The High Toby – J B Priestley

This is less of a review of the High Toby than a brief look at the history of the toy theatre in Britain and more specifically the end of an era with the collapse into administration of the most famous, and by then the only significant, toy theatre company in the country, that run by Benjamin Pollock. For those readers unfamiliar with toy theatres I will also look in some detail at The High Toby and what you got when you purchased the book.

Benjamin Pollock didn’t set out to be a toy theatre maker and retailer, he married into the trade in 1877 when he took Eliza Redington as his wife and effectively inherited the family business of print making, especially sheets for toy theatres, before that he had been a furrier like his father. But his name was to become synonymous with toy theatres which was already a declining business when he started in the trade. However he was in for a considerable stroke of luck, with the reduction in the popularity of the toy theatre had gone a significant reduction in the number of competitors as they had slowly gone out of business and then in 1887 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote an essay called ‘A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’ about his love for toy theatres and specifically mentioning Pollock’s business, you can read it as chapter 13 of his later compilation of essays called Memories and Portraits available on Project Gutenberg. The title refers to the way the sheets were priced either a penny a sheet that you had to colour in yourself or two pence for pre-coloured, frankly half the fun of these was the colouring in as successfully performing a play on a toy theatre was actually quite difficult. This essay which originally appeared in The Magazine of Art drove interest in the subject and dramatically increased trade for Pollock’s.

Benjamin Pollock continued the business until he died in 1937, largely simply reprinting the sheets originally sold by John Redington with his name replacing Redington’s (just as Redington had done with his predecessor in the business) although he did introduce a handful of new plays in the six decades he was in charge. It was this careful use of the existing plates that kept his costs down and enabled the business to continue bringing in an income in the face of yet another downturn in demand for the products he was selling. Pollock’s daughters continued the shop for a short while but WWII intervened, the building was bombed and in 1944 they sold the plates and remaining stock to Alan Keen who ran an antiquarian bookshop. Keen may have understood book selling but the far more financially precarious world of toy theatres was all new to him and he set about expanding the new Benjamin Pollock Ltd company he created and that meant new plays and new designs of theatres to perform them in. Not content with new versions of classic pantomimes which didn’t require much or any royalties to be paid he commissioned completely new works including an adaption of the 1948 J Arthur Rank film of Hamlet starring Laurence Olivier.

As the film was in black and white the backgrounds and wing dressings for this production was also in black and white although the characters were reproduced in full colour using photographs of the actual cast. The licencing for this could not have been cheap but was almost certainly eclipsed by the cost of the other 1948 publication of The High Toby. There would be one more new production from Benjamin Pollock Ltd. which was a version of the nativity story published in 1950 but by 1952 the company had gone into receivership, probably pushed over the edge by the two 1948 new productions.

As indicated above The High Toby should really have been called The High Cost. In 1948 when this book was published Priestley was at the height of his powers, his most famous play ‘An Inspector Calls’ was written in 1945 and had reached the London stage the following year to excellent reviews so hiring him to write a play was a bold but extravagant choice for the Benjamin Pollock company. That they also got the well known artist and theatrical designer Doris Zinkeisen to design the sets and figures may well have been a step too far, although getting Penguin Books to publish the book unlike than their self published Hamlet may well have offset some of the cost as Priestley could at least expect more royalties that way but as this was a commission he would have received a significant advance. The book is intended for use with the Benjamin Pollock Regency Theatre which cost 38 shillings and sixpence (the equivalent of £69 in 2021) so not a cheap toy, especially so soon after WWII, so this was only an option to wealthier families. Along with the short play there are backdrops, dressings for the wings and characters in various poses to fit the performance all of which need to be cut out and mounted on cardboard before attaching to rods so they can be moved on the stage.

Some of the backdrops included in the book can be seen below, there are a total of nine pages of backdrops

Wing dressings and a couple of carriages are on these pages again there are more wing dressings than I have included here.

and the designs for figures include these, there are two more pages of characters to be cut out. Not only did the lucky child with this toy need wealthy parents they also needed endless patience to cut out and mount all the various parts.

The text of the play indicates which version of each character is needed in that scene and as you can see this would have been a very colourful performance which is more than could be said for the largely black and white version of Hamlet printed by Benjamin Pollock at roughly the same time.

The play is actually quite good fun and the stage directions are clear and easy to follow there is even a section which indicates the type of voice to be used for each of the characters, but it would still need at least two children to perform it with any degree of success. There is a licencing note as well in the book that makes it clear that whilst toy theatre performances are royalty free, should anyone wish to perform the play on a real stage then there would be a licencing cost associated with it.

I’m glad to say that 1952 was not the final end of the Benjamin Pollock business, in the mid 1950’s Marguerite Fawdry needed some parts for the toy theatre that her children played with and tried to buy them from the receivers who refused. They did however suggest she could buy all the plates, printed sheets and theatres they held which she duly did and opened The Benjamin Pollock Toy Theatre museum, which also continued selling stock as the shop had. She even produced new plays but in a much more modest fashion than Alan Keen. The museum she created still exists and is still run by the Fawdry family in Fitzrovia, a district of London, and is now high on my list of places that I want to visit the next time I am in the city.