T-Bag

T-Bag

1985 - United Kingdom

For all its primary school educational aims, Wonders in Letterland owed its success to its colourful and varied adventures and its hissable villain.

Review by Daniel Tessier

Many programmes are best remembered for their villains, but only rarely does the villain step up to become the star of the show. One such villain – or rather two such villains – is T-Bag, the wicked witch of the children's adventure programme that ran from 1985 to 1992 on Children's ITV. Over nine series and four Christmas specials, the terrible T-Bags and their sidekick, T-Shirt, terrorised people through time, space and realms of imagination. Each series would present a self-contained serialised story over ten episodes, in which some heroic young soul would have to gather a collection of precious objects, either because they were the key to T-Bag's defeat, or because she desired them herself. The entire run was written by Lee Pressman and Grant Cathro, who also created the children's sitcom Spatz and the long-running Mike & Angelo. Full of songs, terrible puns and adventures in history and make-believe, the T-Bag series had a touch of Doctor Who, a splash of Look and Read, a pinch of Simon and the Witch and a lot of panto.

T-Bag

Elizabeth Estensen, known for The Liver Birds, Coronation Street and Emmerdale, portrayed Tallulah Bag, the original “Old T-Bag,” a cunning, regal and arrogant sorceress who gained her power from the High T-Plant. Each series would end with her defeat and banishment, but she'd be back again to cause more trouble the following year. Up until her fifth series, at least, when she was finally defeated for good. From 1990, Tabatha was replaced by her equally villainous sister, Tabatha Bag, played by the late Georgina Hale, a prolific actor who appeared in everything from Upstairs, Downstairs to Hollyoaks on television, and about half of Ken Russell's eccentric output on film. The new T-Bag was a ratty, short-tempered and aggressive character, even more volatile than her sister.

T-Bag tv series

The only character to appear through the entire run was Thomas Shirt, T-Bag's long-suffering sidekick. Something like a surrogate son, but rather more a general dogsbody, T-Shirt had to brew T-Bag's magical tea for her (something she was strangely incapable of herself). In return, he would get a fraction of her powers, being able to teleport from place to place along with her and conjure useful objects. Unlike his villainous mistresses, T-Shirt was a good sort and would generally turn on T-Bag and help out the hero, turning the tables towards the end of the adventure. Yet, the next series, T-Bag would coerce, trick or hypnotise him to her side again. T-Shirt was played throughout by John Hasler. Starting out as a tiny ten-year-old, by the end he was a strapping eighteen-year-old who looked down on T-Bag. Having appeared in all but the very first T-Bag episode, Hasler now largely performs as a voice artist (including Thomas and Friends and Fireman Sam) and on stage (including a long run as Timon in the West End production of The Lion King).

T-Bag

For the first three series, T-Bag was opposed by a precocious ginger poppet named Debbie (Jennie Stallwood). The first series, Wonders in Letterland, was very obviously intended as an educational programme, described in the press as a “series which aims to introduce letters and words to children in an entertaining way.” It begins in an old curiosity shop, a location which would be revisited at the beginning of most of the subsequent series. Among the various mysterious objects, Debbie finds a magical boardgame, which she is whisked into so that she can help the poor, suffering inhabitants of Letterland get rid of T-Bag.

Each episode would see Debbie move onto another square of the game, with each one being an alphabetically-themed world (The Land of S is under the sea, the Land of P is a polar zone, and so on). Through a brief adventure, she would retrieve a golden letter and then move onto the next square. While there were a few additional cast members, the only other regular was Jim Norton (The Treacle People, Deception, and always and forever Bishop Brennan on Father Ted). Norton played both the keeper of the old curiosity shop (apparently T-Shirt's grandfather) and an eccentric, clown-like gardener in the opening and closing episodes of the first series, appearing as a different character in each of the other episodes, with names like Fife O'Clock, Indiana Inkspot and Skipper McKipper.

