John Dudley looks back over his
55 years in Puppetry
John Dudley backstage
- "The Tempest" - Stratford 1964
Metropole, Glasgow 1959
"Would you like to see a Puppy Show?"
At least that's what I thought my Mother said, one
Summer afternoon in 1938. I was duly taken to a
garden meeting of the local Women's Institute where a
lady by the name of Nancy Henry was giving a lecture on
glove puppets with a demonstration from a table theatre.
Part of the way through, she said "It's very easy, that
little boy over there could do it." A puppet was
placed on my small hand and I was shown how to make him
bow, wave, etc.
I was not only entranced, but
hooked for life.
After that initiation, I went home and
got my teddy bears and sat beneath the kitchen table
pretending they were puppets that I held above my head.
My Mother thought it was a passing phase, but eventually
succumbed after a few months and made me my first
puppets from two of Nancy Henry's kits.
Christmas 1942, I did my first public show, for which I
received half a guinea! Riches Untold!
After that, I found myself doing shows
for other parties and each time receiving a fee. I
was then nine years of age. In April 1943, I
joined the British Puppet & Model Theatre Guild as a
Table-top Theatre in the style used
by Puppeteer, Nancy Henry
At school, we formed a Puppet Hobby
Group in 1947 and I was all for wanting a glove show,
but we had a visit from the Hogarth Puppets with their
brilliant show and I was converted to marionettes.
When I left school in 1949, because I
had taken part in many amateur dramatic performances and
had written and produced my first pantomime at the age
of fourteen, I wanted to be an actor and go to RADA.
My Father, however, put his foot down and said I was to
train for a proper job and I chose the Hotel business
because it has an affinity with Show Business.
During my three year training at
Westminster Tech, I still carried on with the puppets -
Punch & Judy having been added and also magic.
Needless to say, I was also in plays galore and revues,
plus another panto.
Bishops Stortford College
National Service beckoned and
I became commissioned in the Catering Branch of the RAF,
which took me all over the world. Punch & Judy
went with me and one of my fondest memories is playing
to a mixed audience of English, Arab and Indian Children
at Steamer Point in Aden. There was no language
I was demobbed in May 1959, having spent
nearly seven years in the RAF including a spell as Head
of Broadcasting in Aden. By this time I had
decided that I was not going to wake up one morning in
later years wishing I had gone on the stage
professionally. I had become a member of the Magic
Circle and had an act known as Komedy with Kandles.
An amateur puppeteer had a show known as The Bernardoli
Marionettes and was selling up. I bought them
out and put together a speciality spot for Variety.
Palace, Newcastle 1959
My first professional Variety date was at the
Metropole Theatre Glasgow in May 1959 with Albert
Whelan topping the bill. I was closing the first
half with the marionettes, plus the magic spot earlier
in the same half.
I then went on to join the
Norman Evans Show in Over the Garden Wall and countless
other Variety Bills with my proscenium fit-up. I
believe that although other Puppet Companies were also
touring in Variety, they were using an open-stage and
that I was the last to actually have the older style
The last time it appeared, was at the
Savoy Theatre, Clacton in September 1960. Due
to the rapid closure of Variety Theatres at the time, I
could get a telegram on a Thursday informing me that
next week's theatre was closing on the current Saturday.
As I had an Assistant to pay regardless, I decided to
take stock and re-vamp the whole show.
It so happened in 1959, that I was
booked for two weeks at Cheltenham by a man called Bruno
Tublin. I'd never met him but found on arrival in
Cheltenham that I was billed as "Telepuppets London."
A few years later, when I reverted to a glove show,
having been involved in children's television, I was to
recall the name and become "The Dudley Telepuppets."
1960 became the year that I established
my Caravan Theatre for Summer Seasons and Galas. I
contacted Jan Bussell and asked if he had any objections
to my copying his idea. He wished me well and I
accepted a six week season in Swansea playing to over
30,000 people in that period - and it never rained!
Ray Smith, who came from Perth, was my regular Assistant
with the Caravan Show. He now lives in Canada.
