Britain's First Permanent Puppet Theatre
On the seafront at Rhos on Sea on the North Wales coast stands the Harlequin Puppet Theatre. A plaque in the foyer tells us: "The First Puppet Theatre to be built in Britain. Opened by Sir Clayton Russon, O.B.E., President, Festival of Wales. 7th July 1958"
Puppets have been know since the earliest times, and have been a feature of British popular entertainment for many centuries. Why then, did Britain's first puppet theatre not appear until 1958, and why was it built in a tiny seaside resort rather than a major city?
Puppets probably first arrived with the Romans but we know little of their earliest history in Britain. The popularity of the puppets during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, at times rivalling that of the "live" theatre, is well documented. The puppet
companies were large and their shows elaborate. They toured
the country carrying not only all the puppets and scenery, but
also ornate stages and large marquees in which to present their
Even in this, the wooden actors' heyday, there were no
permanent puppet theatres. And when the time came that the
puppet popularity was challenged by the newly developing
"Moving Pictures", there were no cinemas. Thus it was that the
marquees that had housed the puppets and their audience were
now used to show films. The showmen were generally delighted
with this latest craze, since a film projector and screen were
easier to transport than were puppets, staging and scenery, and
one man to crank the projector was easier to train and feed
than were all the puppeteers and musicians previously employed.
Puppetry survived, but on a smaller scale. By the early part of
the 20th Century Marionettes (puppets on strings) could still be
seen on the Music Hall stage and in the Variety theatres, and
Punch & Judy shows were a familiar sight on seaside beaches.
In the 1920's there was something of a revival of interest in
puppetry, but now as a hobby rather than as a profession. A
group of people of an artistic and literary bent attempted to re-discover the potential of the wooden actors. There were men
of letters and influence among their ranks: J.B. Priestly wrote a
play for the Toy Theatre and George Bernard Shaw wrote one
for marionettes, while theatrical genius Gordon Craig wrote
copiously in praise of the puppet.
The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild was founded in
Although the puppet revival was largely through the efforts of
amateurs with their table-top theatricals, by the late 1940's
there were several professional companies performing. These
were small companies - usually two or three people who toured a show which could be erected in school, village hall or on the
existing stage of a full sized theatre. Youngest of the stars of
this puppet renaissance was Eric Bramall. His interest began as
a hobby. As a boy Eric had a plethora of interests, usually of a
practical or artistic nature, and always tackled with enthusiasm.
He remembered his teens as exciting times of painting, amateur
dramatics, conjuring and model theatres. And while he might
have made a competent actor or magician, or sensibly exploited
his artistic talents in architecture, circumstances persuaded him
to launch forth as a professional puppeteer.
In 1946 The Eric Bramall Marionettes were born.
Following the itinerant pattern of puppet shows throughout the centuries the early years involved a great deal of travelling. In those days every town had its Palace; Alhambra; Hippodrome or Empire, the
town Variety Theatre presenting shows which changed weekly.
These were organised into several well established Circuits - chains of theatres linked by a common management. Artistes working for a particular management could travel the length of Britain, a week in each town, with always a different audience. The Eric Bramall Marionettes toured throughout Britain and Eire in weekly Variety, often presenting the full second half of the show.
Also there were thriving Arts and Music Societies in each town
and these too provided enthusiastic audiences for the then great
novelty of a puppet show. Puppets were understood to be
cultural as well as being highly entertaining.
The work was plentiful but always involved travelling, and
every performance would involve several hours erecting
dismantling the stage and loading and unloading the puppets
equipment. More time was spent in travel and packing than was
ever spent in performance.
It was only during the Summer that some sense of permanency
could be achieved. Many seaside resorts would have one or
more Variety theatres, and with a constantly changing holiday population these theatres could run the same show for the full
summer season. For the Variety artiste this was an eagerly
anticipated relief from the grind of Sunday railway travel,
strange towns and frequently unsatisfactory boarding houses.
A puppet company might appear as part of a Summer Season
Variety show, or, if it had sufficient material, might provide the
Rather than being one "turn"" on a Music Hall
programme a full length presentation of plays, sketches and
musical items, all performed by puppets, was an economically
attractive format for booking agents and one welcomed by the
novelty seeking public.
The Eric Bramall Marionettes enjoyed successful Summer seasons
in Eric's home town of Wallasey, performing al fresco in Vale Park and on New
Brighton pier. There followed several years as a resident
Summer feature in the North Wales holiday resort of Colwyn
Bay where Eric appeared not only in Variety at the Pier Pavilion
Theatre, but from 1951 to 1956 the puppets were housed in
their own theatre in Colwyn's Eirias Park.
