R.I.P. Mr Turnip


Mr Turnip was the brain-child of the BBC producer Michael Westmore, who in 1950 was looking for a new puppet character for the children’s magazine programme Whirligig. Muffin the Mule was already appearing in the series, but Westmore wanted a marionette that could play alternate weeks with Muffin. Annette Mills fronted the Muffin sequences, playing the piano and singing songs, but the mule remained voiceless, which was proving restrictive in terms of the scripts. A creative team was assembled to make good the deficit. Peter Hawkins would be the voice of the new character… as he later would provide voices for the puppets Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men… and Peter Ling was engaged to write the scripts. Richard Henry created detailed miniature sets, and Humphrey Lestocq… H. L. to the viewers… was chosen to be the presenter. In fact so effective were Lestocq and Turnip as a team, that the method pioneered by them became the standard practice for presenting puppets on TV.

Michael Westmore entrusted the realisation of Turnip to the young puppeteer and puppet-maker Joy Laurey, who operated him for the six years he appeared on Whirligig. Laurey had impeccable credentials for making the marionette. Her great grandfather was Sam Laurey, a Drury Lane clown who had been apprenticed to the young Joseph Grimaldi. The Laurey family had long been making beautiful marionettes when Joy, her mother and her sister were recruited by E.N.S.A. to entertain the troops with their puppets. When the BBC went into production with Children’s Hour programmes at Lime Grove after the war, Joy’s reputation with puppets secured her the commission to design and make Mr Turnip.

In these days of syndication and lucrative character-led merchandising, it’s almost impossible to imagine what it must have been like for the young Laurey when confronted by the almost instant, unexpected success of her marionette. Single-handedly and with no experience of such matters, she attempted to deal with the flood of Turnip-related enquiries.

Quite quickly the puppet had his own cartoon strips in Playways and Mickey Mouse Weekly, and to begin with Joy supplied artwork for the comics, though because of her bi-weekly Whirligig commitments she eventually had to pass the responsibilities to other hands. She frankly struggled to keep up with the demands generated by Mr Turnip ‘mania’.

Such a thing would never happen now. The assumption at the time seems to have been that Joy owned the copyright of the puppet she’d been commissioned to produce, and so he was hers to do with as she wished. The BBC hadn’t anticipated the success Turnip would enjoy, and his maker wasn’t at all savvy in the ways of business. (The BBC wouldn’t make such a mistake again, and subsequent TV puppet characters were copyrighted by the organisation.) There were Mr Turnip bars of soap, painting books, story books, jumping-jacks and pyjamas. A small lead puppet was produced ‘By arrangement with Miss Joy Laurey’. There was a request for Mr Turnip to be represented on the backs of Kellogg’s cereal boxes, and enquiries regarding Turnip endorsements of products. Joy didn’t know what had hit her.

Below: ‘Luntoy’ Mr Turnip metal marionette, manufactured by Barrett & Sons.

Later Mr Turnip was licensed to the Marlborough-based toy company, Pelham Puppets, who produced a beautifully realised marionette of the character. When I contacted Joy in 1997 to request an interview, she explained in our initial telephone conversation that she had never even seen the puppet Pelham had produced to her design, and so I traced one down and brought it to her as a gift.

Below: Mr Turnip meets his Pelham doppelgänger.

Smaller than the original Mr Turnip, the Pelham version was in all other ways an impressive facsimile of the original save for the stringing, which was much simplified. The commercial puppet sartorially aped Turnip Snr’s rather dandyish style, and Joy Laurey was enchanted with the ‘mini-me’ version of her old friend.

Below: Joy Laurey and Clive Hicks-Jenkins in 1997.

Below: Joy with Mr Turnip

Meeting and talking with Joy Laurey at her home was a wonderful experience. I’d loved Mr Turnip as a child watching Whirligig on the television, and the opportunity to shake hands with him over forty years later… and then to operate him too… fulfilled a long held ambition. He was a weighty and complicated marionette, with an elegance of movement that was apparent the moment I took up his control-bar.

