Soldier Blue

 

This animation sequence made for the stage production of Hansel & Gretel was unplanned, added to the last half hour of a day’s filming when the idea of marching the toy soldiers through the archway came to me. In the event only a flash of it appears in the production, which is a shame because the bit I like most – right at the end – was left out.

Filming was tricky. The model was very small and the narrow archway meant having to move the toy soldiers through it with tweezers. In fact the steps were so narrow and the soldiers’ bases so tiny that there were times when getting the little fellows in place and balanced long enough for a shot, was challenging. The model wasn’t fixed, but made of loose and unstable blocks, so my every clumsy nudge as I animated made the building appear to wobble in the finished footage. I don’t mind that, as I think it adds charm to the sequence.

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For me, the most touching thing about how this particular animation sequence came about, is that the little dogs were a tender gift from my friend Angela Beaumont, who sent them – ostensibly to Jack – to make me smile at a time when she knew I was worried about his deteriorating health. As it happened the miniature parcel arrived by post the day he died, and the pic of its contents lying in their wrappings next to Jack on his blanket in the window-seat, was the last photograph I took of him.

Over the weeks following Jack’s death, I made several arrangements of the vintage Netherlandish building-blocks (a gift from my friend Mathijs Van Soest), the tin cavalryman, the handful of toy soldiers (which are actually miniature skittles) and of course the pair of tiny dogs. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs got into the picture too, though only temporarily. Ideas for the production were cooking. This is the way I often work as I prepare a project, whether a painting or animation or a model for a book illustration. I constantly build and re-build in different configurations, adding and removing elements, trying out unlikely combinations. It’s a process of play, and somewhere en route, a few ideas coalesce into something that I realise might be heading toward a solution. Simon Armitage’s text for Hansel & Gretel makes reference to the flags of opposing factions, and so I cut paper pennants to tape to the toy soldiers. I made numerous adjustments to the archway, tweaking and finessing.

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When the time came to film animation sequences of the children’s playthings and the war-torn devastation of their community, I realised I could use the building blocks, tin cavalryman and toy soldiers to represent both. Later I decided to put the building blocks and cavalryman on stage, as well as on film, so that Hansel and Gretel could play with them in their bedroom. (For the stage, I’d reversibly glue the blocks together so that the archway wouldn’t collapse during the live action.)

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By animating the toys in the screened sequences, it was possible to bring them to life, suggesting to the audience the children’s imaginative powers to transform the devastation of war and bombings into something they could – at least in part – control.

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Above: the devastation of war represented by ruined buildings, fallen soldiers and stricken animals.

Below: order (and life) restored through the power of play.

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I would have liked to explore more notions of the redemptive power of play. But a production of this complexity – text and music combined with live performances, puppetry and pre-recorded visuals – allows only so much time within its length to piece all the elements together to make sense. The stage performance of Hansel & Gretel lasts just an hour, and there must be the space within that for everything to work without any sense of it being too crammed with ideas. Images have to work alongside words and music, illuminating without overwhelming. I had to simplify.

The ‘making’ time we had on the production was extremely short, followed by all of the filming requirements scheduled into just three days, which is not much at all when you take account of the changes of camera and lighting set-ups, arranging the models and building and striking the heavy animation screen required for the shadow-puppet sequences. We filmed many models: the various set-ups of the forest, the exterior of the witch’s house and the four-storey ‘doll’s house’ used for the interiors, the many set-ups of  the ‘archway’, both intact and in ruins, the ‘mechanical bird’ and scores of ‘still’ shots used to in-fill animation sequences. There were large numbers of complex shadow-screen animations of the parents, of several versions of the witch, and of the extremely-difficult-to-film and labour-intensive ‘dancing Lebkuchen biscuits’, which slid about on the sloping animation board and created endless problems. Phil Cooper – who assisted with the animation – joined me in turning the air blue as we wrangled those damned Lebkuchen into submission!

Cameraman Pete Telfer and I have been working together now for many years and he’s always game for anything I suggest, helping me find ways to achieve the ‘vision’. But though we have a sort of shorthand that enables us to work creatively even when against the clock, this project was beyond any normal definition of ambitious. Phil wasn’t available for all the sessions, which slowed things down on the days he couldn’t be with us. The quality of filmed imagery I wanted for the production was extraordinarily diverse and complex to bring to completion, and in the end I overran the filming schedule by a day.

The editing was at the Moth Factory in Bristol. Jon Street, our amazing editor/vision-mixer, was heroic in finding solutions to the many problems I threw at him. He listened not only to what I asked for, but read between the lines at every stage, working away quietly to find solutions to things he knew I was worrying about though not voicing.

