From Edinburgh to Hollywood, Purves Puppets pull all the strings to ensure their survival
From the Festival Fringe to Hollywood blockbusters like Star Wars, the influence of one Edinburgh theatre company has long been celebrated by those in the know but now, like so many other arts organisations, the International Purves Puppets are fighting for survival.
Founded in Edinburgh’s Gayfield Square in 1970, Purves Puppets were once described by funnyman Ken Dodd, who had his own troupe of puppets in The Diddymen, as “Scotland’s hidden secret”. A family affair, some 50 years on, the core of company remains the the same, husband and wife co-directors Ian and Jill Purves and daughter and co-owner Victoria and son Colin.
Together they operate Scotland’s first and only fully working puppet theatre as well as having toured their work around the globe; the international tag is well deserved, the company has performed as far afield as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Jordan, Syria and Singapore, and son Colin, who made his debut in the family business aged just nine months, now works on Hollywood blockbusters such as Jurassic Park and Star Wars – in 2017, he helped bring Yoda back to the screen for The Last Jedi.
Now in their 80’s, Jill and Ian met in 1968 at Edinburgh University, where Ian ran the university puppet society. At the time, Jill already had experience in dressmaking and had made her first marionette puppet at night-school, Ian was performing at the Fringe, a production of The Tinderbox. When they met, Ian asked her to join the puppet group and from that moment, as romance blossomed, their paths were set. The pair married a year later and it would be in the family home in Gayfield Square that Purves Puppets was formed in 1970.
“We were were semi-professional at Gayfield Square,” Jill explains. “Ian was teaching and I was a cashier, which helped build up the puppet business to go full time. My
dad Fred helped to puppeteer too, something he loved to do when he was free from working as a supervisor in Rosyth Dockyard. Also my mum and sisters helped with the making
of the shows. Ian’s mum and dad helped too. Our first professional production was The Magical Princess, a Russian folktale, adapted by Ian.”
Later, the family would move to a cottage just outside West Calder, before one final move in 1985, to Biggar, where they started their permanent Puppet Theatre and remain to this day.
However, it was here in the Capital they first made their mark. In those early years, the company mainly performed in St George’s Church at the West End and at the Church Hill Theatre in Morningside. It was here they were spotted by an agent and quickly found themselves embarking on international tours, appearing in such exotic locations as Jordan, Damascus, and Hong Kong, where Jill had lived for three years in the 1950s – this was where she was taught dressmaking, “Very useful in puppet making,” Jill nods.
She continues, "We have also been all over Scotland and the islands, looked after and fed by local families, where I picked up many recipes for my baking. We toured in a Ford Transit van or caravan when we had our young son with us."
As Ian and Jill’s family grew in number, so they to became part of the show, son Colin making his debut by accident as a baby, while daughter Victoria had to wait until she was 3 years old.
“Ian and I are very proud of our children who both loved entertaining and working the puppets. Colin made his first appearance at Musselburgh’s Brunton Theatre at the age of 9 months, crawling under the curtain when we had turned our backs on him for a moment. The first thing we heard was the audience laughing. He had a set of spooky eyes (one of our props) and was saying, ‘Woo! Woo! Woo! Later at the age of two he demonstrated how the puppets worked at one of our plays at the Fringe, much to the audience’s surprise.
"The first time Victoria was on the stage was at the age of three, in Italy. Keen to help her mum and dad, she too loved to work the puppets. We never pushed them to join us, but they couldn’t resist the fun. It must be in their blood,” smiles Jill.
The proud mum adds, "Today, Victoria helps to run the puppet theatre, performing, doing the voices in the plays, sewing and designing leaflets and posters. Colin, meanwhile, is in great demand designing apps, making augmented reality and, most of all, working puppets in the film industry on blockbusters like Stars Wars, The Dark Crystal, Jurassic Park and many TV programmes. We can’t say enough about them, as they are the best children anyone would wish for, kind the thoughtful.”
The family’s productions are performed in Black Light, where both puppets and scenery glow like magic while the black-clad operators disappear among a kaleidoscope of fluorescent colour – if you ever saw a King’s panto puppet scene back in the day, chances are Purves Puppets were responsible for it.
Another annual highlight for the family in those early days was appearing in the Festival Cavalcade, which saw tens of thousands line Princes Street every August.
“It was the Fringe that helped us decide to make this a full time career,” reveals Jill. “It also helped build up a clientele, as we saw how much families enjoyed seeing the shows. Making the floats for the Festival Cavalcade was great for promotion and we received a second place certificate for our efforts one year.”
“It was fun meeting everyone lined up to watch the floats, calling out to the crowds, them cheering them back but it was hard work dressing up the float; we hired a 20 foot lorry to
do this and nearly had a mishap when we built the set too high to go under a bridge. Luckily we caught it, before disaster struck.”
With such a huge legacy behind them, Jill and Ian should have been celebrating the 50th anniversary of Purves Puppets this year, instead, the global pandemic has found themselves fighting to survive and relying on a crowd-funding initiative via Go Fund Me to keep going.
“The theatre has been closed since 17 March 2020 and being partners in a business, we can’t claim furlough or Universal Credit,” says Jill. “We did get the first
Government grant for the business but since then we have had to rely on the Go Fund Me page on our website. We have applied to Creative Scotland for a grant but won’t know until the first week in November how we got on, if we are successful, it will allow us to put on an nice outdoor Christmas adventure for children and their families.
"Meanwhile, we have managed to do free guided tours by Zoom and Facebook to boost the Go Fund Me page and have uploaded two of our shows which can be rented from the website, but we are missing all our regular customers, as being a small theatre company we get to know the regulars faces."
If you’ve never experienced a Purves Puppets show, here’s your chance; you can help the company survive by watching their festive production of Pips and Panda’s Christmas Party, which will be available over the Christmas period and can be watched here.
Jill continues, “Puppets are for all ages, adults have the nostalgia of remembering us from when they were little and are bringing the third generation to us now. Puppets are still relevant raising many issues, topics and politics, there are so many types and styles of puppets to suit every taste.”
You can support Purves Puppets through their Go Fund Me page here
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.