Meeting Muffin & Friends – An afternoon with Will McNally

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.





What is Archiveology?

Catherine Russell, Concordia University

16 May 2017


In the year 2000 I was invited to contribute a word to a special issue of the journal Public for their “Lexicon for the 20th Century A.D.”  I chose the word “Archiveology,” but I had a hard time coming up with a definition at the time. I ended up with a poetic series of definitions for terms such as “Image Bank”, “Ruins” and “Recycling” that I had used in a chapter of Experimental Ethnography called “Archival Apocalypse”. It has taken me seventeen years to figure out what archiveology means, or at least to write a book-length definition of the term. A neologism seems like a good tool for thinking through a cultural phenomenon that is prevalent and prominent in digital media, and which is critical and constructive, and which is constantly assuming new guises—so that I is what I am hoping this word can do.

Archiveology, in its most succinct form, refers to the reuse, recycling, appropriation, and borrowing of archival material that filmmakers have been doing for decades. Archiveology traverses experimental, documentary, and essayistic filmmaking, moving beyond the categories of found footage, compilation and collage. It proliferates on the internet, just as it proliferates in the art gallery.  As this practice has expanded in digital media culture, it has arguably acquired the potential to construct critical cultural histories. Seventeen years ago, this was not so clear. I think it is more of a term for the 21st century than the 20th., and even more specifically, a term for a practice that helps to bring the 20th century into new perspectives.

() a.k.a. Parentheses (Morgan Fisher, 2003)

Anyone who has taken even a glance at some of the writing on this topic, such as the great catalogue produced by the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam called Found Footage Exposed, will soon find a critic, scholar, or filmmaker quoting Walter Benjamin. His work seems in so many ways to anticipate archiveology, and of course his own method of aphoristic writing, collecting quotations from other writers, seems like a literary companion to the practice. He was a contemporary of the surrealists, and embraced the collage practices of contemporary artists such as John Heartfield. Walter Benjamin’s cultural theory is significantly oriented toward the avant-garde as the corollary to the implicit dangers of the society of the spectacle, and so I took it upon myself to focus on his diverse writings as a theoretical throughline for my book which will be published by Duke University Press in 2018.

The films and videos that I chose to write about, selected from the thousands of works out there in the world, tend to highlight the dualism and ambiguity of archiveology as a language of media culture. Divided into chapters on the city, collecting, the phantasmagoria, and awakening, the films and videos range from Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1935) to Recollection (Kamal Aljafari, 2015) with most of the work produced after 2000:

Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1936)

Recollection (Kamal Aljafari, 2015)

My unpublished book is already outdated as new, innovative, work continues to be produced. Film and media makers continue to explore possibilities of recombination, and feeding their practice is the increasing accessibility of the moving image archive in digital form. The concept of the archive continues to be rethought and revised as artists, scholars, and historians gain new access to the documents of the past. The arts of appropriation include a wide variety of ways of engaging directly and indirectly with and on sound and image recordings that are not only “found” but sought out with new search tools. (Filmmakers are also increasingly inclined to build their own archives from footage shot and images collected—although the focus of my book is more specifically on the historiographic potential of archiveology).

World Mirror Cinema (Gustav Deutsche, 2005)

Through the work of media artists, the film archive has been transformed so that it is no longer simply a place where moving images are preserved and stored, but has been expanded into an “image bank” from which collective memories can be retrieved. The archive as a mode of transmission offers a unique means of displaying and accessing historical memory, with significant implications for the ways that we imagine cultural history. It may be a cliché that film can take you closer to history, but I found that working with some of these texts, and looking at the way they use sound, montage, and the rhythm of a time-based medium, that old footage can indeed take on new life, and the archive can be dynamically “felt.”

Archiveology involves the use of the image archive as a language. Walter Benjamin’s conceptions of memory, document, excavation, and historiography tend to be articulated differently over the course of his career, and there are a host of interpretations and glosses on what he might have actually meant. His theory of language, for example, is introduced early in his career and is marked by a sense of magic and theological faith that I found to be pertinent to a discourse on documentary in the 21st century.

The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Raina Stephan, 2011)

Why trust any image at all in the digital era?  In practices of image recycling in which images are radically stripped of their context, they have no other meaning than the traces of a profilimic, historical moment in which a cameraperson was present with the technological ability to record that moment. Fiction becomes documentary only when the viewer sees it that way, and a filmmaker can provide the context for new revelations, moments of recognition, and other historical epiphanies.

Archiveology bridges documentary and experimental film practices, and in many cases, is essayistic, and many of the films that I have written about have been recognized as such:

Histoire(s) du cinéma (Jean-Luc Godard, 1998)

Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2002)

Phoenix Tapes (Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller, 1999)

One way of rethinking the essay film is to recognize how filmmakers allow the images to speak in their own language. Archiveology produces a critical form of recognition, which I have found to be linked to cinephilia, not in a subjective way but in a critical way. Benjamin’s collector cuts through the auratic qualities of images, and safeguards them as souvenirs not only of their referents, but of the constellations of social relations from which they were produced. As “documents,” the images collected in archiveological films acquire meaning through their ability to awaken, stimulate, or attune the viewer’s belief in their indexicality. They are not to be taken for granted, but to be recognized as passages into the past.

