DFA Staff Pick: Santa's Grotto (1984)

DFA Staff Pick: Santa's Grotto (1984)

Date: 03/12/2021 00:00

If you grew up as a child in Belfast or its environs during the 1970s or early 1980s the chances are you will have fond memories of department store Santa’s grottos teeming with animatronic elves and reindeers. These snow-scaped wonderlands delighted and amused children as they waited in line, snaking around magically crafted scenes in contrast to the often bare bones presentations laid on today.

If you made the annual trip to visit Santa and give him a heads-up on the highlights from your Christmas list, then it’s quite possible that you will have been entranced by the work of the Spence Brothers, Noel and Roy. Well regarded in Northern Ireland as award-winning producers of low budget horror and science fiction movies on 8mm film, famed as the owners of the Tudor and Excelsior cinemas in their home town of Comber, it is a sometimes forgotten element from their range of talents that they also designed and built many of the grottos in the Belfast area each year.

Skilled from set and model building for their films, creativity is the description for what the Spence Brothers brought to the art of grotto building so that, alongside more traditional fare such as elves in workshops, a Spence Brothers grotto might feature inventive methods of appearing to transport children to Santa’s arctic base of operations.

So in demand were the services of Noel and Roy that over the years they built up a client base and were quite often were engaged in the construction of several grottos at once in locations such as Ards Shopping Centre, the Park Centre, the Odyssey, the old Victoria Centre in Belfast, Castle Court and even as far off as Enniskillen. Sometimes, with deadlines approaching and their creative ambition running wild, the bothers would even sleep overnight instore to awake and get straight back into work the following morning.

The featured film in this clip is from the mid-1980s and features a grotto the Spences made for Ards Shopping Centre, who hoped to drive Christmas footfall with some Spence Brothers magic. Alongside the animatronic elves and creature characters, the centrepiece of this grotto was a ‘magic cable car ride’ to meet Santa which involved specially shot film of mountain scene modelwork created by the Spences and replayed on a screen to create a surround viewing effect of a journey by cable car.

This longstanding tradition of sprinkling a little extra magic fairy dust on the Christmas experience of Northern Irish children should come as no surprise when another lesser known fact about the Spences is revealed – the twins were born on Christmas Day.

The Spence Brothers can also be heard discussing their grotto building as part of the Super 8 Stories Christmas Special. Meanwhile, various collections of their factual, horror and science fiction films can be viewed on the dedicated page for the Spence Brothers within the Digital Film Archive. And if you’re still in the mood for getting into the Christmas spirit with a nostalgic look at Christmases of old then there is no better place to start exploring our Yuletide holdings than A Child’s Christmas, a mid-1960s slice of pure joy from the camera of the late great 8mm filmmaker, Gordon McKnight.