for the rest of her life, using several pen names, including Janey Scott and Rachel Lindsay, over a series of novels whose number is estimated at between 140 and 160. Displaying huge energy, she maintained a parallel career as a journalist, writing for the Daily Mirror before joining the Daily Herald as a columnist.

By the latter half of the 1950s Leigh turned her attention to writing for children and the newly emerging market for independent film producers brought about by the creation of ITV, which began broadcasting to the London area in September 1955. Having sold the idea of The Adventures Of Twizzle to Associated-Rediffusion, which broadcast to London on weekdays, Leigh then set about finding a company willing to make the series for £450 per episode, a meagre amount of money even in 1957. Having been turned down by every company she’d approached, eventually she arrived at the door of Gerry Anderson and Arthur Provis’s ailing production company AP Films. The company, which had previous experience making puppet films in the form of an advert for Corn Flakes featuring Enid Blyton’s Noddy, was close to collapse and had no choice but to accept.

The resulting series began broadcasting on 13th November 1957, and can quite fairly be described as a success, selling to English-speaking foreign markets such as Australia and being a staple of children’s television in Britain right throughout the 1960s. The series’ format of 15-minute episodes, each containing a song – Barry Gray already being on board as arranger and conductor – proved popular and was repeated when Leigh and AP Films reconvened to make Leigh’s new project, Torchy The Battery Boy. Both Associated-Rediffusion and Roberta Leigh were extremely pleased with AP Films’ work on Twizzle and the company was given double the budget to make Torchy The Battery Boy. This proved an even bigger success, the AP Films crew’s background as experienced film industry professionals leading to a far slicker, better-made product than the puppet series that had been seen on television up to this point. The BBC’s Watch With Mother puppet series such as The Woodentops and Flower Pot Men were ultimately filmed radio, with heavy use of narration, while the Leigh-AP Films productions used the grammar of film to great effect.

While Roberta Leigh’s Pelham Films had an order for another series of Torchy The Battery Boy from Associated-Rediffusion, Gerry Anderson, in particular, was keen for AP Films to expand. The result was that the company put its profits from Twizzleand Torchy into a pilot for their own puppet western series, Four Feather Falls, from an idea by Barry Gray. With a full series going into production in June 1959 at the company’s new studios at the Slough Trading Estate, the indefatigable Ms Leigh found a new production facility, Associated British-Pathé, to fulfil A-R’s order for a further 26 episodes of Torchy. While her career in television has been somewhat overshadowed in the popular imagination by the work of the Andersons, Roberta Leigh put together an interesting and successful body of work during the 1960s.

Arthur Provis left AP Films early in the production of Four Feather Falls, nervous of Gerry Anderson’s ambitious plans for the company, and began making films with Roberta Leigh, starting with Sara And Hoppity. This puppet series, about a little girl led into misadventures by her toy doll, continued Leigh’s interestingly unsentimental view of childhood. Children are routinely seen as naughty and abusive to their toys – this is the starting point for both Torchy and Twizzle and, from the evidence of the surviving pilot episode, the relationship between Sara and Hoppity is very strange and twisted, the doll acting as encouragement to Sara’s most destructive instincts.

From here Leigh and Provis moved on to the science fiction puppet territory that AP Films had made its own, with Space Patrol (known as Planet Patrol in the US due to the existence of a very popular series of the same name). Similar in format to Fireball XL5, Space Patrol featured the adventures of Captain Larry Dart and his crew of the Galasphere 347. Despite it perhaps not hitting the creative peaks of Fireball XL5 (it was made on a fraction of the budget, so all the scenes needed for the entire series on a certain set were filmed together) Space Patrol’s two series had an interesting style all of their own and stands up in its own right as a fascinating artefact of its time.

Leigh and Provis continued to make puppet series for the next few years following Space Patrol but, like Gerry Anderson, they were finding the TV market increasingly crowded. A colour follow-up to Space Patrol, Paul Starr, didn’t make it past the pilot stage while Send For Dithers and Wonder Boy And Tiger were only shown in a few English regions in the late 60s. Their last throw of the dice was a decently budgeted live action pilot film, The Solarnauts, the only drama made by ABC Television Films apart from the final season of The Avengers.

When this failed to sell, the Leigh/Provis partnership dissolved and Roberta Leigh returned to writing full-time, with great success. She devised a children’s comic, Fun ‘n’ Games, for the supermarket Tesco in 1969 which at its height sold 150,000 copies per week, and wrote prolifically for the romantic fiction publishers Harlequin Mills and Boon, eventually selling more than 25 million copies.

Incredibly, her most high profile work as a writer and film producer represented only a small part of Roberta Leigh’s achievements. She was a trained graphologist, working for the police and major employers, an elocution teacher, an abstract painter and a radio agony aunt.

Originally published in FAB 80.