Words and Pictures: Sam on Boffs' Island
Sam on Boffs' Island is a unit of the BBC schools TV series Words and Pictures from the 1970s, covering Language and Reading for primary school pupils.
The second Words and Pictures story is a 20-part adventure about a vague young man called Sam Samson (played by Tony Robinson) who daydreams himself onto an island inhabited by little men called Boffs, where words and letters are an important part of life.
The Boffs put the letters spoken by their flock of Say-Birds into a Shopping Machine, which then produces food and everything else they need beginning with the letter that was entered. The first half of the story is about how the Say-Birds escape from captivity on Boffs' Island and fly away to nearby Gurglers' Island. The Gurglers are nice, friendly creatures, but mistrusted by the Boffs. In the second half of the story the Boffs and Gurglers try to get along together on Boffs' Island but things do not work out, and eventually even Sam is attacked by the distrustful Boffs.
The puppet story was accompanied by carefully structured opportunities for reading practice and phonic practice. The Say-Birds each spoke a particular letter of the alphabet, and said the sounds of the letters as they were produced, giving children experience of letters and sounds. Just as in the earlier story Up in the Attic each episode focussed on one particular phonic point, which was woven into the story. Again phrases were occasionally displayed on screen for children to read, and individual words would 'light up' as they were to be read. The episodes were spread out over the autumn and spring terms and transmitted twice a week, but on a fortnightly basis.
The World of the Boffs
A description of all the characters and locations in Sam's daydream world.
A flock of birds with box-shaped bodies. Each one says a different letter of the alphabet, which is written on their side.
The Boffs keep the Say-Birds caged in a farm and use the letters they say to produce goods beginning with that letter. "The Boffs' economy depends on letters" (the teacher's notes explain) and so when the birds escape it is a disaster.
Furry creatures of a simple and happy disposition who live on another island close to the Boffs'. They spend their time organising fun days and jamborees.
The Gurglers are very different from the Boffs, both in personality and physical characteristics, and so the two groups do not normally mix.
The Gurglers are tubby, brightly coloured creatures (not entirely unlike Teletubbies) who don't wear clothes apart from beads and chains around their necks. Prominent amongst them are a family of Pa Gurgler (coloured blue) and Ma Gurgler (coloured pink) and their children.
Sam Samson is the hero of the story, a young man from the real world who visits Boffs' Island through his daydreams. He is quite idle and daydreams a lot. He would like to be a reporter and sometimes wanders around places pretending to "report" on what he sees - "This is Sam Samson reporting" is almost his catchphrase.
Sam works in a pet shop and drives a motor scooter. He lives at home with his mother, Mrs Samson, who occasionally appears in the TV series.
Sam was played by Tony Robinson, and his mother was played by Miriam Margolyes, who also provided several voices for the Boff and Gurgler puppets during the series.
As an aid to internet searches, please note that this story is called Sam on Boffs' Island (the island belonging to the Boffs) rather than Sam on Boff's Island (what Boff? Gran-Boff? No, Boff. All Boffs.) or Sam on Boffs Island.
The centre of the island where the Boffs live is the town with all their houses, made of cardboard boxes. Even Sam has an especially large box where he can sleep when he visits the island.
The centre of the town is the market place, where the shopping machine provides all the goods the Boffs might need. The shopping machine is connected by string to the Say-Birds farm, and the birds' letters travel along this string like a washing line.
Elsewhere on the island there are beaches and sand dunes, a jungle made of string and a mountain. To the south is the Crunchy Desert, a reminder that the island is inspired by Sam's Crackercrunch breakfast cereal.
The Gurglers live in a camp on the south edge of their island, in simple bell tents.
Most of the island is taken up by Fork Tree Jungle, made of plastic forks and spoons. Right in the middle is the steep Rock Cake Mountain, where the Boffs become stranded in a story in the Annual.
Almost all of the 20 episodes in the series had the same structure. Sam would be seen going about his daily life in the real world and experiencing something in particular, such as a market, a wedding, or a trip on a ferry. Sam would then begin day-dreaming and he would be transported to Boffs' Island, where he would meet with one or other of the Boffs and discover that their latest adventures are related to what he was doing - they have their own market, a wedding, or a trip on the raft.
