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Musings of a Jobbing Designer: Adventures as a freelancer 1985 -2009

After the collapse of Theatr Cymru at the beginning of 1984, I had to decide whether to upsticks and seek pastures new or stay and be part of the new developments that were taking place in Wales: I chose the latter. It became clear very quickly that another mainstream company was not going to rise from the ashes of Theatr Cymru. The Arts Council embarked on a policy of project funding. Hwyl a Fflag was set up dedicated to producing work by new writers. I designed a number of productions for them. I was involved in ‘Ffatri Serch’, and ‘Bedlam’. Both were directed by Gruff Jones who had done much of the best work with Theatr Cymru. Wales being a tight community, many of the people involved in Hwyl a Fflag were ex – Theatr Cymru and it operated from the same production base. But the way it was structured – everyone on equal wages and everyone having a say in company policy was quite different. The other big change was being hired per production: up to that moment I had always been a staff designer. It was a different world and to begin with unnerving. It quickly came clear that I could not earn a living wage simply by being a theatre designer and that I would have to branch out. As it happened S4C had just come into being in 1982 and was mopping up a lot of the talent that had previously worked in theatre. And when I was asked to design a small production I felt I could not refuse, even though I had little idea then what it might entail.


So in 1985, more by luck than planning, I turned my attention to television design. My first efforts were a series of Almanac programmes for Filmiau’r Nant. They were an excellent grounding in (to me) a new craft: half hour period drama documentaries, filmed in five days and prepared for about the same time. These led to more drama work, first ‘Deryn’, a gritty drama about small town dodgy characters again for Filmiau’r Nant and then ‘Minafon’ for Ffilmiau’r Eryri. They were long running contemporary series shot mainly on location, or in custom adapted empty buildings.

So how did I find TV design? Well obviously you start from the same base: a script and a director and ones responsibilities are the same: the visual content of the production. But there the similarities end. Theatre is seen as wide angle shot continuously, however much the lighting might focus on one area or another, but is viewed from multiple angles. One of the main design problems and in many ways the most exciting part is how to get from location A to location B without breaking the action. Also the designer in theatre is usually responsible for sets and costumes which is never the case in TV. The continuity problems are just too great to make that practical The most important difference is that in theatre, what you see is what you get, and there is the instant reaction of the audience, whereas in film and TV after shooting the real work of editing the work begins and the designer is not normally part of that crucial process. In TV the eye is the camera, and do not believe any stories that it cannot lie. Also the nightmares tend to be different: I used to lie awake picturing ill fitting sets crashing together whereas in TV it was: do I know what the continuity dressing was for a set filmed x weeks ago but which needs to be picked today. I had to learn a different mind set: to realise that the only thing that mattered was what the camera saw, and what was off camera does not exist. The wisest words I have heard was from a very experienced film designer, who said ‘in film you do not design sets you design shots.’ It took a lot of getting used to but when it worked and there was a good crew it can be very satisfying.

Television work increased in variety and by the early to mid 90s encompassed ‘Jeux Sans Frontieres’ for the EBU / Ffilmiau’r Nant and the award winning film ‘Hedd Wyn’ for Pendefig, for which Jane Roberts and I received a BAFTA Cymru for Best Design.
Studio work followed with ‘Magdalen’,

'Magdalen' set in Barcud Studios, Caernarfon. Ffilmiau'r Bont / S4C

'Magdalen' set in Barcud Studios, Caernarfon. Ffilmiau'r Bont / S4C

a youth musical produced by Filmiau’r Bont and a variety of other programmes.
My TV has always been for S4C productions and usually drama series. Apart from ‘Hedd Wyn’ there were other films, namely, ‘Gwynfyd’  and ‘Oed yr Addewid’, directed by Emlyn Williams and produced by Ffilmiau’r Nant, and ‘Mynydd Grug’ for Llun y Felin.
For Ffilmiau Eryri: the dramas ‘A55’,

Mural painted by Chris Green for the series 'A55'. Ffilmiau Eryri/S4C

Mural painted by Chris Green for the series 'A55'. Ffilmiau Eryri/S4C

‘Cerddwn Ymlaen’ and most recently ‘Tipyn o Stad’, and the studio sitcom ‘Naw Tan Naw’. I’ll go into a bit more detail about two contrasting TV productions.
‘Hedd Wyn’ (1992) was a privilege to work on. It told the story of poet and reluctant soldier Hedd Wyn from his life in the peace of a North Wales farm to his death during the slaughter that was WW1.
Shan Davies was the producer and Paul Turner the director, Ray Orton the director of photography and Jane Roberts and myself were the designers.

'Hedd Gwyn'. Yser Canal set at Templeton Airfield. Pendefig/S4C

'Hedd Gwyn'. Yser Canal set at Templeton Airfield. Pendefig/S4C

We had worked together before and so knew each others work. Jane was engaged for the project first and looked after all the location work in North Wales. I was engaged to create the battlefield from four acres of the disused Templeton air field in South Wales and to look after various other locations connected with his training and journey through France to the front. I was working in South Wales while the scenes were being shot in the North. There was a great crew working with me to create the Somme. It is amazing what 3 JCBs and a plough can achieve in a couple of weeks. In addition to the general desolation, the frontline trenches were dug and dressed with scrap corrugated sheeting: a communications trench and the Yser Canal carved out. The hut used for the medical examinations and dormitory was erected on site and lastly the dugout, field ‘hospital’ where Hedd Wyn finally died. It is on projects like this that one truly understands what a collaborative effort is.

At the other end of the spectrum but also on a large scale was ‘Jeux Sans Frontieres’.

