Hebden Bridge's Handmade Parade warehouse where giant puppets including David Hockney are made for festivals

Handmade Parade brings a little bit of magic and stardust to arts events and festivals. Julian Cole goes in search of wonder in a West Yorkshire warehouse. Pictures by Bruce Rollinson and Tony Johnson.

Along a rutted road in Hebden Bridge, there is a warehouse that from the outside looks like nothing much at all. Step inside, however, and you will tumble into a magic land of giant puppets, where David Hockney stares down with huge disapproval from on high, next to a figure with a flowing white beard. Arctic foxes also inhabit this space, as do horses, bears and other creatures.

And then there is Big Joe, the friendly giant. We shall return to the inescapably huge Joe in a moment and discover that he is not even the largest puppet here.

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This light industrial unit is home to Handmade Parade, set up in 2008 by the puppeteer Andrew Kim, who organised the original Hebden Bridge Handmade Parade, and everything grew from there.

Big Joe is prepared for a parade. Handmade Parade Studios, Hebden Bridge.  Picture: Bruce RollinsonBig Joe is prepared for a parade. Handmade Parade Studios, Hebden Bridge.  Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Big Joe is prepared for a parade. Handmade Parade Studios, Hebden Bridge. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

He was the first artistic director, and now has a home at the far end of the warehouse for his Thingumajig puppet company.

Handmade Parade likes to fill streets with joyful parades, and draws on carnival artists, puppeteers, makers, musicians, stilt walkers and performers from Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd.

In 2013, the company introduced the Lamplighter Festival in Todmorden. Other collaborations include a pageant for the Rochdale Canal Festival and parades for the Skipton International Puppet Festival. They recently performed at the popular Light Night in Leeds with the Royal Armouries, following a collaboration with the museum two years ago featuring fighting giants.

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Elaine Price is the director of Handmade Parade, and my guide to the wonders of this warehouse, a place where layers of tissue paper, paint and springy willow sticks are transformed into mythic-seeming creations lit from the inside.

Sandra McCracken working on a mould for a puppet's face.Sandra McCracken working on a mould for a puppet's face.
Sandra McCracken working on a mould for a puppet's face.

Elaine and artistic director Kerith Ogden run Handmade Parade and hire in artists and puppeteers.

“Everyone is freelance,” says Elaine. “Essentially we operate like a collective and we have a core of really reliable artists who have worked with the organisation for a long time.”

Before she joined Handmade Parade in February, Elaine worked as an arts consultant and before that for Arts Council England.

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“I knew about Handmade Parade because I have friends who live in Hebden and because I’ve also assessed their applications for funding. But I still had a lot to learn.”

Fran Sierevogel working on 'Big Joe'.Fran Sierevogel working on 'Big Joe'.
Fran Sierevogel working on 'Big Joe'.

Elaine takes care of the money side, leaving the artistic business to Kerith, who is a maker, illustrator and project manager, and has been involved since the first parade.

“Grassroots, community-led events, I believe, are the glue that holds towns together, and help them weather the storms, and I think we do them well and with heart,” Kerith says.

We move down the warehouse to stand before Big Joe, commissioned by Oldham Council in honour of Joseph Scholes, also known as the Northern Giant, who died in 1814 and was said to have been 6ft 7in tall. Fran Sierevogel, who has worked with the company since the beginning, is getting Big Joe ready for a carnival the following day in Hyde, Tameside. I ask if she is repairing him. “Yes,” Fran says, paintbrush in hand. “He doesn’t get out very often, as you’ll see it takes a lot of working.”

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Around her, three colleagues are putting this giant back together. “Fitting everything, remembering how it all works, remembering how to get the giant head to nod as he is pushed along, all the lovely trickery of large-scale puppetry,” says Fran.

Rowan Taylor constructing the framework for a backpack puppet's torso.Rowan Taylor constructing the framework for a backpack puppet's torso.
Rowan Taylor constructing the framework for a backpack puppet's torso.

Big Joe’s head and legs are separate and need to be attached to a buggy. “It takes about eight or nine people to get him around,” adds Fran. As Joe is about six metres tall, routes must be checked to make sure that there are no telegraph wires to accidentally garotte this huge but fragile puppet.

Fran is managing the next day’s parade, so will be in control of a walking crowd. “My biggest worry tomorrow is getting 500 people in the right order at the right time. And that’s a relatively small parade. There’s lots of organising before people start arriving.”

Everyone walks on a Handmade Parade, as no vehicles are involved, and there are no logos or commercial sponsorship either, as part of the founder’s ethos.

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As we move down the warehouse, we see some of the puppets used at the Royal Armouries. Next there is a collection of painted cardboard boxes that acted as the set of We Are Here, an uplifting 25-minute animated film you will find on YouTube. This was a community lockdown project.

“No one was doing outdoor events, we had nothing at all,” says Elaine. “The story was devised by different community groups. We did Zoom workshops, we did things at a distance, people sent bits in and kids from local schools painted birds and clouds.”

Now we walk beneath a David Hockney, commissioned by Bradford for a landmark birthday. “When I first started, David used to look down at the kitchen and I think he looks really disapproving,” says Elaine.

The face of 'disapproving' David Hockney puppet.The face of 'disapproving' David Hockney puppet.
The face of 'disapproving' David Hockney puppet.

Away from Hockney, Fran leads us to the king in this land of gargantuan puppets, who stands eight-metres tall when assembled.

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“That’s the head of the biggest giant,” she says. “He was originally Gulliver and then we used him for another parade in Paisley in Scotland and dressed him up as a ringmaster. I made the trousers, so I am tailor to the giant. A four metre inside leg measurement and he’s got a jacket I made him.”

Fran has a degree in textiles, qualified as an art teacher and then went into community arts. “And with community arts, you do everything, from mosaics to lanterns to costumes.”

Lantern season starts as the nights darken, says Elaine, as we stand next to Clifford the lion, who was designed and made by Kerith. Clifford can be illuminated or not, as the mood takes him, but either way it takes three or four people to get him moving.

Now we meet the members of Eye of Newt Theatre, who describe themselves as “three women making magical stuff, usually with loud cackling”. All of them have worked with Handmade Parade as freelance artists, but this is their own project.

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Sandra McCracken is sculpting a clay base for a papier-mâché mask for the Ghost of Christmas Present, part of a piece for Oldham Council, while Rowan Taylor is building a structure for a puppet body, and Melanie Daniels has just finished working on a suitcase theatre, with the stage, players and props all contained inside.

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Much of the work comes from local authorities. “They want communities to feel like they are all connected, and they also want spectacle. Everything we do is bespoke to that area. We design a parade of the size and length that the organisation wants, and we will do workshops with marginalised local groups.

“Things are tight because we pay our artists well, particularly bearing in mind that we are not a regularly funded organisation.”

Back outside, there is still no hint of what lies within. “One of my aims is to put a sign outside,” says Elaine, before she adds: “But would we rather pay artists, or have a sign?”