Puppets in Pantomime
by Chris Abbott
The welcome return of a figure from the 1950s, Muffin the Mule, was just one of the puppet events of the 2006-7 panto season. Muffin appeared in The Adventures of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Theatre Royal Windsor, but he was by no means the only creature to carry on the panto puppet tradition. Originally one of the stars of the early years of television in the 1950s, Muffin was seen then dancing on the top of a grand piano. For the panto at Windsor, he gained a smart new caravan, as puppeteer Ronnie le Drew explains. “My association with Muffin the Mule goes back to the sixties when I worked with the Hogarth Puppet Company, and I manipulated Muffin with Chris De Burgh playing the piano at Muffin’s 60th Birthday Celebration at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane in 2006. One of the guests was Bill Kenwright who owns the Theatre Royal Windsor, and there and then Muffin was signed up to make his first panto appearance in many years.”
Muffin The Mule with Bernie Clifton & Leanne Dobinson - Snow White, Theatre Royal, Windsor 2006/7
A new larger Muffin was made by Peter O’Rourke, since the original was too small for stage work, and a caravan was built to show him off (and hide the puppeteer). Ronnie reports that Bernie Clifton as Muddles was a wonderful foil to Muffin's antics – and no less than Dame Judi Dench was quoted in Heat magazine as enjoying his appearance. It seems likely that Muffin will be returning to Windsor in this year’s panto alongside Wayne Sleep.
Muffin The Mule - Old and New
The heyday of puppets in pantomime might have been the 1950s and 1960s when speciality acts were a central part of all big productions, but companies like Corlett’s Characters and Mosaic Puppets are still around: and Star Puppets and Les Puppetique en Noir can also often be found as well as a number of ventriloquists who might be considered to be operating puppets – although they might not agree…
One of the best remembered of the puppet speciality acts in England and Wales were the Pavlovs (Alan and Brenda Stockwell), now retired. The company appeared in many pantos, including Puss in Boots (Swansea Grand 1970-71) and Cinderella (Southport 1985-8) in which Les Dennis and Dustin Gee managed to play both Ugly Sisters and the Brokers Men. In Scotland, the International Purves Puppets played much the same role, appearing around the country in a large number of pantos for many years, with Jimmy Logan, the Krankies, Una Mclean, Johnny Beattie among others. Purves specialised in UV puppetry and always ensured the act was well integrated into the panto script. They have been under the sea in Dick Whittington, in Sherwood Forest in Babes in the Wood and in Nessie’s Cave in a great many pantos – Nessie the Loch Ness Monster being one of Purves’ best-known characters. With the Krankies, the company provided a magic book for the characters to jump out of, a dancing pumpkin and two mice doing the Can-Can…
Most puppet speciality acts, like the Pavlovs and Puppets in Wonderland (Roger Stevenson and Harry S. Stuart) worked to music, but some have moved out of the programme slot and into a part: most notably Basil Brush, who was appearing with Cilla Black and Alfred Marks in Aladdin at the London Palladium in the 1960s and is still working now. One of the advantages of being a puppet character is that the demise of your “handler” does not necessarily end your performing career…
Lenny The Lion and Terry Hall
The recent death of Terry Hall, owner of Lennie the Lion, reminds us that ventriloquists are one of the few speciality acts still to appear in panto, a tradition carried on today by Ward Allen with Roger the Dog, Steve Hewlett, Paul Zerdin, Roger de Courcey and Nookie, and Dawson Chance and Willie, , amongst others. Lennie the Lion himself appear in many pantos, including the uniquely Scottish A Wish for Jamie (Alhambra Glasgow, 1963) alongside a stellar Scots cast including Rikki Fulton, Jill Howard and Kenneth McKellar.
Keith Harris and Orville
Keith Harris has appeared regularly in panto with his characters Cuddles and Orville, including a major production of Humpty Dumpty – a rare production of the this story – at the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road, with Ronne Coyles as Dame once heard to complain about being billed under a duck! The characters are seen less often on TV these days, but continue to appear in panto, this year in Cinderella at Fareham, now a regular venue with Harris also directing and writing the production.
Rod Hull and Toby Hull with Emu
Unique because he was neither puppet nor ventriloquist’s doll, Rod Hull’s Emu appeared in a string of specially-written pantomimes including Emu in Pantoland at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London in 1976. The supporting cast on that occasion included Irene Handl, Pat Coombs, Bob Todd, Carl Wayne, Susan Maughan and Victor Spinetti. And the death of Rod Hull has not ended Emu’s panto career, as he appears in Peter Pan at Plymouth in 2007-8 under the control (or not) of Toby Hull, one of Rod’s sons. In much the same way, Bob Carolgees and Spit the Dog managed to play parts in panto despite the dog having no voice (and not a lot of movement); and they were both recently to be seen on TV remembering their heyday in Tiswas.
Of course, there were also full-scale performances in which the whole story was told by puppets – not pantomimes then, but often using the same stories, as was the case with the touring productions of shows such as Snow White and Pinocchio by Ray and Joan Da Silva’s company, the last of the great British touring puppet theatres (see An East Anglian Odyssey: the story of the Da Silva puppet company by Chris Abbott, published 2006 and available from www.puppetbooks.co.uk ).
So it seems likely that puppets will continue to appear in panto. The first listings for 2007-8 already feature Basil Brush in Cinderella (St Albans), and Star Puppets (Bridlington and Broxbourne) as well as those mentioned above, and there are sure to be more to come!
This page was last updated 19th July 2007