My son and I were the chief film enthusiasts. We filmed for the new play in the kitchen but since it was during the holidays and we needed space and solitude, we worked mostly by night, going to bed only when the others were getting up. Animating puppets and cut-outs, we had no knowledge of how to film or light, but as it came out after a fashion, we thought it a miracle. Then we thought, what about “Harriet and the Matches” This was one of the shortest plays in the repertoire and is a cautionary poem telling us what happens to little girls who play with matches. Of course she is burnt to death. In the theatre we had portrayed this with a smoke machine, red and orange lights, and painted flames. But film, we thought! Now we can really set her alight and burn her to ashes. We were so keen that the first extra Harriet we intended to send up in flames, we doused so thoroughly in lighter fuel, she went up before we had got any film of her at all. We got it the second time and very dramatic it was.
Encouraged and with all the enthusiasm of beginners, we filmed parts of the existing plays, shots for new ones and made our first puppet animated film. Still blissfully unaware of film language, pace, lighting or camera technique, we forged on. There is one sequence in which the lighting and shadows are continually changing, although it was supposed to be inside a shop – innocently -no, stupidly, I had animated the whole scene outside, while the sun had moved round me as the hours ticked by! That film, called “The Detective”, came out of the same book from which I took “The Burglar”. In spite of its shortcomings, the dialogue made people laugh, and the story, voices, puppets and sets, even if we couldn’t film them, held our audiences. This is as important now as it was then, six years ago, for it is these stories which make up the series for which “The Burglar” is a pilot.
Going it alone
One thing we did learn, was that making animated films and running a puppet theatre at the same time was not possible. With some regrets and a little relief, I closed the theatre: no more rehearsing and performances, no more teams, no more travelling and no more publicity. Now I thought, I can go it alone, in my time, in my kitchen, stopping and starting as the needs of the family dictated. How easy I thought. Well perhaps after the theatre it was more peaceful but I was yet to discover just how un-easy it was.
From the same book of stories I made another film in super S called “The Earl”, which had most of the shortcomings of “The Detective”, though I was beginning to learn. If enjoyed by some, it was rightly thought by others “too ambitious a project for the capabilities of the film maker.” “Now”, said one commercially-minded TV producer, “if you can make 20 stories about that Earl in a year, you’re on and we’ll give you £20,000 tomorrow”. Well I didn’t know that £20,000 would barely cover one film (commercially produced that is), but I did know that there were not 20 good stories about the Earl, and even if there had been, I would not have been able to produce 20 in a year as I had spent nearly a year doing one. Another said “Keep at it… get those eyes and mouths moving…” I continued to show it… “Too long” they cried, and “cut, cut, cut…” “Try and think about the pace…” “Try something very simple and short…” It did, however, get me my first grant, from Southern Arts.