Andrew Brownfoot's Memories of Rubovia

Excerpts from The Prehistory of Trumptonshire, by Andrew Brownfoot.
Written Sept 2000. 
Reproduced here courtesy of Trumptonshire Web and Andrew Brownfoot.
Annotated by Alastair Roxburgh.
Minor corrections by Andrew Brownfoot and Alastair Roxburgh.

Andrew Brownfoot self-portrait
Andrew Brownfoot's c.1700 self-portrait
 from High Fashion in Stuart Times,
 by Andrew Brownfoot,
Tarquin Publications, 1996.
Picture courtesy of Andrew Brownfoot

“I was 16 when I first met Gordon Murray, at the BBC Lime Grove Studios in Shepherds Bush. For several years previously I had been using paper sculpture methods to create what were considered remarkably elegant puppets (marionettes). Molly Gibson who worked as a puppeteer arranged an audition for me, and Gordon was among the BBC staff to see my work. The audition went well I thought, Gordon in particular was impressed but, apart from a small slot on David Nixon's It's Magic where my puppets gave their first performance, I heard nothing for over a year. Then completely out of the blue, the phone rang, it was Gordon - could I design scenery? Yes I can - Good, when can you come to see me ? Whenever you want - Have you any drawings of scenery ? Yes I have (actually only three scrappy sketches for The Witch of Edmonton) - We are working on a series of " Toy Town" for Children's Television and if you're interested and are prepared to do one or two rough sketches for the town square come and see me next week and bring some of your drawings with you. That was the start of a very happy period of work and a lasting friendship.

“After the Toy Town series Margaret joined me in creating the scenery and costumes for Gordon's lovely series of "Rubovian Legends" (there were two versions of this, first with small marionettes and tiny scenery for which I provided some new settings and a new costume for the queen, then Gordon remade the series using his own larger puppets for which I designed and made all the costumes and scenery with Margaret's assistance). Both Margaret and I were still studying Theatre Design at The Central School of Arts and Craft in Holborn, but with encouragement from Jeanetta Cochranne the Head of Theatre Design we spent most of our time working for Gordon and the BBC.

“The 'Tin Shed' at Lime Grove studios was the home of 'The BBC Television Puppet Theatre' conveniently placed between the TV studios and the canteen, and it was here that all the preparation work for the production was carried out. Gordon made all the puppets, I designed and made the costumes and scenery assisted by Margaret, who became increasingly involved as time went on. Bob Bura and John Hardwick (the animators for all of the Trumptonshire programmes) were puppeteers, along with Molly Gibson and Audrey Atterbury, and Derek Nimmo and [Violet Lamb] [see FAQ; ab, ajr] provided some of the voices for the Rubovia characters.

“Down the centre of the Tin Shed a long puppeteer's bridge made of 'Dexion' spanned three puppet stages, so the scenery could be set up for an entire play. When the transmission day arrived, the entire set up would be taken down, moved to a TV studio and re-erected ready for camera rehearsals, and finally, at 5pm the programme would be transmitted. Telerecording had not been developed at that time and so everything went out live, including a few embarrassing moments when things went wrong. Puppets would get entangled with each other or with the scenery, which during Beauty and the Beast I remember, fell over and then was picked up by a giant hairy arm of the floor manager in full view of the transmitting camera!

“Margaret and I were married in 1958 [July 10th; ab] and a transmission of  [a puppet play] [the identity of the play is unclear, however it may have been one of the non-Rubovia plays; ab, ajr] went out the day after, so at six O'clock on the morning of the first day of our married life we had to be in Studio One at Lime Grove to supervise the set up ready for camera rehearsals at nine! At 6pm all our scenery was being dismantled, or rather torn down to make way for another transmission and everyone involved in the production rushed to the BBC club to wind down and recover from the sense of anticlimax. After eight weeks of preparation, the show had been performed only once, and now it was gone, never to be seen again.

Just a few months later I was called up for National (Military) Service and was posted to Catterick in North Yorkshire for two years. Margaret and I designed two more productions for Gordon while I was at Catterick and Margaret worked on a third.

