Over at the Sussex Lustreware website, Gloria has packed the shop with items from the Harlequinade range that we collaborated on last year. Harlequin, Columbine and a host of characters drawn from the great Victorian traditions of Toy Theatre, are resplendent in their sequinned finery and ready for ‘Curtain Up’. To celebrate the range, David W. Slack and I have produced our tribute to the golden age of the Victorian stage!
In 1964 Hammer Films released its Terence Fisher-directed horror, The Gorgon. It was an elegant and unexpected addition to the Hammer canon, taking as its titular ‘monster’ a creature borrowed from Greek mythology.
The studio was rather good at creating female ‘monsters’, The Reptile in 1966 being a significant success, as was The Countess Dracula in 1971.
Working out of Bray Studios, what Hammer Films lacked in budget, they more than made up for in lushly gothic design and brooding atmosphere. Their teams of writers, directors, set and costume designers, make-up artists, matte and model artists and composers, created a rich seam of cinematic horror. They re-invented the old monsters of the Universal Studios – Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy among them – in ways that found completely new audiences. The films were largely strongly European in their settings, with brooding Carpathian castles looming over villages where peasants lived in dread of their vampiric overlords.
The cast was stellar: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Richard Pascoe, with Barbara Shelley in the role of Carla Hoffman. Shelley was the studio’s top female star. With her rich auburn hair, evenly chiselled features and low voice, she brought gravity as well as beauty to all her roles. In Carla she played a distaff to that horror staple – the werewolf – by being transformed at full moon into Megeara the Gorgon, whose dreadful stare turns human flesh to stone, the premise for which is the ‘serial killer’ heart of the story.
Fisher and his team were concerned that transforming Shelley into the Gorgon was going to create multiple difficulties. The story required the creature’s true identity be revealed only toward the end of the film, but given there were to be several close-ups of the monster’s ‘killer stare’, it was believed the deceit would be hard to pull off were Shelley to be under the make-up. There was also the matter of time. Transforming Shelley’s classic looks into Megeara would hold up filming on a regular basis, so despite the fact that she was very keen to play the character in both manifestations, no matter the discomforts involved, it was decided to use another actress who might plausibly represent a grotesque version of her, up to the point when the duality is revealed.
Enter Prudence Hyam, an actor and retired ballet dancer who Fisher and his team believed would have the necessary performance skills to embody the elegant, poisonous intensity they hoped to achieve in the Gorgon, yet be up to the rigours of of the uncomfortable physical demands. Hyam didn’t disappoint. She cheerfully submitted to the heavy headpiece hiding the snake mechanisms under her wig, which was over seven pounds in weight. She wore bloodshot, full-sclera contact lenses that in these early days of the technology were not at all comfortable.
This short clip shows Prudence in full make-up and towelling dressing-gown, marching out of the Bray Studios make-up department having hitched the cumbersome loops of snake-mechanism cable-controls over her shoulder, while make-up man Roy Ashton follows with the box that will operate everything out of shot. Hyam looks like a woman not to be put off by seven pounds of special-effects attached to her head!
Hyam clearly didn’t have any problem with playing a character deemed to be ‘monstrous’. One gets the sense she was a performer to her core, relishing the challenges and an opportunity to be evil.
When the Gorgon makes her first appearance in Castle Borski, it’s a moment of spine-chilling unease. Cobwebs billow as she emerges from behind them, a simple effect that adds to the sense of predatory malevolence. Hyam was on a small wheeled platform that created a gliding trajectory – rather like the one employed under Josette Day in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Béte – and her dancer’s posture wedded to an icy intensity of expression, makes the moment unforgettable.
The set is one which fans of Hammer will know from several films, instantly recognisable by the colonnaded gallery encircling the entrance hallway and the stairway that’s so effective in terms of staging low-angle dramatic moments. Here the space is tellingly furnished with the life-sized hulk of a headless and decaying classical statue, a queasy clue as to what haunts its shadowy recesses.
