Saturday 24 February 2018

Obituary: Vlasta Dalibor

Czech-born refugee who co-created, with husband Jan, the squeaky-voiced, popular puppets Pinky and Perky

Puppet masters: Vlasta and Jan Dalibor with Pinky and Perky. Photo: Television Stills
Puppet masters: Vlasta and Jan Dalibor with Pinky and Perky. Photo: Television Stills Newsdesk Newsdesk

Vlasta Dalibor, who died last Sunday aged 94, was the co-creator, with her husband Jan, of the unmelodious porcine puppets Pinky and Perky.

Arriving as refugees from Czechoslovakia, Vlasta and Jan Dalibor settled in Yorkshire in 1948. Jan had been a painter and Vlasta an actress, but the Communist takeover had left them with nothing. While Vlasta took a job as a maid to make ends meet, the couple discussed how to turn Jan's hobby of modelling marionettes into a career.

"I had always been interested in puppets," Jan recalled, "and Vlasta suggested I make some puppet pigs because the pig is a symbol of good luck in Czechoslovakia." He created the figures out of glass fibre and Vlasta dressed them in outfits of her own design. To differentiate between the two on black-and-white television, Perky was given a beret.

The couple began performing during the 1956 summer season at Heysham, for £25 a week. Trevor Hill (producer of The Sooty Show) saw them and gave them their own BBC TV series. The pair were initially called Pinky and Porky, but 'Perky' was adopted after Hill's wife Margaret pointed out "pork is something you eat".

Their debut was in Pinky and Perky's Pop Parade in October 1958, set in the mythical radio station POP (later "PPC TV"), with Roger Moffat as the station announcer.

The BBC granted the Dalibors the light entertainment slot before the six o'clock news, and grown-up audiences warmed to the pigs' gently subversive humour and high-pitched renditions of speeded-up pop songs. Their popularity soon extended across both Britain and the US, and Hill always thought that his and the Dalibors' pioneering work paved the way for The Muppet Show.

Pinky and Perky joined The Beatles and Marlene Dietrich onstage for the 1963 Royal Variety performance, and the following year they appeared in America on The Ed Sullivan Show. Elvis was frequently among the audience members when the pair appeared in cabaret in Las Vegas. The arty puppet 'establishment' resented the pair, however, as did some musicians. Paul McCartney dismissed them as "wooden puppets with little piggy faces". Nonetheless, Pinky and Perky's covers of songs - including Yellow Submarine - sold in vast numbers.

Vlasta Cely was born on May 22, 1921, in Brno, Czechoslovakia, where her father had a forwarding company. She attended the Language High School and the Janacek Academy of performing arts.

She and Jan Dalibor were inseparable from the age of 13, but after the Nazi annexation in 1938, Jan was removed from his position as an arts lecturer and put to work in a factory, while Vlasta was appointed secretary to a German businessman. "When the Russians came [in 1944], we thought we were free," she recalled. "I told them how glad we were to have Czechoslovakia back. But they just laughed and said, 'This is Russia now.'"

She and Jan married at the end of war, but decided to escape. In 1948 they were accepted into Britain. Jan took a job as a stonebreaker, and turned to puppeteering after winning a National Coal Board competition with a sculpture made from soap. Despite the success of Pinky and Perky, their tenure at the BBC was not without its difficulties. A skit on political canvassing filmed prior to the 1966 general election was postponed on the grounds it was too sensitive to broadcast. Meanwhile, Mary Whitehouse took umbrage at the pigs' "callous" attitude towards their human co-stars.

In 1968, the Dalibors accepted an offer from Thames Television, but in the event only two more series made it to air. The Dalibors retired in 1973 and sold the rights to Pinky and Perky in 2000. There were attempts to remake the characters for a modern audience, including a series for CBBC and a mooted - but shelved - scheme for a late-night 'adult' series. Vlasta was unimpressed: "I think we brought them up to be proper."

Jan Dalibor died in 2013. The couple had no children.

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