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John Blundall

Puppeteer

Puppeteer

Born: March 3, 1937; Died: August 18, 2014

John Blundall, who has died suddenly aged 77, was one of Britain's foremost and most prolific puppetmasters.

Born in Birmingham in 1937, the son of a painter and a craftsman, Mr Blundall's relationship with the theatre began when he was a child taken by his parents to the Birmingham Hippodrome, where he was inspired to become a performer.

Despite a deep conviction that his future lay on the stage, he was pushed to take a "proper job" and joined the General Electric Company aged 15 as an apprentice electrical engineer.

The firm had a theatre group, which allowed him to practice set design, and, on finishing his qualifications, he joined the RAF for two years national service.

During his time with the Joint Aeronautic Intelligence Centre, he taught painting and drawing to officers and ran a variety show of some 60 performers.

From the RAF he joined the Dudley Hippodrome for a short spell, moving next to Liverpool's Pavilion Theatre before, due to the decline in music hall, joining Granada Television.

There he met Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, the creators of children's television standards Supercar, Stingray, Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds.

Mr Blundall created the Thunderbirds character Parker and, much later, made 1980s children's television character Pob.

In the late 1960s, Mr Blundall founded the internationally-renowned Cannon Hill Puppet Theatre at the Birmingham Mac. For 25 years it entertained and delighted children, becoming renowned as one of the most pioneering puppet theatre companies in the UK, being the first to combine puppets, masks, actors and dancers on the same stage.

Eventually Mr Blundall moved to Glasgow's west end, bringing with him some 6,000 books on puppet theatre, his unrivalled collection of 19th century toy theatres, and hundreds of puppets and puppetry artifacts.

An antiquarian and repository of hundreds of stories, talents and traditions, Mr Blundall had a fantastic knowledge of the theatre, particularly music hall, where he had worked with the greats: Hetty King to Jimmy James, Rob Wilton, Arthur Askey and Old Mother Riley.

During a varied and widely-travelled life, Mr Blundall could count among his career incarnations high diver, gymnast, clown, variety performer, stage manager, graphic designer, director, stage designer, and teacher.

John Blundall was a man of enormous historical and academic knowledge of the puppet theatre, the performing arts and the arts in general, but most importantly he had an equally wide practical knowledge. It was his belief that "an actor can speak, but a puppet can fly".

His range of skills, creativity and volume of work was probably greater and of a consistently higher quality than anyone else involved with the puppet theatre in Britain.

Those who worked with him said he had an unerring dedication to doing the best possible work and to never compromising.

His generosity extended beyond his time and expertise: if he believed in people then books, tools, theatre and train tickets and much more were given without hesitation.

He took many of his students to see shows or exhibitions, not necessarily because they wanted to go, but because it was something they "should see".

Mr Blundall always spoke of the importance of developing a "selective eye and a cultured mind", the importance of understanding what is good and what is bad and to set ones standards at the highest level.

He was a magnet for talented people and spent his career surrounded by artists, performers and intellectuals. He made a career of his passion and a life of his career.

To learn his craft he travelled to the source of the skill he wished to appropriate: in Japan he studied traditional Bunraku theatre and in Russia the art of carving marionettes that could mimic human movement.

His work took him around the world, from teaching in Alice Springs, Australia, to Thailand, New Zealand and Sri Lanka.

Ten years ago, Mr Blundall set up The World through Wooden Eyes in Glasgow's Mitchell Library, an exhibition to showcase his impressive collection, which he called his "ideas store". His best known creation, Parker, could often be seen sitting on his work table.

In recent years his health had begun to decline. He lost part of a leg to diabetes and his eyesight was failing, a huge frustration for a man with such keen attention to detail.

Despite his physical difficulties he continued to open the exhibition six days a week, taking as much interest in his visitors as they took in his collection.

Recently he was told that he would need to start dialysis and it was while attending hospital for treatment that he suffered a sudden heart attack and could not be revived.

To the end he remained an inquisitive child, sometimes frustrated and annoyed with the boring adults around him. Friends said his sudden death was another of his tricks - escaping with a smile on his face, chatting and cracking gentle jokes.

Mr Blundall was a benevolent patriarch to an extended theatre family around the world. He is survived by his younger brother, Derek Blundall, and his sister, Sheila Maser.

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