The Gorgon is not a film without flaws. But having seen it, despite its X-certificate, when I was just thirteen – the local flea-pit cinema never having ever turned down a ticket-purchase on the grounds of age – the memory of it has stayed with me for a lifetime. The appearance of the Gorgon herself has attracted occasionally – in my opinion – unfair comment from critics, with jibes about the character’s design deficiencies. But the jerky rubber snakes and the the too-obvious scaly skin appliances notwithstanding, her appearance gives the film moments of genuine horror, and Hyam’s fierce intensity as she glides out to literally petrify her victims, has persisted in my dreams for five and a half decades. So many times the mood of that colonnaded gallery with its monstress glimmering as green-as-absinthe in the cobwebby shadows has nudged into my work, whether in Neo-Romantic paintings of mood-drenched ruins, or in the creepy filmed sequences of interiors I made for the stage production of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes.
Soon there is to be a little tribute to the Gorgon, in all her basilisk-eyed venomousness, in a little project I currently have on the go. Watch this space.
Those who deserve credit:
Director: Terence Fisher
Music: James Bernard
Cinematography: Michael Reed
Editor: Eric Boyd Perkins
Production Design: Bernard Robinson
Art Direction: Don Mingaye
Make-up: Roy Ashton
And lastly, Prudence herself, who so memorably added to the canon of movie grotesques, and deserves to be better credited and celebrated.
I should say up front that I never set out to be a designer or maker of toy theatres. I love the whole idea of toy theatre and I’m an aficionado of the form. I collect toy theatre ephemera and have from earliest memory. My discovery of 19th century toy theatre sheets as a child was a significant influence on getting me to stage school as a young teenager for the training I’d need for a life of theatre, and while there I found my way, of course, to Benjamin Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop in Fitzrovia, which place still thrills over fifty years on.
So all of those things link up for me: love of toy theatre, love of theatre and love of Pollock’s. But what I didn’t see coming was that I would occasionally find myself designing toy theatres. That, was a surprise.
As a stage designer in my thirties, my background of toy theatre undoubtedly influenced the way I thought about stages and the way pictures on them were presented to audiences. Always the sense of a frame and what’s seen through it, which is not so very far from looking at a painting in a frame on a wall.
When Susan Williams-Ellis of the Portmeirion Pottery designed her Pantomime range in the 1960s, the records indicate she found the images in a book published by Pollock’s. Mention is made of the engravings being too faint to successfully reproduce on china, which may well be true, though by re-drawing them she will also have sidestepped photographic copyright issues. Whatever the full truth of the matter, her ink drawings were dark and sharp, and they reproduced with clarity.
All the reference material for the Sussex Lustreware Harlequinade range of ceramics has come from my own collection of 19th century toy theatre sheets. Because there were so many printmakers producing these – Green, Skelt, Redington, Pollock etc – I did quite a lot of adaptation so that Harlequinade would have the unity of a single visual aesthetic. Some of my drawings stayed fairly close to the original material, but occasionally I ‘improved’ the designs so as to be what I needed to work for the collection, while always staying firmly within the bounds of the toy theatre ‘style’. My collaborator at Sussex Lustreware, Gloria, came up with the idea of using freehand lustre swags to link the transfer-ware vignettes of the audience around the edges of plates.
Susan Williams-Ellis had rendered her ‘Pantomime’ designs in pen and ink. I drew mine in soft black pencil scanned in greyscale to make transfers ready for applying and firing to the earthenware. Neither Susan’s ink drawings made in the 1960s or my pencil drawings made last year mimic the engravings that were our inspirations, but each of us made what we knew would reproduce well on white ceramic. My pencil drawings have the same silvery tone as some of the old engravings, and the results look particularly good when combined with the soft gleam of pink lustre.
