How to become… a puppeteer | Silver


SSometimes, when Nigel Plaskitt crouched on the floor, his hand on Roy Hattersley’s behind, he thought longingly of the Shakespearean speeches he had considered giving when he started his acting career. For Plaskitt, the force behind many politicians on Spitting Image as well as the knitted monkey PG Tips, never wanted to be a puppeteer. “I left school to become an actor, but during my second year with a traveling theater, ATV asked me if I could do character voices because they were casting for a new series. preschool TV show, Pipkins,” the 63-year-old actor said. -Old. “No actor ever says no to anything, so with the bravado of youth, I agreed to give it a try.”

Plaskitt’s experience was limited to childhood puppet shows in his parents’ living room and holiday work experience at the Little Angel, a north London puppet theatre. Nonetheless, ATV bosses were persuaded of his skill, and he spent the next nine years voicing and manipulating a tortoise and a hare.

Creating a rounded personality with just a voice and a hand is a challenge beyond many seasoned actors, especially when curled up under a table out of sight. “When the actors are performing a scene, they can look at their fellow performers and be inspired by them. But you can’t see where the puppets are looking, so you had to look at a TV screen that showed us what the camera was seeing so that got us the right lines of sight,” he says. “We’d be sitting under a bench on the floor wearing a huge mic like a necklace and staring sideways at the screen while operating the puppets above our heads “, he says. “It was a steep learning curve – in the first episode, you can see my face.”

Extreme discomfort and anonymity are the main challenges faced by puppeteers. Plaskitt came to appreciate the latter after a brief taste of stardom. “Between filming Pipkins, I did acting jobs, including a commercial for Vicks nasal spray, which kicked my system out of the craving for fame,” he says. “People kept coming up to me on the street – even once in San Francisco – and I knew I couldn’t deal with it all the time.”

While the puppets he voiced and vitalized became household names, Plaskitt, crouched beneath them, was unrecognizable and unrecognized. But it was the crouching, not the invisibility that bothered him. “Awkward positions are the worst part of the job,” he says. “In an episode of Spitting Image the heads of the politicians were in a vat of ‘sewage’ and we were underneath and things kept flowing over us. And running Roy Hattersley was unpleasant as his saliva was dripping down my arms when the spray pump inside the puppet leaks.”

When Pipkins ended in 1981, Plaskitt needed a break from puppetry. He became a producer and director, advising on the creation of Brookside, but was later approached to help with the second series of Spitting Image. “There were eight of us operating the puppets to a pre-recorded track because the puppets were so heavy we would be too out of breath to do the lines,” he says. “Arnold Schwarzenegger was a particularly huge puppet and once we noticed that he seemed to fall over during a scene. It turned out that the actor in him was fainting.”

With two people per puppet, synchronized coordination was a new challenge. “You would have someone doing the head and the left hand and someone doing the right hand and the latter would inevitably feel underused, so in the early episodes you would see the right hand suddenly take on a life of its own,” says -he. . “You had to learn to imitate what the left hand was doing so that the movement remained natural.”

Plaskitt remained with Spitting Image for 13 years. He says John Major was one of his favorite puppets “because he did so little it was a challenge to give him character”. During this time, he was recruited by the Jim Henson Company to work on two Muppet films. When the company was approached by ITV Digital to imagine a character to promote its name change, Plaskitt began its long association with the knitted sock monkey adopted by PG Tips. It’s a job that involves a disturbing intimacy with a colleague. “She takes care of the arms while I take care of the head and body, so we are grouped together and she has to read my mind and accommodate me when I move – often in the most awkward positions,” he said. “In a PG Tips advert, Monkey was dancing in Marylebone station and I was lying on the platform with puzzled commuters walking around me. You learn to forget all dignity in the puppeteer.”

An acting background is essential for a career in puppetry, says Plaskitt, who trained at Lamda after leaving school. Likewise, patience, cooperation and a repressible ego are vital. “People don’t appreciate the work because they never see the performer and don’t think about the skill, effort and technical challenges,” he says. “Above all, filming with puppets can be very boring with two or three shots a day and hours of waiting.”

The compensations are the close bonds woven by the puppeteers during long runs and the inevitable humor. “I had the usual disasters of eyes jumping new puppets in front of the camera and pushing them into doors because the set was over my head,” Plaskitt says. “But my favorite memory was of Dr. Dolittle when Phillip Schofield had to look into a seal’s eyes and sing it a love song. The puppet had eyes that blinked electronically and one of them suddenly snapped. stuck, so the seal started winking at him and Phillip had to finish his song while struggling to keep a straight face.”


Comments are closed.