From Sooty to Hacker

John Logie Baird demonstrated his early televisual experiments with a ventriloquist dummy’s head. On the 02 October 1925, his dummy’s head known as Stookie Bill, was used to demonstrate early television pictures.

90 years on, we still use puppetry to entertain viewers young and old. Whether it’s a mule and Annette Mills or the goings-on at Furchester Hotel, they bring joy to many of us. Sometimes they can get away with things that human actors couldn’t do. Or upstage them.

Here’s our televisual puppetry heroes. Obviously, this is not a complete list (don’t be surprised to see a follow-up before long). Each entry includes reference to the people associated with the characters.

  1. Sooty;
  2. Muffin the Mule;
  3. Pinky and Perky;
  4. Hartley Hare;
  5. Zippy;
  6. Emu;
  7. Kermit;
  8. Miss Piggy;
  9. Gordon the Gopher;
  10. Hacker T. Dog.

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1. Sooty (Harry Corbett/Matthew Corbett/Richard Cadell; BBC Television, Thames Television, Granada Television, ITV (1952 – to date)):

Few puppets could match the anarchic nature of Sooty nor the staying power. A trip to Blackpool by its creator Harry Corbett saw the birth of a legend. In 1948 he bought the yellow bear, originally known as ‘Teddy’ to entertain his children. Adding soot to his nose and ears, Sooty was born.

Almost 67 years on, the yellow bear and his friends has seen three puppeteers, survived a lacklustre animated version, and have made several cameo appearances. Sooty made its televisual début in 1952 on BBC Television’s Talent Night. This was hosted at Belle Vue Zoological Gardens in the TV Theatre, during that year’s British Radio Show. In 1957, Harry added Sweep, a ditsy mongrel with a black nose and black ears (he former, later a red nose). Soo followed in 1964, originally as Sooty’s girlfriend (voiced by Marjorie Corbett, Harry’s wife). Other characters include Ramsbottom, Cousin Scampi and Kipper the Cat.

In Christmas 1975, Harry Corbett had a heart attack and retired the following year, though continued to do the one man shows. His son Peter (under the stage name of Matthew Corbett, due to there already being a Peter Corbett on Equity’s books) took Sooty, Sweep, Soo and its supporting cast well in to the 1990s. Richard Cadell followed after in 1998. He would buy the Sooty franchise ten years later.

Any mention of Sooty is incomplete without reference to his water pistol and magic wand. Our favourite yellow bear would come up to mischief in different situations in early episodes with Harry Corbett. By 1976, Sooty matured with Sweep becoming more anarchic in the 1980s episodes. Soo would become snottier with age.

“Izzy wizzy, let’s get busy…” – our favourite three puppets are still a draw today.

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2. Muffin the Mule (Annette Mills; BBC Television (1946 – 55)):

Annette Mills, sister of John Mills, was the right-hand person to a wooden horse puppet which made its television début on the 20 October 1946. On BBC Television’s For The Children slot, we saw Muffin dance on top of a piano with Ms. Mills. The mule would also be joined by characters like Peregrine Esquire the Penguin, Peter the Pup and Doris the Mice.

The puppet was created in 1933 by Fred Tickner, to form part of a puppet circus for the Hogarth Puppet Theatre, for puppeteers Jan Bussell and Ann Hogarth. After being put away, Muffin’s second life in 1946 led to a televisual success story. One which spawned spin-off merchandise.

Though Annette Mills died from a heart attack in 1955, Muffin defected to ITV with a further two series to its name. The puppet would continue to be seen at live shows with the original puppeteers and their daughter. The yearning for Muffin was as strong as it was in 1955 when it became the subject of an animated series in 2005.

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3. Pinky and Perky (Jan and Vlasta Dalibor; BBC Television, ITV (1957 – 71)):

America’s squeaky voiced characters, The Chipmunks had a British equivalent, thanks to a Czechoslovakian couple. Jan and Vlasta Dalibor opted for pigs, with the porcine animal being a lucky symbol in their homeland. Cue Pinky and Perky. Like The Chipmunks, their squeaky voices came courtesy of speeded up tape.

Throughout the 1960s, they were huge with families tuning in to their antics. Unlike Sooty, one episode was censored. The episode in question was entitled “You, Too Can Be a Prime Minister”. Originally scheduled in the same week as the 1966 General Election, that episode was never broadcasted.

Like Sooty, there was a host of merchandise, but it was their singing voices that sold numerous albums. However, almost in Milli Vanilli fashion, the vocalist was Mike Sammes’ voice speeded up. Its sidekicks included Ambrose Cat, Topo Gigio, Basil Bloodhound and The Beakles (no prizes for guessing who they impersonated). As with Muffin, our porcine puppets were the subject of a noughties revival on the BBC.

