Martin Morley

A Life in Theatre & Television Design

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Where possible I have given photo credits. For those I have over looked I hope I have not given offence. Most of the rehearsal photos are my own taken with a simple point and shoot camera.

Web site created by Martin Morley using Serif WebPlus X8 Updated: September 2018

Musings of a Jobbing Designer

Adventures as a freelancer 1985 -2009

After the collapse of Theatr Cymru at the beginning of 1984, I had to decide whether to up sticks and seek pastures new or stay and be part of the new developments that were taking place in Wales: I chose the latter. It became clear very quickly that another mainstream company was not going to rise from the ashes of Theatr Cymru. The Arts Council embarked on a policy of project funding. In North Wales Hwyl a Fflag was set up dedicated to producing work by new writers in Welsh, but it was funded on a project by project basis. I designed a number of productions for them. Wales being a tight community, many of the people involved in Hwyl a Fflag were ex-Theatr Cymru staff and it operated from the same production base. But the way it was structured – everyone on equal wages and everyone having a say in company policy was quite different. The other big change was being hired per production: up to that moment I had always been a staff designer. It was a different world and to begin with unnerving. It quickly came clear that I could not earn a living wage simply by being a theatre designer and that I would have to branch out. As it happened S4C (the Welsh 4th Channel) had just come into being in 1982 and was mopping up a lot of the talent that had previously worked in theatre. When I was asked to design a small production I felt I could not refuse, even though I had little idea then what it might entail, and in truth I tended to look down on television design.

So in 1985, more by luck than planning, I turned my attention to this different medium. My first efforts were working on a series of period ‘drama docs’ for Filmiau’r Nant. They were an excellent grounding in (for me) a new craft: half hour programmes, filmed in five days and prepared for about the same time. These led to more drama work, first ‘Deryn’, a gritty drama about small town dodgy characters again for Filmiau’r Nant and then ‘Minafon’ for Ffilmiau’r Eryri. They were long running contemporary series shot mainly on location, or in custom adapted empty buildings. I was extremely fortunate and a lot more, and in a great variety of formats, was to follow and in parallel I was still able to continue as a theatre designer.

So how did I find TV design? Well obviously you start from the same base: a script a director and a crew and ones responsibilities are the same: the visual content of the production. But there the similarities end. Theatre is seen as wide angle shot, however much the lighting might focus on one area or performer or another, but each audience member has a unique view. In TV although the designer obviously is heavily involved in the pre-production period with the overall look of the programme, by the very nature of the process the camera person, the director and the editor have much more control of the story telling. For me one of the unique attractions of theatre design is creating fluid scenic transitions that are integral to the production, in TV one simply up sticks and moves the crew to a different location, but there is a magic in transforming a location to make it fit the drama like a glove and then returning it to its original state without leaving a trace. The theatre designer is usually responsible for sets and costumes which is never the case in TV. The continuity problems are just too great to make that practical, but the most important difference is that in theatre what you see is what you get, and the instant reaction of the audience, whereas in film and TV after shooting the real work of editing the work begins and the designer is not normally part of that crucial process. The camera is the eye, and do not believe any stories that it cannot lie, and the nightmares tend to be different: I used to lie awake picturing ill fitting sets crashing together whereas in TV it was: do I know what the continuity dressing was for a set filmed ‘x’ weeks ago but which needs to be ‘picked up’ today. I had to learn a different mindset: to realise that the only thing that mattered was what the camera saw: what was off camera does not exist. The wisest words I have heard were from a very experienced film designer, who said ‘in film you do not design sets you design shots.’ It took a lot of getting used to but when it worked and there was a good crew it was very satisfying. The fact that there is a strong realistic streak in my work, made the transition to TV / film easier, as they are both mediums that find abstract design difficult. There is no space here to detail many individual productions but I would like to highlight two contrasting one that gave me in there different ways satisfaction.

Hedd Wyn’ (1992) was a privilege to work on. It was a film that told the story of poet and reluctant soldier Hedd Wyn, from his life in the peace of a North Wales farm to his death during the slaughter that was WW1. Sian Davies was the producer and Paul Turner the director, Ray Orton the director of photography and Jane Roberts and me were the designers. We had worked together before and so knew each other’s work. Jane was engaged for the project first and looked after all the location work in North Wales. I was engaged to create the battlefield scenes from four acres of the disused Templeton air field in South Wales and to look after various other locations connected with his training and journey through France to the front. I was working in South Wales while the scenes were being shot in the North. There was a great crew working with me to create the Somme. It is amazing what 3 JCBs and a plough can achieve in a couple of weeks. In addition to the general desolation, the frontline trenches were dug and dressed with scrap corrugated sheeting: a communications trench and the Yser Canal carved out. The hut used for the medical examinations and dormitory was erected on site and lastly the dugout, ‘field hospital’ where Hedd Wyn finally died. It is on projects like this that one truly understands what a collaborative effort is. The film became very successful and won many BAFTA Cymrus, including Best Design and was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foriegn Film Section.

