John Blundall interview

Dave Smith and Barry Davies

When did you first become interested in puppetry?

John Blundall tending Titan's foot
John Blundall tending Titan's foot while a footless X20 looks on

When I was a kid, I suppose. I saw Obratztsov when I was 14, the great Russian puppet master who has remained a very close friend ever since. He was a very great actor in his own right. He was an academic painter, an actor in musical theatre, and was very important as an influence on me, in fact on many puppeteers all over the world.

What sort of puppets did he use? Marionettes?

A lot of his things were done with nothing more than a hand, often with a simple ball on the fingers! For his own theatre they used rod figures, masks, all kinds of things.

When did you start making puppets? What sort of puppets were they?

String figures, like everybody made, probably when I was about 14. Apart from Punch & Judy, and the string marionettes, which were the two main English traditions, very little else was really known. It was much later, when I started to study Central & Eastern European puppet and theatre techniques that I started to involve other methods of playing, a combination of masks and other techniques. That came out as a result of my research into puppet theatre forms. Folk theatre, folk lore, folk dance, classical dance and theatre in Japan, India, China and so on. What I do now is a combination of all these forms. That's why it's important for me to travel and learn new techniques. Also it helps me to try and preserve and re-develop dying techniques in other countries.

So did you go straight into the theatre? How did you start out?

I was trained as a gymnast and became involved in acrobatics, circus, variety and music hall, although I was always interested in painting and sculpting. A lot of the things I wanted to learn you couldn't go to a conventional college or school to learn, anyway. The design and construction and development of the technological side of the puppet is something you can't learn to this day, really. There are five major schools in the world, that's all, but only one of them, in Prague, teaches anything like this.

Are there any books available on basic construction of puppets?

Yes, there are, but unfortunately it is one of these arts you can't really learn from a book; it's something you have to acquire over a period of years. What I know I have taught myself, although I have been in contact with some of the great masters.

Did you go straight to work in TV puppets?

I was involved in design for the theatre; I designed ballets, pantomimes, revues before the business of television came along.

How did you become involved in television puppetry?

It was a request, really, because when Supercar was on the go there were not so many people around that really had highly developed manipulative skills, not only manipulating puppets but making these things. I suppose I was one person that had got certain skills that were useful in that area and that's really how I became involved in making figures.

So you started on Supercar?

Yes. The end of it.

Did you actually manipulate the puppets as well as making them?

I spent most of the time making; I was really responsible later on for running the workshops, but in the early days I made figures and also used to operate quite a lot of them as well.

And you stayed with the Anderson company up until Thunderbirds?

I did Fireball XL5, Stingray and Thunderbirds.

Can you remember any characters that you made on Supercar?

No, they were incidental characters really because all the main characters were made.

So it would have been Mary Turner, perhaps?

Christine Glanville, Mary Turner.

What was your favourite show? It has been said that Fireball XL5 is the one that stands out in your mind.

There were lots of alien characters in Fireball XL5, lots of eccentric professors and mad scientists!

That was what it was about, it was more interesting I think.

We suppose it was the fact that it was a space setting that lent itself to introducing weird and wonderful characters each week?

That was one of the tragedies; as it went on we lost all those. In the finish, of course, we might just as well have done it with actors because actually in the long run it's easier to do that kind of work with live actors. It just isn't a good vehicle for puppets.

On Fireball XL5 you were in charge of the puppet workshop. Can you remember who assisted you?

Wolfgang Manthey was one. In the early stages a lot of us used to work together, Christine Glanville and Mary used to work building figures before we actually went into the shooting and then there were odd people that used to come in. I can't remember.

There was one magazine recently that said that the Fireball puppets were built by a company of five puppet producers. Can you remember who they were?

John working on a character's hair
John working an a character's hair — judging by the puppet style, this was during the Supercar era

Yes, it was Eddie Hunter, Christine Glanville, Mary Turner, Yvonne Hunter and me. We formed the Company to actually do not only that but other things, too. Christine and myself particularly were involved in variety and music hall and things like that, we were obviously in close contact with the live performance side of it and that was very important to us. Eddie Hunter had been involved in live performance too, Yvonne was a dancer, and so we did that. Of course we weren't making these films all the time, there were times when we were out, and there were requests for other things, and so we actually called the group 'Company Of Five'.

