Muppets And Puppets

Saturday 7 September 2019, Birmingham City University Curzon Building, produced by Kaleidoscope Events

Review by Emma D Shane © September 2019

Wow seriously wow. Occasionally just very occasionally one can find an event that really is like a dream come true, where the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true, this event was  just totally extraordinary!

Some years ago, I had joined Kaleidoscope’s mailing list, partly in the vague hope I might find some info on there that would help me with my research for this website.  Of course I also always had a secret hope or dream that maybe one day Louise’s work as a television puppeteer would be properly acknowledged, but somehow I never felt that would ever come true.

I went to one Kaleidoscope event, perhaps about 10 years ago or so, mainly because they were showing a Children’s BBC Christmas special that I remembered watching and had absolutely adored and wanted to see again (Aladdin And The 40 Thieves). Then with the more or less demise of yahoo (it is still around but most of us no longer use it) I lost touch with Kaleidoscope, they transferred to Facebook, but I did not realise this.

Then by happy chance, thanks to social media I came across them, just when this event was announced. I knew I just HAD to go if I possibly could. But even then I didn’t know quite how special it would be. Yes having Louise Gold at it, to represent The Muppets would be something, but even then I didn’t know just how special. I arrived somewhere between 15 to 30 minutes after the start, but fortunately what with their technical delays only missed a chunk of the first screening of the day an edition of a programme called “Clapperboard” about puppets, a Granstand special about The Muppet Movie and Thunderbirds, and I didn’t mind much about that. I wasn’t the only one to be a little late, others were later, but such is the relaxed nature of Kaleidoscope events this does not matter.  After the first programme some technical problems with the lighting meant that the organisers and compere’s, Tony Currie and Claire Bueno called for one or other of the puppeteers to entertain, while an attempt was made to sort the technical problems. This fell to Ronnie Le Drew, to do a puppetry demonstration with Zippy, which was great fun. Several of us, including the compare’s noticed Louise Gold depart the room in the middle of this, and remarked on it to Ronnie. But I think we all knew she would be back later.

By the time they showed the next piece of footage, a BBC special simply titled ‘Puppets’ which involved puppets from Whirligig, Bill & Ben, and Terrahawks,, and in fact also included Andy Pandy, I think it also included Muffin the Mule and Sooty. Things were now running nearly half an hour late.  However, despite the problems with the lights, the footage proceeded relatively smoothly. I think Louise returned to the room just before they showed the Fraggle Rock episode, which was all about Wembly flying. This used the UK Outer-space segments, and fascinatingly involved the Lighthouse Keeper trying to fashion a satellite dish from an umbrella covered in foil. Sprocket was in the lighthouse, and Uncle Matt was shown on a beach with surfers. But a trifle disappointingly the outerspace scenes did not include Gobo. I say this because of course I’ve always wanted to a UK outerspace scene with Gobo in it (well especially as Louise has puppeteered him in some of them). But that’s a very minor thing. Moving swiftly on we had the Marty Feldmen episode of The Muppet Show. Hilarious stuff. And it included the UK Spot which happened to be the song The Girlfriend Of The Whirling Dervish. It was very interesting to me to see the original Muppet version of this, as sung by the incomparable Jerry Nelson and Louise Gold. Not least because I have almost indelibly in my mind seeing that song performed rather brilliantly by a certain West End singer-actress in her cabaret act, as a tribute to The Muppets. Thank goodness such is Louise Gold’s capabilities as a singer, that although these two variants of the song are slightly different she makes both of them work equally well.  It was such fun to watch this episode and play the usual game of trying to work out which of the main eight were performing what in the various scenes. Great to have an episode of TMS which had those distinctive wonderfully strong backing vocals that you get on most of TMS, from part-way through Season 2 onwards.

This was swiftly followed by Jeff Smart being invited to introduce his own Thunderbirds spoof film ‘Nosey Parker Is Go”, on introducing this Jeff decided to modestly apologise for the fact that his name is “all over the credits” for this film. he had no need to. The affectionate spoof was much enjoyed by the audience, including in particular some of the children in the audience, who seemed to really appreciate the comedy of it (and some of them aren’t even into Thunderbirds).

