Tag archive: Wanderly Wagon

Eugene Lambert

Very sad to hear about the passing of the mighty Eugene Lambert. Way back when this blog was a bumbling, stumbling and mewling babe, Eugene very generously granted me a long and detailed interview on his long and varied career.

He was a gent throughout, expounding at length on such subjects as – sharing a stage with Laurel & Hardy, the failings of Fortycoats, colicky horses and much, much more.

By way of small (but long) tribute to the great man I dip into the archives and reprint the interview in its entirety.

May he rest in peace.

Part 1

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.

Part 2

Ok, Eugene, if we could just talk a little about the origins of Wanderly. Who takes the credit for the initial concept of a show based around a ‘magical wagon’?

That was a joint idea between myself and [director] Don Lennox. We had a lot of ideas at the time…but then of course they brought in writers…there were a lot of writers. We probably had, oh, 7 or 8 writers over the years.

Is it true that Pat Ingoldsby wrote some episodes?

Oh yes, Pat Ingoldsby wrote for us…Neil Jordan too! Then there was Carolyn Swift, Gordon Snell, Michael Judge…and a lot more.

I’ve heard you mention that Judge and Mr. Crow (the two most iconic puppet characters) were there from the very beginning of Wanderly, but had they ever been used prior to that (in Murphy agus a Chairde for example)?

Oh no, they were all different. They were all specially created for the show – Judge, and Mr. Crow, and Foxy, the squirrels, the mice, and Sneaky Snake – they were all our own original ideas for Wanderly Wagon.

According to the recent documentary made about the family, Pulling the Strings, you were originally only supposed to supply the puppets, but eventually found yourself playing the ‘Jovial character’ that Wanderly Wagon needed.

That’s right yes, originally. I had done some straight acting before that though. I was in the Abbey Theatre production of At Swim-Two-Birds [an Adaptation of Flann O'Brien's novel by Audrey Welsh] where I played the Pooka.

Oh Right!

…and did the ventriloquism for the Good Fairy who was an invisible character. Alan Simpson, Lord have Mercy on Him, was the director of that…an absolutely wonderful man. It was a wonderful production.

I also acted in a children’s play, a Robert Bolt play…in the Eblana theatre, which is gone now…and I did pantomime, of course, and a few other things too. I actually did several pantomimes with Maureen Potter in the Gaiety.

Of course when I did the ventriloquism it was really more adult shows and cabaret, but through television, then, I became known more as a children’s entertainer than an adult entertainer…

What about the casting of Nora O’ Mahony? Had you known her before, and what was she like to work with (and as a person)?

Nora O’Mahony of course was Godmother, and I knew of her…you know. She was a very famous actress actually, and had played in several films in Hollywood. One of the last ones she did was Darby O’Gill and the Little People, do you know that one?

I do indeed, with Jimmy O’Dea, Sean Connery etc.

Yes, they showed it quite recently…she was the barmaid [Molly Malloy] in that, so if you ever see it again you’ll know to watch out for her. She was a lovely person…but she gave it all up and went to work as a lay missionary in Rhodesia, and she was Bishop Lamont’s secretary for many years until she got a tropical disease, a kidney disease, and she was invalided home. After that she started reading letters on The Frank Hall Show on television, and that’s how we discovered her for Wanderly Wagon.

I believe that Rory (Bill Golding) left the show in 1974, though I don’t recall this personally I might add. I’ve read that the character “left the team early deciding to help the moon mice repair the moon with the help of some cheese”. Is this true, and what are your memories of Bill?

He was a wonderful actor and he played several characters. He played FortycoatsThe character of Fortycoats seems to have been named after a real-life Dublin ‘character’…or possibly more than one, as Wikipedia explains:

The name Johnny Fortycoats first appears in Dublin folklore in the 1930s. It may perhaps have been applied to more than one person, including one of a couple of tramps who walked the coast of Dublin at the time of the television series. A wild looking man, universally recognized (Dublin is a large village), harmless as anyone knew. He was far removed from the world of television. It was his habit to wear several coats, hence the nickname.

actually, with his flying sweetshop (The flying sweetshop was my idea, by the way).

And yes, what you read is true, himself and Foxy went off to repair the moon with the mice!

