Puppet Theatre, by Gordon Murray, THE PUPPET MASTER, June 1956
Whether we like it or not Television is today the main shop window for the puppet theatre.
Puppets appear every day of the week, and often twice a day, mostly in the form of children’s entertainment—until
one begins to wonder whether saturation point has been reached. Besides performances by many outside groups,
the B.B.C. has its own Television Puppet Theatre, about which not enough is known, and I have invited its director
to tell us about it. Its next production will be on July 12, and after this it is anticipated that productions will
be monthly, —Ed.
For two "Toytown" plays it was decided that rod puppets with articulated mouths would be better than marionettes, the
more direct control of the limbs being particularly necessary for the block-like Hulme Beaman characters. For lightness
I constructed these puppets mainly out of cardboard.
Puppets In A Hot Tin Shed
ROGER WATKINS discovers some unusual things happening at Lime Grove
Tucked away under the network of offices and studios at Lime Grove, is BBC-TV's most unusual unit. It's run by two people, Gordon Murray who is the head of the department and his assistant Andrew Brownfoot. What does the department do? Produce a puppet play for Children's Television every six weeks.
Housed comfortably in "The Tin Shed"—the name that Murray has kept alive for his studio (cum - workshop - cum - foundry - cum everything else it can be) to ward off enquiring noses that might want to upset his anti-traditional methods of working—Murray works all day unmolested.
"I've broken every rule the BBC has ever made," he says, "most of the things I do are highly illegal—like buying a sewing machine on the petty cash, for instance. You just mustn't run up huge bills on the petty cash like I do."
But, no doubt, BBC-TV officialdom turns a blind eye to Murray and his activities on account that his productions are selling abroad as well as proving popular here, in Britain.
"We've been at it for about four years now," says Murray gleefully taking small heads out of a large box. "Before we came, puppets were run by the typical Women's Institute type. I felt there was more effort needed.
"I hire a lot of actors to manipulate the puppets. It's quite important to use actors, you know, and strangely enough it's only the good actors who stick through the course they have to go through. The others who are only in the profession for the limelight soon pack up."
He stops playing with a fearsome-looking dragon's head-string and says: "We make all our puppets here. I'm a sculptor and I make the first model in clay, then cast it. When that's done I pour in rubber and you have a rough model.
From there on Andrew Brownfoot takes over. He dresses the puppets ("I like period plays because it's more interesting designing the sets and costumes") and his wife puts the finishing touches with the make-up and hair do's.
Brownfoot is Murray's chief, and only, designer. Staring at a miniature, but perfect model of a castle room which is used once-every-twelve-weeks' series about a mythical town called Rubovia, he says: "We do all our own designing here. We make the sets too. Musn't do that really because BBC has a huge scenic department which employs hundreds of people to do that sort of thing.
"We can't hire costumes either, so we have to make our own. Do you know I use hundreds of yards of knicker elastic? I buy it at a drapers shop at the top of the road. Only the best stuff for us."
At first glance, and even second come to that, you wouldn't think Murray or Brownfoot had a care in the world. But there are problems. The main one is production of the puppets.
Murray explains: "Apart from the Rubovia series we have to make new puppets for each play. Then, because we aren't like to use that character again, we store him (in an outsize wardrobe). It really isn't worth dressing them again. But we keep them so that we can use them some other time."
As far as the story writing goes (yes, they do that too), they don't seem to have much worry. "We write for us. We are the biggest kids you can get." Murray adds: "I don't like the academic approach although we have to use it in some ways. I don't like this: This is for the 5 to 11's, this is for the 12 to 14's. I write for the older children really but I think if the material is interesting enough the younger ones will watch—parents too."
The way Murray and Brownfoot get their productions on the screen works like this. Murray gets the idea of what he's going to do. He tells Brownfoot about it who starts making rough designs of the costumes and scenery. When the puppets are moulded and dressed, and Murray has completed the script, rehearsals take place—in his tin shed.
The voices are put on tape and the puppet operators rehearse to the voices. "Saves them from thinking about lines when they are operating," chortles Murray. Then the whole show is taped, edited slightly, and is ready for screening.
