An enterprising North-East woman has found her voice in business – and it all began when she discovered a creative way to communicate with a dementia patient. PETER BARRON reports

ACTOR, carer, entrepreneur…Becky Ashton smiles as she remembers “the spark” that led to her launching her own business with a family of hand-puppets.

Having trained in performing arts and spent years as an entertainer, Becky had moved into the care sector in her native Weardale, and those she looked after in their own homes included an old lady with dementia.

“Try as I might, I couldn’t get through to her one day, so I decided to try something different to make the connection,” she recalls.

She picked up one of the woman's socks, and used her acting skills to bring it to life as a hand-puppet.

It would appear from behind a door, speak in a funny voice, and the woman began to respond. As she gradually opened up, Mister Sock would play along, gently unlocking the door to conversations about her memories.

“That was definitely the spark I needed,” says Becky. “She wouldn’t respond to me, but she would respond to Mister Sock, and it was magical to see it happen.”

When she went from being a home care assistant to working in care homes, Becky continued to use socks as puppets until she decided it was time to use something more sophisticated.

A purple, fluffy monster, called Baby Hudson, was introduced alongside more puppets which were added to Becky’s team of quirky assistants.

“The puppets started singing and building up their parts,” she adds. “I couldn’t believe how much they helped me communicate with people.”

As word spread, Becky was asked to take her puppets into other care homes, as well as a dementia café at St Catherine’s Church, in Crook. That evolved into performances at local events, and she built a large set for her characters at home.

It reached the point at which she wondered if it might make a business and, in June this year, she took the plunge by leaving her job as a carer and launching a full-time business called Puppet Pals.

There’s now an ever-growing family of puppets, including Baby Hudson’s sister, Liberty; Cornelius, the cat; Thunder and Lightning, the twin baby dragons; Stevie, the snail; and puppets of colour, Josh and Jennie.

“It’s a labour of love because acting and performing are in my blood,” says Becky.

Indeed, she has been immersed in showbusiness throughout her life. Her parents met at Butlins, in Filey, in 1972. Dad, Dave, was a theatre technician, and mum, Miriam, worked in the holiday park shop before also learning the ropes as a sound technician.

Dave later became based at Billingham Forum Theatre for a while, but the couple also travelled round the country. They toured with The Nolans, and became friends with a host of stars, including: Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Howerd, Phil Silvers, Barbara Windsor, Sid James, Val Doonican, Freddie “Parrot Face” Davies, Bernie Clifton, Bobby Thompson – The Little Waster – and Ken Dodd.

Ken Dodd was especially close. “He was just always Uncle Ken to me,” says Becky, who was among the mourners, alongside her mum, at the legendary comedian’s funeral in 2018.

As well as theatre dominating their professional lives, the family has also made a strong contribution to community arts.

Due to their long-standing commitment to The Phoenix Players, in Stanhope, Miriam was made president, and Dave became vice president.

Miriam was also part of Stanhope Choral Society for 35 years, while Dave and Becky were members for 15 years, before the choir folded ten years ago.

It was no surprise when Becky inherited their love of the arts, starting off in holiday parks as part of the entertainment team, involved in everything from bingo calling, to kids’ clubs, karaoke, game show hosting, and parties in the dark.

She went on to play Lala, the comedy Ugly Sisters in a production of Cinderella that toured the North West.

She also helped launch The Polar Express on both the Weardale Railway and South Devon Railway in 2012, working as a musical chef on the Weardale version for four years, and then on the Train To Christmas Town from 2017 to 2019.

She took a break from working as an entertainer to join the care sector, but it wasn’t long before that chance encounter with Mister Sock inspired her return to performing, this time with her own business.

“Theatre and the arts have been our lives, so it’s lovely to see Becky carrying on the family tradition,” says Miriam, who's come out of retirement to provide her daughter with audio technical support during her puppet shows.

And, so far, Puppet Pals have been kept busy right through the summer, with bookings coming in for birthday parties, special occasions, and public events.

For six Wednesdays during the summer, she's been a regular on The Story Train – a static carriage on Stanhope Railway Station – running The Railway Children Summer Holidays Club, with the help of The Train Buddies: Stella The Storyteller, Hector The Story Collector, and Alan, Alana, and Candi.

Other recent appearances have included Allendale Show, Blanchland Show, and the Weardale Book Festival, where we met.

“The business is going really well and we’re all having great fun together,” Becky told me, before spotting some children approaching. It's her cue to burst into an energetic rendition of Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better with Alan and Alana.

The collection of characters may have become more professional, and expensive, since the business was launched, but Becky doesn’t underestimate the importance of her first puppet.

“Yes, it’s all thanks to Mister Sock,” she says. “I’ve got a lot to thank him for, so he’ll always have a special place in my heart.”

  • Puppet Pals “can entertain everyone, from ages two to 102”. To find out more about them, search for puppetpals21 on Instagram or call Becky on 07743 034580

SO, there I was, taking part in the Weardale Book Festival, giving a reading of my book, Darly's Magical History Ride, to an audience of children and parents on the train from Weardale back to Stanhope.

With a 20-minute journey ahead, I planned to time the reading so that I finished just as we're coming in to Stanhope Station.

The story is about a magical little train that goes back in time, and I was coming up to the last verse when I saw the platform up ahead.

I speeded up, and was able to, triumphantly, utter the words 'The End' just as the train hissed to a halt.

"How about that for perfect timing?" I announced with a bow and a smug smile.

"Er, you do know this is Frosterley, don't you?" asked the guard.