The theme tune to the series was based on a folk song called Rissolty-Rossolty and played by folk musicians Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner. The same tune was used for the Gurglers' song Shake Me Up, Wake Me Up in Programme 12.
The Boff puppets were made by Peter Firmin, and the stop-motion sequences animated by Oliver Postgate, of the tremendously well-regarded Smallfilms company and makers of such classic children's television series as The Clangers, Ivor the Engine and the sagas of Noggin the Nog. After completing the animation for Sam on Boffs' Island, the next project for Smallfilms was their most celebrated children's programme of all, Bagpuss. The music and some of the character voices for Bagpuss were provided by Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner, sought out and engaged by Smallfilms on the basis of their memorable theme tune to Sam on Boffs' Island.
Quick episode list
|1.||Programme 1||18 Sep 1972|
|2.||Programme 2||20 Sep 1972|
|3.||Programme 3||2 Oct 1972|
|4.||Programme 4||4 Oct 1972|
|5.||Programme 5||16 Oct 1972|
|6.||Programme 6||18 Oct 1972|
|7.||Programme 7||6 Nov 1972|
|8.||Programme 8||8 Nov 1972|
|9.||Programme 9||21 Nov 1972|
|10.||Programme 10||22 Nov 1972|
|11.||Programme 11||15 Jan 1973|
|12.||Programme 12||17 Jan 1973|
|13.||Programme 13||29 Jan 1973|
|14.||Programme 14||31 Jan 1973|
|15.||Programme 15||12 Feb 1973|
|16.||Programme 16||14 Feb 1973|
|17.||Programme 17||5 Mar 1973|
|18.||Programme 18||7 Mar 1973|
|19.||Programme 19||19 Mar 1973|
|20.||Programme 20||21 Mar 1973|
|1.||Programme 1||by Michael Rosen||18 Sep 1972|
Sam Samson is a young man who day-dreams a lot. One day he dreams that his Crackercrunch breakfast cereal is an island, which he goes to visit.
Sam goes to sleep on the island and the inhabitants, little creatures called Boffs, come to have a look at him. One of them thinks he is a monster. They cut the name-tab from his socks and run off with it.
Sam shouts after them, "what are you going to do with my name?" But he finds that he is not on the island anymore and he is shouting at his mother, who tells him to stop day-dreaming.
|2.||Programme 2||by Michael Rosen||20 Sep 1972|
Sam fancies himself as a reporter and he wanders round the market reporting on the things that he sees. He dreams himself back to Boffs' Island, where he is introduced to the Say-Birds, the letters that they sing, and the shopping machine where the Boffs buy things beginning with the letters sung by the birds.
|3.||Programme 3||by Michael Rosen||2 Oct 1972|
Sam sees a newspaper seller in a busy street. Then he dreams himself to Boffs' Island and discovers the Boffs' newspaper, which is made from the Say-Birds' letters.
Paper-Boff sings his letter jingles and chooses a name for the day's paper, it could be "The Rag Bag", or "Mat Chat", or "The Hanky-Panky Fantastico", or "Happy Nattering", or "The Bandanna".
|4.||Programme 4||by Michael Rosen||4 Oct 1972|
Sam reports from all around the pet shop where he works in the real world. When he visits Boffs' Island he finds that the Say-Birds have flown away, so the shopping machine will not work and the Boffs cannot get any supplies.
|5.||Programme 5||by Michael Rosen||16 Oct 1972|
Sam is still working at the pet shop and he takes two red setters called Ben and Ken for a walk. The dogs drag him into a pond. When he visits Boffs' Island he temporarily helps with the letter shortage by drawing letters with a pencil.
|6.||Programme 6||by John Tully||18 Oct 1972|
Sam is in a cafe where he orders his tea - raspberry ripple ice cream - before day-dreaming off to the island.
The Boffs are organising an expedition to find the Say-Birds. Sam is able to carry Paper-Boff and Bird-Boff to another island, where they spot the missing birds. But this island is also the home to the hairy Gurglers.
