Stooky Bill: The Sinister Puppet From Doctor Who Was Real

By M@
Stooky Bill: The Sinister Puppet From Doctor Who Was Real

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Stooky Bill, at the British Vintage Radio and Television Museum
"Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!" Image: Will Noble.

Doctor Who's 60th anniversary special The Giggle contained a creepy grain of truth.

Stooky Bill! Those who saw Doctor Who's barnstorming 60th anniversary show The Giggle will never forget the sinister puppet (nor his Stooky wife and Stooky Babbies). Yet the grinning, incendiary dummy existed in real life, and really was the first face ever transmitted over television. What's more, you can sort-of see him in London.

In the show, it's 1925 and Stooky Bill is purchased from a macabre toy shop in Soho. He's then taken back to 22 Frith Street, and the laboratory of John Logie Baird. The famous inventor wanted his first television experiments to feature a human face. Unfortunately, the bright lamps needed for his primitive equipment kicked out too much heat for an actual human, hence Stooky Bill was put in the hot seat. Baird was successful in transmitting an image of the ventriloquist's dummy, the first demonstration of a technology that would (in a much-altered form) soon change the world.   

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Science Museum holds the machinery used by Baird in his early TV experiments
Part of John Logie Baird's experimental television, on show at the Science Museum. Image: Matt Brown

Much of this actually happened. Baird really did work at 22 Frith Street (as a plaque attests). And he really did use a doll he named Stooky Bill (stooky or stookie being a Scottish word for plaster cast).

The real puppet didn't quite burst into flames as shown in Doctor Who, but it was badly singed and cracked by the lights over many weeks of experimentation. It's not known where Baird got his ventriloquist's dummy from — it may well have been a local toy shop as shown in the show, though presumably one with a less malevolent owner.

John Logie Baird with Stooky Bill and a second head called James
John Logie Baird with Stooky Bill and a second head called James

(Another minor point of difference: I can find no evidence that the real puppet imprinted itself into every future TV screen, ready to unleash a mind-altering arpeggio at the whim of a trans-dimensional being. But I'm happy to be corrected.)

Behind-the-scenes show Doctor Who Unleashed explained how Stooky Bill came to play such a central role in the 60th anniversary celebrations. Showrunner and writer Russell T Davies had been working on another project concerning the early years of television, when he was introduced to the creepy looking puppet. "Well that's a Doctor Who monster," he thought immediately. But a puppet could not hold a full episode on its own. It needed a puppeteer. That triggered memories of the Celestial Toymaker from the show's early years. And so the pieces fell into place.

Where to see Stooky Bill

Stookie Bill head with photo
Image: Will Noble

Stooky Bill still exists. The original is held at the Science + Media Museum in Bradford, which is currently closed for a major refit. But there is one place where Londoners can see an accurate model of the dummy. The British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum in Dulwich is a remarkable one-man's-collection of old broadcasting kit, which can be visited by prior appointment, and on occasional event days. Among its treasures is this replica of Baird's grinagog puppet.

Happily, they don't have models of Stooky Sue and the Stooky Babbies. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Last Updated 11 December 2023

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