Eugene Lambert Interview Pt. 2 – A Wanderly Beginning
The Story so far…
Ready boys and girls?
Ok, Eugene, if we could just talk a little about the origins of Wanderly. Who takes the credit for the initial concept of a show based around a ‘magical wagon’?
That was a joint idea between myself and [director] Don Lennox. We had a lot of ideas at the time…but then of course they brought in writers…there were a lot of writers. We probably had, oh, 7 or 8 writers over the years.
Is it true that Pat Ingoldsby wrote some episodes?
I’ve heard you mention that Judge and Mr. Crow (the two most iconic puppet characters) were there from the very beginning of Wanderly, but had they ever been used prior to that (in Murphy agus a Chairde for example)?
Oh no, they were all different. They were all specially created for the show – Judge, and Mr. Crow, and Foxy, the squirrels, the mice, and Sneaky Snake – they were all our own original ideas for Wanderly Wagon.
According to the recent documentary made about the family, Pulling the Strings, you were originally only supposed to supply the puppets, but eventually found yourself playing the 'Jovial character' that Wanderly Wagon needed.
That’s right yes, originally. I had done some straight acting before that though. I was in the Abbey Theatre production of At Swim-Two-Birds [an Adaptation of Flann O'Brien's novel by Audrey Welsh] where I played the Pooka.
…and did the ventriloquism for the Good Fairy who was an invisible character. Alan Simpson, Lord have Mercy on Him, was the director of that…an absolutely wonderful man. It was a wonderful production.
I also acted in a children’s play, a Robert Bolt play…in the Eblana theatre, which is gone now…and I did pantomime, of course, and a few other things too. I actually did several pantomimes with Maureen Potter in the Gaiety.
Of course when I did the ventriloquism it was really more adult shows and cabaret, but through television, then, I became known more as a children’s entertainer than an adult entertainer…
What about the casting of Nora O’ Mahony? Had you known her before, and what was she like to work with (and as a person)?
Nora O’Mahony of course was Godmother, and I knew of her…you know. She was a very famous actress actually, and had played in several films in Hollywood. One of the last ones she did was Darby O’Gill and the Little People, do you know that one?
I do indeed, with Jimmy O'Dea, Sean Connery etc.
Yes, they showed it quite recently…she was the barmaid [Molly Malloy] in that, so if you ever see it again you’ll know to watch out for her. She was a lovely person…but she gave it all up and went to work as a lay missionary in Rhodesia, and she was Bishop Lamont’s secretary for many years until she got a tropical disease, a kidney disease, and she was invalided home. After that she started reading letters on The Frank Hall Show on television, and that’s how we discovered her for Wanderly Wagon.
I believe that Rory (Bill Golding) left the show in 1974, though I don’t recall this personally I might add. I’ve read that the character "left the team early deciding to help the moon mice repair the moon with the help of some cheese". Is this true, and what are your memories of Bill?
He was a wonderful actor and he played several characters. He played Fortycoats1 actually, with his flying sweetshop (The flying sweetshop was my idea, by the way).
And yes, what you read is true, himself and Foxy went off to repair the moon with the mice!
But Bill was always very busy because he did a lot of commercials and he did a lot of straight acting in the Gate Theatre and that…
Someone told me that he actually does the voice of "Ould Mr. Brennan".2 Is that right?!
Yeah, that’s actually the voice he used to do for Fortycoats, the original Fortycoats! Now after Wanderly Wagon finished they did a program called Fortycoats & Co.…which was a rehash of our program…
So you (the Lamberts) didn't have anything to do with that show?
No, we’d nothing to do with that at all…but they actually rehashed some of our scripts, you know. Anyway, it was never as popular as Wanderly Wagon! (laughs)
Frank Kelly is another fondly remembered Wanderly regular. What are your memories of working with Frank?
Well Frank Kelly actually wrote quite a lot of Wanderly Wagon and then he played several characters over the years, the last one (of course) being Dr. Astro. But he had played several others…I remember he played a pirate – I forget his name now [Ed: Possibly 'Long John Gold'?] – and he was a brother..a monk! And, of course, he did the voice of Sneaky Snake. He was a very versatile man, though he’s now (of course) best know for Fr. Jack!
There’s a scene in the documentary where Jim O’Hare talks about the actual design of the wagon. Can you tell us a little bit about how it was first created?
Yes, Jim was the designer, and he worked in Telifís Éireann. The wagon was designed on a dray…CIE used to have these horse drays and it was on one of those. And we actually bought the original horse, Telifís Éireann owned him…Pádraig the Horse! We did a lot of filming of putting on the harness, and feeding him, and hooking him up to the wagon and all that…but there was actually a new lawn laid in Telifís Éireann, because it was quite a new building back then, and the poor horse ate the grass, got colic, and died.
The thing was that nobody knew because we were still using all the footage we'd shot of the horse and the wagon! Then over the years they hired several other horses, but the kids never really seemed to mind that they were different. We had a piebald horse, and a brown horse…but it was just accepted! (laughs)
And, of course, we did a lot of the St. Patrick's Day parades with the wagon and the various horses.
So it was actually a properly functioning wagon then?
That’s right. Oh it was, yeah.
But the interior was obviously a set…
Yes, it was a separate set, and that was always a bit of a shock to the kids when they had a look inside!
I presume that the wagon was designed, from the beginning, with puppetry in mind?
Oh yes, it was. The downpipe was for Crow, and there was a barrel where Sneaky Snake was operated and so on. There was actually a fair bit of room inside, but it still used to be cramped enough when all the puppets and puppeteers were in there.
Jim also suggests that the original intention was for the show to be an outside broadcast, with the wagon (physically) travelling around Ireland every week? Was that the case?
Yes, but we very seldom travelled anywhere! We had it down in Clonmel at a big parade one time…and I’m sure there’s footage somewhere, because that was filmed…so it’s around somewhere.
Would be great to dig that up. So, basically, despite the initial concept, the show pretty quickly became almost exclusively studio based…
That’s right, but we did do a few outside things. I remember we had it in Powerscourt a few times, and Stephen's Green on several occasions. Whenever we actually went anywhere thousands of people used to turn up! We also had it in Birr, and a few festivals here and there but originally it was supposed to travel a lot more.
End of Part 2
(…Part 3, "A Most Unusual Wagon…", coming very soon…)
- The character of Fortycoats seems to have been named after a real-life Dublin 'character'…or possibly more than one, as Wikipedia explains:
The name Johnny Fortycoats first appears in Dublin folklore in the 1930s. It may perhaps have been applied to more than one person, including one of a couple of tramps who walked the coast of Dublin at the time of the television series. A wild looking man, universally recognized (Dublin is a large village), harmless as anyone knew. He was far removed from the world of television. It was his habit to wear several coats, hence the nickname.
- For those who don't know, 'Ould Mr. Brennan' is a famous Irish, uber-Dub, radio character who advertises "Brennan's Bread"…in pretty maudlin style. [back]
February 9, 2006