Paper-Boff telephones back to Boffs' Island to tell them about the Gurglers. Boffs dislike Gurglers and they raise the alarm by flying a message from a kite on their island: Danger - Gurglers! Sam and Paper-Boff flee but Bird-Boff is captured by the Gurglers.
|7.||Programme 7||by John Tully||6 Nov 1972|
Sam watches trains running before he goes back to Boffs' Island. The Boffs are organising another expedition, by themselves this time, to retrieve the Say-Birds and rescue Bird-Boff.
|8.||Programme 8||by John Tully||8 Nov 1972|
Sam is planning to build himself a model raft. The Boffs are also making a raft for their expedition. They load it with things beginning with different letters.
At the Gurglers' camp the Say-Birds learn whole words. Finally the Boffs' expedition sets sail, including What-Boff, Paper-Boff, Sell-Boff, Gran-Boff and Mrs Boff.
|9.||Programme 9||by John Tully||21 Nov 1972|
Sam's model raft is finished and he takes it to the pond to play with. On Boffs' Island he finds that the expedition party are still sailing but seem to be having trouble with fog.
|10.||Programme 10||by John Tully||22 Nov 1972|
Sam goes to a pop festival in the real world. Meanwhile the Gurglers are having their Fun-Day, where they play games and sing. They assure Bird-Boff that they won't hurt him.
The Boff expedition lands on Gurglers' Island and they go to investigate the camp. What-Boff observes that the Gurglers have fun, Gran-Boff relays the message that Guglers have bun, and Sell-Boff hears this and shouts that Gurglers have gun. Everybody runs away.
Bird-Boff gets away and joins them on the raft as they sail back to Boffs' Island, but he doesn't seem too happy at being "rescued".
|11.||Programme 11||by Michael Rosen||15 Jan 1973|
Sam is in bed with flu - he is "fleeling flawful" and has to take "flills and fledicine", giving lots of practice with the consonant blends that this episode is all about. He dreams himself to Boffs' Island, where Gran-Boff has some medicine for Sam to slurp. "Gran's blue fluid" makes him feel much better.
Meanwhile Bird-Boff is missing the Gurglers and feeling glum. Paper-Boff prints his story in the newspaper, telling about how much fun the Gurglers have playing games such as "clip-clop" (in which a sugar lump is thrown around by a group of Gurglers, and everybody who catches it has to say a word beginning with "cl" and throw the sugar lump to somebody else whilst shouting "clip-clop") and how their island is full of flowers.
The Gurglers want to see Bird-Boff and they set sail for Boffs' Island.
|12.||Programme 12||by Michael Rosen||17 Jan 1973|
Sam is out shopping when he sees a sign which seem to say "Sam is mad" and a dry cleaners advertising "Sam Day Cleaning", which sends him off to Boffs' Island. Small-Boff explains "magic 'e'" words to him, and he is able to change "mad" into "made" and "sam" into "same".
The Gurglers land on Boffs' Island and the Boffs prepare for battle, threatening the invaders with weapons. Bird-Boff intervenes and allows the Gurglers to enter safely. Sam and the Gurglers sing a happy song called "Shake Me Up, Wake Me Up" full of magic 'e' words.
|13.||Programme 13||by Michael Rosen||29 Jan 1973|
Sam visits the fair and goes on the large swinging boats. On Boffs' Island Small-Boff is also going on the swings and having other fun with a young Gurgler called Gurg.
All of the Gurglers continue to have lots of fun, reciting tongue-twisters and singing another song (to the tune of the song "Skip to my Lou") while they have a square dance. Small-Boff tells Sam that they are planning to have a Samboree, and Sam understands that they are planning a jamboree.
|14.||Programme 14||by John Tully*||31 Jan 1973|
|* with additional material by Michael Rosen|
Sam sees a carnival procession and discovers that there is also a procession underway on Boffs' Island as part of the jamboree. The jamboree is in total disorder, as the Gurglers win all the competitions, outraging Gran-Boff.They recite more tongue-twisters such as:
The maypole will not stay up, and Sam and What-Boff telephone a message through that they should put the pole in the hole. But there is a problem with the telephone and the 'e's are not transmitted. The reply tells them that "there's a mol in the hol". The maypole collapses.
|15.||Programme 15||by John Tully||12 Feb 1973|
Sam goes to a wedding in the real world and is in a romantic mood as he visits Boffs' Island and discovers Tele-Boff asking one of the Gurglers to marry him. The Gurgler says yes and Tele-Boff faints.
