Updated: Apr 27
Welcome to the first in a series by David Powell on toy theatre, puppetry, and toys in general.
I was a collector of toy theatre prints before I had any large experience of the real theatre. But when the New Theatre Hull had a grand re-opening in 1968, after a long closure for renovations, I began to be a regular theatre-goer. The programmes issued week by week were quite sober in appearance, tastefully pale blue with a drawing of the theatre exterior. In the Georgian period the building had been the Assembly Rooms, and some performers complained that it looked too much like a museum. But at some point in the 70s the programme design changed to one that I was better equipped to appreciate than most. For it was based on the theatrical portraits that were such an important side-line of the toy theatre publishers. Theatre artists often turn to the commedia dell’arte for inspiration, of course, but there are no moonlit Pierrots here, because this is our English take on the commedia – early Victorian pantomime, with “merry, madcap, mischief-making Clown”, the character that Joseph Grimaldi made his own.
“Early Victorian” is a strictly accurate description of the images used for the programme. They were first published as part of a sheet of six miniature portraits by Fairburn in late 1837, only a few months after Victoria became queen. This sheet (with others of Fairburn’s) was re-published by W. S. Johnson in about 1860. In both of these versions, the four harlequinade characters were made up to six by the addition of the combat from Richard III. Johnson’s plates eventually passed to W. Webb, who omitted the combat to produce a sheet of four miniature portraits. Finally George Conetta (who published as “G. Skelt”) re-drew Webb’s sheet to make four full-size portraits. He did many of his drawings as a young man (hence the dates 1903-05), but it was not until about 1950 that he was wealthy enough to pay for having them published.
After he died, on Christmas Day 1956, his enormous stock of printed sheets (based both on his own drawings and the prints of the old publishers) was bought by Marguerite Fawdry for Pollock’s, where they served to compensate for the dwindling reserves of old Pollock sheets. By the time that Pollock’s moved from Monmouth Street to Scala Street in 1969, both the Pollock and “Skelt” sheets had been largely sold off, so that the 1960s was the last decade in which original toy theatre sheets (some of them printed as long ago as the 1860s and 1870s) could be bought new for comparatively small sums.
I used to assume that the programme illustrations were taken from the G. Skelt full-size portraits, since these were the ones I knew best. But now that I look at them again (for the first time in many years) it seems clear that they must have been taken from one of the earlier versions. In these, Columbine wears a winning smile, and this is clearly to be seen on the programme cover. But G. Skelt’s re-drawing has left her with a look of mild surprise. And the face of his Harlequin has been spoilt by heavy stippling, of which the programme version shows no sign.
The toy theatre was not my first theatrical passion, for before that there had been Punch and Judy, which I fell in hopelessly love with on the beach at Scarborough in about 1960. Indeed, Punch and Judy was my gateway drug, in that it led to all the theatrical addictions that have held me in their grip ever since. Nowadays, I most often see Punch at the May Fayre, held in the gardens at the back of St Paul’s Covent Garden, where Pollock’s have set up their stall annually for many years. One of my favourite sights at this event is when young fathers hoist little children on to their shoulders, thus re-creating (but without realising that they are re-creating) the old prints which show Punch and Judy being performed in the London streets of the nineteenth century. But I have never seen anyone re-creating the old prints to the extent of lurking at the back of the crowd and picking all the pockets they can reach.
It is the custom at the Fayre for all the Punch booths to be ranged round the garden, and one of the most remarkable things I ever witnessed there was seeing three consecutive booths, each with a backcloth based on the street scene in Pollock’s Harlequinade. I don’t know how many Punch performers over the years have had a backcloth à la Pollock, but I guess it is a good many more than three.
After the toy theatre, my greatest enthusiasm was always Gilbert and Sullivan, to which I succumbed at Christmas 1967. This was coupled with an adoration of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, who were the guardians of the authentic performing tradition of the Savoy operas. (Their stage productions were essentially those of Gilbert himself, dating from the 1870s and 1880s, so that the privilege of watching them felt just as miraculous as being able to buy original sheets printed by Pollock and Redington at the same period.) I knew the recordings of the D’Oyly Carte before I saw them on stage, and when they eventually materialised at the New Theatre Hull, I found it difficult to believe that these godlike beings really existed and could be venerated nightly until they disappeared again.
One of the first of their recordings I owned was the 1958 version of The Pirates of Penzance. Their Artistic Director at that time was Peter Goffin, who obviously knew his toy theatre, and it was probably through his influence that the record sleeve was based on a theatrical portrait. This was another of G. Skelt’s early drawings (Mr Helme as Blackbeard the Pirate), and Goffin must have been quick off the mark, because the print cannot have been available for more than a year or so in Monmouth Street before he saw its possibilities. For the time being, he retains Blackbeard’s characteristic beard and dreadlocks, but gives them a reddish hue. (There was an old stage tradition which gave villains red hair: cf. Von Rothbart “red beard” in Swan Lake.) He also retains the scale mail and the skull decorations round the hem of the skirt. Later (but I don’t know exactly when) Goffin designed a very stylish series of posters for the company, with a stock frame more like a Punch proscenium than a toy theatre, so that the figures appear in three-quarter length behind it.
There was one poster each for most of the operas, and for his Pirates poster the Blackbeard portrait was again used, but in reverse, and with some of the details re-worked. The characteristic coiffure disappears, as do the scale mail and the skulls. The replacement of the skulls by stripes may seem an enfeeblement, but Goffin was probably influenced by the skirts which the pirates wore from the time of the original production in 1879/80 until the opera was re-designed by George Sheringham in 1929. (After that date, the pirates did not wear skirts at all.)
These were the years of Beatlemania, of course, and I did engage with the pop culture of the time, though I withdraw from it rather early. One of the influences that took me in other directions was a fascination with the screen musicals which were then having their final fling. I listened constantly to the cast albums of Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady and Doctor Dolittle. Of these the most overwhelming success, in terms of money-making and enduring popularity with audiences, was of course The Sound of Music, and it is satisfying to report that here too the toy theatre has left an indelible mark. As part of the transition from stage to screen, the song of the Lonely Goatherd was “opened out” (but at the same time scaled down) into a puppet performance. The puppet theatre employed for this, created by Bil and Cora Baird, is necessarily unique in its design. In order to accommodate all the incidents of the song, there is a main stage, where marionettes perform, flanked by side boxes, in which various types of puppet make brief appearances.
But to anyone who knows the toy theatre, the proscenium of this elaborate arrangement seems both familiar and unfamiliar. The favourite stage for toy theatre performances has long been the “large Redington”, with a stage front which is full of interesting features, including a pair of slightly sinister-looking male heads, evidently intended as spirits of Comedy and Tragedy. (Since COMOEDIA and TRAGOEDIA are, like most abstract concepts, grammatically feminine in Greek and Latin, allegorical embodiments of them are nearly always female. But although the maleness of the heads is surprising, their accoutrements, associating the smiling figure with Bacchic revels and the frowning one with murderous violence, are more conventional.) The Sound of Music proscenium has decorations clearly based on these heads, except that there are three of them: Comedy, Tragedy and an Inbetweener. (I am reminded of Milton’s romantically-contrasting poems L’Allegro “the cheerful man” and Il Penseroso “the thoughtful man”, to which the unromantic eighteenth century couldn’t help adding Il Moderato “the moderate man”.)
And there we will draw to a close for now, but not without having shown that, while the toy theatre has had a great and lasting effect on a few of us, it has had at least a brief and fleeting influence on countless millions.