The Puppetmasters

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Christopher Somerville


By the age of six Yorkshire born Christopher Somerville had shown a twin interest in conjuring and puppetry and gifts of a paperback copy of "Everybody's Book of Magic" and a pot headed toy glove puppet of Mr. Punch augured the obsessions of the rest of his life. Throughout his schooldays he demonstrated an enduring fascination with theatricals in general, and magic and puppets in particular. He read voraciously on both subjects and had, by the age of twelve, become extremely knowledgeable. Ron and Kath Warriner He received passive encouragement both at home and in school, was befriended and inspired by amateur puppeteers Ron and Kath Warriner, but had really only dabbled until, by happy chance, his family moved to North Wales and he came in contact with master puppeteer Eric Bramall.

Each Summer The Eric Bramall Marionettes presented daily shows in a tented auditorium in a local park, shows at which Chris became a more than frequent visitor. After each show members of the audience could, for a small extra charge, visit backstage, see the works, be given a little talk and look round a small room of puppet exhibits. And it was these backstage visits which gave Chris his introduction to Eric, lead to the formation of an enduring friendship, and eventually a partnership which lasted more than forty years.

In 1958 Eric built the Harlequin Puppet Theatre which opened just as Chris completed the then compulsory two years military service. Eric's mother, who, up to then had assisted him on all his travels, was in deteriorating health. Chris was called in to assist and gradually took over all her duties. He had a natural flair for production and for stage lighting, but his manipulation ability came gradually, over many years, and was learned by watching the master - something he never tired of up to the day that Eric died.

Quite different in temperament to Eric, Chris's brashness was countered by Eric's sensitivity, whose flights of fantasy were moderated by the Somerville realism. They worked well together. The Harlequin went from strength to strength, and they piled new production on new production. They tackled Shakespeare and opera, they wrote books and theatre scripts, they performed in cabaret and on television. It was usually Chris who supplied the practical ideas, but always secure in the knowledge that be was building on Eric's proven artistry.

Eric was always generous in his praise, and it was obvious to anyone who knew them that he thought the world of Chris. He was never critical, and put up with a very arrogant and precocious youngster because he recognised the ability beneath. The relationship was tempestuous in the early days but matured over the years to a partnership of great mutual affection and almost telepathic rapport in performance.

In the early years Eric was in no position to employ Chris for other than the Summer season and made it clear that he must fend for himself for the rest of the year. This meant that Chris had to develop his own act and this he did as Tony Dexter. He chose to adopt a stage name so that his solo efforts might not reflect badly on his joint efforts with Eric.

At the time there was a thriving Club scene in the North of England, and it was in the northern clubs that he started his solo professional career, with almost immediate success. Chris had, throughout the years, maintained his interest in magic, although puppetry had always been his career aim. Now he found that magic for birthday parties was a handy skill to advertise and something which could be sandwiched between cabaret engagements.

The 1960's and 1970's were halcyon days. As television increased in popularity the work in the clubs gradually faded, but Chris and Eric were discovered by television and the amount of television work seemed, at the time, inexhaustible. Working for both the BBC and the ITV network, the pair came up with themes, wrote scripts and constructed puppets, props and scenery galore. Spanning a period of twenty-five years they featured in over a thousand programmes. Chris wrote the scripts for several hundred of these, and was responsible for much of the technical planning for most of the others.

In 1976 Chris was booked for cabaret for three months cruising on the Mediterranean on a Greek cruise ship, Daphne, chartered for American professional groups. This was a great success and lead to offers of further similar work. Chris and Eric who, up to then had separate Cabaret Acts, came up with a joint presentation geared for an international audience and capable of being presented under the difficult conditions aboard ship. During the next few years they spent a couple of months of every year seeing the world and being paid for it.

In between the television, the Summer seasons at the Harlequin, and the cruising Chris was still finding time to work for children with his magic, and performing the traditional Punch and Judy show. He claimed that this intimate contact with children was valuable in that it kept him in touch with what made them laugh. Writing for, and performing on, television, is lucrative and enjoyable, but remote from the audience. In later years, when the television and cruise ship boom became but a happy memory, the magic and Punch and Judy assumed a greater importance and Chris, as Mr Bimbamboozle, has become North Wales best loved children's entertainer. But it is as a marionette manipulator that he is uniquely talented, and it is the marionette theatre that remains his first love.

Since the death of Eric Bramall in 1996 Chris has kept the Harlequin running, has maintained the standard of the shows, and incredibly has done this on his own. Talented puppet manipulators are hard to find, and in order to keep his options open Chris decided to see if he couldn't build up a repertoire of one man shows which would allow him to keep the theatre going without becoming dependent on finding seasonal help. Obviously a one man show has limitations, but you wouldn't think so watching a performance at the Harlequin these days.

If the right person comes along Chris will happily train a successor. Both he, and Eric, through the years, have tried to pass on their skills. For many years they ran a summer season school of puppetry, and have arranged tuition courses and master classes for several, now professional, puppeteers. The marionette is technically the most complicated to construct and most difficult to manipulate and good operators are rare. This is probably because the marionette is the puppet least in demand for use on television: TV directors do not like strings which intrude on the small screen. And since up and coming puppeteers hope to make their fortunes, and as television is seen to offer the most lucrative opportunities, they are not prepared to put in the long hours of practise necessary to acquire this specialist skill. I dare say that fewer musicians would bother to learn to play the violin if it became an instrument shunned by the main orchestras.

Trophy Nevertheless the traditional British marionette will probably survive, nurtured in the hands of a few devotees until the next revival. Chris's aim is to do all he can to preserve and foster the performing skills which, unlike constructional techniques,cannot easily be recorded or rediscovered. To this end, in addition to tutoring anyone who wants to learn, Chris presented a magnificent trophy into the custodianship of The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild to be awarded biannually for marionette presentation excellence. This award also commemorates Chris's mentor, probably Britain's greatest marionette manipulator to date, and is known as The Eric Bramall Harlequin. The award is not limited to Guild members but open to any puppeteer working mainly in Britain.

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