Memories of childhood

At the age of 9 my family moved to Stevenage from Stoke Newington, London. Stevenage was one of the many New Towns built in the immediate post-war years. My parents were attracted by the promise of a brave new life. My dad had applied for a job with English Electric, later British Aerospace, who had built a huge new factory in Stevenage. After a trial period we finally moved house.

In Stevenage almost everything was new. The houses, the roads, the fences. Luckily, our street was on the very edge of the town, overlooking a water meadow. Everything else was clean, shiny and gleaming. For my mum and dad this was clearly one of its attractions. However the main reason I took to Rossendale a decade later was that it was in such a complete contrast to Stevenage. In other words nothing seemed to be at right angles to anything else.

Because we lived right on the edge of town, within two minutes I could be in the countryside. It meant that a lot of my free time was taken exploring the fields, streams, ponds and dells – all within walking distance. As I grew older I ventured further and further from home. Three miles away, in a village called Woolmer Green, I came across the house of an elderly wood-carver. Later I discovered that his name was Harry Macdonald and that he came from Bradford.

Harry had walked south down the A1 during the Depression looking for work. When he arrived at Woolmer Green he found a barn for rent. He decided to stay, selling wood-carvings to travellers along the Great North Road. He quickly realised that it would help if he created something eye-catching to stop the traffic by his workshop.

The house and garden

Over the next few years Harry covered his workshop in brightly carved figures, including a carved policeman by the side of the road holding up its hand in a ‘halt’ command. He made the barn into an extraordinary place, a kind of fairytale world. The garden was transformed into nursery-rhyme village, complete with puppet-like working parts. A cow jumped over a moon. 230 scottie dogs wearing bow-ties ran round the walls of the house. Carved giraffes and toucans looked down onto the road. A witch flew past the chimney on her broomstick. You could turn a handle and a hand-coloured elephant would blow water from its trunk. There was a model Holy Land too, put it didn’t have working parts and so it was less interesting. Either way, it was hard for drivers not to pull over and take a closer look as they slowed down for the big bend on the road.

Mr Macdonald was usually to be found around the house, normally in his workshop. In all honesty he seemed to be a rather grumpy man, but in what I now recognise to be that droll northern manner. Grumpy or not, he could always be relied on to open the peacock gates to his garden. First you had to drop a few pennies into a slide mechanism at the entrance. It would transport the coins straight through the garden and the workshop window into his hands. I could then wander around, amazed and transported into a storybook world, with Harry’s mournful and suspicious gaze checking on me from his grubby window.

The Woodcarver show

In 1982, after four years of Horse + Bamboo, I was looking for a subject for the next show. When we started out I had hoped that we would form a collective, maybe a cooperative, and that our theatre work would grow from the resources of the whole group. Of course, in a way, that’s just what it did. But at the start I imagined that shows could develop without the need for a director, or even for much leadership.

At this time I was discovering that I could organise – do finances; plan tours and events; write grant applications. In fact I realised that I actually enjoyed that part of the work. I was beginning to like shaping our productions too, and writing stories for the shows. Eventually, I came to see that it made sense to write and direct the shows without feeling guilty about it. Once I accepted this it felt sensible to create something that had a special meaning for me, and the idea of telling Harry Macdonald’s story immediately felt like a good one. Another reason was that his life and puppet-like work seemed to readily lend itself to our visual style.

I started looking further into Harry’s life. It turned out that he had died in 1971. I decided to revisit Woolmer Green and find out see what had happened to his house and its fantasy garden. With a friend, I arrived just as it was getting dark, and we found the house easily enough. However the carvings that had covered it like a decorative pie crust had disappeared entirely. On closer inspection I found that just two desultory cement scottie dogs were forlornly hanging from the walls. The fantasy garden was worse – it was now a wasteland that had been bulldozed into total oblivion. It must have been done recently as a handful of his carvings were still peeping out of the earth. We quickly grabbed a few of them, hoping not to be caught, then left.

Back to Woolmer Green

I discovered that, against the wishes of most of the village community, a distant relative of Harry Macdonald had instructed an agent to destroy the garden and strip the property in order for it to be sold more easily. In my script of The Woodcarver Story the final scene is of a bulldozer destroying the set. At that time we toured with an old ex-army marquee, and the puppets and structures that re-created a version of Harry’s house and garden were fixed in the ground of the stage area with bamboo poles. As the almost life-size puppet bulldozer moved through the tent all of these were pushed flat and the grass and earth stage area was left as a scene of devastation.

One notable thing about the tour was that we walked, with our horses and carts, the 200 or so miles from Scunthorpe to Woolmer Green. We stopped at various points to do pre-planned shows en route, including at Alford and Digswell House in Welwyn. But the final shows were held in Woolmer Green itself, and our marquee was pitched just a hundred yards from Harry Macdonald’s old house. The realisation that the whole tour had become a sort of pilgrimage slowly dawned on me as our convoy of horses, carts and people slowly moved south towards the Woodcarver’s Cottage.

A final performance

At the end of the very last show a drummer (me) and the other musicians led the performers, followed by the audience, out of the field. We turned left along the old Great North Road right past Harry’s house, and then left again into the village churchyard. Here we made our way to Harry Macdonald’s graveside. We stopped by the grave and lit candles; we placed tiny puppet versions of his house and carvings on the tombstone. Our band played one last tune, and a stilt-dancer moved among the grave stones in the cemetery. Then it was over.

When we were leaving the next day, meeting up with out horse-transport to take everything back to Lancashire, I met a few of the villagers to thank them for their support. They presented me with a wooden head of a dog, beautifully carved by Harry, as a memento of our visit to Woolmer Green with our show. It’s still hanging in my living room, and I decorate it every Christmas.

A step forward

In retrospect, The Woodcarver Story represented a big advance in the company’s theatre work. Before it, our shows had combined puppets, objects, music and masks in a loose, poetic, surreal and episodic mixture. In large part this was influenced by my work at Welfare State. Mixed into this were some formal elements influenced by what I knew of Bread and Puppet’s work in the US. By contrast The Woodcarver Story developed a fresh approach. Masked characters combined with puppetry to tell a mainly linear story with a tightly scripted narrative. It was the first Horse + Bamboo show to really do this, and the first show in which the company’s distinctive style emerged. For me it was the show when I began to feel happy in the role of artistic director.

Review
….This is clarity achieved by working through challenging contrasts. Popular content is conveyed through environmental experimentation. Humble events are told with a mightily fierce expression and tragedy lies side by side with a celebration of beauty. Inanimate artefacts come alive through the animation of of human performers. A sense of living and developing tradition runes through their work…..

The living sculptures of masks and the painted images of the setting reveal a strong link with the tradition of expressionist art that runs from the medieval drawings of Grunewald to this century’s glowing colours of Georges Rouault. Among the stylistic influences is an eloquent simple style carrying a greater emotional impact than could be achieved through naturalism. The grasp of traditional art forms is such that the incorporation of of a time based element becomes essential to sustain the concern for story that is at the heart of H&B’s work.
Phil Hyde, Performance magazine. Dec/Jan 1983.

BOB FRITH, PAUL KERSHAW, JAY VENN (h), MALA SIKKA, AMANDA SPEED, BARBARA NICHOLLS, MELISSA WYER, SUE GOODWIN, KEITH BRAY (m), DAVE GILES (m), KAY KENNEDY (maker), BRIAN KNOX (support).

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Bob Frith founded Horse + Bamboo Theatre in 1978. He now manages the Dave Pearson Studio and is active in support of Apna Rossendale.

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