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Rosie and Jim... and Robin too; He's the puppet king whose charming creations are even Big in Bosnia.

E VERYONE laughed when Robin Stevens decided what he was going to be when he grew up.

They dismissed it as a childish dream. After all, who makes their living as a puppeteer?

But now Robin is having the last laugh, because he is a driving force behind a major Midland success story.

He has a hand - literally - in the achievements of Ragdoll Productions, the makers of award-winning children's TV shows.

Robin has been a part of the firm since Anne Wood started it 14 years ago in her front room in Harborne, Birmingham.

Now it's based in Stratford-upon-Avon and makes the hit shows Teletubbies, Rosie and Jim and Tots TV.

Robin writes Rosie and Jim, which has sold more than one million videos of the adventures of the rag dolls on their canal boat.

He also provides the voice and movements of Jim and his friend Duck.

Tots TV has won two BAFTAs for its innovative approach to children's TV. It features three puppets, Tilly, Tom and Tiny, and Robin is Tom.

It makes a refreshing change from violent American cartoons, a fact noted by a new TV watchdog report which lamented the lack of quality children's programmes.

Robin's success story started on his fourth birthday, when his parents put on a show with felt hand puppets.

Now aged 38, he remembers: "They created a magical world and it had an amazing impact. I was fascinated by the puppets.

"I loved the marionette scene in A Sound of Music and I went to see the film seven times! It completely captured my imagination and I realised you could make anything happen with puppets.

"When I was 12 I built my own puppet theatre, complete with its own lighting system.

"I put on shows at home and in schools. I realised it was what I wanted to do as a career, although people laughed at the idea.

"But my father, who was a lawyer, was very encouraging. He instilled in me the belief I could do anything I wanted."

When he left his Hertfordshire school at 18, Robin wrote to six puppet companies in Britain.

John Blundall, who ran the Cannon Hill puppet theatre in Birmingham, was the only one to offer help.

"He told me I couldn't have a job but I could just hang around. My father supported me with pounds 40 a week and I became a stage hand at Cannon Hill.

"I did everything from helping to make the scenery and the puppets to showing people to their seats. Some people said I was exploited, but it was a wonderful apprenticeship. I was thirsty for knowledge and I became Britain's first and only student of puppetry!

"I'd been at Cannon Hill for a year when my father died. I planned to go home to look after my mother and found a job as a Rank Xerox clerk.

"But then John Blundall offered me a job on pounds 50 a week, and I stayed for three years.

"Then a former Cannon Hill employee, David Claridge, became Roland Rat on TV-am. He was working with Anne Wood and suggested she look for performers in Birmingham.

"I ended up working on one of her TV-am shows called Rubadubdub.

"She took me with her when she started Ragdoll Productions, and our first show was Pob for Channel 4. We shared the same ideas. Most people in TV think it's unfashionable to be idealistic, but we wanted to share something with children.

"We use puppets to convey positive messages. I really enjoy the fact that Rosie and Jim, who hug and kiss every day, are being seen in Bosnia."

Rosie and Jim, now being shown twice a week on Central, started in 1990. A measure of their success is that 5,000 people turned out to see them switch on the Christmas lights in Stratford.

Their adventures have even taken them up in a hot air balloon and water-skiing.

Robin, who is married to Linda, says: "We are pushing back the boundaries of what we can do.

"We film by lying on our backs with a TV monitor on our stomachs and a microphone attached to our heads. One arm is up in the air making the puppet's eyes and mouth move as we talk.

"Once I had to lie in the cockpit of a First World War bi-plane and work the puppet, the camera and some of the plane's controls at the same time. I was so absorbed in Jim's world that I forgot I was actually flying!"

Tots TV, shown on Central, was devised five years ago and was the first children's programme to feature a different language.

The innovation is that Tilly speaks French - or Spanish in the American version - with the phrases repeated in English by the other Tots.

Robin says: "Children don't find it odd to hear French. They have an ability to learn language at that age, it's crazy to start teaching French so late.

"My four-year-old son Aaron says 'un, deux, trois'. We went to Paris and he suddenly said 'Everyone here talks like Tilly'. I actually failed my French O-Level, so sometimes, when the French actress who plays Tilly improvises the script, it's Tiny and not Tom who translates!

"We repeat everything so children have a chance to learn. Too often adults try to make children's TV entertaining for themselves, by bombarding kids with fast-moving images.

"We spend time communicating basic ideas. That helps children learn, but our main aim is to make them laugh.

"Sometimes I get tired and think 'I can't do this any more', then I see Aaron roll over laughing at one of my programmes and I think it's not a bad job really!"

n Are you a Rosie and Jim fan? Do you think the antics of the Ragdoll puppets are a refreshing addition to children's TV?

Write and have your say to Talkabout, Sunday Mercury, 28 Colmore Circus, Birmingham B4 6AZ.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Feb 22, 1998
Previous Article:Offer he couldn't refuse.
Next Article:Study slams boom in US-style children's TV.

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