John Thirtle was a pre-eminent practitioner of puppetry, as designer, craftsman and manipulator. He helped in the foundation of the national resource and information centre for puppetry, the Puppet Centre in Battersea, south-west London, and was behind the long-running children’s television series Button Moon and The Spooks of Bottle Bay.
In 1971 he and his partner Ian Allen, a dedicated puppeteer whose talent for writing wacky stories for children usefully complemented Thirtle’s skills, founded their own company, the Playboard Puppets. At first they played the usual schools and weekend theatre circuit with safe fare such as The Ugly Duckling and Little Red Riding Hood (with some surprises in the interpretation). But their work carried a stamp of quality which set it apart – in its design, colour, craftsmanship, scripting and live playing, and above all in its humour. Moreover, the company’s professionalism earned them a reputation to be envied.
Television, always hungry for puppetry in its children’s programmes, brought opportunities which Playboard seized, and from Playschool and Rainbow the company rose to their own television series. Mo and Hedge, for the BBC in the Seventies, was followed by Button Moon, which proved a winner for Thames Television and Playboard for many years and 91 episodes. It was about a family of spoons and their friends, all anthropomorphic household objects, hand-operated, and their unlikely adventures on the moon, a large button reached by the Spoons’ personal spaceship. Children all over Britain learned to count backwards, delightedly reciting with the voice on the television screen, 5-4-3-2-1 BLAST-OFF!