Catherine Russell is Professor of Film Studies and Chair of the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. She is the author of four books, including Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (1999) and two books on Japanese cinema. Her book Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices is forthcoming from Duke University Press.


Meet the Trumps: From Immigrant to President (Channel 4, UK)

The Office Cat

9 May 2017


For readers of the IAMHIST Blog who have yet to meet the Office Cat (who writes regularly for the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television), you’ll find it a ‘ferocious yet felicitous feline who has assisted in aiding and abetting slovenly television producers and directors since it first saw light in the pages of the History Workshop Journal’. (HJFRT, Vol. 5, No. 2, June 2016: 339). Born in 1976, the Office Cat is no ordinary cat, but a film researcher. It might be fluffy, but unlike human film researchers, for whom it has the greatest respect, never takes ‘no’ for an answer. It specialises in finding film footage that no other film archivist, historian, critic, or other researcher has found before. The Office Cat finds film footage that doesn’t exist or does exist, but not in the ways that film producers or directors would like it to. For example, the Office Cat’s ancestors found footage of the Wright brothers’ first flight, another found footage of the Battle of Jutland. One even unearthed shots of Adolf Hitler marrying Eva Braun in the Führerbunker…

The Office Cat looks forward to shaking its paw with you all, and without further ado:

Meet the Trumps: From Immigrant to President was transmitted by Channel 4 on January 17, 2017. It was made by 72 Films, executively produced by Mark Glover and Mark Rafael and directed by Paul Berczeller and Mark Radice.

I was delighted with this programme, which did its best to usher in the Post-truth era.  Post-truth, as I understand it, means that anything you say, or any item of film you show, is true, if you believe — rightly or wrongly — that it is the case and those who disbelieve you can only be purveying Fake News. So, readers will just have to accept my account of these items in the spirit of Donald Trump, who is a most accomplished practitioner of Post-truth utterances and films.

Donald’s grandfather, Friedrich Trump, was born in 1869 and emigrated to America in 1885, ten years before the invention of the Cinématographe, so when I tell you there is film of the ship which brought him to New York, with Friedrich himself standing on its deck, and with a cutaway of the Statue of Liberty which was dedicated in 1886, and of the crowds debarking at Ellis Island, which wasn’t built until 1892, that is no more than a simple Post-truth, or as Kellyanne Conway might say, Alternative fact.

When Friedrich went to Washington State in 1891 to seek his fortune, I found film of the train which took him there though the locomotive couldn’t have been filmed at least until 1895.  In Seattle, he gravitated to Washington Street, a rough part of town, where he opened a restaurant. His two Italian chefs came to blows, and I found film of their brawl, though whoever fired a gun at the chandelier and brought it crashing down was not identified.

Friedrich then went to Monte Christo, where he opened another restaurant. There he served men wearing Stetsons, who looked remarkably like those in Seattle for whom he had catered. Friedrich returned to Seattle, to Cherry street where he opened yet arestaurant which prospered., as had his earlier establishments. In 1898 he moved to Bennett, in British Columbia, where he and his partner Ernest Levin opened the Arctic Hotel and Restaurant which also had Rooms for Ladies, in other words catered for Prostitutes. as Friedrich had been doing at least since his time in Monte Christo. By now the Klondike gold rush was well under way but Bennett had been left behind, and this prompted Friedrich to shift his building to a barge to take him across lake Bennett, and then to the Yukon river, which would reach Whitehorse, his destination near the gold fields—where he planned to re-establish his Arctic Hotel. We saw colour film of the hotel on that barge though the first Kinemacolor film was not exhibited until 1908. When the building disintegrated on the way, there was just the briefest of shots of it collapsing, but when the logs from which it was made were bobbing in the river the scene was more lavishly illustrated.

Friedrich eventually found himself in New York, or more precisely Queens, where he built a thriving real estate business. I found film of one of his properties under construction, with a passenger car from the 1930s parked on the street outside, though Friedrich himself had died of influenza in 1918.  Sic transit gloria mundi, as his grandson probably wouldn’t say, since that minatory phrase certainly couldn’t count as extolling ‘America First! America First!’ nor was Friedrich’s death Fake News so far as we know. Bravo to David Glovert, Mark Rafael, Paul Berczeller and Mark Radice for having blazed such a fruitful trail in our brave new Post-truth world!


*The Office Cat will continue to publish in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.

Jerry Kuehl is an independent television producer whose principal but not exclusive interest is visual history. His first grown-up job in television was as a historical advisor to the 26-part 1964 BBC production, The Great War, he was then an associate producer of The World at War, the 26-part series made by Thames Television in the 1970s which set new standards for accuracy and authenticity in the use of film archives. He was the Head of General Studies at the National Film School from 1979 to 1981. In the 1980s, he was a director of Open Media whose productions included After Dark. In the 1990s, he was a writer and consultant to the 24-part CNN production, The Cold War. In 1991, he wrote and co-produced the 4-part La Grande Aventure de la Presse Filmée (English title: The Great Adventure of Newsreels) for France 3. He is responsible for Kuehl’s Reels, a programme series for YouTube which punctures the pretensions of those who misdescribe films sent to the site. He is also responsible for the Office Cat who skewers irresponsible producers and directors in both the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television and the IAMHIST Blog. He is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from FOCAL, the Federation of Commercial Audiovisual Libraries.


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