At the other end of the spectrum but also on a large scale was ‘Jeux Sans Frontieres’ (known as ‘It’s a Knockout in English). This was a huge challenge but with hind sight, great fun. I designed two series, the first set at Bodelwyddan Castle and the second at Cardiff Castle in 1993 and 1994 respectively. In the current climate they would be impossible to mount. It was a child of its time. Tastes have changed radically and what seemed fun then looks very dated now. Ffilmiau’r Nant, produced four series of the programme jointly with S4C and the EBU (European Broadcasting Union) I worked on the last two. It was a multi-national enterprise with eight countries including Wales competing and each country made a version of their own and then each was transmitted in all the host countries. This to me very much added to the attraction of the programme.

The brief was to design mad-cap games; not my natural sphere, but with a lot of help and encouragement all round we got there. All the time you had to be aware that every game had to be really physical and visual, that every prop had to be multiplied x 8 and there was no time to try the games in advance bar about a day before recording when all the teams converged on the location and mayhem broke out.

Once the ideas were in place the real work began. The secret was to choose the contractors carefully, give clear plans, encourage them on their way and make sure that everything arrived on time and fitted together. Easier said than done, and there were moments of panic.

Meanwhile, Theatr Gwynedd, which previously had been run by Theatr Cymru had to find a new role. It had always been a receiving theatre and picture house. It had become an important community asset. Between 1986 and its closure in 2008 it had three artistic Directors: Graham Laker, Sian Summers and Ian Rowlands, and in their different they ways produced a distinguished body of mainstream work that performed on the mainstages of Wales.

The productions that I designed for Theatr Gwynedd are among the most satisfying that I have done. Here I was able to design on a scale that was rarely possible when consideration of touring to very mixed venues was always a primary consideration. Over the years I built up a strong relationship with Graham Laker and we understood how we worked and our theatrical tastes largely coincided. i.e new writing and classic European drama on a broad canvas. The first in house production was ‘O Law I Law’ (From Hand to Hand)adapted from the novel by T Rowlad Hughes by John Ogwen. This was followed by many others including, Checkov’s ‘Y Gelli Geirios’ (The Cherry Orchard), ‘Pwy Sy’n Sal’ (Moliere double bill), and finally ‘Amadeus’ by Peter Shaffer, which was his last production before he died, tragically young. For Sian Summers I designed ‘Dyn Hysbys’ (Faith Healer) and for Ian Rowlands ‘Dynes Ddela Leenane’ (The Beauty Queen of Leenane)

Dyn Hysbys’ (Faith Healer) was especially lucky for me, firstly it was a wonderful and idiomatic play to design and secondly to my great surprise it was chosen to be part of PQ99 and experience which is etched in my mind. In Bangor it played to largely empty houses and though depressing at the time it is quite often a sign that one has done something worthwhile.

For 35 short years Theatr Gwynedd was home to live theatre in North Wales. Now it is no more. I feel very proud to have been able to be part of it, and to have designed both the first and the last shows mounted there. The last was the co-production with Theatr Bara Caws and Galeri of ‘Llyfrr Mawr y Plant’. It had its ups and downs, but now it is gone: in 2014 if all goes to plan a phoenix will rise from the ashes.

I call myself a jobbing designer: It is a fitting description. I’m no visionary and have created no new school of design but I have always tried to respond honestly to the different projects that I have been fortunate enough to have been involved and to give that little bit extra. When I first went to Art School I had no idea I would end up as a theatre designer. It came about from a chance remark from a fine art tutor in my first year, that my paintings seemed ‘incomplete’ and maybe I should consider applying to a theatre design course. I haven’t looked back. The theatre I saw in the 60s coloured everything I have done since. I shall never forget Ralph Koltai’s design for the Jew of Malta with its sun drenched stone slabs that rearranged themselves to suggest endless locations without literally describing any, or the beauty and elegance of Jocelyn Herbert’s designs for The Seagull and countless others. As students we were of course rebelling against any form of 2D painted scenery: sculptural forms and controlled lighting were the design gods. As always what was new evolved then into the new mainstream.