This wasn't quite a permanent theatre and was, in actual fact,
Eric's travelling fit-up theatre built onto an existing bandstand. This bandstand was a quite elaborate permanent structure but the auditorium was a large marquee erected in front and
enclosing what had been an open air amphitheatre.
This made a
surprisingly effective puppet theatre and the shows proved to be
a very great attraction. Eric felt comfortable working in Eirias Park. The lakeside setting was delightful and there was a feeling
of permanence about the theatre which encouraged Eric to
launch each new season with a new production, specially
designed and each more elaborate than the last. And the
audience continued to come in great numbers. Colwyn Bay
Council, the show's promoters, were well pleased with the
popularity of the puppet theatre.
This happy state of affairs might have continued for many more years
if the Council had not, in their wisdom, decided to uproot
the theatre from Eirias Park and re-locate it in a
part of the Borough they were eager to promote. They knew the
puppet theatre to be a success and they sought to transfer that
Neither Eric Bramall nor the Borough Entertainment Manager were eager for the move, and Eric was far from pleased with
the substitute theatre the Council provided. The auditorium tent
was transferred from the previous location but in lieu of the
bandstand a municipally designed wooden structure was erected.
Eric immediately christened this the Rabbit Hutch, a name inspired by
its ridiculous lack of space and ludicrous design.
Shifting a theatre from one end of the Borough to the other
was not a clever idea, especially as the move was from a
central location to a peripheral one. It is surprising that much
of the clientele built up over seven years was not lost. Despite
everything the ensuing season was fairly successful but Eric
remained very unhappy with the conditions and let it be known
that only a return to the Eirias Park location was likely to
persuade him to return the following year. The Council could
not, of course, admit their mistake so no contract was signed for the 1958 season.
By this time Eric had moved from his home on Merseyside to
live near Colwyn Bay, thus avoiding the travel throughout the
summer. So although he was already considering a Summer
Season in Bournemouth, the idea of staying on the North Wales
coast was attractive. The search began for suitable premises, one promising
possibility being a disused chapel, but nothing really was
available. Then came the daring idea to build a theatre from
scratch. This became a possibility through the offer of a site
from a fellow puppet enthusiast Millicent Ford. Millie owned
Aberhod, an old and rambling house on the sea front at
Rhos-on-Sea. Within the spacious grounds of Aberhod was ample
land on which to build a puppet theatre, and a suitable plot was
Once begun, everything went forward at great speed. Architects
drew up plans based on the detailed ideas of Eric Bramall. The
actual building, an unusual structure of wood, glass and the
local stone salvaged from some old cottages which had
occupied part of the site, was completed in an amazing eleven
weeks. Eric painted the murals on the auditorium walls
in a single week, working through each night.
As an unusual building the theatre enjoyed some success. Apart
from gaining a gold medal for the architect it also won a Civic
Trust Award for its design.
It should be stressed that although The Eric Bramall Marionettes worked under contract for the Borough Council during the years 1951 to 1957, there was no municipal involvement in the building of the Harlequin nor in its running in subsequent years. It is a matter of pride that the Harlequin Puppet Theatre was privately built and runs without any form of grant or subsidy. Its foundation was due solely to the efforts and enterprise of Eric Bramall and Millicent Ford. It is now, and always has been funded entirely by its box office receipts.
The building of the Harlequin caused something of a stir in the puppet world, especially when it was realised that this was the first time in British history that a theatre had been specifically designed and built for puppet playing. At the time of writing, forty years later, there are now three other permanent puppet theatres. The Little Angel Theatre in the London Borough of Islington started life as a Victorian temperance hall and The Norwich Puppet
Theatre was once a church and the puppet theatre at Biggar, the enterprise of the Purves Puppets is also a conversion. The Harlequin's claim to be the only permanent purpose-built puppet theatre is still true.
It was certainly daring to build a puppet theatre, and many
considered it reckless to build any sort of theatre in 1958. This
was a time when theatres and cinemas were generally very
much on the decline, with many closing or becoming bingo halls
or supermarkets. Dwindling audiences were the immediate
cause, and the growing influence of television was blamed. The
Harlequin, however, Quickly found an audience and was a
success from the start. Novelty was the initial attraction, and
the quality of the shows ensured that people returned again and
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