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Musings of a jobbing designer: Harrogate June – Dec 1968

Resident Designer, Harrogate Opera House June to December 1968.

It was two weekly rep which with hind sight was a great way to learn how to think on your feet. The pressure was immense and budgets minute. It was a quite different way of working and I am quite surprised that anything worthwhile was produced.

A taste of the repertoire: Relatively Speaking, Wait Until Dark, The Daughter in Law, a premier of Charlie Came to Our Town by Alan Plater, – the last two for The Harrogate Festival,- Irma La Douce, White Lies and Black Comedy, Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and the pantomime, Robinson Crusoe. Staple fare for a theatre of its time.

I suppose I had been spoiled at Edinburgh and had imagined that the way things were done there were universal. They weren’t. Harrogate was a very traditional town with conservative tastes and what was required were traditional sets.  I was confronted by a set of stock flats which had been with the theatre literally for about 30 years and was expected to use them. They were uniformly 16’ high in various widths, some plain, some with door or window openings enough apparently to make three box sets. The seasons budget stretched to a bolt of canvas to renew where necessary. I have to say the frames of the flats were beautifully made just as you see in the text books with proper mortice and tennon joints wooden peg fastenings and shoes on the toggle bars:  no wonder they lasted. But depressing to having to over paint old canvas continually.  Everything was painted on the hand crank paint frame located on the back wall of the stage. For the Harrogate Festival I was able to lash out and design two sets from scratch which was the luxury of the season. Don’t get me wrong, I learnt a lot there and it is good to be out of ones comfort zone occaisionally. I was also very lucky: I was only 2 years out of college and was running a department.
I had an excellent associate in Alan Green and we shared alternate productions more or less. He was an excellent painter and a very good designer. We had met when I was at Edinburgh and he was painter. The high light was working on the Harrogate Festival production of  ‘Charlie Came to Our Town’  and D H Lawrence’s ‘The Daughter in Law’ The latter is a gem and I felt more at home with it than most of the rest of the season. There were some great charcters involved in ‘Charlie’ – the late Alan Bradley, director, Alex Glasgow the composer and performer and the playwright Henry Livings was in the cast along with Eileen Derbyshire.

‘Irma la Douce’  had its moments, particularly Act One but it did not hang together as a design in the second part.
One useful design lesson I learnt there is that it is not a good idea to design a set with bold vertically striped  wallpaper, as I did for Act one of Relatively Speaking, on a stage that is raked. It had a most disturbing appearance.
Six months, though was quite long enough to be doing a show every two weeks. I now had to decide what direction to take next and decided that I would like a period working with a first rate company backstage but with no design responsibilities. A period of reflection.


The Daughter in Law. Director: Brian Howard. 1968

Charlie Came to Our Town by Alan Plater

Charlie Came to Our Town by Alan Plater


Irma la Douce Directed by Brian Howard


Irma la Douce costume sketches

Production photo (photographer and actors unknown)and costume sketches for ‘Irma la Douce’ Harrogate Theatre, summer 1968


One thought on “Musings of a jobbing designer: Harrogate June – Dec 1968

  1. Dear Martin,
    Gosh! What a surprise to come across your ‘Musing’— brought back a flood of memories. I recall that production of “Charlie” very well— at one point you had me prancing across the stage with Alan Lydiard, and both wearing kilts!! Painful.

    What are you with at the moment? Do get in touch if you have a mind.

    Posted by Chris Jacobs | December 7, 2009, 10:01 am

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