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Classic TV Revisited: Muffin The Mule

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The daddy of all kids’ TV shows. Muffin was a piebald puppet whose forte was dancing across the top of a piano played by presenter Annette Mills. He originally made his debut in 1946 and was hugely popular in the 1950’s.

Why was it golden?
It was a pioneer post-WWII show which was decidedly low-tech. Once heard, the shrill singing and cut-glass accent of Annette were never forgotten.

How did it begin?
Muffin actually began his life in 1933 when he was created for puppeteers Anne Hogarth and Jan Bussell for their stage show. He cost £1.25.

How did he get on TV?
Anne and Jan decided to drop him for a while as his stage routine had become boring. He was revived in 1946 when Annette Mills used Muffin and another puppet Crumpet the Clown for her BBC1 show For The Children.

What was the show like?
Annette Mills played the piano and sang while Muffin danced with his pals.

Who were they?
The bossy Peregrine Penguin, shy Louise Lamb, dim Oswald Ostrich and the minstrel Wally the Gog.

Anyone else?
Who can forget Zebbie the Zebra, Willie the Worm, Maurice and Doris the mice, Prudence and Primrose kittens, and Sally Sea Lion. All the puppets were operated by Anne Hogarth behind a partition.

Was Muffin a happy mule?
Not that you’d notice. Would you be if you had the same name as a type of bun?

Was he a wonky donkey?
He didn’t have much fun and as all mules are sterile, he had very little to bray about.

Didn’t he have a jolly song?
It grated after a while but it went like this: “Here comes Muffin, Muffin the Mule. Dear old Muffin, playing the fool. Here comes Muffin, everybody sing. Here comes Muffin the Mule.”

Muffin The Mule

How popular was Muffin?
He was huge as the first star of kids’ TV in the ’40s and ’50s. From 1953 he was a regular on BBC1’s Watch With Mother with Andy Pandy. Later came The Flowerpot Men, Rag, Tag And Bobtail and The Woodentops. He was so successful as the first star created by TV that special Muffin films were made for US TV and other spin-offs included records, comic strips, books and toys.

What happened to Annette Mills?
The sister of actor Sir John Mills, she died aged 61 in 1955. As a result the show transferred to ITV for a year before returning to BBC1 for a last series in 1957 with Jan Bussell acting as Muffin’s singing partner. By then he had appeared in more than 300 episodes.

Do say: “An award-winning mule who paved the way for all kids’ TV shows.”

Do not say: “Hasn’t he expired from Dutch elm disease yet?” “He was never a serious rival to Sooty.”

Not to be confused with: Drop The Dead Donkey; The Vicar Of Bray; chocolate muffins; Two Mules For Sister Sara.

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Features

Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Features

Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Features

Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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