The Golden Beehive Inn is a backdrop from Whittington and his Cat or Harlequin Lord Mayor of London, re-printed by Benjamin Pollock from the play originally produced by Green and then Redington. (The origins of plays can be tangled as toy theatre printmakers frequently re-engraved earlier plates, replacing the original makers’ names with their own.) The Whittington engravings are quite crude, though have a pleasing naive boldness and vigour, and the scene of the inn on a harbour is one I liked so much that I kept returning to it. I combined it on a mug with ‘street’ characters from Green’s The Castle of Otranto or Harlequin and the Giant Helmet, including a ‘Postman’ and an ‘Egg-seller’.
Occasionally an original engraving required quite a bit of ‘adaptation’ to produce the image I required for Harlequinade. Clown Riding a Donkey was one such, as I wanted an illustration with much cleaner lines and a better definition of the subject matter than provided in the engraving.
Popular poses and groupings of characters from Harlequinades appear repeatedly in 19th century sheets, drawn by different artists for various publishers. Sometimes I adapted from more than one version of a particular design, as in this drawing for Clown and Pantaloon having a tea-party, reproduced on the Sussex Lustreware Harlequinade teapot.
Groupings of Harlequin characters in a pyramid are enormously popular on toy theatre character sheets, usually with Columbine at the apex.
Pieces from the Harlequinade range may be purchased direct from Sussex Lustreware
The film was made and originally released in five one-act instalments at Instagram. We’d intended it to be a promotion for the just published toy theatre and an encouragement for would-be performers, to show them what might be achieved with the model. However it swiftly evolved into something that was a creative project in its own right, and as David and I planned and worked, our ambitions for the film became greater.
Even though we elaborated on the presentation in ways that were clearly only possible in the realms of digital animation, we felt that the overall effect would be to encourage anyone performing the toy play to be inventive and give creativity a free hand.
I’d asked Olivia to give me a play-script that incorporated all the traditions I associate with nineteenth century toy theatre productions: actors directly addressing the audience, rhyming verses, jokes, songs, political references, allegorical characters and opportunities for sumptuous stage effects. But it was important too to have that sense of the slightly bonkers that I see in just about every historic toy theatre play script. Fairy tale is the right material to be allowed its head in matters of strangeness. Too much sanitising and it loses character. Beauty and the Beast as a narrative can be so much more than is usually allowed. Olivia has followed the threads of earlier iterations, but has reinvigorated the tale by making climate change and pollution the culprits for Beast’s condition, rather than a dark fairy’s curse. Moreover Beast is allowed to be more thoroughly himself than when the storyline moves toward a princely restoration. (When Jean Cocteau gave a first showing of his film La Belle et la Bête (1946) to its cast and technicians, he invited his friend Marlene Dietrich as his guest. As the end credits rolled she could be heard in the darkened viewing-room loudly wailing:
“Ou est ma Bête?”
Most audiences ever since have agreed with her.
The Beauty & Beast Team:
Animated Film: David Slack & Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Script: Olivia McCannon
Original Music for Time for a Change of Heart: Paul Sartin
Narrator: Jennifer Castle
Jennifer Castle’s Portrait Photography: Ross Boyask
Accompaniment for Time for a Change of Heart: Tricia Kerr Mullen
Adapted from the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre published by Joe Pearson at Design for Today
The Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre (see above) may purchased online, direct from the publisher:
All toy theatre is an abbreviation, by reason of the medium. Fifteen minutes is about the maximum length a toy theatre performance can sustain. However the complete fairy tale as retold by Olivia McCannon in Beauty & Beast, illustrated by me throughout, is to be published by Design for Today in Spring this year.
It’s largely forgotten these days that the actor Ralph Richardson was significant in the preservation of the toy theatre tradition. Benjamin Pollock, the last of the print-making toy theatre sellers, died in 1937. Thereafter his daughters ran the shop in Hoxton Street until damage sustained during the Blitz forced its closure.
