The Car's the Star


Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is, in many ways, the Ultimate Bond car. It floats, it flies, and can even think for itself. The link to 007 is deeper, though; the original book for the musical was written by Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, and the movie was produced by none other than Albert Broccoli. Appropriately, it is his daughter Barbara who has masterminded Chitty's stage debut under the auspices of the Broccoli family company, Eon Productions.

One of the more eagerly anticipated shows on the West End this season, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opened at the London Palladium in April to fairly respectable reviews. A new production adapted by Jeremy Sams from one of the more beloved children's films of the last 30 years, Chitty is directed by Adrian Noble, and features set and costumes by Anthony Ward, lighting by Mark Henderson, and sound by Andrew Bruce and Simon Baker. The production stars Michael Ball, Emma Williams, Anton Rodgers, Brian Blessed, and Richard O'Brien, but make no mistake: in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the car gets top billing.

Ward — fresh from his acclaimed success on the National Theatre's co-production of My Fair Lady — was somewhat restricted in his creativity in terms of the car itself. His brief was to make the stage version as faithful as possible to the original — a car that flew. “At my first meeting with the producers it was clear that the car would have to fly,” he says. “Initially we talked about doing it with wires, but having seen other flying done that way, I didn't find it impressive. We knew that the show would be put into the Palladium, and that its old stage revolve was not going to be refurbished — and this helped me realize that we should put the car on an arm.”

Photo by Alastair Muir

Ward approached Howard Eaton Lighting Ltd. to fabricate the car itself, presenting them with some unusual demands. “In the movie, there were at least three different cars that were built — one that ‘flew,’ one that floated, and a driven car. We had to incorporate all these actions into one vehicle.”

Howard Eaton, who has constructed several stage cars in his role as special effects designer, explains that while Chitty may have been stripped of her engine, she is packed with a wide range of lighting, audio, and mechanical systems. “There are in excess of 1,500 light sources in the car, including LEDs, fiber optics, and our own MR-8 incandescent lamps, as well as smoke machines. There are also 18 pneumatic pistons to drive the wings and lateral effects, and about 10 electric motors for anything the goes round.” Seven loudspeakers (for program and foldback use) are also crammed into the body, including a gutted Meyer Sound UPA-1C, which replaces the radiator behind the shiny brass-effect grille. The arm, which was fabricated for the show by Dellstar and controlled by a system from Stage Technologies, carries power (via a set of slip-rings), 186 channels of DMX data, audio, and compressed air, making it one of the most complex moving structures ever installed on a West End stage. The huge telescopic arm has a reach that takes the car over the narrow orchestra pit opening and above the heads of the first three or four rows of the audience — no mean feat, considering the weight of the 16'-long vehicle.

“The intention was that the car should weigh about 500kgs (1,100lbs) unladen,” explains Eaton, “but things kept being added, so it's now 650kgs (1,430lbs). We have allowed 300kgs (660lbs) for the four cast members who ride in it, and the arm is rated for a one-tonne (2,200lb) load. It's close, but the system is so over-specced that all the safety criteria are easily met.”

The flying machinery

The car is permanently held aloft by the arm — the four folding wheels are not designed to be load-bearing. “This was a problem in the early days,” recalls Eaton. “Whenever we got the arm position too low, we'd break the suspension. We have designed the car with two chassis — the inner one holds up the wheels, while the outer one is on pistons so that we can make the car shudder realistically.” In practice, the effect is just right — the strong personality of the wheezy but defiant old racing car comes across clearly to the audience.

When it comes to flying, Ward enlisted the help of lighting designer Henderson to disguise the technology behind the magic. “We wanted the car to be pretty much self-contained,” Henderson explains. “When it flies, it lights itself, rather than having to rely on moving lights or followspots. This means that we can hide the arm much better.”

“In fact, there are many places in the auditorium from which it's completely impossible to tell how the flying is done,” adds Ward, who notes that even adults are affected by the sight of a one-ton car taking to the air. “It really does bring tears to your eyes,” says the designer.

Henderson's remaining brief has been, he says, largely led by Ward's fast-moving scenery; the plot involves a large number of very different and distinctive locations, each of which relies heavily on lighting for its credibility. “Some of the most difficult parts have been the journey sequences,” explains Henderson. “We didn't want to go for video screens or anything like that — it's been done before, and also, the car doesn't just travel in one plane. It spins, dips, leans, and so on, so I have created some quite stylized, chaotic effects to simulate general movement, rather than a particular direction.” To achieve this, Henderson adapted some of the Martin MAC 500 moving lights in his extensive rig — removing the gobo wheel and replacing it with an animation disc, which allows more random-looking streaks — and used them for both lateral movement and, at other points in the show, heavy rainfall.