When all the visuals had been fitted to the music and words, we spent a long afternoon colour balancing and adjusting the tonal values of the footage, adding the rich blues we wanted to unify many of the model and papercut animation sequences, and enhancing the shadows.

Below: Jon at the Moth Factory, colour balancing footage of the forest.

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Later, in rehearsals, the film elements of Hansel & Gretel that had been edited to quite rough early recordings of the work, had to be re-shaped to the live music and words, and the editing was for the last time tweaked into shape. In the performances, Jon is behind the camera that streams images of the live puppetry to the screen, and there is no-one better suited to the job because he has such intimate knowledge of how all the pieces of this production fit together. So many people work to bring a project of this scale to the stage, and the individual contributions can’t be measured on a scale. But if there were one, he’d be pretty high up on it. Such insight, good judgement and multiple technical skills – combined with good humour, patience and infinite generosity – don’t usually come in a single package, though in Jon, they do. He’s a champion! We originally came to work together in 2014 on another music/theatre piece, The Mare’s Tale (music by Mark Bowden and words by Damian Walford Davies), and I have Pete Telfer, who was cameraman on that project too, to thank for the introduction. I wouldn’t want to work on any project like this without Pete or Jon.

In creative matters, one thing leads to another. When puppeteer Lizzie Wort watched the animation sequence of the toy soldiers marching through the archway, she went off by herself to work with the model, and produced a lovely sequence in which Gretel pushes soldiers through the archway. It makes for a wonderful reference from live-action to animation and back again, and it shows the rich levels of creativity that can develop when performers and artists are alert to each other’s work, delighting in and then borrowing ideas to run with them and build moments that link, rebound and resonate.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins. August 2018

Wood Into Flesh and Blood

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In my designs for the tabletop-puppets of Hansel and Gretel, made to guide master puppet-maker Jan Zalud in the complex task of building our wooden actors, I sketched unclothed versions so that the proportions of the characters could be seen.

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Items of clothing were of the stick-over variety used for old-fashioned paper dolls, offered more by way of a starting point for puppet wardrobe supervisor, Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths.

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Costuming puppets is a rather hard to define and alchemical skill. It’s the final, transformative stage that comes before entrusting the wooden actors to the puppeteers who will give them life. Flesh and blood performers can take ownership of what’s worn on stage to the point where the warmth and shape of bodies moulds garments so that they stop being ‘costumes’ and become clothes.

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But for the inert, wooden actor, the wardrobe supervisor has to take things several stages further in order for the illusion of the character’s history to be present. It requires a forensic approach to detail, because all the clues of subtle ownership and everyday wear and tear have to be crafted into garments worn by actors unable to add any history of their own. Care must be taken so that miniaturisation doesn’t become a distraction. Meticulously crafting a miniature zip, while impressive at a technical level, has the potential to be a distraction from the puppet’s performance. So there needs to be a careful shorthand, paring away extraneous detail while leaving just enough to be convincing. It’s an illusory craft, because it mustn’t draw attention to itself, which is harder than it sounds.

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Oonagh and I will meet our puppet actors for the first time in London later this month. We’re greatly anticipating the moment. I’ve wanted to collaborate with Jan Zalud for the longest time, but the stars didn’t align for us to do so until this project. Oonagh and I will be able to closely examine Hansel and Gretel and take measurements of them. Her task of compiling photographic references began several weeks ago, but once she can see exactly what she’ll be costuming, the work of bringing wood to life can begin.

 

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Farewell to 2017

2017 was jam-packed with work and events from start to finish. In the Spring the Música en Segura festival took me to Andalusia for Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time concert, for which I’d made images to be screened during the performance.

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Back in the UK at the Lotte Inch Gallery in York, there was a two-person exhibition with my friend Sarah Raphael-Balme, and in Wales an exhibition at Oriel Tegfryn of all the drawings I’d made for the Random Spectacular Hansel & Gretel Picture Book published in 2016.

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Below: specially-bound cover of Hansel & Gretel made for me by Christopher Shaw

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The Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed for Benjamin Pollock‘s Toyshop in Covent Garden was launched, alongside a beautiful pop-up card based on the theatre and a handsomely packaged game of Hansel & Gretel ‘Pelmanism’.

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I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts by Southampton Solent University. I lectured and/or taught at Southampton, Hereford and Cambridge, and these were wonderful interludes in an otherwise gruelling schedule of project deadlines. I guest curated an exhibition, Imagined Realms, at the Royal Cambrian in Conwy, and was able to invite a spectacular array of artists I both admire and love, to take part.

