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Friday 26 May 2017

Eugene Lambert

Musician Jim Doherty recalls working with the legendary puppeteer on Wanderly Wagon and Joseph O'Connor pays tribute to a childhood favourite

During a recent house move, I came across an RTE contract from 1967. Write a signature tune, it invited, for our new children's show, Wanderly Wagon. Thirty pounds? Not to be sneezed at.

The show was the brainchild of a gangly American television director named Don Lenox. Don was like a big child, madly enthusiastic and shambolic with it. He it was who brought us all together: veteran actor Nora O'Mahony to play Godmother; the versatile Bill Golding as juvenile lead Rory; and Eugene Lambert as O'Brien, the man with the talking dog, Judge.

Lenox had this enormous caravan built at the RTE carpentry shop, with a tall chimney and a magic machine which dispensed Cadbury's Roses if you knew the password. He hired a dray-horse named Padraig, and Eugene jarveyed the wagon around the RTE grounds as they filmed the title sequence.

The three leading characters lived in this coach with an assortment of puppets, costumed by Eugene's wife Mai and operated by a selection of junior Lamberts.

By this time Eugene Lambert had become a household name as Ireland's leading ventriloquist. Who could forget Finnegan's plaintive cry from inside the suitcase: "I'm standin' on me gloody head"?

I had worked many times with Eugene before Wanderly Wagon. I recall a gig at a premier south city golf club where the cast went unpaid because the comedian had used the word "knickers". That's how long ago it was.

Eugene had worked in the refrigerator business where among his colleagues were fiddler Joe Quigley and droll comedian Frank Howard, each of whom moonlighted with Jack Cruise at the Olympia. Eugene's popularity grew so that fridge repairs became the moonlight gig. He played in variety all over the country.

I recall a New Year's Eve cabaret at the fabulous Martello Room at the top of Dublin's Intercontinental Hotel.

Eugene and Finnegan were well under way when an inebriated punter staggered forward and stood swaying in front of them. His mystified gaze travelled between Eugene and Finnegan, totally bamboozled. Still smiling, Eugene tried working around him, while Finnegan, sotto voce, gave him a two-word indication as to what he might do. Incensed, the guy punched Finnegan in the face, sending his long, wooden nose across the floor. The Lambert lips never moved. That was around the time Eugene bought Finnegan a driving licence, thereby precipitating the introduction of the driving test in this country.

In the early Seventies, the Lamberts moved across the city to an enormous four-storey house in Monkstown with a large mews at the rear. Eugene's dream had taken its first leap into reality. While Mai ran the household, Eugene and the kids slogged and hammered until they achieved the ultimate transformation scene. The Lambert Puppet Theatre was born. It's an institution now, and has been a never-ending source of joy and laughter to generations of Irish children.

Eugene once told me: "Put on a show for five- to 10-year-olds. You'll have a new audience every five years, not like bloody adults."

It has been a privilege to know Eugene and his family, and what a privilege it was years ago, on my daughter Jane's birthday, to have the Lambert bus pull up outside our house and an entire string of them run in with sets, lights, costumes and puppets.

Mai and Eugene have left us a legacy of entertainment, fun and laughter. It's nice to have something to be proud of in Ireland.

Last Monday night Mai and Eugene retired to bed at their usual time. Eugene didn't wake up. He just exited stage left, the way we'd all like to.

IN THE strange, frightened, monochrome country in which I was a child, there wasn't always a lot to look forward to. My sons don't believe it when I tell them we didn't have colour television. ("So you only had computer games?" they ask me.) They find it hard to credit that there was only one television station, Radio Telefis Eireann, with the pictures in black and white and a rabbit-ears aerial on the box.

The highlight of the week, if you happened to be a child, was an Irish language program called Murphy agus a Chairde, which over time seemed to morph into a children's show so strange and funny and odd that it might have been invented by Samuel Beckett. The name of this wonderful thing was Wanderly Wagon, and it starred a comic master called Eugene Lambert.

The show was broadcast from 1967 until 1982, during which time the Wanderly Wagon and its ragged inhabitants roamed the byways of rural Ireland, occasionally drifting into the realms of ancient Irish mythology, under the oceans, or into outer space.

The programme featured a flying sweetshop, a man called Johnny Fortycoats, and a crow who lived in a cuckoo clock and mocked passers-by. Watching it now might be a somewhat psychedelic experience. It was the closest Ireland came to flower power.

It was in 1972 that Eugene and Mai founded their puppet theatre. It's still in operation today, still playing to capacity houses, but the giant of a man who was for so long its inspiration has taken his final bow. It would be nice to think of him in some heavenly theatre, where the encores are gentle and the sweetshops drift by and the angels come clad in their fortycoats.

Eugene would appear in the space by the front row in his theatre, Judge the Dog in his arms, the mascot of so many Irish yesterdays, and the routine would begin like an old, loved song, and a couple of the jokes were as old as the hills. It often struck me that some of the loudest and most affectionate laughter in the audience came from the parents and grandparents.

That big, jolly man with the beautiful face would stand in the spotlight like a dolmen in a suit, rocking with merriment, calling out nonsenses, asking whose birthday it was today. He had some kind of almost telepathic connection with children. A question from him would result in a forest of raised hands. A joke would conjure a tidal wave of laughter.

The repertoire didn't change much in all those years, but every weekend afternoon Dublin's children would be thrilled and amused and delighted by the same stories their grandparents had loved. Ireland changed. All of us changed. But Little Red Riding Hood still wandered through the forest, and the three little pigs built their houses of straw, as the rest of the country did too.

Puppetry was a study he made his own. The theatre's little museum, a wonderful place, he filled with the images that somehow speak to things buried in all of us: the lost children in the woods, the star-crossed lovers, the explorers in search of some wild adventure, the animals that come to life in a dream.

In his passionate work to found the International Festival of Puppetry, he gave honour to that ancient form of storytelling at which he excelled in his quiet and modest way.

Eugene Lambert's most hauntingly beautiful creation was his adaptation of Oscar Wilde's, The Selfish Giant, the tale of a man so afraid of the child in himself that he never lets the children play in his gorgeous garden, but who finally redeems himself through love. I have seen many parents leave that puppet theatre moved to tears by that story, and I have occasionally been among them. It is a tale of what is important, a story of spiritual courage, a fable of how to live in this sometimes troubled world.

Eugene Lambert was a man who had known sadness and loss in his personal life, but a laugher, a brave man of passions and joy, and a giant of our Irish childhoods.

In gratitude to him and his family, and in honour of his memory, I quote a paragraph from Wilde's masterpiece, a story Eugene made his own.

"One winter morning the giant looked out of his window as he was dressing. He did not hate the Winter now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting. Suddenly he rubbed his eyes in wonder, and looked and looked. It certainly was a marvellous sight. In the farthest corner of the garden was a tree quite covered with lovely white blossoms. Its branches were all golden, and silver fruit hung down from them, and underneath it stood the little boy he had loved."

Joseph O'Connor

Sunday Independent

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