While I was in the army, designing for the officer's amateur theatre club, the BBC moved into its splendid new Television Centre at Shepherd's Bush [10th June, 1960; ajr] and a little time later the Television Puppet Theatre moved into a new purpose built studio there. In theory the programmes could be made without the need for moving into another studio.

Tele-recording and colour had now arrived but in fact most of our productions were now filmed before transmission. Somehow things were not so happy in Television Centre and I think Gordon became increasingly frustrated as staff producer. He tried several new ideas and began developing his methods for Stop Frame filming. He created "The Minute Men" tiny characters living in our full scale world, but the BBC were not impressed. Other ideas were tried with similar depressing reception by 'Aunty'. The Television Puppet Theatre was disbanded and its new purpose built studio was never used [Some dates must have become confused because photos of the Bees and Bellows production taken in 1962 show that the BBC's Television Puppet Theatre was used for at least one Rubovian Legends episode, and depending on the production order, perhaps for as many as fourteen more. Andrew was designer for all of these episodes; ajr], so when I came back from National Service, Margaret and I were out of work and Gordon had left the BBC [Gordon Murray left the BBC in 1964 after the Children’s Department was disbanded, and the new puppet theatre closed. This was almost two years before Camberwick Green was transmitted. Also too, in 1962 Gordon wrote an article for the BBC staff magazine, which mentions the making of Rubovian Legends in the Television Centre's puppet theatre (No Human Actors Allowed, Ariel, Christmas 1962); ajr].

Sitting by the Serpentine one warm day in 1961 [Sounds like June or July, but the year is too early (see below); ajr], each with a glass of gin and tonic and a sandwich, Gordon and I discussed our mutual lack of funds and what should be done to improve the situation [Andrew was recently back from National Service, and not yet working. Gordon was employed continuously by the BBC from 1955 until he resigned, sometime in 1964. After that Gordon was out of work for a year while he planned his next move. Therefore, it is most likely that the conversation beside the Serpentine took place in the summer of 1964; ajr]. "What we have to do," Gordon said, "is make a series of programmes for very young children. You only have to think of Andy Pandy, The Flower Pot Men and the Wooden Tops; repeated year after year - there's always a new audience you see - their creators get royalties every time they are shown and on the sales of toys and books etc". I agreed but thought no more of it until in 1965 Gordon rang me to say he had written scripts, bought a second film camera and would Margaret and I be prepared to make sets and props for a trial film? We agreed, and a few days later went to see Gordon in Albert Mansions (just behind the Albert Hall). The puppet characters were already completed and his large elegant study was full of lighting equipment, camera and staging.

Gordon had taken a huge financial risk in setting all this up and asked if we would prefer to be paid in a lump sum for each of the films or (as he hoped) be paid considerably less to start with, and if the films were successful we would receive royalties for our design work. We had no money at the time and were being supported by Margaret's parents (Margaret was working for them in their shop selling radios, televisions and records, etc.) so we opted for the lump sum, and I felt Gordon was offering as much as he could at the time. So we have never made anything from the sales of toys or books, etc., using our designs. But we made the choice - we should have had more faith in Gordon's idea!

Incidentally I think Gordon had Bob [Bura] and John [Hardwick] working with him as puppeteers before he joined the BBC, certainly he had traveled with a puppet group and I believe they had worked with him. I remember seeing some of these early puppets from the touring show hanging in store at Lime Grove.

When tele-recording and colour TV was being developed, one of the BBC Puppet Theatre Productions The Emperor's Nightingale was selected by the Head of Design as an example of the glories of colour. Somewhere in the BBC archives there may still be this, the only full colour programme of the BBC Puppet Theatre, complete with specially composed orchestral music performed live in the TV studio, and with scenery and costumes designed and made by me with Margaret's assistance. I never worked in the series of standard tones of black, greys and white, that for a while was employed by staff designers who wished to control completely the somewhat unpredictable effects of blue and red on the black and white TV cameras, then in use. The depressive effect on the performers and production teams soon meant that the designers reverted to full colour, even though the programmes were transmitted in black and white.

Gordon I remember gave me a little viewing glass that was supposed to show the tonal relationships of colour in monochrome, these were used by TV designers but were not much help. In fact they had been developed for normal photography and TV cameras reacted differently to blues and reds - I just did what I wanted and ignored this technical device!