Guns, tanks and explosions – meet the man with the keys to the National Theatre’s armoury
As the NT’s senior armourer, Paul Wanklin is in charge of the firearms and blades used on its stages, but he is also responsible for a whole host of pyrotechnics and theatrical trickery, as Tim Bano discovers
Paul Wanklin’s office is like no other. Alongside his workshop is a narrow corridor adorned floor to ceiling with swords, guns, cannons, manacles, chains and daggers – it’s like a torture chamber.
The reason for the abundance of weaponry so brazenly displayed is that Wanklin is the National Theatre’s senior armourer, and this is the armoury. Except, he makes clear as he plucks a rifle from the wall and jabs its bayonet into the palm of his hand, “these are all deactivated”. The barrels of all the guns have been destroyed, the blades are blunted and many of the weapons are made of rubber. “A gun has to be able to shoot a bullet out, and none of these can shoot bullets.”
As armourer, only about 10% of Wanklin’s job involves guns, swords and explosions. “I make special effects, whether it’s rain or fire or making a tap work in a bathroom on stage. It’s much more than just the big bangs.”
Essentially, Wanklin is an engineer. Even the big explosions involve lots of disparate mechanisms brought together in one moment. A lot of pyrotechnic effects make a flash and a puff of smoke but no bang, so Wanklin has to plant another pyro upstage that makes the bang, and fire the two at the same time – and often they will both be synced to a sound effect too.
The engineering background comes from his time in the British army. “I was born in Zimbabwe and was going to join the South African army, but my dad said to me: ‘If you’re going to join the army join a professional one.’ So I came over and joined the British army. And I loved it. I went all over the world, I learned a lot.
“Sometimes young kids ask: ‘How can I get into this business?’ And that’s one of the things I tell them – join the army.”
Being an armourer often involves responding to directors deciding at the last minute that they want the whole set to explode, or for two actors to stab each other, so Wanklin has to be completely adaptable. “In the army, I went to a lot of places and did a lot of different things: blacksmithing, fitting and turning, mechanics and that totally suits me in this job.”
After the Gulf War in 1990-91, Wanklin left the army and went back to South Africa for a while. Then he saw the job of senior armourer at the NT advertised in the Guardian, and reckoned his skills were ideal. He has been at the National for 20 years now, working on an incredible array of shows – “I made the tank in War Horse” – and is used to being asked on a daily basis to make the strange and miraculous happen on stage.
When special effects are required in a show, Wanklin is usually there for every performance, often executing the effect himself. In fact, during a run of The Threepenny Opera in 2016, one of the main characters was sick, so the understudy went on. Wanklin took the understudy’s job on stage running around as a policeman. “It doesn’t happen very often, but you get an extra four pounds or something,” he laughs.
Wanklin’s knowledge of firearms law yields a remarkable piece of trivia: actors are allowed to use real guns without a licence – the exemption also applies to people who work in a knacker’s yard; make of that what you will – though only for the purposes of their job.
Guns are heavily restricted in the UK, and it’s a deliberately arduous process to use live firearms for stage productions. But there’s a strange exemption in the 1968 Firearms Acts (section 12, paragraph 1, to be precise) that allows an actor to use a real gun when they’re acting. A licensed firearms handler can hand them the gun at the beginning of the scene, then the actor hands it back at the end.
On the less life-threatening end of the scale, when I visit, there is a bottle of milk of magnesia on Wanklin’s workbench. Rather than a bad case of heartburn, it’s being employed for the purposes of simulating seagull poo. The magic of theatre…
But Wanklin insists that theatre is much more interesting than film. He used to work frequently on films including several James Bond movies, the Alfonso Cuaron-directed Children of Men and “quite a few sort of East End gangster-type things”. He says: “It’s not a glamorous job. It’s standing around in the cold waiting most of the day and all night, out in the rain.”
Back in his warm, dry workshop, there’s a little pile of what look like metal puzzle pieces. They turn out to be the actual Subtle Knife from the 2003 epic production of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. A one moment in the show, the knife had to shatter. “You press a little button in the handle,” Wanklin demonstrates. “It retracts a spring and the knife falls apart.”
There are blood knives too, with a little hole in the blade that exudes red liquid when the actor squeezes the handle, and retractable blades. So what’s the best method for looking like you’ve stabbed someone on stage? “Rubber knives are probably the best thing,” he says, pulling a rubber rifle off the wall and showing its flexibility and softness. Blunt daggers can still cause damage, but with a rubber one you could give a fellow actor, who has maybe just cut across your one line in the play, a good old whack and not break a rib.
When Wanklin pulls a big sword with an ornate hilt out of its scabbard there’s a disappointing lack of metallic sound. “People are used to Hollywood,” he sighs. “When I worked in the film business every time a car crashed it blew up. When you fired a gun somebody would go flying back. But the thing is, in theatre we’re doing it for real, we’re doing it day after day. In film, you only see the best bits. You don’t see all the mishaps.”
Q&A: Paul Wanklin
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first professional theatre job?
Junior armourer at the National Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Check the fireproofing.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
James Bond films.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not really but sometimes you have to stop, step back and think: “What if?”
On a film set, it doesn’t matter if a gun fails to fire. The scene is reset, the director retakes. But on stage the gun has to go off without fail every night, and Wanklin’s job is to find the best way to make that happen.
He picks up another weapon. “This is a paintball gun. We fill the little capsules with dust. There might be one inside actually.” He fires at the wall and there’s a satisfying puff of smoke and grit, and a sharp pop to go with it. “If you see that backlit, it looks really good.”
There are coconuts on the shelves, too, but apparently they’re not for making horse clopping sounds. “There was a show where a guy was making fire so he had a little stick, and then he’d do this” – Wanklin flicks a little flint inside and sparks fly – “there’d be some lighter fluid in there too, and then he’s made fire in a coconut.”
When a director asks for a specific sort of weapon, whether it’s an old-fashioned rifle or something to clobber someone with, Wanklin can pluck one from his cave and fiddle with it until it looks right. When they want a special effect, he lets his imagination fly. “I’m basically a general dogsbody. I take care of anything that’s not covered by lighting or props, or whatever. I cross over into a lot of departments.” He’s currently working out how to make it rain on Cate Blanchett for the new show in the Dorfman: When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other.
He conjures all these little moments of stage magic from the simplest, most unexpected materials. That’s why there are such fearsome-looking machines in his workshop: huge saws, power tools and a great big milling machine. “It’s a serious operation,” he says. So what fearsome prop does he create in the microwave I spot in the workshop? “Oh, that’s not for anything. Just my lunch.”
CV: Paul Wanklin
Born: Harare, 1964
Training: British army
• His Dark Materials (2003)
• War Horse (2007)
• Children of the Sun (2013)
• The Silver Tassie (2014)
• Antony and Cleopatra (2018)