From Monkey to the Muppets – meet the master puppeteer behind York hit show

Nigel Plaskitt with his mate Monkey
15 Sep 2015 @ 11.41 am
| News

You probably won’t recognise his face. But you’ll know many of the film and TV characters Nigel Plaskitt has created.

Avenue Q in York

Grand Opera House

Tue Sept 15-Sat Sept 19 @ 7.30pm; Fri matinee @ 5pm; Sat matinee @ 2.30pm

£17.90-£36.90

More details

For a start there’s that fellow with him in the picture above – yes, Nigel created Monkey, first for ITV Digital’s campaign and later for PG Tips and Johnny Vegas.

His latest project is the hit show Avenue Q, a story where humans and puppets interact in a hilarious and grown-up coming of age tale, which hits the Grand Opera House this week.

There’s all sorts of stuff in between. Nigel gave us the lowdown on his many hits of stage and screen…

Pipkins

After working at the Little Angel puppet theatre in London, Nigel was asked to work on a new ITV children’s show, Pipkins.

It aired in the 1970s, and a generation of children remember the lunchtime show fondly – particularly naughty Hartley Hare.

“Hartley the hare – that was me,” said Nigel.

It was the only programme that was on at the time – and probably since – that has presented any kind of dramas for pre-school children, three to five year olds.

Terrible as he was, Hartley always got his comeuppance and there was always a resolution.

We had a Pipkins DVD release about five years ago. I get emails from parents who were in the original audience who were showing it to their children, who were enthralled by it.

Malcolm on the Vicks Sinex ads

An actor when he wasn’t a puppeteer, Nigel achieved national fame as Malcolm, the man with the stuffy nose on the Vicks Sinex commercial.

For years he was greeted by strangers with the ads’ catchphrase, “Course you can, Malcolm!”

It’s great fun to start off with. But by year five it’s wearing a little thin.

And I thought, this is not really what I want. Walking down the street, and you can’t make a move, it’s kind of intrusive.

I think that’s why I went into the puppeteering eventually, doing the behind-the-scenes stuff.

Spitting Image

Spitting Image, the satirical sketch show featuring Latex puppets of politicians and celebrities, was a huge hit in the Eighties and Nineties.

Nigel worked on all the series except one, working the puppets to the vocal track recorded by impressionists.

It was a happy team – although hard work.

It was more like wrestling sometimes than puppeteering.

The wardrobe people would strip out as much of the costumes as they could so they were as light as they could be.

But there’s only so much you can do – having mechanisms in the head for the eyes all created weight.

And he has a particular fondness for the puppet of one former PM who he operated on the show.

John Major was my last big character – who I’m sitting looking at now. He’s one I managed to rescue from a skip. I had him stuffed.

We looked and watched him. We noticed over the years that, after Thatcher was in power, people got greyer and greyer which is why John Major ended up like he was.

Monkey

Nigel has manipulated knitted sock puppet Monkey on many hit ads, most recently for PG Tips.

He once described how tricky it could be to manoeuvre into the required position to stay out of the camera shot.

One PG Tips advert had Monkey dancing through Marylebone station and I was lying on the platform with bemused commuters stepping round me.

You learn to forget any dignity in puppeteering.

The Muppets

“Of course everyone wants to work with them because they do things to such a high standard,” says Nigel of the team behind the Muppets.

“And they’re great people to work with.”

He’s worked on several of the big Muppet movies.

In Muppet Christmas Carol for example I remember a lot of rats were cleaning up Scrooge’s office. So I spent a week doing that sequence.

I remember doing penguins in Christmas Carol – lots of pirates in Muppet Treasure Island, and quite a lot of stuff in the new movie which came out about two years ago.

Avenue Q

When the Broadway hit show came to the UK, there was only one man for the job of training the actors to work their puppets.

Nigel has been involved in Avenue Q for ten years. It takes a day’s workshop with him then an intense few weeks of rehearsals to get the actors up to speed.

With songs like Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist and The Internet Is for Porn, Avenue Q is a far cry from Sesame Street.

But it’s a massive hit… why? “It touches our lives,” says Nigel.

First of all it’s dealing with everything that people go through in their 20s and 30s. So everyone has some kind of reference as to what’s happening on stage.

Everybody’s watched the Muppets or Sesame Street so they’ve also got that contact.

And you have to have a humour bypass not to laugh at this show. They will have fun.

I’ve seen it about 200 times, and I’m still laughing at it.

(I thank goodness it wasn’t Hamlet.)