November 27th, 2013
Once upon a time there was a legendary training programme for make-up and hair artists run by the BBC. It taught you everything you could possibly need to know for every job that you would be called upon to create – from Top of the Pops to Last of the Summer Wine, News to Sports coverage.
The Holy Grail of education, the BBC course for decades produced legions of MUAs at the top of their game and holds its place as the cornerstone of the development of the TV industry in this country.
One of the graduates of this iconic training school is Chrissie Powers, now owner of Hairlite Media which provides muas for news and current affairs at MediaCity. Her interest in make-up began as a teenager in the 1950s when she read about the BBC training following a school careers talk and wrote to them as a precocious 14 year old. “They gently turned me down,” Chrissie explains, “and replied to advise me to go to the London College of Fashion to do the hairdressing course which took in other elements that were considered helpful in the training of prospective make-up artists. Of course they pointed out I was much too young.”
Today every tech has a media make-up course, but back then London was the only place so she applied to the London College of Fashion and in April 1964 headed Down South. Two years later, on graduating Chrissie reapplied to Auntie Beeb and was accepted onto the three month intensive course.
“We learnt every discipline of the day, using morticians wax for false noses, lumps, bumps and slit throats. Copying from pictures, we created William Pitt and Fagin, ageing, illness, characters such as tramps, drug and alcohol abusers, beatings, burning and accidents. The days were full; we practised on each other to start with and then had agency models. After each successful assignment we would go to a little studio properly set up for this and assessed our work.”
Hair too was an integral part of the work and the trainees were expected to master dressing as well as making facial hair and wigs, which Chrissie acknowledges as a supremely skilled art handled by the unsung heroes. The magic of Marcel irons had to be learned – a 19th century invention like today’s tongs though without the cable – which proved a difficult skill, but a fabulous Eureka moment when accomplished. Wigs had to be fitted, dressed and cared for, bald caps created and fitted, as well as all periods of hair dressing.
Another challenge was learning about continuity when hardly any scripts are shot in order. Using Polaroids, a wonderful instant invention, the alternative had been drawing. With no Internet, research took up a vast amount of time.
Once the three months were completed and off they went to Television Centre in January 1967 to continue what was really an apprenticeship for two years.
Joining the other 150 make up artists, Chrissie’s first job was Blue Peter followed by Top of the Pops, Z Cars and Play School. This was swiftly followed by a series filmed in Brighton with Roy Dotrice, Avis Landen and Alistair Sim called Misleading Cases directed by John Howard Davis.
Over the next decade, Chrissie’s skills would be called upon on some of the most enduring TV to the era. She was working on That Was The Week That Was when they created the Classic Sketch featuring the Two Ronnies and John Cleese
. “The 1960s really was a time of ambition when you felt that anything was possible,” she comments. “One day you’d be on TOTP with The Beatles and then next making up Valerie Singleton.”
After a career break to bring up her children, Chrissie freelanced at both the BBC and HTV during the ‘70s and ‘80s, eventually rejoining the staff in 1984 and this proved to be some of her happiest times, with a highlight of this being Maid Marian and her Merry Men with Tony Robinson as both writer and actor. The characters he created set many a challenge – big heads, strange noses and ears, as well as lots of baldness and head casting – and Chrissie’s skills were key to the success of the show.
During this time she also worked on Casualty which won a BAFTA. “It was the first hospital drama to do injuries and we had great medical staff on the team who would help you to create realistic looks. It was such an innovative time, and we were filming in the most diverse locations – in caves and on mountains, you had to crawl into the craziest of spaces with your kit. Terrifying. I particularly remember a smelly high rise block of flats having missiles thrown at us and another time sitting on the pavement in the centre of Bristol at 3am.”
The winds of change blew through the BBC in the 1990s and all MUAs found themselves freelancing. The new millennium saw her relocate to Manchester where she was as Head of Make-up for Coronation Street for 3½ years before she found herself on the final days of Last of the Summer Wine with its myriad cast of iconic actors and all the forces of nature that combine to create Yorkshire Moors weather – “it’s never easy when it can change in a minute, played havoc with the hair.”
Cranford followed along with Captain America and War House before MediaCity came knocking and Hairlite now provides 30 muas for Breakfast, News, Sport and North West.
Chrissie’s essential piece of kit includes mattifiers. “On live TV they are a life saver, especially on a programme like Question Time or Newsnight if all you have is a good mattifier and some powder, you can work.”
For make-up artists trying to break into TV, she advises they, “do their research properly before choosing where to study. Get some life experience and ideally a qualification in hair, which will carry you through your entire career. Always be willing to listen and learn from those around you, whatever level you’re at. And don’t do something for nothing. Student films are great ways of learning, but be wary of paid jobs that require you to bring your own kit. MUAs should bring their own tools, not have to buy products.”
She also worries that colleges today encourage students to buy too many products, which is costly and often go off before they’re used up.
At a time when most people are dreaming of a quiet life, Chrissie Powers is proof that a good education will least you a lifetime.