In 1962, I had built a new larger
marionette theatre, when I received a phone call from the
Commercial Manager for the South of Scotland Electricity
Board. I was asked to present an advertising show
for Unit Plan Central Heating, which was making its
debut at the Scottish Ideal Home Exhibition in Kelvin
After the Exhibition, it was straight
back home to rehearse for the Summer Season at Heysham
Head, Morecambe, taking over from Wolohans
In 1963, the Telegoons TV series for
Grosvenor Films came out of the blue and along with
Violet Philpott and Ann Field, we started making 26
instalments with figures that were like ventriloquists
dummies without legs on a 3 wheeled stand, below which,
we crouched manipulating the arms on twisted bits of
wire. Additionally, we held a control for the
mouth movements and eyes. From
episode 14, the lip movement was automatic with play
back. It was also the subject of a court case, but
that's another story.
For long shots, the most unbalanced
puppets with legs had to be manipulated with the
weirdest of controls that took a bit of getting used to.
Walking them, was an acquired skill in itself and
a question of mind over matter.
I had an offer to play Blackpool Tower
the following year for a long Season, but I wanted to
perform with the new theatre in a major resort. I
was offered Eastbourne.
During that 1963 Season, Muriel and Plug Shutt joined me to present my show
"Stars on Strings"
at the Winter Gardens, Eastbourne with two
different 30-minute programmes, playing seven shows a
day, seven days a week. We worked on a rota to
provide for days off, but I was also presenting another
show at the Redoubt Music Gardens in the mornings.
Proscenium Theatre used in Variety
It was during the season at Eastbourne
that I was approached by an impresario to enquire
whether I could present a Shakespearian play at
Stratford Upon Avon the following year for a two-week
run in celebration of the 400th Anniversary of the Bard.
As I had experienced some criticism that my show was
not artistic and that I only presented 'Commercial
Circus, Underwater Ballet, Ghouls and Ghosties, etc', I
decided to accept. I commissioned an authority on
Shakespeare's work to reduce "The Tempest"
to a playing time of 45 minutes, reducing the characters
to ten and keeping in every major speech.
Muriel Shutt made Caliban and Aerial and designed the costumes
which were made by my Mother. I made the other
figures with some heads I had previously purchased from
Harold Aidalberry. A recording was made
professionally at the Central School of Dramatic Art
with Joyce Wren playing Miranda and Aerial. I did
the narration to the music of Tchaikovsky.
However, a television report at the time
(1964), described Stratford as being "the centre of the
Universe for all lovers of Shakespeare" and that
"accommodation would be hard to get." In
consequence, people stayed away in their droves and the
town was empty. Apart from critical acclaim and a
few school parties, I was losing money hand over fist
and changed all the bills at the end of the first week
to Circus etc and started to recoup my losses in the
second week until I broke even. So much for Art!
At the end of the year, I met Cynthia
and within six weeks, we were engaged. We got
married in October 1965.
Caravan Marionette Theatre
the Caravan Theatre
Stage folded up on Left
Stage - Caravan Theatre
Following an appearance at the Arts
Theatre, Cambridge with our two-hour show, including
"The Tempest" my van was stolen with the theatre
inside, but fortunately not the puppets. It was
found burned out in Hadley Woods, near London, having
been used for a robbery with false number plates.
The theatre was virtually unharmed, but
I decided to call it a day with marionettes, due to the
costs of touring at this time with no grants or subsidy
of any kind.
It was at this point in time that I
reverted to the glove puppet show and became "The
In October 1966, I met my old Head of
Department from Westminster Tech, who asked if I had any
free time between then and Christmas, as they needed
some lecturing cover.
I agreed, only if I could go
on working every available moment in the theatre.
I carried on lecturing for the next 23 years at
Westminster, Middlesex Polytechnic and later at
Devon College as Principal Lecturer.
time with plays written by Cynthia, I became so much in
demand that I played the Caravan Club National Rallies
with a new Glove Puppet Caravan Theatre for the next ten
A highlight in this period, was an
invitation to entertain the New Year Royal Children's
Party for King Hussain at the Royal Palace in Amman.
An experience never to be forgotten.
again in Devon, I was booked every Summer Season in the
local Holiday Parks with the show and to such an
extent that I took early retirement from lecturing in
1988. In December 1997, I decided to retire from
puppetry, having given 434 performances in my final
Puppets have served me well and little did I know what
the outcome would be when I went to that 'Puppy' show in
Caravan Theatre - On the Bridge
Heysham Head Season
Backstage - Eastbourne
Alfred, Warder of the Tower
"Neptune's Realm" - Eastbourne Season
Homes Exhibition - Glasgow
Glove Puppet Caravan Theatre
Performance - North Devon Hospital
from an article written by John Dudley for 'The Puppet
Master' Magazine 1998
Photographs courtesy of John Dudley