The Puppetmasters

The Story So Far

TV & Stage Repertoire

Secrets of Manipulation

Marionette Masterclass

Ideas for Puppeteers


Front of House

The Story Continues..............
What made it harder to finish with BBC (Wales) TV was the fact that we had, a year earlier, come to the end of not a few years working for Independent Television. In Britain in those days there were two main TV networks, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) a publicly owned network funded by licence money paid by television viewers and carrying no advertising and the ITV network (Independent Television), privately owned and supported entirely by advertising revenue. The ITV was not a single company but a linking of regional giants with co-operative scheduling.

In the early days Eric Bramall had done occasional Variety spots in different ITV programmes. He also had a short series on a programme called "Time for Rhythm" produced in Manchester by Granada TV. But Harlequin puppetry came into its own on ITV with the death of Granada.

Periodically the Independent companies have to bid for their franchises, and in the late Sixties there was a big shake up. Manchester based Granada lost out to the Leeds based Yorkshire Television, a new company without studios, staff or experience. Many of the redundant technicians from Manchester were recruited by the new company, and a building programme commenced.

As I've mentioned, it's who you know that matters. In the Fifties we had had worked in hotel cabaret for one Jess Yates, a one time theatre and cinema organist who owned an hotel in North Wales. He had great creative artistry, big ideas, and not much business discipline. He wasn't all that successful at running his hotel and after a few years he vanished, amidst a certain amount of gossip. Then in 1968 he turned up on Eric Bramall's doorstep to explain that he was now Head of Children's Programmes for the new ITV company, Yorkshire Television. He was offering us work. Initially he wanted around 30 programmes, for which we would make the puppets, write the scripts, build the sets, then transport all to Leeds where we would perform the shows. The snag was we only had around three months in which to do all this, and during most of this period we were already committed to two shows daily at the Harlequin since it overlapped our Summer Season. It was an exciting challenge.

Four of the proposed shows were to be variety shows mixing live artistes with puppets. Jess had already booked a choir of children and a couple of other acts, and wanted us to come up with an idea to link these, together with some of our theatre items. All our ideas revolved around the idea of pictures coming to life in one way or another, and it was finally decided to go for the simplest - a child reading a book and the pictures in the book changing to the moving television pictures. It was eventually called "Dianne's Magic Book" and featured a pretty young lady in fairy tale long dress and bonnet. She reclined on a grassy hillock in a pastoral setting of plastic grass, flowers and shrubbery and turned the pages of a outsize book. Jess prided himself on his eye for design and knowledge of what pleased the public. He hadn't much time for subtlety.

Dianne would read from her book, providing links (often painfully contrived links) to the various live and puppet items. We managed to include our Puppet Circus, Magic Toyshop, Handkerchief Ballet and Poppet in Insectland, but just how these were married to children singing The Emperor's New Clothes, a man with performing budgerigars and a champion roller skater I really can't remember.

The remaining twenty six programs (a full series) were to be puppet programs - and since neither Eric or I felt we could face coming up with so many different plots in such a short time we persuaded Jess that it would be easier to come up with two half-series. Eric started writing a comic sci-fi series, Jimmy Green and his Time Machine while Chris was creating Sugarball the Little Jungle Boy, thirteen of each.

Now it is hard enough to come up with so many storylines, but we also had to make, paint, dress and string the puppets as well as building all the scenery and props, and all this with two shows daily during our 15 week Summer Season at the Harlequin.

The programs were to be recorded in Leeds, 150 miles from our theatre. Even with the two theatre vans fully loaded we needed a second journey to get all the equipment, puppets and scenery (paint still wet) to the Leeds studios. Well actually there were not any studios, the buildings hadn't been completed. With the station due to go live on air in two weeks and the builders much behind schedule there was panic in the air. It was decided that we could make our programmes in an old Methodist chapel on Burley Road, using cameras on tripods borrowed from York-Sport - those normally used for football matches. The director, Geoff Hall, was also a sport specialist, and his production suite was a Scanner van parked outside the chapel.