When in 1957 Mr Turnip was retired, Joy was hired by Gerry Anderson to create the puppets for The Adventures of Twizzle. She not only made the puppets for the show, but with Murray Clark and Christine Glanville, operated them for fifty-two episodes between 1957 and 1959. Joy explained that she didn’t always get on particularly well with Anderson, who she found to be rather impatient with the processes of making and performing with marionettes, and saw the puppet programmes simply as stepping-stones to his ultimate ambition to produce live-action TV adventure series. (He eventually managed this leap from puppets to live actors, with somewhat mixed results.)

Joy couldn’t have been more generous in sharing her memories of her life as a puppet-maker/puppeteer, which were still vivid and fresh. She’d pretty much set aside her puppets after marriage and children, and we spent the afternoon together sifting through old suitcases of memorabilia. She told me there were many more puppets stored in boxes her garage, and she rather dreaded the task of going through them all, though she said it with a twinkle, and I could see that in fact she rather relished the idea of time spent examining her past. Had I lived closer I would have volunteered to help, but it’s a long drive from Wales to Essex.

I walked away from the day with a treasure: a tiny calling-card, almost the last of a small cache Joy had preserved from Mr Turnip’s glory days, when children visiting him at the BBC Lime Grove studios would each be presented with a memento from their hero’s waistcoat pocket. I keep it in the marionette cabinet with my own Pelham Puppet Mr Turnip. It’s no bigger than a postage stamp, though freighted with memories that make me almost dizzy with happiness.

A bare year after I’d visited Joy in Essex, I discovered to my surprise there had been an auction of all her puppets and puppet memorabilia. Later I found an online catalogue of items in the auction, which included the following:

“Mr Turnip BBC TV original Whirligig puppet prop, 1950s, papier mache and lime wood, hand-made by Joy Laurey, fully operational moving inset eyes, articulated jaw, coiled wire turnip root at top of head, painted features including black beauty spot to upper lip, jointed wooden arms and legs, lead weighted feet, fifteen strings and control bars, wearing original brown velvet jacket, white cotton dress shirt complete with collar and tie, tiny pearl buttons, multi-coloured spotted brocade waistcoat with pair of charms (heart and coin) attached, green cloth trousers, within original carrying case labelled ‘JOY LAUREY PUPPET STUDIO TIPTREE ESSEX TEL TIPTREE 133’ on a hand-written paper label to inner lid. In addition dark brown velvet smoking jacket with gold brocade trim, padded collar and cuffs, extra brown velvet jacket and cloth cape, green stage curtains, linen thread for stringing. Plus props: despatch case, brass candlestick, wooden chair, rocking chair, brocade cushion, miniature business/calling cards, miniature TV , straw boater, Colonel Beetroot’s hat, patterns for Mr Turnip’s clothes and disguises. Some moth damage to clothing, overall wear commensurate to age, 21.5″/55cm (qty). NB These props can be seen within many of the period photographs of the time.”

Below is an image from the Vectis auction site showing the Pelham Mr Turnip I’d given to Joy the previous year, together with the photograph (bottom left) taken by my partner Peter Wakelin of the moment the original Mr Turnip met his Pelham facsimile. There is also a copy of the magazine for which I’d produced an article about Joy.

On seeing the auction contents I supposed that Joy had died. I didn’t think for a moment that she would have surrendered her precious Mr Turnip while she still lived. The time I spent with her… and him… was evidence of her pride in and affection for the little man. I was perplexed too that her family could have relinquished what Joy had produced in her youth. But the auction catalogue and the prices the items had fetched were online, evidence that the collection had been sold. I was saddened, though relieved that I’d taken the opportunity to contact and then meet the puppeteer the previous year. Among the many puppets and puppet-related memorabilia listed in the auction catalogue, was the Pelham Mr Turnip marionette I’d left with her at the time of my visit.

It turned out I was mistaken in believing the auction of Mr Turnip and many other of Joy’s puppets had been evidence of her death, when a recent Guardian obituary announced her passing this year, aged ninety. Why the collection representing her lifetime of achievement as a respected puppeteer was sold a year after I’d met her and long before her death, remains a mystery to me. Perhaps it had become a burden to her and to her family. I wish I had known about it at the time. I don’t think I could have passed on the opportunity to acquire the puppet-hero of my childhood. Mr Turnip started a journey for me that continues. In my head he’s an old and much loved travelling companion.

Joy Laurey (Joy Dorothy Luczyc-Wyhowski), puppeteer. Born 30 April 1924; died 2 June 2014