The Wonderful World Of Puppets

Broadcast on 3 January 2000

 

Review/account by Emma Shane

© January 2008

 

The programme was billed as covering the history of British television puppetry “from Muffin The Mule to Flat Eric”. I therefore wondered whether there was a slight possibility that if we were lucky the programme might conceivably include a clip or two of Louise Gold’s work, given that she has puppeteered on quite a number of major TV puppet programmes. As it turned out, the delightful surprise of this programme, was that from its introductory scene it soon became obvious it didn’t just include a few clips of that particular puppeteer’s work, the lady herself was included among the “experts” talking to camera. What a wonderful unexpected bonus.

 

The programme opens with an introduction consisting of several of its better known contributors speaking to camera about puppets in general. These are, in order of appearance: Zoe Ball, Louise Gold, Brian Henson, Jack Dee, Philip Schofield, and two of David Claridge’s characters (Roland Rat and Kevin The Gerbil). all the comments are funny, but Louise’s certainly stands out, as she says, with conviction (possible acted) “Puppet people can be a bit weird.”

 

The programme then goes to the beginning of British television puppetry, Muffin The Mule. Delightfully the focus is very much on the first great British television puppeteer Ann Hogarth, with Ms Hogarth’s daughter Sally McNally talking about her mother’s work. This is followed by Bill And Ben, of which a revival was just being made, so we get clips of the original interspliced with clips of them making the revival. One of the revival’s voice-artistes John Thomson, and the Art Director Bridget Appleby spoke about it. It made for some interesting comparisons between the old and the new. John Thomson introduces the next section, Pinky And Perky, by pointing out that if you play their theme at a different speed on your record player it sounds like singing group (possibly The Beverly Sisters). The two Czech puppeteers, Jan and Vlast Daliber, who came to this country in the late 1940s, talk about how Pinky and Perky got their names, and the characters. The pair are holding their puppets as they talk about them, clearly with great affection. Next up is Gerry Anderson the creator of both Four Feather Falls and Thunderbirds. He describes were some of the characters come from. It’s particularly fun to hear his description of Parker being based on a waiter at a pub, who had also served Her Majesty at Windsor Castle and thus although a cockney, liked to talk posh. “I was desperate my show wouldn’t be classed as a puppet show” says Gerry Anderson, he explains its because at that time puppets on television were mainly small children’s things like Muffin The Mule. So he invented the word “Supermaionette” to describe his work. he recalls how they had radio controlled mouths, with electric wires going to the mouths, which would occasionally give the puppeteers a bit of a shock Here Nicholas Parsons also gets a look in, to talk about his work as a voice-artiste on Anderson’s projects.

 

The first four sections had been about marionettes, now we move into an era where hand puppets (and later hand-and-rod puppets) dominate the action. First up Richard Cardell talks eloquently about Sooty. Liana Bridges seems to be with him for moral support, she doesn’t say much. Jack Dee describes how he only guested on The Sooty Show because his children watched it, and he wanted them to see him at work, as it turned out they didn’t like his appearance on it. (it would appear that performers often do have that sort of difficulty). Sooty And Co were quite cheeky to their guests and their presenters, Basil Brush just takes that humour a little bit further. Yet, judging by the clips shown, even Basil Brush doesn’t really offend, he’s far too witty for that, a sort of puppet Noel Coward, perhaps. Basil’s puppetbuilder Peter Firman talks a little about the puppet technically, and very thoroughly givens Ivan Owen credit for devising the character, Peter only built the puppet “Ivan breathed life into it”. I was so glad to see Ivan Owen given his proper credit as a puppeteer. A few years later when he died, his newspaper obituaries ostensibly left out his puppetry, although if you read between the lines you could guess that he just had to be a puppeteer (Ivan was one of those puppeteers who also acted, and, therefore tended to hid a lot of his puppetry under the heading “voice work” – it’s a little trick that another great British puppeteer, in this programme, has also been known to employ in a bid to be taken seriously in the acting world. I find it very sad that that seems to be necessary, performers should be accepted for their versatility). Actor Roy North, who presented The Basil Brush show, describes watching Derek Fowlds on television presenting the programme, and realising he could do that too. He also recounts a hilarious story about the floor manager saying “Cue Basil” to the puppet rather than to Ivan Owen underneath it, and being surprised when he didn’t get a response from the puppet. However, Mr North somewhat undermines himself by declaring “I hate puppets, apart from him” (referring to Basil). On to Rainbow, and the puppeteers Craig Crane and Ronnie Le Drew for once take centre stage, talking about Rainbow, and how unexpectedly successful its been. They admit they don’t usually admit to being puppeteers, because of the reactions they get. Craig says “It’s the characters that are the stars, not the puppeteers”. “Absolutely” agrees Ronnie. Craig continues “We can remain anonymous”. “Apart from today” concludes Ronnie. Having just expressed sentiments similar to Frank Oz’s immortal “can of beans” statement in Of Muppets And Men. Ronnie and Craig (well mostly Ronnie) mention what a great puppeteer Frank Oz is.

