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More than Pretty Pictures

Horatio Blood celebrates the enduring charms of the toy theatre, and honours legendary doyen of the form, George Speaight


The toy theatre, or juvenile drama, has been a presence on the English scene since before The Battle of Waterloo and although at times its survival has teetered precariously near the edge of catastrophe, it appears to possess the phoenix-like quality of rising again from the wreckage on the tragic carpet. To many these brightly coloured engravings are just a series of pretty pictures for the amusement of the young ’uns, to be cut up and played with. They are of course, and that’s what they were designed for, but their true importance lies in the fact that these popular prints are absolutely rooted to the real London stage, and – for fifty years from 1811 – they provide us with a unique and historically invaluable visual record of almost every popular melodrama, pantomime and theatrical spectacle of the age. They preserve the costumes, scenery, style and atmosphere of actual performances which otherwise would be an entirely lost world. Changing tastes in the real theatre as romanticism was replaced by realism (a slippery slope and best avoided) meant that no new plays were adapted for the toy theatre after the early 1860s, although much of the old repertoire was kept in print until 1944, hand coloured to the last.

The toy theatre’s first serious rediscovery was by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1884 with his now famous essay A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured. Its first great revival was in 1926 when Diaghilev used the prints of Pollock and Webb (the last surviving publishers) as the inspiration for his ballet The Triumph of Neptune. George Speaight’s influential performances at Bumpus’s Bookshop began in 1932, and the notion of toy theatre shows for public, rather than parlour, entertainment has been continued by a small but dedicated band of followers ever since. The principal practitioners being Peter Baldwin and Barry Clarke who both respectfully uphold the cardboard conventions and traditions by presenting their toy theatre performances in the authentic nineteenth century manner. There are also those who have successfully developed their own contemporary interpretation of the genre, most notably Robert Poulter’s New Model Theatre and Joe Gladwin’s Paperplays.

The saving of the Pollock business in 1944 by Alan Keen and once again in 1956 by Marguerite Fawdry kept the toy theatre alive, and (barring a brief interregnum in the early 1950s) reprints of stage fronts, orchestras and the plays themselves (though merely a handful of titles from the hundreds originally produced) have been available in one form or another throughout the twentieth century. But it has long had the air of a rather guarded secret about it, a hidden passion in a private world. Mr Pollock, the last of the true toy theatre makers who died in 1937, once said, “You can’t do anything of this sort unless your heart’s in it” and the juvenile drama has always seemed to represent a triumph of love over money. And whereas for many years there have been regular toy theatre festivals in Europe, where they too have a tradition of native paper theatre, such activity has been rather sporadic in England until now.

Fortunately times are changing and recent years have witnessed the beginnings of an organised and concerted revival that continues to gather momentum, firing the imagination of a wider audience willing to be enchanted by the magical world as seen through the miniature proscenium arch. This revival was instigated by a series of reprints of complete toy theatre plays orchestrated by Barry Clarke in 2003, which reinstated long-neglected classics of the 1830s and 40s to the toy theatre repertoire and were accompanied by erudite, perceptive and enjoyably witty historical notes by David Powell. The same year saw exhibitions devoted to The Triumph of Neptune and also to George Speaight himself.

A great defining moment was the hugely successful exhibition William West and the Regency Toy Theatre at Sir John Soane’s Museum, providing the toy theatre with an opportunity to “flaunt itself in high company” thereby attracting queues to Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Perhaps the happiest legacy of this exhibition has been the resurrection of William West by David Drummond, initially recreated for an audio monologue based on Henry Mayhew’s 1850 interview. This battered old Cockney has taken on a life of his own and Mr Drummond’s subsequent appearances in character complete with square paper hat and asthmatic wheeze, have become much enjoyed features of subsequent festivities.

