A Personal Tribute to the late Eric Bramall, who built the Harlequin, by the current director.
Once upon a time when the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild was strong, in the heyday of Bickerdike and Lanchester, of Whanslaw and Hogarth and Laurey and Stavordale and Carr, there arrived upon the scene a young upstart from the North. Jan Bussell awarded this sobriquet to the disquietingly talented and very youthful Eric Bramall. And while his talent grew with the years, he remained ever youthful to the day of his death. Eric Bramall died on the 27th of July 1996.
The 1940' s were exciting days for puppetry, rediscovered after its turn of the century decline. The Guild flourished with a prestigious membership and annual exhibitions. Eric talked so very enthusiastically about those early days, and the Guild characters who enriched his memories.
I think it was J.B.Priestley who remarked that the happiest men he knew were all puppeteers. Eric was a happy man who lived a happy life with great enthusiasm. He poured himself into so many interests and became proficient in much. He loved art and antiques and collected with insight and taste. He was a masterly painter, and an Honorary Member of the Royal Cambrian Academy.
One of his passions was geological exploration and collecting, another that of cultivating miniature (Bonsai) trees. He was successful as a photographer, working mainly in 3D still photography and in 16mm films, several of the latter selling for television showing.
His talents were many but his genius was surely best revealed in his puppetry. In the 1940's Bramall pioneered a style of marionette presentation, Marionette Cabaret, a type of show in which the puppets are presented without stage, scenery or lighting apart from spootlights on the puppets themselves. The puppeteer is dressed in black so as to be as inconspicuous as possible and stands in full view. The puppets are on shorter strings than those worked from a bridge and perform on the floor, or rostrum, just in front of the manipulator who is standing on the same level. This style of presentation has proved popular with several puppeteers : Eric Bramall was the first, in this country at least. It is a style which demands superb manipulation to be successful.
Eric edited the Guild's first Yearbook in 1955 (the only one I think) and organised the Guild's first out of town exhibition; in Liverpool. In 1958 he built The Harlequin Puppet Theatre in Colwyn Bay. This proved to be the first permanent purpose-built puppet theatre in the history of Britain. This was a wonderful success and continues to this day. Eric died during its 38th year, and he was proud that his creation had survived without grant aid or subsidy of any kind.
During these years Eric was mainly responsible for making the puppets and scenery for over forty productions. ranging from fairy tale and pantomime to Gilbert & Sullivan Comic Opera and Shakespeare's Macbeth. His output was prolific. In addition, during the same years he created the characters for some twenty television series and clocked up over a thousand television programmes.
In 1963 Bramall scored another first: He conceived, organised and directed Britain's first International Puppet Festival. Oh this was a grand occasion, a week long puppet feast with representatives from 33 nations staying in Colwyn Bay and every available theatre, hall and auditorium filled with puppet shows and exhibitions. The town was decked with huge banners, depicting international puppet characters, hanging from the lamp standards and there were performances by companies from Poland and France and America, from Switzerland, Germany and Belgium, from Canada and of course from Great Britain. And wonder of wonders, this festival was a financial success.
Many are the puppeteers, not a few now of professional stature, who have been inspired by the performances of The Eric Bramall Marionettes. Many more must have been helped by his two eminently practical books, Making a Start with Marionettes and Puppet Plays and Playwriting, in which he was typically generous in sharing the fruits of his practical experience.
As a manipulator of marionettes Eric had no equal. Vigorous and lively , or gentle and restrained, his puppets moved with confidence and certainty and never slipped out of character. It all looked so easy in his hands, but in reality it was the result of many many hours of practice.
For more than forty years I have been under the Bramall spell. I've learned all my puppetry from him of course, but he taught me far more than that. Through him I learned to enjoy paintings and porcelain, to take interest in history and architecture, to listen to music, and generally how to escape from the coarser side of life by appreciating that which is beautiful.
Radio and television journalist Roger Wilkes said that Eric was a life enhancer. That's not a bad epitaph.
Eric delighted in relating a story from his touring days when one of his dates was for a series of shows at the Notre Dame Convent in Leeds. One elderly nun was appointed to supply frequent tea and refreshments for the company during the shows. When the time came for departure this gentle lady took Eric' s hand, and with a merry look in her eyes said in the most sincere tones, "There is a seat reserved for you in Heaven." Eric was taken aback. "Oh, I'm quite certain," she assured him. "You are bringing so much innocent happiness to so many thousands of people that it must be so!"
I loved Eric very dearly and pray that she was right.
Chris Somerville 1996
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