Gabrielle Smith, Northumbria University
24 May 2017
I should preface this blog post by saying that the story of Muffin the Mule has become something of a pet project of mine, not to mention, a wider part of my Ph.D research. Back in October 2016, the seventieth anniversary of Muffin’s first broadcast was not only a cause for celebration, but a cultural landmark in British children’s television. In commemorating the very first appearance of the small, stringed, ‘kicking mule’ on the BBC, the history of this marionette is but the beginning of a long and ongoing relationship of puppets and presenters on TV. In tracing Muffin, as a wooden progenitor to a growing and somewhat illustrious family of marionettes, puppets (and even Muppets) made for children’s television, the presenter and the puppet as a sidekick has been a mainstay attraction for British children’s television for over half a century. It is this perennial fascination with puppetry that requires further exploration, and how it has been traditionally used as a device for presentation as well as an integral part of storytelling for kids’ TV.
Delving deeper into the ways in which the popular and well-loved figure of Muffin the Mule captured an audience both then and now, the original programme can be regarded as pioneering, on several levels. First shown on For The Children (the original run 1937-1939, with a return in 1946-1951), the inaugural appearance of Muffin the Mule took place in a twelve minute live performance, broadcast from Alexandra Palace in 1946. Moving into the 1950s, puppets played a hugely important role for children’s television, and Muffin was to be joined by several of his puppet friends. These included other characters such as Poppy the Parrot, Sally the Seal and Crumpet the Clown. Although, as Anna Home remarks Muffin the Mule was to be hailed as the first real television star (1993:50). Not alone in his stardom, Muffin was accompanied by actress Annette Mills at the piano, and puppeteer and performer Ann Hogarth of the Hogarth Puppet Theatre – the programme’s producer, Jan Bussell was also married to Hogarth and shared her love of puppeteering for all ages.
The story of how Mills and the Hogarth Puppet Circus came to work together to produce the programme is at the heart of Muffin’s tale/tail. Indeed, the passion and enthusiasm shared by the married couple’s interest in the art of puppetry more broadly, is highlighted in Hogarth’s obituary. Penny Francis comments that, ‘The Hogarth Puppets were Britain’s leading exponents of the art of puppetry for many years. Their work bridged the transition between the naturalistic, imitative style of puppets still common in the early days and the highly stylised work to be seen from the Sixties and Seventies.’ (The Independent: 1993)
Last summer, I was lucky enough to meet Will McNally who, as the grandson of Hogarth and Bussell, was well placed to talk me through the Muffin phenomenon. In spending some time with him and looking through his archive, I saw first-hand some of the amazing Muffin artefacts. These included a range of diverse merchandise, toys, books and programme material, as well as the impeccably preserved marionettes themselves. In explaining to me how his grandparents, ‘were touring puppeteers and had a little caravan they converted to a puppet theatre,’ Will told me how the couple would ‘travel all around the country, going to different parks, particularly the Royal Parks in London.’ As the story goes – in 1934 Fred Tickner was commissioned to make a new wooden puppet, a kicking mule, which Will iterated ‘wasn’t created or designed to be Muffin then.’ It was only when Annette Mills and Jan Bussell, (who at the time was working as a television producer) met that the Muffin as we know him came into being. Mills had the desire to create a programme suitable for children, wherein she could sing her songs.
She [Mills] knew my grandfather was into puppetry, and asked if he would make a puppet to illustrate her songs, and he rather haughtily said, ‘no, come to my house and select one of my puppets’. She obviously thought it was a good idea and selected the kicking mule. It was Annette who named him ‘Muffin the Mule’. (McNally: 2016)
Mills and co-creator Ann Hogarth were credited in their roles as helping Muffin, by ‘writing the songs’ and ‘pulling the strings’. In a decision made by Bussell and the BBC, the choice to place their own approved version of a mother figure in the programme was in that of Annette Mills. This reflected some of the wider anxieties surrounding children’s television at the time. In his work, David Oswell observes that most felt that in an ideal world children would be watching the wonderful new medium with an adult. Naturally, this would not always be the case and in effort to try and counter this concern, the presence of Mills ensured that there would always be a proper, appropriate and perhaps even maternal voice to guide them. In addition to this, McGown notes that, ‘Mills and Hogarth felt non-speaking animal characters better stimulated young imaginations’ – a quality that is reflected in the way Muffin is seen to trot up and down the surface of Mill’s grand piano. The puppet would occasionally pause, perhaps to whisper something into Mill’s ear, which only she would understand and translate for the benefit of the audience.
Being with Will it was clear that he held the memories of both his grandparents and of Muffin dear. He explained to me that, ‘Muffin was loved by everyone…adored the world over, all ages, and seemed to have this knack of bringing people together.’ Whilst the figure of Muffin the Mule has grown into something of icon, he has also become a piece of British television history, both materially and on the screen. The ongoing legacy and the traditional role of puppet on children’s television, has undoubtedly cast Muffin as something of a forefather for the puppet’s place on TV, creating a space for those that followed suit. Glove puppets like Gordon the Gopher, Edd the Duck, and even the contemporary CBBC sidekicks – two cheeky dogs called Hacker and Dodge, now seem to have replaced the stringed marionette. But what remains is the self-same ‘naughtiness’ and foolishness that Muffin instilled. Even this was indicated in the programme’s original theme song:
‘Here comes Muffin/
Muffin the Mule.
Dear old Muffin/
Playing the fool.’
Before I left that afternoon, Will said to me: ‘You asked me earlier about my grandparents and what they thought about Muffin – their aim was to push the boundaries.’
Muffin indeed changed the landscape of children’s television in Britain from the off. Puppets have set the tone, being more than just a mere prop, but as Lury puts it an ‘anthropomorphic pal’ for the presenter for years to come. (35:2001)
Gabrielle Smith is a Ph.D research candidate at Northumbria University, Newcastle and is a Film and Television graduate from the universities of Aberdeen and Glasgow. Her current research identifies the development of the role of the British children’s TV presenter from the 1940s through to the present day, whilst reflecting on gender and performance on screen. She is also a blog-writer for the Children’s Media Conference, Sheffield.