Over the course of a day-long, workshop at Westminster Abbey Education Centre, our team of young WCRAG animators worked hard to bring the ghosts of Spencer Perceval and William Davidson to the screen.
A Ghostly Dialogue
Westminster Abbey is home to a memorial to Spencer Perceval, the only British prime minister ever to be assassinated. Despite this he is a figure whose name is not well known by the public at large. WCRAG was determined to change that with our claymation film directed by Tom Hillenbrand of Beautness. You might ask why we were making a film about a man whose death occurred eight years before the Cato Street Conspiracy. We felt that we needed to include his story to help people understand the events that led to the events of 1820. Perceval was a reactionary politician whose policies prior to the Cato Street Conspiracy helped to ferment the revolutionary climate of the first quarter of the 19th century.
Twelve young people aged 12-16 were recruited to our WCRAG summer film school. They took it in turns to work on the stop motion sequences for the film in between tours of the Abbey with the education team. The completed film was edited into our longer documentary film, but we felt that the work deserved a stand alone section on our website.
The technique we used is called claymation. Tom Hillenbrand from Beautness animation created the characters of William Davidson and Spencer Perceval, which he sculpted from plasticine, around a wire skeleton, called an armature. He then worked with the group to photograph Spencer Perceval’s memorial in the abbey so that it could be used to replace the green screen set which was initially used. It took a lot of hard work and patience as each movement in the animation had to be photographed by our group before making a slight movement by hand to prepare it for the next shot. After a lot of hard work by our 12 volunteers the clay models of Davidson and Spencer could be played back with the rapidly succeeding images of our ghosts being perceived as motion.
Prime minister Spencer Perceval was shot dead in the lobby of the Commons on 11 May 1812, eight years before the Cato Street Conspiracy. The assassin was John Bellingham, a Liverpool merchant with a grievance against the government. Bellingham suffered the same fate as the Cato Street Conspirators as he was hanged at Newgate on 18 May, just a week after the assassination. Perceval remains the only British prime minister to date to have been assassinated.
The concept for the animation was to provide a short sequence for our documentary film that would cover the build up to the events that took place in 1820. We wanted to try to explain why so much revolutionary anger and led the conspirators to conceive such a desperate plan. We talked this through with our volunteers and they came up with the idea of William Davidson interviewing Spencer Perceval. They both came to violent ends so we thought they may have restless spirits, ghosts who want to set the record straight.
Perceval had led his Tory government since 1809 during a challenging period in the Napoleonic Wars. His policies caused widespread poverty and unrest across the country. The Orders In Council which he introduced to target Napoleon’s France, restricted trade across Europe but also led to a fall in UK exports. This led to widespread unemployment. However, Perceval was most hated for his harsh punishment of those who protested against machines taking their jobs as the industrial revolution hotted up. The Luddite frame breakers who sought to turn back the clock on technology were targeted by Perceval’s frame breaking bill. This bill, that awarded the death penalty to those caught destroying factory machinery, became law just after his assassination.
Perceval’s death was a cause of rejoicing in parts of the country impacted by his harsh policies. Some thought that Bellingham’s act was the signal for a general uprising, however it transpired that Bellingham had acted alone. He had decided to kill the prime minister as a protest against the government’s failure to compensate him for his treatment a few years previously when he had been imprisoned in Russia for a trading debt.
The assassination created paranoia amongst many members of the government. Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh took to carrying loaded pistols with him wherever he went from this moment on. For revolutionaries like Thistlewood, Bellingham had showed how easy it would be for determined assassins to topple the government.
The characters are brilliantly voiced by Tom Hillenbrand (Spencer Perceval) and Michael Lyle (William Davidson).
We are very grateful to Education Officers Graz and Lou for facilitating the sessions. The Westminster Abbey Education Centre was a perfect place to undertake the filming and the group were thrilled to visit an empty abbey.