Eugene Lambert Interview Pt. 1 – The Wagon Approaches…
Though I'm not someone who has much time for the kind of indiscriminate nostalgia expressed in the likes of I Love Nineteen-Eighty-Whatever etc., there are (undoubtedly) certain television shows from my childhood (the ones with an indescribable 'something') that have stayed with me, long after clear memories of individual episodes fade.
While the likes of (the wonderful) Bagpuss may have charmed and captivated children across the Irish Sea, there was but one choice (no, really) for those of us who grew up in the "single channel land" of 1970s RTÉ: The magical, the marvellous, the decidedly strange…Wanderly Wagon.
For those whose childhoods were Wanderly-free, a brief description of the show might prove useful. The excellent Irish-Tv.com has this to say:
Wanderly Wagon was probably the classic children's television programme from RTÉ, the Irish state broadcaster. [It] ran from 1968 until 1982 – but come to think of it, for many years it was the only children's television programme on RTÉ. So what was it all about? Well, three intrepid human travellers set out in a magical flying wagon accompanied by a cloth dog, a smart cuckoo clock with a crow in it, and a wooden fox who lived in a barrel fixed to the outside of the wagon. The travellers did venture outside planet Earth occasionally but only ever seemed to travel in Ireland when they were on Earth. When things were flagging a bit, everyone including the villains would break out into song.
A further (comparative) offering comes from Pádraig O Méalóid:
Think Dr Who with a fat man [Sorry Eugene!] instead of The Doctor, a grandmother [sic] instead of the companion, a horsedrawn wagon instead of the TARDIS, and absolutely no budget whatsoever, and you're still miles out.
Though both descriptions give a hint of the show’s unique flavour, we children of the 70s/Early 80s had nothing but half-remembered fragments to reminisce about until late last year when EMI (in conjunction with RTÉ) brought out the first volume of The Best of Wanderly Wagon on DVD. The release has proven a huge success, and yours truly dutifully trotted out to get himself a copy to roll back the years and wax nostalgic. Having relived the experience I was curious to find out how much Wanderly information was available online. After a couple of casual searches, it became clear that (surprisingly) there was actually precious little of note.
A few breathless emails and telephone calls later, and I emerged (after a few weeks…) with a fústar.org exclusive: A lengthy, 3-part interview with Wanderly's co-creator, star, and Irish puppetry legend, Mr. Eugene Lambert (a million thanks to Eugene for his co-operation, he couldn't have been nicer).
So, without further ado, I present (unsurprisingly enough) 'Part 1′. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed compiling it. Away we go…
To begin with, Eugene, can you tell us a little bit about how you first got involved in puppetry?
Well, I actually started doing puppets when I was a child, 8 years of age, when I got some books on it. My father was a county librarian in Sligo, I’m originally from Sligo by the way. Anyway, I made a ventriloquist’s doll when I was about 10 and after that I used to do school concerts and shows for the boy scouts and all that sort of thing. So that was the beginning.
You spent 7 successful years, I believe, with Jury’s cabaret performing as a ventriloquist with your dummy/companion Finnegan. Was ventriloquism a popular form of entertainment on the Irish variety circuit at the time?
Well no, not really. There were only about two ventriloquists around! So when I started doing it I had no idea that there was even such a thing as a ventriloquist. (laughs)
Was it literally then a case of just getting a book from the library and teaching yourself?
Well I actually started doing ventriloquism without a book at all. I’ve always mimicked and done voices and all that sort of thing, so it was a really just the next step from the other puppets I used to make…deciding to make a puppet that could move its mouth.
So if that was the very beginning of your interest in puppetry, how did you then get involved in it professionally?
Well, I was doing those concerts…and…you see my father died when I was 15 so I had to leave college, but I did go to the Tec for a few years, and I was always very good at making things with my hands. Then I actually became a fitter in Denny’s Bacon factory in Sligo, but I still used to do parochial concerts, and that, with the ventriloquism.
Then I came to Dublin…and we got married in 1950, Mai and I, we were only 22! So we came to Dublin and, as I always tell the story, we only had two cases. All our belongings were in one, and my puppet was in the other. That, and ten shillings…that’s what we came to Dublin with, you know. By the way, the dummy I had then was actually a predecessor of Finnegan, a character called Frankie.