But Bill was always very busy because he did a lot of commercials and he did a lot of straight acting in the Gate Theatre and that…

Someone told me that he actually does the voice of “Ould Mr. Brennan”.For those who don’t know, ‘Ould Mr. Brennan’ is a famous Irish, uber-Dub, radio character who advertises “Brennan’s Bread”…in pretty maudlin style. Is that right?!

Yeah, that’s actually the voice he used to do for Fortycoats, the original Fortycoats! Now after Wanderly Wagon finished they did a program called Fortycoats & Co.…which was a rehash of our program…

So you (the Lamberts) didn’t have anything to do with that show?

No, we’d nothing to do with that at all…but they actually rehashed some of our scripts, you know. Anyway, it was never as popular as Wanderly Wagon! (laughs)

Frank Kelly is another fondly remembered Wanderly regular. What are your memories of working with Frank?

Well Frank Kelly actually wrote quite a lot of Wanderly Wagon and then he played several characters over the years, the last one (of course) being Dr. Astro. But he had played several others…I remember he played a pirate – I forget his name now [Ed: Possibly 'Long John Gold'?] – and he was a brother..a monk! And, of course, he did the voice of Sneaky Snake. He was a very versatile man, though he’s now (of course) best know for Fr. Jack!

There’s a scene in the documentary where Jim O’Hare talks about the actual design of the wagon. Can you tell us a little bit about how it was first created?

Yes, Jim was the designer, and he worked in Telifís Éireann. The wagon was designed on a dray…CIE used to have these horse drays and it was on one of those. And we actually bought the original horse, Telifís Éireann owned him…Pádraig the Horse! We did a lot of filming of putting on the harness, and feeding him, and hooking him up to the wagon and all that…but there was actually a new lawn laid in Telifís Éireann, because it was quite a new building back then, and the poor horse ate the grass, got colic, and died.

Oh dear…

The thing was that nobody knew because we were still using all the footage we’d shot of the horse and the wagon! Then over the years they hired several other horses, but the kids never really seemed to mind that they were different. We had a piebald horse, and a brown horse…but it was just accepted! (laughs)

And, of course, we did a lot of the St. Patrick’s Day parades with the wagon and the various horses.

So it was actually a properly functioning wagon then?

That’s right. Oh it was, yeah.

But the interior was obviously a set…

Yes, it was a separate set, and that was always a bit of a shock to the kids when they had a look inside!

I presume that the wagon was designed, from the beginning, with puppetry in mind?

Oh yes, it was. The downpipe was for Crow, and there was a barrel where Sneaky Snake was operated and so on. There was actually a fair bit of room inside, but it still used to be cramped enough when all the puppets and puppeteers were in there.

Jim also suggests that the original intention was for the show to be an outside broadcast, with the wagon (physically) travelling around Ireland every week? Was that the case?

Yes, but we very seldom travelled anywhere! We had it down in Clonmel at a big parade one time…and I’m sure there’s footage somewhere, because that was filmed…so it’s around somewhere.

Would be great to dig that up. So, basically, despite the initial concept, the show pretty quickly became almost exclusively studio based…

That’s right, but we did do a few outside things. I remember we had it in Powerscourt a few times, and Stephen’s Green on several occasions. Whenever we actually went anywhere thousands of people used to turn up! We also had it in Birr, and a few festivals here and there but originally it was supposed to travel a lot more.

Part 3

So what’s become of the actual wagon now Eugene? The documentary [Pulling the Strings] seemed to suggest that it has become the property of Fossett’s Circus….

It used to be outside Telifís Éireann [in Donnybrook] for a long time, literally falling asunder, until Eddie Fossett took it. He then (thankfully) decided to repair it, so he has it in storage now.

Actually, for the second last Late Late Show with Gay Byrne, Gay said he would love to have the wagon on…but nobody knew where it was! Then, by accident, I found out where it was through doing the Punch and Judy Act in the Peter Ustinov film version of The Old Curiosity Shop. I didn’t appear myself, but I did (as I say) do the Punch and Judy in it, and there were also some of Eddie Fossett’s jugglers and acrobats involved. Anyway, Eddie and I got chatting and he said “You know, I have the wagon!” (laughs) So that’s how I got to find out.

