A history of the Puppet Centre | part one
This is the first of four episodes in the story, to be published over the next weeks. The Founding Members of the Puppet Centre Trust, the five survivors of the original twelve signatories of the first Constitution (1974), will doubtless protest if anything is seriously wrong.
They were: David Currell (educationist and author), myself Penny Francis (actor, amateur puppeteer, activist), Maurice Stewart (activist, theatre director, businessman 1933-2012), A.R. Philpott (writer, founder of the EPA, ex-puppeteer, 1904 -1978), Ray DaSilva (puppeteer), George V. Speaight (writer and Toy Theatre performer 1914 - 2005), John Thirtle (puppeteer, 1948-1995), Gordon Deaville (legal advisor, 1939 - 2012), John M. Blundall (puppeteer, 1937-2014), Carol Crowther-Dewhirst (arts administrator, 1945-2004), Mary Wolf (Arts Officer, Wandsworth), Brian Beckman (solicitor).
As far back as 1966, when puppetry was without recognition by the funding bodies or by the public (except as an entertainment for the very young or as a quaint survivor of a dying tradition), a few in and around the British puppet world – seeing the work of a small number of struggling artists producing new and exciting forms of puppetry – started to discuss the potential of a national centre that would promote and nurture their art and craft.
The primary goal was, and is, a focal point for the art form, a permanent reference and resource open to the public, and, one day, a building with performance and exhibition spaces, a library and study centre, indoor and outdoor events and workshops – the lot. Among the blue sky thinkers were A.R. (Panto) Philpott, Glyn Edwards, John Blundall and Violet Phelan (later Philpott).
The idea gained strength and in 1971 serious planning began, in meetings which had the backing of all three of the membership organisations: the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild (‘the Guild’), the future British Centre of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette (British UNIMA) and the Educational Puppetry Association (EPA). At one of the first of these meetings I took the minutes and thus became the Honorary Secretary of a group, which called itself the National Puppet Theatre Committee.
In January 1971 the Committee met at the Egham home of Jan and Ann Bussell whose company, the Hogarth Puppets, was then the best-known internationally. The others present were nearly all longstanding contemporary professionals, including Ray DaSilva, Ken Barnard, A.R. (Panto) and Violet Philpott, Percy Press the elder, John M. Blundall, Tom Kemp, Harold and Doris Aidalberry, David Currell and George Speaight.
The meeting decided a constitution should be drawn up to give the movement an identity. Brian Beckman, solicitor, undertook the legal work, and the first draft – designating the Puppet Centre a ‘charitable unincorporated association’ – was accepted by the Charity Commission in October 1971. It was circulated for the approval of the three membership puppet organisations but there were delays and objections by the Guild and British UNIMA, worried about its unprecedented ambitions and the personal financial responsibility of the trustees. The EPA accepted with alacrity.
Puppet Theatre 72
The National Puppet Centre Committee continued to meet, and agreed that there should be a festival in 1972 to showcase the best of the non-traditional companies. It would be partly a response to a damning report on the state of British puppetry commissioned by the Arts Council and written by Helen Binyon, an innovative shadow puppeteer and academic. Her report, praising only a handful of puppeteers, had the effect of reinforcing the Arts Council of Great Britain’s refusal to recognise or fund puppet work.
Puppet Theatre 72 was staged from March 13-30 on a shoestring budget at the Jeannetta Cochrane theatre, its adjacent exhibition hall and at the Holborn Library lecture hall a few hundred yards away. The arts department of the London Borough of Camden, and the Central School of Art and Design, owner of both the Cochrane theatre and the exhibition hall, were enormously supportive of this first attempt to bring modern puppetry into the limelight.
The companies presented were: Little Angel Marionette Theatre (John Wright), Cap and Bells (Violet Philpott), Caricature Theatre of Wales (Jane Phillips), Cannon Hill Puppet Theatre (John Blundall), DaSilva Puppets, Theatre of Puppets (Barry Smith), Hogarth Puppets (Jan and Ann Bussell), Polka Children’s Theatre (Richard Gill) and Stage Three (Christine Glanville).
