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Grange Calveley was working in an advertising agency when he began sketching a cartoon dog, based on the antics of his own dog, a Welsh Border collie who ‘watered the rhubarb’ when he first arrived at their home.
Bob Godfrey and animator Peter Green came on board in mid-1973, creating a 30-second black-and-white sequence in two weeks. On the strength of this, the BBC’s Monica Sims commissioned thirty episodes.
Calveley wrote these within a hectic 11 months, also providing thirty key drawings an episode from which the animators could work.
Roobarb was a frantic, nervous, acid-green dog who was constantly trying to better himself in the face of adversity.
Looking down on him was next door’s lurid pink cat, Custard. A slothful, jaded creature, Custard could usually be found perched out of the way, observing Roobarb’s eager antics with a mixture of cynicism and disdain.
The rivalry led the show’s director, Bob Godfrey, to draw parallels with the television comedy series, Hancock’s Half Hour.
“It has a basic triangular structure. Roobarb is the Hancock figure, a kind of holy fool,” he said of writer Grange Calverley’s characters.
“Then there is the Sid James character, an odious pink cat, and on the fence sit the lunatic birds, who will always go with whoever is winning.”
The cartoon’s trademark bouncy, wobbly animation style was born of necessity. When the series was finally commissioned – after a year of pitching for it – Bob Godfrey’s Movie Emporium was granted only a small loan.
As a result, the team did not have enough budget for traditional cel and paint techniques and instead used white paper and the (then new) magic markers Calveley had introduced from his advertising office.
Thus the outlines never stayed still, the ink bled to create fuzzy edges and colours were streaky and irregular.
Matched to Johnny Hawksworth’s bouncy music and Richard Briers’ excitable narration, the whole thing oddly worked and the series was an enduring success.