Obituary: Audrey Atterbury

Nicolas Barker
Tuesday 15 April 1997 23:02
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Audrey Atterbury had an important influence, through her long association with Watch With Mother, on the development of children's television in the 1950s.

In 1950, Freda Lingstrom, the newly appointed head of BBC children's television, introduced the first of a new series of puppet programmes. Andy Pandy, with his childlike look, his striped clown's costume, and his friends Teddy and Looby Loo, was an instant success, despite the primitive and somewhat hazardous live production techniques then in use at the BBC's Alexandra Palace studios.

The Andy Pandy series were followed by the charismatic Flowerpot Men, whose anarchic behaviour and strange language swiftly turned them into one of the great television icons of their time. Next came the Woodentops, the friendly family of Dutch dolls with their dog Spot, whose episodic domestic life was in many ways a precursor of the modern television soap. Other series followed, notably Toytown, produced by Gordon Murray, and Jolly Jack Tar.

The lasting popularity of these puppet series ensured that the Flowerpot Men were still being enjoyed by subsequent generations of children into the 1970s. As one of the principal puppeteers, Audrey Atterbury was a vital presence through all the series. Trained by John Wright, the founder of the famous Little Angel Marionette Theatre in Islington, north London, she was from the start a gifted and highly professional puppeteer, able to bring her charges to life despite the constant technical problems, and the difficulties associated with such dangerous combinations as string puppets and live animals. She also worked regularly with the Little Angel Theatre, sometimes joining arduous European tours.

Audrey Holman was born in London in circumstances that gave no hint of the talents she was to reveal. Her schooling was uneventful, and the outbreak of war found her working for an average adjuster, her great beauty as well as her talents still undiscovered. In the evenings she studied at the Regent Street Polytechnic. There she met Rowley Atterbury, whom she married in 1942.

After his war service in the RAF, he set up a small hand-press printing works, in a garden shed in Kent, and it was there that his wife learned the now virtually extinct skill of setting lead type in a composing stick. This was the foundation of her life-long interest in the graphic arts and the art of book-illustration in particular.

From that garden shed grew the Westerham Press, and her association with it only came to an end by a chance meeting in a train with Freda Lingstrom, who encouraged her to become a puppeteer, and thus a vital member of the Watch With Mother team.

Despite the all-absorbing nature of her puppet work, she still found time for other activities. It was at the same time that she began to study and collect British pottery and porcelain. She became an evening class lecturer, and started a long association with Morley College Ceramic Circle for which she was a committee member and secretary for 18 years.

This led her to join the now famous Keele University Ceramic Summer School, then, in the mid-1960s, in its infancy. From this grew the internationally respected Northern Ceramic Society, of which she was a member from the start. Throughout this period, she pursued ceramics assiduously, forming a collection that reflected her extraordinary knowledge and her wide diversity of interests. In her house, pottery from the late 18th century sat happily side by side with pieces from the 1950s, but her main area of interest was the then unfashionable art pottery of the late 19th century, and she was a pioneer enthusiast for the wares made by now famous names such as Doulton and Moorcroft.

Pottery led her into the world of antique dealing, and she was a regular presence on early Friday mornings at Bermondsey market in London. Later, she worked for a number of antique dealers, and then, about ten years ago she joined Christie's as one of their "angels", becoming the longest serving and most respected member of that team of lady saleroom assistants. Indeed, she was hard at work at King Street and South Kensington a couple of weeks before her death.

Audrey Selma Holman, puppeteer and ceramics collector: born London 19 April 1921; married 1942 Rowley Atterbury (marriage dissolved; one son); died London 8 April 1997.

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