You made the series in sets of 13, didn't you, and between the blocks of 13?

We took on other people, to actually perform live, with some of the things that we created. We all of us had got a considerable number of figures which we developed for the theatre and there was a real demand for interesting performances so it meant that we could rehearse other actors and puppet players into these shows, and put packages together.

So, on a day-to-day basis, on Fireball XL5 what would be the process of making the puppets? Would you first look at the script and would you then be able to visualise a character from the script?

Yes. I mean we had read-throughs the previous week, and I would make a list of characters that were needed and by listening to the read-throughs I would know, more or less, what they had to do, and I would make up my mind what they ought to look like facially and I would start modelling up these characters. There were times when Sylvia Anderson would come with a photograph from Spotlight, or from a magazine, and say 'It ought to look like this...' which is very difficult and dangerous, I think, but that wasn't of any real interest to me. I think to make them work you've got to exaggerate the features, you've got to play about. The other thing was that I know about performance, and I know how you create a character in performance and so, therefore, I could bring that knowledge to the actual development of the character and I could make the character very much more warm and acceptable. If you're just a sculptor then the things just remain bits of sculpture, they don't breathe. When you make a figure it should already exist as a character, it should have already started to develop its own life almost.

It's own personality?

It should develop its own personality, yes.

On Fireball XL5 the puppets only had the one head. When you went on to Stingray you had interchangeable heads with different expressions. Did you think that was a good innovation?

It was nothing new. In the theatre quite often you might make five or six different figures of the same character to do different jobs. It is possible, with the stylized figure, to build into it several expressions and through movement, use of shadows, you can alter the expression. In any case it is possible to carve in one head a number of expressions. It was a slight shortcut to use three or four with different expressions that could be interchanged.

Could you briefly describe the evolution of the marionettes from Supercar through to Fireball XL5, Stingray and Thunderbirds? How they were constructed, the different joints?

The early ones we used used to use old wooden bodies. Later I developed a set of prototype wooden figures which we had moulded and cast off in synthetic materials so that we had a large stock of bodies that we could draw on. They were continuously used and there were some refinements later made to them. I think originally I made three stock prototype bodies, a thin one, a medium-sized body, and a fat one. The thing was those wooden bodies were actually cut and balanced very carefully, scientifically worked out really, to avoid costumes trapping in the arm, leg, hip joints and so on. When they were first re-cast the materials they were re-cast in were absolutely awful and the whole idea of weight distribution was thrown out completely because the arms and legs were made out of a totally different material from the body, totally different weights, which destroyed the balance to some extent.

We understand the masters were unique in the sense that they would balance and stand up without being supported by wires?

That's what I worked out. The original ones were very complex in a sense. It was possible to actually relax the body and the figure would remain standing up. Then, of course, just a touch on the string control and the would move off. Unfortunately this did not happen later in the re-cast ones because of the weight distribution problem.

How long would a puppet take to make?

That's very difficult to say. Later on we only ever made the heads because we had all the stock bodies. Maybe, every so often, a specialised body would have to be made.

And the hands...?

There was a stock set of hands as well, moulded hands.

It must have been an expensive business having the hands made up, with tooling costs?

Actually, making a hand and getting the moulds made is an inexpensive process. It's the materials that are expensive.

Could you describe how the heads were made? Were they made of fibreglass as has been reported?

John working on a puppet face
John working an a puppet face, possibly a shell for a secondary character

There were different ones. The principal characters were all fibreglass. The secondary characters just had shells which had the eye and mouth mechanisms in them. I used to model all those up with plasticene and coat them with dozens of layers of emulsion paint to make them hard, to give them a 'skin'. Really it was so they could all be scraped off and the shells could be re-used.

Did you not use a special paint for use on rubber at one stage?

The paint that we used was one that I got to know about years ago in the raf. It was used for painting models and was especially flexible. You could add oil colour to it and it was flexible on the leather mouth inserts.

Was it Trimite?

Possibly was, probably was.

Was there anything particularly memorable about Stingray as regards the puppets? Did you design all of the main characters for that?

