Jennifer Waite has fond memories of working in the Pelham Puppet factory in the late 1950’s. She told marlborough.news : “I enjoyed the friendship and how everyone worked together. It was like a big family. It was such a happy place to work.”
She worked mainly with the mini-pups (mini puppet range) of Wags the dog, poodles, parrots and various other birds and animals. She remembers Johnny Morris from BBC’s Animal Magic visiting the factory.
Jennifer’s job was to construct the puppets using little screws, hooking the bodies together with pliers. All the puppet faces were hand painted. Once the bodies were complete they moved to the room for stringing and then to the sewing room for costumes.
Some puppets, particularly the eight foot high ones, were made for display. Jennifer worked with owner Bob Pelham to construct one such puppet whose destination was Hamleys, London.
“Bob would visit the factory nearly every day, talking to everyone. He was like a God to everyone who worked there.”
Jennifer says he was generous to his staff and gave away the puppet seconds. “My children had hours of fun playing with a load of them.”
Once Jennifer had small children at home she stopped working in the factory and became one of the many Pelham homeworkers.
Back to Marlborough Puppetry Festival
Bob Pelham and Pelham Puppets are fondly remembered by Tony Gray. Tony was owner of Ducks Toy Shop, Marlborough from 1965 to 2008, a former Marlborough mayor and town councillor. He has recently been presented with a life-time achievement award by Marlborough town council.
Tony told marlborough.news: “ Initially Bob Pelham had his own shop in Kingsbury Street and in the post war period used a lot of ex-army materials, convoluted tubes from gas masks, as well as wooden coconut balls. As the business expanded to the factory down by the Kennet, off London Road, Pelham Puppets became a huge employer in the town with wonderful esprit de corps among the workers.”
Tony shared his memories of Bob Pelham who died suddenly of a heart attack in 1980.
“Bob Pelham was a very shy man. He seemed to communicate through his puppets. He would come to the shop on a Saturday morning with new puppet designs and walk up to kids with the puppets. The kids would talk to the puppet and not to him.”
Ducks Toy shop became one of the main retailers for the puppets, along with Hamleys in London and Schwarz in New York.
‘We used to go down to the factory to pick up the puppets and this gave us the pick of the bunch. At Christmas we would have a special animated (motorised) Pelham Puppet display in the window of Ducks.”
Tony and his wife with Bimbo the ClownWhen Tony became Mayor of Marlborough in 1971 he invited local businesses to a trade fair and asked them to mount a display. Bob Pelham created an eight foot Bimbo the Clown puppet especially for this event. ( See photograph of Tony and his wife with Bimbo the Clown.)
The puppets were always successful, especially with American tourists visiting Marlborough. Some of the best-selling puppets in Ducks included Muffin the Mule, Mcboozle, and in 1966, World Cup Willy. In the 60’s and 70’s The Magic Roundabout characters were very popular, particularly Dougal the dog.
Bob Pelham was meticulous in sourcing exactly the right materials for his puppets. He went to Iceland to buy Icelandic sheepskin for his Dougal puppets because he believed that Icelandic sheepskin had just the right texture for Dougal’s coat.
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At First Light by Vanessa Lafaye (Published June 2017 by Orion)
If you like a really good story really well told, this is a book for you. Vanessa Lafaye's second novel - At First Light - tells a fairly discomforting tale, but it tells it with a clarity and a pace that keeps you involved - and guessing.
It is a novel based on a news item from history - from the year the First World War ended. It was probably just a News in Brief item and the author has woven around it a cast of easily understood and colourful characters inhabiting a place that generally seems somewhat monochrome and certainly bleakly sordid - Florida's Key West settlement.
The time she has chosen is crucial: the Great War is over, men are returning from fighting in France, prohibition is coming, the Ku Klux Klan is gathering strength, the Spanish flu pandemic is bringing its ugly way of death to Key West.
Into this maelstrom comes Alicia - forced to flee her home in Cuba. She is 'brown'. She is surprised and shocked to find herself managing a brothel. She then surprises herself by falling in love with a war-damaged soldier. He is white. And their union provides an excuse for the KKK to mobilise.
Alicia Cortez takes over the brothel - which goes under the sly name of The Tea Room - from her aunt who has been killed by the Spanish flu. Her lover, John Morales, runs a bar called - quaintly enough - The Last Resort.
With a tide of American patriotism running strongly after the war, the bar might have been called the last refuge.
Descriptions of place are sketches rather than street maps, but they still give the reader a clear picture of the frontier town world of Key West. And what might in another hand become overblown and wordy, the set pieces are treated like the everyday stuff of life they must seem to be to At First Light's cast of characters.
One of Vanessa Lafaye's great skills is to write entirely objectively about the highly ethical and moral themes that surround these events. She makes no judgment on them - a judgment which might sit uncomfortably with the customs and moral norms of the time she is writing about. The moral point is made by the story as she reveals it.
This is a novel of retribution. It is not a thriller, not a novel of simple revenge. It is a tragedy. It has nothing to do with the traditions of Jacobean revenge tragedy, and a great deal to do with America's continuing and greatest stain - the racism that stretches across the centuries from the genocide against Native Americans to Trump. Weren't his tweeted attacks on Mayor Sadiq Khan nothing more than pathetic playground racism? After all they were not part of any normal President's everyday concern or tasks.
In 1918 the Klan are seeking to make America great again by killing or excluding everyone who is not white and protestant. So they wage war against Jews, Catholics and anyone of colour - sowing the seeds of perpetual hate.
The title At First Light harks back to the executions of allegedly cowardly soldiers during the First World War. They were shot at first light. Others went 'over the top' at first light. But I think it also refers obliquely to the light of certainty that enters Alicia's world, late in life, to clear away the horrible and pitiable darkness that surrounded her relationship with John Morales.
There are other themes threaded carefully and unobtrusively through the book. Among them: the contrast between Cuba and Key West, Alicia's herbal healing, the acceptance of fairly uncivilised ways of life, and the ordinariness of life in both Tea Room and Last Resort.
Vanessa Lafaye's first novel, the very successful Summertime, featured a public lynching. At First Light plays light on a wider canvas of racism - a canvas occupied then and now by the extremists of the KKK and their playground full of fellow travellers.
There is a strong and sobering lesson in the tale of Alicia Cortez and John Morales, but it is a lesson told by Vanessa Lafaye with subtle control and written beautifully - in clear and compelling language.
In the latest of this popular series of Brilliant Young Musician recitals at St Peter's Church, we welcomed back the South African pianist, Ben Schoeman (June 24.) He played here in 2014 and earlier this year he played with the Swindon Choral Society when they sang the Puolenc Gloria in Marlborough College chapel - and a spectacular performance that was.
Ben first studied firstly at the University of Pretoria and in 2016 was awarded a doctorate at City University in London. He has already had an impressive international career, playing in a wide range of prestigious concert venues, both recitals and as soloist in the great piano concerti by Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Ravel.
John Bateson died suddenly on Tuesday, May 16. He was a long-time Modern Languages teacher at Marlborough College - from 1973 to 1997 - and thereafter a familiar figure in the town and supporter of many of its activities.