The Story Continues..............
The puppet companies of the 1940's and 1950's generally consisted of two people, often a husband and wife team. The principal professional companies were The Lanchester Marionettes (Muriel and Waldo Lanchester), The Hogarth Puppets (Jan Bussell and Ann Hogarth), The Stavordale Marionettes (Madge and Buster Stavordale) and the Eric Bramall Marionettes. In the early days Eric was partnered by his mother as they toured in Variety.Chris Somerville joined the company with the opening of the Harlequin Puppet Theatre in 1958, as did Millicent Ford. Ill health caused Mrs. Bramall to become less and less involved with the shows, and Chris took over her role.
The basic Harlequin company was, for many years, Eric and Chris as principal manipulators with Millie as stage manager and occasional manipulator. Additional manipulators were brought in for some productions, and for some seasons. David Nixon, now Paul Doran of Shadowstring, was part of the Harlequin team for many years, and occasional seasons were worked by Buster Stavordale, Ian Denny, Ian Thom, Nigel Lawton, Mark Owens, Steven Mottram and Roger Wilkes.
The trio of Eric Bramall, Chris Somerville and Millie Ford seemed indestructable. The way they worked together was like a piece of clockwork with endless laughs incorporated. Millie's untimely and unexpected death on October 11th 1979 left an irreplaceable gap in the Harlequin family.
Eric and Chris realised, after several seasons employing puppeteers of varying ability, that it was really unsatisfactory working with a new person each season and determined that to become self-sufficient once again they must plan all future productions for two operators only. In fact they discovered that much of the existing repertoire could, with some alteration and much ingenuity, be made workable by two people.
Moreover many of these productions were artistically improved by the discipline imposed. A case in point was the operetta Ruddigore. This had been designed originally for four manipulators, yet Chris managed to adapt it so that with ingenious use of toy theatre techniques with the chorus, and cleverly designed gallows, and the skill and rapport he and Eric had developed, a two man version was a triumph.
The theatre always opened during the Summer months, in the early days it was a long season from Easter through to the end of October. It wasn't until the mid eighties that the theatre began also opening for the minor school holidays as the Summer season became shorter. Out of season was spent making new puppets and scenery, not only for the theatre but also for television. Television has a voracious appetite for a constant supply of new material.
And in between the constructional work, and the Summer performances and the Television programmes Eric and Chris managed to squeeze in Cruise Ship entertaining. During the years 1976 to 1982 the Harlequin Puppets appeared on the Daphne, Danae, Calypso and ill-fated Achille Lauro.
From Long Year City to Durban, from Miami to Leningrad, Eric and Chris visited over 40 different countries in a five year period.
The decline of Colwyn Bay as a holiday resort slowly and steadily eroded the audience attendance at the Harlequin. When cheap Spanish holidays first became popular the effect wasn't really obvious. The hotels, at the higher end of the market, were the first to feel the pinch and gradually many of them were either turned into holiday flatlets, or sold off for other uses. Cheap self-catering flatlet holidays boomed for a few years, but gradually the whole pattern of British holiday making changed.
The major change was brought about by the decline of the industrial North. The cotton mills of Lancashire, the woollen mills of Yorkshire, the coal mines and the steel works began to close. This meant that the coastal holiday resorts could no longer depend on the regular mass influx during the "wakes" weeks, the weeks when all the factories of a town would close together for the annual holiday.
Also people were expecting more holidays, and they now had cars so could move around. So instead of a single family holiday of two weeks at the seaside, arriving and leaving by railway train, many people now took several shorter breaks through the year, and used their cars for touring style holidays.
As the factories closed many found a new lease of life as "working museums" for very quickly nostalgia for our industrial past became big business. More and more theme sites opened, and these meant more and more competition for the traditional entertainment venues.
Theatres suffered particularly, since where many attractions can accept admittance money throughout the day, a theatrical performance demands that a number of people agree to all arrive at the same time. This was far more easily achieved with a more or less resident holiday population than it proved with a highly mobile brand of holiday maker. Targeted advertising, for example, is virtually impossible.
The audience decline at the Harlequin was very gradual, hardly noticed financially since there was the cushioning of television success. But all good things come to an end, and Margaret Thatcher managed to scupper our television career.
In television, like many walks of life, success is partly a matter of who you know. By that I don't mean any form of corruption, it is simply fact that if someone is known and available they are more likely to get work than someone as yet untried. The initial foot in the door is the most difficult hurdle.
Eric was "spotted" by the late Evelyn Williams, Head of Children's Broadcasting, BBC (Wales), and offered a guest spot on a children's television magazine programme Telewele. He was an instant success and became a regular feature on the programme. In those days Wales did not have her own channel and was simply a region of the BBC. A certain amount of the output was in the Welsh language, but these programmes went out to certain parts of England, the Bristol and Liverpool areas, as well as throughout Wales. So although these programmes were in Welsh, Eric gained a wider following since many of the puppet items were musical and not language dependent. Mainly he adapted stage items such as the Insect Ballet and Puppet Circus, and a particularly ambitious Nutcracker Suite. This particular programme persuaded one viewer to write in suggesting that it should be repeated regularly since she was convinced it would do a great deal to curb juvenile delinquency. Quite how was never explained.
Eventually the puppets were given their own series, Lili Lon. Lili Lon was a little Welsh doll who lived in a dolls' house and was visited by her friends Popi Pwdl (yes, a poodle you see Welsh isn't all that difficult) and Wili and Wali Panda, who joined in her action songs and games. The overall series title was Ar Lin Mam (on Mother's Knee), the Welsh equivalent of Watch With Mother, and this was gentle entertainment for very young children.
