You heard it here first: the puppeteer who brought joy and wonder to little Generation X-ers through Hartley Hare in the unforgettable 70’s series Pipkins is working on a new children’s puppet project.
Nigel Plaskitt (also, as it happens, the talent behind John Major and the Queen in Spitting Image) shares some special memories of a programme whose ethos resonates gently with that of No Strings, as well as plans for later this year. But first, a quick reminder of what a rascal that Hartley Hare was from the poetically-written TV nostalgia site Toonhound:
“Pipkins” was originally titled “Inigo Pipkin”, and the series took its name from the proprietor of a peculiar workshop-come-junkyard, which he inhabited with an assortment of misfit animal puppets. Their mission in life was to help people. If you had a little problem, or dilemma, Inigo and his puppets could help you out. There was Topov the monkey, penny-wise Tortoise, and greedy, guzzling Pig the madcap inventor. Octavia was a prancing Parisian ostrich, and Mooney a dizzy Irish badger. But most notably of all, there was Hartley Hare. This wretched, flea-bitten monstrosity ruled the Pipkins roost with a razor-sharp tongue and a deviant eye. He was in control of his subservient pals for nine extraordinary years… http://www.toonhound.com/pipkins.htm
NIGEL Plaskitt was at drama school when he got a call from an old friend – her husband was a TV set designer with now the disbanded regional channel ATV, and they were looking for a puppeteer for a children’s programme. She and Plaskitt had worked through school weekends and holidays at the newly-established Little Angel Puppet Theatre in Islington, London, and she remembered he was good at voices.
“I went out to Elstree for an appointment with this producer,” Nigel recounts. “He said can you do character voices? I said yes, and he said, good. He gave me a short written description about a brown hare and that was it. He didn’t even ask me to do the voice – just took my word for it.
“I took the piece of paper away and it was a description of Hartley Hare. He was lots of nice things but also a little temperamental and histrionic, thinking he was running things when really, he wasn’t.”
He has no idea where the voice and quirky mannerisms came from, but Nigel developed them over time as additional characters made their first Pipkins appearances, puppeteered by co-star Heather Tobias.
“We were the only two to begin with when the programme was launched in January 1973. Heather was Tortoise as well as Topov the monkey and Pig, but it became clear she had too many characters so they took Tortoise off her and gave him to me. Hartley had this high-pitched, gravelly voice, while Tortoise’s was much deeper. And I used my own voice for the part of Narrator.
“It was actually a remarkable programme, very off the wall and quite ground-breaking for its time, and driven by a team of far-thinking people. This was the early days of high rise blocks where kids were growing up without ever leaving the inner cities and seeing green fields or the sea, and the brief was to introduce them to the world out there. That was it – we were just allowed to get on with it.”
While it was education with a soft peddle, it nonetheless had a big effect on children, Nigel believes.
“I met a man once who described this one particular episode to me, where we’d built this stage coach out of boxes. He was so enthused watching as a little boy that he went and found some boxes and started making models of his own, and he eventually became a theatre director. He pins it all down to that one Pipkins episode. That was when I came to realise how these early programmes can affect your life.
“We were inspired by Sesame Street – we along with Rainbow, Hickory House and Mr Trimble were produced as ITV-based British versions before Sesame was broadcast here – but Pipkins didn’t go in for teaching ABC or 123. The idea was to talk in a gentle way more about life and relationships.”
As time went by, ATV was sold off and ITV were never fully sure who owned the full rights to the programme, so while Nigel and friends from the show have more than once thought of bringing it back, it was never wholly possible.
What they’re doing instead is creating a new pre-school programme, Monty & Co, and raising funds to air it purely on the internet as an app parents can download from autumn 2016 if all goes to plan.
“It will go out to exactly the same audience profile and come from the same place as Pipkins,” he says. “There’ll be a completely fresh set of characters, but they’ll have the same ethos. Monty is a wallaby. I’m playing him and a few other characters.”
Almost just as Pipkins went off air, Nigel had another great break through a similarly odd sort of audition.
“John Lloyd was the Spitting Image producer,” he remembers, “and I turned up and he said I don’t know how to audition you. Here’s a puppet, do something.
“He handed me the Queen. I was totally stumped, and then all that came to mind was this nursery poem that Hartley Hare did, using his voice. It was so bizarre that it fitted in very well, and I stayed there for 13 years.
“Spitting Image was so cutting edge, almost dangerous at times. And then you’d be in the pub on a Monday and everyone was talking about what we did the night before, and that was also great. I did loads of characters, including virtually all the royals. Towards the end John Major was my main focus.”
Turning his attention back to young children’s entertainment, Plaskitt feels that Pipkins left a gap that has never fully been filled since.
“I hate to say it but I think there’s a lot of dumbing down on kids programmes. There’s obviously some good stuff but I think some opportunities have been missed. On Pipkins, we never talked down to children, and we’re going to present emotions and drama in the same way as we did back then through Monty & Co. We’ll control it completely. You will get the full Monty!”