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The passionate puppeteer

PUBLISHED: 09:00 16 May 2014

William Todd-Jones

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William Todd-Jones : "Puppets are not about the person performing but about the person looking."

MATT AUSTIN

Puppeteer William Todd-Jones’ work has been seen around the world and yet he calls Devon home, as ALEXIS BOWATER discovers when she visits his magical kingdom

Todd's work could be seen in the Batman movieTodd's work could be seen in the Batman movie

A tantalising instruction drops into my e-mail inbox as I prepare to meet this elusive world-famous puppeteer on Dartmoor. “I plan to teach you to walk on stilts tomorrow, so please dress comfortably,” he says.

The magic has begun. I knew I would be entering another world for this interview, but didn’t know the plan was for me to actually be part of it.

William Todd-Jones, (who likes to be known as Todd), hides his talent as he hides himself behind characters and masks. He’s a puppet designer, performer, director, movement consultant and writer for film, television and theatre all over the world.

Walking through the door of his home in Chagford is like stepping through the back of the cupboard into Narnia.

An Aslan in the garden!An Aslan in the garden!

A whole new world of mystery and marvellous creatures enfolds you in its imaginative embrace. A life-sized model of a fallen angel hangs from the kitchen ceiling, watching through the steam as Todd rustles us up a stupendous omelette-based lunch.

Small cheeky-faced elfin puppets peek from cubbyholes, theatrical photos of an array of characters adorn the walls. Here a fading black and white shot of a centaur. There Aslan, colours dwindling, standing proud.

He has worked on films from Batman to Labyrinth, Harry Potter, The Neverending Story, Mopatop’s Shop and The Little Shop of Horrors to John Carter of Mars. You may not have heard of him but you probably will have seen him: or someone he’s trained.

It began when this boy born to coalmining stock in a Welsh valley was in the Welsh National Youth Theatre and training to be a ballet dancer in Cardiff before his teens were out.

"It is not about the puppet, it is about the imagination of the person who gives it life - the viewer"

It’s a tale to match Billy Elliot and Todd the storyteller is the best man to tell it. His warm anecdotes come thick and fast, memories of a young beautiful man who went to New York in the days of Lou Reed, Bowie and Dylan Thomas and charmed a colourful city. Of hitchhiking to Albuquerque surviving on his wit, his looks and luck and with not much else in his pockets.

It was there he found puppets. Travellers’ serendipity found him drinking tequila with grapefruit juice late into the night with a puppet master who had worked on The Dark Crystal and Star Wars.

He taught him to work the puppets and, during a performance for some disabled children, Todd’s love affair with bringing them to life began.

“There was a little girl, Robin, in a wheelchair, whose body just wasn’t working,” he recalls. “She couldn’t speak, couldn’t communicate, could see me and chose to believe the puppet – and her hands reached out to touch its face.

“I saw that the puppets are not about the person performing but about the person looking and that we can reach through the layers to the child inside. It is not about the puppet (it is a dead thing), it is about the imagination of the person who gives it life – the viewer.”

It’s such a moving and insightful memory that I’m speechless for a moment. I can see now that it’s all about choices. She chose to believe the puppet. And he, in return, chose to put aside himself, and be what she believed.

That leap of faith, or imagination, is the extra dose of stardust that Todd has, and exudes, and infects other people with both on and off stage.

His passions range well beyond the theatrical, though. An ardent conservationist and scientist, he once walked across Africa, from sea level to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in a rhino costume, alongside author Douglas Adams, to raise awareness about poaching.

Still travelling the world working, it’s Chagford that Todd returns to when he can. He’s just been on a global tour with Ice Age on Ice, playing a part with a big personality. Just like him. His energy, kindness and humour is boisterously infectious and I can see how he’s been able to persuade Hollywood stars to learn from him so easily.

“Here,” he says. “Sit down and try these on.” He presents me with strange looking aluminium sticks with skiboot-style calipers on top. I gingerly perch on the fifth step of the stairs as he attaches them to my feet and then levers me upright.

It feels odd, and a bit scary. But William Todd-Jones is fingertip close: chatting, and reassuring, and directing and before I know it I am seven foot tall and walking alone – on stilts.

Laughter fills the room, there’s talk of ballet dancers from Wales and suddenly there I am, on a dark moor, in a red room, dancing on stilts with a Centaur.

He has woven another theatre of magic.

“Thank you,” I say. “Any time you need to go up in the world…!”, he smilingly replies.

Ten things you didn’t know about Todd, by Todd

1. “A stubborn Welsh git”, said author Douglas Adams, which I take as my ultimate compliment.

2. “A Muppet,” said Jim Henson - who was Kermit the frog.

3. I have always had fondness for pachyderms, and having now learnt, have developed a thick skin.

4. I had a childhood desire to be a vet, but have a career as a performing animal.

5. I’m very des-lycksick, a spellchecker and calculator would really have helped in school. (It also explains why I’ve given twelve reasons for what I love about Devon, rather than the requested ten).

6. I’m uncomfortably shy, which is why I always wear masks or aprons.

7. I understand that purpose is offered to all, but that it’s up to each individual, whether to accept the challenge.

8.I see myself as part of a natural world; it is my hope and my refuge.

9. Family, community, society in a marvellous world is all there is. I seek nothing beyond.

10. I am under no illusion as to how temporary I am…best make the best of it.

Ten (or 12) things Todd loves about Devon

When we asked Todd to list the top ten things he loves about the county he returned his list (of 12!) in the form of this poem from a lover:

Year’s song from a Devon lover

Jan: Her winters, stay by fireside close, no need now to leave the house.

Feb: Her breath, expressed through leafless vale, in meadow starts to speak the tale.

March: Her heart, the moor, from which springs up; Dart, Teign and Taw.

April: Her bursting spring in hedgerow bright, of course, I stop to see the sight!

May: Her tufted ponies, stocky wide, no wish from them to be inside.

June: Her dusk/dawn shape...reveals soft neck, delicate nape.

July: Her summer tears, oft shed; green our world, make our bed.

Aug: Her watching stars, (when night clouds clear), make us wiser, draw us near.

Sept: Her silly owls who call me at night, before their deathly soundless flight.

Oct: Her autumn leaves galloping ‘long lane...that whistling wind leaves me insane.

Nov: Her all hallow’s een, whenst walk the dead, go out you fool, no more to be said.

Dec: Her darkest time...but brightest also, for me and mine.

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