“PULL A FEW STRINGS AND GET YOURSELF A TELEVISION SERIES.” With those few words comedian Dick Bentley (he was famous once!) opened the British Puppet Guild’s annual exhibition in 1960 at Shoreditch Town Hall and Peter was there, making his debut as a professional puppeteer, although he didn’t do much puppetry that week, more stage management. His big moment was assisting John Carr (Jacquard Puppets) with his glove puppets “St George and the Dragon”. Peter first took an interest in puppetry when he was about 13 and had acquired a Pelham Puppet (he thinks it was the clown that balanced a stick and a ball).
His uncle built him a theatre and Peter devised a show which could fairly be described as rubbish. He made a cowboy puppet who came on and sang. He didn’t know any cowboy songs so he sang “When I’m cleaning windows”. Fast forward to September 1960. It was not long after his National Service (note for younger readers, he was required to serve two years in the armed forces), and he was just coming to the end of his first repertory season at the Palace Pier Theatre in Brighton. Walking down the pier one night he bumped into a man he’d known in the army.
He was working as an assistant to John Dudley (The Dudley Marionettes) and when Peter told him he was just about to be out of work he said there was a puppet company in Broadstairs looking for a stage manager with puppetry experience. Peter lied about the puppetry and landed a job with Uma Marionettes, headed by Murray Clarke, a marionettist and rogue. Peter stayed with him for the best part of a year in Broadstairs, London and also on a tour of Malta and Libya. It was a bumpy time and getting paid was often a problem, but he did get to see some foreign parts.
He did get to meet some lovely people, first and foremost the Shutt family who became close friends especially Judith who remained one of his best friends until MS ended her life far too early. The Shutts helped Peter learn something about marionettes which in turn helped him get a job as an actor/puppeteer with Bernard Lewis’ Lilliput Marionette Theatre. Peter stayed with Bernard for a couple of years, again sometimes a bit bumpy but on the whole, good fun.
The rest can’t easily be crammed into 500 words but includes great times at Guild Festivals, gigs with John Phillip’s Theatre Grotesque working the wonderful Tiller-Clowes Marionettes and sharing the bridge with George Speaight. And Violet Philpott’s Hiss and Boo, his own, Mr Peter’s Puppets with St George and the Dragon and The Siege of Troy, described by ‘The Times’ critic as “the best show in the whole bloody Dome” when they played it at the Millennium Dome, and his Christian company “Puppets and Praises” and managing to combine puppetry and his day job by producing three series of “The Little Green Planet Show” for BBC TV.
Now Peter has passed his 80th year and his van failed to pass its MOT he thinks it’s time for the puppets to go to bed and for him to go back to where he started. Well, acting is a lot easier than puppetry, though learning the lines can be a challenge. Peter joined the Guild during that week at Shoreditch Townhall, although shortage of funds caused him to leave for a while.
Peter has thoroughly enjoyed his years of Guild membership and treasure the many friends he has made through it. Thank you Guild!