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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 spectacles,

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 1925.

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. topping the billFollowing 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.touring fit-up 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 entire show.vale park 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.

eirias 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 success.

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 negotiated.

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 again.


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