Meet the Hertfordshire puppeteer behind The Muppet Christmas Carol
PUBLISHED: 15:57 16 November 2020
Credit: LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo
Nigel Plaskitt reflects on a long career from Jim Henson films to Spitting Image, Avenue Q and a new CBeebies show
We all have our favourite festive film, but for family entertainment, it’s hard to beat The Muppet Christmas Carol. Released in 1992 by Jim Henson Productions and starring Michael Caine as Scrooge, this timeless movie is a regular feature of the Christmas TV schedules.
And for one Hertfordshire thespian the film always brings back fond memories. Actor, producer and puppet master Nigel Plaskitt happily admits to playing ‘a lot of rats and penguins’ behind main Muppet characters like Miss Piggy, Kermit and Gonzo.
‘All the scenes were filmed in the studio with special sets designed so that the human actors were three feet above the puppeteers,’ reveals Nigel, who moved from London to Chipperfield 17 years ago. ‘I can clearly remember a scene when Michael Caine was followed down the street by a group of Muppets with all the puppet masters walking in a trench behind him!’
Not surprisingly, Nigel didn’t set out to be a Muppet. When he first turned his passion for amateur dramatics into a professional career, he looked set for a future in character roles. He acted in TV series as varied as Doctor Who, Angels, and Young at Heart. And remember long-suffering Malcolm who always had a cold in the 1970s’ commercials for Vicks Sinex? That was Nigel. But it was as an animator and puppet master that he was really to make his mark.
‘It all started in the early ‘70s when I had a call from a friend whose husband was working on Pipkins, an ATV series for children. They wanted an actor to voice some of the characters, but asked if I would be willing to work the puppet too, so of course I said yes. I was Hartley Hare with a high voice and Tortoise with a low one.’
Nigel worked on Pipkins from 1973 to 1981, alongside the Malcolm commercials and various character roles. Then in 1984, he was asked to take part in a new ITV programme called Spitting Image. Over the next 13 years of the hugely popular satirical show, Nigel was to voice and operate a wide range of characters, most notably John Major, Roy Hattersley and The Queen. Now a glass case in his Hertfordshire home contains a unique souvenir.
‘The puppets got a lot of wear and tear, so at the end of each series, the team would peel off the foam latex skins and just keep the skulls and bodies to use again,’ he explains. ‘I rescued a discarded John Major from a skip, so now the former Prime Minister is here keeping a watchful eye on me!’
Nigel wasn’t able to rescue Roy Hattersley, but the the memory of the role will never leave him. Labour’s deputy leader was the only Spitting Image puppet that really did spit.
‘Roy had a very soft “s” when he spoke, so they rigged up a device inside his mouth that produced water from a tube running up inside. But the seal wasn’t very good at the top so I always ended up with water running down my arm! It was huge fun working on the show, but not always comfortable. One day the studio was filled with giant “spaghetti” made from foam loops and covered with a “sauce” of wallpaper paste. And of course all the puppeteers were underneath!’
Nigel hasn’t worked on the new series of Spitting Image, now screening on Britbox, but is delighted that the BBC/ITV streaming channel is repeating some of the classic episodes. ‘And I really couldn’t do the show now,’ the 70-year-old says. ‘The life-size puppets are very heavy to move.’
The original Spitting Image series was made at ATV Studios in Borehamwood, now BBC Elstree. Here Nigel came into contact with Jim Henson Productions and was able to take time out from the puppet politicians to work on another puppet production, Labyrinth, Henson’s 1986 cult fantasy film starring David Bowie as the alluring king of a realm of goblins that will no doubt be screened again this Christmas.
Other work with Henson followed, including Muppet Treasure Island, Lost in Space and The Muppet Christmas Carol. Nigel’s portfolio of characters includes other famous creatures too. In the PG Tips commercials, he worked Monkey, voiced by comedian Ben Millar. More recently, he has been puppet coach on stage shows ranging from Peppa Pig’s Party to the Tony Award-winning Cameron Mackintosh production, Avenue Q.
Nigel’s latest project has brought him back together with some of the Pipkins team, as co-creator and co-producer of Monty & Co, a live-action puppet show for pre-school children. Monty the wallaby and his friends live next to a shop where anything can be mended or recycled, and each episode deals with feelings and caring for others.
‘I had stayed in touch with writers Gail Renard and Susan Pleat from the original Pipkins team over the years, and we had discussions with ITV about a possible remake,’ says Nigel. ‘But as the original series was made for ATV, the rights situation wasn’t clear so we decided to work on something new.
‘Why a wallaby? Well, we went through every possible animal scenario but wanted to choose a lead character that was lively and, equally importantly, hadn’t been done before. A wallaby just fitted the bill.’
Nigel is the narrator and also voices Monty and his friends Snail and Charlie the Welsh Terrier, modelled on his own dog. The show is a very Herts affair, filmed in a former village now part of Hemel Hempstead.
‘We shot 33 episodes over six weeks in a tiny studio in Apsley, attached to the home of our sound recordist and studio manager, Dave Chapman. Dave is well known as the sound man who followed Anneka Rice around in Challenge Anneka. Monty & Co was edited by our special effects man Paul Johnson who’s my next door neighbour in Chipperfield. And two of the characters – Eddie and Mrs Rainey - are played by Heather Tobias, who lives near Watford. So it’s a real Hertfordshire production.’
The first series has been airing on CBeebies on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, to positive response from parents. ‘It’s not easy to tell a story in 11 minutes and find a resolution, but parents have thanked us for talking about emotions and how to overcome problems in a way that is appropriate to pre-school children. They also enjoy the strong music element from Sam, played by Andrew Linnie, who mends musical instruments and teaches music to children.’
With filming finished before the pandemic, Nigel has been particularly grateful in recent months to live close to Chipperfield Common, with so many walks from his doorstep. ‘I love the gently undulating countryside in this part of the Chilterns. And the people are so nice. I’ve always had lovely neighbours, even when people have come and gone, and I’m lucky to have The Two Brewers pub right here in the village and The Bricklayers Arms nearby at Flaunden.’
With the entertainment industry in crisis, 2020 has been a tough year for Nigel, but he’s keeping his fingers firmly crossed for a second series of Monty & Co. He’d also love to get back to live theatre, after working with Avenue Q since 2006.
‘I’ve been hugely lucky to work on five long projects across my career. Malcolm and Pipkins for 10 years each; Spitting Image for 13; and Monkey for 16, including a version with Johnny Vegas. And – wait for it – I also spent 15 years travelling the world for Italian television to make commercials for Findus Crispy Pancakes. My life has been anything but boring.’
So which of his many characters is he most proud of? Hartley Hare, he says, who kicked off his puppet career, but also the three Ms - Monty, Monkey and John Major. ‘Possibly the only time you will ever hear those three characters mentioned in the same sentence!’
The final episode of Monty & Co is on CBeebies at 1.45pm on 22 November and all episodes are available on BBCiPlayer. Vist Nigel Plaskitt’s website for more on his remarkable career.