Biography of Audrey Atterbury
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Brownfoot
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Brownfoot
English puppeteer best known for her work in the pioneering
children’s television series, “Andy Pandy”.
During WWII Audrey Selma Holman worked for an Average Adjusters firm in London. Audrey married Rowley Atterbury in 1943, and had one child, Paul. By then the Atterburys were living in Kent, in a small village called Westerham about 20 miles south of London. Rowley had found work there as a typographer and printer, and around 1949 founded the Westerham Press. Initially Audrey worked with her husband in the printing business, but the winds of change had already started to blow...
A chance meeting on a train in 1950 with Freda Lingstrom, the then newly appointed head of BBC Children’s Television, led Audrey to her life’s calling as a puppeteer. Although we cannot know for sure, it is very possible that Freda was captivated by young Paul Atterbury, since as it turns out she and her friend Maria Bird (who also worked for the BBC) were planning a pre-school marionette puppet series about a young boy of about Paul’s age, and there has been a persistent rumour that Andy Pandy was based on Audrey's son Paul. In any case, the Chartwell estates where Freda and Maria lived was only a couple of miles from Westerham, and we do know that Freda invited Audrey to come and visit her at home and also meet Maria. Freda and Maria asked Audrey if she would like to be a puppeteer on a new television project. Audrey said she was interested, and began training under the masterful eye of John Wright, founder of the Little Angel Theatre in Islington, north London. By June 1950, things were ready, and Audrey began work on the production, called “Andy Pandy”, named after its main character, a young striped-pajama-wearing boy. Transmission of four trial episodes started July 11, 1950. Based on a positive viewer reaction, production went into full swing, and the series soon became one of the mainstays of the ‘Watch with Mother’ afternoon programming slot. (Note: The ‘Watch with Mother’ name was coined in 1953.)
An interesting fact is that Andy Pandy was actually a solo performer to start with. He was only joined by his friends Teddy and Looby Loo after several episodes, when Molly Gibson joined the production as an additional puppeteer.
Although only 26 episodes of the original “Andy Pandy” were made, the use of film allowed the series to be repeated to many generations of children, until the films literally wore out in the late 1970s. Thirteen new colour episodes were made in 1970 at the famous Abbey Road studios. These films together with a more recent stop-motion and colour make-over in 2002, have helped to ensure that “Andy Pandy” is still known to children today, more than fifty years after the first episodes.
Freda Lingstrom and Maria Bird (through their company Westerham Films) continued to create ‘Watch with Mother’ puppet series throughout the early 1950s, and Audrey, together with Molly Gibson continued to be the puppeteers. Following the original “Andy Pandy”, Audrey and Molly worked on the even more successful “The Flowerpot Men”, and then came “The Woodentops”. Several other ‘Watch with Mother’ puppet series were made after this, but times were starting to change, and despite serious new efforts, none of the new series were as successful as the earliest ones. Things were changing in Audrey's personal life too. In about 1956, after separating from Rowley Atterbury, Audrey went to live in Highgate, London, close to fellow BBC puppeteer Molly Gibson, by then a good friend. By this time also, Audrey and Molly's ‘Watch with Mother’ puppetry stint was over, and they went on to “Rubovian Legends” and other Gordon Murray puppet plays (more on that below). Audrey also worked for London's Little Angel Theatre, by then one of Britain’s leading puppet theatres. (Note: As of January 2004, the Little Angel Theatre is still very much in existence. You can visit its website here).
In the 1960s puppets started to be replaced by animation and other more modern technologies. This led Audrey to leave the BBC to pursue her long standing interest in antiques, especially pottery and porcelain. She became a part time antiques dealer and full time collector, and remained so for the rest of her life. She was secretary of the Morley College Ceramic Circle for about 18 years and was involved in many other ceramic activities.
Audrey did not remarry, and lived in south London from about 1962 until she passed away in 1997.
According her obituary in The Times newspaper, Audrey was a woman of beauty and charm, self-effacing but elegant. What better way to remember one of the pioneers of children's television puppetry.
The “Rubovian Legends” Years
As one of the founding members of Gordon Murray’s “Rubovian Legends” puppetry team, Audrey brought life to the puppets in all 29 transmitted episodes, including the very first series of three plays that used Kim Allen's puppets.
Although Audrey’s “Rubovian Legends” work is technically her finest, she is better known for her previous puppetry work on three long-running children’s television series. These are “Andy Pandy” which was filmed 1950-52; “The Flowerpot Men” which was filmed 1952-54; and “The Woodentops” which started filming in early 1955 and continued through 1958, overlapping the original series of three “Rubovian Legends” plays. In all of these programmes Audrey worked alongside long-time collaborator and co-worker Molly Gibson. The puppeteer team that Gordon Murray assembled for the initial “Rubovian Legends” series of three plays was much larger than Audrey and Molly had been used to, and included Bob Bura, John Hardwick, Joan Garrick, and Elizabeth Thorndike. More than any other factor, the larger number of puppeteers was probably dictated by the requirements of live television transmission. However, after the original series of three Rubovian plays was completed, Molly did not work on Rubovia again, going on to other projects, as did Joan Garrick and Elizabeth Thorndike. This left Audrey to continue with Bob Bura and John Hardwick for the whole of the second series of 26 Rubovian episodes, most of which were filmed or performed under ‘close-to-live’ conditions for telerecording.
Compared to later productions, the puppetry in “Andy Pandy” and “The Flowerpot Men” was fairly simple, and even though Bill and Ben spoke ‘flobbadob’, a sort of nonsense language, the stories were mostly carried by narration. In “The Woodentops” and “Rubovian Legends”, on the other hand, there were as many as six puppets to control in any given shot, and the show was carried by the puppets own voices, with a minimal amount of narration.
