George Speaight
Jan. 14, 2006

George Speaight, who has died aged 91, was a puppeteer for more than 70 years, and the leading authority on 19th-century toy theatre.

As a performer of the three great classics, The Miller and his Men, The Corsican Brothers and Sleeping Beauty, he did much to keep the tradition of the puppet theatre going as a brief revival of interest in the 1920s tailed off.

Standing behind his 21-in theatre, he would slide the cardboard figures around the stage and speak all the dialogue while producing sound effects with a tin tray, kettle whistles and a Victorian musical box.

Such productions were designed for a drawing-room audience of no more than 30, but Speaight's use of grandiloquent language and dramatic action, with sword fights, trap doors and, particularly, the explosive climax to The Miller, made for riveting performances.

He also pursued a second career, writing Juvenile Drama: the History of the English Toy Theatre (1945) and History of the English Puppet Theatre (1955). Although he possessed some Punch and Judy puppets, Speaight never used them himself in performance. But he enjoyed being a "bottler", who drums up the crowds and exchanges badinage with Punch before and during performances.

George Victor Speaight was born on September 6 1914 at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, the son of an entrepreneur who bought his children a toy theatre. The eldest, who became the Shakespearean actor Robert Speaight, lost interest, but for George, 10 years his junior, it became an abiding interest. When their father fell into financial difficulties Robert contributed to George's fees at Haileybury, where he played a witch in Macbeth and Cassius in Julius Caesar in productions that toured in Europe.

On leaving school, George was taken to Bumpus's bookshop in Oxford Street, where he was turned down for a job until his father spotted a toy theatre and suggested he could stage performances as well as work behind the counter. Lasting about 20 minutes, these were put on during the Christmas season to audiences that included Bernard Shaw (who was so impressed that it may well have nudged him into writing his own puppet play Shakes versus Shav) and Peter Brook, who has credited Speaight with inspiring him to pursue a theatrical career.

After being received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1934, Speaight joined the sculptor Eric Gill's community at Pigotts, in Hertfordshire, where he gave a performance in a barn, and conceived the idea of writing his book about Punch and Judy while digging potatoes.

He started the Second World War as a conscientious objector, and served with the Auxiliary Fire Service in London before taking a course as a radio operator and joining the Civilian Shore Wireless Service run by the Royal Navy. He served at Gibraltar from 1941 to 1943, then transferred to the uniformed service. After being commissioned, he was a radio operator on several frigates based in Londonderry and Belfast, took part in the invasion of Normandy, and was sunk in Bickerton on convoy to Murmansk.

As manager of Pollock's Toy Theatres after the war, he wrote his own play, The Atom Secrets, and devised a toy theatre version of Laurence Olivier's film of Hamlet.

During the next five years Speaight wrote his second book, History of the English Puppet Theatre. He also performed the puppet play in Bartholomew Fair, directed by George Devine at the Old Vic and at the Edinburgh Festival, and restored a troupe of old puppets to perform as "The Old-Time Marionettes" at the Battersea Pleasure Gardens as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951. For six months he was public relations officer for the Nottingham Playhouse.

In 1955 he joined Odhams Press as a children's editor, then moved five years later to George Rainbird, from which he retired as a director in 1974 to publish The Book of Clowns, A History of the Circus and Bawdy Songs of the Early Music Hall.

During these years, he was a member of the jury at the International Festival of Puppet Theatre at Bucharest, and masterminded the Covent Garden festival to mark the tercentenary of the first sighting on English soil of Punch by Samuel Pepys.

Speaight was a founding member of the Society for Theatre Research, whose journal Theatre Notebook he edited from 1969 to 1976. He completed, in 1999, a catalogue of 324 plays that had been adapted for the toy theatre from stage plays of the 19th century, The Juvenile Drama: a Union Catalogue.

He served on the presidium of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette, and was a vice-president of the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild and a director of the company responsible for the Little Angel Theatre at Islington. He co-founded the London Munich Puppet Players, and appeared as an actor accompanying the puppets; in one sketch, Shakespeare and Co, he wore a pinstriped suit and bowler to do readings from Beowulf.

When in 2003 he gave his final performance of The Miller, Speaight asked his wife to do the men's parts, which he had forgotten.

George Speaight, who died on December 22, married, in 1946, Mary Olive Mudd, who predeceased him by a few weeks. He is survived by their son Antony Speaight, QC, and by their daughter, Margaret Hebblethwaite, the journalist.

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