Creative England interviews props master Michael Betts. He worked on a number of television and film projects over in the UK, most notably the entire run of A Touch of Frost, which aired for nearly twenty years. He talks about his career and gives advice to young props people starting out. For those of us in the US, their studio system seems vastly different from what we are used to, and the comparison is quite fascinating.
For a bit of fun, see how well you do in this quiz to match the sofa to the sitcom. It is interesting to see set photos of well-known sitcoms sans actors, so you can really focus on the design and selection of all the props and set dressing.
Originally printed in the article “Behind the Scenes” from Chambers’s Journal, 1898
Another department of this world of illusion is the property-room, so called because there the various “properties” or “props” are constructed and stored for use. Props comprise all the portable articles required in a play. Guns and pistols — which too often fail to go off at the critical moment — are props; loaves of bread, fowls, fruit, all made of a rough papier-mâché, are also props. We may also include those wondrous gilt goblets, only seen on the stage, which make such a nonmetallic thud when they fall and bounce upon the boards, as among the achievements of the property-man. But it is at pantomime-time that that individual is at his busiest. Big masks and make-believe sausages and vegetables, without which no pantomime would be complete, are mingled with fairy wands, garlands of artificial flowers, basket-work frames for the accommodation of giants, and other articles too numerous to mention. How the right things are forthcoming at the right moment is one of those mysteries only known to property-men. Had one of these useful members of the theatrical world the ability and inclination to write a book, what an entertaining volume could he turn out!
A London or first-class provincial theatre would not perhaps furnish examples of those stage contretemps which are often more amusing to the onlookers than the play itself; but in minor country theatres the most absurd and incongruous make-shifts are often introduced on the score of a very necessary economy. For example, at one country theatre, we remember a “prop” which figured in Act I as a sofa. It was a flat piece of scenery about six feet in length, with scroll edges which represented feet. In Act II this same prop was turned round, and hung upside down by a cord round the hero’s neck. It was painted on the side now presented to the audience like a boat; and as the actor grasped the heroine with one arm, he worked the boat up and down with the other while he proceeded across the stage behind a line of canvas representing a stormy sea. On this touching picture the curtain came down amid uproarious applause. Another occasion we call to mind, upon which a flat piece of scenery was used to represent a very solid object, when the resulting applause was of a more derisive nature. In this piece, a very full-flavoured melodrama, the heroine was in peril of her life by being placed by the villain across a railway track. On came an impossible locomotive, piloted at the back by a scene-shifter invisible to the audience, until by some mishap the engine fell flat on its face like a pancake, amid a roar of laughter from a delighted public. Such accidents as these never occur in a well-equipped theatre. Indeed, the complaint is sometimes made that the scenic illusion is so complete and beautiful that the attention of the audience is unduly distracted from the action of the play.
I found I had an aptitude for prop making and polystyrene carving which was just coming into its own for 3D work. This was of course long before the days of vac forming. Pretty well everything was made in house with the exception of everyday furniture which was generally trawled from junk shops and the like. Hector Riddle, the head of props was quite outstanding: I remember the Bofors gun he created for Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun was especially impressive. It was the level of care taken on the details that stood out.
The rest of the posts are equally as enlightening and informative.
In 1882, Jacob Larwood published a brief account of the expenses and receipts for a Medieval theatrical performance. It is one of the few pieces of evidence we have from this era which shines some light on the practicalities of technical theatre in general, and prop production specifically.
In a roll of the churchwardens of Bassingborn, in Cambridgeshire, is an account of the expenses and receipts for acting the play of St. George, in that parish, on the feast of St. Margaret, 1511. The company collected upwards of £4 in twenty-seven neighbouring parishes for getting up the play. They disbursed about £2 in the representation. These disbursements were—to four minstrels or waits of Cambridge, for three days, 5s. 6d.; to the players, in bread and ale, 3s. 2d.; to the “garnement” man for “garnements” and properties, 2os.; to John Hobard, brotherhood-priest, for the playbook, 2s. 8d.; for hire of the croft or field in which the play was exhibited, 1s.; for property-making or furniture, 1s. 4d.; for fish and bread, and setting up the stages, 4d.; for painting three phantoms and four tormentors (i.e. devils). . . The rest was expended for a feast on the occasion, for which were provided “four chickens for the gentlemen, 4d.”
Under this system, there were 12d (12 pence) in a shilling and 20s (20 shillings) in a pound(£), making 240d in a pound.
This note proves that the theatrical term “property” is of respectable antiquity. What the “properties” were in this instance cannot be ascertained; but in a mystery, founded on the story of Tobit, exhibited at Lincoln in 1563, there occurs among the properties—hell-mouth, with a nether chap; Sarah’s chamber; a great idol with a club; the city of Jerusalem, with towers and pinnacles; the city of Rages, with towers and pinnacles; the city of Nineveh; the king’s palace of Nineveh; old Toby’s house; a firmament with a fiery cloud, etc.
Chapter 2: Stage Traps and Pitfalls – Stage Properties
Now, throughout the whole range of dramatic literature, there is no play easier to produce than Shakespeare’s noble tragedy of “Hamlet.” In the most wretchedly-appointed theatre an old green baize, a rampart set, a palace arch chamber, a back landscape, and a pair of castle gates are usually to be found. And what temple of the drama does not possess a couple of huge throne chairs, upholstered with Turkey twill and all ablaze with Dutch metal. The bare announcement that “Hamlet” would be played for one night was sufficient to gladden the hearts of the stage-carpenter and the property-man. The prompter would scribble his plots, i.e., lists of scenery and accessories required for the tragedy in a few moments, and many an experienced property-master would scorn to accept a “plot” of “Hamlet.” There is, however, one most important “property” used in the first scene of the fifth act of that tragedy, and its absence would be fatal alike to the Gravedigger and the Prince of Denmark. It is nothing more nor less than a human skull – Yorick’s skull! Now, the managers of some provincial theatres cannot boast of having in their heterogeneous collection of properties a real cranium viri. Consequently, the ingenuity of the property-man, that veritable Jack-of-all-trades, is frequently put to a severe test before a presentable substitute can be produced. Continue reading →
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies