The once-ubiquitous child’s ventriloquist dummy is one of the creepiest toys of the 1970s.
These days, it seems as though ventriloquism is very much a niche thing, but back in the 1970s and 1980s, it had a strong presence in mainstream culture, where a plethora of light entertainment variety TV shows gave a platform to vent acts alongside magicians, stand-ups and nightclub singers. Characters like Orville the Duck and Nookie Bear were household names and there would be no shortage of lesser-known acts appearing in guest slots on Seaside Special or Opportunity Knocks, shows that – in the days before multi-channel TV existed – were watched by half the country. Even at the time, the idea of the ventriloquist dummy (and its human sidekick) had a bit of a sinister edge, thanks in part to films like 1945’s Dead of Night and 1964’s The Devil Doll – some of these dummies, especially in the early days of ventriloquism, looked decided creepy with their fixed faces, blinking eyes and flapping jaws. It’s perhaps why, as the vents made their way onto TV, the dummies became less human – a fluffy animal, no matter how naughty it might be, is less unsettling than a miniature man with a taunting voice.
Still, if you were a kid in the 1970s, ventriloquism was definitely something that fascinated you. Everyone had a go at ‘throwing their voice’ (a misunderstanding of terminology and physics that made us believe that we could make our voices come from another part of the room is only we learned a mysterious technique, possibly via a comic book ad) and ‘a gottle of gear’ was an oft-heard stiff-lipped pronunciation of ‘bottle of beer’, the standard test phrase for would-be vents (‘B’ is the hardest letter to say without moving your lips). But none of this ventriloquism mastery really mattered unless you had a dummy. And in the 1970s, that meant the nightmare fuel known as Mr Parlanchin.
Mr Parlanchin was a child-friendly – at least in terms of physical size – ventriloquist dummy that came from Spain and was a mainstay of the toy shops and Christmas mail order catalogues for several years until sanity prevailed. Parlanchín is a Spanish term meaning ‘chatty’ and in Britain, it sounded suitably exotic and unusual to not need a translation. There were at least three variations on the dummy – Harry, Charlie and Norbert – and despite their Spanish origins, all tended to look suspiciously like dodgy Cockney geezers, a sort of cheeky, untrustworthy spiv from yesteryear. The dummies resembled characters from a past that was only familiar to the target market through old movies and that just made them all the odder.
Each dummy had a hole on his back where the operator inserted their hand – two finger hooks controlled the opening and closing of the eyes and mouth and you could also swivel the head. It involved a certain dexterity and the controls would often be a bit stiff, especially for younger kids. It was also, if memory serves, a bit uncomfortable to twist your arm into the right position to hold him on your knee for very long.
The most commonly seen of the Parlanchins in the UK was Charlie, who wore a check jacket and flat cap and topped off the ensemble with a shock of unruly ginger hair. Perhaps he looked more British than the others or perhaps he was the cheapest option, but this is the one who I recall from the Littlewoods catalogue pages, from my local toyshops and – most significantly – from finding inside the colourful and multi-lingual box that I eagerly unwrapped one Christmas morning.
I’d long wanted one of these ventriloquist dummies, gripped with juvenile fantasies that I would quickly master the art and be on my way to fame and fortune. This, of course, did not happen. As I mentioned earlier, Charlie Parlanchin was not the easiest character to operate and his hard plastic body was both heavy and cumbersome. My ventriloquism skills did not come along in leaps and bounds, boredom rapidly set in and Charlie became another of those toys that were more exciting in anticipation than actuality. As a toy, it had limited play opportunities – the size and rigidity meant that, unlike glove puppets or the Emu puppets (official or otherwise), you could hardly carry it about – you basically had to sit down and practice your moves, which felt more like work than fun. It was also a rather solitary toy – unlike board games, action figures and the like, there was no real opportunity to play with friends. In the end, there was little incentive to sit alone in my bedroom scraping my fingers on the metal pullies and trying to coordinate the mouth opening to my cries of “gottle of gear”.
Charlie might, at this point, have been confined back to his box, but the box had long since been thrown out and so he was placed on a chair in the corner of my bedroom. This, of course, meant that I could wake up at night and see his shadowy presence staring at me from across the room. The box slogan – ‘ALWAYS LAUGHING!’ – didn’t seem quite so appealing by this point.
The build quality of the Parlanchins seems to have been a bit basic. No doubt if you took care of him, he would last for years – but these were being sold to kids, not adults. And the very point of the dummy was that you would work the moving parts – the eyes and the mouth – to death. Inevitably, these would break. My Parlanchin developed a wonky eye – and then his jaw broke, leaving his mouth hanging open at a slight angle. He was still laughing, but no one else was.
I didn’t have nightmares about Charlie Parlanchin, though I suspect many did. Being a naturally untidy child with a limited amount of bedroom space, Charlie was soon covered in clothes and other toys, a rather sad and broken figure by the end of it – I think his hair was also coming loose by the time I was persuaded by my parents – who of course were full of the usual admonishments about my lack of appreciation and slovenliness – to throw him out. Presumably, he became a delightful surprise for the poor bastards who emptied our bins that week.
The Parlanchin range did not seem to make it to the end of the decade – though I’m happy to be given more details of his history, which is inevitably shrouded in some mystery. It’s hard to imagine any parent buying something looking like this for their kids today and ever harder to imagine any kids wanting it to begin with. Invariably, the dummies now sell – or, more accurately, are being offered for sale, because I’ve seen little evidence that anyone is actually paying £400+ for one – for ludicrously high prices on the collector’s market, at least if boxed and in working order.
(All pix via eBay sellers)
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