Next up we had Russell Harty’s Muppet Moments, from 23 September 1977, so  a promotional for the all important Second Season of The Muppet Show.  Introducing this Tony Currie says that this documentary really “introduced The Muppets to British Audiences”.  However, while it may have introduced The Muppets to a wider audience, the first season had already been shown in the UK at least!  The programme itself is great fun. It starts off with Kermit being quite cheeky, and then Russell Hartly comes on and takes the limelight off Kermit, pointing out he is just a Guest on his Russell Hartly’s show and as long as Kermit remembers that they will get along fine.  Russell then sits down and starts interviewing Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Presently, Jim gets Kermit out, then Frank gets Fozzie out, then they send Fozzie away and Frank swaps to Piggy, finally concluding with the two men themselves again. At this Frank Oz has a few things to say about being a puppeteer how he was cracking up while performing but because he was puppeteering it didn’t matter, whereas “an actor can’t do that” (I found myself thinking of a certain West End actress who has been known to corpse at some pretty inopportune moments ).

Time at last for the first panel discussion of the day. The lights are still causing a few problems. I found myself thinking we could have done with that “cordless spotlight” Louise used to use in her cabaret act. Anyway, for this session, first up we have Tony Currie as interviewer.  He takes the opportunity to tell us, that this morning at breakfast in the hotel where all the participants were staying there was a bit of a kerfuffle involving some of the puppeteers deciding to have a rehearsal, or goof around with their puppets.  Which apparently somewhat put the other guests off their breakfast. He then gets on with  interviewing Nigel Plaskitt, and Nigel has Hartley Hare on his right arm. So of course Hartley gets interviewed too. Hartley says he has spent much of the past 30 years living in a cupboard. Tony keeps wanting to point the microphone at Hartley instead of Nigel. That’s a classic when interviewing puppets.  He learns that Hartley is a bit whiffy, having lived in a cupboard for so long.  Gail Renard who was originally scheduled to be on with Nigel was indisposed. However, we are soon joined by Ronnie Le Drew again with Zippy and then Jeff Smart with Sooty. Jeff has brought some photographic slides with him, which are shown on the screen, from his time working with Matthew Corbett on The Sooty Show, and tells us a bit about that, including the time they made a radio controlled Sooty. Jeff also reveals that because Sooty gets covered in stuff all the time they had a lot of different Sooty Puppets for the Sooty Show. There is also a discussion about whether or not puppets should have legs.  it is very good fun to hear the puppeteers give behind the scenes details and explain how this or that was done. Tony notes how quickly Nigel can flit between Hartley’s voice and his own. (That reminds me of someone else who is very quick at switching voices) The session is good, but it’s making me look forward to the afternoon even more, could things get better?

The morning session finishes up with a screening of ‘Celebration Thunderbirds”, a Granada documentary about the making of Thunderbirds, from 1992, that includes some 1960s behind the scenes footage.

Because of the overrunning, I was a bit concerned about what time we were meant to be back for the afternoon session and I certainly didn’t want to miss anything important. So did not spend long away for lunch. As it happened everyone else was either still having lunch or milling around outside the room rather than in it, so I hadn’t missed anything yet. Will McNally, (who happens to be the grandson of the Hogarth Puppeteers was practising a bit with Muffin The Mule – which he was to demonstrate later), outside the room.  I chatted with a  few other attendees, one of them asked me about my t-shirt (I was wearing my EuroMup one that Michael Dixon made for a Muppet fan get together back in 2001). Just as I was explaining about this to the person who had asked, I happened to hear  a familiar loud voice say “No pictures of naked puppets please”.  So I looked to see what was going on.  In a lounge area immediately outside the room there seemed to be some kind of filming going on, or being set up, involving most of the important puppeteers, and their puppets. Nigel was sitting on a sofa with Hartley Hare, and Ronnie was on the other end with Zippy. Behind the sofa were Warrick Brownlow-Pike and Phil Fletcher with Dodge Dog and Hacker Dog respectively. While in the middle on the sofa was Louise, with her left hand up and in position, practicing without her puppet on it. Hence the command, which for once, most of the attendees ignored.  Anyway, it wasn’t long before they finished their rehearsal and Louise was equipped with her puppet, The Queen from Spitting Image, for the actual piece that was being filmed., of the various puppets saying their names.

