The Allure of Toy Theatre

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Nineteenth century Redington backdrop for Charles II, professionally hand coloured

I first came across Toy Theatre sheets in the 1960s, when as a boy I was given a stack of them by the actor and playwright, Bill Meilen, who thought I might enjoy them. The sheets were a mix from a great many ‘plays’, the quaint titles of which printed along the top edges were all unknown to me. There were a gratifying variety of backdrops, cut cloths, headers, ground-rows and wings, few of which matched up, depicting rural idylls, dense pine forests, mountain passes ripe for bandit attacks, raging storms at sea and buildings that ranged from rustic hovels to fanciful palaces. There were no scripts, no theatre in which to hang the scenes, and no characters either, but I was a resourceful child and deft with my pencils and paints, so the omissions were just challenges I found stimulating. I built myself a toy theatre, and made the characters to fit the scenes.

Some time later, when I left my home in Wales to attend a school in London, I discovered Benjamin Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop, and thereafter I was lost. The toy theatre disease was in my blood, and it was incurable. All my pocket money was spent in the Pollock’s shop, and later theatre became my profession. As a theatre director and designer I was forever making model stages, because that’s how full-size sets are designed. And later, when I began to work as an artist, I returned to that early love of toy theatres, making them as a part of my practice, but also just for pleasure.

Title-page character sheet for Green’s Wapping Old Stairs

Toy theatres are much on my mind right now as I have two shortly-to-be-announced toy theatre-related projects nearing completion. (And I must first offer my apologies for having to hold back on revealing them for a little while longer.) But while clearing my desk in preparation for the next project, I came across a photocopied reference-set of all the characters and scenes for Green’s production of Wapping Old Stairs, published originally in 1845. Lingering over the loose sheets as I numerically ordered them ready to be put away, I had a sudden pang of the old joy and anticipation that came upon me all those decades ago, when first I held sheets of 19th century toy theatre scenery and tried to figure out exactly how to cut and colour and assemble it all into a three dimensional setting just waiting to be filled with the characters I planned to create.

Victorian toy theatre sheets didn’t come with instructions. The scripts, printed and gathered into chapbooks, gave the order of scenes, but the would-be toy theatre producer had to use imagination and ingenuity to get the stage into a performable state, and it’s a fact that for most, the visions in their heads of how the production would look, were infinitely more splendid before clumsiness and impatience had rendered the results disappointing. Colouring the sheets alone was a minefield, as the clarity of black and white became muddied with the inept application of watercolours. The dreams of how wonderful a scene would look when expertly painted and assembled, were what kept me going, the perfect example of optimism overriding past experiences.

The art of Toy Theatre reached magnificent heights in the 19th century. The sheets sold by the print shops and toy-sellers were so beautiful in their pristine states, that any child confronted with hundreds of them pegged out for inspection, must have been incoherent with the agonies of choice and the calculations of how far their pennies would stretch. Characters and scenery for entire plays, including scripts, could be had by those whose pockets were deep. There were even professionally hand-coloured sets available, for those with no skill with watercolours and brushes. For the rest, the productions had to be purchased in plain black and white, a sheet at a time, with each purchase carrying the producer a little closer to the goal of a full production.

Here, in a microcosm of the problems that have historically made toy theatres a challenge for their builders, I show the components of a single scene from Wapping Old Stairs that illustrates how bewilderingly complicated the matter of interpretation can be, and how any misjudgements would almost certainly result in disappointment. On the title-page character-sheet can be found a small vignette of how Scene 3 of the play might look on the stage. Here’s an enlargement of it:

Enlarged decorative vignette of Scene 3 from Wapping Old Stairs

Below, the backdrop itself. It’s different in many details from the vignette. Most notable at even a cursory glance, is that the buildings of the vignette are much more elegant, whereas they’re undeniably stolid and lumpen in the backdrop. Moreover the outside edges of the buildings are visible in the vignette, whereas they’ve been cropped in the backdrop. I wonder which came first, vignette or backdrop. Whichever the order, the sketch above is so sure, and so lively and fresh that I’m certain it’s not by the same hand as the backdrop. (I do have a warm affection for the rather foursquare, naive style of British toy theatre scenery, quite different in character to what was appearing in European toy theatres of the time, so it’s perhaps unfair to draw comparisons between the deftness of the above sketch – which would be a perfect illustration in a book – and the toy theatre backdrop below, which also serves the purpose for which it was made.)

