top of page
Penny Francis M.B.E.

Penelope Ann Elsdon-Smith was born on April 17th 1931, and was educated privately at the Hilltop School in Calcutta India.

She was an only child, and was later sent to the UK to complete her education at Cheltenham Ladies College. Her favourite subjects were athletics and dancing. It is said that even at that early age she was extremely good at performing. On leaving school at the age of 18 she started a degree in Spanish and French at Kings College London, but cut short her studies to become an actor. It was in 1954 whilst working at the Oxford Playhouse, she met her then future husband Derek Francis (1923-1984).


They married in 1954 and set up home in South West London. A home described by Derek Parry, a family friend and celebrant at her funeral, as an extension of the West End – replete with its own puppet theatre, and an ever-revolving cast of actor friends. The late Ronnie Barker was best man at Penny and Derek’s wedding. Sadly, Penny was widowed in 1984 when she was only 53. The couple did have 2 children, Tessa and Julia. Sadly Julia died in 2008 leaving a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Puppeteer Ronnie Le Drew and President of the British Puppet Guild, was a long term friend of the family and recalls: “I first met Penny in the early 1960’s when I was taken to Penny and Derek’s home which was in Putney at that time. I saw a wonderful production of the Christmas story performed by Penny and Derek for their two daughters Tessa and Julia. Penny was a renowned actress and Derek was a brilliant character actor, not only on stage but in television and film. He was also an amazing puppet maker and designer.” Seeing this performance was the start of a long friendship for Ronnie and the Francis family.

Penny and ronnie.jpg
Derek and Penny.jpg

British writer, editor, lecturer, activist and advocate for puppetry, Penny Francis volunteered her services to the puppet organizations in 1970 to assist in the establishment of a national centre; she discovered a talent for advocacy and went on to be one of the founders of the Puppet Centre Trust in 1974, a high-profile and effective organization dedicated to the promotion and practice of puppetry in all its forms. She was the Puppet Centre’s fundraiser (attracting subsidy from a number of sources), first salaried administrator and later honorary general secretary. She organized two international festivals in theatres throughout London in 1979 and 1984.

Penny edited the Centre’s magazine Animations from 1976 to 1992, and travelled widely to research and report on contemporary developments of the art form, communicating through Animations and in other national and international publications. She was a UNIMA Member of Honour (2012), and former councillor (1992 -2008) and Executive Committee member (1996-2004) of UNIMA with a mission to promote new British work abroad. She has been the collaborating editor of works by Henryk Jurkowski: Aspects of Puppet Theatre (1988) and A History of European Puppetry volumes I and II  (1996 and 1998), and editor of UNIMA publications such as The Newsletter of UNIMA (1996-2004), The Rise of the Puppeteer for British UNIMA (1997), and The Worldwide Art of Puppetry (2000).

th (1).jpg

Penny has published many essays and research studies in Animations (since 1976) and in Animations Online (since 2002). In December 2011 her book on the practice of puppetry in contemporary theatre, Puppetry: A Reader in Theatre Practice (Palgrave Macmillan), was published. In 1992 she was appointed Puppetry Tutor at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, where she co-designed the puppetry programmes at BA and MA level, the first of their kind in Britain. In 1998, she was awarded the MBE for “services to puppetry” and, in 2008, became an Honorary Fellow of the Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London.

Penny has many friends in the puppet community and will be sadly missed.

bottom of page