David Leech is an event director, performer and puppet-maker of the famous Pelham Puppets. For 15 years he had a puppet theatre in Dorset. Now he continues to design and make puppets for children and for professional puppeteers. To Mark the 70th Anniversary of Pelham Puppets, David produced the Marlborough Puppetry Festival in partnership with the British Puppet & Model Theatre Guild and with the support of Marlborough Town Council.
The first Marlborough Puppetry Festival will be held on July 8th and 9th in 2017. How did it come about?
A year ago, it occurred to me that 2017 would mark 70 years since Bob Pelham started his company and I had twice, on the 50th and 60th anniversaries, tried unsuccessfully to mark the occasions with some sort of public celebration. However back then, I was met with indifference and apathy, but one evening last year, I thought, ‘let’s try again!’
My first action was to email one of the Town Councillors with my idea for a puppet festival – maybe Marlborough would be ready to embrace the idea? Despite the lack of funding and the failed funding bid from the Arts Council, I’m happy to say that the Town Council have been very supportive, both with providing the venues and making a £1,000 donation.
The Town Clerk especially has done far more than I ever expected in helping to bring it all together. There is a great team of volunteers working hard locally, so they are helping with local fundraising and event management. It’s strange how things change with time. There’s now a great appetite for nostalgia and the retrospective, once people realise that what they once had has gone forever.
For over thirty-three years Bob Pelham spent almost every working day designing and supervising the manufacture of his award-winning puppets. Bob Pelham once said, “the puppet world is more appealing and lovable than anything I know. A world of fantasy and mystery in which live a host of intriguing little people with their own characters and temperaments, a law unto themselves, neither animals nor humans, yet always ready to please.” Bob Pelham’s unique puppets came to be loved by children all over the world. Pelham puppets are special and it required a special person whose aim was not to create a ‘big business’ but to produce something new, creative and imaginative for people to enjoy.
You have had a long career as a puppeteer, producer and a puppet maker. What made you want to work within the puppetry world? Could you also share your favourite memory regarding your experiences at Pelham Puppets?
I asked my parents for a dog when I was seven years old and what they got me was a wooden dog on strings, which was a Pelham puppet. And I still have the same one. Then I got more Pelham puppets from the local toy shop and me and my friend started to do shows together when we were eleven years old. I wrote to Bob Pelham and told him about our shows and he wrote back and eventually I met him.
I have many memories from my time at the factory and Bob Pelham’s home. I knew Bob Pelham from age 11 and used to visit once or twice a year every year and stay at his home for a week during school holidays and work in the factory. He never paid me. I was “paid” in puppets! He would say, “Go into the stock room and help yourself.” I would select about four puppets and make my way to his car for the return journey to the train station, but he’d say, “That’s not enough!” – and load me up with several more puppets. I could hardly manage them on the return journey, struggling on and off trains with several carrier bags full of puppets. In that way, Christmas always came early.
A few years after leaving school I eventually moved to Marlborough and I worked in almost every department in the factory, except for the Sewing Room and the Moulding Room. I couldn’t get used to those industrial sewing machines, they were like machine guns going off, they just went too fast for little old me and I avoided the Moulding Room, mainly because of the smell! However, I look back now with great affection for those years, I reckon with rose coloured glasses to some extent. Imagine working in a factory with over one hundred ladies, when you’re just a young lad. I quickly learned not to get involved with “work-room gossip!”
Today, there is no sign that the puppet factory ever existed, apart from the fact that the area is known as Pelham Court. However, during the summer months the ducks still paddle and quack along with the stretch of the River Kennett that ran through the factory site, but the sounds of drills humming and hammers tapping and the aroma of sawdust and coffee have long since gone.
I started to research and writing about the history and development of Pelham Puppets (with Bob Pelham’s help) sitting in his favourite armchair in his living room at his home one November evening in 1973. It took 35 years to finally get the book published in 2008 and then, lo and behold – a Marlborough publisher did it! Crowood Press in Ramsbury.
What are you most excited to see during the festival?
For me one of the highlights will be to see the old Pelham Puppets from 1947 and to meet the people I used to work with for 40 years ago. In the Town Hall, we will have the “Bob Pelham World of Puppets” exhibition. This will include over 150 puppets beautifully displayed and set into scenes and depicting the various ranges and characters produced from 1947 to 1986.
Another exhibition in St Peter’s Church – “A Walk Down Memory Lane” – featuring puppets and other items from the Pelham Puppet factory and photographs of the people who worked there and how the puppets were produced. Visitors will be able to meet with former employees who will share their personal memories about their time working at the factory and about the work they did. Entrance is free and this presents a lovely opportunity to learn about Pelham Puppets first-hand from some of the people that made them.
Thirdly, with the help from Michael Dixon, we will have a special exhibition in Marlborough’s newly opened museum within the Merchant’s House, which will include the Hogarth Collection. Jan Bussell and Ann Hogarth were a great help to Bob when he first started his business in the post-war years and we will have some of the first puppets produced from 1947-1949 including the very first Scotsman puppet, “Sandy MacBoozle”, which Bob Pelham made on June 22nd, 1947.
I noticed that in addition to the wonderful exhibitions, the Marlborough Puppetry Festival will offer several indoor puppetry performances, outdoor shows and workshops, aimed to enable you to reach new audiences and many who might not have seen a puppet performance before.
Bob Pelham (1919-1980) always encouraged people to get involved with the world of puppetry and now, many of the professional puppeteers appearing at the festival started with Pelham Puppets. So I hope this event will also serve as a showcase for British puppetry too. It is not a ‘dying art-form’ as many seem to think. It is very much alive! And Bob Pelham’s legacy and influence have a great deal to do with that.
I agree with you, David, it sounds like this festival will be a remarkable celebration of Pelham Puppets and British puppet theatre and the great impact that Pelham Puppets had on the young puppeteers, now part of the professional puppet theatre culture in the United Kingdom.
The Marlborough Puppetry Festival will run on the weekend of 8th and 9th July 2017. To find out more about the festival, visit the British Puppet & Model Theatre Guild’s website and keep an eye on the Festival Facebook page for all the latest news and announcements. Find out more about David Leech and Bob Pelham at the Pelham Puppet website here.