A sheet of 4 x wing-pieces carries the information that they can be used for several of Green’s productions, including Wapping Old Stairs. Confusingly wing sheets didn’t offer the numbers of the scenes they were intended for. It was a question of trial and error and putting them where they best fitted.

So how can we be sure that the wings were meant to accompany this particular scene in Wapping Old Stairs? It’s because, helpfully, an illustration was included with the set of sheets that was intended to convey the full splendour of the scenery when set up on the toy theatre stage, complete with a tableau of the characters in the closing moments of the play, and two of the wings from the sheet of four are flanking the stage.

However the artist has stretched the scene well beyond the edges of the backdrop as provided, and indeed this ‘panorama’ format is not at all representative of the proportions of most British toy theatres, which offered a much more compressed image, side to side.

Enlargement of the ‘panoramic’ scene

In the illustration the wing pieces allow the audience to see the full width of the backdrop, whereas in reality on a stage of the proportions for which this play was designed, even one set of wings would substantially close down the audience’s view of the backdrop. So neither of the two images – not the vignette and not the panorama – may be relied upon as indicators of how the scene will look on the stage, though they’d almost certainly be regarded as reliable by anyone cutting and pasting away and hoping the result would look as good as it does in the illustrations.

So back in the nineteenth century making toy theatres from the sheets sold by print-shops was always a perilous activity, fraught with the anxieties that the results would be disappointing. These days we have the wonders of inkjet so we don’t have to cut up anything irreplaceable, but there is still the business of getting it right, and making something that matches, at least in part, the wonderful dream that we have in our heads of the perfect production.

Nineteenth century toy theatre sheet with original hand colouring

On Being Seventy

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I’m going to be a little indiscreet here, and I apologise in advance to any of those who were present at the occasion I’m describing and feel uncomfortable about what I’m about to reveal.

Is this how it’s going to be from now on?

On Friday I was seventy. I should say I’ve never had trouble acknowledging the passing of years before now. This time, however, the number choked me. It seems so impossible an age, and not the person I see myself as being. Or perhaps I should say ‘saw’ myself as being, because now, I do. I have to.

In 2019 I was commissioned by a big organisation to lead on a project to design what was to be the major element of their creative theme of the year. The first meeting took place at the offices of the digital render company who would build and launch the project, so we could all talk and get the ball rolling on the design work. There were quite a lot of people around the table, including the digital company’s Managing Director. I was the only old man at the table. Most around it were in their late twenties to mid thirties. The M D looked super cool, a bit of a surfer-boy-turned-exec. He was, if I’m honest, a tad prickly, as he’d lobbied for his company to provide in-house design. Instead he got me. As the creative talk began and ideas flew around the table, I listened carefully before beginning to throw in suggestions that I could see were going down well with the team from the organisation who’d commissioned me. I could see I was making a lot more work for myself, but on the plus side all the thematics of the project were going to play to my strengths. Toward the end the MD turned to me and said that if I found the pace and demands of the project to be too much, his team would be happy to take on any work I wasn’t up to completing. The air around me turned to ice.

The MD was being a twat. But just as I drew a sharp intake of breath before releasing a fusillade, the Art Director of the commissioning organisation stepped in and quite sharply explained to the MD that there would be no designer on the project other than me. And that’s the way it went. I wasn’t yet out of the woods. The Project Manager at the digital company threw deadlines at me throughout the design process that would have daunted a man half my age. I worked through weekends and nights for three weeks. It was a sort of hell, though it was also exciting.

I never missed one of those deadlines, and I’m proud of that. And in the end the project looked damned good. The old man pulled it off.


I’m guessing there’s going to be more of this, as time goes by. People will look at me when I walk into a room, and make assumptions. That bothers me, a lot. Keep watching. I’ll let you know how it all works out.

Close of Play

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Today I completed my final work for English Heritage on the year-long Telling Tales project that arrived entirely unexpectedly just before Christmas 2018.

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It began with a commission via English Heritage Magazine to make an illustration of Saint George for a series of articles on English myths, legends and folk tales, and ended today with the last in a group of paintings commissioned as prizes in the five categories of a short story competition for young people, for which I made an illustration for each winning story. 

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One of the winning competition stories tells of an unhappy young Princess who makes friends with a fierce and much reviled fire-breathing beast, so my year with English Heritage began and ended with dragons.

