Set designer Barney George: My dad killed Peter Duncan with a scorpion

Having grown up surrounded by film props, Barney George tells Sarah Freeman why he decided to make his own mark on the world of theatre.

Set designer Barney George. Picture by Ruth Mulholland.
Set designer Barney George. Picture by Ruth Mulholland.

It was perhaps inevitable that Barney George would end up following in his father’s footsteps.

Dick George is a propmaker for film and TV and when his son was growing up he often brought his work home.

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“I would come down to breakfast and quite often there would be rubber monsters on the kitchen table or the head of some alien that Dad was working on,” says Barney, a set designer of some 20 years standing. “Thanks to Dad I got to spend a lot of time at Shepperton Studios, which again was something of a child’s dream. He’d never set out to work in props and in fact had started out as a boat builder. He was designing canoes from a base in Twickenham when he was approached by the production team of a science fiction film. They wanted someone from an engineering background to design some props and happened to come across Dad.”

The set of the Kite Runner which was designed by Barney George. Credit Robert Day.

That science fiction film turned out to be the original Star Wars and Dick, who is still in the business, went on to work on a slew of landmark films, from the first Superman, starring Christopher Reeve, to Alien and Flash Gordon.

“Dad obviously has a lot of great anecdotes which I never tire of retelling. A few years ago I was working on a production with Peter Duncan and I told him that my dad was the one who had killed him in Flash Gordon. He’s only in the film for a few brief minutes and Dad made the scorpion which finishes him off. Funnily enough he told me that he still has one of the original models of the creature in his attic, so Dad’s work lives on.”

Like his father, George also began working as a propmaker for film and television, but soon found himself drawn to the theatre where he is now one of the country’s leading set designers.

Over the last 20 or so years, his credits have included productions of The Kite Runner, The Count of Monte Cristo, Beauty and the Beast and Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads.

The set of the Kite Runner which was designed by Barney George. Credit Robert Day.

Next up is Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. First penned in 1970, it was famously adapted for the big screen a couple of years later with Laurence Olivier as Andrew Wyke, the mystery writer who attempts to draw his wife’s lover (Michael Caine) into a deadly game of cat and mouse. This latest production sees George reunite with director Giles Croft and it’s also a rare chance for him to work in his home city.

“Love brought me north the best part of 15 years ago and family is what keeps me here,” he says. “My then partner and I started off living in York. It’s a beautiful city, but it wasn’t right for us. We wanted somewhere a bit more metropolitan so we literally got a map and the next big city along happened to be Leeds.

“It’s a great place and culturally there is so much going on, but the nature of this job means you travel all over the place, so for once it’s been good to have some time at home. Glen and I have worked together on a number of projects and when he found out he was directing Sleuth he got in touch and said he would really like me to be involved. It’s one of those plays that has done huge mileage on the amateur circuit and the film is in most people’s consciousness. So much so when you ask people if they have seen Sleuth, they immediately say yes, and then a few seconds later question whether they have.”

George has become known for his use of projection and it’s a skill audiences will see once again when the curtain goes up on Sleuth next month.

“It was written in the 1970s and in many ways it is a period piece, but I never want the audience to think they are looking at a museum. At the heart of the play is the clash of old meets new and while the action of the play takes place in an historic manor house, an element of projection just really seems to work.

“Any set design is very much a process and a collaboration. In the very early days quite a lot of time is spent just going over the source material again and again so that we are fully immersed in the play. I see the set, particularly in something like Sleuth, as another character. It has to have depth and detail and you only get that by knowing the story inside out.”

Research done, George takes himself away to work on the initial designs and while technology has given the designer another tool in his armoury, even the best software can’t beat some old fashioned model making.

“I do quite a lot of digital design, but one of the best parts of this job is staying up late glueing bits of cardboard together and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Plus lighting designers like to see a physical model of what the set will look like as it’s really the first chance they get to see what will work and what won’t.”

Later this year, George has already got a Rock n’ Roll musical in Ipswich booked in the diary and, with his own children now 13 and 10, he increasingly gets the chance to share his love of theatre with them.

“They are at a great age for theatre and I do love seeing productions through their eyes. We went to see the open air production of Michael Morpurgo’s Running Wild at Regent’s Park recently and we were all totally mesmerised. It’s about a boy and an elephant learning how to live again after the Boxing Day tsunami and it is just a beautiful piece of theatre.

“When I’m in the audience I try to watch a production as anyone else would, but given the chance, of course I can’t resist a bit of a nosy back stage just to see how certain things have been done. You don’t want to take away the magic, but the curiosity is still there.”

While most of George’s work has a relatively short shelf-life, quickly dismantled at the end of a run, one of his works has enjoyed greater longevity. His was the winning submission in a competition to design a countdown clock for the Tour de France in Yorkshire and The Grand Départ Mechanical Theatre took pride of place in Trinity Leeds.

Inspired by the mechanics of a bicycle itself, the clock featured a giant steel cog with a range of moving miniature cyclists of all kinds, from penny farthings to modern race bikes on its outside.

The outer cog counted down days, at the same time three inner dials counted down hours, minutes and seconds. As the days progressed more of the miniature riders were activated. It was a feat of delicate engineering and one which was brought to life by Dick, who made the clock from his son’s designs.

“If I hadn’t gone into set design I reckon I would have been a watchmaker. I love the intricacy and how each little part is necessary to make the whole work.

“When I heard about the competition I knew I had to enter and that project was a real labour of love. And you know what? I found out the other day that it’s now a Pokemon Go stop. Now that’s a claim to fame.”

Sleuth is at West Yorkshire Playhouse from September 28 to October 15. There will be a post-show discussion on October 12. 0113 213 7700,