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Perspective: The Anne Robinson of Woodrush School; Freelance writer and fellow Welford resident Barrie Russell looks at the life and work of one Britain's top amateur film makers -still going strong at 84.

Byline: Barrie Russell

It would be quite correct to describe Joyce Skinner as a little old lady. At just 4ft 10in tall and 84 years old the description is apt. After that preconceptions tend to unravel.

Although her career was to be in teaching there developed alongside this a second 'career' which saw her producing nearly 60 films over a period of 50 years. These brought her several awards and about half were made for professional use.

The last of four children, she was born in Faringdon, then in Berkshire but now in Oxfordshire; her father was a baker and confectioner.

At Faringdon County Girls' School, which had its home in an old house called The Elms, she became head girl, was in both hockey and netball teams and later played college and club hockey.

'From there,' says Joyce, 'I went to Hereford Teacher Training College and, towards the end of the course, was interviewed by inspectors from the Birmingham Education Department who offered me a job as Physical Education teacher at Oldknow Road Senior School in Small Heath.'

This was in 1940 and she stayed there for 14 years.

To begin with boys and girls were taught separately but, as the war went on and male teachers were called to active service, classes were mixed.

With the second world war starting at the same time as her career Joyce vividly recalls the blitz both in Birmingham and Coventry. For most of her time in Small Heath she lived in Solihull and usually cycled from there to the school as the alternative was using three separate buses.

Although her initial appointment had been as PE teacher she soon began teaching art as well. At Faringdon she had impressed in this subject, taking the Royal Drawing Society examination each year and exhibited a different drawing in two successive years at the Society's Guildhall Exhibition in London. Gradually art classes took on the larger role in her life.

When she moved to the Queensbridge School in Moseley in1954 she was appointed head of the art department but continued to teach PE as well. Queensbridge was one of the first big new schools built in Birmingham, catering for both grammar and secondary modern pupils.

Her stay here was short and in 1957 she transferred to the new Woodrush School in Wythall and remained there until her retirement in 1978 .

Joyce says: 'I was Head of the Art Department and also Deputy Head of the school, a demanding combination. Just one aspect of being Deputy Head was preparing timetables for classes and examinations, coping with the vagaries of teacher absences plus pupil discipline.'

She shouldered the dual responsibilities until the early 1960s when the roles were split and she continued as Deputy Head, by which time the school had become comprehensive with some 1200 pupils.

As a teacher and deputy head she had a reputation for strictness and this was sometimes used as a weapon by other teachers when they threatened to send unruly pupils to see Miss Skinner. There are anecdotes of pupils being sent to her office but not daring to knock on her door and waiting a while before going back to the classroom and making up 'what Miss Skinner had said'.

Joyce describes herself as the 'Anne Robinson of Woodrush School' but this is clearly tongue in cheek. Talking to her there is no doubting her views on discipline but it was fairly administered and you could never imagine the schoolmistress ridiculing her pupils in the way the quiz mistress treats her contestants.

Parallel with her teaching the hobby of film making had developed.

'It began,' recalls Joyce, 'when living in Solihull. A neighbour hired a cine camera for a family event and asked me to operate it. Although this was the first time I had used a cine camera the results were quite good and I decided to hire one for a school skiing trip to Grindelwald. When I went to return it the shop owner had committed suicide and a consequence was that the camera came up for sale and I was able to buy it.'

In 1955, while at Queensbridge School, she went to a shop in Moseley to change her camera for a new one and the manager suggested starting a society with other customers. From this South Birmingham Cine Society was born and Joyce is still with the group nearly 50 years later, although only two founder members of the group are left. The society was made up of mainly professional people, including the ManagingDirector of Chad Valley Toys, dentists and a surgeon, and much was learnt from other members' experiences. Joyce made a silver salver, as an award for the SBCS, in the school metal working department.

In 1956 she met up with Marjorie Cadel, from her old Faringdon School, who had played hockey for England. Marjorie, on behalf of the All England Women's Hockey Association, asked Joyce if she would produce an instructional film to be scripted by 'Geoff' Flew, the England team coach, who set up training sessions for filming. ('Geoff' was female despite the male nickname).

She also wanted shots included of an All England game being played at Wembley and Joyce set up her cine camera in a position above the halfway line and next to the BBC camera.

Two 800 ft reels of instruction called 'Improve Your Hockey' were produced and these sold in America, Canada, France and Australia. Later, in 1968, Joyce made another hockey film, again with the training theme, called 'Wembley Way'.

The next venture, in 1959, was a documentary about Woodrush School called 'Any Day', following two children through a typical day. Part of the film showed what Joyce did to encourage pupils' interest in skiing. 'Skis' were made from beer barrel staves, with metal bindings attached and a 'ski slope' was fashioned from benches covered in mats braced against a vaulting box in the gym. Joyce's view was that 'Even this snow-less mockup saved the pupils several hours' skiing instruction when they first went on the slopes.'