 

Leading on of course to The Muppets. There follows a classic Parkinson clip, of Miss Piggy trying to seduce Michael Parkinson. Rolf Harris, who was on Parkinson that week too, recollects that he felt quite out of the action. Having come to this point in the programme, it is of course Louise Gold’s turn to speak to camera “Jim Henson and Frank Oz were one of the great comedy double acts of our time really, and they just happened to do it with puppets” says the first British puppeteer to be trained by Hensons. Her statement ends, appropriately enough, with a clip between Piggy and Kermit, from the Leo Sayer episode, where Piggy is railing about “Another girl pig singer!” Zoe Ball mentions how she likes The Muppets. Then it’s Brian Henson’s turn to explain how his father was very innovative in using the television as his stage. Brian comes across well, putting the information simply but without simplifying too much. Louise’s turn to describe how she became part of the Muppet gang, she says “My agent rang me up and asked “Do you want to go for an interview for something called The Muppet Show”” At this point there’s a clip of The Muppet Show theme, Louise continues “I met this man with a beard and a frog, and found myself working on what was then the top light entertainment show of it’s time, and it was just amazing!” As she nears the end of this speech the subtitles flash up Louise’s credit, she is of course billed as ‘Louise Gold – Puppeteer’. And so she jolly well should be. For this actress is a remarkable puppeteer. Brian Henson talks about the Guest stars, and that is illustrated by some clips of Piers Brosnon on Muppets Tonight. That was made in America, thankfully it’s soon back to The Muppet Show, as the focus switches back to Louise Gold, who talks about her own best known character, she says “I had a character called Annie Sue Pig on The Muppet Show; who was very very talented, very pretty, very young and thus loathed by Miss Piggy”. There follows a clip (another from the Leo Sayer episode) of Louise puppeteering Annie Sue, the scene between her and Piggy in Piggy’s dressing-room. It’s really good to have Louise’s early work as a puppeteer so prominently on display. After that classic clip of the British performer’s work, its kind of amusing to have Brian Henson say “I think you can only be a puppeteer if you’re passionate about it.”. Back to Louise, the first British Muppeteer, recalling her time on The Muppet Show, she says “I always used to try and get in English characters. And I’d do different voices, and Jim would say “Hmmm, yeah, that’s ok, try something else”. And I’d try another voice. And then funnily enough it would be an American voice. He’d say “Yeah ok that’s the one”.” Louise’s recounting of the story is hilarious, for as she tells the story she changes accent, to imitate Jim Henson speaking to her, not only the accent but also her body language, or at least her hands, seem to illustrate the point. Brian Henson remarks that most television puppetry today has a bit of his father’s techniques in them.

 

