ANN HOGARTH was the operator of Muffin the Mule, the star of the BBC's first children's programme, and of many other puppets too.
She was one of the partners who made the Hogarth Puppets famous from the Thirties through to the end of the Seventies, the other partner being Jan Bussell, her husband, who died in 1985. Together they carved out a career in the very difficult profession of puppetry which took them to every continent, as well as all over the British Isles.
Ann Hogarth was an inspired puppeteer, and to her skills of characterisation and timing she added a knowledge of the theatre (she trained at Rada but preferred stage management) and an intuitive understanding of entertainment in its best sense which ensured packed houses for the Hogarth Puppets wherever they went. It was her boast that they never needed subsidy, although the British Council were happy to help them go abroad as ambassadors of Britain on several occasions, and there was some assistance for the presentation of ambitious productions for adult audiences, such as the medieval legend of Aucassin and Nicolette. In general though they were entirely independent, even for the staging of a Cubist version of Macbeth.
Not that their more usual stage shows were especially for children: indeed the Bussells believed that the introduction of shows aimed only at children was the ruination of the puppet theatre. Some of their 'items' were experiments in expressionism - such as the Flower Ballet in which Jack Frost was an elaborate icicle, and the Four Seasons where Autumn was personified by a blend of harvest fruits and cereals. Some pieces were poetic, many were witty: both Ann and Jan wrote playlets and poems with considerable panache and creativity, and the result was a series of fast-moving shows of considerable variety which played in a number of important theatres.
The Hogarth Puppets were Britain's leading exponents of the art of puppetry for many years. Their work bridged the transition between the naturalistic, imitative style of puppets still common in the early days and the highly stylised work to be seen from the Sixties and Seventies.
Muffin the Mule was the unplanned star of the repertoire. He was chosen by the BBC from a number of circus animals carved by Fred Tickner for the Hogarths for the first television programme for children, which began its long run just after the war. He appeared on the lid of a piano, his operator invisible above, while the entertainer Annette Mills sang and played original songs. Muffin and other animal friends danced to the songs, and conducted dialogues with Annette Mills; though he never spoke, Muffin reacted, frequently by disobedience.
As an entertaining companion, Ann had few peers; and in spite of her acerbity and scepticism she was sociable, generous and kind. The death of her husband was a blow from which she did not recover, but she was supported by a large number of friends and fans as well as her only daughter, Sally (whom she frankly adored), and her grandchildren. And there was always Muffin, now part of our folklore and a live presence in her life. She loved to perform with him to the end, with no loss of her old humour and skill.
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