Nostalgia Corner: Tales From Fat Tulip’s Garden (1985-7)

The tales of a stunt tortoise

Today’s sad news is that action star Lewis Collins has died. Best known as Bodie from The Professionals, he also appeared in a plethora of other shows and movies, ranging from Who Dares Wins, which cashed in on the SAS raid on the Iranian embassy

…through his own series of movies, including Commando Leopard and Codename: Wild Geese, through to shows like Cluedo, Robin of Sherwood and Jack The Ripper. He’ll be much missed.

So what better way to commemorate his death than to look back at 1980s kids show Tales From Fat Tulip’s Garden? Yes, I know he wasn’t in it but bear with me.

The tradition of reading stories to kids on television goes back a long way, the most obvious example being Jackanory, in which an actor or actress would read to camera, sometimes with illustrations, stories in an effort to get children interested in reading. The show ran from 1965 until 1995, but over time, children changed and the simple act of reading a story to them eventually became too unstimulating to maintain their interest. 

How then to engross them? Well, ITV got in Tony Robinson – Baldrick from Black Adder – for their effort: Tales From Fat Tulip’s Garden. Lasting 10 minutes each, the stories were partly improvised, partly written by Robinson and friend from his school days Debbie Gates, and as you might expect, detailed the adventures of one slightly overweight bloke, Fat Tulip, his neighbour Thin Tim, and all the animals that lived in Tulip’s garden.

To overcome what he perceived as the dreariness of Jackanory, Robinson ignored CGI, animation and other techniques in favour of something even more engrossing: running around a garden. Each 10-minute story saw Robinson talking to camera and putting on different voices for characters, all while belting around Little Monkhams, a property in Woodford in the Redbridge Borough of London, and Epping Forest at incredible speed. 

And he was right – it was almost impossible not to be engrossed by his approach.

So where does Lewis Collins come in? Well, apart from Fat Tulip, there were numerous other characters, largely given in-joke names. As well as burglar Fred the Baddie, two long-suffering frogs called Ernie and Sylve, three pernicious toads called Peter, Paul and Mary, a little white shell called Jim Morrison, a police officer called Inspector Challenor and a sheep called Gilbert Harding, there was a tortoise who believed himself to be extremely action-packed, despite being a tortoise. His name? Lewis Collins, stunt tortoise.

And you can watch a particularly Lewis Collins-oriented episode of the show in the episode, The Tortoise Who Climbed Mountains, below. If you like it, you can buy it.

The success of the show meant it got a follow-up season Fat Tulip Too, and two spin-off books, although no more than that, unfortunately. But Robinson did eventually end up on Jackanory, too, where he used the same style of storytelling to deliver The Odyssey to story-hungry children.

Here’s to Lewis Collins, stunt tortoise, wherever he is.