Lili Lon was a very long running series, but over the years other puppet series were added. Tedi Twt featured the adventures of a family of Teddy Bears while Bobyn a Siw featured two children in an enchanted garden, presided over by a Talking Tree. These were all marionette productions, while Wili a Tili Llygoden used glove puppets to tell delightful rural tales of these two field mice and their woodland companions.
We saw many changes. In the very earliest days our television studio was a converted chapel in the Broadway area of Cardiff, the programmes were all in black and white, live, and shot by enormous cameras with a three man crew one to operate, one to push the camera and a third to manoeuvre the hugely heavy and bulky cable. And because the News followed our programme, and since we were live, we had to freeze on completion as the cameras swung round to the newsdesk set up in one corner of the studio. The newscaster (part time) was a local bank manager, who would tip-toe into the studio and take up his position in the last moments of our broadcast.
Wales in time got her own channel, and a splendid new Broadcasting House at Llandaff. We attended the official opening by H.R.H. Princess Margaret, who was pleased to sit down and watch us rehearsing Lili Lon. My memory is that she was much prettier than her photographs suggested, and very small.
Of course we eventually were able to pre-record our programmes and, wonder of wonders, we saw the arrival of colour television.
Telewele, Lili Lon and Tedi Twt were all originally in black and white. With the arrival of colour we had to face new problems and learn new techniques. Since the majority of viewers were still receiving the programmes in monochrome we had to retain the contrasts and appearance, yet we had to alter costumes and scenery to take advantage of the colour medium now employed. Black and white tended to flatter the puppets, colour was far less forgiving and minor flaws in construction were exaggerated. This was a problem since most of our puppets had been made in a great hurry, and some of them for stage use rather than for the close-up scrutiny of the camera lens. But as the characters' appearance had become so established with the viewers we dare not change this.
This was an exciting, pioneering period, with producers, technicians and ourselves learning and experimenting with what was still a very young medium. Also we greatly enjoyed being part of the BBC family. Our team consisted of Evelyn Williams, producer-director of our series and also Head of Childrens' Broadcasting in Wales; Sheila Huw Jones, a quite brilliant Radio actress who provided all the voices and the narratives as well as writing many of the scripts; Sassie Rees who sang all the songs so delightfully in her bell-pure voice and Mamie Noel Jones, pianist, accompanist and composer of all our music. The puppetry was mainly the province of Eric and Chris, with Millicent Ford in all the early programmes. Many of the floor managers, camera men and technicians who regularly worked with us in those early days are now high up and successful in many branches of the industry. They all remember Lili Lon - and Evelyn Williams, that very powerful personality who kept us all in line.
When Evelyn Williams retired the post of Head of Children's Broadcasting, BBC (Wales) went to Dyfed Glyn Jones, a controversial character from Anglesey. Many were shocked by Dyfed's appointment, apparently he had written a novel, which contained rather more explicit sex than was deemed appropriate in Welsh language writing, and there were those who wondered if this was really the chap who should be controlling what Welsh speaking youngsters should be viewing. The appointment board were more enlightened.
New leaders frequently establish their authority by making sweeping changes, and, in television, artistes are especially vulnerable when there are changes at the top. Eric and Chris, Mamie Noel Jones, Sassie Rees and Sheila Huw Jones were all residents of North Wales, travelling regularly to Cardiff, which is in South Wales, to make the programmes. Dyfed Glyn Jones decided this was an unnecessary expense. "I can find good singers and musicians here in Cardiff". Of the original team only Eric and Chris survived. Apparently good puppeteers were not as easily replaced.
Eric, Chris and Dyfed got on very well together, and Dyfed was easier to work with than Evelyn Williams had been. Dyfed, however, was not content with simply continuing the long running successes of the past (Lilli Lon and Tedi Twt), Dyfed wanted novelty and more gutsy programmes. He and Chris collaborated on the themes, Chris wrote the scripts in English and then Dyfed did the creative translations into the Welsh language. The puppets and props were jointly made by Eric and Chris, although Eric's was the lion's share. Thus were born O Dan Y Mor, Y Tren Sgrech, Y Cowboi Bach, Sioe Symuddl Siams Sionc and Ynys Wener keeping the Eric Bramall Marionettes regularly on Welsh television through the years 1975 to 1983
It was in 1978 that Alan Cook first directed the puppets, a Christmas Special Sioe Fawr Fach recorded at The Harlequin Puppet Theatre in North Wales. Normally all television programmes were made in Cardiff. Alan Cook took over as producer during the illness which hit Dyfed Glyn Jones. And with Alan was launched Cadwgan which was to prove the final Harlequin puppet series on BBC(Wales)TV. Cadwgan was a little green mouse who lived on the moon, but had relatives farming in Wales. These he frequently visited by Flying Saucer.
Cadwgan was a very popular series of picture books, from which the programmes took their inspiration. The TV adaptation was very popular, and the programmes were planned to run and run. Then the axe fell. Mrs. Thatcher decreed that in the interests of competition the BBC must no longer have the monopoly of making BBC TV programmes: They must buy in a proportion of commercially produced material. Reluctantly BBC(Wales)TV decided that the least damaging way to achieve their quota was to axe one department completely, rather than chop bits of each department. In their wisdom they decided to lose the department making young children's programmes. In the place of the home produced material they thought to buy in cheaply produced cartoon films from abroad, films which could be dubbed with Welsh narration or character voices.
And so with a wave of her wand the wicked witch of Grantham ended an era of television puppetry in Wales, a partnership between Eric and Chris and the BBC which had lasted over a quarter of a century.
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