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Throughout it there has been a relentless schedule of deadlines. The first was to conceptualise and then complete all the visuals for an interactive ‘Myths Map’ that required daunting quantities of artwork from me, including producing thirty drawings of EH sites and designing and building the many puppets required for the map’s animation sequences.

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Following that I designed retail products and produced illustrations for EH Magazine, for several educational projects and for the anthology of short stories titled ‘These Our Monsters’.

 

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In November 2019 much of my output was on show in Grand Tour: Works Commissioned from Clive Hicks-Jenkins by English Heritage at Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff.

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In some ways producing illustrations as prizes for the Telling Tales short story competition winners was the most challenging part of the project, because there was the added responsibility of wanting the experience for the young writers to be the best.

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Telling Tales was English Heritage’s theme of 2019, designed to promote interest in the many sites around which the project had been built. Had it come a year later things would have turned out quite differently as right now all the sites are closed until future notice, and their retail outlets with them. Most of the EH team I worked with are on furlough. Even so a few weeks ago it was suggested I work on an extension to the project, and while pleased and flattered to be asked, I declined. Any commission is hard work, but this one was particularly challenging because the briefs were demanding and I was answerable to a great many stakeholders over a long period. Sustaining concentration and the energy to deliver to schedule throughout it was exhausting, and while I greatly appreciated being the artist entrusted with the challenges, now feels like the moment to be moving on.

 

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Hans Poelzig’s and Marlene Moeschke’s work on Paul Wegener’s 1920 film of ‘The Golem’

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I’ve long held a passion for Paul Wegener’s 1920 film of The Golem, based on the Jewish legend of the biddable man made by Rabbi Loew out of clay. (Though of course things don’t go quite as intended and the creature conjured into life develops a mind of its own.)

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Wegener recruited architect Hans Poelzig as set designer for what would turn out to be the most extraordinary depiction of a Jewish ghetto made in the style that’s now described as ‘Plastic Expressionism’ after the modelled shapes and textured surfaces of the sets, as opposed to the previous ‘German Expressionism’ used by historian’s for films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in which the sets were flat surface constructions with all elements, from the skewed architecture to the angled shadows and shafts of light, painted onto them.

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Poelzig’s atmospheric sketches from his Golem project-book were translated into a Prague Ghetto of perspective-defying labyrinthine streets, alleyways and courtyards where high gables and witch’s hat rooftops twist out of true over buildings that slouch and slump under the weight. Wegener filled it with roiling rivers of extras in a horrifying crush of humanity and it’s hard to believe the crammed effects were achieved with any degree of safety for the participants.

 

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Below: a meandering street of the Jewish ghetto seen here under construction. As the director’s fixed position cameras would be set up to film from carefully selected angles, the buildings could be created as thin facades over scaffolds.

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Below: this image demonstrates the wonderful textures of plasterwork on the sets for The Golem as carried out by the UFA scenic department.

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For the interiors Poelzig turned to a sculptor – and later wife – Marlene Moeschke, who shaped rooms for The Golem resembling the ribbed and arcing interior forms of seashells.

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Above: Moeschke’s model for the Rabbi’s laboratory, and below, the set.

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The laboratory was a particular triumph when meticulously recreated at full scale for the filming. Though it’s been over half a century since I first saw fragments of  The Golem as a teenager, the images still make the hairs at the nape of my neck stand on end. Marlene Moeschke’s contribution to the film has rather too often been overshadowed by Poelzig’s, so it was heartening to see her acknowledged and her models foregrounded in the excellent 2016 exhibition ‘Golem’ at the Jewish Museum Berlin.

 

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Remembering Linda

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When my friend Linda Stephens visited us at Ty Isaf in the late summer of 2014, she was already frail from the illness that would take her life in December that year. The visit was a surprise for her from her husband Jonathan, who had been secretly arranging it with me in e-mails. It was plain that much would depend on how Linda was feeling on the day, but the plan was they’d set out from their Usk home in the camper-van, and head for a short break away in west Wales. Jonathan had booked a night on the small campsite of a farm just a minute up the lane from Ty Isaf, but as Linda and I had long been out of touch and she had only a haziest notion of where I lived, she was completely taken in by his subterfuge. It turned out she was taken in too by the ‘driver error’ that brought them ‘accidentally’ in the wrong direction along the lane and up the drive to Ty Isaf, and the penny only dropped for her when I walked out with my terrier Jack to greet her.

