"It's wonderful doing animation, but it’s so high-tech and digital. It’s good to get back to the glue gun.”
The last year has seen Hove-based author and illustrator Polly Dunbar spending time in Ireland overseeing the animation on her new CBeebies TV show Tilly And Friends, soundtracked by longtime collaborator Gomez’s Tom Gray.
Now the pair are back in their home city for the fourth Long Nose Puppets show, which is receiving its world premiere at Komedia this Christmas.
The puppet theatre was set up by Dunbar and former college mate Katherine Morton. Long Nose Puppets, featuring original soundtracks by Gray, has previously produced live adaptations of Dunbar’s picture books Fly Away Katie in 2007, and Penguin in 2009, having launched the company in 2006 with Shoe Baby by Dunbar’s mother Joyce.
This long-awaited return to the puppet format is based around Dunbar’s latest book Arthur’s Dream Boat, whose origins date back ten years.
“When I was living in Brighton as a student I saw this boy standing on the beach,” recalls Dunbar. “There was a boat on the horizon, and where he was standing it looked as if it was sitting on his head. I was the only person who could see it so I did a little sketch, it was quite surreal.”
The turquoise colours of Brighton sea found their way into the finished book Arthur’s Dream Boat, which is the story of a boy who dreams of a beautiful pink and green boat with a stripey mast.
But no one he speaks to about the dream wants to listen to him.
And they don’t notice the same boat growing out of the top of Arthur’s head – and getting so large he will soon be able to sail off on a journey in it.
“Arthur’s Dream Boat is about Arthur’s imagination, and the fact that no one will listen to him,” says Dunbar.
“It’s about getting the family into the boat to go on a journey.
“The thing I like about picture books and dreams is their similarity. You can go anywhere in a picture book or a dream.
“Children have the imagination that they can travel – they don’t need to go to the other side of the world, they can climb up the stairs and be on the side of a mountain.”
Although the book, which was published in March, was written before the rise of the now ubiquitous smartphone, Dunbar gets a dig into the obsession with a virtual world.
“It seems more relevant now,” she says. “The brother in the story is on his computer, trapped into this technology and not listening.
“Everybody is so busy and not listening to this little boy being creative.
“In the same way, people are on their phones all the time and missing what is going on under their noses.”
She admits when it came to writing the story the idea that it might eventually become a stage show influenced her a little.
“I wrote Penguin and Fly Away Katie first and then adapted them,” she says. “When I was writing this book I had more of an understanding of theatre and I think it was in the back of my mind how it might work onstage.
“This book has a lot more characters than Penguin did – the show has written itself. The others we had to adapt more by adding characters and scenes.”
Having initially been based in a tiny studio in Brighton, Long Nose Puppets has now decamped to a bigger space in Lewes.
What makes the puppet shows so special for Dunbar is that they are about living in the moment.
“When I write the books or television programmes I don’t know how they are being received,” she says. “In the theatre there is a special magic, where everyone is going on a journey together.
“The whole room is dispelling their disbelief, and believing these puppets are real.”
Dunbar believes Long Nose Puppets are getting to a point where they know what they are doing.
“Every time we do a show we want to try something else and push it a little bit further,” she says.
“The exciting thing is solving the problems – we don’t have animation or CGI, we are using material, timing and sound effects.”
But the simplest solutions are often the most effective.
“Sometimes you go around the houses trying to work out something,” says Dunbar.
“When we had to represent a giantess with a cold the simplest way was to put a handkerchief on the end of a stick.”
Although Dunbar and Moreton make the puppets, they leave their operation to three professional puppeteers, who are currently having to deal with the problems of animating an octopus, and how to get a whole family in one boat.
“At one point we have two puppeteers operating six or seven puppets,” says Dunbar. “It’s a fight to get them all in there – you wouldn’t want to be in that position all day.
“We are really enjoying putting it together – Long Nose Puppets is about a group of friends making each other laugh.”
Having worked on the stage version of Arthur’s Dream Boat since June, with plans to take the show on tour next year, Dunbar is looking forward to returning to illustrating in January.
“As soon as this is done I’m illustrating Pat-A-Cake Baby by my mum,” says Dunbar. “She wrote the story a few years ago as a sequel to Shoe Baby.
“Sitting at home illustrating will feel very quiet after this...”
- Arthur's Dream Boat is at Komedia, Gardner Street, Brighton, from Sunday, December 23, to Sunday, January 6. Shows start at 11am and 2pm (except Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day). Tickets £9.50/£7.50. Call 0845 2938480