My Weekend: Paul Smith

Times Online, September 21, 2007

A well-known contemporary take on the appeal of puppetry is provided by the Australian puppeteer and poet, Anita Sinclair. “Through puppetry we accept the outrageous, the absurd or even the impossible, and will permit puppets to say and do things no human could.”

“We allow a puppet to talk to us when no one else can get us to speak. We allow a puppet to smile at us even when we have not been introduced. We also allow a puppet to touch us when a person would lose an arm for the same offence.”

Of all the professions one might search to find corroboration of this view, the law is surely not the foremost. But within its ranks there is a man who is so eminently well-qualified to talk puppetry that he could easily do so for a living.

Paul Smith, a litigation partner at Eversheds, saw his first puppet show when he was seven – and never looked back. “My parents took me on holiday to Rhos-on-Sea, a coastal village on the North Wales coast and we went to see a performance at Britain’s first and only purpose-built puppet theatre, the Harlequin Puppet Theatre.

“I was spellbound. We went back for every matinee and evening show for the rest of the holiday and I left armed with a book called “Expert Puppet Technique” by Eric Bramall and Christopher Somerville. I spent hours reading it. I became obsessed with puppetry from that point on.”

When he was 11, Smith saved enough money from his paper round to buy his first puppets. Not a sporty type, he recalls that his school encouraged his unusual interest in favour of making him do games. It even built him a puppet theatre. “I would put on performances for the school,” said Smith, chuckling as he recalls the headmaster standing before the puppet theatre during assemblies - and saying that his first professional engagement was for the Brownies.

When he enrolled at Warwick University to study English and Theatre Studies Smith looked to have found the perfect degree for his passion. However, he lasted just two weeks and left university with a law degree. He completed the Law Society Finals at the College of Law in Guildford but throughout his higher education, puppetry was not just a hobby, it was a means of income. “It was a great way of making money,” said Smith, who played regularly at working men’s clubs, schools and festivals.

Life as a solicitor did nothing to dampen Smith’s passion. In fact, a chance encounter led him to forge a partnership with puppeteer Tony Clarke - whose father Brian was a key influence in Smith’s childhood. As Smith put it, “he was the most famous Punch and Judy man in the country.”

Together Clarke junior and Smith - with marionettes and assorted paraphernalia made by Brian Clarke – put on several shows including performances in Communist Russia and China in 1991, before it opened its doors to Westerners. Russia was a particular highlight, because there, according to Smith, “puppetry is revered on the same level as ballet and opera.”

Closer to home Smith said that puppetry “goes in and out of fashion,” but he never finds himself short of takers for this most eccentric of extra-legal activities. “I must have done over 1,000 shows for children and they never cease to love it, even in today’s age of computer games.”

He also performs for clients and at annual Eversheds conferences. Indeed, being a puppet-master utilises some of the skills essential to being a lawyer: “You’re constantly working on public speaking and telling a story. It’s character building and not dissimilar to making a presentation to clients.”

Smith has no doubt that when he retires he’ll be devoting himself fully to puppetry. He might even marry his marionettes to his other hobby – canal boating. “Maybe I’ll put on performances up and down canals, I don’t know.” He is certain of one thing: “I feel very fortunate to have had this lifelong interest outside the law.”

Smith, agreeing with Anita Sinclair, said that “the recreation of another world” is fundamental to the allure of puppetry. As a Sicilian puppet-master once said to him: “A puppet theatre is a very small space – but it houses a very big world.”