George Speaight

Theatre historian, actor and performer specialising in the toy theatre and puppetry


George Victor Speaight, theatre historian, writer and editor: born Hatfield, Hertfordshire 6 September 1914; married 1946 Mary Mudd (died 2005; one son, one daughter); died Kew, Surrey 22 December 2005.

George Speaight was one of the most distinguished historians of the English theatre. He was a scrupulous researcher, with a writing style of limpid clarity and precision, laced with humour, betraying a boyish delight in his subject: he was the most readable of writers.

He remarked how strange it was that he had concentrated on the "minority" branches of theatre: the "toy theatre" (originally called the "juvenile drama", and in other countries "paper theatre"), the circus and the puppet theatre. It gave him pleasure to witness the rise in popularity and status of all three during his later years, and his contribution to that rise is considerable. Four of his books - Punch and Judy, a History (1970), The History of the English Puppet Theatre (1955), Juvenile Drama (1946, reprinted in 1969 as The History of the English Toy Theatre) and A History of the Circus (1980) - are required reading for students in the field, each a minor classic.

Speaight was a founder and leading light of the Society for Theatre Research from 1948, acting as its general editor of publications and editor of its journal Theatre Notebook for many years. He was the society's chair, 1959-63, then vice-president until his death. The society published many of his essays and books on theatre history, such as The Life and Travels of Richard Barnard, Marionette Proprietor (1981) and The Memoirs of Charles Dibdin the Younger (1956), both of which he edited.

Although Speaight was a fine writer, essayist and lecturer, by those who saw him perform on stage and behind his toy theatre he will be remembered as an actor of tremendous panache and vitality. Forced to leave school in 1932, he went to work in the bookshop Bumpus, where he was soon performing toy theatre plays to the customers, to boost sales of the sets of sheets and texts manufactured by Pollock's. George Bernard Shaw was among the admirers of his shows, which were full of energy, illustrated with music from a Victorian musical box, songs from Speaight, loud explosions from a hammer on a tin tray and such-like sound effects - all played by the one performer. He was closely associated with Pollock's, the toy theatre shop, and its premises at 1 Scala Street for most of his life.

The main current of his professional life was the writing and editing of books and employment in publishing houses, culminating in his appointment as Editorial Director of Rainbird Books in 1960. Secondary, and more recreational, was his passion for performance, mainly but by no means solely for toy theatre. He loved to perform, and did so from the age of four in family and school productions (his schools were the Wick and Haileybury) until his last recorded toy theatre show in 2002, when he was 88. His older brother Robert Speaight also became a theatre biographer but is perhaps better known as an actor, distinguished for his performance of the role of Becket in T.S. Eliot's verse drama Murder in the Cathedral.

But George Speaight was a man of action too, in the promotion of his theatre specialisms. After the end of the Second World War, Speaight and a colleague, Gerald Morice, were contacted by a family with a collection of marionettes they had in an old barn. On inspection the puppets proved to be part of a rare troupe of Victorian figures, long believed lost or destroyed. The two men rescued and restored the figures and Speaight learned to perform with them.

This he did for many years, at first with Morice, then with other partners, in a series of Victorian music-hall songs and melodramas, under the title of the Old Time Marionettes. The show was staged at many prestigious and private venues, notably in the Battersea Pleasure Gardens by the Thames for the Festival of Britain in 1951, and later for the Museum of London and for the Theatre Museum.

In 1962, at his instigation, a plaque was installed honouring Samuel Pepys, his diary and Mr Punch outside St Paul's, the Actors' Church, in Covent Garden. It commemorates the first recorded Punch (Pulcinella, Punchinella) performance in England in 1662 and was the occasion of a fine festival, now an annual celebration which attracts Punch professors from all over Britain and enthusiasts from all over the world. In 1987, the 325th anniversary of the Pepys diary entry, a mammoth international celebration was held and shown on television. Adding greatly to the jollity of the day, Speaight led the proceedings dressed as Pepys himself, complete with periwig, diary and quill pen.

All his life Speaight involved himself ever more deeply in the world of puppetry, from sharing the early experiments of Olive Blackham and her company at Roel Farm in Gloucestershire (1939), and much later encouraging the foundation of the Puppet Centre Trust in BAC (Battersea Arts Centre, 1974), which acted as a development agency (or proselytiser) for the art form. He held various offices in the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild and the international association of puppetry known as Unima (Union Internationale de la Marionnette), of which he was made a Member of Honour. For most, toy theatre is a branch of that noble art, and Speaight was a world celebrity. His lectures and performances won him innumerable friends in many countries.

On his retirement from Rainbird in 1975 Speaight was able to supplement his performing career with the London Munich Puppet Players (now simply the Puppet Players). For some shows he was their principal performer- showman, which involved many new travels abroad. He interrupted performing only to produce or edit more books and to further the interests of the societies he belonged to.

George Speaight was that rarest of beings, an essentially good man, open, honest and broad-minded, wishing only the best for his fellows, whom he helped when it was in his power to do so. He had a streak of genuine English eccentricity, which gave colour and warmth to his personality, making him loved as well as respected. At the age of 18 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1946, he married the wood-engraver Mary Mudd. An artistic woman of strength and integrity, she died only five weeks before her husband.

Penny Francis

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