In the 1960s Linda and I had been members of Monmouthshire Young People’s Theatre, and our time there forged a significantly close friendship between us. In the way of youngsters we fantasised about and ‘planned’ our career trajectories. She would be a great actress and I would be her director. No doubts. We felt invincible and energised and capable of fulfilling our every dream. But teenage years are ones of flux. Linda’s and my paths diverged, and there followed the inevitable falling away of ties. Linda, a few years older than me, went to the Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff, while I moved to London to attend the Italia Conti Stage School.

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Above: a postcard Linda kept, sent from me when I moved to London.

No mobile phones back then, and moreover our circles of friends changed. She started dating, and that signalled a drift between us that I recognised meant we were no longer as close. Our worlds were opening up. She was maturing into a young woman exploring and pursuing her dreams, and I was absorbed in my career as an actor, dancer and later a choreographer. Linda met and married Jonathan and settled to having a family of three sons. Our lives, once so tightly enmeshed, went their separate ways.

It was a lovely day we had together at Ty Isaf. I’d prepared lunch, and though Linda ate very little she was very clearly having a wonderful time. We talked and talked and talked. So much that I’d forgotten came flooding back, nudged out of the shadows by her stories. Her memories were incredibly immediate, and I realised that precipitated by her failing health, she’d been poring over the past. She spoke of things we’d done together, and I wondered how on earth she’d retained such freshness about what had happened so long ago. But as I’ve recently discovered, she had a key that may have kept the past alive and present for her, though back when we were talking on that glorious August day in 2014, I just thought she had an almost supernaturally good memory.

It turns out that Linda safeguarded her memories in tangible form. In recent months, Jonathon has made files of material meticulously ordered and stored by her, available to Stephen Lyons, who is making an archive of the history of Monmouthshire Young People’s Theatre. Back when I was a teenager I didn’t have a camera of my own, and I didn’t take photographs of the world around me in the way that people do these days on their phones. Although I imagine I must have kept a few mementos of my time with MYPT, in the professional life of globe-trotting and changing addresses that followed, I travelled light. I have no theatre programmes, no photographs, no scripts and no notes of my time with MYPT. Nothing at all. Linda by contrast, kept everything, and now it’s all coming into the light to be examined. With every MYPT-related discovery emerging from her papers, memories come hurtling back to me. I don’t understand the mechanics. How can I have forgotten things so completely, only for a saved slip of paper scrawled in biro, or a snapshot to bring them all back?  I hadn’t a single photograph of Linda. Now I do.

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Above: neat folders of material that Linda Henderson – as she was then – kept from her years with Monmouthshire Young People’s Theatre

One of the MYPT productions Linda and I had worked on was Maurice Maerterlinck’s The Bluebird. She played several roles. I danced with her in a scene in which we played characters identified in the cast-list as ‘The Lovers’. (The other performers in the photograph are, standing at the back, Stella Wells as Light, and sitting behind Linda, Gaynor Miles as Mytyl.)

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I designed and made the many masks and headdresses for the cast, and I executed the more specialised make-ups. Linda played the dual role of the Fairy Bérylune and ‘Night’, and backstage during the performance I had to transform her from a hag to a haughty beauty. Staggering to see the photograph of her as Night all these years on. Linda was an enthusiastic collaborator and fantastically game for anything, letting me loose to create this Kabuki/Garbo/Caligari mash-up! She was thrilled with the look, and headed for the stage shimmering with hauteur and confidence.

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To my complete and utter astonishment, among the mementoes she’d squirrelled away nearly five decades ago, was the grotesque nose, made by me out of mortician’s wax, now shrivelled and rock-hard but bearing vestiges of the greasepaint I used as a base for her Fairy Bérylune  makeup.

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Opening up the distant past has made even more abundantly clear just what I lost five years ago when Linda, having come back into my life, in short order left again, this time forever. Sadness wells up for a friendship that while it didn’t exactly die for want of oxygen, certainly wasn’t nourished the way it might have been had we stayed in touch. Life, as they say, gets in the way. The days, weeks, years fill with the many consumers of our time. I know from what she said to me that summer’s afternoon in 2014, that Linda regretted we hadn’t tried harder. Moreover she roundly chastised me for not commemorating my time at MYPT in the ‘biographical’ chapter of the monograph about my life as an artist, published by Lund Humpries in 2011. She said that proud of me though she was, it was a great sadness to her that I’d edited out what she knew had been important to both of us. She was right. But I’d forgotten. I’d just forgotten.