Alan Keen, a local bookseller, together with Richardson, picked up the threads of Benjamin Pollock’s business and remaining stock, and together carried forward the tradition, enlisting practitioners of the art of toy theatre, famous artists and renowned actors to assist them. George Speaight was an historian, enthusiast and collector of toy theatre ephemera, who in 1946 published the still unsurpassed textbook of the toy theatre tradition, Toy Theatre, and he was among those Keen and Richardson worked with.
Richardson’s celebrity ensured the added lustre of luminaries such as Laurence Olivier and playwright J. B. Priestly stepping forward to promote the art of toy theatre. Olivier agreed to a toy theatre adaptation of the 1948 film of Hamlet, which he’d directed and starred in. Published by what was now being called ‘Benjamin Pollock Ltd’, the Hamlet toy theatre is a curious thing, quite wan in many ways because the ‘puppets’ are all tinted photographs of the actors from the film, while the sets are sketchy if atmospheric black and white drawings by the film’s production designer Roger Furse.
A far more lavish and full colour affair was The High Toby, with a script by J. B. Priestly and scenery and characters painted by the prominent artist, Doris Zinkeisen.
The growing cost of the book outstripped Alan Keen’s available funds, and it was done as a Puffin Cut-Out Book ‘in association’ with Benjamin Pollock Ltd. But even with these celebrity contributors, while the book is very pretty, anyone who has tried to offer a performance will know that it’s less satisfactory as a play than one might imagine given who wrote it, and though Zinkeisen’s settings and characters are lavishly detailed, she took no account of how difficult the puppets would be to cut out, massively compromised by fine details like whips, walking-canes, feathers on hats and the slenderest of wrists.
Moreover even when those hurdles had been clambered over, the characters don’t register particularly well against the backdrops, their drawing-room elegance and soft colours legislating against them. Toy theatre needs a robustness not present here, and The High Toby is toy theatre play that looks far better in the imagination, and on its pages, before scissors, paste and card have been brought into play.
Toy theatre is an art, and not just a physical reduction. A long and complex script isn’t the best accompaniment to a toy theatre performance, and scenery cannot simply be a version of what might be seen in a live theatre. There’s something like alchemy in the process of making a successful adaptation of a story to the reduced script and the reduced stage of a toy theatre. The same rules of drama don’t apply, nor do the rules of perspective used on a full-scale stage with breathing actors. The toy theatre requires its own, unique aesthetic. It’s so much better when allowed to be itself, rather than when trying too hard to ape its origins in the live theatre.
When all the components are in place and a toy theatre can be made to work, it works magnificently. But it’s a form fraught with perils, and more get it wrong than right, and always have. English toy theatre – for it was almost uniquely an English form, practiced most successfully in London, that city of many theatres and printmakers – had a period of unrivalled brilliance. When not made overly sophisticated, and when drawing on the lively tradition of the English printmakers’ ‘Actor Portraits’ of the Regency and nineteenth century, toy theatre was at its best, graphically bold and slightly bonkers. Later it became displaced largely because the far more sophisticated toy theatre imports from France and Europe were catching the eye of the public, and the meteoric rise of native toy theatre faltered when comparisons were being made to the enormously elaborate foreign imports. English Toy theatres were not subtle. They had the character of folk art, and were the perfect vehicles for barnstorming melodramas and that most unique theatrical tradition of these islands, the pantomime. (Harlequinade was a hugely popular entertainment of the English stage, and the characters of Clown, Harlequin and Columbine were endlessly reproduced in toy theatre character sheets.)
Marguerite Fawdry acquired the Pollock’s business in the 1960s, afterwards transferring it from Covent Garden to its current address in Fitzrovia, where there was room for a toy museum over the shop and a basement where the Pollock printing press and stock of engraved plates could be stored. The business has continued as a family affair, now helmed by Marguerite’s great grandson, Jack, in whom the toy theatre tradition is still alive and flourishing. There’s a Pollock’s Trust, too, to lend support to the Museum, led by Chairman Alan Powers.
