A STUDENT has given a fascinating behind-the-lens insight on what it was like photographing the late Christopher Somerville.

Mr Somerville, who ran the Harlequin Puppet Theatre in Rhos on Sea, Britain's first permanent puppet theatre, died earlier this year aged 83.

Kev Curtis, of Colwyn Bay, is a self-taught photographer. He is currently studying for a BA Hons degree in photography at Llandrillo College.

North Wales Pioneer: Kev Curtis asked Mr Somerville if he could photograph him holding and working his marionettes.Kev Curtis asked Mr Somerville if he could photograph him holding and working his marionettes. (Image: Kev Curtis / Kev Curtis Photography)

As part of his final degree show entitled 'Breaking The Fourth Wall', Mr Curtis is highlighting the independent and alternative entertainment scene in North Wales.

Mr Curtis phoned the Harlequin Puppet Theatre on October 9, 2022. He spoke to Mr Somerville to ask if he could visit and take some photos, but initally his request received a "firm but friendly" no. 

The 59-year-old said: "Once I'd introduced myself and explained what I wanted to do, Chris refused citing that I was the fourth photographer in the past few weeks to have rung up asking for the same thing. He mentioned that he was 84 and no longer needed any further publicity as he'd already done many, many years of interviews and performances for TV. He also said that he probably didn't have a lot of time remaining. 

"His tone was friendly but firm. 

North Wales Pioneer: Christopher Somerville took Mr Curtis backstage to show him his collection of puppets. Christopher Somerville took Mr Curtis backstage to show him his collection of puppets. (Image: Kev Curtis / Kev Curtis Photography)

"We carried on chatting for a while as one subject led onto another and before long, he was regaling me with stories of how he eventually ended up on the North Wales coast, being from Yorkshire initially. He mentioned his mother suffered from terrible asthma and was advised by a doctor, all those years ago, that if she wanted to see an improvement in health, she should go and live somewhere where the air was cleaner, such as by the sea. He spoke about how Colwyn Bay used to be in the 50s and 60s, how the pier used to be and the road that lead from it went straight to an amusement park, which is now where the shopping mall is, and how also the station had to be moved to accommodate the new roadway built around it. 

"He disliked intensely what was going on with the redevelopment of the prom as it meant that cars just drove past the entrance to the puppet theatre - nobody could stop anymore to read the signs about what was coming up for the children's half term shows. Eventually, it came out that I was a student - something I'd omitted from mentioning before. He paused, injecting a couple of seconds of silence into our conversation and then told me that because I was a student, he would allow me to come along and take some photographs - but not yet. He had a show to rehearse for and didn't want to be disturbed."


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A month later, on November 10, Mr Curtis was permitted to visit. 

"When I photographed him [Chris], I found him pleasant, and very accommodating," Mr Curtis said. 

"He didn't rush me, and I was free to take shots of the inside of the theatre. 

"I had never been there before; I had only seen it from the outside. Because of where the entrance is situated (on a bend), it always made it difficult to stop and have a look. 

North Wales Pioneer: Chris Somerville ran the entire puppet theatre by himself. Chris Somerville ran the entire puppet theatre by himself. (Image: Kev Curtis / Kev Curtis Photography)

"Chris put me at ease immediately, and was very chatty, giving me the history of the place, how he started, what acts he'd seen that had made an impression upon him, etc. He asked me what shots I wanted and I replied that I wanted to see him holding and working his marionettes. I took a shot that he thought was a bit too cliché, so he took me backstage to show me the collection of puppets."

Mr Curtis stayed at the theatre for no longer than a couple of hours.

"Chris demonstrated his various puppets, sometimes giving me a brief history of them, how old they were, how he'd repaired them in the past - I found it all quite fascinating," Mr Curtis said. 

"I could see by the way he talked about his craft, and his manipulation of the marionettes, that he still hadn't lost his hunger to entertain; his drive and energy after all those years of entertaining countless children still seemed intact. I felt quite privileged to be allowed backstage, as it was such a small, cramped space, I imagine not many members of the public had been granted that pleasure. It was just about big enough for him and what had evolved to be a one-man show. 


"I asked him how he did his performance... everything was on tape, recorded some time ago, with him doing all the voices.  However, now that he was getting older, he found it difficult sometimes getting to the correct puppet in time to manipulate it, almost missing cues. He seemed regimented in his rehearsing and performance routines and ran the entire place by himself. It seemed to me that his raison d'etre was to entertain - a pursuit he did passionately right to the very end."

On November 16, Mr Curtis received an email from Chris.

"He said he'd received the photos and that he hoped I got positive feedback from them," Mr Curtis said. 

Mr Curtis was born in London but has been living in Colwyn Bay since 2011. 

He has "dabbled" photography for about 30 years and has been a professional photographer for seven. 

He is also a musician and has composed music for TV programmes for companies such as the BBC, ITV, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.

Mr Curtis said: "As I'm self-taught, I decided to fill the gaps in my knowledge by doing a foundation degree and now an honours degree in photography at Llandrillo College in Rhos on Sea. I am also a bass player by trade and play in Pinc Ffloyd, a Pink Floyd tribute band based here in North Wales.

"Being a musician and performing on stage for many years is why I'm interested in photographing live music and theatre and is the reason why I have chosen it to be my subject matter for my final degree show.

"I have avoided larger commercial venues such as Venue Cymru, Theatr Colwyn, Rhyl Pavilion, and Theatre Clwyd etc., as these tend to cater for the wider audiences that want the glitzy, polished productions rather than the smaller, less established outfits that make up the backbone of the entertainment industry within the region."

The BA (hons) Photography exhibition by Llandrillo College will be at Oriel Colwyn in May.

Mr Curtis's photographs, along with the work by other students on the course, will be on display from the beginning of the month onwards (exact dates to be confirmed).

Mr Curtis's next gig with Pinc Ffloyd will be held at the Llanfairfechan Community Centre on April 22.