Murray produces an electrical contraption from a littered cupboard. "Don't get this on the petty cash," he says. "It's mine. Cost me a small fortune buying stuff that I can't get on expenses". Murray runs a strip of film through the gadget and shows how he adds depth to some of his scenes.
He and Brownfoot invented a frame to hold moving glass slides (the motion is provided by yet another length of knicker elastic) with landscapes painted on them. When filmed they give a three-dimensional effect. "Now I'm encroaching on the film department," he says, "but we don't worry. We have broad backs,"—but the Tin Shed is big enough to take them—well, JUST!
Come to the Puppet
Deep inside the maze of catwalks, corridors, boiler rooms, scene dumps, wardrobes, and make-up parlours at the Lime Grove television studios, up a fretted-iron stairway and across a sort of ship's gangway, you come to the "Tin Shed." Except for the corrugated roof, it's no more like a tin shed than a bubble-gum factory. But everyone calls it that—even Gordon Murray himself, though it is in fact his treasured BBC Puppet Theatre.
Shed? Inside you find it's as big as a fair-sized gym. You make other discoveries, too. Doorways have shrunk to waist-height. You try peeping through a dwarf window that would make the Cheshire Cat squint. As for the tables and chairs, they'd cause acute cramp at a Chimps' Tea Party.
"Everything is scaled down to about a third," says Gordon Murray. "Shall I take your coat?"
So this is the Kingdom of Rubovia. Fresh-faced from their cupboards come the King and Queen and Mr. Weatherspoon. Gordon Murray introduces the Lord Chamberlain as well. Then the pair of them climb the bridge over the stage and you are shown how, with a few cunning tugs on those [ten] nylon strings, His Lordship will do all you'd expect of one in his position. Everything in the Tin Shed exists for this precious central stage on its 4-ft. platform.
The theatre is used exclusively for puppet plays—those specially written for puppets—except occasionally a well-established story like The King of the Golden River, which lends itself to puppet treatment.
‘The acid test,’ says Gordon Murray, ‘is whether the play could be done better by humans. Who could say that of Rubovia? Puppet plays must have exceptionally strong plots.’ He adds: ‘They must also be very fast-moving.’
This, he feels, is where the big advantage of filming comes in. ‘With the film camera we can take lots of quick shots from different angles. It makes for liveliness. You can watch out for this on Tuesday in The Wonky Wand, another of the Rubovia plays, this time mainly about Mr. Weatherspoon.
As with all the puppet plays, Gordon Murray wrote it himself. Writer, producer, director, he is also the cameraman, flitting to and fro like a one-man gun team with his tripod and 16-mm. cine-camera fitted with a zoom lens.
The theatre is also the workshop, but not a junk-shop. Everything is there for a purpose—wood, glue, wire, rubber for heads, plastics, moulds, paints and a sewing machine (full-sized) for costume. Scenery and 'props'—everything from Rubovia Castle and snowy mountains to four-poster beds and manorial fire-places—are made to Andrew Brownfoot's designs in expanded polystyrene, a kind of plastic so airy and light that a puppet's cough would blow it up the chimney.
The Age of the Puppet
The King of Rubovia had a bee on his nose. He waggled his head distressfully in a rain effort: to get it to go away; he called for the gardener with his spray. The gardener took aim. His Majesty screwed up his eyes in agonised anticipation, when—"Stop!" commanded the Queen of Rubovia, his formidable spouse. It was no ordinary bee that was guilty of such lèse-majesté—it was a queen-bee. Which of course, as her Majesty pointed out, made all the difference.
To find out what that difference actually was, I shall have to contain my soul in patience until the summer, when "Bees and Bellows," the production in preparation at the new BBC Puppet Theatre, reaches our television screens. I had gone along to the theatre to glean the latest news of the Kingdom of Rubovia, that disenchanted and entirely enchanting Fairyland, and found the director, Gordon Murray, and his helpers working on the bee episode. Surely, no Comet or Constellation coming in to land ever called for a nicer judgment than that involved in getting a bee on a nylon thread down in a perfect three-point landing on a royal puppet's nose. The manoeuvre—though actually done in reverse for greater ease, the film later to be run off backward—was rehearsed again and again, and I began to understand why it takes a total of six days filming to put together a twenty minute puppet show.
