Article on the Grand Sale - Written for Film and Video Maker 2006

Asked to write about : What inspired me to begin? Who made up the team to help me? The making of a star puppet head? Calamities in the film making?

The Grand Sale is the 13th episode of Willoughby Drive, formerly known as  Simple Stories. The idea of making this “puppet-soap” came from stories published weekly in Punch in the nineteen-twenties. These were called Simple Stories and were funny little satirical sketches about different people, such as a detective, a burglar, an inventor, a brigand and many more. The stories made me laugh and I thought they were too good to lie unread in somebody’s attic. So I established my three families to live next door to each other in a suburban road called Willoughby Drive. Then in each episode (except for The Grand Sale) I introduced one of the Punch characters whose coming caused havoc, upset or drama to the lives of the neighbours.

The team I needed to make the series included voices, craftsmen, puppet-makers, artists, an editor, a composer, a sound man and a good lab.
The voices were no problem since for some years Jonathan Cecil had been giving us his voice for our puppet theatre plays. So for the series he and his wife Anna Sharkey did all the voices --- no mean feat, as there are 66 different ones! Later Gillie Robic joined us for one of the children’s voices to distinguish her from her sister.

Music can transform a film. Jennie Muskett’s music, an incomparable gift to the series, did just that, bringing to the films a new dimension of magic and delight.

To find craftsmen who would make houses, doors, windows, furniture, and all the other 101 props needed for the sets I roamed round craft fairs and found some very talented people. They would work in their own homes, sometimes hundreds of miles away, and I would drive round collecting all the work ready to prepare the sets. By the time I started the series Mark, my son, was a wildlife editor working in London, Bristol, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. After his working day, or at weekends, we did all the editing. This team has lasted over more than a decade and a lot of fun it was.
To produce the head of a star puppet involves three stages: the sculpted head; the armature for the moving eyes and mouth, and the moulds.  It can take months and many visits to check the stages. I had no new heads for the Grand Sale but a lot of character changes of the same puppets. So one of the thieves became the chairlady, the hat lady became Farmer Bell and so on. The parrot was sculpted without his wings which were made separately. Similarly the cow’s head was made separate from the body which I had from a previous episode. Both had armatures and moulds.

The Grand Sale had its fair share of trouble but what can you expect from a cavorting cow and a flying parrot?  Surprisingly it was neither the cow nor the parrot that caused the greatest consternation. Admittedly the cow’s head fell off in the last scene but it was Mrs Gumble Bump’s winning cake that caused the greatest trouble. This cake had to be hollow in order to fill it with cream, jam, and cake so that when Mrs Gumble Bump fell on it there would be a good squish.  (Not achieved.)  All the other cakes looked good in the shots but in the editing Mark took one look at Mrs Gumble Bump’s cake, now filled and I hoped presentable, and said “I don’t think Mrs Gumble Bump would win the cake competition with this cake.” Big decision time. All the filming was finished and transferred to video – so do we get another 100 ft of film, go back along the M25, and beg our very busy cake maker to make a replica of the winning cake? (Already filmed.) Well yes she did and I filmed it all again and it was worth it. There are enough things to make one squirm in one’s completed film without leaving the winning cake that couldn’t have won.