Norman Hetherington was a creator of wonder, but also, what may not be as well known, he was a creator of edifying realism. Having served in the Second World War, Hetherington got a taste of and developed a talent for performance art, being part of an entertainment unit. After the war he began making marionettes and puppets, and joined the Clovelly Puppet Theatre. He attended the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s television training school just prior to the introduction of television to Australia, so Hetherington had the opportunity to create a children’s puppet show which aired in 1956. Two years later he developed another show, Mr Squiggle, which ran for four decades.
Mr Squiggle is a marionette who lives on the moon, and has a pencil for a nose. Other characters are a cranky doormat, a grumpy steam shovel, an often jittery talking blackboard, and a snail – all foils to Mr Squiggle’s placid and kind personality. The characters are eccentric and fascinating, and the concept highly original. The format though was inclusive and seductively simple. Children would mail in a squiggle – a set of lines and shapes drawn on paper – and Mr Squiggle would turn that into an identifiable full drawing. The banter between the characters, and the manner in which Mr Squiggle would gradually reveal his drawing created just the right amount of dramatic tension, and also engage the imagination.
Mr Squiggle was axed in 1999 due to budget cuts. But Norman Hetherington was not done engaging children through the medium of puppets.
Camp Quality is an organisation which, despite the subject they deal with – kids with cancer – makes people smile with their ‘fun therapy’. Founded by Vera Entwistle in 1983, the charity provides assistance, therapy, and laughter for children and families coping with cancer. In 1988 puppets were introduced, with the help of corporate sponsorship, to educate and entertain kids in hospitals and schools. In order to create puppets which would be effective and engaging, CampQuality approached Norman Hetherington to design a set of puppets for them. The brief was of course from here to the moon away from Mr Squiggle: the puppets had to convey empathy and understanding to kids with cancer, their families and cohort.
Hetherington’s designs are based on realism rather than far-out fantasy. Although obviously caricatures of young people, they convey a very human image, and are very much terrestrial. Kylie has leukaemia, and her hair has fallen out because of chemical therapy. A key part of Kylie’s performance is the reveal – where she would take off her hat and show her bald head. Often, CampQuality puppeteers said, members of the audience who were also having chemo and had lost their hair, would reach up and take their hats off. Kylie has two best friends, Dean and Melissa. The Dean and Melissa puppets are not cancer patients, but express a message of understanding and support for their sick friend, Kylie. Matthew has had a sarcoma in his leg bone and had to have it amputated. Matthew is the most confronting, and so ‘real’ of Hetherington’s designs. As today is International Day of People with Disability, it is apt that Matthew is included in this blog. Though the puppet has not been included in Camp Quality puppet shows in recent times, as, thankfully, medical science has been able to treat the kind of sarcoma Matthew has successfully without the need for amputation in a great many cases.
Hetherington’s puppets were used in CampQuality performances from 2001 to 2012. Eleven years is a good run for well used puppets, and the decision was made to have a re-design done on the puppets. Norman Hetherington had passed away in 2010, aged eighty-nine. CampQuality engaged Leon Hendroff, certainly no slouch in the puppet and marionette creation business, to design a new set of puppets. Hendroff’s puppets are intentionally less sophisticated, but no less charming than Hetherington’s. In 2012, CampQuality donated a full set of both Hetherington’s and Hendroff’s puppets, along with design material from both puppet makers, and a very amiable remote controlled puppet, Giggles (who is on display at the Powerhouse Discovery Centre at Castle Hill), to the PowerhouseMuseum. They are an excellent addition to the collection, and fit several collection disciplines: health and medicine, performing arts, Australian communities, and Australian social history, among others.
Norman Hetherington’s puppets have a unique facility to both make children (and their more world-weary carers) imagine a world where aliens can imprint with their noses and heavy machinery can talk, and also see where compassion and empathy can negate the harshness of their reality.
Three of the CampQuality puppets, Kylie, Matthew and Melissa, are on display in the New Acquisitions Showcase on level three of the PowerhouseMuseum.