It was time to start the afternoon session. This began with “Birthday Greetings From The Regions”, a big Kaleidoscope commissioned compilation of footage of the various ITV regional TV stations reading out Birthday Greetings, with the help of the Station Mascots, including Gus Honeybun, and Oscar Puffin amongst others.  This was a revelation to me, brought up watching BBC, I had never before realised that when in the mid 1980s the section then BBC 1 that was later to become Cbeebies  in the mornings, had borrowed the idea of reading out birthdays from Independent Television, including having a puppet to help with the job (the first one I’d known about was Gordon the Gopher, followed by Edd The Duck).  Now I also understand just where Victoria Wood got the idea for a hilarious sketch involving Susie Blake and a toy Wallaby from.

So an interesting, but calm start to the afternoon. Thing were about to get much more exciting.  It was time for THE Panel Discussion of the event. Chairs set out, Tony Currie takes his place, and calls them to the stage: Louise Gold, Warrick Brownlow-Pike and Jocelyn Stevenson.  Louise I note is wearing a dark blue dress, with socks and trainers. She has her Kermit necklace on. This time instead of Tony dealing with the microphones the Guests handle the handheld mike as required, with Louise sitting in the centre, meaning its usually her job to pass the mike to the other two.  first of all Tony asked Jocelyn about how she came to be one of the main writers on Fraggle Rock. Jocelyn is a very cheery American, who has lived all over the world, a lot of the time settling in the UK.  Jocelyn is also very chatty  and willing to tell the story of how she came to write Fraggle Rock, starting with when she worked in a daycare centre, but happened to put the television on during clear up and suddenly realised that what she really wanted to do was work for Sesame Street, which she did. How she kept on asking Jim Henson to not forget Children’s television, and eventually helped to give him the idea for Fraggle Rock. Then it is Louise’s turn, to talk about how she ended up with The Muppets. Louise tells the tale of when she was appearing in The Land of The Dinosaurs and the director Ken Hill actually agreed to let her miss a matinee performance to go to that audition. Louise still maintains (as she always has done) that being tall was a factor in her winning that audition. She mentions that she is an actress as well and has at times gone away from puppetry, she specifically mentions that the current revival of her puppetry career is down to Warrick, who dragged me back into it” she says.  Actually it’s quite clear Warrick has had a hand in this. Although Louise has puppeteered on and off for most of her career, there was about a decade when she did hardly any, apart from her cabaret act and from a few odd appearances on documentaries and at special events.  Until first she did that day with Warrick on Transmission Impossible With Ed And Oucho, then a gap of a few years, until Muppets Most Wanted and so on.  Finally it is Warrick’s turn, to talk about how he taught himself to puppeteer, from watching all the greats on TV and trying to copy what they did a home with camera phones and stuff.  At which Louise helpfully explains that all the younger puppeteers do it that way now.  This is good and it gets better, Warrick and Louise get to their feet and go behind a screen to fetch some, puppets, while Tony keeps Jocelyn talking,

