Monday, 20 March 2017

Kristin Baybars and her Incredible Shop

If you have read my previous blog post about the exhibition of children's television artifacts at Coventry in 2015 you might remember that I mentioned Kristin Baybars. 

Kristin was the woman who designed Humpty and Jemima on BBC's Playschool (1964 – 1988). Previous to this, Kristin was the toy buyer at Heals department store in London, and the inventor of the Ostrobogulous.

Ostroboguli – if that’s the plural - were a range of suitably 1960s-looking soft toys such as owls, hedgehogs and clowns, which looked like psychedelic precursors to Playschool's Humpty.

Ms Baybars has evidently made a magical contribution to many people's lives: for adults who remember Playschool and for those who have visited her shop over the years.

Anyone entering Kristin Baybar's shop needs to forget about time. You might think time has stood still here, but on the contrary, time passes very quickly in this shop. I've been involved in a conversation here with Kristin or one of her colleagues, and three hours have passed. You should allow for 90 minutes at least. Remember, you may be in a space only 7' by 5' but this is equivalent to Harrods department store, Fortnum and Masons, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Royal Academy all in one... but in miniature form. Imagine how much time you would have to spend walking around those, and converse with a guide at the same time. 

One of my favourite memories of visiting this place was when I sat on a small chair looking through drawers of miniature pottery whilst Ms Baybars sat opposite me looking in an address book for the name of a ceramicist whose name had slipped our minds. A quiet quarter of an hour passed in contemplation… and we both found what we were looking for: Duncan White.

Imagine for a moment that you have shrunk to the size of a Borrower and you need the following:

A Swiss Army knife
An egg slicer
A rattan chair 
A slipware wassail drinking vessel
A shoe house to live in

From this list you will get an idea of what you might find here. All mostly in 12:1 scale. (1 inch = 1 foot). Kristin likes to quote a visitor who once said that 'Aladdin never had it so good!'

Not everything is for sale here however, and the customer needs to respect this. 

The customer might visit the shop to buy something but comes away with much more than a miniature item. They might come away having learned something about art history, the top quality miniaturists of the past few decades, or about Kristin's father, Blair Hughes-Stanton, the artist and book illustrator. All of it enriching and incredibly fascinating.

Kristin’s shop can be found opposite Gospel Oak Station. Knock on the door and wait to be invited in…

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Filmurbia and the Children’s Film Foundation

The films of the Children’s Film Foundation (CFF) construct an arguably romanticised yet progressive image of the suburbs where children claim and consume the streets of the post-war British housing regeneration. In films such as Cup Fever (1965), Egghead’s Robot (1970), and Terry on the Fence (1985) children are foregrounded, whereas adults are relegated to marginal roles, and pushed indoors to work or perform domestic duties.

The CFF films celebrate and explore British suburbia as a site of childhood play and independence. For audiences of the time these films played a major contribution to the ways in which the suburbs were constructed through British visual culture, firstly in the cinema, and later on television.

I was part of the group of youngsters who stayed at home to watch Tiswas (1974 – 1982) and / or Multicoloured Swap Shop (1976 – 1982)However, I did see some of the CFF films – such as Sammy’s Super T-Shirt (1978) – on television in the mid 1980s. I was also familiar with CFF clips from the TV series Screen Test (1970 – 1984). 

The only time I've seen a CFF film was at the National Film Theatre many years ago when they screened The Glitterball (1978). I was there as a film student, making notes for a dissertation, and must have made an incongruous sight, scribbling notes on an A4 pad in the dark. This was before the film was available on DVD, and it's a good exercise for film scholars to try and make notes without being able to hit the pause button!

Now I’ve written a chapter for Filmurbia: Screening the Suburbs (published April 2017). In it, I look at how boys and girls of the 1960s use the suburban streets to practice for an important football match, and how by the 1980s, the potentially-violent suburbs may have persuaded audiences to appreciate the safety of their own living rooms.

I’m looking forward to reading about the other screen suburbs in this edited collection.

Further reading:

Forrest, David, Harper, Graeme, and Rayner, Jonathan, (eds.), 2017,  Filmurbia: Screening the Suburbs, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Leonie Orton 'I Had It In Me' Book Launch

Leonie Orton Barnett's memoir, I Had It In Me promises to be the autobiography of the year.

Recently published by Quirky Press, extracts from the book have been read at public appearances by Ms Orton over the past two years at Joe Orton anniversary events in his hometown of Leicester. 