T-Bag tv series

For all its primary school educational aims, Wonders in Letterland owed its success to its colourful and varied adventures and its hissable villain. T-Bag was the star, and for repeats the series was renamed Trouble with T-Bag. It was followed in 1986 by T-Bag Strikes Again, which saw Debbie sent into a magical storybook, arriving in a town square. T-Bag steals the numbers off the town hall clock, robbing time from the storybook world so that all stories could never end. Each episode saw Debbie visit a different story, meeting characters such as Prince Pimple, Sultan Vinegar and Dick Gherkin, recovering a number from the clock face so she could return time to the storybook world. It's immediately clear that this series had a bigger budget than the first, usually with two guest actors each episode. Two became recurring guests – both James Saxxon and Matt Zimmerman made four appearances, the latter appearing as Doc Leaf in both this series and the very last.

The third series, in 1987, T-Bag Bounces Back was the last to feature Debbie, this time captured within a magical music box which contained its own impossible world. T-Bag tries to take over from the blustering Major Happy (Tony Haygarth – Emmerdale, Where the Heart is) but is almost defeated at the outset by his magical music. She thwarts him by stealing his magical bells and scattering them through the tiny world, leading Debbie to travel from place to place retrieving them. This series features some notable guest stars, including Are You Being Served? star Frank Thornton, Carry On regular Bernard Bresslaw and Tenko's Burt Kwouk.

T-Bag tv series

The 1988 series, Turn On to T-Bag, went a little meta, with T-Bag invading television itself. Bolshie young television presenter Holly Anna (Diana Barrand) took over as the new heroine, opposing T-Bag as she took over the network and began her own programming, Children's High-TV. Ken Jones (Porridge, Seconds Out) appeared as Professor Sparkes, who creates a device to jam T-Bag's transmission and stop her putting the world under her spell. However, the witch scatters his vital crystals across the network, leaving Holly Anna to channel hop between programmes and get them back. This series included guest spots by notable names such as Siobhan Redmond (Bulman, Between the Lines), EastEnders' Roger Sloman, and John Bluthal (Q5, The Vicar of Dibley) in the first of three T-Bag appearances. Diana Barrand had a short acting career, but her taking on many of the songs of the fourth series hinted at her future: in girl band Faith, Hope and Charity in the nineties.

This was followed at the end of the year by the first T-Bag Christmas special, T-Bag's Christmas Cracker. The special episodes stuck to the same format as the main series, being only twenty to twenty-five minutes long, but covered one self-contained story. Christmas Cracker saw T-Bag try to usurp Father Christmas (John Blythe – The Good Companions) and use her own presents to take over children. She also pretended to be a nanny called Merry Pippins, for some reason. She's thwarted by her first attempted victims, Edward (James Hillier-Brook) and his mother Mrs Jolly (Veronica Clifford).

T-Bag tv series

1989's fifth series, T-Bag and the Revenge of the T-Set, introduced a new, long-running heroine: Sally Simpkins, probably the best of the T-Bag girls. Sally was played by Kellie Bright, who went on to star in The Upper Hand before moving onto adult roles in Rock and Chips and as Linda Carter on EastEnders. Also appearing in series five was Jan Holden (Agony, For Maddie With Love) playing the High-T Lady, the ruler of the strange coven of beings to with T-Bag belonged. High-T tries to destroy T-Bag's tea plant and thereby confiscate the powers she has abused, but is outwitted when the witch steals the magical teaspoons from the T-Set, scattering them throughout the past and future. In spite of T-Bag's final defeat and seeming destruction, the 1989 special, T-Bag's Christmas Carol, saw her back for revenge against Sally. It was the last time we got to see Estensen's wonderfully hammy performance as T-Bag.

