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Animations Online gets to grip with bumbling Brittonionis, crumbling Caryatids and other fantastic elements of the Forkbeard story

Profile by Rowan Lock and Dorothy Max Prior

Veterans of inventive animation, Forkbeard Fantasy have been shaking up the performance world for nearly four decades. For those amongst you who have perhaps never had the pleasure (where have you been these past thirty-odd years?), Forkbeard Fantasy’s theatre shows combine comedy with wacky special effects, wild mechanical sets, outsize characters and their trademark interactive mix of film, animation and cartoon with live onstage performance.

The phrase ‘hard to categorise’ could have been invented for Forkbeard. As founder member Tim Britton pointed out at a presentation made at University of Brighton recently (February 2008), the company has never quite fitted in anywhere, being too funny for the po-faced performance art world they first grew out of, yet too subversive and experimental for most theatre programmers.

Luckily the world has caught up, and Forkbeard are now recognized as instigators of multimedia cross-artform practice – although such dull terminology to describe their eccentric pot-pourri of performance modes and mores would probably make them wince! Be that as it may, their shows now tour the length and breadth of the UK and they have appeared all over Europe and at festivals in Mexico, Columbia, and Canada. As well as their renowned theatre shows, the company creates and tours elaborate interactive exhibitions, films and animated cartoons. Their hugely popular retrospective exhibition Forkbeard: Architects of Fantasyran for two years at London's Theatre Museum attracting over 380,000 visitors.

Originally formed in 1974 by brothers Tim and Chris Britton, Forkbeard Fantasy was joined in 1980 by Penny Saunders, and in 1987 by Ed Jobling. Janice May, Deborah Harrison and Robin Thorburn are also now part of the company. Tim and Chris Britton often appear in Forkbeard shows in the guise of their alter egos The Brittonioni Brothers, a pair of ‘ludicrously pompous, over-blown avant-garde film-makers’ who are ‘more interested in the cut of their trousers than the cut of their films’. 

Forkbeard take their inspiration from a long tradition of experimental performance and visual arts practice which includes both Kantor and Beuys. They express admiration for contemporaries such as People Show who forged new forms of experimental theatre in the 1960s and 70s, and also cite such varied influences as The Goons, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, The Bonzo Dog Doodah Band, Flann O'Brien, Tintin and Beckett.

This eclectic interest in many artforms translates into their work, which includes (in various mixes over the years): music, video, animation, performance poetry, puppetry, physical comedy, mock melodrama and cabaret. It all adds up to a strange and highly entertaining theatrical experience.

As an example: their most recent work Invisible Bonfires (reviewed in Animations Online 21), a lighthearted take on the problems of climate change, features a live band, cartoon and stop frame animation, puppetry, film footage and nightmarish victimizations of audience members by a toupee-wearing patio heater salesman and a terribly worthy cake-wielding local council official…

But let’s rewind the film, back to those glory days of the 1970s, when the young Britton brothers, influenced by their filmmaker father and inspired by the angry arty outbursts of the 60s, decided to create something-or-other together. There were three of them; elder brother Simon was involved too at that stage, bringing an interest in kinetic sculpture to mix in with Chris’s interest in theatre and Tim’s experiments with film, cartooning and Dada-ist performance art. In those days, there weren’t many venues willing to programme such odd artistic ventures – there was the Birmingham Arts Lab, the Oval House and ICA in London and a few other enlightened places, but essentially if you wanted to make this sort of odd-bod art-work, you were most likely to end up in ‘sympathetic small galleries, pubs, streets, shop windows, or even rubbish dumps’ as Tim puts it.

So they gained experience performing anywhere they could, from pub attic rooms and hippy festivals to village halls and the streets, being rejected by mainstream theatre for most of their early career. They were famously banned from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Tim refuses to say what exactly they did, and the mind boggles contemplating what could possibly get someone banned from the Fringe, supposed bastion of experimentalism). Even on the streets, they sometimes had problems: Tim recalls one notable incident performing their Great British Square Dance when they were threatened by a crowd of Irish Republicans (in Brussels of all places) on the grounds they were performing on wooden planks painted like the Union Flag. Luckily they were able to appease the situation with their trademark humour, and the bodyguards drafted in weren’t needed…

However, as the company grew and developed they (perhaps perversely!) realized that end-on regular theatre spaces were actually what they needed, as these provided a good setting for work that increasingly used a mix of filmed and live action – the two key elements for this being the need for blackout and the need for the ‘frame’ that the proscenium arch provides.

Many of their ‘proper’ indoor theatre shows from the 80s onwards play on the company’s interest in science and in early technologies. Crazy scientists and crackpot inventors (and inventions) are a recurring theme of their work, from The Clone Show (1980 – ahead of its time!) to Invisible Bonfires (touring currently, spring 2008) via Ghosts (1985) which featured the marvelous character Doormat the Butler, who emerges from a vat containing ten gallons of green jelly. Frankenstein has been the subject of a show (2001), but we could say that the Frankenstein element (fears and fantasies inspired by scientific developments) is a recurring motif. Other company obsessions include history, religion and the oddities of officialdom and of government strategies and initiatives (bumbling officials a-plenty turn up in their shows).

