Friday, 2 September 2016


In his time, Frank Muir was a gifted English comedian who, along with writing partner and fellow comedian Denis Norden, wrote and starred in a variety of radio shows such as Take It From Here, My Word! and My Music. In later years, he would also become the face for television shows That Was The Week That Was and Call My Bluff, not to mention the voice for Cadbury's Fruit and Nut!

However, he is also remembered for something else entirely - as a children's writer.

Frank's pets included a variety of Afghan hounds and Burmese cats. And it was through these that inspired him to write a series of books about an Afghan puppy called Prince Amir of Kinjan. But because he was so accident-prone and is forever hearing people crying "What a Mess!", he grew up believing that to be his name.

What-a-Mess is forever getting in all sorts of sticky situations (as well as dusty, muddy and damp ones to boot). No matter how hard he tries to be good, things usually go wrong and he winds up making incredibly large messes - whether it's going on a camping trip, a visit to the town or avoiding a visit to the Vet, Frank's storylines are still as brilliantly silly as they first were back in the 1970's. Even the illustrations by Joseph Wright echo this, with random little creatures and people littered across the pages of each book doing goodness-knows-what. Just about anyone who owned an Afghan hound could see a little 'What-a-Mess' in each of them.

What-a-Mess was never lonely, though. As well as his tall, elegant Mother, The Duchess of Kinjan, he was always doing battle with a slim Burmese known simply as the Cat Next Door. The friends he made along the way include a plucky little hedgehog called Cynthia and an even scruffier puppy who jokingly calls himself 'The Archbishop of Canterbury!

This clumsy little puppy obviously became a hit with readers alike, so much so that the books were adapted to animation up to three times - all of which, remarkably, feature Frank Muir as the Storyteller!

Smallfilms, of Ivor the Engine and Clangers fame, were the first to try in 1979. It is without a doubt the hardest version to find as not even the Smallfilms crew or relations have any surviving props / reels of it. All that remains is a sparse episode guide from the BBC archives and various snippets from Wikipedia. The most impressive piece of information was that the theme song was supposedly written by Andrew Lloyd Webber...

The second version is much more remembered and (thankfully!) easier to find. This 1990 series was animated by Bevanfield Films, who were also responsible for adapting Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. While any actual animation may have been few and far per episode, what they did make was consistently fluid and full of character. Joseph Wright's illustrations and designs were faithfully translated to the small screen - even the mad little creatures were allowed to scuttle about on-screen while Frank Muir's sophisticated tones happily read aloud the story of the day.

Eventually, as with most things in life, you know when a series becomes popular enough that even the Americans want more of it. So it came to pass that in 1995, Cliff Ruby and Elana Lesser, via DiC Entertainment, were given the reigns of adapting the third and final incarnation of What-a-Mess.

The Americanisation is evident here - not just with the accents and the change of setting, it became louder, messier and, of course, more animated for the target audience on that side of the pond. As well as many new episodes written specifically for this show, further changes included characters from the books being renamed and recoloured (the Cat Next Door became a blue Burmese named 'Felicia'), and new characters being added to the cast, including a tough Bull Terrier named Trash. Even the bird living on What-a-Mess's head was christened Baldwin (Makes me wonder if his first name may have been 'Alec'...).

As well as that, all the characters were given individual voices. Cast members included Jo Anne Harris, Joe Nipote, Charity James and former child star Ryan O'Donohue as the lead dog himself.
"Vulgar" some may call it, taking into account how many British characters have been Americanised over the years. But to be fair to DiC, I remember this being my first introduction to Frank Muir's loveable creation when the series was regularly replayed on either Channel 5 or the BBC. It was only later on when I found the books that made me realise that What-a-Mess had British origins.

Besides that, Frank's little character really does have all the things that appeal to children whichever part of the world they live in - an eagerness to please, a desire to get messy, their funny little ways of learning the world and mostly having fun. Especially fun. British or American, What-a-Mess is just one of those characters that translates nicely wherever he's placed.

To add, the producers for the US series were kind enough to acknowledge Frank Muir than just as the creator - as well as keeping him on as Storyteller, they also had him voice an old English Sheepdog known as Frank...

Since then, What-a-Mess seems to have quietly slunk under his compost heap out of the public eye. Sure, the various DVD releases of the DiC series can be found here and there, but many still hope that the UK series will be given the same treatment. Or better still, to see Frank's original books reprinted for a whole new generation to enjoy. Until then, there's always YouTube to turn to...


1 comment:

  1. While you mention not finding the Smallfilms version out there in the wild, I have! Someone up in Canada taped it from its airing on TVOntario during the 1980's. At least your viewers can get a taste of what this version was like. Technically nothing more than moving a camera around illustrations. Sadly the credits cut of and the YouTuber identified someone else for directing this due to the way the videotape was recorded. It's annoying when things like that happens.

    I don't beleive this version made its way to the states but I wouldn't be surprised to learn if it did. Some of Smallfilms' output did manage to find its way here somehow.

    Eventually, as with most things in life, you know when a series becomes popular enough that even the Americans want more of it.

    I don't think even the Bevanfield Films version was even aired on American TV at all. The earliest any of us had seen of What-A-Mess was through a series of commercial bumpers shown during ABC's Saturday Morning schedule one season, prior to the DiC-produced series that followed.

    Even the bird living on What-a-Mess's head was christened Baldwin (Makes me wonder if his first name may have been 'Alec'...).

    If they were looking for a pun no 7 year old is going to get, yes.

    Since then, What-a-Mess seems to have quietly slunk under his compost heap out of the public eye.

    Checking amazon, those books go for rediculously high prices as well (paying over a hundred for a paperback just sounds rather unfair). I'm still not sure if the series was ever published in America at all. It just comes off like another case of America getting an animated series based on something that we didn't have early notices of (Smurfs are a good example here).