Judith Shutt was best known for her puppetry skills working alongside a host of talented people on Fireball XL5, Stingray and Thunderbirds. Her interest in puppets started as a young nine year old whilst on holiday with her family back in 1951. At a loss for something to do on a rainy afternoon at a seaside town the Shutt family decided to visit a show, in fact The Laurey Puppet Show. Little did the young Judith Shutt know the significance this visit would have on her future – The Laureys would become well known for their TV character ‘Mr. Turnip’, but more importantly Joy Laurey and her company (which would include Christine Glanville) was invited to join Gerry Anderson’s fledging organisation as both puppet makers and operators for The Adventures Of Twizzle.
As they left the Laurey show the Shutts spotted a poster advertising a puppet exhibition in Russell Square, London organised by the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild. They went along and were smitten. “My parents joined the Guild and Dad, an engineer, started making puppets while Mum, a dress designer, made their clothes. The first puppet was a little 10 inch Pinocchio”. For Christmas 1952 both Judith and her brother Plugg (Ernest jr) were each presented with a puppet made by their father The family spent the whole Christmas practicing puppetry!
By June 1953 the family had six puppets. The first engagement of The Shutt Marionettes was at a street party to celebrate the Queen’s Coronation. They decided a new name was needed: “Dad came up with the name MEJANDES – Muriel (Mum), Ernest (Dad) Judith AND Ernest Shutt”. The whole family rapidly became involved with all aspects of putting a puppet show together.
On leaving school Judith trained as a hairdresser but or soon got bored with it. At another puppet exhibition she was altered regular seasonal work as a Pelham Puppets demonstrator at the Hamleys toy store in London.
It was around this time that she was approached by fellow Guild member Christine Glanville. She asked Judith if she would be interested in applying for a job 71 as a floor puppeteer at AP Films on the latest show created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. The new series was Fireball XL5 on which she soon found herself working with both Christine and Mary Turner. “l loved working on it, although having to hold the puppets in awkward positions for hours gave me very muscly arms and, as the marionettes had electromagnets to activate their mouths, I often got shocks.”
Judith progressed on to Stingray and Thunderbirds and by this time was helping in all aspects of puppet production and operating, even managing her own ‘on screen’ appearances – well at least parts of her! “I was Lady Penelope’s human double”. Whenever a close up was needed of hands that needed intricate movement it was Judith’s hand in shot for the close-up – picking up Lady Penelope’s teapot is a good example. In another scene Judith’s eye is shown looking through a 381 peephole and it’s also her walking the foggy street in the Thunderbirds episode Vault Of Death. Her brother Ernest (Plugg) joined the team on Thunderbirds and stayed through to the end of production of The Secret Service. Judith continued to work for the Anderson on both Thunderbirds feature films before deciding the time had come to move on to new horizons.
Throughout her time at the studios the Mejandes Marionettes were still presenting live shows including a summer season at the Winter Gardens, Eastbourne.
After Thunderbirds, Judith obtained a PSV licence to drive minicabs for a friend’s coach company. In 1969 she returned to TV production when Mary Turner and John Read (who had recently formed their own puppet film production company Cinemation) asked her to join them on their first ITC commission, The Adventures Of Rupert
Bear. She remained with them for Here Comes Mumfie and Cloppa Castle. By now Judith was finding it hard to keep up with the pace, still only in her 20s she was often tired and having trouble with her eyes. By 1978 and only 36 years old she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Fatigue became a problem and in 1981 she had to stop working. Not one to sit idly by, Judith got quite involved in her local MS Society branch and became their secretary for a number of years. She also remained a respected voice in British puppetry in her tireless work behind the scenes for the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild. The Guild’s lifetime achievement award is named in her mother’s honour. Her last public appearance was at RAF Cosford’s Flights of Fantasy event in 2014, though she had also already recorded a nostalgic trip back down memory lane with some of her former colleagues from the APF days for the Filmed In Supermarionation documentary.
These last words are from Judith herself (speaking in 2011) “l’m always amazed by people’s reactions when they find out I used to work Lady Penelope. She’s such an icon and, for men of a certain age, a sex symbol. Recently a friend invited me and Mary Turner to a 50th birthday party and asked us to bring Lady P When the ‘special guest’ was announced you could have heard a pin drop, all the men were kneeling down on the floor desperate to have their picture taken with her It was incredible. She can make grown men go weak at the knees.”
Judith was born on 15th January 1942 and died 15th May 2015 aged 73.
Originally published in FAB 81.