I finally got to buy a copy last night at one of Leonie's book launches. As I entered Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham I was greeted by the smiling author who recounted our previous meeting a few years ago. It was in 2013 at a village fete far from the East Midlands and Leonie was one of the organisers. We had been chatting for a while without my realising who she was but it gradually dawned on me that I had heard her distinct Leicester accent before on a TV documentary about Joe Orton.

In Nottingham Leonie recalled "He said I know who you are! I think you're Joe Orton's sister... Well I nearly fell through the floor!" 

At the fete we spoke about Leicester's Little Theatre - apparently Joe wasn't keen on the place because they never gave him any leading parts. 

After telling me about the plans for the Entertaining Mr Sloane anniversary at University of Leicester (in 2014) we posed for a photo together. 

Back to the Nottingham book launch in 2016, and Leonie explains to the audience how she felt compelled to share her memories of brother John (Joe) after John Lahr's Prick Up Your Ears was published in 1978.

Her turning point came however, when she ripped off her rubber gloves and fled from her pot-washing job. A moment anyone who has ever worked in dead-end employment will identify with. That move led to college and the Open University...

Leonie Orton has a sense of the absurd which most of her readers will agree is genetic. It also seems to be something that working class East Midlanders (like myself) can strongly relate to.

The way she reads aloud the appallingly insensitive and pompous letter from Peggy Ramsay - which was written prior to Joe's funeral - turns it into a masterpiece of black comedy. Sickening and hilarious in equal measures.

Incidentally, Leonie Orton reads the Edna Welthorpe letters better than anyone else does too - except, perhaps Kenneth Williams.

If you get the chance to attend one of Ms Orton's book launches, don't miss it. And if you can't see her in person, you simply must buy the book. 

I Had It In Me is available from the publishers here:

Sunday, 16 October 2016


What images are conjured up by the name of ‘Skegness’?

A queue of traffic stretching towards Lincolnshire’s most popular seaside resort?… More fish and chip shops than you can count on 6 hands?… the numerous caravan parks?… or Butlin’s holiday camp?

The railways made Skegness, just as they did so many other British seaside resorts. The familiar picture of a fisherman bounding along with the slogan ‘Skegness is so bracing!’ was originally a railway poster by John Hassall (1908) and has become an enduring emblem of the town.

Billy Butlin was the next individual that should take credit for Skegness’s tourism industry. After making his fortune by opening a chain of seaside amusement parks in resorts such as Mablethorpe, Hayling Island and Bognor, Butlin opened his first holiday camp at Skegness in Easter 1936, with admissions rising from 500 per week to 1,000 per week by June of that year (Butlin, 1982: 107). This holiday camp still survives whereas other Butlin camps at Filey and Clacton have folded.

The other most popular way to holiday in Skegness is in a caravan. As Walton argues, Skegness saw a decrease in ‘serviced bedspaces’ between 1950 and 1998, but ‘gained more than 15,000 caravans over the same period’, and saw a boom due to second holidays, and self-catering at the turn of the 80s and 90s. (Walton, 2000: 69).

Like Blackpool, Skegness appears to be a resort that acknowledges the working-class tastes of its consumers. The visitors guide usually has the resort’s nickname ‘Skeggy’ unpretentiously emblazoned across its front cover. Comic T-shirts refer to the town as 'Skeg Vegas'.
In summer 2016 I returned to Skegness after an interval of many years. I found that very little had changed since childhood. The sands were still reassuringly crowded with families, there were still plenty of places to buy fish and chips, and the delicious egg custards that aunty enjoyed were still bigger in the Skeggy bakeries than anywhere else on earth.

A Hillbilly shooting gallery that I’d last played in the 1990s was still here, firing water back at those sure-shots who managed to hit a target. One thing which did stand out as being new were the stalls openly selling alcoholic slush! This is a beverage which will cool you off and send you tipsy after sunbathing on the sands all day. 

Slush, fish and chips, donuts and the midday sun will force you to retire to your caravan for a much needed late afternoon nap... 

Further reading:

Butlin, Billy, 1982, The Billy Butlin Story, A Showman to the End, London: Robson Books.
Kerry, Matthew, 2012, The Holiday and British Film, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

Walton, John K., 2000, The British Seaside, Holidays and Resorts in the Twentieth Century, Manchester: Manchester University Press.