Other Martin fixtures have been employed as an alternative to conventional cyc lighting — wide-angle versions of the MAC 600 are arrayed so that they can perform the functions of a light curtain, but can also be directed individually as needed. “This has several advantages; there is very little space above the stage because of all the flying bits, and we can generate as many colors and effects as we need.” Elsewhere, Henderson has imported GAM FilmFX effects projectors from the US as cloud effects, slotting the DMX-controlled vari-speed system into four ETC Source Four profiles.

White Light and The Moving Light Company provided Henderson with the lighting equipment, which also includes Vari*Lite VL2202 spotlights, Martin PAL1200 framing spotlights, Mac500 spotlights, High End Cyberlights®, and Studio Beam® washlights, L&E Ministrips, and Wybron CXI color changers. Control for the automated lighting is via a Wholehog II console, programmed by Stuart Porter. The conventional rig is being controlled by a Strand 500-series console.

Ward's costume designs are no less impressive than the set — each seemingly tailored not just for the character, but for the actor or actress playing the role. Richard O'Brien's Childcatcher, in particular, is an example of the art of matching the costume to the person; O'Brien has, as one of the creative team put it, “the thinnest legs and baldest head of any man I've ever seen!” Ward capitalizes on this, using skintight leggings to make the actor's leg movement seem almost impossibly dainty, while the all-enveloping monochrome hat and gown (both black) and O'Brien's pale makeup means that the actor has been able to develop a technique of almost appearing before the very eyes of the audience.

Sketch by Alnthony Ward

The use of color in the costumes for Chitty is bold; Ward's imagination has clearly had little restraint for the fantasy scenes, which are exemplified by Lord Scrumptious' sweet factory dance number. Candy stripes abound, so wistfully executed that the audience can almost smell the sugar. Final honors, though, go to the Vulgarians — suffice it to say that as a parody of all things German, these particular costumes will need to be reworked if Chitty ever lands on a Berlin stage.

The Chitty sound team

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in common with many larger West End shows, retains the services of two sound designers: Bruce handling band and vocals, and Baker on effects. For this particular story, it is the sound effects that are key to the plot, and they are as faithful as it is possible to achieve on a live stage. “We dug out the original engine sounds that were recorded for the film,” recalled Baker, who spent many hours poring over assorted clips created in 1968 by Cinesound. “Everything was archived on 7½" ips [inches per second] analog tape and meticulously catalogued,” he explains, “which was lucky. It's a unique sound that would have been very hard to replicate.” The familiar, wheezy engine noise (generated by a 1920s 12-cylinder Hispano Suiza) forms an integral part of the script and leads into the show's theme song, so Baker was determined to get it right. “One of the problems with the stage version is that the car is always in closeup. In the film, it's seen in long shot, approaching, leaving, and so on, but onstage, the audience is a constant distance from it.” This involved using the close-miked original tapes to best advantage; anyone who remembers the film will not think twice about the authenticity of Chitty's engine.

Despite the amount of time and effort poured into the car itself (an estimated 6,000 hours just to build it), Baker says that, from a sound effects perspective, it only forms about 10% of the show. Noises for Lord Scrumptious' sweets factory, the fairground, and various other fantasy locations also had to be created, many from scratch. “There are an enormous number of sounds in this show,” he concludes, “certainly more than any production I've ever worked on.”

For Bruce, the pit layout and vocal lineup are comparatively standard; his choice of an L Acoustics DV-DOSC main system was based on its successful handling of The Witches of Eastwick two years ago in London. For Chitty, proscenium sightlines have dictated that the usual vocal center cluster has been pared back to a minimum (two Meyer MSL 2s) — not ideal, according to Bruce, but a necessary compromise. The system, supplied by Autograph Sound Recording, is centered around a 104-input Cadac J-Type console, driven by SAM software, with Matt McKenzie's G-Type program triggering effects from Akai samplers and a DAR DR-16 multitrack. Vocal microphones (driving Sennheiser SK50 transmitters) are standard-issue DPA 4060s — “absolutely brilliant mics,” apart from Brain Blessed, playing Baron Bomburst, whose exceptionally loud voice and bellowing character demands the use of the higher-headroom 4061, a microphone usually reserved for opera singers.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has already been dubbed a success by critics and audiences alike, and the box office reports a healthy waiting list for tickets. Attention to the mechanical processes of the fantasy scenes has not detracted from a strong book and even stronger stable of singable songs. It seems that the romance of a vintage contraption that can travel by air, sea, and road appeals to every generation, and, appropriately, at the end of every night the leading lady receiving the biggest ovation is, of course, the car herself.