I didn't do all the main characters. I only did some because Christine and Mary used to come into it. I think Christine often used to make rough sketches; I used to draw-out most of the characters and then start to build characters to that because I wanted to get a style that would work. If you start to model-up naturalistic heads they are all out of proportion for a start and you ve got to start playing around with the proportions to make them work. So often people just give them photographs to work from, which is something I hate doing. I would always try and stylise and mix characters...

A perfect foil for Lady Penelope — a complete contrast.

Yes, he was a character. I mean heroes and heroines are such bores and they're not only bores to listen to and watch, they're bores to make. They have no real personality, whereas these characters have.

Parker was probably one of the most popular characters.

It turned out that he was. Actually, and funnily enough, after all this time people often, when they find out I made him, he's the one character they talk about.

Could you remember who made Venus from Fireball XL5?

I think it was Christine Glanville. Once I saw the heads I'd know exactly because I knew everybody's style of working.

During Thunderbirds the production team was greatly expanded. Was there anyone who particularly impressed you from any of the departments?

Well, yes. Special effects got bigger and bigger and, of course, Derek Meddings was outstanding in lots of ways. There were one or two people, Mike Trim I think one was called, a very talented little lad. I used to travel on the train with him... he was remarkable in a lot of ways.

The jetmobiles were nice designs and people say that they still stand up today...

Yes they were. They were designed by Reg Hill, I think, and were made of balsa. In the first episode they experimented with a Jetex motor (firework) in them and they exploded as they were too powerful, blowing the jetmobiles to bits leaving Steve and Venus suspended in mid-air with nothing beneath them!

Apart from the puppet that would stand by itself, were there any other innovations which you hit on during the series?

And no-one took it up?

No-one took it up. I'm always thinking up new tricks; I understand a lot about engineering, particularly electrical engineering, and therefore I can do a lot of pure inventional work and develop certain innovations in puppet technology which are unique in a sense. I hated seeing rubber-gloved hands coming into shot for close-ups when the whole lot could have been done with this little flexible hand.

One-third size?

Yes, puppet-size.

What was your favourite character from Thunderbirds that you made, apart from Parker?

I can't remember. Frankly, I started to lose interest in them because they were going the wrong way. If they got more and more realistic then that would be the end because it had nothing for a creative person, for the puppeteer. I mean the puppeteer was the last person down the line, almost. Just to create little humans all the time was a mistake.

It was just pure mimicry?

The figures very rarely worked well. The way the figures were later costumed, the tight costumes, eliminated any kind of movement and so they became very static things. Because they wanted to get towards human proportions the figures looked hideous. They always do, you have to distort and stylise to really make a creative figure work.

It has been said that the objective was to try and create a Walt Disney-type empire, only using puppets instead of cartoons.

Could never have worked, on the basis of what was done.

There wasn't enough research?

No, it's not a question of that, it's a question of imagination, knowing what a puppet is capable of. You have to create for each medium. There's one kind of figure you create for the stage, another for video and live production, on TV, another type of figure you have to create for film... And you have to know the potential of these different types of puppets in each of the situations. Disney had the most amazing imagination and a colossal team of people who were experimenting. We were never allowed to experiment. We often said, 'Look, why can't we make a really good, top-notch, prestige puppet film?' Christine and I were always on about this. We were never allowed to create and use our imagination, that's why I couldn't stand it any longer. The early series were the best, when they were puppet characters they were the most successful.

In the early series the puppets used to walk quite a lot, didn't they?

Yes, though you can't create a naturalistic walk with string figures. The longer the strings are, the more difficult it is. The soul of the puppet is in the palm of the hand, the further the puppet goes from the palm of the hand, the less life and soul and character it has. If you try to perform really good dramatic pieces you have to get close to the figure as with rod figures, hand figures particulariy. I knew many techniques of moving hands and arms from inside the body without any visible strings, wires, rods or anything else. We were never allowed to do that, for instance. We could've saved hours and hours of shooting time.

In Terrahawks they have gone to rodtype puppets and the jaws are actually moved by hand.

Yes, but there again it went the other way round then, and you very rarely saw any long, establishing shots. The figures lost credibility and even then it's a very special skill that's necessary to handle that kind of figure.

What actually happened to the 1960s puppets, do you know?

I don't know. I mean, they were all there in the studios as far as I'm concerned; they would obviously have been the property of the studios.

Very few of them seem to have survived...