Then Louise and Warrick return with the puppets Funella Furchester (on Louise’s left hand), and Gonger on Warrick’s right hand.  Louise full of confidence has Funella introduce herself, and Gonger, at which Gonger retorts that as he now has a better job (Season 48 of Sesame Street) “I don’t need you any more , Funella reacts as one might expect.  At this point Tony reveals, that the breakfast incident he referred to earlier was these two. (In other words Louise and Warrick practising Funella and Gonger for this afternoon).  Since Funella is probably my favourite Muppet ever, it’s a thrill for me to see her being performed live, by her special puppeteer.   The two puppeteers come and sit down, with their puppets. Louise keeps putting Funella on her lap (but keeps her left hand in the puppet).  The panel interview continues. With Tony asking about the development of characters. This involves Louise mentioning that she only realised recently that most of the characters she’s been given to do as a puppeteer bits of herself. “Annie Sue Pig, Funella Furchester, even the Gourmand Skeksis.  They also get asked about puppeteers taking over other characters. Warrick is very much an expert here, But Louise also has a lot of input, as they recollect some  of the significant moments in Muppet history when that happened.  Such as Richard Hunt performing Miss Piggy but it wasn’t working and Frank Oz took it over and it worked. On Dark Crystal Age Of Resistance Warrick himself performs The Chamberlain (which was originally Frank Oz’s character in the film).  At some point I am not sure if it was here, although I think it was (unless it was later) when the puppeteers were asked if there was anything they had done because they were performing puppets that they couldn’t have done as them. Louise’s reply was to tell the story of how when The Muppets did The Royal Variety she had bought a new dress to wear for the after show bit and was then told “Sorry Louise you are going to be in your Big Mama Monster”  and then when the Royal Family came round Prince Charles asked “Are there any women with The Muppets” and Louise’s responded by saying “Hello prince “ and hugging him”, which she insists she would never have done anything so out of place if she hadn’t been inside a puppet at the time.  There is also a bit of discussion about ow performers always have to see monitors, which Warrick demonstrates, by saying “you’ll have a monitor here and then more over here.” Tony makes a remark about the Monitors show the image in reverse to a television screen. At which he is vehemently and firmly corrected by Louise, who points out that at Henson’s they use normal television screen monitors, which she says “IN my opinion is much better than”, this reverse scan …”. She sounds quite superior as she says it. But she is making the point she is a true Henson puppeteer if its what Henson’s says it is right then that’s her way too.  (It didn’t come up here, but that’s the one thing she and Nigel Plaskitt have always disagreed on .) It was lovely to see Louise talking to eloquently and confidently about puppetry.  Tony asks Louise a bit about Spitting Image, and seems to catch her unawares as he picks up on “you originally did the voice for The Queen on Spitting Image” and then asks Louise to demonstrate the voice. At which Louise says “No” because it’s a bit difficult “when I’m Funella”. It seems that while Louise is a deft mistress of accents, a the moment she is so completely into switching between herself and Funella, with Funella on her arm, that she actually can’t do a completely different character, well not improvised like that). The Puppeteers are also asked about situations where they have to voice two characters in one scene. Louise recalls how on Furchester she had to do Funella and Funella’s Grandmother (at which she looks to Warrick for reassurance she’s got her facts right). Which is a bit  of schizophrenic  thing for a performer to have to do.  There is another moment during this discussion, when Warrick has something to say about the technicalities of puppeteering, and he likewise looks to Louise for reassurance “Did I get that right”. Then we get a surprise, we are told “they are going to do a number”, Funella and Gonger say “We have to go and change”, well Louise and Warrick said it, but they seemed to be speaking in character. They disappeared behind the screen, to sort out their puppets. At this point I thought they were going to costume their puppets, or put on costumed puppets.  Meanwhile Tony and Claire and the Kaleidoscope organisers were busy setting things up, with a camera, a screen, and a backing track. It was explained, by I think Tony, that they were going to do a song that Louise had never puppeteered, although she had sung it for a Muppet album (but someone else had performed it on The Muppet Show), so they decided to get Louise to do it here today. Louise incidentally explains she was practising this on the train coming up (with her hand but not with her puppet) and getting some very odd looks from the other passengers.  Someone at Kaleidoscope has kindly sorted out getting a backing track for this song, and so we finally see that the change bit was actually that Warrick and Louise meant they were changing puppets. Louise now has Zelda Rose from The Muppet Show on her left hand, and Warrick has Hoots The Owl. Warrick says “Don’t watch us suggesting the audience watch the television screen.  Ready for a number…. Louise Gold and Warrick Brownlow –Pike give us a superb rendition of Kern, Harbach & Hammerstien’s Who?  as sung by Zelda Rose and her singing owl (a song performed on TMS  itself by Abbey Hadfield and Jerry Nelson), Louise had done Abbey’s part in this on The Muppet Show Album 2. Given that Louise is one of the best singers in musical theatre  and by far one of the best in television puppetry, it is just such a thrill to have her singing and puppeteering live at this extraordinary puppet convention of an event.  It is so fitting to get her to sing at this. And despite Warrick’s request some of us do watch the two performers. The audience actually go wild with applause, totally appreciating the performance. So much so that Warrick persuades (a slightly reluctant Louise) that they are going to given an encore.  This time Warrick says “if you didn’t watch us the first time you might want to now”. It is just as brilliant second time round, definitely that encore was needed. After the number Louise improvises a bit with Zelda, while the equipment is being put away. And then it is time for a break.  A break was very definitely needed  at this point. Louise and Warrick were just so brilliant it would have been totally unfair for anything to follow them immediately.  So they take some time to hang out and sign autographs and pose for photographs., using Funella and Gonger, of course. Although some of the other puppeteers have given people random photo opportunities, only Warrick and Louise get a specific set aside time for this. They are clearly the stars of the show. It’s  truly wonderful to see Louise being honoured in this way.

