A few marionettes from our attic – now in storage!
A tiny bit of puppet history background
Puppet companies in Europe certainly in the 60s, were often subsidised by the state. There was also a culture of street theatre, particularly in Europe where and puppets were sometimes used to challenge political ideals. In Italy since the 16th century they have had the ‘Commedia dell’arte’, an improvised drama based on each character following a traditional role. Some of these popular characters developed into Britain’s ‘Punch and Judy’ tradition, which is what most people think of, when one mentions puppets in this country. In my view our culture has never really included a national regard for puppets, they have in the main, been for children’s entertainment.
The case of the Mumford Marionettes
On Wednesday a friend forwarded me a clip called ‘Puppets in the Attic’ – it was all about a film company who were trying to raise funds to archive the work of ‘The Mumford Marionettes’ and the clip had been shown on TV on Monday.
‘Puppets in the Attic’ showed Fred Mumford, a cheerful 90 year old puppeteer, with his marionettes. It transpired that most of the collection is currently stored in his loft, together with historical film clips of Frank and his wife Maisie’s extensive career in cabaret, all over the world and very much for an adult audience.
While I sincerely hope they get the finance to make the film, I even sent a few bob myself, it doesn’t solve the problem of the fate of his dolls when he finally ‘pops his clogs’.
What happens to our own collection of over 200 marionettes has also been a preoccupation of mine for some time too!
I doubt any faithful blog follower could have missed the story – but just in case!
It was in the late 40s, that my parents converted two rooms in our house in Highgate into a theatre, with 30 red plush tip up seats bought from a local cinema. Our shows took place on Sundays and were often attended by local writers and the theatre fraternity, mainly an adult audience with Valentine Dyall, ‘the man in black’ a fan
It was in the 50s that our living depended on developing entertainment more exclusively for children. We did shows with our marionettes in Harrods in Knightsbridge and for the rich and famous, both in London Hotels and in their own homes. My parents were the only puppeteers that were to give a performance at Buckingham Palace for the Queen, Prince Charles and Princess Anne in the 50s.
We later staged huge marionette musicals in theatres on the North Pier in Blackpool. The following year this show would go to The Spa, Scarborough, where at 15 I was running this second enterprise. On Sundays my parents and I would meet me in Harrogate to discuss the takings.
When winter approached, it was back down to London to make a new show for Blackpool and so this triangle of enterprise continued for three or four years! We moved with the times, though and we went into Cabaret, I went into Variety and we did some TV and early commercials.
The pilot for the Telegoons also came our way and I went on to do 15 episodes. As a family we created and operated the marionettes for the feature film ‘Oh What a Lovely War’. So puppets and marionettes had once more gained appeal for both children and adults.
I have done other things in my life, but puppetry comes back to haunt me…when we moved down here. I found myself offering puppet workshops to Saltdean Library as part of their community involvement development.
In 2010 a few of our marionettes were taken along to Rottingdean Fair. I have to confess they were not impressed, stuck between the barbecues and the potted plants, they felt it didn’t have quite the same appeal as performing in cabaret at The Cafe Royal.
Some marionettes have no sense of gratitude!
Back to square one
I have no idea what the fate of our own marionettes will be. They could end up being sold on ebay, hang on peoples walls for decoration or at worse end up in a skip!
It’s not for want of trying for a better outcome. I’ve had a website about our puppet history http://www.puppethouse.co.uk. for over fifteen years. I’ve made films for youtube, However despite efforts to get permanent display space it has not been forthcoming and even museums it would seem are cutting down on exhibition space, admitted I have only tried a few and one did offer some ‘on line’ presence, but I felt I had secured that myself.
So what will become of all these redundant dolls? I am the only person left in our family who can still operate them which is why I endeavoured to film some reconstructions of our early shows for youtube.
‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘The Puppet Circus’ etc.
And good luck to the Mumfords and the people filming their attic, The British Puppet and Theatre Guild, PUK, all those who still tread the boards with wooden dolls and the bright ‘young things’ who attempt weird and wonderful things in Brighton.
Methinks I may have been there and done it, but not sure if I ever actually got the t-shirt.
Our Puppet Circus
Paul’s Punch and Judy