This leads nicely into Spitting Image. In fact it’s Louise Gold, Spitting Image’s original Leading Puppeteer, who gets to introduce this section with “The potential of puppets had been established with Muppets. So when Spitting Image came along, although it was a totally different kind of thing, people knew it was possible”. There follows a few words from the Puppet-builder Roger Law, then it’s Louise’s turn to describe how she ended up on that legendary programme, she says “I got a call from either Roger Law or Peter Fluck, I can’t remember who now. Saying “We setting up this satirical puppet show, and you’re the English Muppet person, can you help us?””  There follows a clip of Roger Law explaining that he and Peter Fluck didn’t start making puppets until they were in their forties; and they didn’t realise how difficult it would be. He also mentions the problems of the weight of the puppets, fittingly it’s back to Louise, who laughs a little as she says “There was always a slight battle between --- puppeteers saying “I can’t carry this. This is so heavy””. Once again Louise changes voice slightly to illustrate her point. There follows a clip of the puppets of The Queen and Prince Philip, where The Queen is looking up the family tree. Surely this just has to be one of Louise’s performances with that classic character. And here the British actress-turned-puppeteer gets to tell a story about Spitting Image that could only happen to her. She says “I went to an audition for Aspects Of Love, when Prince Edward was working for The Really Useful Company, and he was at that point the teaboy and he would show you in and said “would you like a cup of tea? What do you do?” “Oh I work on Spitting Image.” “And who do you do on Spitting Image” “Erm your mother””. At this point there is a brief resumption of the clip, and then Louise continues “And he was terribly sweet “Oh I never watch it myself, but I hear it’s very good””. Louise really does have a flair for recounting stories about her career. She’s delightfully unpretentious about it, and very willing to laugh at herself. No piece about Spitting Image ever seems to be quite complete without mentioning the voices. This starts with Andi Peters remarking that on those days being caricatured on Spitting Image meant you’d really arrived. His character’s turns of phrase were like him, but the voice itself was not. Roger Law says that it was Harry Enfield who first pointed out that the voices on Spitting Image needed to be as good caricatures as the puppets. Then Louise, who is clearly putting on a funny voice or two as she says it describes the voice-artistes as “A lot of people who went on to have amazingly successful careers in other aspects of the business”. One can’t help but wonder, as the only performer who so very decidedly had a foot (or should that be a hand) in both camps, whether Louise isn’t using humour as a way of coping with the fact that many of the voice-artistes are far better known generally than she is. There follows a funny story from Phil Cornwell about voices he didn’t in the end do, and then a clip of the Jack Nicholson puppet as voiced by Chris Barrie. Roger Law concludes the section, first with a story about going up to the Birmingham studios one day, when Spitting Image was filming, when he arrived the crew had gone to lunch, and he found a large puppet dinosaur on set, with six puppeteers inside it, wanting to be let out. He goes on to mention Spitting Image’s worldwide imitators, including the infamous Russian version. He concludes by mentioning that the puppets are all unemployed now, and are going to be sold. Ironically one of the puppets in shot is The Queen!

 

The programme continues with Gilbert The Alien, also built by Fluck And Law. Then it’s on to Roland Rat. Nick Owen recollects the Rat’s beginning on TV Am. Puppeteer David Claridge is the only puppeteer taking part in this programme who never appears as himself, he only appears in character, and therefore billed as ‘Roland Rat  - Superstar’. He mentions his BBC series, and it’s guests, including Nicholas Parsons, who also speaks to camera. There follows a couple of clips of Nicholas on that show, one of him singing a song about a bucket, and another (clearly from the same episode) where he says “We are here because lovely Roxanne and cutie Kevin are still locked in that broom cupboard” to which Roland retorts “Look Nicholas it’s my show and I decide what we do on it.”  For a long time I never noticed that this clip is not only appropriate in having Nicholas Parsons in it. There’s another little connection with the programme, although she’s not mentioned and we never see her puppeteer on it, it also refers to one of the characters that Louise Gold puppeteered on that show, Roxanne. About the time that Roland Rat joined the BBC, another puppet was making his debut there, Gordon The Gopher, in fact that would have been about the time that Roland Rat tried to launch a “takeover bid” for ‘John Craven’s Back Pages’; and Philip Schofield got left to write his own article for the Radio Times instead of being interviewed by John Craven. Zoe Ball mentions her shock at discovering the producer who gave her her big break was Paul Smith the television producer who did Gordon The Gopher. Philip Schofield explains how Gordon had been bought by his aunt as a present. He goes on to recount an amusing tale about one day when Paul was trying to produce Points Of View and work The Gopher on Going Live simultaneously, and failed to make it back in Studio 7 in time. This section concludes with a clip of Gordon being attacked by Chi Chitsu dogs, Sarah Greene sitting next to him is laughing a lot. The programme moves on to deal with The Creature Shop’s work, beginning of course with The Dark Crystal. This section largely features Brian Henson talking about his father’s work, and The Creature Shop’s director Jamie Courtier. It’s good to see Jamie given his due as a puppet-builder. The section also includes Gerry Anderson saying that for him there is now no stigma about the word puppet, although he still prefers to say animatronics.  The section features a selection of Creature Shop stuff, including Jamie demonstrating a horse. It also has a number of clips from the film that started The Creature Shop, The Dark Crystal. Appropriately enough one particularly prominent clip is an excerpt from The Banqueting Scene; which particularly features The Gourmand Skeksis, it’s not mentioned in this programme, but that was the one which had Louise Gold as its principal puppeteer. I couldn’t help noticing the distinctive way she made her Skeksis lunge across the table. (Some months later watching a play at The Tricycle Theatre, I couldn’t help noticing one of the actors lunged across a table in a manner not dissimilar).  Finally we come to the section on Flat Eric. Interestingly his creator and puppeteer Quenin Dupleux is another of those puppeteers who fell into the business of performing accidentally. He bought a puppet head in a flea market, and built himself a puppet which he then had to perform. He did not think of himself as a puppeteer, but remember what he had seen of The Muppets, tried to take his inspiration from them and got on with performing the puppet. I couldn’t help thinking he was actually following in a great tradition, a tradition that includes several legendary Muppeteers. The programme concludes with another classic Michael Parkinson clip, the one with Rod Hull and Emu.

