Meet Cheshire's puppet master, Chris Somerville (with audio)
Puppeteer Chris Somerville has spent his life stringing people along in Rhos-on-Sea, as <br/>Paul Mackenzie reports<br/>Photography by John Cocks
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Chris Somerville has clear memories of the moment his love affair with puppets began. He was five-years-old and shopping with his mum when he spotted a Mr Punch glove puppet grinning at him from a shelf in a department store.‘I was given the puppet for Christmas and then for my birthday in March I was given a Judy to go with it,’ he said. ‘I used to put on shows over the back of the settee for my mum and dad using Mr Punch, Judy, a felt horse and a teddy bear. That’s where my career began.’His career continued with shows on a rather grander scale but now, more than six decades on, he knows that the Harlequin Puppet Theatre, where he has entertained generations of children, will close for ever when the curtain comes down on his final show.The theatre, on the promenade at Rhos on Sea, was built more than 50 years ago and has barely changed since opening night but Chris, who has been there since the beginning, has noticed a marked difference in the audiences.‘We used to be able to guarantee we would be full every wet day,’ he said, glancing out at the deserted promenade through rain spattered windows. ‘At busy times the ‘full house’ board would go out at 10am, but on days when there hasn’t been a coach party booked in, we haven’t been full for years.‘In another location it might have survived but not here. Between the school workshops I do and the birthday parties, I can just about keep going but this theatre will die with me.’Chris moved to North Wales from his native Yorkshire in his early teens and his interest in puppets grew when he met and befriended Eric Bramall, a puppeteer from Wallasey, who had been persuaded to stay on in the town after performing in the variety theatre on the pier and who staged shows in the park.‘I was one of the audience and during the school holidays I used to go every day,’ Chris said. ‘Millicent Ford, who owned the house next door to where the theatre is now, was a fan and an amateur puppeteer and she encouraged Eric to look for a permanent site for the theatre.‘It almost moved to an old chapel in Llandudno and when that fell through Eric almost gave up and went to Bournemouth but then Milly offered the land for the theatre in her garden. There were two derelict cottages on the land and the theatre was built in about 11 weeks using stone from those cottages and stones found on the beach.
‘It was the first purpose built puppet theatre and the first permanent puppet theatre. There are three now, one in London, one in Norwich and one in Biggar in Scotland.’
Chris took over from Eric’s mother when she became too ill to work with her son and, apart from a three year stint as a teacher - ‘that was more for my parents’ sake, they wanted me to get qualifications’ - he has been at the theatre ever since.He gave his first paid performance as a 12-year-old, receiving five shillings for a show at a child’s birthday party and he said: ‘Ever since I was given that Mr Punch I have been fascinated by puppets, particularly marionettes and I have never lost that fascination.
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‘I suppose maybe I’m a frustrated actor, being a puppeteer is a way of acting without shoving yourself to the fore, you can hide behind the puppets.
‘I was told by my mum that I was very shy as a child and would sometimes hide under a table if people came to the house and wouldn't come out until they had left.‘The puppets are a mask, something to hide behind. But you can analyse it all you want, the fact is I have never grown up, I still like playing with toys. One day I'll get a proper job.’For more than 40 years Chris and Eric’s marionettes performed Shakespeare plays, cabarets, ballets, pantomimes, operas and children’s shows in their compact 112 seat auditorium. They also appeared on more than 1,000 television programmes and Chris also worked on cruise ships while developing his own children’s magic show, appearing as Mr Bimbamboozle.‘Eric painted the scenes on the walls in the auditorium with poster paints more than 50 years ago,’ Chris said. ‘We had to leave it six months before we could varnish over them but we haven’t got round to doing that yet.’Since Eric’s death in 1996 Chris has run the theatre alone, building a repertoire of one-man shows which play to dwindling audiences.Chris auctioned about three quarters of the 4,000 marionettes he and Eric had made or collected and a selection of the remaining marionettes now hang backstage, waiting for their next performance; the painted faces of a hundred or so children, animals, ghouls, skeletons, clowns - some of them about 200 years old, each with their own characteristics and personality and each evoking memories for Chris.Here’s the one who was a favourite on Welsh television for more than 30 years, there’s an antique harlequin complete with his original clothes, over there a young boy Eric made as Pinocchio but had to adapt when Disney refused him permission to use his image.‘Puppetry virtually died out in the late Victorian era,’ Chris said. ‘It was revived in the 1920s by amateurs but colour televisions and computer animation are killing it again. Puppetry in general was doing quite well but marionettes are almost dead now. The only way a puppeteer can make money is on television but no-one wants to see puppets on strings on television.‘When holiday resorts flourished we were full all the time but things have changed. The pattern of holiday-making has changed, people no longer stay in a town for a week. They used to fill the town and find everything here for their entertainment. Now they have the car with them and they travel around once they get here. ‘People don’t go to the theatre or do things communally as much as they once did. It’s sad but that’s the way of the world now. There used to be four of us here, we had two gardeners at one time, but I do it all myself now, paint the scenery, record the voices, everything. I might even varnish those murals one day. I enjoy it all though. I’m one of those lucky people who gets to spend a career doing what he’d be doing as a hobby anyway.’ Shows run at the Harlequin Puppet Theatre throughout the year, go to www.puppetmagic.co.uk or call 01492 548166 for the programme of events.