I was commissioned in 2016 by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop to design the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre, which was published in 2017 and is still available from the shop. The project led to others, most significantly a commission to develop a new stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and in 2018 Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, a stage production for music ensemble, actors and puppets with a score by Matthew Kaner and a poetic text by Simon Armitage, directed by me, premiered at the Cheltenham Festival of Music before embarking on a tour. A performance of the work before an audience was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and broadcast Christmas week 2018.
In 2019 the text of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes was published by Design for Today in an edition illustrated by me. In 2020 I won the V&A Illustrated Book Award for my work on it.
In November 2021 Design for Today published my new toy theatre, Beauty & Beast, made in collaboration with Olivia McCannon, who wrote the script, and David W. Slack, who assisted me and designed the model.
The Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available from Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden and Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop in Fitzrovia, and also online from:
With Olivia’s play script for the toy theatre delivered, it was time to consider who might write the music to accompany her lyrics for Beauty’s song ‘Time for a Change of Heart’, performed at the end of the play. Olivia approached her friend, musician Paul Sartin of the group Bellowhead, and to everyone’s delight, he agree to join the team.
Once his music was ready, it was time for graphic designer Laurence Beck to lay out Olivia’s play script, Paul’s arrangement for her lyrics, David’s instructions for constructing the model and my brief histories of toy theatre and the origins of Beauty and the Beast, into the booklet to accompany the model. The 10 construction-cards to cut out and make the toy theatre, scenery and characters of the production, together with the 24 page booklet, were designed to fit into a 23 x 25 cms folder where the scenery, puppets and script could be stored for safe keeping once the theatre was made. All that remained was for the many elements of the toy theatre to be printed and packed ready for sale.
To promote what was about to be published, with Joe’s agreement David and I set about producing an animation video for the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre, to be shown at YouTube and on various social media platforms. The plan was to offer a condensed visual account of Olivia’s scenario set to music, and as he’d already played such a significant part in creating the toy theatre, David was perfectly placed for making the animated version of it. With the animation prepared, everything was set for launch. We would have our beautiful toy theatre out in good time for the Christmas market.
Still we weren’t through. David and I had been wondering how we might further promote the toy theatre, and what alternatives might be open to us if we weren’t able to have a pre-Christmas live event to which an audience could be invited.
A broadcast film of a performance might be the solution, but even that could be difficult to organise given the current circumstances. So we began to plan a film in which all the contributing creators could work at a distance from each other. The first and most urgent requirement was to find an actor to read Olivia’s play script, and moreover one who would seize the multiple opportunities afforded by it. Here were poetry, humour, menace and crackling atmosphere, and we needed an actor skilled on multiple levels to give a nuanced and mesmerising performance. Luckily I knew who would deliver all that for us in bucketloads, and Jennifer Castle became the final creative talent to join the Beauty & Beast team, alongside Ross Boyask, who undertook to both record the audio tracks of Jennifer’s performance and take the many portrait shots of her that we needed in order to incorporate her into the film.
The work is underway and further announcements will be forthcoming before too long. Here’s a toy theatre that is not just a desirable object, but one that comes with all the online creative encouragement and inspiration that anyone could wish for. I’m enormously proud of the team that made it. My thanks to:
Joe Pearson at Design for Today
David W. Slack
The Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available
It all began earlier this year with the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed in 2017 for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop. David W. Slack and I didn’t know each other, but exchanged a flurry of messages at Instagram about how he was planning to adapt his newly acquired Hansel & Gretel model to include a curved stage-front. Before we knew it we were in regular contact, fuelled by the fact we’re both painters and by our shared passion for Toy Theatre. I was working flat out on the illustrations for my next book with publisher Design for Today, Beauty & Beast, in collaboration with writer Olivia McCanon, and David and I talked about the evolving images for it. In photographs, his finished model of the Pollock’s theatre I’d designed was sharp and meticulous. The man really knew how to cut and construct a toy theatre.
