Artist’s half century with thespians is a celebration

Richard Bell oversees the set production for Cinderella at the Horbury Academy.
Richard Bell oversees the set production for Cinderella at the Horbury Academy.
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A rare glimpse of the villain’s volcano lair on the set of James Bond classic You Only Live Twice would be awe-inspiring for most people.

And for artist Richard Bell, this memory from a tour of Pinewood Studios in the 1960s was one of many which “set the bar high” for his own career.

David Wilby gets to workat the Horbury Academy.

David Wilby gets to workat the Horbury Academy.

But even walks around nearby Nostell with his wife Barbara give the prolific illustrator and writer inspiration for his work decorating sets with the Horbury Pageant Players – a collaboration he is now celebrating 50 years of.

“As soon as I finished my O-Levels, I turned up at the Horbury Pageant Players and offered to help. And I’ve been there ever since. We’ve got it down to a fine art now,” said Mr Bell.

The amateur dramatics group’s Cinderella pantomime, which opens on Wednesday, will be the latest production to benefit from his creative vision.

Mr Bell, 65, of Middlestown, said that from the age of seven he was “drawing, drawing, drawing”.

Pat Jones and Jan Coy.

Pat Jones and Jan Coy.

He added: “I was always interested in stories. Even the earliest things that I’ve written and illustrated, going back to seven, eight and nine, it would be a story.

When I was growing up, it was the time of the epics. You would be going to the cinema to see Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur. I’ve always had big ideas.”

The teenage Mr Bell’s first set design work with the group was for their version of Noël Coward’s comic play Blithe Spirit in 1967 .

“Some of the dialogue I can still remember today,” he said.

It was around this time on a trip to Pinewood Studios near London that he got to see Blofeld’s volcanic headquarters, the location of the fifth Bond film’s famous climactic scenes.

Mr Bell said: “It set the bar high for me. They were dismantling the James Bond volcano when I was there – you could’ve flown a helicopter in it.”

He also impressed by the set of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which came out in 1968.

Closer to home, Mr Bell took charge of set decoration for the Pageant Players’ production of Mary Hayley Bell’s wartime French resistance story Men in Shadow.

Mr Bell said: “It was a mini-drama within the Pageant Players itself. The designer stepped down and I ended up doing it.

“It was a fluke that I got to design a set when I was still on my foundation course.

“My set was very ambitious,” he added.

He trained at Batley Art College before moving up to Leeds Polytechnic. But in 1975 he studied for his MA in Natural History Illustration at the Royal College of Art, which prepared him for his main work.

Mr Bell provided animations for Watership Down, the 1978 film based on Richard Adams’ book about a group of rabbits escaping their threatened warren. Here he tried to conjure “the atmosphere of a rather claustrophobic Victorian vicarage”.

Also an author, his best-selling book Walks In the Rhubarb Triangle came out in 2009.

It describes various rambles on offer to those looking for this district’s most-celebrated crop.Comic strips, illustrations and rhubarb recipes are included.

But he said that decorating sets for the Pageant Players once a year – which can start with just a sketch on the back of an envelope – allows him to work collaboratively.

“That’s the joy of it, rather than me on my own sitting there in the studio, working away.”

Cinderella, which will take place at Horbury Academy, includes “a stately home for the Brexit era”.

He added: “I’ve been walking around Nostell looking at the trees, thinking, ‘Oh, that would be good for my forest scene’.”

The pantomime runs nightly between Wednesday and Saturday, February 18, from 7.15pm. There is an extra 2pm show on the last day. Tickets for £5-£6 can be bought on the door.