Thursday, 19 May 2011

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain!

The above picture is one of my most vivid early memories of TV, Oscar. It was a short ITV programme in the Black Theatre style: puppetry in which the operators were clad head to toe in black velvet, against a backdrop of same. This allowed them greater control of operation than was available with stringed marionettes or traditional “hide behind the table” glove puppetry, giving the performances more precision and grace. There was also something else, though, a strange quality to do with the apparent weightlessness of the characters and the odd luminosity that came from the use of ultra-violet lights. It was this unworldliness that made Oscar so mesmerising. For a few years either side of 1980, Black Theatre was all over kids' TV, working its dreamlike magic via the skilled hands of a variety of practitioners.

The UK's black theatre tradition has its origins in a run-down Islington theatre, which was done up in 1961 by John Wright, his wife Lyndie and a group of like-minded puppeteers as the centre of operations for a series of shows combining precision puppetry with quirky humour. Lyndie was the prime mover behind the first children's series to make extensive use of shrouded marionette operation. Oscar (1977) was a weird little serial from Tyne-Tees bunged out on holiday mornings, concerning the adventures of the eponymous rabbit, who falls down a dustbin into the world of Rubbidge, a Wonderland-esque location peopled by the friendly likes of Zaggy the Dragon and inventor Sir Feathersqueak, and the malevolent G-Nashers, a cave-dwelling pterodactyl possessing several sets of false teeth of varying degrees of “fierceness”, which he kept hanging on a washing line. With offbeat music and narration from Lance Percival, and a constant stream of cloth-and-foam prop innovation, Oscar stood out a mile from its string-suspended puppet contemporaries. Graduates of Little Angel made their own inroads into TV puppetry. Ronnie Le Drew became Thames TV's puppeteer-in-residence, doing the moves (if not the voice) of Zippy and also giving good Sweep. Then there was a splinter group...

Little Angel alumni John Thirtle and Ian Allen struck out on their own in 1971 with this outfit which mixed a talent for gentle weirdness with solid commercial nous. (Thirtle, for instance, fought to get puppeteers the same standing with Equity as actors.) They hit the small screens in 1976 with Playboard, a circus-themed bit of early morning BBC whimsy with chummy puppets Hedge and Mo and their flesh and blood foil Christopher Lillicrap, before decamping to Thames in 1980 for cutlery-based nostalgic touchstone Button Moon. In between came kitchen safety pop band The Singing Hotpots and the telly incarnation of the Nat West Savings piggy banks. Dedicated to his craft like few others, Thirtle passed on in 1995, succumbing to pneumonia while script-editing The Spooks of Bottle Bay from a hospital bed.

A conjuror and origamist, who combined the two disciplines in what must be the only paper-folding based act to make the finals of Opportunity Knocks, Beardsley provided close-up magic interludes on the Lillicrap-fronted We'll Tell You a Story, when he crossed paths with a guesting Playboard Theatre. Perhaps inspired, he donned a black sweater, two gloves and a couple of pom-poms to incarnate Itsy and Bitsy, the mildly anarchic spiders who made merry with the glitter and Gloy while Susan Stranks struggled to keep order in lunchtime craft vignette Paperplay. But even Beardsley's supreme dexterity couldn't save risible hand-operated alien “Thing” in Tomorrow People adventure misfire The Thargon Menace.

Czech puppeteers Ros Cerny and Hannah 'Susan' Kodicek fled the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague to bring their country's brand of black theatre to the London cabaret circuit. They spent the '70s doing everything from educational theatre to Paul Raymond revue to support act for a touring Mike Yarwood, before securing a spot on the Beeb's Vision On. Then came the call from Granada, providing puppet foils for Peter Davison in lunchtime storytelling diversion Once Upon a Time..., and Carol Leader in studio-bound playgroup romp Our Backyard. Kodicek also did straight acting, appearing in major roles in two of the grittiest entries in the Play for Today canon, Frank Chapple biopic The Union and life imprisonment expose The Sin Bin, and wrote and directed A Pin for the Butterfly, based on her memories of Czechoslovakia, starring Hugh Laurie. A career that somehow sums up the essential difference between the practitioners of this kind of puppetry and, say, Keith Harris.


  1. Pullover was the one that charmed me (I think he was a jumper come to life more than a soft toy myself)

  2. Incredible I'd never made the connection - great stuff. Did you ever see Susan Stranks book about toilet habits - Are You Sitting Comfortably?

  3. Oh, I missed Pullover out, you're right. Another Black Theatre Groups effort.

    Mondo, I've got that book - she claims compiling it taught her 'how to say the word "shit" demurely'. But not on Magpie, hopefully.

  4. That final picture makes me think that the time is surely ripe for a show featuring David Mitchell and two parrot puppets. (Insert 10 O'Clock Live joke here.)