 

The programme packed a lot into under an hour. If there were things that either weren’t fully covered or in some cases (such as Cloppa Castle) not covered at all, well given the time constraints it is entirely understandable. Could the programme have been longer? Given the amount they were trying to pack into it (the entire history of British television puppetry) possibly, but to make it too long could have made it get a little tedious. Not that such a fascinating programme would be tedious to enthusiasts, but if you want to keep audience accessibility you need to keep things reasonably short. Overall I think they got it pitched about right. And unlike so many compilation programmes there were no silly gimmicks, well with the exception of Roland Rat. It was in fact a very sensible, proper, well thought out, and well researched history of television puppetry. The clips where very cleverly chosen, as a proper reflection of the material talked about, and the performers who appeared. This was particularly true of the Jim Henson Company stuff. Was it appropriate to include The Jim Henson Company, particularly The Muppets, in a programme about British television puppetry? Since The Muppet Show itself, and quite a number of the Muppet films, plus Creature Shop productions were made in this country, it is entirely appropriate that they should be included in this programme. Since this is a programme about British TV puppetry with the exception of Brian Henson anyone else representing Hensons are drawn from their British employees, including of course their first British puppeteer.  The choice of clips was inspired. For example The Muppet Show included at least two notable clips from the Leo Sayer episode. Which as this is a programme about British television puppetry that is a really good one to use. Although Louise Gold had been with The Muppets officially since the Edgar Bergan episode, she had to learn her craft on the job. In some ways the Leo Sayer episode marked her graduation from trainee to being regarded as a puppeteer in her own right, although as she herself said in a TV Times interview at the time she still had a lot to learn. Even then she wasn’t experienced enough to handle really complex production numbers. Yet in that episode she was given far more responsibility in carrying parts of scenes than she ever had before.

The programme had a truly wonderful  mix of “experts”, yes there were a few television personalities such as Nicholas Parsons, Philip Schofield and Zoe Ball, but these were people who genuinely had something to say on the subject, having spent a significant part of their careers, or moment in their career, working alongside puppets, or voicing them. Right alongside them, this time as themselves were the puppeteers, it was so good to see these unsung heroes and heroines take their place in the limelight. In particular it was so very wonderful to see Louise Gold attempting to take her rightful place in television puppetry history. In fact although I knew of course that she was fairly notable, with her credits on both The Muppet Show and Spitting Image. Yet until she took part in this programme, I don’t think I fully appreciated just how significant a British puppeteer she really is. This is the first television documentary about puppetry in which I have come across her speaking to camera. Of course she appeared in Of Muppets & Men - The Making Of The Muppet Show, The Making Of Dark Crystal, Inside The Labyrinth, and in The Making Of Muppet Christmas Carol. But she wasn’t specifically interviewed on any them. Here she clearly is.

In her appearances on this programme, Louise is wearing a large purple blouse. Her red hair is cut quite short, and looks remarkably tame, though at least her curls are still fairly noticeable. She appears to be sitting on a sofa, though there are four brightly coloured bean bags, and for some strange reason a large model of a footballer in the background. She says very little about the technicalities of operating puppets on television, which I felt was a bit of a shame. However, she seems to enjoy telling amusing anecdotes, such as recounting Jim Henson’s criticisms of her attempts to bring English accents to The Muppets; or her hilarious tale about Aspects Of Love. Indeed she is among the programme’s most charismatic contributors. It’s superb brief history of British television puppetry, with so much packed into it, you can watch it several times and still find something new about it. It deserves a repeat or even maybe a DVD. A fine documentary; And the icing on the cake is that  it’s just so brilliant to find Louise Gold being given a chance, and rising to that chance, to take her proper place in the history of British television puppetry. What an absolute thrill.

 

 

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