Looking back at Rainbow

Jenny takes a fond and bemused look back at ITV children's programme, Rainbow. Up above the streets and houses...

You know what the best show ever made is? The best show ever made (and I will not enter into arguments about this) is the following: a middle aged bachelor lives in a house that has one wall missing. His housemates are a man in a bear suit, a pink hippo, and a rugby ball. The housemates frequently argue over who gets to wear the one dress they own. Occasionally, three people appear from their hiding place in the kitchen and sing a song about the Post Office or hot air ballooning.

For those of you who don’t know which show I’m talking about, you haven’t read the title have you? Go and read the title. Go do it now. Go on, I’ll just wait here.

Now that’s sorted, I’d like to tell you all about the masterpiece that was Rainbow.

The show ran, in its original form, from 1972 to 1992 on ITV, and was intended to be the UK rival to Sesame Street. This goal it achieved admirably: Rainbow featured the same cheeky puppets, primary colours and educational songs as its US counterpart. There was only one difference – Rainbow had a budget of approximately 6p. This meant the cast, production and storytelling had to be second to none, and also that the crew had to occasionally steal props and scenery from other shows.

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Since the show was part education, part entertainment, each episode focused on a different problem or theme. Sometimes the gang would have to deal with an issue raised by living together, for example being tidy or sharing toys. Other times the show would have a more general theme, such as water or shopping. Kids were given gentle lessons about the correct way to behave, and learned facts about the world around them. Rainbow managed what so few children’s shows manage – it taught kids without the kids realising they were being taught.

Of course, there would be no show at all without the characters to hold it together. I’d like to take you through the menagerie of puppets, weirdos and general oddities that made up the cast of Rainbow.

Geoffrey (Geoffrey Hayes)

Although not the first presenter of Rainbow (that honour goes to David Cook, who left at the end of  series 1), Geoffrey is the most widely remembered. A middle-aged yet childlike man with the ability to appear both cheerful and exasperated at the same time, and who had the most impressive collection of rubbish shirts this side of Timmy Mallet.

Geoffrey’s job was to keep order in the Rainbow house. Charged with looking after his young wards Bungle, George and Zippy, he kept them entertained with games, activities and daytrips. I suspect a lot of these activities were really to keep Geoffrey entertained, since he was often the most enthusiastic of the group. Not a day went by without Geoffrey diving into the dressing up box and exclaiming “We need something to use as a judge’s wig!” or “Bungle has a grass skirt, now I need one!”

Other Geoffrey activities included singing loud songs and encouraging the others to do the same, dressing as his own uncle in order to scare the others into behaving, and pretending to go on holiday to Spain. ‘Spain’ was achieved by sitting in the garden, and paying the woman from next door to dress as a flamenco dancer and say “Ole”. I am not making this up.

Zippy (voiced by Roy Skelton)

Zippy was undoubtedly the star of Rainbow, and went on to become the biggest household name. Despite the show’s ambition to be a good influence on kids, it was Zippy that the viewers most wanted to emulate, and Zippy was very naughty indeed. Armed with an acid tongue to make up for his lack of a second arm, Zippy was known to reduce Bungle and George to tears with his cutting yet hilarious remarks. This was especially true with Bungle, since Bungle was a massive coward, and calling him ‘big fat hairy Bungle Bonce’ meant Bungle would have to take to his bed with an attack of the vapours.

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Zippy was allowed to insult everyone else, because he was the best. He said this, but other people rarely did. Zippy was the self-proclaimed best at singing, acting, dancing, reciting poetry, and art, to name but a few. He would often prove he was the best at things by sabotaging everyone else’s efforts, for example by screwing up people’s drawings, or ‘accidentally’ knocking their building block towers over with a spoon. A few episodes, such as Naughty Zippy and Zippy Sets Them Up actively explore the topic of Zippy’s general misanthropy, but come to the same conclusion – the others are boring do-gooders, and it’s no wonder Zippy gets annoyed with them.

Zippy was also famous for being zipped up by the others when he was naughty. His oddly shaped head (made from a rugby ball) featured a zip which could open or close his mouth as the occasion demanded. According to the show’s creator, Pamela Lonsdale, Zippy was originally going to have a mother, who stored her knitting in a zip compartment in her side, and a father, who kept his food in a zip pouch in his stomach. But only Zippy, whose zip enabled him to be a gimp, made it through to the finished show. His odd mouth zip meant the others could close his mouth after several requests for him to shut the hell up had been ignored. This job usually fell to Bungle, who took great delight in making sure Zippy got his comeuppance. I don’t like Bungle very much.

George (voiced by Roy Skelton)

Okay, we might as well get this thing cleared up before we start – George is a boy. His sexuality has never been officially confirmed one way or another, but he is definitely a boy. He does have a cousin, Georgina, whom we see very occasionally, but they are not the same person. George is a very pink, very camp male, and rumours abound that Roy Skelton based his voice on Margaret Thatcher (with Zippy’s voice being based on Ian Paisley).

