What happens when two giants in their respective fields of children’s entertainment – Keith Chapman, the man responsible for some of the biggest preschool brands of recent years, and Nigel Plaskitt, the master puppeteer behind the classic Pipkins and now making waves on CBeebies with Monty & Co – come face to face? LicensingSource listens in as they talk Jim Henson, their inspirations, Spitting Image and new projects, as well as sharing their advice to newcomers to the children’s industry.
Keith Chapman: We’ve both worked at Jim Henson – how much of an inspiration was he to you?
Nigel Plaskitt: I had the opportunity to work with Jim on two productions. The first was Labyrinth which was shot at Elstree Studios in 1985. I was working on Spitting Image at the time so I was going between the two. The second was the following year – The Tale of the Bunny Picnic – a one off TV show shot at ATV Elstree. It was clear that Jim had an extraordinary connection with the people he worked with.
We shot the series Pipkins at the ATV studios in Elstree through most of the 1970’s – an extraordinary time to be there. The Henson’s moved in to the next stage to shoot The Muppet Show around 1975 and I often visited the set, so I guess some of the techniques they were using began to influence me.
We definitely benefitted from one thing. When we started Pipkins we had the set built as a normal set on the studio floor and the puppeteers would sit on the floor under tables or behind desks. This meant that the majority of the cast, the puppet characters, couldn’t move around the set.
Mike Jeans – the Pipkins producer – saw what The Muppets were doing next door. The sets were all built off the ground so the puppets had complete freedom of movement. When a human was involved they built a rostrum or walkway about three feet off the ground. We had a new set built the same way.
Keith: Is there one particularly special moment that you remember when working on those wonderful Henson movies?
Nigel: It’s really difficult to single something out. As a personal challenge I think the burning of the Inn on Treasure Island remains in my mind. Not only for the spectacular final shots – which I seen to remember was done on a Saturday morning with many people turning up to watch – but for the two ‘stunts’ I did.
The first and most scary was running through the burning building with a puppet on my hand. I was covered from head to toe in fire resistant clothing – sprayed down with water and I set off charging through the flames… it didn’t make it to the final cut! Secondly, in the same sequence I had to punch the head of Black Dog through a roof as a cannon with fire and smoke exploded next to me. That did make it. Pretty terrifying though.
When you were working at Henson’s, what was your role? And did you have any favourite Henson productions that you worked on?
Keith: I was the art director working in the licensing department on all Muppet, Muppet Baby and Fraggle Rock L&M. It was where I learned how to create a brand and not just a TV show. I loved all of Jim’s shows, but the Muppets was particularly special as it had been the student’s favourite TV show when I was at art college.
Nigel: When you sat down to create Bob the Builder and then PAW Patrol, did you have any idea they would become as big as they did?
Keith: This might sound weird, but I knew from an early age that one day I would create something that would become globally famous and successful. And when I hit on the idea for Bob I knew that was it.
I told the production company who made it, Hit Entertainment, that it would become a billion dollar brand and they laughed at my naivety but positive thinking. When it passed $2 billion in sales they offered to buy me out, but I said no. It went on to do almost $5 billion. I had the same feeling for PAW Patrol. That show has done over $10 billion in sales in the eight years since launch and it’s still going strong.
Did you know from a young age that you wanted to become a puppeteer?
Nigel: I’m more of an accidental puppeteer. I’d made the decision to become an actor and started with a short stint at Derby Playhouse and then a years tour for Bill Kenwright. When I was in my early teens I’d worked at weekends and school holidays at The Little Angel Theatre in Islington having created puppet shows since the age of around eight at home in a theatre my Dad built me. I think, looking back, it was the megalomaniac in me that sent me in this direction. I could have complete control over the production – changing sets doing all the character voices, everything.
While I was at The Little Angel I met Jane Tyson – a talented puppet performer creator. Run forward five years, I’m just back from the tour and I get a phone call from her. Her husband, Michael Eve, a set designer, was working on a new children’s show for ATV, Pipkins. She was making the puppets and remembered seeing me perform some live glove-rod puppets in Islington and thought I might be right for it. She made the introduction and I got the job. Suddenly I was earning eight times as much as I had been on the tour – I stuck with it!
Keith: Who was your favourite Spitting Image character and why?