All in all it was an hilarious fortnight. Everything was difficult, everything that could go wrong did go go wrong, and we all had a whale of a time,and made 26 programs in 10 days. Mind you, I wouldn't like to be judged by the quality of those programs. But we made them, and the station did have something to show on its first week on air, even if there were rather a lot of puppet shows mixed amidst live sporting events and bought-in cartoon films.

There is something about difficulty and working against the clock that can bring out a certain kind of humour, and which also builds camaraderie. Eric and Chris both remembered these early times with Yorkshire Television with great affection. It was here that they met a wonderful actress Juliet Cooke. She did all the voices for both series, although the Songs for Sugarball were recorded by Kenny Lynch, and those for Jimmy Green by The Grumbleweeds.

We stayed with Yorkshire Television for several years, although we eventually parted company with Jess Yates. He was Head of Children's Programmes whereas we moved to Bill Cole's department which was Education. Even so our first series with Bill was for the same Children's slot which had featured Jimmy Green and Sugarball. Bill was at that time a director in Jess's department and had, in fact, directed a second series of Sugarball. The new series was called Hubble Bubble, or the Witch's Brew, and was based upon one of the ideas that Chris had suggested earlier, and which had been rejected in favour of Diane's Magic Book. It featured a friendly witch, Bella Donna, who stirred an enormous cauldron in her magic cave, and in the steam conjured up pictures for the amusement of her two familiars, Clarence Crocodile and Sebastian the Cat. These steam pictures transformed to become the characters in Hubble Bubble Land, Pippin, Plob, Grandma, Colonel Bluster Bubble et al, who's weekly adventures were the meat of this puppet soap opera. Hubble Bubble again featured the wonderful vocal talents of Juliet Cooke, and ran from 1969 to 1971.

My World was YTV's series for Schools, and we made a number of programmes for this in the years 1971 to 75. Many were single programmes, although we did have periodic series called Puppet Caravan. The My World puppet items all featured a live presenter and this was how we first met Maureen Sutcliffe. Puppet Caravan continued until 1975.

About this time everyone was talking about a puppet show from the United States. This was called Sesame Street, was strongly educational, a daily programme and one which featured many new and innovative ideas. It was on offer to the ITV network.

After much discussion it was decided that although Sesame Street was chock-full of good ideas it was too American in flavour, too "tenement" oriented, for British kids. ITV therefore decided to pinch the format and come up with its own version. None of the regional companies could undertake a daily programme so it was decided that the task would be divided among the regions, each making one or two programmes a week, and all to be seen on the whole network. Thus Thames produced Rainbow, Granada Hickory House, and someone else Pipkins. The YTV contribution was Mr Trimble.

Trimble ran from 1971 to 1977, a programme every week. It was a mixture of live actors and puppets, with live action and film. Eric and I contributed the puppets which appeared on set with the live actors and we, the puppeteers, cunningly concealed beneath various bits of furniture. My characters were Glug, a talking goldfish, Barney a red headed cheeky boy character, and Tickle, a fantasy bear-like character. Eric worked Squark, a cross between a parrot and an eagle. Maureen Sutcliffe and Juliet Cooke provided the voices for the various puppet characters and Maureen's brilliant actor husband Tony Boden was selected to play the title role of Mr Trimble (a cross between Dr Who and Mr Pastry).

Our producer for the start of Trimble was still Bill Cole who had come from Australia at the opening of YTV. He and his New Zealand born wife Margaret decided they wanted to return down under and the department was taken over by Frank Kilbride with whom we worked happily for several more years. We were lucky. Frequently a new producer or director means a new cast and new ideas. Few people like taking over programmes or formats established before their arrival, they want to make their own mark.

Eventually there was a new head of department, and Trimble was axed. Tony Boden and Maureen Sutcliffe lost their jobs. Eric and I survived a little longer with a few episodes of My World but we realised our happy times with YTV were really at an end. We'd had a good run, and thoroughly enjoyed it.


The Puppetmasters * The Story So Far  * TV & Stage Repertoire * Secrets of Manipulation * Marionette Masterclass * Ideas for Puppeteers * Links * Front of House*