Camden News
Publications by New Journal Enterprises
  Home Archive Competition Jobs Tickets Accommodation Dating Contact us
The Review - FEATURE
Published: 18 June 2009
Michael May painting a set at the Globe Theatre
Michael May painting a set at the Globe Theatre
Painting popular culture

From Top Gear to I Claudius, Michael May has had an epic career as a set painter. With an exhibition of his personal works on display in Highgate, he talks to Dan Carrier about life in the industry

NEED a pristine view from a small window of New York’s Central Park?
Or a church hall for Dad’s Army volunteers to drill in? Or, if you are international pop star Robbie Williams, and you need a silky background to parade in front of, Michael May is your man. The West Hampstead artist has spent a career playing visual tricks on us, creating sets, backdrops and details for TV, film and pop videos.
Now a lifetime’s personal work away from demanding directors who needed a rolling vista “yesterday” and actors who don’t want the background to outshine them is the focus of an exhibition at Lauderdale House.
Mr May, who studied fine art at Edinburgh, first started as a scenic artist when he joined the BBC in 1975. Based at Television Centre in White City, he worked on such iconic programmes as Dad’s Army, Pennies From Heaven and I, Claudius.
“It was a golden era for British television,” he recalls. More recent productions who have had a dash of class provided by Michael include the hit period series Larkrise To Candleford and a number of the houses used in Big Brother. He also created the huge set used for BBC’s popular car show Top Gear – which required designing and painting the show’s logo, 100 feet long, in a disused air craft hangar in Guildford.
“The creative process is a team effort – a production manager will discuss with the director and screen writer what each scene would require,” says Mr May.
He then comes in to lend his eye to how to create the feel they are after.
His skill is such that he is often called on to recreate period pieces: if your characters are well-heeled Georgian gentlemen, then they’d have a portrait of themselves hanging in the drawing room – so Michael creates an image of an actor in a period style.
This skill has led him to create reproductions of such masters as Rembrandt. One giant copy of Rembrandt’s painting The Night Watch hangs in the mayor’s chambers in a town in Bratislava: Michael had painted it for a Pierce Brosnan film of the same name. Filmed in eastern Europe, it was handed over as a present to the town. “It took Rembrandt 13 months,” chuckles Mr May. “I did it in two weeks.”
Scenic artists were once crucial to the film industry. From the picture-perfect sunsets that provided the scenery for Oklahoma to the bustling cityscape of King Kong, all were the product of the brush of a scenic artist.
But with computer technology replacing even actors, the world of scenic artistry has changed. A new process called Translight allows film makers to use a giant transparent backdrop to project an image on. Then you can decide how bright you want it, allowing a street scene viewed through a window to gradually, and magically, turn from day to night.
“It is absolute wizard stuff,” says Mr May.
“A hand-painted back drop will not do that.”
But he is not perturbed by the threat of technology taking his job.
“Technology is making inroads into things I would have done in the past, but there will always be a role for us,” he says. “Because of the way films are made, there will always be something needed at the last moment they have not thought of. I can come in and put something together very quickly.”
The show at Laud­erdale House is the art work he has managed to fit in between his hectic professional schedule. His West Hampstead home is packed full of quirky pieces, and he says he has enjoyed removing art from various parts of his home and displaying them in a more ordered way.
“It has been interesting to group the different mediums I have worked in together for once – they are normally scattered around the house,” he jokes.
Michael May: Behind the Scenes is at ­Lauder­dale House, Waterlow Park, until Sunday.
020 8348 8716,

Comment on this article.
(You must supply your full name and email address for your comment to be published)





Your comments:

» Exhibition Listings
» Exhibition Tickets


Theatre Music
Arts & Events Attractions