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YOU AND ME: The Story of Cosmo and Dibs

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Cosmo and Dibs first appeared on the screen in 1981. Over thirty years ago. You and me, me and you, Lots and lots for you to do, Lots and lots for you to see, Me and you, you and me … The music fades as the camera moves through the cluttered stalls of a street market. Behind one of the stalls are Cosmo and Dibs.

Dibs and Cosmo in the Market

The puppet characters Cosmo and Dibs were created by producer Richard Callanan for the popular BBC Schools’ TV programme YOU AND ME. They were on the screen for pre-school kids from 1981 until 1992. Inspired by the direct and down-to-earth approach of ‘Sesame Street’, each programme featured a four-minute sketch on just about anything that a child might identify with: sharing, eating,  arguing, bullying, sleeping, dressing up, being silly, having a row, make-believe, making poetry – the sky was the limit, as long as the sketch was relevant and useful to the target audience.

The scripts didn’t patronise: they informed, educated, and entertained – and the high quality of the writing deliberately saw the world from a child’s point of view. A successful group of sketches dealing with ‘Safety’ included the tricky subject of child abuse – making YOU AND ME something of a trail-blazer. It was welcomed by the charity, Kidscape, and featured on the national news. Songs and stories were always included, with an emphasis on cultural diversity – YOU AND ME was one of the few programmes of the time to do this.

Cosmo and Dibs and Harry Towb singing ‘When the red red robin comes bob bob bobbin’ along.’

The enthusiastic production team was committed to the ethos of the programme in its new form. In previous years, YOU AND ME had been fronted by characters such as Crow and Alice, Mr Bits-and-Pieces, Duncan the Dragon, and Herbert the Handyman. The advent of Cosmo and Dibs took away the safely middle-class element of the show, introducing a rougher edge – an edge reflecting the world that a modern child might experience every day.

Documentary features brought along a wealth of subjects ranging from the colour and exuberance of the Notting Hill Carnival to the mud and hard graft of farming. Henry the Kangaroo – with his catchphrase ‘I’m looking for the words in my book again’ – introduced simple social sight words (Stop, Go, Bus, Train, Station, etc.) to Ellie and her Dad and the audience. Cartoon Henry was animated by Mike Hibbert, and voiced by Nigel Lambert.

The theme music was also given a facelift. Gone was the jangling that had always accompanied an array of animated building blocks. Instead, viewers were treated to a line of children (again animated by Mike Hibbert) dancing to a reggae version of the title song, re-imagined and recorded by UB40.

Dibs and Cosmo with Bill Owen, Jeni Barnett, Gary Wilmot and Indira Joshi

Now, the programme featured human presenters that were a cross-section of ethnic backgrounds. Among them were Jeni Barnett, Charubala Chokshi, Harry Towb, Larrington Walker, Liz Smith, Gary Wilmot, Annette Badland, Sheila Chitnis, Mike Grady, Isabelle Lucas, Michael Balfour, Michael Snelders, Maggie Ollerenshaw, Bharti Patel, Indira Joshi, Yasmin Pettigrew and Bill Owen. Clive Mason also joined the cast for programmes relevant to the deaf community.

Cosmo and Dibs themselves were puppeteered and voiced throughout by Frances Kay and Francis Wright. The puppets were made by Muppet maker and performer Tim Rose, and the scripts were written by members of the production team and cast. Over the years, producers and directors came and went. Richard Callanan remained with the show for its first three series, leaving to join ITV schools. His place was taken by Nicci Crowther, who later developed a successful career as an independent producer and film maker, working until her early death in 2008.

The Production Team, L – R: Christine Crow (assistant floor manager); Hilary Hardaker (production assistant); Nicci Crowther (producer/director); Francis Wright (with Dibs); Sue Aron (producer/director); Robert Checksfield (floor manager); Frances Kay (with Cosmo); Noreen Hunter (production assistant); Richard Callanan (series producer); Rory Mitchell (production designer).

Producer/directors Sue Aron, Adrian Mills, Diane Morgan, Pat Farrington, Claire Elstow, Julie Callanan, and Cas Lester were among the regular names to feature on the credits, while behind the scenes Jill Wilson, Noreen Hunter and Hilary Hardaker were the production assistants most often to be found either in the studio’s control gallery or office, armed with stopwatch or  typewriter as occasion demanded. The set, based on a street market in London’s Shepherd’s Bush, evolved steadily over the years under different designers: Mark Savant, Rosemary Hester, David Bevin and Rory Mitchell were among those who brought the market stalls to life.

Dibs with his teddy bear

Robert Checksfield was the studio Floor Manager most often to be heard relaying the director’s instructions to cast and crew. Assistant Floor Managers numbered Wendy Pedley, Gary Boon, Simone Dawson, Terry Pettigrew, Sally Bates, Christine Crow and Donna Rolfe among their ranks. The first series of twenty programmes was begun at the BBC’s Lime Grove Studios, part of which overlooked Shepherd’s Bush Market. It was completed at BBC Television Centre in Wood Lane, which became the show’s regular home for all but the last series.

Harry Towb, Bharti Patel, Clive Mason, Gary Wilmot, Larrington Walker and Jeni Barnett with Dibs and Cosmo

Changing times and changing trends dictated that YOU AND ME too would change. A sour letter from a school intimated that ‘our kids need therapy to turn on the telly’ – and suddenly everything had to be more ‘fun!’ Two additional puppet characters joined Cosmo and Dibs for the last two seasons, and the street market disappeared in favour of a brightly-coloured domestic setting. In 1992, an independent production company took the helm, and at the dawning of the Age of Teletubbies an element of middle-class cosiness was brought back to the programme for its final airing.

Cosmo & Dibs on Child Safety: from the Times Educational Supplement

Cosmo & Dibs on Child Safety: from the Times Educational Supplement in 1987

© Francis Wright, 2011

The pictures are courtesy of BBC TV.  Note – Frances Kay’s debut novel ‘Micka’ was published by Picador in July 2010. The central character is, like Cosmo, a Geordie. Her second novel ‘Dollywagglers’ appeared in June, 2014. Published by Tenebris Books it is a bleakly funny futuristic work about puppeteers in a world devastated by disease and other nasty things.

Richard Callanan, creator of Cosmo & Dibs, and producer of their first three series, died on 13th May, 2015, aged 70. His was a remarkable talent. R.I.P.

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