Anyway, we came to Dublin and I got a job in refrigeration, in 'Re-cold', 27 Pearse St. It’s actually the Pearse Museum now, that building there…but it used to be a company called 'Re-Cold'. So, I was working in the fridges there when Mai entered me for a talent competition in James’ St. Hall. I won the competition and a chap saw me, he was a magician, and he brought me down to the Queen’s Theatre, which also used to be in Pearse St. So I got on in the Queen’s and that was really the first sort of professional break that I had. I did a lot of weeks in the Queen’s, before going on to play in the Capitol Theatre, which was beside the GPO, and the Olympia. In 1954 I actually played with Laurel and Hardy in the Olympia!
Around that time someone saw my act and I ended up going to England for 18 months, touring on the Musical Hall circuit. Nobody could do that now, of course, because it’s all gone. But it was a wonderful experience…and that, I suppose, is where I got my proper theatrical experience.
You said there weren’t many ventriloquist acts in Ireland at the time, but presumably there were quite a few on the Music Hall scene…
Well there was a famous ventriloquist called Terry Hall, and he was in the show in the Olympia when I was in the Capitol, and…I don’t know whether you ever remember Lenny the Lion?
Em…a bit before my time I'm afraid…
He was actually on the BBC…he had a BBC show…and Terry had left the show in the Olympia to do that, which is how I got the job! So, I went on tour then …I remember the first stage of the tour was in Cork in the Old Opera House, and when that finished I went to England and toured for 18 months as I’ve said. After that I came back to Dublin, and started doing dinners, children’s parties etc., but I also had a day job!
I also believe that you used to perform with Finnegan on a popular RTÉ radio program. Hearing this reminded me of a scene in Woody Allen’s Radio Days where one of the characters protests at the presence of a ventriloquist on the radio, asking (the fairly obvious question) "How do we know he's not moving his lips?". Was that ever an issue for you?
(laughs) Well no, not really. Charlie McCarthy was extremely successful in America on the radio, and then you had Peter Brough with Archie Andrews on the BBC [in a show called Educating Archie], and then, of course, I was here.
Take the Floor was a show on Radio Éireann with a man called Dinjo…and it was a huge success, and I toured around the country doing concerts with him, mainly Sunday nights…or the whole weekend in some places…and, of course, did the day job as well. We’d travel to Killarney and back in the one day and then have to go in to work in the morning!
I actually also had a children’s program called Finnegan Picks the Music on the radio…and that would have been way back in the 50s and the early 60s.
And what was the format of that?
Well it was based around Children’s records…which unfortunately you never hear now. I know people say that kids now are into pop music and all that, but they never hear the likes of Burl Ives and those songs…those wonderful children’s songs that he had. But there were a whole lot of these songs you know…Danny Kaye, for example, had hundreds of children’s songs. So I used to play those kind of records and then do a little bit of dialogue between songs with Finnegan and myself.
And then in 1963, I entered an idea to Telifís Éireann, and that’s where the other puppetry started…with a show called Murphy agus a Chairde. The idea I submitted was actually a marionette show, and from that I got what they call a 'test'. So it was all based around marionettes, which I had to make, and Mai (my wife), and my eldest daughter manipulated them with me. The other children (we had ten in the family) were very small at the time.
At the same time I was doing "Gaels of Laughter" in the Gaiety with Maureen Potter, as well as seven nights a week in Jury’s Cabaret in Dame St. So I had to give up the day job at that stage…as the money was pretty poor in comparison…
What was the money like in Telifís Éireann at the time, if you don’t mind me asking?
It was never good you know…but it was a lot better than the day job! (laughs)
So then, on the television front, Murphy agus a Chairde ran up until 1968 (5 years in all), and in the meantime I had met a wonderful director called Don Lennox and we started discussing further programs…and Wanderly Wagon came out of that and ran from 1968 up until 1982.
End of Part 1
(…Part 2, "A Wanderly Beginning", coming soon…)
February 8, 2006