Sad Tales From Fat Tulips Garden
by London Squire
From July 2010
One TV show came to mind, but he could not remember the name. His memories were of Tony Robinson (famous for Black Adder/Time Team etc) running all over the place and telling stories in a very excited and animated manner. Mr R had a vision of a large garden or forest, and a camera rushing through the undergrowth making the viewer imagine that it is he or she running through the scene of the unfolding story.
After a little on line research Mr R found the name of the show, and the memories flooded back. It was “Tales from Fat Tulip’s Garden”. He was even more delighted to find some You Tube videos of the show, and watching them almost regressed back to the 5 or 6 year old he was in 1986, once again captivated by the exciting adventures of Fat Tulip, Thin Tim, and Inspector Challener.
After browsing through the scant information available on the internet about this wonderful and sadly neglected program, Mr R stumbled upon an old interview with Tony Robinson where he gives a nice insight into the conception of the series and the making of it.
“Tales from Fat Tulip’s Garden was a collaboration between me and a women who I was in drama school with, Debbie Gates. She had a very young daughter who had started making up some stories about a little boy called Henry, and Debbie thought they would provide the basis for a very good television series.
I had two young children at the time and was becoming increasingly irritated by a lot of what passed as story-telling on TV. It seemed to me either very patronising and unimaginative or else very literary and over the heads of an awful lot of young children. Story-telling had always seemed to me to be primarily a one-off event, and an event which was about a relationship between the story-teller and the people who were listening. The idea that you could simply do it in a studio, reciting the words which were coming up in front of the camera on autocue, seemed to me to be the antithesis of story-telling.
Now, one of the characters that Debbie’s daughter had created was a tulip called Fat Tulip. I loved the idea of this flower called Fat Tulip, and in the middle of the night, under some form of stimulus or another, it occurred to me that all the adventures that happened to Henry could just as well happen to this human character who happened to be called Fat Tulip.
And somehow, giving him that surreal name inspired all the rest of the stories, and I was able to develop loads and loads of different characters who had that same kind of weird spin to them. Also, being a child of the Sixties, I was interested in including bits of my own past and bits of my own culture, so pretty soon you found three fat toads called Peter, Paul and Mary and a little winkle called Jim Morrison. I think my favourite story is the one that ends with the words: ‘Meep, meep, meep.’ ‘What’s that?’ said Fat Tulip. ‘Don’t worry,’ replied Thin Tim. ‘It’s only Jim Morrison crying for his mummy.’
The whole point of the series was that it was semi-improvised, so it would really feel like a story being told for the first time to the listener. It was all done with hand-held cameras so it felt really wobbly and immediate and a bit like a piece of news footage. The actual location turned out to be quite bizarre. I wasn’t involved in finding it, but Debbie rang me one day and said, ‘We’ve found this fantastic garden which we think you’ll really like. It’s quite near to where you used to live as a child.’ And when I went there, it was a house that I had actually played in when I was a child!
The first series was enormously successful, and was consistently No. 1 or No. 2 in the ratings. They repeated it and gave us a second series which we called Fat Tulip Too. That was given one run by Central Television, and then it just stopped. We never got a repeat and they never commissioned any more. The reason was, apparently, that children’s television needed to make money, and the way it was able to make money was by secondary marketing of the images around the television programmes. Given that we worked in the imagination and all the images of these various characters were actually in the listener’s head – that was the whole point of it – it was no longer particularly financially interesting to ITV.
By this time, an awful lot of Fat Tulip groupies had been created, most of them at the time around the ages of 14 or 15, but obviously they’ve grown older as the years have gone by. Even though most people know me from TIME TEAM or from Blackadder, it’s very heartening when, once or twice a fortnight, someone will come up to me and say, ‘The best thing you ever did was Fat Tulip,’ because it was something that was created entirely by Debbie and me. Debbie, sadly, died of cancer a few years ago, but I hope that, wherever she is, she knows that there are people who still remember the series.
Mr R also found out that the House and Garden used to film the show was called Little Monkhams and located in Woodford, North East London. It was then that he discovered some very sad news.
From the Evening Standard 01/08/08
“In January last year, grade-II listed Little Monkhams in Monkhams Lane, which dated back to the 14th century, was gutted by fire the day the Planning Inspectorate was due to hear an appeal by Crestgate Estates on permission to demolish it. The cause of the fire is unknown.”
Little Monkhams was widely believed to be the oldest house in Woodford, and a few years prior to its sad destruction was bought by a property development company who wanted to flatten the house and put a new block of flats in its place. Many people in the area find it suspicious that the day before a planning descion was to be made, Little Monkhams mysteriously caught fire and was completely destroyed. I will let you make your own mind up there.
