A history of the Puppet Centre | part three
In March 1984 the energy-devouring festival, Puppet Theatre 84, disseminated top-notch international puppet productions throughout London and many of the regions, bringing further honours and respect to the art form. Zoe Brook’s contribution to the festival was a fine exhibition in BAC titled ‘Puppets on the Screen’ which drew large numbers to see famous characters and extracts from programmes for children and a few adult TV hits. It was complemented by a forum led by four well-known puppeteers, revealing the particular skills needed for performance in television and film.
In May, Equity gave further recognition to puppet performers, on behalf of puppeteers who suffered from inappropriate contracts, if a contract was offered at all. Puppet Centre also took up the cudgels for professionals who were being seriously undercut by others – usually semi-amateurs – charging derisory fees, often for shows of poor quality. The practice only served to perpetuate the public’s low perception of the art form.
Collaborations were a constant feature of our work, one involving the publishers Victor Gollancz in the staging of a touring exhibition of Punch and Judy figures and booths. Another was the ‘No Kidding’ project, an import from the United States, intended to demonstrate to able children the difficulties endured by the disabled.
Throughout 1985 the courses and workshops were well-attended and continued to attract first-class leaders. The Arts Council Bursary, restored after a year’s withdrawal, was won by the Freehand Puppet Theatre, and then awarded to Mike Hares of ‘Over the Top’.
In April the Puppet Centre produced "one of its most successful ventures" (so said David Currell at the AGM), in the form of an International Masterclass led by the charismatic academician Dr. Henryk Jurkowski, and the famous Margareta Niculescu, Director of the Charleville Institute of the Puppet. The Masterclass was called ‘Text into Performance’ and was aimed at experienced professionals. It was quickly oversubscribed and was repeated in the two following years.
HRH the Princess of Wales, commonly known as Princess Di, visited the Arts Centre to open a studio theatre on 14 May. She was escorted into the Puppet Centre where everyone who met her, adults and children, succumbed to her warmth and intelligence. She had done her homework and seemed to know something of the Puppet Centre’s work and appeared curious to know more. David Currell, Honor Palmer and I had some conversation with her, and were ever after able to understand the worldwide affection she inspired.
That October the AGM and Puppeteers’ Day, held in the main theatre of BAC, again drew a record attendance. The Puppet Centre staff in 1985 consisted of an Administrator, Zoe Brooks (chief executive), an Education Officer (Honor Palmer), two part-time admin assistants (Maureen Murdock and Sheila Lawler) and a Technical Officer (Julian Rumball). Puppet Centre was receiving regular financial support from the Arts Council, Wandsworth, the Greater London Council, the Inner London Education Authority, the TV Fund, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the British Council and other occasional donors.
At the AGM David Currell reported closer contacts with film and TV puppetry and puppeteers, saying that "Some influence has also been exerted on the content of particular programmes using puppets" (content, manipulation and lip-synching skills, physical care and the advisability of using performers who knew what they were doing with a puppet!). Puppet Centre was a source of encouragement to the profession to up its game wherever possible.
The year ended with a showcase of new work; the organisation, by a volunteer Vassili Georgiu, of our large photographic library; the supervision of the Travelling Exhibition of our growing collection of puppets; a course on shadow puppets, and a schools programme for TV called ‘Zig Zag’, researched in the Puppet Centre by BBC2. Teachers responded in large numbers by contacting the Centre for more information on the use of puppets in education. Puppet Centre was thriving, overstretched, but happy with the steady fulfilment of its aims.
1986 started badly, however. In March a colourful turnout of puppeteers, giant puppets and banners positioned themselves opposite the Arts Council’s building in London’s Piccadilly to stage a protest at the removal of the ACGB annual grant for the Puppet Centre. This was a heavy blow indeed, removing our major source of funding. A change of Arts Council policy – one of many changes the Puppet Centre has endured since its beginning – decreed that the Council was no longer in the business of funding non-producing companies. This made little sense, since the Centre was a catalyst for a number of innovative productions.
In the same month the Minister for the Arts, Richard Luce, visited BAC and entered the Puppet Centre’s domain, proving himself a sad contrast with Princess Diana: he had done no homework at all and clearly had little idea of our purpose or activities.
By April it was clear that Zoe Brooks was unwell and needed a deputy, who came in the cheerful presence of Lynne Hall. Lynne organised a seminar chaired by Glyn Edwards, a leading light in the recent establishment of the Punch and Judy College of Professors and a seasoned producer of young people’s television programmes. The seminar aimed to increase the appreciation of puppetry in TV producers and directors. It may have served its purpose since there is hardly a children’s programme or TV commercial for the young that does not feature puppets!
The programme of activity continued unabated for the rest of 1986, punctuated by a Gala Fundraising Evening at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank, with the generous contribution of shows from at home and abroad, including one from the late Feike Boschma of the Netherlands. Alas, the fundraiser raised little money, even if puppetry’s reputation was helped, but the Puppet Centre was rescued from the brink of bankruptcy by a new fund called the London Boroughs Grant Scheme (later ‘LBG Unit’) set up to help those charitable organisations whose remit benefited an area wider than a single London borough. This came as a huge relief.
The 1986 AGM in October presented good news and bad: the good being the increase in our own earned income; the bad being the Arts Council’s Report on the state of the British arts scene, which contained no mention of puppetry. The Arts Council completed their year of alienation of the puppet world with a failure to renew their funding of ‘the Bursary’ one of our most effective initiatives.