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4. Hartley Hare (Nigel Plaskitt, George Woodbridge; Inigo Pipkin/The Pipkins; Associated Television/ITV, 1973 – 81):

Whereas Sooty was boisterous and Muffin warmed to Annette’s dulcet tones, Hartley Hare was far removed from the wholesome image of the average television puppet. A British Oscar the Grouch, perhaps. At one time, Hartley Hare was one of a number of puppets made by Inigo Pipkin, whose contemporaries were Octavia the Ostrich, George the Tortoise, Topov the Monkey and Pig. Inigo Pipkin was played by George Woodbridge.

By March 1973, three months into its first run, George Woodbridge died from a sudden heart attack. In 1974, his death was worked into the programme with the puppets taking centre stage. Hartley Hare was a flea bitten hare, who wouldn’t listen to his contemporaries, nor the human assistant played by Wayne Laryea and (after 1978) Jonathan Kydd. The show changed with the puppets going out on the road, helping people.

Pipkins ended its run days before ATV lost its franchise to Central Independent Television. Its inferior replacement was Let’s Pretend. Nigel Plaskitt would become one of the puppeteers of Spitting Image and, in later years, the ITV Digital/PG Tips monkey supported by Johnny Vegas.

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5. Zippy (Roy Skelton; Thames Television (1972 – 92)):

I was torn between Zippy or George but instead, I chose the yellow alien with a rugby ball shaped face. Zippy was the more anarchic of the two glove puppets voiced by Roy Skelton. It was originally going to be blue, but Geoffrey Hayes insisted that our favourite martian would be orange. The reason? he lived in Dundee in the 1960s and followed Dundee United for a time. Blue was the colour of his rival team a few yards away in Dens Park.

Zippy would always try to get the last word in, and probably scared off Sunshine and Moony off camera. In early episodes, our alien had a thinner face and a less huskier voice. Peter Hawkins, also of Superted and Public Information Films fame was the original voice of Zippy. By 1974, when Geoffrey replaced David Cook as human front man, George was added. Bungle would look less sinister. Sunshine and Moony was ditched to give Roy Skelton’s two puppets and Bungle more time.

It was a move that proved to be successful for Thames Television and Pamela Lonsdale, the creator of Rainbow. She was recognised for her efforts in 1981, and the programme we knew and loved continued till the early 1990s. The loss of Thames Television’s franchise signalled its end. The series was revived by Tetra Films in 1994 and 1995 with another version, Rainbow Days (1996), hosted by Dale Superville.

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6. Emu (Rod Hull; Emu Broadcasting Company, The Pink Windmill; BBC One, Central Independent Television/ITV (1969 – 1991, 2007)):

Children of the 1980s: do you get goosebumps when you hear the phrase “there’s somebody at the door?” From the 1970s onwards, Rod Hull and Emu were regular features of UK children’s television, starting with Emu’s Broadcasting Company. Also known as EBC, it was a spoof television station. For many people, their first taste of Emu was on Parkinson, which saw Rod’s puppet peck Parky. Few may remember his late 1960s breakthrough. Whilst in Sydney, it was an appearance on Channel 9 which led to the blue reprobate’s début.

For me, Emu meant Central Independent Television’s programmes, namely Emu’s Pink Windmill Show, and Emu’s World. Such joy came from the mainly slapstick nature of its humour, but Rod Hull’s 1980s productions were topped by Grotbags (played by Carol Lee Scott, a former cabaret singer), Robot Redford and the submissive Croc.

By 1991, Grotbags had her own self-titled spin-off show with her other two accomplices. Emu would outlive Rod Hull, who died after trying to fix a TV aerial in 1999. On Children’s ITV, 2007 saw his son Toby Hull, take over.

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7. Kermit the Frog (Frank Oz, Jim Henson; ITC Entertainment/Associated Television/ITV):

If you had to choose one of the members of The Muppets, Miss Piggy or Kermit the Frog would top many an opinion poll. Kermit the Frog is my choice for this Not So Perfect Ten, having arrived on The Muppet Show on secondment from Sesame Street. In the Children’s Television Workshop’s trailblazing programme, he would be seen doing the newsflashes. Before Sesame Street, he was seen in Sam and Friends, back in 1955 on WRC-TV, Washington D.C.’s channel at the time.

By the time Lew Grade commissioned The Muppet Show, glove puppetry’s finest double act would wow viewers of all ages. Coupled with Miss Piggy, the dynamic between the two made for good comedy. Miss Piggy was prim, sometimes conceited and thought of herself as the main feature of The Muppet Show. Kermit the Frog was more the straight man and the show’s Master of Ceremonies. He also has a nephew called Robin, whom he duetted with in “Halfway Down The Stairs”.