Years later this was shown at the 40th anniversary of the school in 1987 when many former pupils met Joyce, by then retired.

Her skills as a film maker started gathering awards; 'Holiday Playtime' (a skiing instruction film made in 1961) won the Amateur Cine World's Four Star Award.

In 1964 she produced 'Enjoy them Safely', an accident prevention film dealing with fireworks. The film won the Glasgow cup at the Scottish Amateur Film Festival that year. A copy was sent to The British Fireworks Manufacturers' Association who asked if they could use it for publicity.

They had it professionally edited and commentary was added by Kenneth Horne, famous for his radio programme 'Around the Horne'. Sixty copies were produced in the first year and another 40 the following year. Joyce won the award again in 1966 for a film on careers' guidance made for Youth Employment in Redditch and sponsored by industry and commerce. 'The Choice is Yours' had commentary by the BBC Midlands newsreader Leslie Dunn. Cecil Ford, producer of the 'Guns of Navaronne' and chief adjudicator at the festival described 'The Choice is Yours' as 'an excellent teaching film . excellently made documentary.' A spin-off from receiving these awards was a call from the BBC Midlands for an interview with Tom Coyne on television.

'During 1964,' says Joyce, 'the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating board (CEGB) contacted me as a direct result of work done at a course in Ilchester for amateur film makers. He asked for a film explaining the power generating process for a non-technical audience which could be shown to visitors at power stations throughout the country.'

The resulting 1966 colour film was 'Power in Trust', the story line linked to a schoolboy visitor to the 600 000 kilowatt Rugeley Power Station. This schoolboy was fifteen year old Clive Martin who lived in Hollywood near Birmingham and was a pupil at Woodrush School. (Did he achieve his ambition to be a chef on an ocean going liner so that he could see the world?).

Then, in 1970 'Tunisia Yesterday and Today' taken during a holiday to that country won a Certificate of Merit from the Scottish Amateur Film Festival and a copy was requested by the Tunisian Tourist Board. 1974 saw Joyce become a member of the British Kinematograph, Sound and Television Society.

Of the 28 films she made between 1956 and 1980 one was 'Pastures New' a fundraising documentary for Leonard Cheshire Homes on which the commentary was by Richard Maddocks, cricket broadcast producer and volunteer helper at the homes. Others were 'Poisoned in Seconds' and 'Meet Old Age in Safety' used by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) plus 'Switch in Time' and 'By Arrangement' produced by the ladies of the South Birmingham Cine Society.

Films were made during educational cruises, with pupils from Woodrush School, to Crete, Egypt, Cyprus, Israel, the coast of Norway and the Arctic Circle, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Gambia, Sweden, Denmark and Russia.

A vivid memory from these travels was sailing across the Sea of Galilee on Christmas and then picnicking on the shore.

Joyce was a pioneer when organising one of the early school skiing trips with Oldknow Road School pupils to Grindelwald in Switzerland in 1949. This started a lifelong love of the sport with skiing holidays continuing well into retirement, on one occasion driving with a friend to Kitzbuhel in Austria. Joyce recalls, 'When I retired to Welford on Avon in 1976 I started filming the village and surrounding areas and was still using a cine camera but in the early 1980's switched to a video camera. The next big move was to digital filming.'

Productions covered documentaries of village life, scenes of the flood in 1998 which cut off Welford, the skills of a local potter Louise Darby, the Queen's Silver and Golden Jubilee celebrations and installation of two new bells in the tower of St Peter's church.

A film following the mating and rearing of their young by two blue tits inside a nesting box used a small closed circuit camera lens. For the film on the village she made two tripsin a light aircraft. In 1986 Joyce Skinner featured in a Channel 4 series on amateur film makers in which she appeared in four out of six episodes.

It is perhaps appropriate that there is some evidence part of the cottage in which she lives was used as schoolroom in the 1570's by Philip Jones, a zealous carer for the poor and teacher of the young, when he became rector in Welneford as it was known in those days. He had also been chaplain to Sir Francis Drake when he sailed in the 'Golden Hind'.

Highlights of her life? 'Choosing to move to Welford on Avon and then finding the cottage where I live. A second, but very different highlight, was filming among the disabled at the Leonard Cheshire Home'.

And regrets? 'Not having digital photography available from the day I started filming!'

Joyce is an ardent monarchist and also finds time to be an active member of the Welford Historical Society, drive to her cottage in Devon and take daily walks with her King Charles spaniel, Oliver.

For several years after coming to Welford she had an allotment in the village growing vegetables (she also had one behind her house in Solihull). Caravanning was another activity until she bought the holiday cottage.

Oh, and 2003 saw her filming a family of great crested grebes on the Avon and producing five hundred copies of a calendar of Welford village using her own photographs.

Joyce Skinner -many-talented non-stop lady.


Joyce Skinner -a self portrait -and, below, stills from videos, flooding at Welford and children dancing round the maypole; Potter Louise Darby at work -a still from a Joyce Skinner video
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Title Annotation:Comment
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 28, 2004
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