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Although never seen outside his native ITV region1, this rabbit achieved a longevity in the world of television puppetry second only to Sooty (the well-known hand-puppet bear operated by Harry Corbett). To this day he is a fondly remembered icon for viewers in south west England.
The Early Years
Allegedly discovered under a gorse bush on Dartmoor in 1961 by a member of staff of the newly-launched Westward TV, Augustus J Honeybun was in fact a product of desperation. The fledgling station's sales department was having difficulty selling advertising time, leaving the presentation team with long periods of dead airtime to fill. Their solution was Gus, an overstuffed (and reputedly very heavy) grey and white rabbit puppet operated from off the side of the screen, usually by office or technical staff.
In his early years, he was a fixture at each junction between children's programmes, at one stage fronting an hour-long show. But he continued to appear at least once each afternoon to co-present a birthday slot with the duty announcer. Gus rapidly established himself as Westward's mascot, outshining any of the channel's human presenters for 20 years - and ultimately outliving the company itself!
The true magic of the format was that the mischievous but mute rabbit gave the announcers licence to behave equally badly, and the byplay between them (and the off-screen technical staff) would often degenerate into near-chaos. Gus would treat the children whose names were read out to bunny hops, jumps and winks or, best of all, with a 'magic button' which changed the studio decor. Jokes, in-jokes, insults, and any gifts sent in by viewers flew freely about the cramped continuity studio, often to the detriment of the lengthy list of birthdays.
Westward's tenure came to a chaotic close in 1981, as boardroom squabbles boiled over into public view and the company's finances came under police scrutiny. ITV's governing body, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, hurriedly passed the franchise to a new company, Television South West (TSW).
A New Home
Initially TSW's plan was to drop Gus and many other Westward icons, but the new company, suddenly required to take over several months early, was forced to reconsider. They took over the entire Westward staff - including the ever-popular Gus Honeybun. The programme continued in much the same format, though it gained an irritatingly catchy Ed Welch theme tune and the magic button became - rather dubiously - a 'magic mushroom'. Even after decades of popularity, the birthday slot was still broadcast from the confines of the tiny continuity studio and was levered into the schedule wherever time allowed.
Gus had become a West Country institution, but he had also spawned a long list of imitators, from Channel TV's Oscar Puffin down to the BBC's Gordon the Gopher and Edd the Duck. Indeed he himself even managed one brief (and surely unauthorised) appearance on the BBC's Spotlight news programme2! The 'birthday puppet' phenomenon was memorably lampooned by Susie Blake's acid-tongued announcer on Victoria Wood As Seen on TV.
Many announcers worked with 'the rabbit' over 30 years, notably Stuart Hutchison, Roger Shaw, Ian Stirling, Ruth Langsford and David FitzGerald. Some of his sidekicks went on to wider fame, such as Fern Britton, Jan Leeming and Judi Spiers (a particular favourite whose double act with Gus remains legendary). No-one was ever credited with operating Gus, though; indeed Westward and TSW never 'broke the spell' at all - their biggest star was never even admitted to be a puppet!
When the franchise came up for renewal in 1992, it was Gus, accompanied by TSW's flamboyant chief executive Harry Turner, who delivered the company's sealed bid to The Independent Television Commission, which licenses and regulates commercially funded television services in the UK. Ironically, in that envelope was sealed Gus's fate - the regulator controversially ruled that their bid was too high! TSW failed to overturn the decision in the High Court.
Sadly, when Westcountry Television took over in 1993 Gus did not make the transition, much to the dismay and puzzlement of viewers. This was possibly due to a wish to make a clean break. But there was also acrimony between the companies over the controversial franchise award, which also involved the formation of a trust to hold the Westward/TSW archive in preference to passing it on to their successors.
Gus Goes Home
On TSW's last night of transmission, New Year's Eve 1992, Langsford and FitzGerald returned Gus Honeybun to his moorland home of 30 years earlier, introducing him to his parents and a very large number of brothers and sisters. As the announcers left, the rabbit lingered uncertainly for a moment before disappearing down a burrow. The end of an era, it was a moment which brought tears of both sadness and laughter to generations of West Country children.