I had a notion to make a very simple toy theatre as a promotion for Beauty & Beast. It would have to be simple because I had no spare time to work on it. Before I tried the idea out on my publisher, Joe, I confided in David about it, casually wondering whether if he had the time he might consider helping me out. As it was going to be a modest project and would hopefully not take up too much of his time, it could be fun. Beyond the sense of ease that made online conversations between us so relaxed, I had the strongest feeling that we needed to collaborate. It was almost an imperative. Luckily he felt the same way and enthusiastically leapt in.
The division of labour evolved with complete ease. I made roughs while David worked confidently to produce the optimum design for the model. Ideas flowed smoothly. We were so attuned that we developed a pattern allowing each of us creative freedom. Once the proscenium arch design had been settled on, David produced prototype toy stages at extraordinary speed, each version improving on the last. By this time he was leading with the design work, briefing me on what I needed to be making. He was drafting scenery, too, often using my completed illustrations made for the book as initial sources. I was having to fit all this between my daily schedule of illustrations for the main book, though things became simpler when David began sending me templates so all I had to do was fill in the shapes with drawing, knowing the ‘fit’ had already been worked out.
David’s enthusiasm for the project meant that he was forever coming up with ideas to ‘improve’ outcomes, which meant the dawning realisation for both of us that it was a rather more complete production than we’d anticipated at the outset. Olivia McCannon was enlisted to write the script, a task she undertook with good grace even though it greatly added to her already overburdened work-load. It wasn’t to be a straight adaptation of her beautiful text for the book, but a clever reinvention of a nineteenth century toy theatre pantomime, ingenious and slightly mad. I broke the news to Joe Pearson with some trepidation that we’d gained more construction pages than originally estimated, and that moreover several of them required printing on both sides, which would require meticulous alignment by the printer. Joe took it all in his stride and began costing.
The script was still being written and so we had no idea how many pages it might fill. We began considering the matter of the binding for the toy theatre book, so as for it to be simple to take apart. I’m pretty certain it was David who first suggested we consider not binding, but offering loose construction sheets in a folder, and Joe who came up with the idea of something like an old-fashioned double-LP cover, with half-wallets inside. These were exciting developments because they meant the toy theatre would be unique in its presentation. Joe felt a separate ‘chapbook’ for the script and instructions would be the way forward, slipped into one of the pockets of the folder. The idea of a script in miniature for toy theatre performances was lovely, and mirrored the toy theatre scripts of the nineteenth century. Everyone was in a frenzy of invention and creativity.
Today I take pleasure in announcing that Jennifer Castle has joined the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre team, and that we are working together to create a filmed performance of Olivia McCannon’s wonderful play-script with Jennifer giving life to all the roles, accompanied by the toy theatre in action. In a curtain-raiser to all that excitement, Jennifer and I have been in conversation.
Clive: Jennifer, for the past nine months the artwork, model construction, script and graphic design for the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre have been gently evolving into the product we have today. You’ve come to the project only recently, but from our conversations I’m getting the distinct impression you’ve hit the ground running, and that in part must be to do with the script by Olivia McCannon. What were your feelings when you read it?
Jennifer: Right from the beginning, I suspected that Olivia McCannon and I might be close together in age. So many of what at first glance might seem to be ‘throwaway’ lines resonate deeply with me. For example, Beauty herself, so often portrayed as the noble ingenue, in Olivia’s hands becomes a somewhat exasperated, fully formed young woman cognisant of the ridiculousness of her situation. Her brusque ‘we know why I’m here, let’s not waste time getting up to speed’ attitude, combined with the innocence, intricacy and beauty of the poetry itself delighted me. Yet Beauty remains recognisably the same character we have all come across as children for 300 years. Thanks to Olivia’s writing, I feel free to explore the character of Beauty, all of her anger as well as her inherent goodness, without worrying that she will be unrecognisable to anyone. From a technical point of view, in terms of the actual playscript; it is subtle and wicked, the work of a poet at the very top of her game, and I feel a keen sense of responsibility to do the rhythm of the work justice.