Long after Jim Henson’s death in 1990, The Muppets franchise is very much alive and well today. Kermit the Frog has appeared on numerous other programmes, including LWT’s An Audience With… Kylie Minogue on the 06 October 2001.

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8. Miss Piggy (Frank Oz, Jim Henson; ITC Entertainment/Associated Television/ITV):

To be honest, it would have been a little unfair to snub Miss Piggy. Our porcine heroine was first seen on the Herb Alpert and the TJB television show on the 13 October 1974. She sang ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’, albeit with a slightly different voice to today’s equivalent. The Miss Piggy we know today appeared in the pilot episode of The Muppet Show subtitled ‘Sex and Violence’. This was in a sketch known as “Return to Beneath the Planet of the Pigs”, which set the foundations for the excellent “Pigs in Space”.

As well as trying to upstage ‘Kermie’, she could charm her way one minute, and be belligerent the next, with one of her trade mark karate chops (followed by a “Hi-yah!”). From being a lovelorn fringe character, she would soon become second only to Kermit in the pecking order.

Few members of the glove puppet fraternity could claim to have made score predictions for the BBC. Nor appear with One Direction. But Miss Piggy did, which is testament to the staying power of Messrs Henson’s and Oz’s characters.

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9. Gordon the Gopher (Phillip Schofield, Sarah Greene; BBC One (1987 – 93)):

In telly speak, the gofer would have been listed on the credits as the Runner. Few gofers (apart from perhaps the late great John Sullivan of Only Fools and Horses fame) would have got star billing. That would change in September 1987 when the BBC’s autumn Saturday morning programme changed from Saturday Superstore to Going Live. Enter Gordon the Gopher.

Gordon the Gopher began life as a puppet in Children’s BBC’s Broom Cupboard with Phillip Schofield, from 1985 to 1987. By ’87, our prairie animal would squeak his way through the three hours at BBC Television Centre, with Phillip talking to him Sooty fashion (a la Harry or Matthew Corbett fashion). The adorable little puppet (portrayed by Paul Smith) would get its own leather jacket – a gift from Adam Ant, and be attacked by a terrier of some description. Both Phillip and Gordon would have a spin-off TV series (known as Gordon the Gopher, from 1989 – 92), spawn merchandise and annuals.

Whereas Sooty, Sweep, Soo, Zippy and George saw the 21st century, it is reputed that the trappings of fame got too much for him, and died in a ram-raiding accident. This claim was scotched in 2008 when he appeared in This Morning, stating he was back in rehab. Phillip on the other hand, graduated from The Broom Cupboard to become a much-loved TV presenter for ITV. Particularly as co-host of This Morning, Dancing on Ice, and on his own in The Cube.

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10. Hacker T. Dog (CBBC (2009 – to date))

For our final puppet, we return to the 21st century. We’ve had puppets with Cockney accents; mute and mischievous yellow bears; grumpy hares. By 2009, a Border Terrier from Wigan. Cue Hacker T. Dog, cheeky northern accented puppet, and (I suppose you could say) the de facto mascot of CBBC’s operations in MediaCityUK. Like Gordon the Gopher, he started life in the Beeb’s continuity booth with his half brother Dodge T. Dog.

In 2010, Hacker would have a programme to call his own known as Scoop, which was followed by Hacker Time in 2011. Our canine hero would trick celebrities into his studio, interview them and watch outtakes or sketches from other programmes. ‘Victims’ included Anton du Beke of Strictly Come Dancing and Hole in the Wall fame, BBC Breakfast’s weatherperson Carol Kirkwood, Joe Pasquale and one of the Dragons from Dragon’s Den (Deborah Meaden).

Hacker Time has the same mix of daftness redolent of Rod Hull’s and Emu’s productions. The parody element could have been inspired by Emu Broadcasting Company some 40 years earlier; for instance, Downton Abbey was lampooned as Downstairs Abbey. Hopefully, we shall be seeing more of our Border Terrier friend, but his impact is somewhat diluted by the fact his show is only on CBBC or on BBC iPlayer.

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“Bye bye everyone, bye bye…”

As always, feel free to add to the ten entries, or elaborate on them. Is Sooty the glove puppet of Kings? Would Hacker T. Dog outsmart Sweep? Do you have fond memories of watching any of the programmes? Till next time…

S.V., 22 January 2015.

One thought on “Television Puppet Stars Through the Ages: The Not So Perfect Ten

  1. Couple more for you list, how about Basil Brush with his trademark Boom Boom star of many a show back in the 80s with various presenters or how about one of the Fraggles from Fraggle Rock.

    Or how about the famous puppet that reportadly saved TV-AM the legendry Roland Rat.

    Another one you could have was another BBC Broom Cupboard puppet and that was Ed the Duck who stared with a very young (at the time) Andy Crane


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