I've made Winnie the Pooh English again! How the cartoon bear has got his Home Counties accent back – thanks to Peep Show star Robert Webb
22:47 GMT, 20 April 2012
Sitting in a caf near the north London home he shares with his wife, comedy writer Abigail Burdess, and their two young daughters Esme, two, and Dory, 11 months, Robert Webb is trying to explain why narrating a new Winnie the Pooh TV series may be his most challenging role yet.
Famed for his appearances in edgy, biting comedies – as deluded waster Jeremy in Peep Show, the hero of Dickens spoof The Bleak Old Shop Of Stuff and an alcoholic snooker commentator in That Mitchell And Webb Look – his latest role is certainly a departure.
For a start, he had to suspend his cynicism. ‘I’ve never really liked dumb heroes like Forrest Gump but I’ve made an exception with Pooh,’ says Robert.
For Robert Webb narrating the new Winnie the Pooh TV series has been one of his most challenging roles yet
‘He’s curious about the world and has a funny take on it. I’m doing this for my daughters, really; when you’re a child, you spend all your time trying to grow up, and when you’re grown up and have children you become more childlike.’
He was also surprised to discover that it was actually rather hard work. Much of the making of the show – in which Robert is seen next to Pooh and his friends as he narrates freshly written tales – was done against a green screen, with Robert having to imagine the characters and scenery.
‘It was technically very challenging; it’s acting but it’s a lot harder to pretend when you have to use your imagination for everything.’ And then there was the physicality of it. ‘I’m carrying this ridiculously heavy story book while stomping around as Pooh and jumping around as I get into character for Tigger. I feel like I really worked for my money.’
The real Christopher Robin clutching his Winnie the Pooh teddy bear at AA Milne's family home in Kent
All Robert’s hard work is worth it though, for his is the first Winnie the Pooh to actually sound English for 50 years. The books, of course, were written by Englishman A A Milne more than 80 years ago, based on his son Christopher Robin’s adventures with his toys in Ashdown Forest, Sussex, and were an immediate hit here and across the Atlantic.
American Stephen Slesinger bought the U.S. merchandising and film rights, and after his death in 1961 the rights were sold to Disney, who Americanised the bear and his friends, except for Christopher Robin who remained English in their films. Pooh is still one of Disney’s biggest brands – second only to Mickey Mouse. You can get everything from a Pooh bedspread to Pooh biscuits.
So this new series, which draws on the
original Milne books but creates new adventures for the 100 Acre Wood
gang, is a big deal for Robert. It will be shown in 22 countries –
though his voice will be dubbed for some of them – and there is even a
chance it will be shown in America, with Robert voicing the characters
in his very English accent.
I can’t do American accents… So it’s all very English, which is rather nice. In the
Disney films Pooh is often a bit croaky but I have made him softer.
‘I can’t do American accents,’ says Robert, 39.
‘So it’s all very English, which is rather nice. In the Disney films Pooh is often a bit croaky but I have made him softer. Owl has this deep, wise old voice like Donald Sinden, while for crotchety Rabbit I’m imitating David Mitchell at his most uptight.’
David is Robert’s comedy partner,
although they haven’t worked together for several years. Fans will be
glad to hear they’ll be back together again soon playing the
uncomfortable flatmates in two more series of Peep Show, Channel 4’s
longest running sitcom.
‘I’ve missed him,’ says Robert. ‘We
tend to get on in an inverse way to how much time we spend together.
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Robert with comedy partner David Mitchell
‘I never had any interest in doing something by myself and I wasn’t interested in stand-up comedy, which is a much more aggressive world. I was never interested in the “Aren’t cats and dogs different” type of jokes; I wanted someone to write characters with.
'I met David when he auditioned for the Footlights panto. I was watching him the whole time, even when he didn’t have any lines. In my arrogant 20-year-old way he reminded me of me; he was serious about doing it and really had something. So at the end of my second year I asked him if he wanted to do a two-man show and he sort of had to say yes because I was on the Footlights committee and that made me tremendously grand. We wrote a couple of sketches and people laughed, and so it continued.’
Disney Americanised the bear and his friends, except for Christopher Robin who remained English in their films
When the pair graduated they moved to Swiss Cottage in London, a mile away from where they both still live.
‘I was genuinely scared of the traffic,’ Robert recalls. ‘I was baffled by the buses and confused by the Tube. It was only seeing familiar shops like Boots that helped me readjust.’
Did he ever consider going home
Home was a tiny village, a place he’d been plotting his escape from since the age of 13. He always considered London his spiritual home, and he was speaking in a southern accent well before he left.
‘I had a broad Lincolnshire accent and I hated the way I talked,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t how Rik from The Young Ones sounded.’
Comedy writing was something he also started at a very early age; while still at his grammar school he’d often dream up comedy revue sketches – parodies of The A-Team and The Price Is Right – which the whole school enjoyed. A shy but clearly determined child, he says he always felt happiest on stage.
‘I was deeply shy but I liked attention,’ he recalls. ‘And when I got on stage I just felt really comfortable.’
The death of his mother from breast cancer while he was in the middle of his A-Levels made him even more resolute about getting on and getting out.
‘Cambridge represented getting away from an intensely depressing environment. A parent’s death at that age emboldens you.’
But success has been a long time in coming. He and David worked for years coming up with pilots for the BBC and writing for comedies such as Channel 4’s The 11 O’Clock Show – ‘it was soul-destroying but paid the bills’ – before Peep Show gave them their first taste of fame and won them a Bafta.
Now, Robert doesn’t have to worry so much about the bills as he increasingly finds success as a comedy actor. The Bleak Old Shop Of Stuff, shown earlier this year, was well received – ‘23 out of 27 reviews were positive’ – and he’s hoping for a second series. Hollywood doesn’t interest him, though.
‘I wouldn’t want to move my whole family there. My ambition was always to do comedy on British TV and that’s what I’m doing so I’m happy where I am.’ So what’s left to do
‘Now I’ve had a go at Winnie the Pooh I’d love to read a bedtime story on the children’s channel CBeebies. I would have thought I’d dropped enough hints – David Tennant must have done it 41 times.’
Tales Of Friendship With Winnie The Pooh premieres on Disney Junior this autumn.