Muffin the Mule puppet brought back to life
PUBLISHED: 11:01 04 July 2016
Not many people would give up a successful tennis coaching career to work with puppets, but then not everyone is related to broadcasting sensation Muffin the Mule. Laura Dale meets Will McNally who is brushing off Muffin's saddle and gee-ing him up for a big return.
For those whose childhoods spanned the 1940s and ’50s, Muffin The Mule needs no introduction; for everyone else, Muffin was the first children’s television character from an era long before Sesame Street and The Sooty Show.
A dancing mule, Muffin pranced on top of a piano played by Annette Mills, who also sang and talked to the popular BBC TV character. With fans including David Attenborough and Michael Palin, Muffin was a hit, but his reign came to an abrupt end in January 1955 when Annette Mills died. After a brief stint on ITV he was taken off air because Muffin’s operators wanted to do shows abroad.
Will McNally, whose grandmother Ann Hogarth operated Muffin under the direction of his grandfather Jan Bussell, decided to bring Muffin back into the limelight. The 50-year-old father of two girls decided it was now or never. He explains: “It had been nagging away at the back of my mind that if I didn’t do something soon then Muffin could be lost forever.”
Will, who lives at East Budleigh, gave up his job as director of tennis at the University of Exeter to devote his time to the puppet’s legacy. “It was such a big decision to leave. I loved my job and it was a great place to work, but I decided to take a gamble, a calculated gamble,” he says. Will’s first challenge was to raise Muffin’s profile, so he started doing live shows on YouTube with Muffin and some of his sidekicks (a variety of animal marionette puppets including a hippopotamus and a penguin).
Will has also put on shows at Pennywell Farm, a visitor attraction in South Devon: “So far we have had a great reaction to what we are doing and children love to see the puppets being taken out of their boxes and brought to life,” Will enthuses. Nowadays it’s Will who operates Muffin, who with a new saddle, mane and tail is in remarkably good condition. Will concedes: “I can bring the puppets to life and do certain things with them. I can tell Muffin’s story, but I am aware of my limitations. My grandparents were professional puppeteers and they travelled the world with Muffin playing to audiences in Australia, New Zealand, Ghana, South Africa, Russia and Czechoslovakia.” The shows were a huge success. Will adds: “What they were doing was fascinating - it was a pioneering thing to do.”
Will’s ultimate goal is to get Muffin, who has been around for 70 years this year, back on the TV. He is searching for someone who sings and plays the piano whilst interacting with Muffin and the other original puppets. Musicians are invited to post a video audition playing the Muffin theme tune onto his official Muffin the Mule channel. “It would be fantastic to see Muffin back on the TV,” says Will, who has bet his future on Muffin’s successful come back. Let’s just hope the musical mule has enough kick in his step to capture the hearts of the nation’s children once again.
To find out more about Muffin the Mule visit the website: muffinthemule.co