WHEN, in 1932, F. J. Harvey Darton published his Children’s Books in England, a celebratory exhibition was laid on by the booksellers
Bumpus at its premises in the Old Court House, Oxford Street, London. As
part of the festivities, at 3.30 every afternoon His Amiability Sir Humpty
Dumpty performed The Corsican Brothers on a toy theatre installed for the occasion.
was the 18-year-old George Speaight who had not long left Haileybury School
(through “family troubles”) and whose father had been trying to get him a
job in the book trade. The boy was long-practised as an operator of toy
theatres, having taken over a Pollock stage from his older brothers at the
age of 10, and his success at the Bumpus event led to a burgeoning
freelance career in this byway of theatrical entertainment. (Another
performance of The Corsican Brothers at the George Inn, Southwark,
in 1930 prompted a long and favourable report in the magazine Life and
Letters Today.) George Victor Speaight was born in 1914. The theatre
was very much in his blood — one of his two brothers was the actor Robert
Speaight. But instead of following a conventional stage career he found
himself more and more drawn to theatres-in-little and to the study of
popular entertainment. During the 1930s he extended his work with toy
theatres to training and performing as a puppeteer — apart from a brief,
eccentric spell with Eric Gill at Piggots, where he worked on the farm.
service was not allowed to interrupt his theatrical interests. After
initial enrolment in the Fire Service he became a wireless operator in the Merchant
and, later, the Royal Navy; but he spent much time garnering and organising
information about the history of toy theatres.
In 1944 a
series of events — most notably Alan Keene’s takeover of Pollock’s, the
historic company catering to toy theatre enthusiasts, and Speaight’s
gaining full access to M. W.Stone’s huge annotated collection of juvenile
drama prints — resulted in the publisher Macdonald & Co contracting for
his “story of an obsession”.
Drama: The History of the English Toy Theatre appeared in
December 1946, and the dateline to its preface: “London — Glasgow — Bombay
— Colombo 1945” indicates the vicissitudes of its composition. Carrying his
research about with him, either in his head or in his kitbag, Speaight had
contrived a study that was both authoritative and enriched by his personal
enthusiasm, with acknowledgements to a host of helpers including the
Colombo Public Library.
return home in 1946 he married the wood-engraver Mary Mudd who was on the
staff of the Geffrye Museum, London, and he joined Alan Keene at Pollock’s.
He did not confine his activities to toy theatre however.
In 1948 he
and Ifan Kyrle Fletcher founded the Society for Theatre Research, of whose Theatre
Notebook he would eventually become editorial manager. In 1950-51 he
played the part of the puppeteer in the Edinburgh Festival/Old Vic
production of Bartholomew Fair, and participated in performances
with the Old Time Marionettes at the Festival of Britain. He also joined
some like-minded friends in an informal club calling itself the
Unconsidered Triflers — an early manifestation of the movement for
after a short period as public relations officer at the Nottingham
Playhouse, Speaight was thrown back on his own resources and settled down
to write his second major exploratory study: A History of the English
Puppet Theatre (1955). Its publication almost coincided with a
diversion of his career back towards what his father had planned in 1932.
He entered the books trade as an editor of children’s encyclopaedias and
reference book at Odhams Press, a company whose success in mass-market
publishing contrasted sharply with the dedication to quality of George
Rainbird, whose firm he joined in 1960. There he edited such extensive projects
as the Catholic Encyclopaedia, and by the time of his retirement
in 1974 he had become editorial director of Rainbird Reference.
from regular editorial work enabled him to give more time to his theatrical
explorations. He continued to perform both with toy theatres and as a
puppeteer, commencing regular annual tours of Germany as a puppet master.
Back at home, revised editions of his two histories came out in 1969 and
1990, and there were added The Book of Clowns and A History of the
Circus (both 1980) . An abortive study of pantomime, based on a tour of all
the productions of a single winter season, led only to a spin-off about
bawdy songs, which he vainly hoped would have the makings of a bestseller.
once described himself as a “frustrated actor”, but while he may never have
enjoyed whatever glamour the large stage has to offer, he did enjoy the
independence of the small one, where everything could be under his own
control. His big, but adaptable, voice and his ebullient personality made
him a master showman, and he was generous in his help to all who shared his
affection for theatrical history.
In 2002, in
his late eighties, at a conventional enough academic conference, he
galvanised his audience with a rousing account of the tuppence-coloured
glories of the miniature stage. A year later, at a Puppet Guild Festival,
he put on a final performance of his showpiece, The Miller and His Men,
complete with kettle whistle, tin tray and hammer for the concluding
however, he had suffered from increasingly poor health, and the death of
his wife in November affected him greatly. He is survived by a son and
Speaight, theatre historian and authority on the toy theatre, was born on
September 6, 1914. He died on December 22, 2005, aged 91.