Pure Imagination: Meet the BCU Alumnus with the world’s largest Willy Wonka collection


A BCU Alumnus is the owner of the largest collection of Willy Wonka memorabilia in the world.

Nicholas Anderton-Franklin, who graduated with a BA (Hons) Theatre Design from BCU in 1999, has been growing his collection for almost 20 years.

He is the proud owner of over 3,000 items from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the 1971 film starring Gene Wilder, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the 2005 film which starred Johnny Depp, and even the new Wonka film, starring Timothée Chalamet.

Ahead of the new Wonka film arriving in cinemas on 8 December, starring Hugh Grant and Olivia Colman, we sat down with Nicholas to find out more about his fascination with Willy Wonka, how the film played a role in his university studies, and the incredible things he has achieved in his career so far.

Nicholas's collection in the 'Wonka Wing'.

“Watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on VHS, with the great Gene Wilder as a 10-year-old in 1988, was a seminal moment for me. The set design blew my mind. It was that exact moment that inspired me to want to become a theatre set designer. Even when I watch it now, it feels fresh every time and I always find something in it that I’ve never noticed before,” said Nicholas.

“I just love the hand-made nature of the film, with it being years before the technical wizardry of Star Wars, Superman, CGI and green screens. Everything in Willy Wonka was made at Munich’s film studio, and I was fortunate enough to visit there with my husband as part of our honeymoon in 2021.”

But it wasn’t until the 2005 film arrived on screens when Nicolas was inspired to start his huge collection.

He said: “I distinctly remember watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the cinema and thinking that it would be great to get hold of a set of Wonka bars from the film. Within a week, I’d purchased a set of eight bars from the film from specialist prop makers that worked on it.”

Since then, Nicholas’s collection has grown to become the world’s largest. His selection of memorabilia is now so big, in fact, that he has a ‘Wonka Wing’ in his home in Cheshire, which houses his prized items, including original Wonka bars from the 1971 film and a Roald Dahl signed letter, as well as a giant candy cane from the 2005 film and Gene Wilder’s handprints.

Nicholas showing items from his collection on BBC News and Nicholas with Julie Dawn Cole who played Veruca Salt.

The alumnus is even close friends with stars of the films, including Julie Dawn Cole, who played the iconic Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

He said: “I went to the NEC in Birmingham back in 1971 and met Julie then. She had seen me on TV talking about movie props, and we are now good friends. She even sold me her 1971 screen used Wonka bar, which is currently valued at £35,000.

“I’ve been to her home a few times, and she really makes me feel like I’m part of the Wonka family.”

It was his love of Willy Wonka as a child that led him to study Theatre Design and enjoy an incredibly creative career since.

“Soon after watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for the first time, my dad took me to see Michael Crawford in Phantom of the Opera. Before that, I’d only ever been to pantomimes, and the performance completely opened my imagination to what my future life could bring. I was beaming, and when I got home, I wrote a letter to the set and costume designer, Maria Björnson, about how much her creative talent had inspired me. She wrote back and gave me so much advice on what I’d need to do to get into the industry, including what university courses I could look at.”

After securing work experience at The Lyceum Theatre in Crewe when he was 15, Nicholas went on to study Spatial Design at Mid-Cheshire College.

He said: “My dad, full of encouragement, said that he’d take me to any theatre in the world if I gained a distinction. Well, I got a distinction, so I chose Michael Crawford’s EFX at the MGM Grand Casino Resort in Las Vegas. Go big or go home, right? It hugely inspired me, but I was also fascinated with theme parks and the theatre that they provide, from Disney and Universal to Merlin attractions; I loved how immersive they are.”

Nicholas with Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and Linda Barker from Changing Rooms, and Nicholas with Claire Sweeney on the set of Brookside.

Nicholas arrived at BCU in 1996 to study Theatre Design, which provided him with the skills and experience for his chosen industry, as well as huge range of design opportunities.

He said: “My time at BCU was great, and my tutors were very creative too. During my studies, I was able to develop my drawing, model-making and scenic skills, and I was also able to work on set designs for the Birmingham Rep, the Birmingham Royal Ballet, and a range of productions too.

“I was even able to study the set designer and art director, Harper Goff, who designed the set of the 1971 Willy Wonka film, which was really inspiring as he had also been Walt Disney’s art director at his theme parks.

“Whilst in my final year, I saw an advertisement on a noticeboard which was calling for contestants to appear on a new BBC Midlands show ‘Change That’. The series involved BBC’s Changing Rooms designers making over furniture, and they were filming close by in Bromsgrove. I applied and got on the show, and I was introduced to flamboyant TV interior designer Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen, who even went onto hire me as a Design Assistant on Changing Rooms Live at the NEC.”

After leaving BCU, the graduate was commissioned to design sets for the English Touring Theatre, as well as running puppet workshops, freelance model-making and working at a local theatre too. He then returned to his old college and taught design students, before finding work in the design department of Channel 4’s hit soap Brookside. He soon became an Art Director on the show, which opened more opportunities for him at the likes of Channel 4’s Hollyoaks and BBC’s Grange Hill.

But after ten years, he was ready for a new challenge, and Nicholas joined Merlin Entertainments and worked in the display departments at Legoland and The York Dungeons before moving to the Science Museum Group in Manchester and then to Chester Zoo.

Nowadays, he is still using his creativity and skills at RHS Garden Bridgewater in Salford, and he also creates large-scale canvas artwork for restaurants, bars and show homes.

Nicholas with his Pride of Britain award, outside Coronation Street's Rovers Return, and with Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester.

But his proudest achievement is winning a Pride of Britain award.

He said: “My biggest achievement is winning a Pride of Britain Award for a project I created in 2017. After the Manchester Arena attack, I felt compelled to do something. I was so angry something like that had happened down the road from me. I looked out of my office window onto the abandoned ITV Coronation Street set. I looked at the Rovers Return set and the famous green tiles, and I decided to create an art fundraiser.

“I gained permission to remove the green tiles, create a Manchester ‘worker bee’, which is the symbol of the city, and sprayed the design onto 22 tiles; one to remember each of the victims. After gaining support from the likes of IKEA and Coronation Street producers, as well as local actors and Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, the tiles went online at a £60 starting bid, and they raised £20,000. Vodaphone saw us on TV promoting the tiles, and they doubled it to £40,000. I then went on to win the Manchester Bee Proud award, as well as a Pride of Britain award, which was incredible.”

Nicholas continues to visit theme parks and attractions to keep inspired, as well as reviewing theatre shows across the UK. Keeping inspired is one of his main pieces of advice for those looking for their big break in creative industries.

He said: “My top pieces of advice are being nice and do your absolute best on every job, as people will want to work with you again.

“Keep it fresh and stay inspired, and keep in touch with your contacts too, as they can always help you to find work.

“It’s hard to believe that I’m going to be 46 next year. Time really does fly, so grab your creative life and run with it!”

Wonka arrives in cinemas across the UK on Friday 8 December.

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