The unveiling and celebration is on 28th of February in Marlborough, where Bob Pelham created Wonky Toys and later Pelham Puppets. The plaque is a big achievement for David Leech who instigated the idea and the council for their generous support for this memorial. David Leech was an important part of the Pelham Puppets success story.
Today there is a little witch hanging on a picture frame and a Bimbo unpacked and waiting in the wings, while I take it upon myself to go diligently through boxes of uncharted family archives. Amongst them I find my mother’s handwritten notes about her friendship with Bob and her early involvement with his Pelpop newsletter. There are also reports about the first shows my parents performed to promote Pelham puppets at Christmas in Gamages and later in Harrods.
At Harrods we put on shows with our own marionettes and our company was established. My parents entertained some of the stars like Peter Sellers and Kenneth More (the leading actor in the film Genevieve) at The Dorchester Hotel. The ultimate honour was a performance for Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace, a birthday treat for the very young Prince Charles.
I first met Bob in our studio when I was about 10. My mothers first pelham play book had past all expectations. Later she and I wrote the second book of plays in our garden at 74 Dartmouth Park Hill. We dreamed them up between us, so my mother insisted I should have my name on the cover with hers.
Bob suggested that because we had written the plays and agreed to publish them, all the rights and revenue would belong to us. But of course the books helped the sales of the puppets and some children liked having a script to perform.
As the exhibition organiser for the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild’s Silver Jubilee Exhibition, my father tried to get a display of Bob’s puppets into the exhibition. But the committee rejected his request on the grounds that Pelham puppets were toys! Which they were, but very special toys and an inspiration for people who were to become professional puppeteers in later life.
Back in our archives I find the cuttings about a giant Bimbo, lent by Bob to attract attention to our own marionette musicals in the Arcade Theatre on the North pier at Blackpool and later The Spa Scarborough. in the early 50s.
Many of the guys returning to post war Britain could not settle including Bob Pelham. My father and Spike Milligan had served in the same campaigns but I don’t think they ever met. It was after the war when we were engaged as the first puppeteers for the Telegoons that they met for the first time.
Chatting with Norma Barnes (Spike’s agent) and the wonderful Charles Chilton and Marcel, producer of the Ying Tong song at a Goon Show Preservation Society meeting led to a tremendous respect for all these creative guys.
The world of entertainment is never easy, for Spike serious depression, for Bob the worst disaster must have been when a fire destroyed his factory in the 80s
We had our share of emotional and financial disasters too. writing scripts and making pilot films for a series that did not take off, patents for moving mouths ignored. But we also had successes, satire for Granada TV, a series featuring our rod puppet cooks for deaf children,. appearing in ‘New Faces’ and Cliff Richard’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
My solo career started at 18 touring in variety with people such as Alma Cogan and Max Miller.
But my involvement with Pelham Puppets has just gone on and on. As a young mum in the 60s I used to do shows in schools with them and once at Christmas promoted sales of Pelhams at Allders of Croydon.
After my father died my mother and I made a new version of our ‘Alice in Wonderland’, we also gathered some Pelhams together and filmed some of her plays in her garden. I arranged for a limited 50th anniversary reprint of her book together with a DVD. Although we filmed the second book of plays my mother died soon afterwards and the reprints of the second book still lay in a box. I lost heart.
But one of the last acts of friendship from Bob was a very special one. We were engaged in making and performing with marionettes in the film ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ on Brighton Pier in 1968.
Each character was chosen from our collection by Richard Attenborough
and re-dressed by my mother in authentic uniforms. My parents had taken six months to make an army of tiny soldiers for a roundabout to be featured in the film. They all required fibreglass helmets, rubber boots, breast plates, leather straps and handmade white felt gloves.
But we were running out of time and did not have enough heads, so a quick call to Ron’s old friend Bob, resulted in a whole box of heads being posted to us from his factory. Fortunately our helmets covered their heads so the soldiers were incognito.
Since moving to Brighton I conserved the puppets from the film and they featured on BBC South East and were on display at the Art Gallery and Museum in Rottingdean
Ann conserving puppets from ‘Oh What a Lovely War.’
The display at The Art Gallery and Museum in Rottingdean.
Pelham Puppets crept into my life again in 2009 when I ran family workshops at Saltdean Library. We made rod puppets, but the Pelhams I took in provided loads of creativity and fun too.
In recent years I have written poetry and had some poems published in magazines. Two years ago I published ‘The Puppeteer’s Daughter’ with poems about people, places, love and loss and the complexity of being a puppeteer’s daughter. Not surprisingly a poem about our Adana printing machine crept in with a reference to Pelham Puppets once again.
For my parents the world of puppetry ended abruptly. They suddenly changed track, worked with ceramics for a few years, my mother at 60 then applied for and became principal at The Royal School of Needlework. My father became involved with communty education but also gained funding and worked with a PhD student on the restoration of the Brunel Pump room in Rotherhithe
As we all know Bob died of a heart attack. Had he lived he would have been 100 on 28th February, a man who just loved creating puppets for children to enjoy.
Here are two Pelham Puppet plays my mother and I filmed during her retirement just for the fun of it.