Sam reports on the Boff-Gurgler wedding using all the episode's consonant blends: "the bride has a trailing train", "there is a crush in the crowd" etc.
The Say-Birds and the Shopping Machine produce some special food for the occasion, such as crab and cream. Everybody has a very nice time except for Gran-Boff, who thinks that the funny food will make the Boffs ill and the Gurglers' happy disposition will make everyone lazy.
|16.||Programme 16||by John Tully||14 Feb 1973|
Sam is going on a trip across the Channel, and drives his moped onto a car-ferry. He looks at all the other vehicles inside the ferry, then finds himself on Boffs' Island just in time to hear Gran-Boff insisting that the Gurglers must go home, because they are bad for Boffs. The Boffs think Gurglers are lazy and the Gurglers think Boffs are busy.
All the other Boffs like the Gurglers and they want to keep in touch. So Sam suggests that they can send messages to each other by radio, and he makes the Boffs' raft into a ferry which can travel between the two islands. Small-Boff first names the ferry "rid of Gurglers", and is then able to change it into "Pride of Gurglers".
|17.||Programme 17||by John Tully||5 Mar 1973|
Sam looks at paintings on display outside a shop, and he goes to Boffs' Island to paint pictures for Small-Boff. He mixes together the colours needed to paint a cat and hat having a chat, and a cop who hops to eat a chop.
Gran-Boff persuades the other Boffs that Sam is a spy who made friends with the Gurglers. Sam flees but is pursued by a mob of angry Boffs, led by Gran-Boff and Mrs Boff. The Boffs write notes to each other pointing to where Sam is hiding: "Sam over here", "Sam is under" etc. Small-Boff and Little-Boff help Sam by changing the notes to point in different directions, and adding letters to say things like "Sam is thunder".
|18.||Programme 18||by John Tully||7 Mar 1973|
Sam and his Mum are going to see Sam's Uncle Ed for the weekend, but they have many errands to do first. Sam has to wash the dishes and weed the garden, and Mum has to mend the clothes and pack the suitcases. Once these tasks are completed they can set off.
On the way Sam day-dreams himself on to Boffs' Island, where he tries to hide under an umbrella. Sell-Boff and Paper-Boff are out on a Sam hunt and they arrest him.
Sam is brought before the judge, No-Boff, who refuses to say that Sam should be locked up. But Gran-Boff and Mrs Boff have knitted a huge net and they trap Sam underneath it. Sam is netted with a knitted net!
|19.||Programme 19||by Michael Rosen||19 Mar 1973|
Sam is going to make a call from a telephone box, but he dreams himself to Boffs' Island instead, where he is still imprisoned under the net, guarded by Paper-Boff. He tells Small-Boff a story about a Shaggy Dog who buys shirts and shoes in a shop.
What-Boff, Bird-Boff, No-Boff, Small-Boff and Little-Boff mount a rescue operation. The younger Boffs bring a bottle of Sam's shaving foam, which they think is a bomb, and spray it at the captors. Then they all use Sam's large scissors, shoelaces and umbrella to free him from the net.
Gran-Boff is busy reading when the emancipated Boffs come and tie her up.
|20.||Programme 20||by Michael Rosen||21 Mar 1973|
Sam is in bed sleeping when he receives a telephone call. Small-Boff is ringing him up from Boffs' Island, to say that the Boffs are coming to visit Sam in his world.
The Boffs begin popping up in unexpected places throughout the day. They arrive on the kitchen table while Sam is having his breakfast, but his Mum can't see them. When Sam goes to work they visit him at the pet shop. Small-Boff is impressed by a parrot which he thinks is a very big Say-Bird and Paper-Boff is scared by Ben and Ken the red setters.
