Chris’s interest in puppetry and magic began at a young age, but it was when his family moved to North Wales and he met puppeteer Eric Bramall that he began to consider it as a career. Bramall was regularly performing his show at a temporary theatre created in the bandstand at Erias Park in Colwyn Bay. After each show members of the audience could, for a small extra charge, visit backstage, and be given a talk and look round a small room of puppet exhibits. It was those backstage visits that gave Chris his introduction to Eric and what led to the formation of an enduring friendship, and eventually a puppetry partnership that lasted more than forty years.
In 1958, Eric built the Harlequin Puppet Theatre on Cayley Promenade in Rhos on Sea near Colwyn Bay, the first purpose-built puppet theatre in Britain. Chris was a puppeteer at the Harlequin from its opening. It ran throughout its 65 years without any form of grant or subsidy, always funded entirely by box office receipts. The Harlequin quickly found an audience and was a success from the start. As Chris himself would say, novelty was the initial attraction, but the quality of the shows ensured that young and old returned again and again.
From its conception in 1958 till Chris’s final show in October 2022 the Harlequin Puppet Theatre showcased over fifty-five different performances, from plays to operas and ballet. However, Chris’s puppetry was not limited to the theatre, and he created his own marionette and magic cabaret show which he took on tour mainly in the Northwest. In order to ensure his performances were not associated with his work at the Harlequin, he took on the stage name of ‘Tony Dexter’. TV beckoned and between him and Bramall they worked on nineteen different TV series for BBC Wales and Yorkshire TV between 1960 and 1984.
In their heyday in the mid 1960’s they organised the world’s first International Puppet Festival, closely followed by a second festival two years later. When Eric Bramall died in 1996 Chris was determined to keep the Harlequin Puppet Theatre going. Undeterred, he adapted some of the Harlequin’s repertoire for one puppeteer. Outside of the theatre he had a busy career as a children’s entertainer performing Punch & Judy and magic as Mr BimBamBoozle. Chris was very good to the Guild, creating its first website, hosting the 2008 AGM and several other events and workshops.
In 2015 he also performed along with our Archivist Michael Dixon, resurrecting the historical Lanchester Marionettes. Few who were there will ever forget the Guild’s 90th birthday party in 2015 which included performances of Peter and the Wolf, Ballet Mouchoir, George and the Dragon and a full marionette cabaret. Chris Somerville was strong willed, determined and fiercely independent. His instinct for performance, his timing, his musical ear and his wicked sense of humour all combined to allow those who saw him perform witness one of the greatest British Puppeteers that has ever lived.