Clive: My friend Simon Callow, who has a fair number of one-man shows under his belt, once told me that the thing he missed most when performing alone, was the camaraderie of the team and the liveliness of a rehearsal room filled with people and ideas. How do you feel about the fact that you’ll be performing all of the roles in this short play?
Jennifer: I will be performing all the roles in the play. So I will play! As a child, I didn’t have any problems holding a doll in each hand and improvising full blown dramatic confrontations that would put a soap opera to shame. It’s been a while, I grant you, but if a toy theatre can’t help me back into the unselfconscious headspace of a child with a couple of Barbies, I think I may be in the wrong profession! Joking aside, I am happy to say that I don’t consider this to be a ‘one-woman show’ at all. I’ll have the beautiful characters written by Olivia, drawn by you, and brought to stunning animated life by David W. Slack right alongside me. When we first spoke on the telephone about this project, you told me that in a previous collaboration with Simon Armitage of Hansel & Gretel, what had impressed you most in a live reading of the piece by him was that he didn’t attempt to ‘do’ voices for each role, but simply read the lines in his own voice and let the characters speak for themselves. I found that really interesting.
Clive: The pandemic has changed the conditions of work for all of us. But because I live in a far- flung corner of west Wales, long before social distancing catapulted just about everyone into working through the mediums of email, messaging and ‘Zoom’, I’d been forging collaborative relationships via social media. My close collaboration with Dan Bugg of the Penfold Press has for the past five years been carried out almost entirely through Facebook and Insta messaging, and although David W. Slack and I have been in extensive daily contact as he designed the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre model, we’ve never met. (A fact I find hard to believe because we feel very close.) The entertainment industry has been hard hit by Covid, and particularly live theatre which effectively closed down completely. How have things been for you as an actor? Have unexpected ways of working – and unexpected projects – emerged out of all this strangeness?
Jennifer: Can I tell you something? As an actor, the most unexpected thing for me was how I came to view NOT working. When we think of actors, we naturally think of household names. But only 2% of professional actors make a living from the profession and 90% are out of work at any one time! So when the pandemic hit, I suddenly didn’t have to go through the exhausting ritual actors face every time we meet casual acquaintances or family: answering the question “So what are you acting in now?” with a self deprecating shrug and a “well….” It was such a relief. Of course I got fed up of sitting on the balcony reading comics within about 2 weeks, so I and my fellow actor friends soon found each other online and began planning for the moment lockdown ended! I wrote my first script, participated in Zoom script readings for friends and rediscovered a desire to get out there and just DO something that had been waning in the couple of years prior to 2020. Though restrictions are now easing, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the future of film and tv castings is going to be ‘self-taped’ auditions, which may sound convenient but instead of getting to meet and connect with a casting director, getting a feel for the room and trying a scene out a few times with feedback, I now have to film myself in a bathroom and hope for the best, which can sometimes be a frustrating experience! But on the whole? I was so happy when productions were allowed to start up again. Remote work can be valuable and productive, but as an actor, NOTHING beats human contact when it comes to creating. What about you? As an artist, do you think that you would still live in ‘far-flung West Wales’ if you didn’t have the internet or would you need to live closer to an artistic hub?
Clive: Moving to Ty Isaf fifteen years ago coincided with the burgeoning of the Internet and the appearance of social media. Facebook was just taking off. Almost from the first week here our connections with the outside world began to grow. Of course the world managed to function perfectly well pre-Internet, but my re-location to a far-flung corner of Wales has been founded from the start on good, strong connections with my collaborators through social media messaging services, e-mails and much later, Zoom. How would I manage without these connections? I suspect not at all well. I love peace and quiet and even isolation in bite-size chunks. But I am collaborative by nature and I’m social by habit, so I need a balance. Before Covid Ty Isaf had been a bit of a creative hub, with my collaborators frequently spending time here so as to be able to work in close contact. We’ve held early brain-storming production meetings on performative works here, and I have a pretty good pop-up animation studio that I can fit into the dining-room when occasion demands.