Jeux Sans Frontieres: Cheshire Cat set. EBU/Nant/S4C

Jeux Sans Frontieres: Cheshire Cat set. EBU/Nant/S4C

This was a big project. A huge challenge but with hind sight, great fun. In the current climate it would be impossible to mount, but it was a different era then. Tastes have changed radically and what seemed fun then would look very dated now. It was a child of it’s time.

Ffilmiau’r Nant, for S4C produced four series of the programme jointly with the EBU (European Broadcasting Union). Robin Evans and Susan Waters were the producers and had built up a wealth of experience from the previous two series before I joined the team for the last two. Robin was also the director. It was a real joint effort.

Original drawing for Cheshire Cat game JSF. EBU/Nant/S4C

Original drawing for Cheshire Cat game JSF. EBU/Nant/S4C

It was of course a multi-national enterprise with eight countries including Wales involved This to me very much added to the attraction of the programme.
The brief was to design mad cap games; not my natural sphere, but with a lot of help and encouragement all round we got there. All the

time you had to be aware that every game had to be  really physical, that every prop had to be multiplied x 8 and there was no time to try the games in advance bar about a day before recording when all the teams converged on the location and mayhem broke out.
Once the ideas were in place the real work began. The secret was to choose the contractors carefully, give clear plans, encourage them on their way and make sure that everything arrived on time and fitted together. Easier said than done, and there were moments of panic. I was very lucky in that most of the key people had been involved in the first two series and new what to expect.

Meanwhile, Theatr Gwynedd, which previously had been run by Theatr Cymru had to find a new role. It had always been a receiving theatre and picture house, and as it was owned by Bangor University was a facility for the Drama Department It had become an important community asset. Between 1986 and its closure in 2008 it had three artistic Directors: Graham Laker, Sian Summers and Ian Rowlands.
In many ways the productions that I designed for Theatr Gwynedd are the most satisfying that I have done. Over the years I built up a strong relationship with Graham Laker and we understood how we worked and our theatrical tastes largely coincided. I will just list some: ‘O Law I Law’ (From Hand to Hand), ‘Y Gelli Geirios’ (The Cherry Orchard), ‘Pwy Sy’n Sal’ (Moliere double bill), and finally ‘Amadeus’,

'Amadeus' model. Theatr Gwynedd 1999

'Amadeus' model. Theatr Gwynedd 1999

which was his last production before he died, tragically young. For Sian Summers I designed ‘Dyn Hysbys’ (Faith Healer) and for Ian Rowlands ‘Dynes Ddela Leenane’ (The Beauty Queen of Leenane)
For the last few years it became solely a receiving house and cinema. During the summer season it produced English language shows for a tourist audience: particularly musicals but also popular drama. This tradition was started when Theatr Cymru ran the theatre on behalf of the university with ‘Under Milk Wood’ and ‘Irma la Douce’. Graham Laker directed a string of very successful shows drawing on the talents of the university and professionals in key roles. These included ‘ Joseph and his Technicolor Dream Coat, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, ‘Cabaret ‘ and ‘Oliver’. In the days when the University had a drama department one of my jobs as resident designer with Theatr Cymru was to design the occasional production for the department. These included ‘The Crucible’, ‘The Good Woman of Setzuan’, ‘Spring Awakening’ and ‘Saved’

In 2003 Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru (The Welsh Language National Theatre) came into being and I have designed two productions for them: ‘Hen Rebel’

Hen Rebel model. Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru 2005

Hen Rebel model. Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru 2005

and ‘Cysgod y Cryman’.

The first was a large scale musical set in 1904 and dealt with the Welsh religious revival and the other was an adaptation of a very popular Welsh novel by Emyr

'Cysgod y Cryman' set Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru 2007

'Cysgod y Cryman' set Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru 2007

Humphries telling in epic form of the political struggles of the early 1950s. It was a very challenging play to design, containing as it did so many scenes ranging from two farms in Mid Wales to Bangor University. Flying scenery was not an option as at least one venue was with out a fly tower. A 20’ revolve was settled on which worked a dream, being suprisingly quick to install and was completely silent. On it was built a stepped spiral ramp. Upstage was suspended a large front projection screen -no depth for BP – onto which were shown doctored location scenes.

For 35 short years Theatr Gwynedd was home to live theatre in North Wales. Now it is no more. I feel very proud to have been able to be part of it, and to have designed both the first and the last shows mounted there. The last was the co-production with Theatr Bara Caws and Galeri of ‘Llyfrr Mawr y Plant’. It had its ups and downs, but now it is gone I can only hope that a positive solution is found

'Llyfr Mawr y Plant'. Theatr Gwynedd/Theatr Bara Caws/Galeri 2008

'Llyfr Mawr y Plant'. Theatr Gwynedd/Theatr Bara Caws/Galeri 2008



One thought on “Musings of a Jobbing Designer: Adventures as a freelancer 1985 -2009

  1. Hi Martin,

    I just wanted t say it’s been a real delight to read your posts so far and although I know this particular tale has come to an end I do hope we hear more from you in the future.

    I’m sure these posts will prove to be some of our most popular pages in the future. I also think we should consider them for the Blue Pages!

    In regards to choosing to “stay” in Wales… I have to see I think you probably made the right decision despite the current climate and the change in Arts Funding I think there is real energy in Welsh Arts, in terms of theatre there is such a good deal of good work going on in the Degree schools, Sean and his colleagues do a great job at RWCMD so there is great hope for the future.

    See you tomorrow!

    Martin P

    Posted by martin | September 21, 2009, 10:29 am

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