My Love Affair with Foley:
Preparing for Dusty Horne’s Sound and Fury, A New Play
by Natasha Pring
It all started at the home of BBC Radio in Bristol. I’d been cast in the role of a Foley artist in an adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood which presented the play as if it were a live radio performance. When I got the call offering me the job I didn’t even know what a Foley artist was but the description sounded amazing. I was told I would have no lines; my job was to create the sound effects for the Dylan’s fictional world of Llareggub. My research into Foley began!
I was put in touch with a lady from the BBC radio department. Over coffee in Clifton, she told me about a pioneering female Foley artist called Beryl Mortimer, more affectionately known in the business as ‘Beryl the Boot’. Naturally I had to ask why. The image she painted of Beryl lugging around a sack of shoes to all of her radio and film jobs sparked my imagination, providing the germ for my character in Under Milk Wood and, though I didn’t know it yet, beginning a much longer journey.
Four years on and my fascination and joy in Foley had not diminished. Nor had my interest in Beryl Mortimer. Frank Tamburin, the co-creator of Dusty Horne’s Sound and Fury and I had talked about doing something about Beryl for TV perhaps, or a short film. But there was surprisingly very little about her online. Interesting that such an apparent legend in her field would have so little information upon her. All I could find was an image of Beryl doing Foley with Stan Fiferman[i], and her obituary on file at the BFI library.[ii]
The obituary gave us both -we are, admittedly, imaginative sorts- an idea of the sort of eccentric character Beryl might have been. The fact that there was so little information about her made us even more curious to ask, why not? Searching through the files at the BFI, I managed to come across a list of some of Beryl’s credits, including 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but hardly any of the movies listed were actually credited on the movie database, imdb.com.
Our research suggested that it was only in the 1980s that Foley artists began to appear regularly in film credits. This was the irony of being a Foley artist, whose work should go unnoticed if they are doing it properly – a fascinating juxtaposition for an actor. Being a female Foley artist, we can only imagine that Beryl would have had an even tougher job on her hands to be recognised. Were there other female Foley artists of the time that we will never hear of, or was Beryl an anomaly? This started a spiral of ideas.
In the absence of fact, Frank and I decided to create a fictional character, inspired by Beryl: an artist who is ‘heard but never seen’. It would be a play exploring the magic of sound on film, through the lens of an aging female Foley artist in the 1960s. She would show her favourite films from her career, performing live Foley to her captivated audience in a bid to be seen and heard within the male-dominated film industry. Perhaps a serious goal, but we wanted to ensure that the play was fun too. Our heroine needed a suitable name: Dusty Horne was born, the name came from a fortunate tongue twist during a conversation about Dusty Springfield and Goldie Hawn.
We watched hundreds of potential movies that Dusty could perform her Foley to, spanning from the 1930s to the 1960s. In the interests of performing rights we focused on films in the public domain (at least in America), which led us down some curious paths. Prompted by this exploration of semi forgotten films, I read a great book about Roger Corman: Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses (2013), which gave a brilliant insight into the B-movie genre. A lot of the movies featured were admittedly awful: bad dialogue and acting, monsters made of toilet rolls and ping pong balls, but all with an enormous sense of fun. Of course B-movies go hand in hand with exploitation – of material and talent. As Francis Ford Coppola said about Roger Corman, he “exploited all of the young people who worked for him, but he really gave you responsibility and opportunity. So it was kind of a fair deal.”[iii] We eventually whittled our list of movies down, selecting those that offered scenes with scope to perform Foley, as well as hopefully echoing Dusty and her journey. Frank began work on the script, while we both continued to obsess over Foley techniques and how to bring them to life onstage.
As part of the script development we were very lucky to be connected with the brilliant Foley artist, Ruth Sullivan who has inspired us with stories, tricks of the trade, and ways to make certain sounds effects, like putting a plastic bag over a microphone to create the sound of an avalanche. Sadly we couldn’t find a spot in the play to do that one. Once the script was ready to be rehearsed we held a three-week Research and Development phase at the Pleasance Theatre in London, helmed by my Under Milk Wood director, Kath Rogers. We gathered props from markets, vintage shops, even the storage cupboard, and created our own Foley pit filled with gravel for walking upon. Armed with the tools of the trade, Ruth came into rehearsals and helped turn me into Dusty Horne, Foley artist!
There’s a point in the show where I perform the Foley to a rather complex sequence from Hitchcock’s classic, The Lady Vanishes (1938). These days each sound is recorded individually on different tracks and then mixed together at the end, but back in the day it was all done on a single track, with a pair of Foley artists performing the sounds together (like Beryl and Stan in the picture). In the play, our The Lady Vanishes moment is where Dusty really gets to show off, so I do it all on my own. Ruth taught me to how to keep my eyes fixed on the monitor while picking up a prop and creating the sound (hopefully) in perfect sync with the action onscreen. Whilst going about my day I’d find myself practicing, pouring hot water into my cup of tea without looking. Meanwhile a trip to the cinema changed, as I began to listen to film in a completely different way.
As well as Ruth’s invaluable input, we have also visited Universal Sound (one of the only studios in the UK dedicated solely to Foley) to watch the masters at work. Walking into the studio was quite literally, magical. A room of furniture, objects and props that had been collected over the years bundled on top of each other. A creaky old chair, broken blinds, shoes, gravel, paper, coffee cups, the list is endless. I felt like we were being invited into a secret world. On one of the days I went they were doing all the sounds for a new television crime drama, Marcella (2016) starring Anna Friel.Check Paul Hanks let me put on the cans and ‘try my feet’ at some Friel footsteps – a total buzz!
I got to watch Paul working with different shoes and surfaces to create the feet for the many characters in Marcella, as well as manipulating the mics alongside his technician up in the booth. I discovered it’s not just the Foley artist who creates the authenticity of the sound but also the technician. For example making the sound of fire by manipulating a creaky basket, whilst the technician adds reverb and bass to create the full effect.
It fascinates me that Foley artists do all this work and yet no one really knows. They work in a dark studio all day long and when the work is complete they don’t get to go to the screening or accept a round of applause. They just clear up the day’s mess and start again the next morning. And they’re hard pushed to get a credit at the end of it. Why do it then?
Perhaps because it’s a wonderful, magical, and mysterious art.
Chatting to the team at Universal Sound, we discovered that some of them had in fact worked with Beryl when they were starting out. Their amazing stories of ‘Beryl the Boot’ made us realise that our fictional Dusty was closer to Beryl than we could have thought! Beryl really was a character, more of an actress, a performer, than a Foley artist. She thought she was a Hollywood Star, and why not? I wonder how she dealt with the lack of recognition in her day. I definitely like to think that Beryl would have enjoyed Dusty Horne’s Sound and Fury and that we will be, in some small way, giving her some of the recognition she deserves. Perhaps she’s looking down on us and having a good chuckle. I hope we do her proud.
Dusty Horne’s Sound and Fury will be at the Pleasance Queen Dome, Edinburgh at 2.30pm from 3rd to 29th August (not 15th).
More on Dusty Horne’s Sound of Fury: http://vilearts.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/dusty-dramaturgys-sound-and-fury-frank.html
Nashawaty, Chris (2013) Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B-Movie. New York, Abrams.
[i] From Tacita Dean’s artwork, Foley Artist (1996). Summary here: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/dean-foley-artist-t07870/text-summary
[ii] In his obituary, Fiferman expresses a hope that she will “continue to work in the Foley theatre in heaven. She was a great trouper and will be sadly missed but never forgotten.” (Stage, Screen and Radio: September 2001, p.22: BECTU. Source: BFI Reuben Library).