Episode 9: Robbie the Robot
First shown: 7 November 1970 (US), 12 March 1971 (UK)
Director: Harry Booth
Writer: Peter Miller
Appearing apart from the Double Deckers:
Frank Thornton as Mr Parsons
Ivor Salter as the Policeman
Michael Sharvell-Martin as the Floor Manager
(uncredited) Arnold Taraborrelli as Robbie the Robot
Brains invents a robot, which initially seems rather dangerous but is taught to dance. Tiger losers her Tiger in the mean Mr Parsons' garden. Robbie manages to retrieve the missing Tiger while terrorising Mr Parsons, who turns out to be the producer of the TV show they want to put Robbie on. The local policeman gets involved. All ends happily.
Almost exactly at the half-way mark of the 17 episodes, Billie's dance with Robbie the Robot is almost the aesthetic high point of the entire series, paired in this video with the dance in the TV studio that ends the episode.
The music is by stalwart composer Ivor Slaney, who composed most of the incidental music for the series. He composed a huge amount of incidental music and theme tunes for TV shows; you can find a lot of them here.
This vies with Summer Camp and the first episode, Tiger Takes Off, for top of my personal chart. It's sheer delight from beginning to end. The two dance sequences are things of beauty, the first pairing the best dancer of the regular cast with her choreographer, the second a decent comedy rave-up set in a TV studio. Frank Thornton is brilliant as lead guest star, and the slapstick with the robot in his garden is well choreographed; the TV studio for a kids' programme is sufficiently bonkers that one knows that the writer (and actors) had simply done too many shows with kids and were writing what they had seen.
Less glorious moments
I spotted a usage of the word "garbage", so as not to confuse American viewers.
What's all this then?
Robbie or Robby is the most obvious name to give a robot, isn't it? Used by Isaac Asimov in his early robot story, "Robbie" (1940), the reference here is to the MGM character Robby, who first appeared in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet and also in the 1957 The Invisible Boy (which we have previously discussed), and then made appearances in various TV franchises (The Twilight Zone, The Addams Family, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Lost in Space, and even The Monkees) over the course of the next decade. TV Tropes lists him as the archetype of both the Funny Robot and the Robot Buddy.
All external filming was at the Associated British Pictures Studios in Borehamwood, and the buildings have long been demolished.
Gillian Bailey (Billie) stayed in acting until 1992 but did little on TV after the BBC local government drama County Hall in 1982 (she has a line at 0:55 in this trailer). Most notably for sf fans, she is literally the first character to be seen speaking in the very first epsiode of Blake’s 7, as young rebel Ravella (she is also the first character to be killed off).
After her acting career, she moved into academe and is now Professor of Women’s Performance Histories at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. If Google is playing nice, you can read her reminiscences of being on the show in the general historical and social context of child acting. She has incorporated her own scene with Robbie the Robot into a “performance paper” on Victorian actress Frances Maria Kelly, at one point dancing alongside her teenage self. It sounds extraordinary.
Frank Thornton (Mr Parson), born in 1921, was another of the well-known comedy actors who hit the big time after his appearance in Double Deckers as Captain Peacock in Are You Being Served from 1972 to 1985, and then in his seventies landed another regular role as Truly in Last of the Summer Wine from 1997 to 2010. He was 89 when he appeared in the final episode of the latter, and died in 2013.
Arnold Taraborelli (Robbie the Robot) was also the choreographer for the entire series. He is still working; here is a recent profile from a Spanish newspaper.
I’ve found it difficult to get much biographical information on Harry Booth, the creator of Here Come The Double Deckers and its predecessor, The Magnificent Six and ½. Glyn Jones reminisces about their work together in his autobiography, though with few details. Together they got an Oscar nomination for their biography of the Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story, in 1968. He also directed the films On The Buses (1971) and Mutiny On The Buses (1972), based on the TV series. His last film, The Flying Sorcerer (1973) starred Debbie (Tiger) Russ.
See you next week…
…for The Go-Karters