Obituary: John Thirtle
Tuesday 04 July 1995
John Thirtle was a pre-eminent practitioner of puppetry, as designer, craftsman and manipulator. He helped in the foundation of the national resource and information centre for puppetry, the Puppet Centre in Battersea, south-west London, and was behind the long-running children's television series Button Moon and The Spooks of Bottle Bay.
In 1971 he and his partner Ian Allen, a dedicated puppeteer whose talent for writing wacky stories for children usefully complemented Thirtle's skills, founded their own company, the Playboard Puppets. At first they played the usual schools and weekend theatre circuit with safe fare such as The Ugly Duckling and Little Red Riding Hood (with some surprises in the interpretation). But their work carried a stamp of quality which set it apart - in its design, colour, craftsmanship, scripting and live playing, and above all in its humour. Moreover, the company's professionalism earned them a reputation to be envied.
Television, always hungry for puppetry in its children's programmes, brought opportunities which Playboard seized, and from Playschool and Rainbow the company rose to their own television series. Mo and Hedge, for the BBC in the Seventies, was followed by Button Moon, which proved a winner for Thames Television and Playboard for many years and 91 episodes. It was about a family of spoons and their friends, all anthropomorphic household objects, hand-operated, and their unlikely adventures on the moon, a large button reached by the Spoons' personal spaceship. Children all over Britain learned to count backwards, delightedly reciting with the voice on the television screen, 5-4-3-2-1 BLAST-OFF!
Two years ago Button Moon ended and Carlton bought Playboard's new offering, The Spooks of Bottle Bay. John Thirtle died on the eve of the studio work on the third series, annotating the shooting script, oxygen mask attached, up to a few hours before he died.
Thirtle made of his career a true, unsubsidised and reasonably lucrative profession. This involved a mixture of talent and incredibly hard work, business acumen (he read Economics at Southampton) and fair and firm dealing. Thirtle lent his strength to an arguably fledgling theatre profession, tackling injustice and discrimination against puppeteers, arguing with Equity and the ACTT (for example, that a player-puppeteer was a performer not a technician, with the same rights as any other performer as to contracts and residuals).
His memorial is the collection of puppets he made with a skill which for some amounted to genius. His sense of humour is inherent in each figure. He worked in many different materials with techniques of control and engineering he invented himself. His puppets were commissioned for dozens of commercials, including the NatWest piggies and the Dockland crows. He trained many young puppeteers to his own exacting standards, and some of these will ensure the future of his company.
John Thirtle was London-born but brought up as an adopted child in Norfolk. In his thirties he conceived a desire to know his real family, which he found against all the odds through an advertisement in a newspaper. His natural mother turned out to have show- business roots, and he found much in common with a younger brother, even to the fact that they had been working concurrently in the same Thames Television building.
John's 40th birthday was the occasion for a great celebration with his new-found family and dozens of his friends which those who were present will not forget. Nor will they forget his extraordinary funeral in the Little Angel Theatre, in Islington, London, where his coffin - a puppet- box painted by Lyndie Wright with motifs from children's play and characters from commedia dell'arte - rested as the backdrop for a series of moving tributes in poetry, music and reminiscence.
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