Engineer of the Imagination

Feature in Issue 17-1 | Spring 2005

Edward Taylor and John Fox pay tribute to inventor and maker Greville White (1945 – 2004).

Edward Taylor of Whalley Range All Stars writes:

Greville was modest to an almost pathological degree so it was impossible to know the full range of his activities. He was the epitome of a back-room boffin (although shed would be more appropriate) and contributed to shows and installations by Welfare State, Bow Gamelan Ensemble, Whitewood & Fleming, Emergency Exit, 100, Tim Hunkin, Faceless Theatre, Andy Plant and many others. He was a hugely talented creator of automated objects and seemed at home both with huge structures and tiny mechanisms. His solutions to problems were always ingenious, economical, elegant and unexpected.

He worked with Whalley Range All Stars from 1992 until 1997 and helped create seven shows with us. It's no exaggeration to say that he totally expanded our approach and attitude to making work. Previously our work was limited to what we made ourselves – we're not bad at making but there are limits! Greville was unfazed by our ideas and revelled in the challenges we set him. So we grew in confidence as to what our shows could be, confident that he would always find some way of making the latest idea we had. It was always impossible to thank him afterwards for what he had done or made for us. This seems true of his work with other companies as well, where he always found a way of downplaying his contribution.

Greville was not a sentimental man and would have loathed this piece of writing. However his work always betrayed a real sensitivity not always apparent on the outside.

John Fox of Welfare State International writes:

Greville once told me a ghost story. Isolated in a tenement one Christmas, he ran out of money. He knocked on the door of an upstairs flat and an old lady happily lent him a ten-shilling note. He discovered later that she had died twenty years before. I don't know if it is true, but Greville convinced me it was. He was stroppy, imaginative and ingenious; a sculptural engineer and inventor who told his best tales with fragments of wire, assorted springs, selected elastic bands, windscreen wiper motors, cogs, electric welding, hydraulics and a staple gun. Greville loved a challenge and throughout his life created many unforgettable images for many site-specific theatre companies.

He worked with Welfare State International on and off for a couple of decades and created or helped us create some of our best works. So many it's hard to know where to begin. The big one, Raising the Titanic in Limehouse, is a good start. We planned to bring a replica of the Titanic up from the bottom of a dank dock. After six goes, the iron barge armature broke its back and we had at short notice to use skyhooks, a crane and twelve tons of scaffolding instead. Greville and Andy Plant and Tim Hunkin and Baz Kershaw and others, all brilliant at working in teams, rose to the occasion with wondrous handson expertise, pulled it off and up.

On King Real, a community film with 200 kids, also in 1983, he helped construct a jukebox sphinx on the back of a car; also an island iceberg of second-hand fridges. In Expo '86 in Vancouver, he fashioned 300 sheets of litho plate into a giant armoured skull which rose thirty feet into the air and unfolded like a floral hand-grenade. He also welded the Limping Horse of History, a fusion of combine harvester and equine tank.

He was brilliant at tiny things too. For two videos we made for Border TV he invented vicious remote controlled piranha fish that devoured two geriatric fascist patients in an old folk's home. These are now collectors' items.

An irrepressibly impish man, he made work that was uncommonly playful and healthily disrespectful. In today's nonsense tick-box world of art as surrogate social work we need more like him. Thank you Greville. That old lady with her 10/- knew what she was doing.

This article in the magazine

Issue 17-1
p. 22