Topsy and Tim have been back in the news again this month. The rosy-cheeked twins, who were created by Jean and Gareth Adamson, made their debut in print in 1960 and have survived five decades of makeovers, reformatting and changes in publisher. Now these children of the 60s have been relaunched as a live-action series on CBeebies, and Mumsnet is in an uproar.
According to the BBC, the new Topsy and Tim show is about “The everyday adventures of two fun-loving twins”. What could be more innocent or more anodyne than watching a couple of cute five-year-olds washing the car, riding a bike or searching for a lost pet? Sadly, some parents have accused the show of reinforcing tired gender stereotypes by confining poor Topsy to the kitchen, while Tim gets to help his daddy.
Revisiting my vintage copy of Topsy and Tim at the Football Match, I can see that these critics might have a point. In this story, Topsy and Tim go to watch their father play football for his old school. Tim is given the referee’s kit – simply because he shouted louder than his sister. Topsy gets the consolation prize of a wooden rattle. (Obviously vuvuzelas were in short supply in the Britain of the early 60s.)
Surely even those irate Mumsnet posters can’t stay cross with Topsy and Tim for long. Dressed in their trademark matching outfits, these blue-eyed, black-haired twins are just irresistible. In a 2010 interview (coinciding with the release of a Topsy and Tim app), Jean Adamson talked about how she’d met her husband and collaborator Gareth in the 50s, when both were studying book illustrating at Goldsmiths College in London.
In this postwar period, they believed there was a gap in the market for this kind of illustrated fiction for young children. “Bright colours were coming in and there was a lovely optimistic feeling in the air.” Though it’s many years since I read the books, I can see that the original illustration style embodies those qualities. The fashions may have dated (hats and headscarves were still the order of the day), but these pictures have a period charm that the more recent Ladybird incarnations cannot match.
Though Gareth Adamson died in 1982, Jean has kept their creations alive and the books have clocked up more than 21 million in sales. The Blackie editions from the 60s are now hard to find, so I wish I hadn’t been allowed to scribble all over my copy of Topsy and Tim’s Snowy Day.