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George Speaight – Times Obituary

Puppeteer and historian whose extensive researches led to his writing the definitive works on the English toy theatre

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.

His Amiability 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.

 

 

His war 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”.

Juvenile 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.

On his 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 collecting ephemera.

In 1953, 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.

Liberty 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.

Speaight 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 explosion.

Since then, 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 daughter.

George Speaight, theatre historian and authority on the toy theatre, was born on September 6, 1914. He died on December 22, 2005, aged 91.