‘Oh What a Lovely War’ The most powerful anti-war film of the age and made in the 60s in Brighton and mainly set on the West Pier in all it’s glory before the fire (film available on dvd).
How lovely for me that after all these years our marionettes from the film are on display at The Grange Art Gallery and Museum in Rottingdean. They are part of the ‘Cinema by the Sea’ exhibition, the brainwave of Marcus Bagshaw, the curator.
Marcus is very experienced and has a passion for his work. He has been intent on gathering artifacts from iconic films of the 50s, including ‘Genevieve’ and ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, all of which were shot on location on the South Coast.
Later Marcus was busy mounting the photos, not only for our exhibit, but also sorting, presenting and hanging the many other artifacts for the other films to be included. As well as his dedication to his task it really did seem like a labour of love.
Of course for me memories of our role in ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ came flooding back. Richard Attenborough had seen our two larger marionettes dressed as labourers on the cover of ‘The Observer’ newspaper’s magazine. He wanted marionettes with character and history so despite looking at others at our studio in Highgate he chose the two featured above.
He was insistent that every detail had to be perfect to honour the memory of the real soldiers. My mother had been a fashion designer and made the costumes for our puppets. She consulted Berman’s, home of military theatrical costumes. She tracked down the cord for the braid on the uniforms at the Royal School of Needlework. Boots were cast in rubber by my father, helmets in fibreglass. It took months to complete them all.
We all stayed at the Grand Hotel for several days with other members of the cast. A famous French actor, Jean Paul Cassell, was flown over to bang the drum at the beginning of our cameo performance, which was great fun.
However it was not until we were on the set that it was realised that no one had ordered a horse. Dickie was insistent there was one, so my father had to rush back to London to get the only one we had, a circus horse, having painted him appropriately (part of the current display).
The roundabout, our second part in the film, looked amazing! But within a few minutes we were asked to break the marionettes up to represent soldiers in an explosion. We couldn’t do it so members of the crew had the task.
We knew some of the stars that performed in the film and others as we had entertained them with our marionette shows at their private parties. Thewse included Kenneth More (see letter from Kenneth on the Genevieve display), Peter Sellers and Lauren Bacall.
In 2013 while I was conserving the puppets, Robin Gibson of BBC South East heard about it and came up to the house to film some if the work. I was then featured in one of their films commemorating The Great War.
It had taken months to painstakingly repair them. But at least they were perfect when Marcus suggested he would like them to be exhibited at The Grange.
As puppeteers we had been involved in a wide range of work. Early in their career my parents had had the honour of performing for Her Majesty the Queen at a children’s party in 1954.
We performed for summer seasons, entertained at private parties, appeared in shows such as ‘Cliff Richard’s Saturday Spectacular’ on TV, did commercials, ‘The Telegoons’ (based on the Goon Show) and Cabaret, constantly adapting to the changing entertainment scene. I went on to do Variety on the same bills as Max Miller, Morecambe and Wise and Alma Cogan.
Marcus has one of Max Miller’s costumes on display with many other artifacts relating to this wonderful man’s career.
Stranger than fiction, my mother in her 60s applied for the post of Principal of the Royal School of Needlework and spent her last years there before retirement.
Although the exhibition is open now they are expecting more wonderful artifacts from key films of the 50s at the end of the month. It is worth keeping an eye on developments. What better way to cheer up an autumnal day than a trip to Rottingdean to see this and the wonderful Art Exhibitions that are changed on a regular basis?
Ann Perrin – Puppeteer and Poet.