Time to remember.

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The Things That Made Me: Part 4

In 2016 I made a three-part post listing things that had been significant accompaniments of my childhood. These were the books, films, TV programmes and toys that had profound effects on me, and in many instances were the signposts to future creativity. On the lists you’ll discover Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines and Mars Attacks collector-cards, the latter so frowned on by my mother when she discovered them in my bedroom that she took them away and destroyed them. There are the Topstone latex rubber ‘horror’ masks that I yearned for and never plucked up the courage to ask for, though I used regularly to haunt the ‘tricks, novelties and carnival masks’ shop that stocked them just up the road from where we lived. This yearning for what I knew to be illicit in terms of maintaining parental approval, made me uncomfortable. Conflicted. They were pleasures tarnished with guilt, and I guess we all know that those are the ones that can be the most thrilling.

Perhaps memory stretches further back the older you get, because more has recently surfaced from the murky depths. The Triang Minic clockwork Jabberocky is one of the unexpectedly ‘recovered memories’ of toys I’d long ago loved and lost, shaken into focus by a dim recollection swiftly followed by a trawl of the Internet.

Some of what’s here undoubtedly comes under the basic descriptive of ‘horror’, though there’s much that’s child-like and simple too. I think perhaps what’s so interesting about the child’s imagination is that it can safely embrace a diversity of ideas, all happily co-habiting. My parents were sometimes alarmed at where my interests settled, but for my own part, and left to my own devices, I was perfectly happy in the strange mix of imaginative realms.

The original idea of the lists was that beyond a few words of introduction, there should just be pictures. I’m sticking to that. I leave it to you to unwrap your recollections, if any, of what’s shown here. Maybe you’ll recognise some of the images taken from films, and you can amuse yourselves trying to recall their titles.

You can read Parts 1, 2 and 3 by clicking below.

Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

 

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Above: No-one is going to get this!

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The above film is a tricky one, though I fully expect Lorrie Carse-Wilen to nail it!

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May Day 2019

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May Day, 2019

It strikes me at this distance from Catriona Urquhart’s death – she left us in 2005 – that I should have been commemorating the date of her birth these past fourteen years, not the day she left us. However all those who knew and loved Catriona, are conscious of the significance of the date of her death, and so May 1st has become the default anniversary when I dedicate a post to her here. She had the warmest spot for May Day, and all the histories and mythologies knitted into it. Her life partner, Ian, and all her family, felt that she’d delayed her death to coincide with it. I don’t know what I feel about that. I’m still numb at the recollection of it.

Catriona first came upon me when I was lost, and thereafter quietly set about rescuing one who she perceived to be struggling. I thought it strange that I’d attracted a new friend, and couldn’t for the life of me figure out why she’d taken up with me. Of course I know now that she’d noticed how unravelled I was – and how free-falling – and she’d just reached out and caught at the broken tethers trailing in my wake, halting my drift. Emotionally anaesthetised, I was barely aware of what was happening. She wasn’t at all intrusive, but she kept a very close eye on me. I can see now it was an extraordinary thing to do, but she was a woman of heightened intuition, and saw things that others missed. The long story must be one for another time, but for today I wanted to remember and tell how she lightly caught and then strongly held me, and halted what I’m sure would otherwise have resulted in a bad outcome.

In time I recovered myself and healed, and we two became mutually supportive friends, our relationship evolving. We embraced others, though we were always most ourselves when alone together. I met Peter, and he and I and Catriona and Ian became friends as a group. She and I encouraged each other in enthusiasms and growing ambitions. We became collaborators on a series of work that would change my creative trajectory, and resulted in the publication by the Old Stile Press of her elegiac poetry cycle based on my father’s life, The Mare’s Tale. We were sometimes impossible together, exasperating others, and especially our partners. We snuck off on adventures that we kept secret. We relished a mutual appreciation of odd things others thought plain silly. Catriona could be sharp as needles and witheringly intolerant of what she saw as self-aggrandisement and puff, and she could make me fall over with laughter when she turned her wrath where she thought it most deserving. But she was also full of goodness, and had a radar for spotting an aching psyche that needed the balm of nurture.

During bad moments, I still ran for her company like a lost puppy. In the early days of my relationship with Peter, I walked out on him, though when he found I was gone, he knew well enough where to come looking for me. I was sleeping like the dead at Catriona’s, exhausted from a volcanic outpouring of rage and desolation. Awaking to find him sitting on the bed next to me, one hand on my shoulder, the other offering a cup of tea, it turned out she’d explained things to him as I’d been unable to, and all was forgiven and restored.

