The Museum of Forkbeard: Is it Devon’s weirdest attraction?
- Credit: Archant
From the sublime to the quite ridiculous, the Museum of Forkbeard is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Chrissy Harris can hardly believe her eyes when she visits
A giant crow stands near a time travelling machine while an old lady with no face laughs hysterically just across from the giant teddy bear and brontosaurus skeleton with an angel made from chicken bones in its skull.
Either I’m unconscious or this really is what lurks behind the door of the innocuous-looking warehouse I’ve just entered, just outside the pretty village of Holcombe Rogus.
“Hello!” comes a voice. “Thank you for coming!” says Tim Britton. “Do you want a coffee?”
After quickly establishing that this is a real person communicating with me, I burst out laughing and continue to do so for the next hour or so.
The Museum of Forkbeard is the home of Forkbeard Fantasy, a comic theatre and film company that has spent the past 44 years touring the world with its unique brand of surreal shows.
Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam and film director and writer Mike Hodges are patrons of this beautifully bonkers performance group, founded by brothers Tim, Chris and Simon Britton.
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Forkbeard’s groundbreaking mix of street and stage theatre, animation, poetry and interactive sculptures has captivated audiences across the globe for decades.
But after years of relentless travelling, Tim and Chris and expert prop designer Penny Saunders, have decided to live a (slightly) quieter life.
Today, you can see the magic of Forkbeard in a permanent ‘living’ exhibition at the group’s Waterslade Studios, just outside Holcombe Rogus, near Tiverton.
“We only did it as an experiment last year after we stopped touring….Oh, sorry, I’m just going to turn him off,” says Tim, heading over to silence Captain Weird.
(Our conversation is regularly punctuated by such motion sensor-activated voices, along with chickens squawking and monsters chattering – all perfectly normal here.)
“It seemed like a good idea to turn what we do into a museum, us now being in our sort of phase of crustification,” says Tim. “We’re just an old, paleontological layer of the arts scene now.”
In the 1970s, Forkbeard shook the rather formal world of theatre to its core when Tim, Chris and elder brother Simon started making shows, along with the incredibly talented artist Penny, who somehow managed to bring the figments of various colourful imaginations to life.
Over the years, audiences have seen everything from a 16ft high, 10ft wide inflatable blue woman (the star of a production, called Myth, 1986) to a giant eye in a doctor’s bag (Hypochondria, 1987).
Then there was The Fall of the House of Usherettes (1995) celebrating 100 years of film and featuring two stone giants that collapse when the house falls down at the end of the show.
These amazing feats of theatrical engineering, as well as their pioneering use of film on stage combined to make Forkbeard stand out from the crowd. No one had ever seen anything like this before.
“It all broke out from the conventional theatres, really,” says Penny. “If you can remember that era – you probably can’t!” she adds, laughing. “But anyway, back then everyone was trying to find different rules, to break the old rules.
“You had amazing people performing that wouldn’t normally have done it – these weren’t theatre people. They hadn’t done a course, they didn’t know Shakespeare but they came up with a completely different way of entertaining audiences and making them think.”
Tim and Penny (who ‘ended up together’) say being pioneers didn’t make them rich and famous in a conventional sense but they have had the great fortune of spending their entire working lives making people laugh.
“We were jolly lucky, I tell you,” says Penny. “It would be much harder now. There are so many more people in the business – and so many more people. You’ve got about two billion more brains now.”
She’s right but it’s difficult to concentrate because Tim is wandering around wearing a tiny four-poster bed around his neck. His head has now become attached to a ridiculously tiny body.
“Anyone that comes here is allowed to wear these things,” he says, as I try to compose myself when he swaps the bed for a crow hat. “The kids love it in here. They start off being a bit phased but then they open up. This is very much a carefree sort of place. You can touch it all.”
“Yes,” says Penny. “I suppose these things in here are not going to last for long, but then nor are we, so that’s fine.”
Forkbeard has also toured the country, organising exhibitions at the V&A, the Southbank and numerous galleries and museums across the country.
Now, however, it’s all staying put in Devon, the place Penny, Tim and Chris have called home for more than 30 years.
“We love it here,” says Tim, admitting that it’s a relief to be settling down at last. “Although, I can’t really imagine just being out in the garden or sitting in front of the telly.”
That is clearly never going to happen. Tim still produces animation films, Chris creates installations and Penny continues to make her beautiful works of art. In 2015, she finished The Restless Temple, a moving sculpture in Cornwall’s Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens.
“We’ll go on being inventive,” says Penny, as she helps me up onto the puppet unicorn in her studio.
“You can actually go on playing for a lot longer than after your childhood, if you want to. We’ve certainly found that out.”
The Museum of Forkbeard, which includes Penny’s studio just down the road, will be open as part of Devon Open Studios, from 8 to 23 September, Thurs to Fri, 11am to 6pm. The museum also opens by appointment for schools and birthday parties.
A famous following
“Terry Gilliam suddenly discovered us and was really fascinated by some of the techniques we were using and became our patron,” says Tim.
Film director Mike Hodges (Get Carter and Flash Gordon) is also a patron.
Aardman is a great friend and supporter of Forkbeard. There’s a film by the world-famous animation company on the Forkbeard website.
“We’ve sure met lots of people along the way but name dropping has never been our forte!” says Tim.