- ENGLAND -
Let’s now move forward another century to have a look at Victorian England. This was a time when our present-day forms of entertainment did not exist: without television, computers or cinema, entertainment was limited almost exclusively to theatre for adults. As a reminder and a form of advertising for the plays performed, theatres offered with the programmes printed images of the better-known actors, dressed as the characters they played. Quite naturally, those pictures became coveted items that were collected by young theatre lovers, who kept them and exchanged them. The cards were not free, which turned them into exclusive souvenirs for the middle and upper classes.
The interest they created led William West, a printer from that time, to think about the possibility of turning this hobby into a business and, in 1808, he asked one of his apprentices, John Kilby Green, to prepare the first issue of juvenile theatre cards. They called them “Juvenile Theatrical Prints”, and very soon they became of the most successful toys in British history. Until 1811, and without any competition, West expanded the collection up to 26 sets of characters.
The following year, seeing how prosperous his boss’s business was becoming, the modest apprentice J.K. Green decided to try his own luck and created the first stage front or proscenium, while also copying and publishing the works of his former employer. Thus, the “Toy Theatre” was born.
Accepting that he was no longer alone in this flourishing new industry, William West moved on with his project, and in 1811 he launched Peasant boy, the first complete play with sets, riggings, characters and a libretto. He gave this new product the name it still bears today, “Juvenile Drama.” As for Green, he continued to copy the works published by West, but he disappeared from the scene two years later for reasons unknown.
West continued working with paper theatres for the rest of his life, but competition soon came up in this exclusive, elitist market, in which a lot of money was at stake. Considering that a full theatre cost four pounds (a sum most people couldn’t even earn in months) and that each black-and-white sheet cost one penny (tuppence for a colour sheet), it didn’t take long for West to become rich, earning over 30 pounds a week.
In 1832, twenty years after his mysterious disappearance, J.K. Green came back on the publishing scene, proclaiming that he was “the original inventor of Juvenile Theatrical Prints,” a claim nobody challenged. New publishers that would not endure the passing of time, such as Skelt, Park and Webbs, continued to look for theatre models and to compete for a market that was still rather limited. Once again, Green hit the mark when he launched a smaller, cheaper format. He reached an immediate success by appealing to sectors of the population for whom the fashionable toy of the rich had previously remained inaccessible. These small theatres became popularly known by the somewhat derogatory name of “Half-Penny Plays” and, although they were responsible for the popularity of these toys, the quality of these editions soon went down, as old plates were used again and again until they were worn out, without offering novelties to the new customers.
After J.K Green’s death in 1860, one of his sons tried to continue with the business, but many difficulties ensued and the family decided to sell both their printed stock and their plates to John Redington, who had been Green’s agent for many years.
Up until 1876, Redington—who was well-known for publishing portraits of the actors of the “Old Brit” (as the “Britannia Theatre” was popularly known)—published nineteen of the plays he had bought from Green’s heirs, adding seven new adaptations, including Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
A young man named Benjamin Pollock then came on the scene. Pollock used to frequent Hoxton Old Town and, more specifically, Redington’s shop. It is not clear what the young Pollock’s interest was. Some sources point out that, asides from Toy Theatres, Redington sold smuggled tobacco and that Benjamin was one of his customers. Other sources (no doubt, more romantic) claim that Pollock was as fascinated with toy theatres as he was with Eliza, one of Mr. Redington’s daughters. The truth is that when Redington died in 1876, Benjamin Pollock married Eliza Redington and both took care of the business for 60 years.
Pollock, who was even less creative than his father-in-law, and who simply reproduced what others had created, largely compensated his shortcoming by focussing all his efforts on productivity. Thanks solely to his production, the industry of Toy Theatres stayed alive and kept growing in England.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote an article in 1884 entitled “A Penny Plain and Tuppence Coloured,” which ended with this sentence: “If you love art, folly, or the bright eyes of children, speed to Pollock’s!” The publisher could never have thanked him enough for these lines: the message made such a deep impression that even figures such as Chesterton, Gordon Craig and Charles Chaplin became regular visitors of his shop.
Pollock died in 1937. World War II and the difficulties met by his daughters to continue their father’s work under such circumstances allowed Alan Keen, an antiquarian bookseller, to buy the business. Keen, who was a man of means and initiative, set up Benjamin Pollock Limited in an impressive venue in the elegant Adelphi neighbourhood. He published The High Toby, by J. B. Priestly, illustrated by Doris Zinkeisen, and created the “Regency Theatre,” the first kit-form theatre with a proscenium made of bakelite and plays included in the box. He also made the “Adelphi Theatre,” whose name was a tribute to the neighbourhood where the shop was located. However, the enormous production costs led the company to bankruptcy, forcing it to finally disappear in 1952.
In 1955, Marguerite Fawdry was looking for plays for her children’s “Regency Theatre.” She was informed about the bankruptcy of Keen’s company and about the impossibility of purchasing individual plays. However, considering that the remaining stock was packaged and stored at “Benjamin Pollock Limited,” she was given the option of buying the whole lot. Marguerite, who was a great lover of toy theatres, took the offer and decided to set up the “Pollock’s Toy Museum” in Covent Garden, which operated as a shop and as a nostalgic haven. Small editions were produced at the museum, so that the business moved on, though somewhat timidly.
Since 1969 the museum/shop has been located at 1, Scala Street, directed by Eduard Fawdry, Marguerite’s grandson. Thanks to this space, which is more of a shop than a museum, the origins and tradition of British toy theatres have been preserved.
At the same time that toy theatres originated in Britain, an interest in home performances was also emerging on the Continent.