Nigel: Curiously the character I enjoyed most was an incidental character – a policeman called Dimbleby. He was a kind of comic stereotype. Lots of visual humour – a thing we enjoyed on Spitting Image.
Of the high profile characters I think probably John Major – the grey man. He’s with me as I write this looking over my shoulder… I rescued him from a skip, had him stuffed and put into a glass case.
Spitting Image was very script orientated. The producer around ten years in was Bill Dare. He decided to try a sketch almost completely without dialogue – something all others had been nervous of doing, thinking the puppets had expressionless faces. So was born one of the most memorable sketches – the John and Norma peas sketch… a big success.
Do you have a favourite show or character that you’ve created?
Keith: I loved Fifi and the Flowertots and the characters Stingo the wasp and Slugsy the snail, the mischievous pair I created for that show. They were a comedy double act who I thought deserved their own show. The voice talent was Tim Whitnall and Marc Silk who both gave inspired performances. Loved those guys.
Nigel: Do you identify with any of the characters you’ve created and if yes what traits do you share?
Keith: I do have a character I originally created when designing greetings cards back in the day, called RUFF THE DOG. He can be stubborn and a bit of a maverick and has a rude sense of humour, so I suppose quite like me. But I’d have to save RUFF for my last ever show as my preschool reputation would surely suffer badly if he ever appeared!
Keith: Voicing Captain Black in the New Captain Scarlet series must have been like a childhood dream come true! Gerry Anderson was certainly my hero growing up. Do you find voicing is as challenging as being a puppeteer?
Nigel: As you I’d seen all the Gerry Anderson programmes growing up. I’d always been good at creating character voices, so it was a kind of dream job. I played two regular characters – Captain Black and Dr Gold. Most of the cast also played incidental characters, too so I was the odd mechanic or computer voice. It’s always a challenge creating new characters… most enjoyable though.
Speaking of challenges, did having an environmental theme for your upcoming animated family movie, help or hinder the creative process?
Keith: The environmental theme for this animated movie has helped the creative process I believe. Especially over recent years as environmental themes have become more newsworthy and more important in people’s lives. It has helped us to attract some fabulous names and talent to the project so far. Our movie, now in production and due for release in 2022, will be all the more powerful and memorable because of it.
Talking of new shows, Monty & Co looks like great fun. How long was that show in development and what was the inspiration?
Nigel: We started the process about ten years ago when I got together with Susan Pleat and Gail Renard, two of the original writers from Pipkins and ex-Henson’s puppet builder Paul Jomain to see if we could revive Pipkins. Rights issues stopped us, so we decided to draw a line under it and create a new show with new characters for a new generation. We were joined at this point by rights lawyer and writer Robert Taylor and the five of us began to create Monty & Co.
We tried, with limited success, to raise money to make the show. Friends and colleagues knew what we were doing. At this point Martin Hawkins, a well respected director of photography and a friend for 40 years, came to me and said he’d been talking about Monty to colleagues of his, most of them I knew, and they really wanted to help Monty to happen. It was not long before other colleagues fell into place, all creating the series for a share in the company. It was truly remarkable.
Thanks to the efforts and talents of the team, we sold the series to CBeebies and it started airing in July last year.
Nigel: How ‘hands on’ are you with projects as they run on?
Keith: I usually stay ‘hands on’ in a creative consulting capacity on the shows or movies I sell the rights to, and even more so if I stay on as a producer. The more projects that get picked up means there are more plates for me to juggle and I do have to put in the hours. But I can’t complain. Success can only happen if you are focused and willing to work hard.
Nigel, your experience as a puppeteer is unrivalled. What advice would you give to any up and coming puppeteers who are trying to break into the business?
Nigel: I would say first get some acting experience. Learn to play scenes with other people. It’s easy to think like my eight year old self that you can do everything. Particularly in film and TV, it’s often a collaborative experience with sometimes two or more people working the same character. Being able to work as an ensemble is an important base.
Nigel: How about you, Keith… any advice you can give to someone starting out on character or project creation?
Keith: Keep adding to it, keep improving it, like a chef preparing a special dish. Keep creating ideas, don’t put everything into only one idea that might not get picked up. Having several lottery tickets will improve your chances.
Stay determined. Work hard. Listen to your inner voice. Be original. Be fresh. Be bold. Believe it can happen.