George’s favourite things to do are to get up in everyone’s business and to nag people. He’s a nosy old lady in the body of a hippo. If he had the correct sort of mouth, he’d spend a lot of his time tutting. As it is, he just spends half his time telling people why they shouldn’t do that fun thing they’re about to do, and the other half telling people that they shouldn’t have done that fun thing they just did.

George also has a talent for pointing out the obvious. For example:

“Oh dear, you knocked Bungle’s tower over, and now your tower’s fallen over!”

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“Look, you’ve fallen off the swing and hurt your bottom!”

“Oh dear, you just smacked me in the face for being annoying and now you’ve hurt your hand!”

I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

To be fair to George, his heart is in the right place, and he usually has the others’ best interests in mind. It’s just that his way of looking out for his friends seems to be pointing out that they’re doing whatever it is they’re doing, or that they’ve just done something, or that now they’re in trouble because they did something.

Sometimes, George will take it one step further, and go running to Geoffrey. Actually, he’ll sit patiently behind the table and wait for Geoffrey to come to him, since he has a puppeteer’s arm down there instead of legs. But the general idea remains the same – George can be a massive grass sometimes. This is especially true if George himself is in danger of getting told off for something. For instance, if the gang have made a mess, and Geoffrey is about to give all three of them a bollocking for it, George will say something along the lines of “It wasn’t me Geoffrey, I told them to tidy up. I told them that they were making a mess. Now those two have made a mess, and now you’re shouting at them.”

Although coming across as mild and timid most of the time, George can become quite scary when provoked. Just like a real hippo, I suppose. After listening to one too many of Zippy’s insults, George will occasionally snap and threaten to kill Zippy, or at least get very cross with him. This makes Zippy shit his pants, to which George remarks “Oh look Zippy, now you’ve shit your pants.”

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Bungle (John Leeson, Stanley Bates, Malcolm Lord)

Bungle has had several men inside his hairy bear suit over the years. For series 1 he was inhabited by John Leeson (also the voice of K-9), followed by the more familiar Stanley Bates, and then Malcolm Lord.

During series 1, Bungle was a naïve yet well meaning bear, although he looked more like a scary dead rat/fox. When the show was given a shake up, and new cast members were introduced, Bungle was given a makeover, and turned into the big fat hairy idiot we all know and love.

As an adult, Bungle is my favourite character on the show. This is despite the fact that I hate Bungle. Although he’s a dick, he’s still massively entertaining.

Where do I begin with Bungle? Well, let’s start with the fact that he walks around naked. That’s fine, I mean he’s a bear, and bears often do walk around naked. However, Bungle will sometimes buck this trend in the oddest of ways, for example by wearing a towel in the bathroom to protect his modesty, or wearing swimming trunks in the garden, before deciding this leaves him too exposed and covering up with a dressing gown. He can’t make up his stupid hairy mind.

Another brilliant yet infuriating thing about Bungle is that he flat out refuses to behave like the bear he is. Not an episode goes by where Bungle doesn’t have some kind of strop or hissy fit, usually because Zippy has said he can’t wear a frilly dress. Why does Bungle never realise he’s a bear, and twice the size of the others, and just eat everyone? Bungle’s way of dealing with a problem is to put his hands on his hips and exclaim “I’m fed up and cross!” Then he goes and sits in the corner until Geoffrey comes to tell him he can dress as Cinderella if he wants to. For god’s sake Bungle, just grow a pair and stop sulking.

Rod, Jane and Freddy (Rod Burton, Jane Tucker and Freddy Marks)

The show’s veteran musical trio, who appear to either live in the kitchen or the hallway of the Rainbow house, judging by the fact that they always arrive instantly when called. The show had a couple of musical groups before settling on this trio, and it was even longer before Freddy arrived to join Rod and Jane; before Freddy, the pair were joined by Matthew Corbett, of Sooty fame, and then by Roger Walker, of slightly less impressive Eldorado fame.

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Rod, Jane and Freddy knew a song about absolutely everything ever, from being a milk bottle to ordering stuff from a catalogue. Their songs were always catchy, but impossible to sing along with due to the intricate three part harmonies that meant you never knew what octave you were supposed to be in at any given time.

The trio also get top marks for their willingness to join in with the goings on in the Rainbow house. They would take part in the games, dressing up and general tomfoolery with gusto. This especially applies to Rod for being extra entertaining by never being able to keep a straight face throughout the proceedings.

The trio left the show in 1991 to star in their own spin-off, and were replaced by one woman singalongathon Dawn Bowden – the above-mentioned Spain lady next door. She took up the mantle admirably, and I think Geoffrey probably fancied her. My dad definitely did.

Just for the record, Rod and Jane used to be married, but split up long before Freddy joined the group. Jane then began a relationship with Freddy, and the pair have been living together since. I know there are rumours flying around involving some kind of musical threesome, presumably with them all wearing matching underwear, but these rumours are not true. The only menage a trois that went on was between Bungle, George and Zippy, who all slept in the same bed. God knows where the puppeteers slept.

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