Not only is film and animation used in intriguing ways in their shows, but also some of the shows take film as the subject matter, examples being The Fall of the House of Usherettes (1995/revived and reworked 2005) which is the story of the hunt for the elusive ‘liquid film’, and Shooting Shakespeare (2004). This latter show is set in the era of early cinema when everyone was falling over themselves to get into the exciting new medium of the Silver Screen, including the theatre producers who decided that silent Shakespeare was a go-er. Shooting Shakespeare has all the trademark Forkbeard elements, including batty characters (meet impresario Desmond Fairybreath, re-incarnated from an earlier FF show); weird and wonderful props and inventions (including strange roving projectors that roll across the stage in an R2D2 robodog manner); and a mix of live and filmed action – culminating in what is perhaps the zenith of their achievements with 2D/3D interweaving in the show’s finale, the creation of Prospero’s domain in The Tempest, when islands magically evolve before the audience’s eyes, with performers diving in and out of the screened action continuously, so that it becomes virtually impossible to tell after a while what is being seen ‘live’ and what is on-screen. (Shakespeare is another recurring theme for Forkbeard: an obsession rewarded with a commission from the RSC to create Rough Magyck in 2006. See Tim Britton’s photostrip account of this show in Animations in Print, Vol 1 – Animated Encounters.)

A simpler filmic technique that Forkbeard are keen on is inspired by the early days of animation, when sound-synch was impossibly expensive, and pioneering artists developed a talk-over style to stop-frame animation that is lovingly mimicked by Tim (for example in his Carbon Weevils mock lecture on global warming delivered with pompous panache in Invisible Bonfires).  This latest show also features the most beautiful puppet horse you are ever likely to see… which brings us neatly to the involvement in the company of maker Penny Saunders.

Puppets, automata, animatronics, mechanised sets and animated objects are all an integral part of the company’s shows – and although many of the company core members are visual artists and makers, it is often down to Penny to come up with the goods. These creations are key to the theatre productions, but often have a life of their own beyond the shows, appearing in interactive touring exhibitions (the most recent of which was the Animated Exeter - Fantasy and the Imagination exhibition at the Exeter Phoenix gallery, January–February 2008).

Amongst Penny’s famous creations are the puppets in Hypochondria (1987): one of the many delightful characters is Anthony, one of the star patients of Doctor Smallman’s Nursing Home. He was the Doctor's model patient in every sense of the word, consisting of so much spare-part surgery it was unclear how alive he really was. He is constructed much like a traditional marionette, ball-joints and all, but for his three free-rolling roving eyes.

For the Fall of the House of Usherettes, Penny created the ominous Caryatids. These statues stood motionless on their plinths, 12 ft. high, either side of the stage throughout the whole of the show. Only at the very end, when the crumbling old cinema finally collapsed, did these extraordinary articulated figures slowly and dramatically teeter and fall. The performers were concealed behind them operating their complex pulley systems.

Creatures great and small that Penny has created include Rabbit, who is (yes, you’ve guessed) an 8 ft-high rabbit which hails from the Laboratories of Anthropomorphism from which he was released and thence hired as window cleaner at Salvador's Barber Shop in The Barbers of Surreal (1998). His unnatural size is apparently ‘attributable to early experiments with growth hormones’. At the smaller end of the spectrum are the little skeleton Angels curled up in their feather nests inside the head of a brontosaurus. Oh, and the brontosaurus of course we must mention: the skeleton of a teenage brontosaurus was the stage-set for Forkbeard's 1983 The Brontosaurus Show, made by Penny Saunders and Chris Britton (allegedly a collaboration that was enacted by telephone as they were 200 miles apart at the time). The brontosaurus was pieced together during the performance by the two palaeontologist protagonists.

Angels, horses, dinosaurs, flying usherettes, rabbits, teddies, bloopies, crows, and a collection of pressed husbands. It’s an enticing catalogue of kooky constructions, and these wonderful creations form a vital part of the marvellous mayhem that makes the world of Forkbeard Fantasy.   

Spring 2008, and Forkbeard are just coming to the end of their tour of Invisible Bonfires (the season ends in March at the Lowry in Salford), but there’s no peace for the wickedly funny: they go straight into a series of workshops held at their beloved rural retreat in Devon. Then, no doubt, back to the drawing board for the next show…  and who knows what that might be!

Quotes by Tim Britton are taken from his presentation at the Sallis Benney Theatre, University of Brighton, February 2008, where the authors also saw Forkbeard Fantasy’s latest show, Invisible Bonfires.

Forkbeard Fantasy will be running a series of short courses throughout 2008 which will provide access to inspiring techniques, expertise and the vast array of facilities available at Forkbeard’s creative base at Waterslade Studios, Devon.

Spring dates are:
Creative Sound for Stage, Screen and Gallery - Monday 10th March
Film Interaction for Stage, Screen and Gallery - Tuesday 11th March
Art of Animating - Wednesday 12th March
Puppetry and Automata - Thursday 13th - Friday 14th March

Summer School dates for their six-day residential courses are:
Summer School 1: 27th June–4th July
Summer School 2: 11th July– 18th July

For full details see

Images top to bottom:
1 Invisible Bonfires
2 Rough Magyck
3 Doormat the Butler from Ghost
4 Penny Saunders' puppets


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