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By far the lion’s share of effort went into completing the fourteen screenprint series in collaboration with Penfold Press, based on Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation of  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in time for the forthcoming exhibition opening on Jan 10th at the Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff. The exhibition will be accompanied by an illuminating text from curator and art writer James Russell.

 

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Below: separations on lithography film for The Exchange, and the completed print.

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Below: Gouache, ink and pencil work on board  – The Stain of Sin.

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More news about what’s planned for the Gawain series to be announced shortly. News too of Hansel & Gretel, who are about to embark on a thrilling journey in the company of a whole bunch of old and new friends with whom to enjoy the adventure!

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I’ll be making a visual accompaniment for Daniel Broncano’s Música en Segura 2018, this time to the music of Stravinsky –

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– and there’s to be a sweetly pretty new Pollock’s Toy Theatre project.

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In the US Marly Youmans has produced a scintillating new collection of poems that I’ll be making a book cover and decorations for, and there’s to be an edition of Jeffery Beam’s Spectral Pegasus poems, illustrated with my series of paintings from the Dark Movements series.

2018 is set to be a year of seeing long term projects developing in ways unanticipated at the times of starting them. Plenty of challenges ahead, then. And deadlines, of course. Always there are the deadlines.

 

 

 

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The Pleasure of Pollock’s

 

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Wonderful things may be seen at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden. The Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre features in the Christmas-themed Pollock’s window situated in the Covent Garden precinct, while in the first-floor shop a glass cabinet overflows with the toy theatre, together with a marvellous cast of the inhabitants of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, iced gingerbread men, assorted Harlequins, Punch and Judy puppets, Russian Dolls, Witch’s cats and just about every treasure any lucky child might wish to find crammed into the toe of a Christmas-stocking! Bliss.

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Below: A Covent Garden street lamp sheds golden light to warm the winter chill, while Hansel & Gretel ride safely home on the back of a friendly duck.

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Two of Everything

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2017 is my year of Hansel and Gretel. Two projects on the theme are now completed, printed and available for purchase. The picture book published by Random Spectacular is available from the publisher, while the toy theatre kit published by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop is available both from the shop in Covent Garden and online.

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They share common elements, though have separate characters and serve quite different purposes. The Random Spectacular publication was always intended as an ‘artist’s book’. In it I had the freedom to be as dark as I liked in my expression of the story.

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By contrast the Pollock’s project took a more playful approach, inspired by the traditions of the toy theatre as practiced by the great publisher of paper stages and the plays produced for them, Benjamin Pollock.

The two projects developed pretty much in tandem, as the arrangement with Pollock’s followed closely on my discussions about the book with Simon Lewin. And while there was no requirement from either publisher that the book and the toy theatre should in any way link, for my own part I wanted there to be a bridge between the two.

The Pollock’s toy theatre wasn’t conceived as an adaptation of the picture book. Rather my thinking on it was that the children of the picture book had survived their travails and moved on, travelling to London where a theatrical producer with an eye to the main chance had persuaded them to appear in a stage version of their own story. This ‘back-story’ was not something that needed to be stated in the sales material for the theatre, but was more by way of what I needed in order to better serve the subject. Just as an actor needs to create a history for a character in order to better play the role, so I needed to create a plausible route for Hansel and Gretel from the book that recounts their story, to the toy theatre that presents it in a changed form.

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Publisher Simon Lewin was incredibly generous in his support of the picture book. He was patient with the time it took for me to produce the images, nurturing the project to completion without making any compromises on the quality we both saw as being essential to our joint vision. The design of the book required a lot of attention to detail, not least because of the several fold-out pages that had to align exactly when in the closed position. It was essential, too, that the book lay flat when open, so that none of the image details were lost in the ‘gutter’, which is the valley caused by the stapling together of pages.

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At Pollock’s, Louise Heard and her team were equally painstaking in seeing through the production of the toy theatre kit. The project called for meticulous realisation because three of the six construction sheets were illustrated on both sides, which required precise alignment at the printing stage. Although small in scale I had ambitions for the model to be a fully functioning toy theatre, with 6 backcloths, 2 side-wings and all the characters and props necessary for a performance of the play.

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I wrote a script to be included with the model, and painted a theatre poster for the production.

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I know that all this provided considerable challenges for everyone concerned, and yet Louise never for a moment balked at the extra work involved. The little stage had to be proofed and trialled over and over to ensure the instructions were accurate and that every aspect of the model worked.