T-Bag tv series

Only a week later, the dawning 1990 brought the sixth series, the first to star Georgina Hale as T-Bag. Harking back to the first series, the opening episode saw Sally find a mystical boardgame in the curiosity shop which draws her into an imaginary world. Tabatha has arrived and kicked out Captain Cockle (Iain Beavis – Coronation Street) from his lighthouse home. Not only that, but T-Shirt has been pulled into the game as well, tricked by T-Bag into making him tea from the High-T plant. Now with all of her sister's witchy powers, the new T-Bag can only be defeated if Sally collects the Pearls of Wisdom and brings them back to the Captain. Hale's scatty and volatile performance as T-Bag is an immediate delight. The end of the year delivered T-Bag's Christmas Ding-Dong, featuring none other than the great Glenda Jackson (Elizabeth R, Women in Love) as Tabatha's cousin, Vanity Bag. The two cousins competed for the starring role in a Christmas opera, with Hale and Jackson facing off, and not for the first time (having appeared opposite each other in the film The Boyfriend and Which of These Ladies is He Married To? on TV. This episode is almost all songs, easily the most musical instalment of an always sing-song show.

1991 gave us the mythically-styled T-Bag and the Rings of Olympus, in which T-Bag tries to take over Mount Olympus itself (she was never short of ambition). Helen Lindsay (The Pallisers, Thirty Minute Theatre) gave an imperious turn as Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, who was more than a match for T-Bag... until her mystical rings were scattered through time. Athena assigns her new handmaiden Polly-Zanna (Natalie Wood) to retrieve them, on the way meeting such guest stars as Jennifer Calvert (Spatz, Red Dwarf, Stargate SG-1), Gavin Richards (EastEnders, 'Allo 'Allo) and Denise Coffey (Do Not Adjust Your Set, Dark Towers) as Granny Bag – T-Bag's 15,000-year-old grandmother.

T-Bag tv series

1991 also saw the last and best Christmas episode, T-Bag and the Christmas Turkey. T-Bag goes to spend Christmas with her mother, dragging T-Shirt along for the ride. Mumsy Bag is played by the incomparable Peggy Mount (George and the Dragon, The Larkins, You’re Only Young Twice), making her a ferocious old beast who takes no nonsense from anyone, let alone T-Bag. Mumsy Bag lives in a castle in a far-off land, ruling with an iron fist and working her servants to the bone while she takes it easy (“I can't do that, I hurt my foot kicking a Saint Bernard!”) John Cater (Crossroads) gives a fun turn as Good King Wenceslas, Mumsy's special guest for her Christmas play.

1992 delivered two series, our most T-Bagful year yet. At the start of the year was T-Bag and the Sunstones of Montezuma, searching for said powerful artefacts on a quest on taken by T-Bag's cousin Kit Bag and T-Shirt's (other) grandfather, Sir Paisley Shirt. Following the footsteps of their forebears (“Isn't that Goldilocks?”) they meet Sir Diggory Hunt and his daughter Penny (Evelyn Sweeney) on the same mission. Diggory scatters the Sunstones through time and space to stop T-Bag getting her hands on them, and so it's Penny's turn to go hunting for mystical trinkets as she races against T-Bag.

T-Bag tv series

The ninth and final series, Take Off With T-Bag, arrived later that year, with Denise Coffey returning as Granny Bag as a recurring character. T-Shirt had finally had enough of T-Bag altogether, but it wasn't long before he was dragged back in, along with his Asian cousin Tow Ling Shirt (Bea Julakasian). Unlike previous series, Take Off made T-Bag the protagonist, travelling through time and space in her flying cup-and-saucer in the search for golden envelopes that would lead to her special one thousandth birthday surprise. Although T-Bag was the centre of this quest and more sympathetic, she was still gleefully villainous, until the very end where it appeared she had turned over a new leaf, declaring friendship to be the greatest gift of all.

Did T-Bag really turn away from her selfish ways? Just how many members of the Bag family are there, after Take Off introduced Kashbag (Peter Majer), Hoofer-Bag (Gemma Craven) and Dr. Strangebag (Trevor Peacock)? Not forgetting, of course, Granny's pet, Doggy Bag. Would T-Shirt ever truly be rid of T-Bag? These questions would never answered, for after nine series, T-Bag's tales were over. The long-running programme remains a beloved favourite of many who were children in the eighties and early nineties. For those who are after some nostalgia, the first three series are available on DVD.

Published on January 24th, 2024. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.

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