In early July of two thousand and ten, Mr R decided to find what was left of Fat Tulip’s House and Garden. He set off that morning from Stoke Newington to Monkhams Lane in Woodford, having no idea what he would find. Perhaps a pile of rubble, a new block of flats, a fenced off waste ground?
Getting off the Bus at the top of Monkhams Lane he walked slowly along admiring the old Church and pleasant greenery of this fairly “well to do” leafy neighborhood towards the end of London Underground’s Central Line.
The Lane twists, and then dips before rising again towards the area where he knew Little Monkhams was to be found, (or not). On the left hand side of the Road is a large Wood, where some of the scenes from Tales from Fat Tulips Garden were shot.
Mr R approached Orchard Lane and realised that this was the boundary of the Garden. A few steps further and the remains of the Chimney stacks came into view. He was relieved and saddened in the same instant. On one hand the Old House and Gardens had not yet been turned into a block of flats or a Tesco Metro. On the other stood before him a mess of blackened timbers, fallen brick work and the realisation that he would never be able to fully appreciate the beauty of this special place.
A little white gate surrounded by overgrown hedges was half open. Peering through Mr R could see that the area was sealed off with metal fences, but the temptation to explore was too much and he decided to visit Fat Tulip’s garden.
Following an overgrown pathway to the right, he had a few tricky moments trying to manoeuver through the thorn bushes in his summer shorts. It was also a very hot day and the garden was alive with all sorts of insects and birds.
After a following the path around a bend and past a few old Garden monuments Mr R’s jaw suddenly dropped. The narrow passage had suddenly opened up into a huge clearing, and immediately he knew he was in Fat Tulips Garden. Ahead of he could see the Apple Trees forming the orchard, and to the left the side of the house and the flag pole surrounded by ivy. It was clear that this used to be a well tendered garden by the sheer amount of flowers that are now growing wildly.
After wandering around this secret garden Mr R decided to get a closer look at the house. Walking across the lawn and up the old stone steps that lead to the rear corner of the house, all the time trying to remembering in his mind the recent You Tube videos he had seen and to work out which part of the house he was looking at.
Squeezing passed another metal fence he found himself by the corner of the house and in front of him an open doorway which went inside the building. Mr R decided to venture inside and have a look around this ruined room. Wires and strings were hanging down from the blackened ceiling, and the smell of smoke still lingered in the air even though the fire was three years past. The remains of a temporary camp were present, perhaps a homeless person took shelter here or maybe some local children made it their den.
At the far end of the room and turning 45 degrees Mr R realised he was level with the front gate, looking towards the Road and Woods, he could see through the great gap that was left after the front of the building had collapsed. Peering down at the rubble on the floor he noticed the wooden handle of a Garden Fork, instantly he remembered from the TV show seeing “Fat Tulip’s” compost heap with an old Fork stuck in the top, could this be the very same one?
It would have been difficult and dangerous to venture any further into the house so Mr R decided to explore the Garden further. His intention being to complete a full circuit of the grounds if possible.
Leaving this room at the rear of the house he spotted what could be the old well that featured in the opening titles of the program. Through the heavily overgrown vegetation he could just make out brick work and some of the wooden parts that form the top piece of the well. It was sad that it could be seen no more, and Mr R wondered about all the people over the years that had once drawn water from this ancient well.
Back down the stone steps, he wandered through the Apple Orchard. Tiny Apples were forming, a few years ago they would have probably been picked by the family that lived here. Sadly this year the trees will not be harvested, no Autumn Apple Crumble or Spring Cider to look forward too.
Mr spotted the crumbling remains of the overgrown outbuildings, and noticed a car or small van still parked inside a Garage. battling his way through the undergrowth he almost completed a full circuit, but nature had blocked his path right at the end of the journey and was forced to retrace his steps back the way came.
Back once again on the big old lawn he took a moment to look at the overwhelming amount of wildlife that surrounded him in the trees and on the nearby plants. Butterflies, Squirrels, Birds, Bee’s all making this wonderful Garden their home.
Mr R’s time had come to leave Little Monkhams. On the way out he paused to look at the front of the house. Looking up he could see the remains of fireplaces that would have once been part of the upstairs bedrooms. The mind began to wonder of families over the years that would have known Monkham’s as home. Of the 1980’s when thousands of children were let into this house once a week to share Fat Tulips adventures. And now how the Gardens make up the home to a vast array of wildlife.
What ever happens to the remains of the building, Mr R hopes that the developers and council appreciate the history of this wonderful place, and try at least to preserve the area as a nature reserve for the local community to enjoy.
As he left Mr R took an old hand cut nail from one of the timbers as a little memento of his adventure in Fat Tulips Garden.
An episode can be seen here