Nearly everyone concerned gave their services for expenses only or for nothing. There was wide press coverage and the reviews were ‘kind’, as the Times theatre critic remarked. The public responded well, with 70% attendance at the theatre and 90% at the Holborn Library (one of the lecturers was Lotte Reiniger who was paid £15!). The chief organisers were Carol Crowther, Brian Dewhirst (who subsequently married) and myself. John Blundall designed the logo and the exhibition, and Derek Francis built it.
There was clearly a public interest, a ‘buzz’, around puppetry, stronger than most would have predicted, so much so that one month after the festival the Arts Council designated one of its theatre officers, Peter Mair, to be responsible for puppet theatre – a major step forward.
An aspiration of the emerging Trust was to win the cooperation and representation of all the membership bodies, so it was with much reluctance that the NPCC decided to go ahead with the constitution without the doubters but with the EPA and the London Borough of Wandsworth as the founding ‘Represented Organisations’ on the new Trust Council.
Wandsworth Borough had become a supporter soon after the 1972 festival. Mary Wolf moved from the Camden arts department to that of Wandsworth, which was preparing the conversion of the old Battersea Town Hall into an arts centre. Mary Wolf’s association with Puppet Theatre 72 convinced her of puppetry’s need for a centre accessible to the public, and saw that the very large premises of the budding Battersea Community Arts Centre could usefully accommodate the new Trust and its many activities.
The building was due to open in the autumn of 1974, and in the meantime the NPCC became the temporary Action Committee and was given an office and a telephone line rent-free in the municipal Library on Lavender Hill, Battersea – almost opposite. Following the circulation of the first Puppet Centre brochure a lively stream of enquiries came from the public and practitioners, bookers and arts bodies, schools and colleges, film-makers and TV programmers, asking for information on every aspect of puppetry. The level of interest was higher than we could have imagined, as was the desire for knowledge.
Throughout 1973 and 1974 successful fundraising (by Maurice Stewart and PF) and concrete plans raced ahead, although the Constitution was not formally signed until June 1974. The document stated: “The governing Council is made up of individuals and representatives of interested organisations [including the Founding Organisations]; an Executive Committee elected by and from the Council responsible to the Council for the day-to-day running of the Centre, and a Trust membership to be known as the Friends of the Trust”. David Currell was nominated Chair of the Trust, and remained its Chair for 18 years. By September 1974 two further represented organisations were British UNIMA and the Crafts Advisory Council.
1974. Moving in to the new home
The Puppet Centre was offered a large office at a peppercorn rent on the first floor of the magnificent building, with access via a long corridor colourfully decorated by the Playboard Puppet company directors, John Thirtle and Ian Allen. Independently constituted as the Puppet Centre Trust, it was given opportunities to invite puppet companies at regular intervals, and to be represented on the Battersea Arts Centre’s council. Brian Harris, a strong supporter of the PCT, was its first artistic director.
The hectic preparations for a November opening included dry runs of the extensive programme of workshops and courses, planned and practised by David Currell and Maurice Stewart, with other members of the EPA. Promises of funding and close cooperation came from the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA).
The most important contribution to the future of the Puppet Centre was the offer from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation of seed money: £3,000 a year for three years, to pay for an administrator and office materials. The Foundation made it a condition that I take up the post. The Trust at last had a salaried member of staff, the salary being £2000 a year. I wrote to a colleague Stewart: “the headquarters must exude an atmosphere of warmth and welcome, with things to look at and puppets to touch, people to talk to, books to read, materials and tools to work with, leaflets and publicity to take away.”
The Battersea Arts Centre held its gala opening, which was attended by the then Minister for the Arts Hugh Jenkins, on 15 November 1974. On 21 November the Puppet Centre threw its own opening party with an evening of Victorian variety turns organised by Maurice Stewart, including some ‘animated’ Magic Lantern slides. The Puppet Centre was launched, determined to help create a better environment for the arts and the artists of puppetry. It was stated: “There is no national centre for puppetry of this kind in any other country.” Within a very few years there were several!
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.