My close encounters with several music legends in one day!
BLOG NO.20 – IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO READ PART 5 OF THE CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FIRST, CLICK HERE
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First, I think I must confess something: I thought I would do these Close Encounter blogs purely because I knew they would get more folk coming to my blog site and, hopefully, listening to my music too. Well, I was right on the first count, but, judging by my site and SoundCloud statistics, I don’t think it’s getting many people to have a listen to my musical attempts. Hardly surprising really, as most of those wanting to read these – include either current or budding puppeteers – are not that interested in folk-type music that is primarily about the history of a specific region of England. Just so you know, I have blogged about the other kinds of music I have done – see THIS one for example – and I will be doing more in the future. (I’ve added a couple of songs to the right-hand sidebar.) There, now I’ve done my confessional, on with the blog….
In my 40-odd years as an actor, puppeteer and movement choreographer in theatre, television and film I was fortunate and honoured enough to meet and work with some music legends – both human and places – from Elton John to Capital Record Studios in LA. It’s only recently that I realised music has been with me my whole adult working life, in one form or another, and I thought I’d share these ‘close encounters’ with you. So here is Part 6 of those encounters….
I first worked with the satirical tv puppet show Spitting Image in 1987 when they did their The Ronnie And Nancy Show special, which would also be broadcast in the US. This very successful series had been going since 1984. I actually auditioned for it back then but didn’t get the job. Partly because the puppeteers at that time were doing the voices and had to be impersonators too, but also because I probably wasn’t good enough…and I may have been too short! (The latter problem I rectified my whole tv and film puppeteering career with the boots shown below; although this wouldn’t lengthen my short arms.)
Now Spitting Image, if you have never seen it, was quite a hard hitting satirical show, which you either loved or hated. At its height, when I was working on a series in 1989, it was getting 11 million viewers at 10pm and a Sunday night! That is quite some fete, and also meant that at least 11 million liked it. The like or dislike went for the style of puppets and puppetry. It wasn’t my natural style as by the time I joined it, it was all being done to a soundtrack, and my puppetry came from within and the voices I had created. The other challenge could be the size of the puppets and the shape of their heads. They could be very large, and if you had a small hand like I have, lip-syncing could be a challenge all of its own. They were also designed to look like someone, not for ease of use. (If you think some of the lip-syncing isn’t actually syncing, it was usually because we got soundtracks to the topical sketches the day we shot them, and there simply wasn’t the time to learn it.)
The puppet size issue was the reason why I was very often given the smaller sized characters to do, like the MP, David Steel; although I was the puppeteer of the famously grey-faced-large-puppet of John Major, before he was the Prime Minister, when he was the Chancellor of the Exchequer. (I had left the series before he became the PM.) However, unlike many, I really enjoyed and was quite happy to just assist other puppeteers, either as their ‘other hand’ or doing the eyes. I would do this quite a bit with puppeteer Anthony Asbury on Prime Minster, Margaret Thatcher. (Voiced by the marvellous Steve Nallon, who also puppeteered on the show.) The next special I would be involved with was the 10 years of Margaret Thatcher special. There were quite a few musical numbers in that, but not with any music legends, just infamous politicians.
I had also started to work with them just after I had first contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; now generally known as ME/CFS. This meant the hard work it took to operate these giants was made just that bit harder. The ME/CFS would eventually lead to me having to stop doing working on Spitting Image in 1990, and being virtually chair bound for the next six months.
What I always loved doing were the musical numbers. These were done prior to the main shoot, as the latter had to be shot as late to broadcasting as possible to be topical. We recorded the last sketches the day of transmission, and they could still be laying back the sound to Part 2 of the show as Part 1 was being aired! So doing these musical pieces was always a lot more fun…for me at least. We had a little more time to be creative.
I’ve chosen four musical pieces: three were with the rubbery versions of music legends, and the last with a latex version of a certain monarch.
‘THE JAILS ARE PACKED’ – ‘ELVIS’
I have to say, it was an honour working with ‘Elvis’ and doing this song! As you’ll see, it was a HUGE number and a lot of extra puppeteers were brought in. This parody merged Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock and I’m All Shook Up to explore the question of overcrowding in UK jails. As relevant now as it was then…if not more so.
A WARNING: IT GET’S EXPLICIT IN PLACES AND THE NAKED BUTT YOU’LL SEE IN THIS VIDEO WAS, I HATE TO SAY, MINE!
‘I’M MAD!’ – ‘MICHAEL JACKSON’
Big at this time was the Michael Jackson song and music video Bad. Unfortunately for Michael Jackson he lent himself too well to be poked satirical fun at by Spitting Image, and that’s exactly what was done when we did our Mad video.
‘NOBODY KNOWNS WHAT I’M ON ABOUT’ – ‘BONO’
This was another fun, if somewhat bizarre song to do, based on U2′s song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. If my memories serves me correctly, I was performing the U2 guitarist known as The Edge…hence my edgy performance. (Sorry.)
‘WE ARE THE ROYAL FAMILY’ – ‘QUEEN‘
We’ll leave Spitting Image with the parody of Queen‘s song, We Are The Champions. This was another enjoyable experience, and I even got to dress up as the Queen, wear a rubber mask and strut my funky stuff for the wide shots. (I would go on to have one of my more weird Close Encounter with Queen‘s guitarist, Brian May, which I’ll blog about when we get to 1995.)
THE END OF AN ERA….
It was during my last stint with Spitting Image in 1990 that a got home to listen to an answer machine message telling me that Jim Henson had died. What a horrible way to find out. What a shock! It hit me like a tonne of bricks. The odd thing was that, although I had worked with him quite a bit by that time, it was only recently I’d really got to know him, and I’d even say we were becoming friends. I remember when we had dinner in a lovely restaurant in Plymouth, after we’d done the pilot for Jim Henson’s Mother Goose Stories, that I spent the evening sat next to him, chatting with him for most of that lovely summer’s evening. Of course, I knew his son Brian very well, and we were great mates, but Jim was very hard to get close to. I had just been working with Brian, on the last series of Mother Goose Stories, which he was editing at the time his father died, and I was asked if I would direct a few shots that needed doing, as well as complete the last six shows, which still required editing. I had been puppet captain and coordinator on the show, but this would be my first tv directing. I was saddened yet honoured and excited by the request, which I, of course, said yes to. Brian would jump on a Concorde flight to New York for the funeral and memorial service, and I did as requested. I would later be asked to be one of the few UK puppeteers to perform at Jim’s St. Paul’s Cathedral memorial service, which was probably the greatest honour I have ever been given. It was a wonderful service, full of tears of joy and sadness…but also filled with jokes and laughter, as Jim would have wanted it to be.
This would be the end of an era, and an amazing decade for me. A decade that took me on a journey from puppet theatre to film and television, but also from healthy to struggling most of the time with the ME/CFS. A bitter-sweat ten years, but a time I wouldn’t want any other way.
If you think these stories are interesting, they will be nothing compared to those the puppeteers from The Muppets or Sesame Street could tell. They’ve worked with more musical legends than I’ve had hot dinners. Having said that, I do have more to come, and Part 7 of the Close Encounter Of The Music Legend Kind will be about Kate Bush, Vanilla Ice, Dancing Turtles and a Cameo.
Thanks, as always, for reading and please do leave a Star Rate at the top of the Page (good or bad, I don’t mind), or Like it below if you’re a member of WordPress. You can also leave a Comment below. Until next time,