Everybody in South Shields knows the Weebles.
These 22 mysterious bronze figures, human above the waist and a ball below, standing 1.5 metres high, are to be found on a paved area between a car park and the sand dunes right at the mouth of the Tyne on Shields’ sea front. They seem to be talking to each other, or, in the case of those who are on their own, hurrying to join a group, presumably to join in the conversation.
Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz who created them called the work “Conversation Piece” and people do wonder what they are talking about.
The locals—Shields folk, Sanddancers—call them “The Weebles” after that '70s toy which wobbled but didn’t fall down, and occasionally you do see would-be tough guys trying to push them over. Good luck with that, pal. They weigh a one and a quarter tons each!
They are part of Art on the Riverside, a scheme funded by Arts Council, and they were officially ‘opened’ in July 1999 in a ceremony attended by all the great and the good of local politics and the arts who were entertained by a performance piece specially created for the occasion.
It was earlier that year that I was approached by the Tyneside Enterprise and Development Company to see if I and my drama students (I was Head of Performing Arts at King George School in South Shields at the time) would be interested in being involved in this performance.
Silly question, really, because obviously we were—and anyway Steve Quinlan, our Head Teacher, would have killed me if I’d refused! So a meeting was set up between playwright Peter Mortimer, Ozzie Riley (artistic director of theatre company Dodgy Clutch which specialised in presenting spectacular physical shows) and me.
We all knew each other already so we quickly got down to business and a plan of action was drawn up: we’d work with members of my drama group to explore ideas and much of this exploration would actually be done on-site, imagining what these figures might be saying to each other.
As time progressed, ideas began to emerge: Ozzie felt that the situation demanded music, but something very different from either the classical or the pop traditions and so he settled on Gamelan, the percussive sounds blending well with the ambient sounds of wind, blowing grass, seagulls and the sea itself. There would be a great procession coming over the dunes from the sea, heralded by a fanfare played on trumpet (or was it a cornet? My memory again!) played by one of the Drama Club.
To create this procession would necessitate of a lot more people and so our feeder primary schools were asked if they would like to provide participants from year 6. And, of course, they did!
Peter wrote the play, I directed it, Ozzie created the spectacle and a member of Dodgy Clutch the music.
But Ozzie didn’t get to see it. Less than an hour before the performance was due to start, his mobile rang. His wife was going into labour, so off he went, as quickly as he could!
It was a success. The invited audience loved it, Arts Council and TEDCO were well pleased and Steve Quinlan walked around with a huge smile of pride on his face at what his kids had achieved.
I was happy too. I still clearly remember one of the actors, a year 11 lad, button-holing the Mayor of South Tyneside and bending his ear about (I seem to recall) the value of the arts to the community and in education as he gave the civic party a guided tour of the sculptures!