While puppets can boast an ancestry that goes back to the dawn of history, ours, thanks to television, is certainly of all others the Age of the Puppet. One day, it may be, some enterprising sociologist will publish a study of the effects on our children of hours spent in watching the Flowerpot Men, the Andy Pandys, and the Pussycat Willums of our TV civilisation. In the meantime, Gordon Murray, taking time out from the queen bee and the king's nose, was refreshingly undogmatic—for the very good reason, it soon became apparent, that he was one of those rare people who make no distinction between children and any other variety of humankind. Of. medium height, with light-brown eyes, and an inbuilt, faint air of amused surprise, he has known almost as long as he can remember that he was to be a puppetmaster. Any temporary diversion from that goal—as journalist, actor, officer in the Royal Signals—was occasioned only by the exigencies of war or the necessity to eat.
Today he presides over the latest completed unit at the Television Centre—a small but lofty studio where odds and ends of scenery and bundles of plastic towers in polythene bags hang from the ceiling like bunches of dried herbs in a country kitchen; where, on shelves ranged high round the walls, miniature thrones keep company with scaled down Norman keeps and pint-size bow-windowed shop fronts; where in a long corridor of a cupboard, a whole population of puppets waits to strut and fret its hour upon the stage—that stage blazing with light and colour, centre of this minuscule universe, with a bridge high above, like the heaven of a medieval morality, where three puppeteers, so many fates controlling mortal destinies, look down in absorbed affection, hands gently but inexorably on the leading strings.
Gordon Murray writes his own puppet plays, produces them, makes the puppets, all but their clothes, and acts as his own cameraman and film editor. An assistant, the puppeteers, and a lighting technician complete the production team. No actors are present—the dialogue is prerecorded on tape.
"The important thing," said Gordon Murray, "is to respect your audience. Most of the time people either talk down to children, which they hate—quite rightly, it's so insulting—or else they try to impose a pattern on them which simply doesn't fit. Parents, I think, are most to blame . . ." he spoke with the humility proper to a father of two weeks' standing; he and his wife, ballet dancer Enid Martin, have just had their first child. "Sometimes, I think, once we're grown up we all suffer from a kind of amnesia about what our childhood was really like, and subconsciously invent a rather gruesome Never-Land to fill the gap. We believe in it, but it doesn't fool the children for a moment."
It is a fair assumption that Gordon Murray at least has suffered no such loss of memory. His puppet plays have hit the juvenile fancy, not only in the British Isles but in many other countries; they are a profitable BBC export. Rubovia, it would seem, makes sense to children in any language; though it is worth noting that, in the plays themselves, child puppets hardly ever put in an appearance. The young and vulnerable are personified as animals, such as the lovable, sad-eyed Pongo, the queen's baby dragon.
On the tiny stage the puppets are ready to resume. His Majesty taps a plump little foot impatiently—and, the mind by now convinced of their independent existence, the eye does not fly immediately to the puppeteer on the bridge. The producer's assistant switches on the tape-recorder. The producer walks over to the king and orders: "Open your mouth!" "Oooh!" exclaims his Majesty, mouth obediently agape, and action is again suspended for the moment, while the team itself dissolves in laughter.
But only momentarily. Then back to the delicate, demanding work of direction and manipulation, rehearsal, and filming. Outside the narrow blue door the television centre goes about the preposterously serious business. Outside the television centre, the air throbs to the beat of an industrial metropolis; traffic roaring past, people running for the bus or hurrying to the Tube—so that one cannot escape wondering, even as one hurries along with them, on which side of the door are the puppets.
A Peep at Rubovia
I have been intrigued for some time by the quaint people who inhabit the fairy tale kingdom of Rubovia, and I wanted to find out more about them. So I went to the puppet studios at the B.B.C. Television Centre and looked in on the filming of a new Rubovian puppet play [Bees and Bellows].
