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Cracking contraptions, Gromit!

David Sproxton, co-founder and executive chairman of Aardman Animations, visits Cragside.
David Sproxton, co-founder and executive chairman of Aardman Animations, visits Cragside.
  • New exhibition celebrates the work of industrialist Lord Armstrong, the magician of the north

Champions of pioneering industrialist Lord Armstrong have enlisted the help of Plasticine heroes Wallace and Gromit to inspire a new generation of northern innovators.

An exhibition called Big Bang, featuring Wallace and Gromit sets, models and props, is to open in Newcastle as part of the ‘Inspired by’ programme associated with the Great Exhibition of the North.

Future Engineers workshop at Live Theatre, Broad Chare, Newcastle.

Future Engineers workshop at Live Theatre, Broad Chare, Newcastle.

It will present the animated heroes, cheese-loving Wallace and his trusty beagle, as the latest in a long line of northern inventors, including Lord Armstrong whose house at Cragside, near Rothbury, was the first to be lit by hydro-electricity.

A series of free workshops and drop-in sessions will run alongside it, with experts from Aardman Animations – makers of the Wallace and Gromit films – present to show how to create a film storyboard or make a model of Gromit.

Present at the exhibition opening will be David Sproxton, co-founder (with Peter Lord) and executive chairman of Aardman Animations whose famous releases, including Creature Comforts, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and The Wrong Trousers, have won four Academy Awards and grossed millions of pounds.

David lives in Bristol, where the studios are based, but studied geography at Durham University in the 1970s and recently visited Cragside where he marvelled at Lord Armstrong’s pioneering mod cons.

Model Gromits made during Future Engineers workshops.

Model Gromits made during Future Engineers workshops.

“I’d say this is the most Wallace and Gromity house I’ve ever been in,” he said.

The exhibition and workshops in Newcastle have come about because of David’s friendship with Henrietta Heald, author of a Lord Armstrong biography, William Armstrong: Magician of the North.

The pair met as Durham undergraduates when both were members of the university theatre group, Henrietta as an actor and David taking care of lighting.

Henrietta is now a member of a group called Jesmond Heritage which is campaigning to have Lord Armstrong’s old banqueting hall in Jesmond Dene restored and turned into a fitting memorial, the Armstrong Centre of Arts and Innovation.

The hall was commissioned by Lord Armstrong in 1860 before he moved to Cragside. In 1883, he gifted Jesmond Dene and the hall to the people of Newcastle but there has been debate for years over the future use of the building.

Armstrong’s last project was the purchase of Bamburgh Castle for £60,000 in 1894 and set about restoring as a convalescent home for retired gentlemen. He spent more than a million pounds on the restoration but died, aged 90, on December 27, 1900, before the work was completed. Lord Armstrong’s descendants still own Bamburgh Castle.

Like the Wallace and Gromit attractions this summer, the centre at Jesmond Dene is conceived as a way of inspiring a new generation of northern bright sparks.

David, whose fascination for film arose from boyhood ‘mucking around’ with a camera and magazine cut-outs at the kitchen table, said play was an important part of education.

“It’s about how to trigger something, how to give kids opportunities to try something they might not try otherwise,” he said. “How do you inspire kids, especially when our education system is so much about tests and exams? Messing around with stuff seems to have gone out of it but you can learn a lot through play.”

Big Bang, featuring Wallace and Gromit sets, models and props, and presenting the pair as the latest in a line of northern innovators, runs at Boiler Shop in the Stephenson Works, South Street, Newcastle NE1 3PE, from Thursday (July 26) to September 2 (10am to 3pm).

Supported by the Reece Foundation and the Barbour Foundation, admission is free.

Meanwhile, at Live Theatre, Broad Chare, there’s a series of Future Engineers workshops – storyboarding (for ages seven plus) and model-making (five plus) – from Thursday (July 26) until August 25. The free sessions must be booked at https://www.live.org.uk/index.php/whats-on/aardman-workshops-future-engineers or call 0191 232 1232.

There are also free drop-in model-making sessions suitable for ages five plus.