Martin Morley

A Life in Theatre & Television Design

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Pre-college years

I had no theatrical background when I entered the theatre professionally in 1966. I came from an outwardly conventional middle class family and was brought in Yeovil, a sleepy town, a cultural backwater, chiefly known for helicopters and in the 1950s was a centre of the glove trade. My father was a doctor and during WWII had been a conscientious objector (as had most of my other relations), and in the 1950s he joined the Quakers. My mother had always been a Quaker. So that much set us slightly apart but it did not really impinge on me: as a child what you have you accept as the norm, at least for the first few years. Like most people in their teenage years I drifted away from religion and only returned later after in my thirties after marrying Ros. Such a background though, did not naturally steer one to the arts. But there was art in the family: a great uncle. Sam Brown was a noted marine artist during the early years of the 20th century and his paintings were familiar to me and I like them. His father too was a gifted amateur water colourist. And my father although in no way thinking of him self as artistic nevertheless, could draw animals which he loved. My mother loved music. The atmosphere in the home was very free in many ways; conservative in taste, very much the Home Service and the Light programme rather than the Third programme on the radio. There was no TV until we (I have two older brothers and a younger sister) were teenagers.

I spent an awful lot of my time as a child drawing and watching my eldest brother do his poster colour landscape paintings which I thought amazing and tried to imitate. Making things as well, either with Meccano or match stick models or card board models from the back Weetabix packets. And playing in our very generous garden. Very conventional. The only time I can remember going to the theatre before leaving school was to see Peter Pan (twice): the visuals made a lasting impression, and a local amateur production of ‘The Mikado’ which I thought amazing. From that moment I was hooked on G&S.

As for education after failing my 11 plus I went first to a very small Rudolf Steiner School in Yeovil and then from 15 to Wynstones Steiner School near Gloucester as a boarder. That was a real cultural eye opener and although not taking on board all of Steiner’s philosophy (Anthroposohy), I flourished in the egalitarian, co-operative rather than competitive, international atmosphere. The emphasis was on a very broad integrated curriculum that was much wider than merely covering the GCE syllabus. There was no streaming for ability and no internal exams: the idea was to instil a love of learning an aim I think they fulfilled. Arts and particularly music were central to the ethos. GCE were of course taken but a year later than in most schools and although I didn’t get great grades, 8 x O Levels, they were sufficient for me to get a place at the Somerset College of Art to do my Pre Dip year. I was amongst the first intake of the new Dip AD course.

I was in the guinea pig year after the big shake up in art education: goodbye NDD; hello Dip. AD. Teaching was now moving away from a technical, drawing based curriculum to one more akin to the Bauhaus philosophy. Life drawing and painting was of course still central to the teaching but it was much more about a personal search. I found it quite daunting and for a long time felt out of my depth. The first year was general covering a wide area of arts and crafts and I to begin with had no real idea what direction I would finally take. My work was illustrative - still is for that matter- and did not really fit in with the general flow until a tutor said, and he was talking quite casually about a painting I was doing, of a public park if I remember, that my work seemed ‘incomplete’: maybe I might consider stage design. That remark struck a chord and though I had never thought about it before, I decided to pursue the idea and during the course of the final term had two or three interviews at colleges in London that did theatre design courses before applying to the Wimbledon School of Art and was accepted. I had little idea what was in store but the die was cast. I have found often that one learns most from what at first seem like passing unprompted observations rather then formal lectures and also the most significant life changing events can grow from chance occurrences. I wouldn’t have found my self living and working in Welsh speaking Wales but for a chance phone call from Cwmni Theatr Cymru when I was working at the Liverpool Playhouse. But the biggest chance of all was meeting Ros at the Liverpool Playhouse: she was the DSM, I was the designer, the rest is history.

I have virtually nothing from my first year at Art college except this little sketchbook filled with very ordinary drawings and a few crude paintings. In the text below I mention a painting I was doing of a public park that was commented on by a tutor. I think it may have been based on the sketches of Sydney Gardens, Yeovil, where I spent a lot of time playing with friends as a child, often on roller skates.