I miss her as sharply as I did on the day she died. These things don’t go away. We just learn better how to accommodate them.

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Long, long ago, Catriona gave me a sapling walnut tree. It was about fifteen inches high, barely more than a stick in a pot. For about seven years it languished, clearly unhappy in the pot, but our city garden was too small to take what might grow into a large specimen. When we moved to Ty Isaf, it came with us, and was finally liberated into open ground. And a pretty diminished thing it looked at the time, after its long captivity, and moreover with its tap-root rotted away, we discovered, because the pot was not well drained.

Twelve years on it’s twenty feet high and in rude health. Every summer it puts out a spectacular canopy. I see it plainly from all the front-facing windows of the house, pass it whenever I walk in the garden,  follow the progress of its fruits, sit under its shade in high summer and read. It’s where I go to talk to Catriona.

 

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Catrina Urquhart

1953 -2005

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Goodbye Dr Mannsaker

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In 2018 we had to say goodbye to far too many friends. In December, Frances Mannsaker’s was the last death of a cruel year of losses, a distinction that I’m sure would not have been lost on her. Frances had invariably favoured Twelfth Nights for her celebration dinners with close friends, and so she would have wryly smiled to know that her funeral had to be deferred until after the Christmas/New Year holidays. As things turned out I was ill at the time set for the event, laid low with asthma. But her wonderful friend Debs suggested that were I to put down some thoughts about Frances,  she would then arrange for them to be read at the celebratory party afterwards. This she did, and moreover sent me a delightful snippet of film in which my words are spoken by twenty-year-old Daniel, the grandson of Frances’ sister Jill, who delivers them with a charm and eloquence that betters anything I could have delivered in person. I am so greatly obliged to him, and to Debs, for helping me to to share my thoughts about Frances. Here’s what I wrote:

“When first I met Frances, I didn’t put her down as someone I was going to love. Far from it. I thought her a deal too scary for anything much more than neighbourly cordiality. First impressions: small, compact, with sharp, dark eyes that saw everything and probably didn’t think much of most of it. Fiercely direct. This was a woman who might require one to shape up, an interrogator whose questions would demand replies. A sometimes seemingly furious ball of energy. Over the years we lived next door to each other in Cardiff, I grew familiar with the staccato tap of her heels through the walls of our adjoining houses: on her tiled kitchen floor, on the pavement outside, on the path down from her front door, along the garden wall, sharp right and up the path to ours. Frances was the only person during our decade in Cardiff who I recognised by the sound of her approach. Always fast, always with purpose. In those years I never once saw Frances saunter. She was like a heat-seeking missile with a sure trajectory. Wherever she was going, she meant business.