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As the idea behind the toy theatre was that it should represent a ‘stage’ version of the ‘real’ story as expressed in the picture book, I made the children the same in both, though they’re dressed rather more picturesquely for their stage adventures than the neat school uniforms they wear in the book.

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The book’s angry mother, with her slovenly appearance and her face pulled taut by the too-tightly fastened rollers in her hair, is portrayed on stage by a plump and mumsy peasant in a headscarf, deeply concerned that her children are missing in the wood, while the visceral horror of the cannibal witch with her prosthetic nose that she rips aside to better smell Hansel with her wormy nasal cavity, in the play is a less disturbing, more traditional fairy tale crone.

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I like the idea that the stage version wipes away the nightmare of what the children in reality endured, transforming it with glitter and evasions into an acceptable entertainment.

It’s interesting to compare the imagery. The palette is far more vivid and toy-like in the Pollock’s Hansel & Gretel, whereas the book takes a more delicate approach to colour.

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The Witch’s house is similar in both versions, though the stage version comes garnished with icing-sugar decorations.

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In the book Hansel is thrown into a cage by a lumbering, zombie-like gingerbread monster, and locked in to be fattened up for the cooking-pot. He suffers the same fate in the stage version, though there the gingerbread men are small and distinctly less threatening.

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While the Witch is grotesque in both versions, for the stage she is less extreme.

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The friendly Duck is yellow in the book, and pink in the toy theatre…

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… while the oven turns from blue in the book to red for the stage, and leaves out the skull and flames of the former.

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It’s not possible to get away from the fact that the original Hansel & Gretel by the Grimm Brothers is deeply disturbing. Hansel’s fate is to be cooked and eaten, but opportunist Gretel shoves the cannibal Witch into an oven first, slams the door and leaves her to be burned to cinders. No matter how much you gussy up the tale with gingerbread and icing-sugar, it has murder, or at the very least, manslaughter, at its heart. In the picture book I tinkered with the details and ratcheted up the horror. For the toy theatre version I toned down the monstrousness and conjured a picturesque world more suitable for a plaything. The two nevertheless remain linked, and for those in-the-know, they’re intended as companion pieces.

You may purchase the toy theatre

HERE

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and the book, HERE

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Out of these twin publications, picture-book and toy theatre, a third Hansel & Gretel project has been born that will carry the ideas explored so far into new and exciting territories and collaborations. I’ll write about it here when I am able. But you should know that the story is not over yet!

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Little Acorns

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The Toytown Toy Theatre that Daniel Bugg and I made this year as the Penfold Press Christmas card is a tiny thing, though the screen-printed 2 x A4 sheet kit took a lot of planning and producing. Originally we’d intended there to be a third sheet with the instructions. But that would have added significantly to the cost and effort of production, so given the model was quite simple, we decided to let the recipients figure out how to assemble it unaided.

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First of all there were some sketches, then a model or two. I tried various ideas. At one time there was to be a ship at sea with a merman blowing a triton cresting the waves at the stage front. Then I had the notion of a toy-train with steam, and finally, a toy-duck with a top-hat as a steam funnel! Originally the stage front was more of a traditional proscenium.

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I’m not quite sure what prompted me to turn it into a toy town, nor where all the strange creatures that decorate it came from. It’s a bit of a mystery too, that while the roofs of the buildings are crusted with fallen snow, there are spring tulips decorating the front of the stage. Perhaps in Toytown all the seasons come together!

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I rendered the artwork onto film ready for Dan to turn into screens, and finally, the sheets were printed by him at his Penfold Press studio in Barlby.

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Dan sent me a clutch of construction sheets for my own use, and my last job was to snip and glue a theatre so that Peter and I had one for our mantelpiece. It was the centrepiece at Christmas, but long after the other decorations came down, it remained, and it remains there still, wishing anyone who cares to look, Toytown ‘Yuletide Greetings!’

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For my friend Susan, long lost but now found.

I wrote the following in 1998 for the Pelham Puppet Collectors’ Magazine, and it was published in issue No. 10, illustrated with a brush and ink drawing I’d made of my own ‘Bimbo’ puppet.  In 2016, Susan Wilmott contacted me at my Facebook page, over fifty years since we’d last seen each other. I know she has never read what I wrote in 1998, and so here it is, dedicated to her.

