Helping Hands

Help. We need somebody. And not just anybody.

Chris, a pretty, elfin like, dark haired Scots girl walked into our workshop one day in late summer. She had been working for Ardman films but they were moving to Bristol and she had come to London with her boyfriend, a graphic designer, Peter Clark. (He later designed our logo that remained the same until we retired).

Our Logo - designed by Peter Clark

Our Logo – designed by Peter Clark

She arrived at the right time. We were beginning to get busy and needed someone who could commit to more full time work. Like most people who joined us over the years she brought with her fresh ideas, and new techniques.

Chris who loved horseriding for real, enjoying her 'hobby'.

Chris who loved horseriding for real, enjoying her ‘hobby’.

She had a lovely sense of fun and would always talk to her work if all was going well. If she fell silent, you knew something was either going wrong, or she was in difficulties.

It didn’t matter if she was making small mouse heads on shields for Monty Python or something more inanimate, there would always be a constant stream of ‘oh aren’t you lovely’ – ‘don’t you look nice’.

Not the 'Monty Python' mice but I am sure you get the picture.

Not the ‘Monty Python’ mice but I am sure you get the picture.

One of her first jobs was to make two large feet to be worn by Tommy Cooper; they were 15 inches and 30 inches long and were built on size 12 wellingtons. In those days our experience of making large moulds was minimal, so Chris sculpted them from blocks of upholstery foam, which she first cut roughly to shape then finished with a small pair of scissors, snipping away, taking off less and less each time to try and achieve a smooth finish. Finally they were given several coats of latex and painted. It was a boring and long-winded way of working but she achieved a good result.

Chris with snake.  I'm sure she talked to him too.

Chris with snake. I’m sure she talked to him too.

Many years later, when more modern materials were available, they would have been sculpted in clay, a mould taken, then cast in a flexible polyurethane foam, although they might not have been so durable as the upholstery foam, which was a big consideration given Tommy Cooper’s size and clumbsiness. But in 1976 we had to make do with what we knew and what was available. Super glue wasn’t an everyday item, silicone for mould making didn’t exist; there was a whole range of products that in time would become part of our lives but for now weren’t part of anyone’s lives. Looking back now we were in the dark ages. The fax machine wasn’t even on the horizon. If you needed a 3D printer, you had to go and find a man in a brown coat and a printing machine. As there were no computers, typesetting had to be done by a specialised company. To do the artwork for a newspaper, we would ring up the typesetters and give them the headline or the copy and the typeface we needed and they would bring it to our workshop. After that you needed a Grant projector or similar to enlarge or reduce the image before photographing and printing it the correct size. The various images and type were then cut and pasted onto the artwork using cow gum, now no longer available. I am including a good link that explains further – what it also explains is why Louise loved the smell of it.

Ian arrived at our workshop mid morning on the 29th November 1976. He had been working as a prop-maker at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester but had found his relationship with his immediate boss very difficult. He had trained at the Wimbledon School of Art and was keen to move on. He had been born and raised in Wiltshire and looked like a large strapping farmers boy. With a rugged handsome face, broad shoulders and strong beefy arms, he looked capable of most things.

Ian with gun for 'Tomorrow's People' - I think - I said he was a strapping lad.

Ian with gun for ‘Tomorrow’s People’ – I think – I said he was a strapping lad.

And he was. Over the next few years he proved invaluable and was maybe the best all round prop maker we had working with us. His great passion was the English Civil War and his hero was Prince Rupert. He belonged to the Kings Army – dismissing the more-well known Sealed Knot as amateurs whose costumes reflected a Victorian taste rather than being historically accurate. Over time he made his own clothes including a leather buff jacket, a pistol – that he insisted had to be made in the same way as the original – and other items, all constructed with the same attention to detail. Years later he built an early horse drawn carriage. He had been given a set of wheels and went about making what would have started out as a log-carrying cart, being converted later to carry people. A compartment was slung between four posts set into the original frame to provide an early form of suspension. It was so successful it was used in the BBC production of ‘By the sword divided’. Carrying not only passengers but also several studded chests that we had made for the same production. It was also later used in the film ‘Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves’. As usual his meticulous attention to detail made the cart entirely believable.

He could work in wood, clay, metal, fabric; anything that was needed and little fazed him. His only problem was himself. He could be happy and carefree for months on end but when a black mood overtook him it lasted months too. He became impossible to talk to and you just had to give him the brief and leave him to it. It never seemed to affect his work, just everyone around him. Then as quick as it had descended, it vanished, leaving him as chirpy as ever, with the big wide grin of someone who knows life is going ok again.

Ian was an expert horseman too.  I used to go hacking with him and Chris.  Just not on these.

Ian was an expert horseman too. The three of us used to go hacking on a Wednesday afternoon – just not on these. Ali, on the third hobby horse, always wore frocks down to the ground, even in winter.  By the end of the day they often had rising damp up at least a foot. Nothing eccentric about any of us.

One of the first jobs we did together was for a Thames Television comedy called ‘Paradise Island’. As the title suggests it was set on a desert island and we had to make beds, chairs and tables in bamboo, home made golf clubs, cricket bats, wickets, pads, balls, crockery and cutlery to furnish the island.

Paradise Island furniture.

Paradise Island furniture.

I was also asked for a cheese sandwich that one of the characters had to find. It had been there many years and needed to look suitably ancient. It wasn’t needed till the New-Year and as it was some time before Christmas I had the idea to make one and leave it to age in the workshop, gathering dust. A few days before it was needed it still looked pristine and edible. There was nothing for it but to make a prop one in foam and latex.

Paradise Island furniture on the set.

Paradise Island furniture on the set.

Life doesn’t always imitate art; bottles rarely break when hit over someone’s head, daggers don’t stick out at the appropriate jaunty angle when you stab someone, arrows don’t go neatly through the skull from side to side, blood doesn’t look like blood weeks later, gold bars are far too heavy to throw around – even in lead and gold plated they only weigh half that of real gold.

We were often asked over the years why this or that needed making. One of the reasons maybe, was that we weren’t in the real world. We were making illusions – fabrications of the mind. To make them real, reality needed fabricating too.


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