Meet the designer behind ABC’s striking sets in 1960
TO be known by a single name is usually the mark of eminence. Voytek, ABC’s Polish-born designer, had the distinction thrust on him because no one could pronounce or remember his real name, Wojciech Roman Szendzikowski.
Or else they frankly disbelieved it — like the assistant who was fitting him for a hired morning suit. When the customer’s name had to be written in a limited space on the hire form, Voytek slowly spelt out the improbable collection of letters until there was no more room on the form. The assistant looked up, pained: “Really, sir, this is no time for joking.”
After that he became just Voytek, which is the nearest phonetic spelling of his first name.
Born in 1925, Voytek spent his teens in Warsaw. He had always drawn well and been interested in art, but under German rule he had to go to an agricultural school.
He studied architecture secretly at the “underground university.”
Small groups of students met their tutors in private houses. Says Voytek: “It was dangerous, but everyone accepted it as a calculated risk — like crossing a busy street.”
As a member of a Resistance sabotage group, Voytek drew sketches and plans of places to be destroyed when the time came to rise against the Germans. It came in the autumn of 1944 In the confused street fighting, Voytek was wounded. When he recovered he hitch-hiked south to join the Polish forces in Italy. There he took part in camp theatricals.
He recalled: “We used to make scenery out of paper, but it stretched when wet, so I used to rub dry colour powder on with my hands.”
And so to Britain and post-war resettlement. After a year spent studying art and learning English, Voytek was interviewed for the Old Vic School of Design.
“I did not appreciate I was joining one of Britain’s principal theatrical institutions,” he told me.
“The Old Vic was still bomb-damaged and I saw the director in a back room. I was quite off-hand about it. I even asked to know the result of the interview the next day, although it usually took about a fortnight.
“If I had been less ignorant I would have been overawed. But they accepted me.”
Since then, by way of repertory theatre, the Arts Theatre and, for the past two years, on TV, Voytek has been earning a reputation for distinctive and sometimes brilliant stage designs.
For ABC he is the designer of Boy Meets Girls, Counter-Attack and many “Armchair Theatre” productions.
He is happiest when he can interpret a script in an impressionist style. Then, he thinks, a designer comes into his own in creating a mood which is right for the play without being realistic. A good example is a set he designed for J. M. Barrie’s Mary Rose at Nottingham Playhouse – a misshapen door and alcove to represent the distorted lives of the characters and set the mood.
Says Voytek: “I believe the Theatre is the essence of reality rather than a mediocre copy of our environment. ‘Props’ do not have to be realistic provided you get the right style for the play.
“I have used a few woven rustic screens and pieces of wood with chicken wire stapled over the top to represent trees. If you catch the right atmosphere with a design, the imagination of both actors and audience is stimulated.”
Voytek uses his hands expressively as he speaks. He has come a long way since winging his way through an entrance examination for Dundee Art School in 1946 – a first step towards the Old Vic.
To design a television play Voytek prepares “almost a comic strip” of the various shots and scenes throughout the production. From these lightning sketches emerge the more detailed “props.”
In the “Armchair Theatre” production of Boy With a Meat Axe, the script simply set the scene in “a street.” Voytek made it a street with lots of brickwork and heavy shoring timbers propping up a high wall.
“The timbers became an integral part of the fight scene, breaking up the action and providing a series of dramatic shots, visually exciting,” he told me.
“In television we usually work in a naturalistic style that is closer to film than the stage. It seems to be thought that while people will accept abstract design in the theatre, on television they will only accept it in advertising.”
Sometimes, with a few brush strokes, a designer can create a character visually. Voytek’s quick sketch of a jealous husband for the comedy Italian Straw Hat, produced at Nottingham, shows how a designer may not only create the clothing but suggest the complete character.
It was at Nottingham in 1955 that Voytek met his wife, actress Renate Brent. They were married the following year and now live near ABC’s Teddington studios with their children, two-and-a-half-year-old Stefan, and Julie, aged nine months.
Voytek used to “run away from the theatre” ever so often and do something else. He once went to Wales and painted pictures for a few months. Another time he became a decorator in a Mayfair hotel – and painted walls.
He is less Bohemian now. He no longer “runs away.” Instead, with a wife who has an interest in his work, the distinction of a single name may become his signature instead of a necessity.
- Wojciech Roman Pawel Jerzy Szendzikowski, MC (1925-2014) continued to work in theatre and television into the 1990s. His marriage to Renee produced a further child, Joe, but ended in divorce in 1971. His second marriage, to Fionnuala Kenny, also ended in divorce. They had one child, Taya. At the time of his death he had six grandchildren.