Then, about 4 years ago, we had it up in the National Museum in Collins’ Barracks, and we had about five thousand turn up to see it…mostly adults!

So is it back in Fossett’s now?

Yes, it’s back in Fossett’s. It’s there and it can be hired out.

You’ve suggested that you felt that you (and the family) lost control of Wanderly Wagon, somewhat, around the time it made the transition to colour, as it no longer felt like “a live show”. How had things changed exactly?

In the early black and white days they couldn’t edit the tape, so you did the show from beginning to end and if anything went wrong you had to start again. But then when it went into colour and they started to have editing facilities, they began to do shows simultaneously, so we’d do the interiors (say) for two different shows together. That made continuity very difficult …it became more of a technical show…and it was much more difficult to work like that for me.

I know that Wanderly was one of the first Irish TV shows (if not the first) to use ‘Chroma Key’ (or ‘Colour Separation Overlay’), thus allowing the wagon to enter more fantastical realms (under the sea, outer space etc). What are your memories of working with that technology?

Well there were wonderful things you could do, of course. Suddenly the wagon could fly, and I remember we used helicopter footage that they had, and showed the wagon flying out to Cappagh Hospital, and all the other children’s hospitals we used to visit at Christmas.

In general, how much freedom, did you have from RTÉ creatively?

Well we were always allowed to come up with ideas, and I was consulted about the different things we could actually do with puppets. So…over the years we came up with a lot of the puppetry ideas that made the show what it was.

How tight was the schedule in terms of getting the shows finished on time?

We used to rehearse for two days, and then we’d be in the studio for a full day, but it was never enough time, never enough time…

Then there were also sessions doing songs, recording songs and so on with Jim Doherty who used to do the music. There were a lot of different song-writers and composers too, over the years.

Were the mythical/folkloric elements of the show something you personally felt interested in, or did they (instead) spring simply from the imaginations of individual writers?

Well that really only featured in the later episodes like the ones they’re after doing for the DVD, and ‘Chroma Key’ was used a lot in those ones. But we really didn’t do that kind of ‘Irish folklore’ thing too often before that. We had some great episodes, though, in the early years, like ‘Upside-Down land’…and…some of the early ones were marvellous really. All done without the special effects too.

I’ve heard that many (if not most) of RTÉ’s Wanderly Wagon tapes were erased/re-used due to cost-cutting techniques prevalent at the time. How much material actually remains in the archives, do you know?

Well they were big, wide tapes and they used to use them over and over. I was originally told that most of the tapes were gone, but there are still quite a few left…probably 150 tapes at least. Of course, we must have done an awful lot more that that over the years…so it’s a great shame. But it was common practice at the time, and the BBC used to have the same problem.

For example, for all the years we did Murphy agus a Chairde (5 years) there’s none of it left. Well, there’s a little 2 minute clip…or it mightn’t even be 2 minutes…in the documentary, and that survived because it was on film. It was a documentary about Telifís Éireann that happened to be filming at the time.

But in the coming years they’re going to allow me to go through the archives and pick out ones that I’d like. I’ll hopefully even be able to get something out of the tapes that are damaged, and I could always link up the fragments with inserts from Judge and myself.

So there’ll definitely be more material coming out on DVD?

Yes, [the first volume] was a great success last year with over 30,000 copies sold. I didn’t really have that much to do with it, they really only gave it to me to OK, but if I’d had the choice I wouldn’t have picked the ones they picked. If I’d had the time I might have chosen something else but by the time they came to me it was already November so…

Anyway, it was EMI that did it and it took a long time to get Telifís Éireann to release the material, but because of the success they’re definitely going to do more.

Finally, Eugene, could you tell us a little bit about the ‘International Puppetry Festival’ you’re currently organising?

The puppetry festival is in its 13th year, and we’re working hard on it at the moment. We’re hoping to have a Russian company, a Mexican company, and a group from Iran would you believe! They’re three girl puppeteers from Iran and it would be a great coup if we could get them.

As well as our own theatre we’ll also be using the Pavilion this year, for the Russian one. It’s not all finalised yet but we’re hoping it’ll be a very good festival.