Each play lasts about half an hour, but it takes anything from 6 weeks to 3 months to complete. First the story has to be written and this is done by Mr. Gordon Murray, who also makes the puppets. The designer [Andrew Brownfoot] paints the faces, creates the costumes and dresses the puppets. Next the various stage sets are made. These are very tricky as they have to be scaled down to size, leaving plenty of room for the strings of the puppets to work. Actors are hired for the voice parts, and when fully rehearsed the play is recorded on tape. Then comes about six days of filming. The puppeteers, there are three of them [Audrey Atterbury, John Hardwick and Bob Bura] , bring the puppets to life to synchronize with the taped voices, while Mr. Murray directs the proceedings and films the play.
But there is more yet; the films are processed, and sent away to the film editor who cuts and throws away the bad 'takes' and matches the pictures to the sound (taped voices). Then background music and special effects, such as moans and groans, creaks, doors banging and explosions are added. Next the picture, the sound, the music and the special effects are mixed together and synchronized to produce a B.B.C. puppet play affording us another peep at the characters of Rubovia.
COLOUR CAMERA VISITS...
PUPPET-MAKING is probably one of the oldest arts in the world. The earliest puppets were used in the shadow-shows of ancient China. The figures were carefully made of fish skin, jointed and then mounted on sticks. They were moved behind a screen so that only the shadows of their lifelike movements could be, seen.
Over the centuries two types of traditional puppets developed—hand puppets, like Sooty and Sweep, and complete dolls operated by strings. Hand puppets usually have plastic or papier mâché heads and arms attached to a costume which fits over the operator's hand. He uses his fingers to move the head and arms. The art of making and handling the string puppets is much more difficult. They are made mainly for use with miniature theatres and it is essential that their appearance and movements should be as realistic as possible.
For centuries the Italians have been the masters of making string puppets—an art, which
The use of practically invisible nylon for strings makes the modern puppets look more alive than ever. Yet, oddly enough, two hand puppets which have remained unchanged for centuries are still top of the puppet popularity list—Punch and Judy.
One of the best equipped puppet theatres in the world is at the BBC Television Centre in London, where the "Rubovia" films are made for children's television.
Practically everything is in miniature, about one-third full size. Tables, chairs, pianos, trees, doors and windows are all constructed on the spot. They are made of a featherweight plastic which, when treated, looks like wood, brick, stone, or plaster.
The puppets are marionettes, operated from a steel "bridge" and controlled by nylon strings about eight feet long
No Human Actors Allowed
In a small studio at Television Centre is a very special film camera. It looks like an ordinary camera and it sounds like an ordinary camera, but it has one feature which makes it unique. Although many thousands of feet of feature film have passed through its gates, no human image has ever been recorded.
Only puppets. Flesh-and-blood actors are not required.
Not that we have anything against flesh-and-blood actors, mark you, for we still need them as 'voices'... But that's all.
At one time we tried using the actors who spoke the lines for pulling the strings, but it was a failure; the actors were jealous. They couldn't bear the limelight falling on the puppets and not themselves.
So now we use particularly sympathetic members of the human race, known as puppeteers, to animate the figures. Only they can understand the stresses and strains experienced by a puppet when playing a large and demanding part. Only they can fully appreciate the fact that their actor has crossed from the door to the table without tripping on the carpet or fluffing his lip movement. Only they can experience the feeling of supreme achievement when a puppet teapot successfully pours out a puppet cup of tea—even if it is the tenth take.
So next time you happen to see the King of Rubovia playing chess, or Mr. Weatherspoon operating a particularly complicated machine of his own invention, please spare a thought for the puppeteers. Perched high above on the bridge, with only a bird's-eye view of their charges, they are particularly vulnerable to the heat of the lamps and the nattering of an over-demanding producer.
On more than one occasion a difficult piece of action has included drops of perspiration descending on to the puppets' heads from above. Faithfully recorded on our no-human camera, they have always been retained in the final showprint for the viewers to see.
Just a reminder that the puppets are not alone.
Television Puppet Theatre:
Actors on Strings
IN A SMALL STUDIO at the BBC Television Centre in London is a very special film camera. It looks like an ordinary camera and it sounds like an ordinary camera, but it has one feature which makes it unique. Although many thousands of feet of feature film have passed through it, no human image has ever been recorded. For this is the home of the BBC Television Puppet Theatre.