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‘In the 1950’s my family lived in an Edwardian terraced house in a suburb of Newport called Maindee. My early years were idyllic, and from the dizzying perspective of middle age, it seems in memory that this childhood realm was a map of delights such as were once found in the endpapers of favourite books. At the bottom is the pocket-handkerchief sized park where I played. To the left is my Nan’s house, bolt-hole and tuck-shop when I was in trouble with my parents. At the top is the wooden shack of the newsagent’s, fragrant with tar and boiled sweets and crammed under the railway bridge like a swallow’s nest glued to the eaves. On Saturdays I’d loiter over selecting comics from the counter, praying that a train would pass over while I was inside so I could experience the thrill of the little building rattling and lurching fit to slip its moorings. At the heart of the map stands our house, red brick and plain, primly aproned with privet at the front though concealing at the back a marvellous and unruly wilderness of cottage garden where rambling roses, honeysuckle and orange blossom tumbled above the massed bedding flowers that were my father’s pride and my mother’s joy. Overlooking the garden, my bedroom, repository of dreams, books, paper theatres, fossils, old bones and Pelham Puppets. On the map this place bears the legend, ‘Here be treasure!’.

My friend Susan Wilmott lived just around the corner. Both in memory and in school photographs she smiles out shyly, forever in summery cotton frocks under pastel cardigans, her fair hair caught back with plastic slides. Like me she collected Pelham Puppets, and whether by accident or plan, we didn’t seem to double up on what we acquired, between us building quite a varied cast of characters. However, there was a puppet of hers I sorely coveted.

Bimbo was the largest puppet in our joint collection, and both his size and design singled him out as being the most handsome. Susan, always generous, allowed me to play with him whenever I visited. We would lift him reverently from his boxed bed of tissue paper before spinning him like a dervish to unwind his strings, his arms and legs flailing wildly. A weighty and beautifully balanced marionette, the extra joint necessitated by a neck separate to his head enormously extended his potential for subtle animation. His vividly painted clown’s mask conjured both humour and melancholy, but we fretted over his mop of orange rug-wool hair, which we were constantly untangling and smoothing down, resulting in it getting a tad grubby. We were therefore alarmed when we discovered that despite all the care we lavished on him, the rabbit-skin glue attaching wool to scalp had become brittle. Underneath his fringe an unsightly crust of adhesive and paint had crazed and come loose, so poor old Bimbo looked as though he had rampant psoriasis of the hairline. From then on we had to take even greater pains with his appearance, combing his increasingly unravelling fringe forward with our fingers to conceal his disfigurement.

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His outsized composition hands and feet made that wonderfully satisfying clonking noise that I’ll always associate with Pelham puppets, and when I finally acquired a Bimbo of my own a couple of years ago, it was after rejecting many of the later models, which have smaller plastic hands, a change that crucially unbalanced the character’s proportions. Another cost-cutting exercise was the introduction of nylon yarn for his hair, and although Bimbo long remained one of Pelham’s most popular puppets, such parings at quality undoubtedly diminished the charm of later versions for those who remembered how magnificent he’d been in his salad days!

The puppet now in my collection is a ringer for the one owned by Susan. He arrived by post, and when I first glimpse him, cradled in tissue wrapping, my heart lurched and I hurtled back through the years to the perpetual summer of childhood. He had mislaid his bow-tie somewhere, and the sharp-eyed Pelham experts among you will have noticed that I replaced it with one made of a checked fabric, instead of a striped one. That apart he is as pristine as the day he left the Marlborough factory all those years ago, and I wonder what became of the child who once owned and cared for him so well. Whoever he or she was, I’m grateful that Bimbo was clearly cherished. He doesn’t have so much as a knot in his strings.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins.’

Yesterday Susan sent me a photograph I can’t recall having ever seen. It’s dated 1961 and was taken in the playground of the school we attended in Maindee, Newport. Susan is second from the left in the front row, holding marionettes of Bimbo and Gretel, and I’m next to her with my puppet of Pinocchio. Just over my shoulder our friend Vivienne holds Hansel.

It was a sunny day, and many of us are squinting against the sun or have eyes downcast. Look how clean and tidy we are, all pressed pleats, short trousers, cardigans and pullovers. Jayne Venn, second from the right at the back, with her neat, glossy ‘Louise Brooks’ bobbed hair. David Russell in red at the back just behind Vivienne. I remember him as solid, dependable and kindly. Penny Stark, who I had a crush on, directly behind Susan Wilmott. Behind me, head cocked, Susan Hill. Still living in Newport, Susan Hill provided most of the names that I’d forgotten. I was in awe of her because she was so clever. But who’s the boy on the right in the front, wearing a striped sweater and holding a Pelham Ballerina in his left hand? Can’t recall, though I remember his face so well.

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