So no, not love, to begin with. Respect, of course. A sort of formal getting along, because we were neighbours, and we clearly wanted to be good ones. But slowly, unexpectedly, respectfulness gave way to something warmer. I began to see flashes of merriment that belied the professional carapace, and I grew to relish the moments when her gaze would swivel to mine over the lip of a wine glass as she looked to see whether I too had heard some pomposity across the dinner-table that she was about to skewer, and the glint and spark of an unspoken ‘Watch this!’ flashed to me before she turned back for the kill. I learned that when you knew her, she was wickedly funny. And once I’d got the fuller picture, I liked Frances a great deal. In 2001 at Newport Museum and Art Gallery, at the private-view of my first one-man exhibition, I stood like a rabbit in the headlamps listening to the playwright Julian Mitchell giving his opening speech, not hearing a thing because of the blood thundering in my ears and the chattering of my teeth. I was rigid as a lamppost, hands clasped behind my back because I needed to still my trembling. Suddenly a warm hand slipped into mine, a confederate shoulder leaned conspiratorially against me, and Frances was there, smiling reassurance and staring hard into my eyes, as only she did, to signal that everything was just fine. And it was. The next day I saw her hand was bruised where I’d held it so hard, and she hadn’t even flinched.
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After Frances left Cardiff for her new post of Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Lincoln, we remained in touch. And when Peter and I left Cardiff and moved to Aberystwyth, the friendship between the three of us continued steady. We visited her at her new home, and she reciprocated. After her son Edward’s early death, we often got together for Easter, Christmas or New Year. We spent time together, catching up over meals and walks, enjoying each other’s stories and adventures. She recounted news of her grandson Seth and his mother Clare. Catch-up with Frances was always a treat. Sometimes we would invite her to stay, and occasionally she would invite herself. She came to my exhibitions, and she collected my work. The woman who I’d first thought of as a neighbour I had better get along with, had become a woman I loved. And with the loving, and the geographical distance, came the missing. When I missed her too much, I’d phone her, or write a long e-mail, and she did likewise. And if too long had passed, she or I would enquire gently if the other were well, and that is the way I discovered last year, that Frances was not.
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But before that, before the time when the lesion on her brain began to make words fall away – though her mind continued sharp – I had an e-mail from her that I treasure. Our dog, Jack, had died. Anyone who knew Frances will know she was not a dog person. However, she suspended her prejudices for Jack, who won her over by being a most courteous chap in her company. She had rather unexpectedly invited us to bring him along when we stayed with her for the first time, and thereafter the invitations to him continued. When Frances heard the news of Jack’s death, she wrote to me:
“I am so sorry to say goodbye to the gentlest, politest and most gentlemanly of all dogs.  You must be cut to the quick entirely, and not quite able to believe it yet.”  
We spoke, as we had many times before, of death and missing. I explained that I felt clumsy, fretting over the loss of a dog to Frances, who had lost a son. She swiftly replied that grief is grief and there can be no degrees or categories of it. For Frances, who knew the depths of loss, there was no difference between her grief and mine. That was so like her, my unexpected friend who crept up on me and then remained to constantly delight, surprise and illuminate. Quickfire, bracing, sharp as needles and intellectually rigorous, yet entirely un-judgemental and warmly inclusive. I always think that friendship should be less about what makes us similar, than an appreciation of our differences. Frances and I were unalike in so many ways, and yet we had an almost secret relish of each other’s characters, both the admirable parts and the flaws. We were beloved friends, battle-worn soldiers and mischievous allies. Since I first met her she has been a vibrant presence in my life, and despite the fact that she has gone, for as long as I am granted a memory, I don’t plan on letting that change. Not one bit.”
Clive Hicks-Jenkins
January 2019

The Serpent’s Bite: a natural history of the witch. Part 3

After nearly two years of preparation, in 2018 rehearsals began for an adaptation of Hansel & Gretel into a new performable work, with a score by composer Matthew Kaner and a text by the poet Simon Armitage. What’s so extraordinarily clever about the text – which was written before the music – is that in it Simon presents the siblings as close-to-starving child-migrants escaping a war-torn country, their journey hazardous in ways echoing the Black Forest wildernesses of the Brother’s Grimm, and yet with contemporary references that bracingly season the old tale with with a dash of darkly glittering folk/horror. The music was written for the Goldfield Ensemble line-up of five musicians, and the work was commissioned and produced by Goldfield Productions, helmed by producer – and Goldfield clarinetist – Kate Romano, who’s definitely a woman-of-many-skills.

Below: Narrator Adey Grummet fronting the Goldfield Ensemble. (Photograph courtesy of Still Moving Media.)

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Peter Lloyd was among the small group of artists known to me who were invited to work on the design and visual effects for the production. He would make the paper-cut ‘shadow’ puppets of the witch. These proved too elaborate and large to be operated live on a shadow-screen, and a plan evolved to instead film them as stop-motion silhouettes on a light-screen/animation table. In performance the film is projected onto a large-scale screen behind the small puppets of the children. However before Peter could begin work on the witch, I had to provide him with guideline studies. My sketches were intentionally rough, meant as starting points for the character. Peter was briefed to ‘freely elaborate’ on what I’d produced.

The first drawing was much influenced by Goya’s naked witches. I guess I knew from the outset that the idea wouldn’t get to the finishing line, but I needed to try it out.

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Peter was very keen to be given a design that would enable him to be freely creative with his paper cutting. He was scornful of the second image I produced that made her a bag-lady like an overweight sparrow in layered cardigans. (And he was right!)

 

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So I returned to the illustrations I’d made for the picturebook. In those I’d used the notion of the witch being short-sighted, her apparel sewn with eyes as an expression of sympathetic magic. (Simon’s libretto makes great play of the witch’s near blindness.) But we also wanted to make a slow reveal of her true appearance, and so her garment became an all-enveloping cloak to obscure her hybrid anatomy.