The exhibition George Speaight: A Life in Toy Theatre coincided with George’s farewell toy theatre performance, organised by the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild. At the age of 88, he was finally lowering the neatly-patched green calico curtain on the Redington Theatre (which he bought from Mr Pollock in 1932) for the last time. The play was, of course, The Miller and his Men, the undisputed classic culminating in the terrific explosion of the windmill and total destruction of the robber band. For the first and only occasion in his career he was assisted by his wife Mary (aged 91) and the result was a triumphant conclusion to over seventy years before the public.

To commemorate George Speaight’s ninetieth birthday, the Society for Theatre Research hosted a party at the Theatre Museum in October 2004, which included a celebratory entertainment in the form of a toy theatre version of George’s life entitled Baron Speaighthausen. The Speaight family photograph albums were plundered for suitable snaps to be turned into cardboard characters against a backdrop of appropriate scenery. Timothy West and Bamber Gascoigne delivered tributes to George and as a curtain raiser to the performance the shade of William West was manifested by David Drummond wearing a Georgian frock coat said to have once belonged to David Garrick (or so they claimed in the Portobello Road). Participating were many of the leading toy theatre players of the day, all of them friends of George: Peter Baldwin, Barry Clarke, Joe Gladwin, Cathy Haill, Robert Poulter and David Robinson. To accompany the songs sung by Peter Charlton (new words to old tunes of Harry Champion’s), Miss Haill, guardian of popular entertainment at the Theatre Museum, had secured the services of Oliver Davies, pianist and historian of music par excellence, who brought along the original 1813 overture to The Miller and his Men.

“Would you like to hear it?” he asked, “Yes please!” It was exhilarating and this chance occurrence sowed the seed for the grand memorial performance of West’s The Miller and his Men the following year, presented as a melodrama proper with the full script and Henry Bishop’s score and songs. Baron Speaighthausen was written in doggerel verse and the most delightful part of the proceedings was an unexpected finale when George stood up to deliver his own impromptu couplet to unbounded applause.


In October 2005 George Speaight was guest of honour at the private view of the exhibition W. G. Webb and the Victorian Toy Theatre at Finsbury where battered gilt gesso picture frames, theatres on crimson chenille-draped tablecloths and a plaster bust of Her Late Glorious Majesty conjured up an appropriate atmosphere. This was the London encore to the toy theatre festival held the month before at Broadstairs and organised by Laurie Webb, great grandson of the eponymous publisher. The accompanying catalogue by David Powell received the Speaightian verdict of approval: “A very important work”, and thus the grand old historian of the juvenile drama tacitly passed his mantle onto his successor.


However this was to be George’s last public appearance. He died two months later, seemingly of a broken heart, outliving his beloved wife Mary by just five weeks. Although old age had noticeably caught up with them both in the preceding months, their deaths were an enormous loss to the toy theatre community. But we counted ourselves very fortunate indeed that they had not only lived to see the opening acts of the twenty-first century toy theatre revival but had played such an active and enthusiastic part in the proceedings. George’s passing meant that one of the last remaining links to Mr Pollock had gone, and one was struck with a palpable sense of history that we had known a man who knew a man who knew Robert Louis Stevenson.

Despite his passion for coloured fire, Young Blood denies all knowledge of the terrific explosion in the housekeeper’s room. Although he does own up to making toy theatres, devising entertainments and writing doggerel verse.

He is currently undertaking the research for the exhibition Hodgson’s Juvenile Drama: The British Stage in Miniature 1821–1840 opening 29 October 2007 at Guildhall Library Print Room, Albermanbury, London, EC2 until February 2008. It is hoped this will be accompanied by a grand toy theatre performance of Pierce Egan’s Life in London presented using Hodgson & Co’s characters and scenes. Further details available from horatioblood@yahoo.co.uk

For further on toy theatre visit the website of the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild at: www.puppetguild.org.uk

There are many interesting websites dedicated to toy theatre. The editor’s personal favourite is Penny Plain Tuppence Coloured, to be found at: http://pollocks.trishymouse.net/index1.html

 

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