Eugene Lambert Interview Pt. 3 – A Most Unusual Wagon…

The Story Concludes…

After Part Two‘s tales of horse colic, Neil Jordan, Flann O’Brien, Fortycoats, and ‘Ould Mr. Brennan’…our story drifts gently towards its ending. My thanks (again) go out to Eugene for agreeing to chat (off the cuff) about this, that, the other, and everything in between.

You’ve been a great audience, folks. Good night, and safe home. (curtain)

So what’s become of the actual wagon now Eugene? The documentary [Pulling the Strings] seemed to suggest that it has become the property of Fossett’s Circus….

It used to be outside Telifís Éireann [in Donnybrook] for a long time, literally falling asunder, until Eddie Fossett took it. He then (thankfully) decided to repair it, so he has it in storage now.

Actually, for the second last Late Late Show with Gay Byrne, Gay said he would love to have the wagon on…but nobody knew where it was! Then, by accident, I found out where it was through doing the Punch and Judy Act in the Peter Ustinov film version of The Old Curiosity Shop. I didn’t appear myself, but I did (as I say) do the Punch and Judy in it, and there were also some of Eddie Fossett’s jugglers and acrobats involved. Anyway, Eddie and I got chatting and he said “You know, I have the wagon!” (laughs) So that’s how I got to find out.

Then, about 4 years ago, we had it up in the National Museum in Collins’ Barracks, and we had about five thousand turn up to see it…mostly adults!

So is it back in Fossett’s now?

Yes, it’s back in Fossett’s. It’s there and it can be hired out.

You’ve suggested that you felt that you (and the family) lost control of Wanderly Wagon, somewhat, around the time it made the transition to colour, as it no longer felt like “a live show”. How had things changed exactly?

In the early black and white days they couldn’t edit the tape, so you did the show from beginning to end and if anything went wrong you had to start again. But then when it went into colour and they started to have editing facilities, they began to do shows simultaneously, so we’d do the interiors (say) for two different shows together. That made continuity very difficult …it became more of a technical show…and it was much more difficult to work like that for me.

I know that Wanderly was one of the first Irish TV shows (if not the first) to use ‘Chroma Key’ (or ‘Colour Separation Overlay’), thus allowing the wagon to enter more fantastical realms (under the sea, outer space etc). What are your memories of working with that technology?

Well there were wonderful things you could do, of course. Suddenly the wagon could fly, and I remember we used helicopter footage that they had, and showed the wagon flying out to Cappagh Hospital, and all the other children’s hospitals we used to visit at Christmas.

In general, how much freedom, did you have from RTÉ creatively?

Well we were always allowed to come up with ideas, and I was consulted about the different things we could actually do with puppets. So…over the years we came up with a lot of the puppetry ideas that made the show what it was.

How tight was the schedule in terms of getting the shows finished on time?

We used to rehearse for two days, and then we’d be in the studio for a full day, but it was never enough time, never enough time…

Then there were also sessions doing songs, recording songs and so on with Jim Doherty who used to do the music. There were a lot of different song-writers and composers too, over the years.

Were the mythical/folkloric elements of the show something you personally felt interested in, or did they (instead) spring simply from the imaginations of individual writers?

Well that really only featured in the later episodes like the ones they’re after doing for the DVD, and ‘Chroma Key’ was used a lot in those ones. But we really didn’t do that kind of ‘Irish folklore’ thing too often before that. We had some great episodes, though, in the early years, like ‘Upside-Down land’…and…some of the early ones were marvellous really. All done without the special effects too.

I’ve heard that many (if not most) of RTÉ’s Wanderly Wagon tapes were erased/re-used due to cost-cutting techniques prevalent at the time. How much material actually remains in the archives, do you know?

Well they were big, wide tapes and they used to use them over and over. I was originally told that most of the tapes were gone, but there are still quite a few left…probably 150 tapes at least. Of course, we must have done an awful lot more that that over the years…so it’s a great shame. But it was common practice at the time, and the BBC used to have the same problem.

For example, for all the years we did Murphy agus a Chairde (5 years) there’s none of it left. Well, there’s a little 2 minute clip…or it mightn’t even be 2 minutes…in the documentary, and that survived because it was on film. It was a documentary about Telifís Éireann that happened to be filming at the time.

But in the coming years they’re going to allow me to go through the archives and pick out ones that I’d like. I’ll hopefully even be able to get something out of the tapes that are damaged, and I could always link up the fragments with inserts from Judge and myself.