Since Zoe’s illness was more serious than originally thought, the Centre had to find a replacement, in this case Keith Allen, already well known to the Centre. He took on the role of Administrator in tandem with Lynne Hall.
In February 1987 the funding from the Arts Council for the PCT Bursary was restored, to our great relief, and was later in the year awarded to John Roberts, a distinguished puppet maker and director of mid-scale touring shows produced by his company PuppetCraft. He used the Bursary to go to China, where he learned the techniques of Chinese marionette making and manipulation.
Puppet Centre held its second International Masterclass on ‘Text into Performance’ in Norwich Puppet Theatre, again led by Jurkowski and Niculescu, with support from Barry Smith and Ray DaSilva. Penny Francis took a year’s leave from editing Puppet Centre's magazine to edit a volume of Henryk Jurkowski’s theoretical essays, 'Aspects of Puppet Theatre'. Swithin Fry bravely stepped up to fill the Animations vacancy. He did a fine job.
That year there were courses in puppetry with the disabled, on the use of celastic (now classed as a dangerous substance), mask-making and the weekly Creative Puppetry evenings led by Lynette O’Reilly. The AGM with Puppeteers’ Day in October was held at BAC, well attended as usual.
A new departure was the festival VISION MIX, celebrating contemporary puppetry on both stage and screen over a weekend in April. Most of the BAC building was given over to it, and the mini-festival attracted the moral support and physical presence of some prestigious television producers including the Jim Henson Foundation. Brian Henson gave a workshop on TV puppetry technique.
An outstanding international company was invited: the Theater im Wind (Enno and Anne Podehl) from Brunswick, Germany. Their exquisite Hermann remains one of the most satisfying achievements of puppet theatre. The festival also presented the British talents of Faulty Optic and Richard Robinson with his Oggle-Oggle Box. VISION MIX was something of a triumph for the Centre, which it decided to repeat in 1989.
June 1988 heralded Philomena Gibbons’ arrival into the post of Administrator That summer Ray DaSilva added to his substantial voluntary work by organising the Archive of the late Olive Blackham. July saw the third and last week-long international Masterclass, once again in London. This time Jurkowski was joined by Josef Krofta of the DRAK company of Czechoslovakia to lead another successful and imaginative course.
If demand and feedback from teachers were any criteria, our loss of an Education Officer had created a large hole in Puppet Centre's services, so the return of funding for the post, again filled by Honor Palmer, was greeted with relief. There were nine courses that year, including one on the making of a Punch and Judy show by John Styles.
In September the Puppet Centre was spoken of in glowing terms in the House of Commons by John Bowis, MP for Battersea. That was a proud moment: the Centre has an entry in Hansard!
The publication of 'Aspects of Puppet Theatre' gave a necessary boost to the academic standing of the art form. It was the first publication in English of essays on the theory of puppetry, produced by the Centre and became required reading in universities all over the world.
The 1988 AGM took place in Taunton, Devon, as part of a festival organised by Sue Kay. Attendance was excellent; Ann Hogarth was made the first Honorary Life Member of the Puppet Centre Trust, and it was announced that this year’s Bursary winner was the Faulty Optic company (Gavin Glover and Liz Walker). David Currell, as Chair, spoke of steady developments across Europe, and emerging interest in puppetry from practitioners of the other performing arts.
At this point the Trust’s affairs were in a healthy state, with income from the Friends’ Scheme, sales, the hire of the touring exhibitions and private donations supplementing the many grants received. Hundreds of enquiries, visitors and requests for information and help kept flowing in. In December, the PC was funded for its first computer, and the following issue of Animations was presented to the printers on floppy disk!
Not all the news was good: an Education Reform Bill produced by the Tory government contained threats to the future of the ILEA and the GLC, and therefore a threat to our future too. More immediately and tragically, our Friend and active supporter, the well-loved artist Alistair Fullarton, died on Christmas Day.
Somehow we got through 1989, although the GLC and the ILEA were abolished and the TV Fund’s annual grant withdrawn. However the Arts Council-funded Bursary (now worth only £5,000) was awarded to Sean Myatt, a leading puppeteer, later to become a respected tutor in Nottingham Trent University.
From 1-3 June the second VISION MIX festival was held in BAC, featuring the Vélo company from France in a humorous and poetic piece of object theatre called 'Appel d’Air'. Among the feast of stage and screen offerings, a workshop on performing with a puppet for the TV camera was given by the great Nigel Plaskitt.
There was a sombre brainstorming meeting held by the Board in the home of an increasingly frail Barry Smith and his partner Alan Judd. The main business was discussion of a way ahead for the Centre, in the face of the drastic cuts in grant-aid, and it was decided to ask the Arts Council to fund a ‘Development Consultant’ who would recommend a plan of action.
The atmosphere of gloom was further darkened by the death on 28 August of Barry Smith – a dreadful loss not only to the Centre but to the whole of British puppetry. Barry left his books and paper archive to the Centre, which staged a celebration of his life during the Puppeteers’ Day and AGM on 6 November. The day brought a record attendance of puppet people to Battersea, with David Currell and the staff acting as cheerful and welcoming hosts.
This history has been written from the available papers, programmes, meeting minutes, pictures and Animations magazine itself and of course my firsthand memory. The full details will eventually be posted on the Puppet Centre website, and will include the names and deeds of the scores of people who have been involved and the practical and moral support they gave, and there’s hardly one, volunteer or staff, who is not remembered with affection and gratitude.