Purbeck company sees business boom over panto season

Operating from four giant warehouses, twin brothers from Wareham are responsible for putting the magic into no fewer than 30 major stage productions this Christmas from Aberdeen to Plymouth, including the London Palladium and the Birmingham Hippodrome.

Professional magicians and identical twins Gary and Paul Hardy-Brown run The Twins FX, an internationally respected firm making bespoke illusions, animatronics, models and special effects for stage and film.

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THE TWINS FX

Cinderella’s coach is pulled by animatronic horses which fly!

Cinderella’s flying carriage pulled by horses

While they have worked with Disney on the films Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, and have been praised for their flying DeLorean car in the stage adaptation of Back To The Future, there is always one time of year which is very special for them.

Pantomime season sees their work in huge demand across the UK with many of the major theatres using their amazing special effects to create shows with the wow factor.

Their impressive portfolio includes an animatronic giant for Jack and the Giant Beanstalk, a flying carriage pulled by lifelike horses to take Cinderella to the ball, and a huge crocodile capable of swallowing Captain Hook in the panto Peter Pan.

THE TWINS FX

You’ll believe a bus can fly, thanks to the twins’ amazing special effects

Best known for their amazing flying props

Their animatronic models are hugely intricate, able to move their ears, roll their eyes, open their mouths and much, much more, sometimes needing a dozen stagehands to operate them.

But the twins are best known in the business for their props which fly out over the audience with no visible means of support – and whether it’s a magic carpet, a double decker London bus or Doc Brown’s time travelling DeLorean car, it never ceases to gets gasps, cheers or even a standing ovation.

THE TWINS FX

The team at Wareham’s Twins FX headquarters with Doc Brown’s DeLorean

“There’s usually a standing ovation”

Standing in one of the firm’s giant warehouses in Wareham, mostly empty now as almost all of their models are currently playing to packed houses around Britain, Gary said:

“Counterweight flying -the technology to make objects fly on stage and even take them out far over the audience – has been around for years and years, but we do try to push the boundaries and make our effects bigger and better each year.

“The flying DeLorean in Back To The Future is so spectacular that the theatre tries to keep as many photographs of it from being published as it can, to keep the experience new for audiences.

“There are fans who have been to see the show dozens of time, but still can’t quite believe it when Doc Brown arrives in the car, picks up Marty McFly and goes back to the future, the car turning 360 degrees on itself, spinning upside down and flying over the stalls.

“It’s a massive achievement we made as creative as the film itself, and the audience reaction is always amazing – they point, they gasp, they cheer and there’s usually a standing ovation.

“I’ve seen it many times myself and I know exactly how the effects are achieved, but it never fails to thrill me as well!”

THE TWINS FX

Paul and Gary Hardy-Brown on stage with their scary pantomime T-Rex

Working on another flying car for Broadway

Back To The Future will play until at least July 2023 at the Adelphi Theatre in London’s West End, where critics have called it amazing, but plans are well under way to stage it at the Winter Gardens on New York’s Broadway, so staff at The Twins FX are currently at work on another DeLorean.

Ultimately, up to eight performances of the musical could be playing simultaneously around the world, so the FX workshops may be producing flying cars – under remarkable levels of secrecy – for quite some time to come.

In the meantime, though, they have a collection of panto props to keep in tip top shape around Britain to make sure that there are no hitches with pantomime performances.

It means unexpected phone calls and urgent text messages for the twins at all times of the day and night, even over the Christmas period.

THE TWINS FX

Bill and Pete the crocodiles from Peter Pan, with their creators

Eight hour drive to inspect a crocodile

Gary said:

“My wife hates my phone going off as it often means that I have to drop what I’m doing and head off anywhere in the country.

“In the last few days I’ve had to drive to Manchester – four hours each way – because they thought the crocodile was refusing to eat Captain Hook, although there was actually nothing wrong with him and it was a wasted journey. Fortunately I like driving!

“Pantomime season is a very busy time for us and we do tend to heave a huge sigh of relief when it’s over.

“You hand over your baby to strangers and although we do stay with them through rehearsals to teach the assistant stage managers how to operate them and care for them, things still get damaged.”