After the break, we assemble to watch a bit more footage, but we are all still on such a hgh from Louise and Warrick’s amazing performance, that it is just as well the next piece of footage for a long time does not require that much attention. It is a programme called ‘For Teenagers Only” from 1964 and features a lot of Rock and Roll acts. I found myself wondering if Noel Streatfield has been inspired by this sort of programme when she wrote the Gemma series in 1968-69. It is only right near the very end of this programme that we actually get Tingha and Tucka who are the reason for it being included in today’s showings.  Because of the late running, it is decided not to show Michael Parkinson’s encounter with Kermit and Piggy.  Instead we go downstairs for afternoon tea, with a cake sale in  aid of the RNLI.

Back in the room, it’s time for another session with Guests.

First up we have Phil Fletcher as Hacker T Dog and Warrick Brownlow-Pike as Dodge Dog.  They are soon joined by Neil Sterenberg, who built Hacker but is himself a puppeteer as well as a puppet builder (although he seems to mostly do puppet building). Neil takes care to mention that Phil Fletcher is himself an excellent puppet builder (though he mostly seems to perform) . I am glad he mentioned Phil’s puppet building, after all it was Phil who built those termites (the first things Louise and Warrick ever performed together).  Neil explains how Dodge and Hacker are made from a very expensive realistic looking fur fabric, that the original brief for Hacker was to make a realistic looking dog.  But that it can’t be too realistic because that’s creepy.  They swap the dogs for some live hands bird puppets, to show different types of puppets. Then they swap again for humanoid hand and rod muppet style puppets for some demonstrations of assisting, where another puppeteer will do one or sometimes both arm rods, and of how they make puppets walk and move, Neil puppeteers here too, to demonstrate how they have to avoid bumping into each other. Dave Chapman takes over descriptive duty. The monitor screen has been set up again, so we can watch them in front of a camera or we can watch the action on the monitor, and the puppeteers have a small monitor on the floor for them.  At one point during this we can clearly see on the monitor the top of Warrick’s grey cap. Louise  promptly yells out “Warrick Head!”. I found myself wondering, did that genuinely happen by mistake, or did Warrick plan to do it deliberately to demonstrate how easy it is for the top of a puppeteer’s head to end up in shot, and if he planned it did he plan it with Louise pointing it out? I can’t help wondering.  They wanted Neil on especially to help demonstrate how to make puppets walk, because Neil was the first performer on Dark Crystal Age  of Resistance to figure out how to make the Gelflings look like they were walking realistically. Most puppets bounce as they “walk”. then Phil finds another puppet to demonstrate a fancy walk.