The guiding light behind this enterprise is Gordon Murray who has a hand in practically every stage of the productions. In addition to designing and making the puppets he writes the scripts, does all the camera work, produces and directs. Nowadays productions are entirely pre-filmed as transmitting 'live' shows proved to be a hazardous undertaking and wearing on all concerned. Says Gordon Murray 'At one time we tried using the actors who spoke the lines for pulling the strings, but it was a failure; the actors were jealous. They could not bear the limelight falling on the puppets and not on themselves.
So now we use particularly sympathetic members of the human race known as 'puppeteers' to animate the figures. Only they can understand the stresses and strains experienced by a puppet when playing a large and demanding part. Only they can understand the stresses and strains experienced by a puppet when playing a large and demanding part. Only they can fully appreciate the fact that their actor has crossed from the door to the table without tripping on the carpet or fluffing his lip movement. Only they can experience the feeling of supreme achievement when the puppet teapot successfully pours out a puppet cup of tea—even if it is the tenth take.
Actors on strings
So should you happen to see the King of Rubovia playing chess, or Mr. Weatherspoon operating a particularly complicated machine of his own invention please spare a thought for the puppeteers. Perched high on the bridge, with only a bird's-eye view of their charges, they are particularly vulnerable to the heat of the lamps and the admonishments of an over-demanding producer. On more than one occasion a difficult piece of action has included drops of perspiration descending on to the puppets' heads from above. Faithfully recorded on our camera, they have always been retained in the final showprint for the viewers to see—as a reminder that the puppets are not alone.
BBC puppet plays have been enjoyed by viewers in Australia, Eire, Malta, New Zealand, Rhodesia, Singapore and Sweden. Distributed by BBC Television Enterprises, they are available not only in the English version, but also with an 'international sound track' upon which dialogue in other languages from scripts supplied by the BBC can be superimposed. Up to now puppet dramas have been almost entirely those appealing to children of different age-groups, since the medium is ideally suited to the fairy tale, the legend, and other stylised stories, but the possibility of adult entertainment, even of a serious nature, cannot be excluded for the future.
Worthington's Rubovia article
Thanks to what were, in effect, the world's first 'docusoaps', there are millions of people who know everything that there is to know about the inhabitants and surroundings of Trumpton, Chigley and Camberwick Green. However, even the most noted historians have failed to uncover any significant information about the region in the pre-Camberwick era, and the historical origins of Trumptonshire remain shrouded in mystery. Billions of years before the intrepid Trumpton fire brigade traversed hill and highway in search of anything resembling a fire, was the green and pleasant land stalked by distinctive mouthless dinosaurs? Did battles over land rage between roaming marauders and the loyal knights of Sir Elfric of Chigley, armed with a ferocious battlecry that sounded more like a lone acoustic guitar? Nobody knows for certain. However, a small amount of documentation exists which sheds the tiniest glimpse of light on one of the cloudiest eras of regional history. Back in medieval times, when Farmer Bell's modern mechanical farm was the stuff of madmen's dreams, Trumptonshire wasn't actually known as Trumptonshire at all. The landscape that would later come to house clock towers and barrel organs was instead dominated by a vast stone castle, home to Rufus and Caroline, the King and Queen of... RUBOVIA!
"Rubovia", in case you weren't really paying attention to the preceding paragraph, was a magical medieval kingdom presided over by King Rufus and Queen Caroline. The Royal couple were spared the usual bloodthirsty attempts at regicide that tended to haunt monarchs in the middle ages, but instead they had to deal with a more persistent and inconvenient problem; namely the liking of the more eccentric members of their court for dabbling in conjuring tricks, which inevitably produced hilariously disastrous results. The main instigator of the ill-fated attempts at magic was Mr. Weatherspoon, Rubovia's equivalent of King Arthur's wizard Merlin. Aiding and abetting him in his bumbling magic misadventures were Pongo, Caroline's pampered pet dragon, and the beleaguered Lord Chamberlain. Meanwhile, Rufus himself was usually up to no good too, more often than not in the company of his neighbouring associate King Boris.