THE TWINS FX

Heading up the beanstalk on the way to meet a giant or three

THE TWINS FX

Fee, fi, fo, fum … Nipper Norm has been known to make children scream

Jason Donovan is an evil circus ringmaster

Their models and animatronics have a working life of around six to ten years and are much loved by the staff. They all have names and personalities and some, like the rhino outside their Wareham HQ who was created for a beer advertising campaign, get an occasional change of wardrobe.

He sported a mask during Covid restrictions and currently has a multicoloured horn in support of the NHS and Purbeck nurses.

Their current crop of stars treading the boards include Nipper Norm, a 10 metre tall giant scaring children at the London Palladium’s Jack and the Beanstalk.

There’s also Nellie the Elephant at the Mayflower Theatre Southampton, where Jason Donovan plays an evil circus ringmaster in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Posh and Becks the animatronic rats in Dick Whittington at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

THE LONDON PALLADIUM

Dawn French as Dame Trot in Jack and the Beanstalk at the London Palladium

THE LONDON PALLADIUM

Julian Clary as The Spirit of the Beans is still upstaged by Nipper Norm

“The kids absolutely scream when he comes on”

Gary said:

“We are especially proud of Nipper Norm, who was built for the Palladium but will go on tour afterwards. He is 10 metres tall when standing, though that is a bit too tall for the stage so he comes on crouching, banging his fists on the ground, looking around, blinking his eyes and reaching out towards the audience.

“Norm is basically a big puppet and takes seven or eight people to operate him and they take about a week to learn to work him realistically. He’s very impressive and very threatening – the kids absolutely scream when he comes on.”

Other highlights in the twins’ portfolio include a flying dragon ridden by the wicked queen in Snow White, an 8 metre tall gorilla, sea monsters, Santa’s sleigh with a set of reindeer, a life size T-Rex (also in Snow White – sometimes it’s best not to ask why), a full size galleon, animatronic flying horses pulling Cinderella’s sparkling crystal coach, and a pink moped that flies and loops the loop in mid air.

THE TWINS FX

Paul and Gary Hardy-Brown with staff at The Twins FX, Wareham

“This part of the world is a real asset to us”

Paul Hardy-Brown added:

“We are the leading company in the field of theatrical special effects, illusions and animatronics. We combine personal service, innovation and engineering expertise, deliver exceptional effects and turn ideas into reality.

“We use local companies to help with the work wherever possible and feed into the local economy – we grew up in Wareham, love the area and have model makers and costume design students coming to us for work experience.

“This part of the world is a real asset to us – the people at Disney still can’t believe we are not in London, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

THE TWINS FX

It’s larger on the inside … with TV props in the Wareham offices of The Twins FX

Love of special effects sparked by Doctor Who

The brothers also collect film and television props from the world of magic and from scifi shows, especially from Doctor Who.

Their love of special effects was sparked at the age of seven when they watched Destiny of the Daleks, starring Tom Baker, being filmed at the ARC sandpits in Binnegar Heath, Wareham, where their father worked in maintenance.

They were hooked on magic when they were given a Paul Daniels magic book as children, which they later had him autograph when they met him while working on a cruise ship.

And now their growing collection of props includes Paul Daniels’ famous toupee, bought in November 2022 for nearly £3,000 at an auction held by his widow Debbie McGee.

The Twins FX HQ in Wareham, with their rhino showing his support for Dorset nurses

THE TWINS FX

The Twins giant warehouse is finally empty after supplying 30 pantos with props

THE TWINS FX

One of the last props to be delivered this year, for a charity music video featuring Sooty and Sweep

Outbid on eBay by The Sun newspaper

Gary said:

“We had previously tried to buy one of his toupees when it was on an eBay auction, but we were outbid by The Sun newspaper, so when we heard that Debbie McGee was selling off some of his effects we decided we had to go for it.

“It will take pride of place in a display case, probably on my desk. Paul Daniels was an inspiring magician and a great inventor, so the toupee is an awe-inspiring piece of magic history.

“It’s a fantastic addition to our collection, to go along with props and costumes owned by the greats of magic including Harry Houdini, Siegfried & Roy and Wayne Dobson.”

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