I met Dave and Sarah at their house, and we walked down to the Chapel by the road.
“Knock Knock!” Dave called, and a muffled response from within told us they were in the chapel.
We went inside, accompanied by the collie, and there ,in the dim light, looking through a cardboard box ,stood a lady whose age I had no chance at guessing, as I’m no good at those things. I thought maybe she was in her 60s, but I must have been wrong, as it turned out.
Her son was there too, smiling. Dave did the introductions, and we exchange pleasantries. She had a friendly attractive smile and a quiet, clear voice, overlaid with a smooth dressing of Dutch accent.
Casting my eye around the partially organised chaos of the room my attention was first caught by a small group of marionettes, about 18” tall, and 2 rod puppets, hung on or rested against a bare pine frame opposite the door. Even at a glance it was obvious that their creator was both technically and artistically very gifted. The faces were carved with individual personalities, and asymmetrically designed, in the way that I like to carve, and I felt myself in the presence of a kindred spirit.
I’m afraid I may have become a little excited at this point, as I examined the baby’s pram with a piglet in it, the ring master, mermaid, Arab ,weight lifter, fish etc. Mrs S patiently related what she knew of each of them, and the plays they were from: plays like “The Little Mermaid” and “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves” etc.
The similarity to the Lanchester marionettes struck me right away, with various sea creatures being fairly heavily influenced by the cast of the underwater ballet, and indeed when Mrs. S explained the plot of the play, I was able to fill in the gaps in her recollection with my own knowledge of the plot.
The tell-tale hip joints, elbows and knees were of that same iconic design, and although this was the first time I had met these puppets I felt a warm glow of familiarity with them . Everything was exquisitely carved, moulded, or formed with wire. The exaggerated features of the probably politically incorrect black banjo player had a beautiful scratch built banjo, perfect in every detail, and his lovingly carved fingers looked like they were poised and ready to pluck some Jazz or Bluegrass from it’s strings.
Looking around the Chapel’s interior I became aware of the proscenium to my right, a gaping rectangular hole through the end wall with a dark empty space behind and an apron stage in front. From there a gently stepped auditorium floor extended to the back of the room, cluttered with engineering and woodworking tools, large freestanding electrical ones and small hand tools, all looking like they had ceased work in the midst of a project and were awaiting the return of their owner.
Everywhere there were tool drawers and tool boxes, shelves and cupboards, overflowing with tools, circlips, wire, bolts, bearings, clock mechanisms, and things I didn’t even recognise, but they looked like they all had a use and were not at all randomly collected.
In the middle of the floor, between 2 large logs of what turned out to be limewood ,were stacks of musty cardboard boxes, about 2ft square and 1 ft deep. Distracted by the vision of such large lumps of well seasoned lime, the Holy Grail for carvers, I only slowly became aware that Mrs. S and her son were unpacking black bin-liners from the boxes, opening each to reveal...more marionettes !
Here there were a pair of camels about 2ft tall, witches, more fish, a shark, Ali Baba’s thieves, an enormous horse, the sweetest braying donkey, a lion, a juggler, a trapeze artist, musicians, a conductor, a crazy fat opera singer, dripping in jewellery...and on and on. Looking closely at the structure of one puppet I recognised the mechanism for the Indian knife thrower, and reminded Mrs S. of how it worked. I couldn’t believe my eyes, the range of puppets I was seeing...unicyclist, clowns...they just kept coming.
Mrs S. was saying “I’m sure you’ve seen enough” but she was as keen to share her husband’s work with me as I was to see it. As we looked through the puppets she bit by bit pieced together the story of how all this had come about.
He had been an engineer all his working life, even building cameras for big film studios to use in demanding circumstances..under water, extreme temperatures and the like. He even built some of the early stop-motion cameras for Aardman when they first set up. His passion, however, had always been marionettes, and he had tirelessly laboured away since the 1950s perfecting his art. Some of the early ones are obviously less proficient, but have a charm of their own ,and are an important part of the narrative of the collection. His quest had been a long and lonely one ,with very little contact with other puppeteers with whom he could exchange ideas and techniques. So he had been largely self taught, gleaning information from books and experimentation. He and his wife had once owned quite a large piece of land ,with a house and barns and stables, and the chapel. They had an animal park of sorts, and he began to convert the chapel to a theatre so that in wet weather visitors might have some indoor entertainment laid on to amuse them.
In the interim, he did have a couple of seasons of putting on shows for visitors, with a folding stage that the whole family would lug out to a local hotel and set up every week through the summer. He began to film some of the performances with some idea of maybe pitching them to the TV companies.
The pursuit of perfection in the building of the theatre was so time consuming and expensive that ,bit by bit, they had sold off the house, the barns, the land etc. Until all that was left was the chapel, an acre of land around it, caravans for him and his family, and the burning ambition to finish his dream. He undertook all of the work himself, extending the original building at both ends, building stone and block with great skill. He made gothic arch windows that he built into the roof, and sash windows for the auditorium. He even made some replacement ridge tiles for the roof by taking moulds from those that were there, and casting them with earthenware clay to match in. For 20 years he lived in the caravan, and there he and his wife brought up their 2 children.
Finally, old age and Altzheimers rendered him unable to continue his work, and cruelly started to strip him of his memories. Finally, in November of last year, he became resident in a full time care home, removed from his family, his puppets and his theatre.
The more of the story that unfolded as Mrs. S spoke lovingly and a little wistfully of her husband’s “lone voice crying aloud in the wilderness”, the more I heard echoes of my own plans and ambitions. The parallels were very peculiar, and as it turned out they had even lived in the same place that I had lived as a child before moving to Cornwall. He too was a slave to his muses, driving him on, with a Quixotic air, tilting at his own private windmills.
An idea began to form in my mind.
I suggested to Mrs. S. ,with the utmost respect, that these puppets were such a valuable resource that they really should be removed from the damp, dusty building where they would be susceptible to mould and mouse damage, and cleaned and hung in a dry room to prevent any further deterioration. If she would allow me to help, I would consider it a privilege to handle them, and learn from closely examining them whilst preserving them for posterity. A weary look came across her face, and she explained that she just couldn’t face the scale of the task, as she had pretty much run out of the energy and the will to even begin such a demanding project. She did say that she would have loved to share the puppets with the world, however, and maybe even see them on stage again one day. It was then that I made the offer.
“If you will allow me to take on the task, I would consider it an honour to do the work, and be instrumental in the rescuing of the puppets. Just say where and when, and I will be there. “....At least that’s how I heard it in my head, but I’m quite sure that the babble of excited words, shaking with suppressed emotions, was probably much less eloquent.
They seemed excited but unsure, and I decided that the best way forward was to let them discuss it as a family and let me know how they felt, without any pressure from me. We chatted some more, in the fading light with bats whirring around our heads and the evening chill coming in, before bidding them farewell with further protestations of my sincerity hanging in the air.
I walked back up to Dave and Sarah’s home where they were preparing their evening meal, and talked animatedly and at some length about how stunned I was and grateful that they had told me about the puppets and arranged the meeting, whilst drinking coffee. Finally, remembering my manners I bid them good night, and returned home to relate the tale to Emily, then sleep fitfully, dreaming of theatres, puppets and possibilities.
At least now I had made contact, and laid the ground for our next meeting.....