Created by Gordon Murray, "Rubovia" began as a black and white children's puppet series for the BBC in the late 1950s. Working with puppeteers Bob Bura and John Hardwick, and designers Andrew and Margaret Brownfoot, Murray wrote and directed at least twenty episodes of the series between about 1958 and 1960. "Rubovia" was made in a very different style to the series for which Murray is now better known, involving large, string-operated puppets with caricatured features. Among those lending their vocal talents to the series were Roy Skelton, later to become the voice of Zippy in Thames TV's "Rainbow", and radio comedy panel game supremo Derek Nimmo. The episodes were repeated throughout the early 1960s, almost right up until the moment when Gordon Murray unleashed the first glimpse of 'Trumptonshire' on an unsuspecting nation...
In 1976, with the Trumptonshire trilogy completed, Gordon Murray remade "Rubovia" in the familiar style of his three classic series; stop motion animation, distinctive mouthless puppets, and the fidgety acoustic guitar of Freddie Phillips. The one significant ingredient missing was narrator Brian Cant, who by then was weighed down with the demands of having to sing 'The Ladies Of The Harem Of The Court Of King Caractacus' every week on "Play Away". Instead Roy Skelton returned to handle all of the character voices, while Murray himself handled the actual narration. The familiar characters were all resurrected, alongside some who may not have been in the original version, including the ZZ Top-bearded Farmer Bottle and a very wise owl. In total, six episodes were made of the colour "Rubovia", which were shown in the BBC's lunchtime 'Watch With Mother' slot in 1976, and then given a couple of repeat runs during the late 1970s. However, "Rubovia" was not to prove to be as enduringly popular as its more modern counterparts, and once the repeats finished it simply disappeared from the public consciousness.
There were actually a couple of items of "Rubovia" merchandise released at the time of the colour series' initial broadcast. Arrow Games produced the board game "Rubovia Race Round The Castle", while the similarly named Spears Games released a couple of jigsaws featuring original photographs from the series. There was also a "Rubovia" comic strip in 'Pippin', a largely television-related comic aimed at young children. Whether there was any more merchandise produced is anybody's guess, but as the 1970s was something of a golden age for the mass-produced spin-off, it is probably safe to assume that there might be a bottle or two of Pongo The Dragon Colour-Changing Bubble Bath out there somewhere.
Strangely, there has also been another, more recent item of "Rubovia" merchandise. Late in 1997, the BBC released a CD entitled "Hello Children Everywhere", which gathered together the theme tunes from many of their most popular children's series. Needless to say, "Trumpton", "Chigley" and "Camberwick Green" were all on board - and, despite its absence from our screens for over twenty years, so was "Rubovia". The CD segued three different tracks from Freddie Phillips' score for the colour version (not the black and white one!), which is generally more relaxed and intricate than his work for the 'Trumptonshire' trilogy, and at times is bizarrely reminiscent of John Williams' "The Deer Hunter" theme 'Cavatina'! Quite how this selection ended up on an album which otherwise celebrated the most widely-known examples of BBC childhood nostalgia imaginable is something of a mystery, but all the same it was welcome as a reminder of - and as evidence of the existence of - "Rubovia".
Nowadays, "Rubovia" sits gathering dust on a rarely-consulted shelf in the memories of those who saw it - rather like the actual film prints of the series, in fact. The BBC have confirmed that they (and presumably Gordon Murray) still retain copies of all of the episodes of the colour version, and, judging from the appearance of a clip in a 1993 edition of "Telly Addicts", there is at least one edition of the black and white original in existence too. However, these are still languishing in some dark corner of the Film and Videotape Library, waiting for the day when they will once more be pressed into service. In this age of cable television and video, it's surprising that "Rubovia" hasn't resurfaced yet, especially considering that its status as the 'forgotten Trumptonshire series' would be a powerful tool for attracting publicity (not to mention the fact that the entire colour series would fit comfortably on one tape!). Like punk rock, "Rubovia" arrived in a riot of colour in 1976, and fizzled out by 1979. Unlike punk rock, however, "Rubovia" has not been honoured with fawning anniversary celebrations at every turn, and it's about time that the balance was redressed. Channel 4 seem to have done theme nights based around everything else imaginable, so why not a Gordon Murray night incorporating a 'marathon' screening of all six episodes of the colour "Rubovia"? We can but dream...