Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chatting with George Fry

One of the greatest pleasures of doing Bear Alley is that it puts me in touch with so many interesting people. A week or so ago I heard out of the blue from George Fry who had stumbled across my little pair of essays on Annette Mills, of Muffin the Mule fame, and Molly Blake, her daughter (if you want to read them... part 1, part 2). George was the creator responsible for another character made famous by Annette, Prudence Kitten.

George, who now lives in Canada, very graciously answered a stack of questions I sent him, so I'm pleased to present the following interviewette.

"I was born in Bromley, Kent," says George. "Lived in Blackheath until we were bombed out. Then in Petts Wood and, finally, back to Bromley from where I was married." George was an only child and grew up during the War; as he was one of the few non-evacuees, books were one of his main companions and he was set on a path that would lead him to attending Goldsmith's College, where he studied illustration, with a minor in theatre design.

Even as a boy he was fascinated with the concept of creating his own books and created elaborate "films" which consisted of hundreds of illustrations which you turned over in sequence rather like a strip narrative. His parents were fully supportive. "My father in his youth had aspirations to be a concert violinist," he says. "Sadly my father died when I was seventeen so he was unaware that I did make a success of it.

"I was always fascinated by films and had all kinds of ideas about being a British Jiri Trinka," George recalls, referring to the Czech puppet theatre creator, film-maker and illustrator. "When I was a student it was a very fertile time: I read, researched and hunted. I can't remember where I discovered Trinka but I seem to think it was at the National Film Theatre. Recently I have been able to get some of his DVDs—they are dated but he was a master. I guess if you were a film buff you knew about him as you would follow Kurosawa or Fellini and all those wonderful guys that emerged after the war."

Armed with an N.D.D. from Goldsmith's George went hunting for work. "One day I was at a friend's who had a television, quite a rare thing in those days, and saw this nice woman who sat at a piano and talked to puppets. Thinking there was nothing to be lost I wrote to her and told her about my aspirations. To my surprise she replied and asked me to come up and see her at the Cambridge Theatre, where she was doing a Christmas show." The show, entitled Christmas Party, was a children's revue directed by Cecil Landeau who had just had a great success at the Cambridge with a musical revue called Sauce Tartare, which featured a young Audrey Hepburn in the chorus. Audrey also had a small role in Christmas Party, although the main attractions were Claude Hulbert and Annette Mills... not forgetting Muffin the Mule.

This was Christmas 1949 and Mills was already a hugely successful children's entertainer. She had been appearing on For the Children since 1946, the year Muffin also made his debut.

"Annette like my work and suggested I come up to Ally Pally when she was appearing and meet
her producer," George continues. "This also came about but he wasn't the least interested in me. However Annette was looking for another string to her bow and asked me to create a new puppet, a glove puppet."

Thus was born Prudence Kitten, who made her debut on For the Children on 7 June 1950.

"Annette's concept was to have some small creature who did real things for the younger children. This concept held good for all the Prudence shows. If she poured a cup of tea it was fresh brewed tea and so on. To get the flexibility that she wanted—her hand was still affected by the dreadful accident she had had—Prudence was in two parts, a silk glove with her paws, feet and tail, and her head which was separate and allowed for her clothes to be changed. They were stitched to her neck.

"I made all the Prudence puppets. Primrose was Prudence's double, but we decided to use her as the sister married to Nelson Kittycat (he was rather a fine puppet) with a baby Snowy. This allowed Prudence to do the Auntie things like babysitting with out the encumbrance of being married. Puffer was originally Lochie the Loch Ness Monster when Prudence went Scottish on a programme. He could not be sustained as a character so I transformed him into a dog, Puffer, who brought a whole new element into the programme by contrasting Prudence's perfection with his messiness.

"Annette was at the height of her fame and popularity and was winning every award in the book at that time. I of course had a wonderful time as I had a car and she frequently needed an escort so I got to go to all kinds of marvellous events.

"When I first worked for Annie she lived in a most beautiful Victorian house on the top of Highgate Hill. She had a wonderful person, Doris Hall, who looked after her, and us when we were rehearsing. Doris was one of those selfless people who devote themselves to a cause and the cause happened to be Annie and the shows.

"Anyway Prudence took off and all kinds of products etc, grew out of her such as bedroom slippers, toys, books and so on."

George himself drew Prudence for two spin-off books, sharing the chores on one with Annette Mills' daughter, Molly Blake. "The real fun one was the one in colour photography which I had to create the settings for," says George.

Although Prudence only featured exclusively in two titles, she also starred in a number of stories written for compendiums featuring Annette Mills and, from November 1951, a regular weekly comic strip in the pages of TV Comic. In 1954, Puffer Dog was also given his own strip. Both were drawn by Ron Murdoch, who had previously worked in animation at David Hand's GB Animation studio at Moor Hall, although not always to the satisfaction of their creator: "We did not see eye to eye on his interpretation as I found he made Prudence too sexy."

In late 1954, Annette Mills developed a brain tumor and was admitted to a London clinic in January 1955. She failed to recover from the surgery and died a few days later.

After her mother's death, Molly Blake took over the reins and Prudence returned to television. George, meanwhile, found himself an agent in Covent Garden and began freelancing, producing mostly educational illustrations for several years (including illustrations for Swift Annual). Inspired by his love of history, he became a History lecturer at Beckenham School of Art and, later, at Ravensbourne College until emigrating to New Brunswick, Canada, in 1963.

In Canada he was Director of Art Education for the Saint John School Board, Director of Craft Development for the Province of New Brunswick, and Director of the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design. Throughout his working life in Canada—and even now in retirement—George has contributed to many art exhibitions, locally, nationally and internationally. A recent biographical sketch—part of the Beyond Words exhibition—notes that "his talent has stretched across the dividing lines of art to include theatrical sets and costumes; masks; publications; and television performances. George Fry moves freely across the boundaries which are traditionally used to classify the 'disciplines' of Art."

Illustrated Books
Prudence Kitten by Annette Mills. London, University of London Press, 1952.
Prudence Kitten and Puffer of Children's Television by Annette Mills. London, Publicity Products, 1955.
Tales of Many Lands by Stella Mead; foreword by Richard Church. London, University of London Press, 1956.
Max by Monique Corriveau; an abridged edition ed. N. R. Ewing. Edinburgh, Oliver & Boyd, 1971.

(* A huge thanks to George for patiently answering questions. For some further information, visit the Beyond Words exhibition, which features some of George's experimental book design work.)

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