It's remarkable, there were lots of principal characters. Mind you, the secondary characters would disappear as we scraped them off each week.

In the early days in Supercar there were very few secondary characters, weren't there?

Yes, because you evolved the stories around a few characters. It's actually better to do that. That's why Star Fleet is so good because the puppets really are puppets and there's such a lot of imagination there. The figures are well-designed and they are not trying to be little humans. The stories have developed around this group of characters and they really do have personalities and strong characters. There are a lot of qualities that are consistent. I was surprised how good it was; if you look at a lot of my figures you will find a lot of similarities in the visual styles of them.

Do you think there is a link between masks and puppets?

Yes, basically masks and puppets are fundamental to the development of mankind and the theatre. We often say the puppet is the mask from which the actor has withdrawn, and the spiritual techniques applied to the development of mask-playing methods are very similar, I think, and important to the use of rod puppets and marionettes, any kind of puppet.

Are there any particular types of puppet which are peculiar to one country?

Lots of countries have different techniques. For instance the Vietnamese water puppets are not found anywhere else in the world. The Japanese puppet theatre, with three actors to each figure, isn't found anywhere else. There is one string marionette from Rajastan which is not known anywhere else.

What are water puppets?!

In Vietnam there is an awful lot of water and all villages have a kind of communal lake, if you like, and so these puppets stand on bases that float on the water and they are manipulated on long bamboo rods, with strings, and they usually tell stories of water battles from the history of the country.

Does the water disguise the rods?

Yes, the figures float about ankle-deep in water and perform all these stories.

We have just seen a performance of Tiger Peter and the Video Pirates. You didn't actually direct this play, did you?

This piece, no. The original I directed and adapted, but this piece was written and directed by Simon Painter.

Tiger Peter used purely masks...

The original was masks and some quite large puppets. The current production uses principally masks.

Which do you prefer?

It depends on the demands of the story, really. We use the technique to suit the story and what the story demands in terms of action.

How long has the Midlands Arts Centre been staging puppet shows?

I started the company in 1968, but two or three years before that we had a very important amateur group which became very famous all over the world, in fact.

And you're chairman of unima (International Association of Puppeteers) at the moment...

Of the British centre of unima.

Does that have anything to do with travelling around?

Yes, it is all based on that. For years I have travelled all over the world, but unima is part of unesco and iti, and it is a world organisation of puppet players and therefore it's part of our policy to stimulate, preserve and develop puppet techniques all over the world. That's something that's very important to me, and always has been.

What are your plans for the future, can you see any circumstances in which you might return to the film industry?

Well, I do work in television and films. Still I'm only interested in working in film and television if it can be used as a creative medium, where the real skills of the puppet player can be used. Film and television have still left puppets unexploited properly and, yes, I may return to it if I can create and develop some new innovations in film and television's use of puppets.

Have you been involved in a film recently?

Yes, a Here And Now programme which is a 'special' for Channel 4, which is really about me as a creative artist, I suppose, and about the ethnic nature of the puppet theatre.

Do you intend to write a book on puppetry, or have you already done so?

I'm always writing, but I don't like it. Puppery is a live art and it's very difficult to write about it. I could write a book full of anecdotes, that's all right, but I just haven't got the time to do that. I don't intend to write a book on techniques because it's the how-to-do-it books that exist that have killed puppets.

Many readers, possibly, are interested in puppets, building and manipulating them. Can you offer them advice?

Experiment. Use your imagination. Forget the books, if you can, because a lot of them are inaccurate. It's like when students come to me and say, 'Can I study with you?' I say 'Yes, providing you study everything but puppets!' Puppet theatre is a synthetic art, it's a combination of all the arts and crafts.

Are there any associations for would-be puppeteers?

There's the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild, which is 60 years old this year, that's always catered for the needs of the amateur. There's unima and there's the Puppet Centre in London, too. Often more interesting, skilled people are coming from often raw amateurs, absolutely out of the blue, just emerging with remarkable skills and talents with interesting ideas. The most interesting work is being done outside the normal confines of known puppet theatre. It's better to learn how to do it yourself because you know, if it breaks, how you repair it. Start storytelling with the hand and then objects. It's all about giving life to objects...

text ©1985 Dave Smith & Barry Davies
published originally in Supermarionation is Go! #13