Remembering Penny Francis

There is so much to be said about Penny Francis and her enthusiastic support of puppetry.

Penny Francis!  What a powerhouse for puppetry! The last time we saw Penny was at the end of our last visit to Europe in 2017, when we spent a few days in Clapham staying with her.  We had stayed with her so many times and were not the only puppetry people who benefited from her great generosity.  I’m glad to say we had a few chances to return hospitality because she came to Australia a number of times, and was a guest speaker at the first National Puppetry and Animatronics Summit [Melbourne, 2002].  Her uncle, Phil Smith, had been a popular comedian in musical comedies in Australia in the first half of the 1900s, and there was family in Perth.  [Please note that I didn’t make the mistake of writing “1900’s”.  Penny was a stickler for correct expression!].   When quite young she had acted Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion  on tour in the U.S.A. and it was her marriage to the actor Derek Francis that kindled her interest in puppetry. 

 Derek was an amateur puppeteer of a professional standard, and made superb marionettes.  I was lucky enough to see a sample of one of the shows they did for some visiting Indian puppeteers in the marionette theatre at the back of their home in Barnes [London] in 1965.  (As some of you may know, Penny was born in what was then Calcutta.)  Recently I came across a letter I had sent home from England telling of that afternoon in Barnes in which I referred to Penny only as “the wife of Derek Francis”!  (It was Sunday, 24 October 1965. I had quite forgotten that Violet Philpott performed The Egg then, and I had premiered two shadow items that were still in my last performance, in 2020.)  At Penny’s invitation, I visited them again some years later in the big house in Wimbledon, when Penny had become an energetic advocate for puppetry.  

Penny was a driving force behind the Puppet Centre in Battersea, and its publication, Animations.  In 1979 she was the organiser of Puppet Theatre 79, London’s first international puppetry festival, an astounding achievement in a city where publicising such an event is a huge task, but even buses carried the festival’s logo.  She was responsible for a puppetry course at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, a course which is sadly no longer offered, and was editor for three books on puppetry and puppet history by Henryk Jurkowski.  Her own book, Puppetry: a Reader in Theatre Practice, was published in 2012.

It was great that Adam Bennett was able to visit Penny when she turned 92 earlier this year.  That was a happy link to UNIMA-Australia through someone she was very fond of.  When we got details of the live broadcast of her funeral I forwarded them to Nancy Staub in Louisiana.  (Nancy organised UNIMA-1980 in Washington, D.C.).  She wrote:  “ Penny was an inspiration and so kind to me …. Celebrated my 90th birthday June 30, one day after Penny left us.”  And after watching the ceremony wrote: “I always enjoyed her wit and wisdom. We spent a week together at UCONN in 2015 that I will always treasure. I miss her.” 

 And all who remember Penny will miss her.

Richard Bradshaw