When I was about thirteen, we were given a green parrot from South America called Chico. A shot of me, rowing down a lake with the parrot on my shoulder, was used to replace the test card image of Carol Hersey playing tic tac toe with a hideous clown.
Chico was wonderfully tame and came everywhere, chatting away in Spanish. He was much more affectionate – and less of a treat – than Beauty, the parrot with a Lancastrian accent who played Polly in Captain Flint’s cabin. One minute he’d be sitting on Tamzin’s shoulder, the next, he’d be on mine.
We didn’t always have tea with a parrot, but once the film of Swallows and Amazons was on general release I was often invited to appear on radio or television. This usually entailed going to a studio to appear on a magazine programme such as Points West or Nationwide. However, Robin Hellier, who had just begun working for the BBC on Animal Magic, was thrilled to hear that I really did have a green parrot and brought a film crew from Bristol to our house. We didn’t know at the time that some of the footage taken would end up filling endless small gaps in the schedules.
Although the focus of the item was a profile of my role in Swallows and Amazons, the aim must have been to get as many animals on the programme as possible since they also featured our donkeys having their feet trimmed. The faithful parrot was still on my shoulder. I don’t know what the blacksmith thought.
I thought Robin Hellier was a brilliant director, far better than Claude Whatham at letting us know what he wanted to achieve. I was able to tell Robin this when I found myself working with him in South Africa twenty-two years later. He laughed, admitting that it was the very first film he ever directed. Being conscientious, he took the trouble to write to let me know when it was to be broadcast, although I can’t remember ever seeing it go out.
Children’s television was watched by everyone I knew in the 1970s. Letters poured in. My mother loved getting them. The volume was such that I think she had to answer some of them for me.
And over the years the letters have kept coming.
These came from a girl I corresponded with for years. My friends at university were amazed to find letters arriving addressed to Titty, but they were always charming. I appreciated them more and more as the years went by.
My mother only wrote me one proper letter while I was away at boarding school. It was to tell me that Chico had died. He spent so much time flying free that he caught a virus off wild birds and could not be saved. I was utterly inconsolable.
Animal Magic continued to featured through our childhood until 1982, when I started working at BBC Television myself. Johnny Morris, who presented the series, became a legend in his own time and is remembered with great affection.
A WildFilm History interview of Robin Hellier can be viewed on this link:
2 thoughts on “Rowing down a lake with a parrot on my shoulder: the film that replaced the test card.”
Chico sounds like a really great character. How sad that he passed before his time, and while you were away.
Very sad. Parrots can live for decades.