One of the other puppeteers Audrey worked alongside on “The Woodentops” was Gordon Murray. The same age as Audrey, he had caught a rising star and within a year would become a BBC producer and also Audrey's boss. Audrey had started to really cut her teeth on “The Woodentops”, little suspecting that she’d soon need every bit of skill she could muster for 29 episodes of Gordon Murray’s very ambitious “Rubovian Legends” puppet plays. Audrey and Gordon obviously worked well together, because she continued to work on Gordon’s puppet productions until they both left the BBC in 1964.
Point of interest: Audrey’s son is Paul Atterbury of “Antiques Roadshow” fame, on whom the original Andy Pandy is said to have been modeled. Until 2003 he was also chairman of the Little Angel Theatre in Islington, north London.
Major sources of information: Audrey Atterbury's obituary in The Times, Wed 23 April 1997, page 23. The British Film Institute's screenonline website. Many details were kindly corroborated by Paul Atterbury.
Partial List of Puppetry Work
The Dancing Princess (1962) (TV puppet play, BBC, produced by Gordon Murray) ...puppeteer (alongside John Hardwick and Bob Bura)
The Magic Tree—A Persian Fantasy (1960) (TV puppet play, BBC, produced by Gordon Murray) ...puppeteer (alongside Bob Bura and John Hardwick)
The Crumpot Candles (1960) (TV puppet play, BBC, produced by Gordon Murray) ...puppet player (alongside John Hardwick, Bob Bura, Dorothy Gordon, James Beattie, Roy Skelton and Noel Coleman)
“The Magic Doll’s House” (1959) (TV series, ITV) ...puppeteer (alongside Molly Gibson)
The King of the Golden River (1959) (TV puppet play, BBC, produced by Gordon Murray) ...puppet player (alongside John Hardwick, Bob Bura, Violet Lamb, Roy Skelton, James Beattie and Noel Coleman)
The Petrified Princess (1959) (TV marionette operetta, BBC, produced by Gordon Murray) ...singer and puppet player (alongside Dorothy Durow, Trevor Anthony, Raimund Herinex, Howard Davies, Barbara Howitt, Roy Skelton, John Hardwick, Bob Bura and James Beattie)
The Winkleburg Armourer (1958) (TV puppet play, BBC, produced by Gordon Murray) ...puppet player (alongside Pamela Binns, Violet Lamb, Noel Coleman, Derek Nimmo, James Beattie, Roy Skelton, David Sutton, Peter Sutton)
Beauty and the Beast (1957) (TV puppet play, BBC, produced by Gordon Murray) ...puppeteer (alongside Molly Gibson)
The Emperor’s Nightingale (1957) (TV puppet play, BBC, produced by Gordon Murray) ...puppeteer (alongside Molly Gibson)
“Rubovian Legends” (1955) (TV series, BBC, 3 plays in 1st series, followed two years later by 26 further plays in a revised format using Gordon Murray’s own marionettes, 20 min, B&W, presented by BBC Puppet Theatre, B&W, marionette plays produced by Gordon Murray) ...puppeteer
“Toytown” (1956-57) (TV puppet series, BBC, 8+ episodes, produced by Gordon Murray) ...puppeteer (alongside Molly Gibson, Elizabeth Thorndike, Bob Bura and John Hardwick)
Portrait of the Mayor
The Great Toytown Mystery
Dreadful Doings in Ark Street
How the Wireless Came to Toytown
The Great Toytown War
The Enchanted Ark
The Tale of the Magician
The Arkville Dragon
The Bird of Truth (1956) (TV puppet play, BBC. Produced by Gordon Murray) ...puppeteer (alongside Molly Gibson, Elizabeth Thorndike, Bob Bura and John Hardwick)
“Jolly Jack Tars” (1955) (TV puppet series, regularly shown as part of 'Picture Book’ in the BBC’s 'Watch with Mother’ slot. Edited by Maria Bird. Produced by Freda Lingstrom) ...puppeteer (alongside Molly Gibson)
The Wonderful Horse (1955) (TV puppet play, BBC) ...puppeteer (alongside Molly Gibson, Joan Garrick, Elizabeth Donaldson, Elizabeth Thorndike and Gordon Murray)
Will O' The Gris (1955) (TV puppet play, BBC) ...puppeteer (alongside Molly Gibson, Gordon Murray, Woolf Goldberg and Joan Garrick)
“The Woodentops” (1955-58) (TV puppet series, 26x15m episodes, B&W film, shown in BBC’s ‘Watch With Mother’ slot. Created by Freda Lingstrom and Maria Bird. Scripts and music by Maria Bird) ...puppeteer (alongside Molly Gibson. Also alongside Gordon Murray in earlier episodes)
Boats and Pigs
Bird Set Free
Belling the Cow
“The Flowerpot Men” (1952-54) (TV puppet series, 26x15m episodes, B&W film, shown in BBC’s ‘Watch With Mother’ slot. Created by Freda Lingstrom and Maria Bird. Scripts and music by Maria Bird) ...puppeteer (alongside Molly Gibson)
Bath in Hat
Babies Grow Up
“Andy Pandy” (1950-52) (TV puppet series, 26x15m episodes, B&W film, shown in BBC’s ‘Watch With Mother’ slot. Created, written and music by Maria Bird. Produced by Freda Lingstrom) ...puppeteer (alongside Molly Gibson)
Wall and Tortoise
Horse and Fish
Bird and Butterfly
Kings and Queens
Jack in the Box
more information about many of the above programmes, please visit the Whirligig
1950s British Television Nostalgia website.