Although you and I met just the once, several years ago in Cardiff at the home of a mutual friend, you’ve come to this project via a post you made at Facebook (social media, again) that caught my eye and got me thinking.
Jennifer: You have generously omitted the fact that my bad day was caused by my absolutely bombing in an audition that morning! I took to Facebook to admit as such and received a surprisingly sympathetic response. We actors rarely admit our failures because like sharks, theatre folk can smell blood in the water.
Clive: It must have been a slightly strange experience having someone coming at you out of the blue with a hard-to-describe and evolving project after you’d admitted on social media to having had a bad day.
Jennifer: If you were reading a novel, and the protagonist, dejected after yet another failed audition, received a message from a famous artist telling her that he’d like to offer her a chance at a challenging project because her honesty impressed him and she replied “Eh….nah”, how far across the room do you think you would throw the book?
Clive: I take your point. Nevertheless, you took a leap of faith and engaged with me where many would have balked, and I appreciate that.
Jennifer: Gosh that’s interesting that you would say that. Who would balk? Should I have balked? In all seriousness, you not only took a chance on me, you’ve shown nothing but faith in me from the start of this journey. I’m not taking that for granted.
Clive: Are you generally a cautious or adventurous person?
Jennifer: Yes, sometimes cautious and sometimes adventurous.
Clive: David W. Slack and I have a passion for the work of David Firmin and Oliver Postgate, who were the creators at Smallfilms of Clangers, Noggin the Nog and Bagpuss. When I described to you that Bagpuss was an inspiration for the low-tech way in which we hoped to make the film, you yelled with delight and enthusiasm. Did that cinch the deal for you?
Jennifer: I was already enthusiastic at the thought of a toy theatre, but the old stop motion beauty of Bagpuss is timeless and perfect and wonderful. It’s so very British – comforting and sometimes uncomfortable at the same time. I can’t wait to see what we come up with together. I’m excited and nervous, comfortable and pushed beyond my comfort zone – I’m ready to be Bagpussed!
Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Jennifer Castle were in conversation. The top image is by David W. Slack, with special thanks to Ross Boyask for Jennifer Mullen’s portrait shot.
The Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available:
This post was written by my friend and collaborator Gloria, who under the umbrella of her business Sussex Lustreware, has produced the Harlequinade range of lustre-embellished transferware for which I made drawings on the theme of Victorian Toy Theatre.
A post on the subject of theatrical swags – and collaborative sparks!
“With our first collection, the World of Wonders, Clive gave me his beautiful drawings and more or less carte blanche on the production and decoration of the pots, largely leaving me to get on with it as I thought best, a touching display of trust!
With Harlequinade he was creating the artwork especially for them, and greater collaboration on the overall design seemed in order to make the most of it. So over the summer we had some lengthy chats via Instagram, with pictures and ideas flying back and forth between us. And emojis of course! 😀😆👍
As an admirer of Laura Knight’s ‘Circus’ designs for Clarice Cliff in the 1930s I was keen at the chance to use plate rims in a similar way, with an audience and ruched swags suggestive of a night at the theatre.
Clive obliged with small groups of spectators, while I tried to work out how best to suggest draped velvet with lines of lustre.
Other influences and inspiration cropped up in conversation, from Hockney’s ‘Rake’s Progress’ Glyndebourne sets, through Rex Whistler interiors, to the trompe l’oeil Austrian curtain wallpaper in my aunt’s C20 Bethnal Green bathroom 🤩.
We decided that a single ellipse was too abstract, that three were too much, and so arrived at two. Plus the trio of embellishments, so that the glamour of the occasion – and our fluency as semioticians – should be in no doubt!
I was so pleased with the results that the swags ended up not just on the plates but festoon the jugs and trinket box too ✨💖
It was really fun working in this way, so I thought you might like to see a few snippets ‘behind the scenes’!”