So there’ll definitely be more material coming out on DVD?

Yes, [the first volume] was a great success last year with over 30,000 copies sold. I didn’t really have that much to do with it, they really only gave it to me to OK, but if I’d had the choice I wouldn’t have picked the ones they picked. If I’d had the time I might have chosen something else but by the time they came to me it was already November so…

Anyway, it was EMI that did it and it took a long time to get Telifís Éireann to release the material, but because of the success they’re definitely going to do more.

Finally, Eugene, could you tell us a little bit about the ‘International Puppetry Festival’ you’re currently organising?

The puppetry festival is in its 13th year, and we’re working hard on it at the moment. We’re hoping to have a Russian company, a Mexican company, and a group from Iran would you believe! They’re three girl puppeteers from Iran and it would be a great coup if we could get them.

As well as our own theatre we’ll also be using the Pavilion this year, for the Russian one. It’s not all finalised yet but we’re hoping it’ll be a very good festival.

    The End

(…More fustar.info interviews [hopefully] coming soon…)

Eugene Lambert Interview Pt. 2 – A Wanderly Beginning

The Story so far…

With Part 1 (and Eugene’s early days) behind us, our tale now winds its way toward the promised land of Part 2…and the arrival of a certain wagon.

Wanderly Wagon

Ready boys and girls?

Ok, Eugene, if we could just talk a little about the origins of Wanderly. Who takes the credit for the initial concept of a show based around a ‘magical wagon’?

That was a joint idea between myself and [director] Don Lennox. We had a lot of ideas at the time…but then of course they brought in writers…there were a lot of writers. We probably had, oh, 7 or 8 writers over the years.

Is it true that Pat Ingoldsby wrote some episodes?

Oh yes, Pat Ingoldsby wrote for us…Neil Jordan too! Then there was Carolyn Swift, Gordon Snell, Michael Judge…and a lot more.

I’ve heard you mention that Judge and Mr. Crow (the two most iconic puppet characters) were there from the very beginning of Wanderly, but had they ever been used prior to that (in Murphy agus a Chairde for example)?

Oh no, they were all different. They were all specially created for the show – Judge, and Mr. Crow, and Foxy, the squirrels, the mice, and Sneaky Snake – they were all our own original ideas for Wanderly Wagon.

According to the recent documentary made about the family, Pulling the Strings, you were originally only supposed to supply the puppets, but eventually found yourself playing the ‘Jovial character’ that Wanderly Wagon needed.

That’s right yes, originally. I had done some straight acting before that though. I was in the Abbey Theatre production of At Swim-Two-Birds [an Adaptation of Flann O'Brien's novel by Audrey Welsh] where I played the Pooka.

Oh Right!

…and did the ventriloquism for the Good Fairy who was an invisible character. Alan Simpson, Lord have Mercy on Him, was the director of that…an absolutely wonderful man. It was a wonderful production.

I also acted in a children’s play, a Robert Bolt play…in the Eblana theatre, which is gone now…and I did pantomime, of course, and a few other things too. I actually did several pantomimes with Maureen Potter in the Gaiety.

Of course when I did the ventriloquism it was really more adult shows and cabaret, but through television, then, I became known more as a children’s entertainer than an adult entertainer…

What about the casting of Nora O’ Mahony? Had you known her before, and what was she like to work with (and as a person)?

Nora O’Mahony of course was Godmother, and I knew of her…you know. She was a very famous actress actually, and had played in several films in Hollywood. One of the last ones she did was Darby O’Gill and the Little People, do you know that one?

I do indeed, with Jimmy O’Dea, Sean Connery etc.

Yes, they showed it quite recently…she was the barmaid [Molly Malloy] in that, so if you ever see it again you’ll know to watch out for her. She was a lovely person…but she gave it all up and went to work as a lay missionary in Rhodesia, and she was Bishop Lamont’s secretary for many years until she got a tropical disease, a kidney disease, and she was invalided home. After that she started reading letters on The Frank Hall Show on television, and that’s how we discovered her for Wanderly Wagon.

I believe that Rory (Bill Golding) left the show in 1974, though I don’t recall this personally I might add. I’ve read that the character “left the team early deciding to help the moon mice repair the moon with the help of some cheese”. Is this true, and what are your memories of Bill?

