‘You can say outrageous, shocking things but puppets take the sting out of it’ - Nigel Plaskitt on working on Spitting Image, Avenue Q, and Coppers musical
Plaskitt has spent 30 years working as a puppeteer and puppet coach on TV, film and stage shows
Throughout the late 80s and early 90s satirical series Spitting Image roasted British politicians, celebrities and the Royal family via sketches featuring puppet caricatures.
Despite being outrageously controversial, and running pretty close to the bone, the ITV series was only threatened with legal action twice in its long 13 year run. Of course, the 80s were a different time. If it ran today it might not survive one episode before being strangled by litigation.
Actor, producer, director and puppeteer Nigel Plaskitt worked on Spitting Image for several years through the late 80s and 90s. He was the talent who brought many of the most memorable Spitting Image characters to life, from the grey man John Major to Prince Edward to the Queen and Labour party politician Roy Hattersly (who was depicted as having such a bad lisp that ‘spit’ shot forth from his mouth like a garden hose).
“I remember getting my arm wet as Hattersly was the only one who actually did spit. We had a device in his mouth, quite a simple thing like a garden hose on the end of a tube, but they never quite got the tube sealed in the mouth and there would be water running down my arm,” he recalls with a chuckle.
While he would like to see the show revived after more than two decades, he says it would be “difficult”.
“People are a lot quicker to go to court these days. It would be very difficult. We did sail close to the wind very often when we were doing that show and I think, in some ways, we would have preferred a few more court cases!” he laughs.
“In actual fact we were only threatened with being sued twice over 13 years. People in the 80s and probably the 90s, there wasn’t the litigious culture we have now. Things have changed quite dramatically.”
In more recent years Avenue Q, the adult stage show parody of Sesame Street, uses the device of channelling some of the most controversial dialogue through puppets.
Next month Copper Face Jacks: The Musical kicks off at the Olympia and writer Paul Howard admits he’s heavily influenced by Avenue Q so the show features human actors alongside puppets. It’s similar to his previous non-Ross O’Carroll Kelly-related stage outing, Anglo: The Musical.
Nigel has provided workshops for the actors performing with puppets on Avenue Q for a decade and he also consulted on Anglo and is doing so again on Coppers.
Using puppets for satire and parody is a hugely helpful device. He tells Independent.ie that a morning rehearsing with the Coppers puppets – there’s a guard and a nurse among them, of course - made him laugh out loud more than once.
“If you think about it you can talk about racism, you can talk about sex, you can talk about virtually anything you want and say the most outrageous things and people are shocked and can’t quite believe it but it does take the sting out of it,” he says.
“I’ve seen Avenue Q run with actors without puppets and it doesn’t have the same impact at all, and it’s to do with that, that you can say things, and I think that’s true for this show too. Certainly it was the case with Anglo a few years ago. It’s a really great device.”
While the actors manning the puppets make it look easy, it’s physically demanding and requires a lot of rehearsal and a good sense of spatial awareness.
“It’s actually very difficult,” says Nigel. “If you pick a puppet up you think it’s not very heavy but if you’re using it for ten minutes non-stop with your arm in a slightly awkward position they become very heavy and you become very tired.
“You have to gradually build up. We introduce the puppet from the beginning and then work without it and gradually day by day work with it a bit more and build up the strength and stamina. It’s stamina they need to keep going.”
It’s also difficult for the actors to know exactly where the puppets are looking so they use mirrors for several weeks in rehearsals to make sure they have an overview and their puppet is facing the right direction.
“We then take away the mirrors because put an actor in front of a mirro and they’ll always look in the mirror!” laughs Nigel.
Among his film credits are the cult classic Labyrinth, on the set of which he met David Bowie who he worked with on the famous scene in which Bowie's character throws the baby in the air, and spent a week working on the battles in the goblin city that take place in the third act. He also worked on Little Shop of Horrors, several Muppet movies, and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
“The sets on Labyrinth were just extraordinary,” he remembers. “That’s one of the great things about working on these kids of movies with the Henson company – all the sets were kind of fantasy sets, they were extraordinary.”
However, he describes working on movies as “incredibly hard work” and he prefers to teach rather than act behind a puppet these days. That said, he would love to see a revival of Spitting Image – with certain conditions.
“It would be interesting to try, that’s my view,” he says. “There have been one or two moves to try and reinvent it and I know Roger Law, who was one of the originators of it, would not do it unless we went back in with a similar strong point of view.
“John Lloyd the producer was probably really the success of the show, the fact that he stuck to his guns at times, sometimes when the lawyers probably didn’t want to.”
He adds, “I’d love to be involved. Maybe not performing because it’s heavy duty work, really hard work, and I’m older now!”
Copper Face Jacks: The Musical runs at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin from July 5. Bookings Ticketmaster.ie. Tickets from €26 plus booking fee and €1 restoration levy.