Dick Whittington

Fitzwarren’s shop.

Who would have thought that copying the lettering on a Georgian satirical etching would be of any practical use so soon. The freely hand-drawn italics and capitals from Darly’s Antique Architect were what I had in mind when I added the name to the sign over Alderman Fitzwarren’s shop for the London scene in this year’s Pageant Players’ pantomime, Dick Whittington.

Talking of lettering, a little tip: if you’re fitting lettering into a particular space, work out which is the middle letter and start with that.

In the case of the ‘Fitzwarren’s’  shop sign, I started at the halfway point above the Georgian bow-fronted window and painted the second half of the word – ‘arren’s’ – before working my way, in reverse order, through the first half: ‘Fitzw’. Just be careful not to smudge the lettering you’ve already added.

I was careful not to look at a photograph of the real St Paul’s Cathedral before I added a pantomime version of the familiar landmark on the right-hand side of the London back-drop.

Sadly, this will be the last pantomime with our producer Wendie Wilby at the helm, as she’s stepping down, and I’ve decided that it’s a good opportunity for me to call it a day, after fifty-one years painting scenery for them. It’s a shame because, as one of the younger members commented today, being in the Pageants’ is like being part of a family; she was referring to the mutual support that helps members make progress, from complete beginners to – in some cases – a career in show business.

That certainly refers to our team of scenic painters today as we more or less completed the desert scene after the lunch break.

As this is Wendie’s last production we’ve thrown everything at it: beach, palm trees and even a volcano.

Hardship Hall

This morning is a big anniversary for me as fifty years ago this summer, as soon as I’d completed my O-levels, I went along to Horbury Pageant Players and asked if I could help with painting the scenery. Even so, as I walked into the hall this morning, I really didn’t expect a big band playing a fanfare.

“You shouldn’t have!” I told Wendie, the producer. She hadn’t: she explained that there’d been a double-booking for the hall this morning.

Band rehearsal over, we set about converting the backdrop of last year’s Sleeping Beauty chateau into Hardship Hall (above, on the extreme left) and the surrounding village, for this year’s production of Cinderella.

Last year’s backdrop.

As you can see from my sketch, I’ve kept the trees and the castle door from the old backdrop, but I realise that the door, which is now supposed to represent a shuttered window, is too central and imposing for a village scene, so tomorrow, I’ll  paint that out too and replace it with a more domestic-looking window.

Robinson Crusoe and the Pirates

backdrop sketch

Wouldn’t it be great if I always had a team of young helpers ready to fill in the blanks when I had a big illustration to do? While the crew set up the eight flats that we use as the backdrop for our Pageant Player pantomimes I set about sketching out some ideas.

Robinson Crusoe & the Pirates starts in a village in some unspecified country in South America. We’ve never featured South America in one of our productions before and as I’ve never visited the continent I’ve got the nearest thing that I know in mind; Pollenca, Majorca. I add Rio’s Sugar Loaf mountain in the background, although Pollenca has some pretty impressive limestone crags of its own.

sketch to scaleWhen they get the flats in place,  I realise that I need to go for more of a letterbox, wide-screen format, cutting out the ground altogether.

Robinson Crusoe backdrop designI usually concoct this year’s scene from the basis of last year’s but this time I decide we ought to make a fresh start.

While my team of young helpers put a coat of white emulsion over last year’s Snow Queen village, I make a more accurate drawing to grid up onto the 11×4 ft flats, which have three cross-members – easily visible beneath the canvas – which I adopt as as my grid.

The swatches are a reference for Ken for mixing the emulsion paint.

My proportion goes awry as I get to the right hand side mapping things out and the village church ends up looking more like Barnsley town hall. No bad thing.

The Chateau of the Beast

DESIGNING SCENERY can be a relaxingly imaginative form of drawing, especially if you can give yourself enough time to sketch out your ideas, as I can this morning as a couple young recruits to our dramatic society roller over the previous backdrop. Sketching out my ideas is a pleasing combination of the imaginative and the practical because, although I’m not obliged to be historically correct or architecturally sound, I am constrained by the size of the backdrop (six 11 x 4ft flats) and by the requirements of the script.

This first sketch, in brown ArtPen on light brown sugar paper (absorbent ‘craft paper’ used in schools) shows the backdrop in proportion to the rest of the stage. The tabs, or wings, are black drapes.

Beauty, the Beast . . . and the Pantomime Dame

I’m designing the chateau of the Beast for Beauty and the Beast but this is a pantomime version, not to be confused with the 1740 original by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve or with the Disney version. No, this is the panto version so the action is regularly interrupted by the Pantomime Dame swaggering on and engaging the audience in cheeky banter. What more could you ask from an evening’s entertainment? A few tickets are still available. And – you’re going to like this – there’s a slapstick hairdressing scene. But I think that I can understand why Villeneuve didn’t burden her magical morality tale with a scene in the salon.

So the chateau is a bit of a neglected, slightly spooky ancestral pile but, on the other hand, the Prince/Beast isn’t without a bob or two (note: bob = one shilling in old money). So those repetitive, gloomy arches aren’t quite what we need.

From Donjon to Chateau

How about this? Make the central arch larger, to add a focal point and a bit of drama, and, as this is a chateau not a donjon, a Versailles-style door, as if the Prince’s ancestors renovated their medieval castle keep in the 17th or 18th century.

The entrance to the chateau is seen first through rusty gates, centre stage, with the black side-curtains drawn to reveal only the middle third of the backdrop. Later this same backdrop has to serve as the banqueting hall inside the chateau, so, if you’re following me, this has to represent the exterior and interior of the chateau.

The structures at either end were intended to suggest towers when seen from the outside (only they’re not seen, because they’re hidden by the half-drawn side-curtains) and elephantine pillars of the great hall when seen as an interior but as the Beast’s magic mirror stands in the corner stage left (house right) we left them out of the final version.

From Sketch to Backdrop

While inconsistencies in a pen sketch add to the animation and character of a drawing, I can’t ever seem to translate that spontaneity to the full-size backdrop, drawn in black emulsion paint with a half-inch filbert brush. A good example is the fleur-de-lys shields on the pillars, a motif that I’ve taken from the gates that have been made, which also suggest the French connection. In my drawing I don’t want them to be precisely identical but when they’re painted and coloured on the backdrop it looks as if someone just got it wrong and failed to draw each to identical proportions.

Sketching out the ideas is definitely more relaxing than putting them into practice.