Finally they go out shopping with the Samsons, where they say goodbye to Sam and dive into a Crackercrunch box. Sam asks his mum if she has ever heard of little men called Boffs, but she says that there are no such things as Boffs. Sam almost believes her, but not quite.
Such, apparently, was the popularity of Sam on Boffs' Island that there was an Annual released to the general public for 1974. I don't know of any other schools programme that has ever had its own annual (although there have been many normal books released to general, non-schools audiences over the years).
The Annual was published by Polystyle Publications, "based on the popular BBC Television Programme", and released on 24th August 1973 It has 60 pages, although the page numbering includes the front and back covers, and is mostly made up of stories about the Boffs told using a series of captioned pictures. The stories are often followed by real-life stories told in the same way - for instance after a story about the Boffs' fire engine came a page about the fire of London. There were also games, pictures to colour, explanations of how things on Boffs' Island like the shopping machine and the newspaper press work, and stories told in traditional prose.
The original stories involving the Boffs were:
- Ham, Jam, Wire and Fire - Sam cannot make himself heard in a noisy cafe, and the waitress delivers rice, jam and custard instead of nice ham with mustard. On Boffs' Island there is a similar problem when Gran-Boff's doorbell goes wrong and she shouts to Small-Boff that she can't pull the wire out. Small-Boff tells everyone that she can't put the fire out so they fetch the Boff fire engine and spray water into her window. The story ends: "while the row was going on, Tele-Boff mended the doorbell."
- Gran's Umbrella - It is raining and very windy on Boffs' Island. Sell-Boff tries to help Gran-Boff keep hold of her new umbrella but they are both lifted into the air by a gust of wind. They land on the nose of a big aeroplane (Gran looks into the cockpit and says "there are two Sams in there") and Gran-Boff orders the pilots to take them back to Boffs' Island. Thinking her umbrella is a gun, the pilots comply.
- Sell-Boff's Day Off - Sam is ill, but he gets so tired of staying in bed that he soon gets well. On Boffs' Island Sell-Boff wants a day off work so he lies down and says he's ill. Gran-Boff makes him drink something foul and Doc-Boff makes him run around the island. Sell-Boff decides it is easier being well than ill.
- The Boffs Go Climbing - Sam climbs on the shelves in the pet shop to get some food then cannot get down. What-Boff invites several Boffs to go climbing up the mountain on Gurglers' Island. They get stuck but cannot get any help until Bird-Boff spots one of the Say-Birds, the H-Bird. He teaches it to say "help" and the bird flies off and relays the message to the Gurglers, who come to the rescue.
(The title of this story was wrongly given as The Boffs' go Climbing, with an apostrophe where there should not be one.
- Sam and the Tea-Tray - Sam spots a battered old round tea-tray floating in the canal. He dreams himself to Boffs' Island and finds that it is Boff Holiday, and they are all going on a boat trip. The 'boat' turns out to be a battered old tea-tray, piloted by Gurglers. They all sail off together, singing and dancing, but leave Sam behind because he is too big. Nobody bothers to steer the boat and it hits the rocks. But Sam is able to stride out into the sea and set it sailing again.
- A Fishy Story - Sam is feeding his fishes and imagines what it would be like to swin in their tank. What-Boff and Small-Boff are out fishing, but Small-Boff jumps in and can't get out. He bumps into two swordfish who take him to the King Fish. When Small-Boff says he cannot swim he is thrown in the fish jail as a witch. Luckily What-Boffs fishing line hooks onto him and brings him back to the surface.
The most significant discovery from the first series of Words and Pictures (Up in the Attic, broadcast in summer 1970) was that teachers needed more time to deal with the TV programmes and do follow-up activities. Sam on Boffs' Island therefore adopted a fortnightly transmission pattern. Two episodes were shown each week. The same two episodes were then repeated, on the same days and at the same times, in the following week.
The teacher's notes explained: "The programmes have been arranged like this to give you and your class more time to consolidate the work begun in the programmes. It also makes it possible for you to see each programme twice, because the repeat broadcast is at the corresponding day and time in the following week." 
