FRSA - puppeteer
Marcus studied at West Nottinghamshire College from 1977 to 1978 on the vocational graphics course at the Chesterfield Road campus.
He is now partner of Hands Up Puppets, puppeteer for the screen and independent contemporary artist.
When were you a student at West Nottinghamshire College and were you living in Mansfield back then?
I came from West Bridgford in Nottingham and was classed as a mature student at 19 and I got a maintenance grant to rent a cheap flat near the college on Chesterfield Road.
The first year of the three-year vocational graphics course was a bit like a junior foundation course with a basic introduction into a wide range of subjects such as ceramics, drawing, fashion, art history.
What did you study?
The Graphic Design Vocational course was all they offered me though I applied for Arts Foundation Course, so I did that. They did say that in the first year I could study for GCSEs to perhaps change course after that and so I did the studying gaining Art GCSE A Level and GCSE O Level English by the end of this first year. By then the pull of the theatre made me decide to leave education altogether.
Would you say that the subject you learnt at college put you on the road to your career today?
Yes, totally. Without it I wouldn't have had a creative career at all but not probably for the obvious or intended reasons. Firstly, I learned to be confident in my creative ability, though I was relentlessly criticised. I could see I expressed myself differently from other students but also and crucially that this wasn't a problem in the arts to be different if harnessed and applied in the right way.
The lecturers opened my eyes to the fundamental skill of drawing which is observation. One lecturer said drawing was 90% looking. One life drawing class I spent the first 50 minutes looking only. The last ten minutes I drew better than I ever had ever before. I had learnt something very important which has informed my film making, puppet design and artwork since - to observe.
Tell us a bit about your career and how you ended up in the role you are in today.
Even though I left West Notts College after only one year, I was taking a lot of new knowledge with me. I worked at the Theatre Royal Nottingham on the ‘follow spot’ and then worked in other theatres and event centres doing lighting and sound before gaining a stage management job on song and dance at the Shaftsbury Theatre in the West End.
This was essentially about me running the computer-controlled slide projection scenery, something I learned proactively as a production lighting electrician in the first few weeks. From that I worked on Marilyn the Musical similarly and then as a member of the Little Shop of Horrors stage management team.
Cameron Mackintosh needed someone to look after the puppet plant and I had shown an interest in learning new skills on song and dance for them as well as being a hard working safe pair of hands. When the puppeteer left I knew the most about his job and auditioned for it as I was looking for other ways to contribute to the technical performance of stage shows.
Puppeteering the plant was a crossover into performance for me. From that I was offered a puppeteering role in the film, other films and work with Jim Henson. I loved the randomness and spontaneity of The Goon Show which I had in tape recordings and the similar immediacy and irreverence of The Muppets. I wanted to put them together somehow.
But this was the 80's and puppetry for the screen was mostly in the area of animatronics, special effects, which was all very contrived and cognitive and you had to get through a lot of planning before you could feel the force and will life into a puppet creation. It took a lot of teamwork and planning.
So with my partner Helena, who was also working backstage at Les Miserables we decided to set up a puppet-making and puppeteering partnership, Hands Up Puppets. We had no idea what we were doing but with a credit card and 'can do' mentality we taught ourselves to make puppets, puppeteer them and pitched puppet-based programme ideas, both adult comedy and children's TV to all and sundry.
The children's TV took off largely because of my irreverent and anarchic approach which many found refreshing, including Brian Cant with whom we made Dappledown Farm and Helena was able to combine an attention to detail and organisational ability with her inherent talent for us to harmoniously work and grow together. Mutual respect has been key to this relationship and is in my experience to all creative partnerships.
Since then we've created over 70 puppets for television together, puppeteered in over 70 TV series, as well as film and virtual animated characters here and in Hollywood where we lived for a time.
Currently I perform the puppet Bookaboo, in the TV series Bookaboo for CITV and CBC, a multi-award winning TV series which has won two BAFTA's for best kid’s TV series.
Helena is Milkshake Monkey for Channel 5, we also made the puppet and a surprising highlight was having a puppet we designed and made for RTE, Irish State Television appear on an Irish national postage stamp a few years ago. Helena has developed into scriptwriting and writes for many well-known children’s TV animations and I have returned to contemporary art, Puppet TV Graffiti and have an Arts Council funded project underway which will culminate in an exhibition in Nottingham.
I've just completed my CTLLS teaching qualification at Warwick, is where I see my future developing though I will continue to advocate for puppetry for the screen and puppetry in education.
What are your memories of life at college?
They were very happy and interesting times. I grew up and developed my talents there substantially. The inspiring and helpful lecturers like Mr Gallon helped so much. My fellow students were great too.
Do you feel the college has a good reputation today when you see or hear about it in the news?
I do yes. I always liked the local people and the catchment. I also think FE in its wide variety of forms offers a less academic approach than most universities and equips students better not only for the workplace but also for a creative career and life.