Hugo is the disembodied head of a 1930s ventriloquist’s dummy. Made by the famous London maker Quisto, he’d been locked away for years in the attic of a dead magician. I found him at a Magic Circle bazaar, took him home and roboticised him using a Max patch. This enables him to move eyes and neck and to open and shut his mouth in time with spoken words.
I love how ventriloquist dummies like Hugo have such a startling, uncanny appearance that comes with its own implied biography (something I wrote about in Umheimlich Manoeuvres for The Wire). I found Hugo could be my alter ego on stage, uttering sentences that I felt unable to speak directly to the audience.
Of all my early figurative automata, Hugo is the one who has been in the longest use in my set. He can be seen in the video for A Wren in the Cathedral, his last official outing. He also makes the occasional appearance on request, most recently at the Festival International de Marionnettes, Porto, 2020.
During the Air Loom tour in early 2019 I finally decided to put Hugo out to pasture and not include him in my set (unless he was there by request). The decision was made during a soundcheck in Glasgow with my co-performers Sarah Gabriel and Stephen Hiscock. A few moments after we agreed to remove Hugo from the show, there was an almighty crash on stage. For reasons none of us can fathom, Hugo had fallen off his table and crashed to the floor, taking a number of musical instrument with him which I had to hastily repair. Hugo’s teeth were knocked out during the fall and the lower set were lodged in his throat.
A week or so later, I was back from the tour. While I was packing away, Colin Uttley opened up Hugo’s head very carefully with a knife so I could attempt a repair. Ventriloquist dummies have a seam under the hairline which you can cut through and invisibly patch up again. Inside Hugo’s head, we were thrilled to find a paper label, showing he had been made by Quisto, the celebrated London maker. I think Hugo in the classic horror Dead of Night is also a Quisto doll – the two Hugos could be brothers.
To our astonishment, there was also an address on the label. It was in 97 St Paul’s Road, London SE17 – the road just behind the house we were renting at the time. We could see Quisto’s old street from our back window. The house itself was is more – it was bombed during the war.