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When I suggested to Peter that the design might include a crustacean’s carapace, like a spider-crab, he was off like a rocket! A tail was discussed, along the lines of a scorpion’s stinger. Thereafter he was keen to give her many arms, but I declined the idea because I knew the filming schedule was going to be very tight. Another four arms plus hands and all those extra fingers could have added days of work to the witch sequences. As it was, her mere ten spidery digits monopolised the lion’s share of her studio time.

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Peter Lloyd’s translation of the drawings into witch silhouette-puppet number 1.

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Witch silhouette-puppet number 2.

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When the puppet arrived for filming, I made only small changes to it, though significant ones in terms of movement.  I hid a sliding-bar attachment for the hips behind the puppet, so as to give her more flexibility, and changed her knees to backward facing (see below), so that her gait would be weirder. It made her much more interesting to animate.

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The superb quality and detail of Peter Lloyd’s paper-cutting really came into its own with the large head and hands he prepared for the close-up sequences. The hands were particularly good, with secret eyes embedded in the fingers and forearms. The jagged, slash-like cuts in her face loaned a wonderful texture to the puppet. Phil Cooper, model-maker and scenic painter on the project – and also my assistant animator – cut upper and lower eyelids to add to the puppet, so that we could make her blink. Blinking is a great way to add life to an animation.

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The stop-motion sequences of the witch were reversed to negative at the editing stage. We felt that she was much scarier when bone white against a dark background. Peter Lloyd provided her with an almost prehensile tongue.

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The pupils of her eyes were made in two sizes, pin-prick tiny and enlarged, again to add expressiveness.

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Click on the control bar below to see the Witch in action in this extended stop motion animation sequence. This was a first edit that I made with Peter Telfer, who filmed all of the animation sequences for Hansel & Gretel.

 

 

 

Below: on stage the witch’s nose sails into view, dwarfing the puppets of the children looking up in awe at it. (Photograph courtesy of Still Moving Media.)
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Here the witch unfolds from her carapace and stretches her arms, legs and tail like a vulture waking from an afternoon nap. It’s a shot we didn’t use in the production, though I liked it a lot. Matt Kaner produced one music sequence in which strings create an unnerving sense of edginess, and it perfectly matched the restlessness of the witch’s hands, which are never still.

 

 

Photograph taken by Phil Cooper of me working at the light-box/animation table. The tape marks edge of frame, so that Phil and I knew the points at which to enter and depart a shot.

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The hands were wonderful to animate, more like insects than I would have thought possible. Their articulation was enormously elaborate. An animator’s dream!

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The witch’s house in the production is fluid and shifting, as though the magic holding everything together is unreliable and certainly illusory.

Below: salt-dough Lebkuchen made by Phil Cooper.

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What starts as an iced Lebkuchen biscuit resolves more corporeally into a slightly grubby construct, perhaps made of  children’s building blocks, or maybe from congealed sugar. Ominously, the out-of-scale chimney looks as though it would be more at home on an incinerator.

Below: Model designed and made by Phil Cooper and built from a combination of contemporary and vintage building blocks.

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Later, when the children make a tour of its interior, we’re transported to the rooms of a sinister doll’s house, decaying and mouldy. Nothing in this world quite fits together. It’s dream-like and fractured. The words and music that accompany us on this estate-agent-from-hell’s tour of the grim spaces, is the bone-chilling heart of the production.

Below: doll’s house built by Simon Coupland and Jana Wagenknecht, with contributions from Stephanie Davies and painted by me. Lighting by Pete Telfer.

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(The full story behind the building of the ‘Witch Doll’s House’ is one that requires more space than I can spend on it in this post, but I will be returning to the subject later, to give the whole picture.)

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Hansel & Gretel is currently on tour. Details of performances are below. Contact the venues for ticket availability.

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The Blogroll

Scrolling through my long established blogroll, I discovered countless broken links. Some clicks carried visitors to sites that while full of past treasures, had long ago ceased from updating. The conclusion can’t be avoided that what had once been a delightful route to adventures elsewhere, had become a list that no-one was using anymore. So I’ve discontinued it, for the present.

However I shall be building a blogroll afresh again, and some of those who were on the old one – dependable and sharing artists, authors, poets, publishers and friends committed to the art of writing  – will be reinstated. (And I’ll happily listen to arguments from anyone wanting an old favourite returned.) But the fact is that everything needs freshening up from time to time, and today I’ve had a Spring Clean!

Until later.