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Nottingham Castle

Interview: Marcus Clarke

6 June 11 interview: James Walker
photos: Jim Marks

Marcus Clarke and his wife Helena Smee have spent the last twenty years in a Sherwood house full of dismembered body parts. Calm down, Officer – they’re only keeping their hands in as one of the UK’s foremost puppet-based production companies with a list of credits as long as, well, your arm…

How did you get into puppetry?
I was a stage manager for a West End production of Little Shop of Horrors, and part of my job was to look after the puppet plant and also the puppeteer. When he left I successfully applied for his job and then went on to work for Jim Henson and Frank Oz.

Cor. What was is like working for them?
Frank Oz directed me in Little Shop of Horrors and Jim Henson in The Soldier and Death, for his Storyteller series. They were very different people to work with. Frank was businesslike; knew almost exactly what he wanted and how you should achieve it. Slightly stand-offish and intimidating, but helpful if you needed it. Jim was friendly and amiable from the start; he knew what he wanted, but was flexible in his approach and open to suggestions. He actually demonstrated how to achieve one shot I was having trouble with. He came over and sat backwards under the set, reaching his hand up. At the time I didn’t know that you could do that, but I could see straight away how it could be done. Do a puppet backwards. Very helpful. Anyway, in 1986 I formed Hands Up Puppets with my wife, Helena Smee. We worked out of the back of an old office in The Lace Market creating puppet characters for TV, before setting up at home in Sherwood.
Give us a guided tour...
Well, in the basement I’ve got a dyeing room where we treat all the fabrics in a cast iron bath. My wife and I only use natural dyes. We use the conservatory for making the puppets, because it’s nice when the sunlight comes through in the summer. In the basement there are two offices - my wife inhabits the tidy one. The other room is where we make eyes, mechanical arms and practical stuff like that. And the attic is rammed to the hilt with puppets and fabric.
How do you make your puppets?
With foam, fur, fabric or fleece, hand-sewn together. Sculpted and cast eye and nose parts. No rubber. We make our puppets in this way because it enables us to create the most performable puppets possible. Light, flexible and agile. Quite minimalist, really.
How long does it take to make an average puppet?
There’s no such thing as an average puppet! Some parts can take a long time. One of the most tedious jobs is making arms and legs because they require so much sewing, cutting and blending materials. Making the faces is more fun.
Who have you worked with?
I don’t want to sound big-headed, but just about everyone. For the Bookaboo TV series – which won a BAFTA - I worked with Meat Loaf and our very own Sheriff of Nottingham, Keith Allen. We made the Ant and Dec dolls for Saturday Night Takeaway. But it’s not just TV; we’ve helped teach young people at Clayfields House Secure Children’s Home. Through the puppets they were able to tell us about their lives, and their work was made into a short film; the children performing in it won two Koestler Awards, and it’s been shown at several film festivals.
You’ve done puppet-based artwork as well.
When I started out at the Mansfield College of Art, I used to source interesting objects from the local scrapyard, like wheel hubs, and paint onto them. Now I’m doing it with images and felt. I’m at the point where I’ve substantially developed my craft skills, so I guess this is the latest medium I’m trying puppetry out on. I’m trying to bring puppets into the real world, by juxtaposing them onto photographs. But this is more than just putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa or making a collâge - I’m trying out a new way of perceiving iconic buildings in Nottingham or the personality of celebrities. I call it ‘playful anarchy’ because the soft materials I use aren’t really threatening, and are a gentle way of changing the semiotic meaning of objects.
What’s the typical reaction when people find out what you do?
In the UK it’s seen as; “A grown man playing with puppets?” When people think of puppetry, they usually think of a poor quality children’s one. Yet it covers a huge variety of styles and qualities, just like acting. Whilst in the USA it’s; “So you’re an artist, how interesting. That sounds like fun. I bet you earn? Get to meet all those stars?” Then again, I was filming outside Notre-Dame in Paris and a man ran up and punched me. He said it was disrespectful to play with puppets outside the Cathedral! Look, puppetry holds extraordinary truths. It is our oldest form of animation and is practiced worldwide. Is there anything closer to the spirit of humankind than telling stories with puppets?
How do the arts treat funding for puppetry?
My own experience of the East Midlands Arts Council and Nottinghamshire County Council has been excellent. However, I hear the Norwich Puppet Centre and the Little Angel have had funding issues. This is probably a symptom of the lack of respect that the art funders have traditionally had for the art of puppetry. This attitude is born out of arcane prejudice, ignorance and a fear of ridicule. They’re so scared that they’ll risk their credibility and reputation if they fund such a thing. But the real problem has been the overall decline in funding for children’s television. Puppets are still popular, but UK original production is now less than 1% of children’s TV in the UK. Nearly £100 million a year has gone from the kids’ TV production sector.
What could help legitimise your profession?
Puppetry’s complete rehabilitation will come about when universities teach it – properly - and when specialist centres and puppetry homes are created to advance it. I’d like Nottingham to be the national home of puppetry.
Why Nottingham?
Because I come from, live and want to continue my puppetry work here. Through Hands Up Puppets my wife and I have cocreated over seventy puppets for the screen and worked on a similar number of TV series. So Nottingham has a twenty year plus history and legacy of puppetry for the screen being created here. Ballet, opera and dance all have a national home. Why can’t puppetry?
What kind of skills do you need to succeed in this profession?
Be generous and grateful. Never be nasty. Most importantly, get up. You’ll be knocked down, but get up. Even when you know ou’ll be knocked down again, get up. If you can’t, then it’s time to get another job.
Do you see puppets as the answer to everything?
Well, they can certainly help. Take all of those poor kids stranded after the tsunami and the recent earthquakes and wars – we send out thousands of cardboard boxes to these kids filled with food. Why not print cut-out puppets and masks on the backs of all of these boxes so they’ve got something to do while they’re waiting around? Simple things like that.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve stuck your hand up?
A very flat and smelly beaver. Or was it a raccoon? Maybe a bear. Hard to tell; it was as a child in Canada, and roadkill is completely different in North America. You’ve got to start somewhere.

Marcus is making two special appearances at the Buxton Puppet Festival on Thursday 28 July 2011.

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