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The book of clowns

The book of clowns

George Speaight

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One of his brothers was the Shakespearean actor Robert Speaight, who paid for some of George's education at Haileybury. Like his older brother, George Speaight was a gifted and natural performer from a young age. Aged four years old his first role was as the Page in a family production of Romeo and Juliet, and in 1921 he won an elocution prize for the Ghost's speech in Hamlet. George Speaight was fascinated from his boyhood by toy theatres after his father bought him one from Benjamin Pollock's Toy Shop in Hoxton, and in the 1930s he professionally took up puppetry. He became known for his puppet show performances at the Bumpus bookstore in Oxford Street where he worked from 1932, when his father's bankruptcy denied him a university place. His shows here were appreciated by, among others, T. E. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw and Peter Brook, the latter claiming that Speaight inspired him to pursue a theatrical career. In 1934 he was received into the Catholic Church and after leaving Bumpus' in 1938 he spent six months as a farm labourer at the sculptor Eric Gill's rural community, Piggotts, in Sussex, where he came upon the idea of writing his book about Punch and Judy while digging potatoes. Published as Punch and Judy: a History in 1970, the book was to be the first serious study on the subject. His first association with Benjamin Pollock's Toy Shop came when he gave a toy theatre performance of The Corsican Brothers at The George Inn in Southwark for Benjamin Pollock's 80th birthday in 1936. Speaight was already gaining a reputation for his juvenile drama performances using characters and settings obtained from Pollock's. He gained practical experience with puppetry in 1939 when working with Olive Blackham's Roel Puppets in the Cotswolds.
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