Tony Currie takes back the microphone and asks the audience for questions. Somehow it is decided to do another walking and not bumping into each other demo, but making it even more complicated by having more characters, so Dave Chapman grabs a puppet too, and Louise (who had taken a seat further back in the room among the audience) is persuaded to come down and join in, she picks up one of the blue live hand bird puppets Phil had been using earlier.  They explain how in the old days (Louise explains this bit) they also used to have a trailing wire running down from their head mikes, so after a take they would have to disentangle that, she gives a sort of demonstration, but nowadays the head mikes are wireless “which is better”.  For this demo the puppeteers are all looking at one rather small monitor, and sometimes they have trouble seeing the monitor because they are so crowded together. This prompts one child in the audience to ask “Why don’t you have bigger monitors”, much laughter from most of the audience and even the puppeteers seemed to be amused. Talking about the cramped studio conditions the puppeteers, I think it was Neil, or was it Warrick, who was saying that as well as a principal puppeteer you always have an assistant doing the other arm rod. At which Louise buts in loudly and firmly to point out “Not on The Muppet Show, they were pinned”. There was certainly one moment when Warrick had said something and Louise had retorted a reply about The Muppet Show and said “But that was before you were born”.  It’s great to see Louise relaxed and confident enough in a puppet context to be able to tease her fellow performers.  It is getting towards then end of the questions but the questions cause one more moment of perfection in this brilliant day. Someone asks the puppeteers “So who are your heroes?”  (I think the idea being that the puppeteers taking part today are the audiences heroes). Warrick without missing a beat just turns slightly and indicates as he says “Well, Louise”   (and the other 3 men looked like they agreed with him) It was a beautiful moment. Louise is the oldest of the puppeteers on the stage at that moment, she’d just helped with the demo. (Ronnie was sitting in the audience and I don’t know where Nigel was, he might have left already).  People often talk about Edger Bergen being Jim Henson’s hero, or Jim Henson being a hero to most of the more recent muppet puppeteers. But here in Britain, in Birmingham that day to have Warrick name Louise Gold as his hero  was just the perfect way to sum up that day.

That concluded most of the main business of the day. Performers returned to their seats, or left the room to start packing up. There were however some more screenings. First a showing of Terry Wogan interviewing Lord Lew Grade,, with a satellite link up to Central Park in New York to get some input from first Kermit and Piggy and then Jim and Frank as themselves.  plus a rare piece of footage, that the BBC Wogan crew kindly did for the Emmy awards of Lord Grade celebrating Jim Henson.

Then we had one more little piece from a Puppeteer guest. Will McNally, who doesn’t think of himself as much of a puppeteer, though Ronnie Le Drew has taught him a few bits, comes on to demonstrate his grandmother Ann Hogarth’s most famous puppet, Muffin The Mule. and introduce a screening of a lost episode of Muffin The Mule’s TV programme, Muffin’s Birthday Cake. It was very funny to watch, even if it was dated. I heard one child in the audience say that children back in the 1950s would have enjoyed it because they wouldn’t have seen anything more technical.

A piece about Decimalisation was dropped, because of the time.

Tony Currie closed the evening with the relevant thank yous to Birmingham university, the tech people, and finally to Claire Bueno for being “his puppet”, actually she’d done more rushing about calling people to the stage etc than hosting herself.

The day finished up with a screening from Parkinson, the famous Michael Parkinson interview with Rod Hull and Emu. Personally I don’t really like this, but a lot of people do.

It was pretty much time to go, Kaleidoscope had to be out of the building by 7pm, because the building security were going off duty and needed to lock up by then. 

Truly it was a very very special day.

To see Louise Gold being given and taking the opportunity to demonstrate her considerable talents like she did in this session was just phenomenal. Something I just never ever thought could happen. a dream come true, and to be with other people who clearly appreciate Louise so much. Tony Currie and Warrick Brownlow-Pike especially both clearly think so much of her.

As a puppeteer Louise has had a few notable performing partnerships and those partnerships have often benefitted her puppetry enormously.. When she first learned to puppeteer she paired up a lot with both Richard Hunt and Jerry Nelson. It was Richard who helped her so much to learn her craft.  The partnership with Jerry gave us a lot of amazing musical numbers on The Muppet Show, The Secret Life of Toys and Sesame Street.  Much if her best musical work for The Muppets came from that. Then of course there is Nigel Plaskitt who directed her cabaret act. and seemed rather well paired up with her on That Puppet Gameshow. But the pairing with Warrick, which started with those termites (that Phil built) is amazing.  It’s been said that Jim Henson’s European trip in 1958 changed his perception of his work and thereby benefitted his work. In a way working with Warrick has had a similar effect on Louise , she was already a brilliant and legendary puppeteer, only working with Warrick has given her a great depth of understanding of the art-form. In the past I’m not sure if Louise could have performed well with this sort of event. She would have just been awkward and lacking confidence, and I think its something to do with working with Warrick that’s helped her, take her rightful place the way she did at this event.

It was just such an extraordinarily  special day.

 

 

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