The programmes were shown in the autumn and spring terms of 1972-3, 1973-4 and 1974-5, always on Mondays at 2:05pm and Wednesdays at 11:23am. After that, in autumn 1975, Words and Pictures changed entirely with a new series of programmes presented by Henry Woolf and Charlie.
In the Archive
The listings for episodes 3-20 describe the holdings as "sequences from (the) series of schools programmes", suggesting that the individual film elements (the sequences with Sam in real life, Sam interacting with the Boffs in the studio and the animated Boffs adventures) might have been kept separately instead of as complete programmes, but everything seems to be accounted for.
The entry for BBC states that the episode is only held in black and white, although all the programmes were originally shown in colour. However, a copy of a colour film recording of Programme 2 has been shared on the internet (this is the source for all the screen grabs on this page) although the colours are quite faded and "everything has a reddish cast to it" in this copy.
|Starring||Tony Robinson as Sam|
Miriam Margolyes as Sam's mum
|Voices||Miriam Margolyes as Gran-Boff, Little-Boff, Say-Birds, Mrs Gurgler|
Charles Collingwood as What-Boff, Tele-Boff, Mr Gurgler
|Written by||Michael Rosen (episodes 1-5, 11-13, 19-20 and additional material for episode 14)|
John Tully (episodes 6-10 and 14-18)
|Animated film by||Oliver Postgate|
|Puppets and settings by||Peter Firmin|
|Puppeteers||Valerie Heberden, Sheena Lane, Jan Taylor & Jane Tyson|
|Music performed by||Sandra Kerr|
|Reading consultant||Joyce M. Morris|
|Studio design||Chris Robilliard|
Sources & References
- BBC (1972) Words and Pictures Teacher's Notes, Autumn 1972. ISBN 0 563 19567 3
- BBC (1975) Words and Pictures Television Teacher's Notes, Spring 1975. ISBN 0 563 13351 1
- Chovil, Claire (1974) 'Using school radio and television programmes with infant and pre-school children' in After Fifty Years - the Future. London: BBC. ISBN 0 563 10920 3. Reprinted from the Times Educational Supplement, 12 July 1974.
- Postgate, Oliver (2001) Seeing Things: An Autobiography. London: Pan Books ISBN 0 330 39000 7
- Tully, John & Rosen, Mike (1973) Sam on Boffs' Island Annual 1974. London: Polystyle Publications. ISBN 0 850 96040 1
- Woolf, Gabriel (1972) Sam on Boffs' Island Reading Book Autumn 1972. London: BBC ISBN 0 563 19566 5
- Woolf, Gabriel (1974) Sam on Boffs' Island Reading Book Spring 1975. London: BBC ISBN 0 563 13350 3
- A lot of the information about the characters and locations of the series in The World of the Boffs section is based on the drawings and stories in the Sam on Boffs' Island Annual (Tully & Rosen 1973), especially the layout of the islands and the characters' clothes. There was also a brief outline of the Boffs' world and very short character profiles on pages 3-4 of the spring term teacher's notes (BBC 1975), from which most of the quoted text in that section is taken.
- BBC (1975) p.7 states that the theme tune and 'Shake Me Up, Wake Me Up' were both based on Rissolty-Rossolty.
- Postgate (2001) p.297 explains that the theme tune was played by Sandra Kerr & John Faulkner, and how this led to their involvement with Bagpuss.
- The release date of the Annual is stated on the www.amazon.co.uk website.
- Explanation of the fortnightly transmission pattern from the Arrangement of programmes section of BBC (1975), p.2.
- General sources of information for the programme credits: Radio Times listings identified the actors, main programme credits and writers, most of the time. They also identified one of the puppet voice credits each week during the first run in 1972-3. I have compiled these into the list above, and added some additional character credits by listening to episode 2. Chris Robilliard was listed in the credits to episode 2. The puppeteers were listed in the free online version of the BBC Programme Catalogue, and the musicians identified in Postgate (2001) p.297.
Some random programmes for age 5-7 from the 1970s
|Reading with Lenny|
|BBC Schools Radio|