He was a wonderful actor and he played several characters. He played FortycoatsThe character of Fortycoats seems to have been named after a real-life Dublin ‘character’…or possibly more than one, as Wikipedia explains:

The name Johnny Fortycoats first appears in Dublin folklore in the 1930s. It may perhaps have been applied to more than one person, including one of a couple of tramps who walked the coast of Dublin at the time of the television series. A wild looking man, universally recognized (Dublin is a large village), harmless as anyone knew. He was far removed from the world of television. It was his habit to wear several coats, hence the nickname.

actually, with his flying sweetshop (The flying sweetshop was my idea, by the way).

And yes, what you read is true, himself and Foxy went off to repair the moon with the mice!

But Bill was always very busy because he did a lot of commercials and he did a lot of straight acting in the Gate Theatre and that…

Someone told me that he actually does the voice of “Ould Mr. Brennan”.For those who don’t know, ‘Ould Mr. Brennan’ is a famous Irish, uber-Dub, radio character who advertises “Brennan’s Bread”…in pretty maudlin style. Is that right?!

Yeah, that’s actually the voice he used to do for Fortycoats, the original Fortycoats! Now after Wanderly Wagon finished they did a program called Fortycoats & Co.…which was a rehash of our program…

So you (the Lamberts) didn’t have anything to do with that show?

No, we’d nothing to do with that at all…but they actually rehashed some of our scripts, you know. Anyway, it was never as popular as Wanderly Wagon! (laughs)

Frank Kelly is another fondly remembered Wanderly regular. What are your memories of working with Frank?

Well Frank Kelly actually wrote quite a lot of Wanderly Wagon and then he played several characters over the years, the last one (of course) being Dr. Astro. But he had played several others…I remember he played a pirate – I forget his name now [Ed: Possibly 'Long John Gold'?] – and he was a brother..a monk! And, of course, he did the voice of Sneaky Snake. He was a very versatile man, though he’s now (of course) best know for Fr. Jack!

There’s a scene in the documentary where Jim O’Hare talks about the actual design of the wagon. Can you tell us a little bit about how it was first created?

Yes, Jim was the designer, and he worked in Telifís Éireann. The wagon was designed on a dray…CIE used to have these horse drays and it was on one of those. And we actually bought the original horse, Telifís Éireann owned him…Pádraig the Horse! We did a lot of filming of putting on the harness, and feeding him, and hooking him up to the wagon and all that…but there was actually a new lawn laid in Telifís Éireann, because it was quite a new building back then, and the poor horse ate the grass, got colic, and died.

Oh dear…

The thing was that nobody knew because we were still using all the footage we’d shot of the horse and the wagon! Then over the years they hired several other horses, but the kids never really seemed to mind that they were different. We had a piebald horse, and a brown horse…but it was just accepted! (laughs)

And, of course, we did a lot of the St. Patrick’s Day parades with the wagon and the various horses.

So it was actually a properly functioning wagon then?

That’s right. Oh it was, yeah.

But the interior was obviously a set…

Yes, it was a separate set, and that was always a bit of a shock to the kids when they had a look inside!

I presume that the wagon was designed, from the beginning, with puppetry in mind?

Oh yes, it was. The downpipe was for Crow, and there was a barrel where Sneaky Snake was operated and so on. There was actually a fair bit of room inside, but it still used to be cramped enough when all the puppets and puppeteers were in there.

Jim also suggests that the original intention was for the show to be an outside broadcast, with the wagon (physically) travelling around Ireland every week? Was that the case?

Yes, but we very seldom travelled anywhere! We had it down in Clonmel at a big parade one time…and I’m sure there’s footage somewhere, because that was filmed…so it’s around somewhere.

Would be great to dig that up. So, basically, despite the initial concept, the show pretty quickly became almost exclusively studio based…

That’s right, but we did do a few outside things. I remember we had it in Powerscourt a few times, and Stephen’s Green on several occasions. Whenever we actually went anywhere thousands of people used to turn up! We also had it in Birr, and a few festivals here and there but originally it was supposed to travel a lot more.

    End of Part 2

(…Part 3, “A Most Unusual Wagon…”, coming very soon…)

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.

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…)