PUPPETS have been Nigel Plaskitt’s life. From his early days working on the classic kids’ show Pipkins - he was the voice of Hartley Hare - through Spitting Image, Gerry Anderson’s New Captain Scarlet and films such as Muppet Treasure Island and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, if there was a puppet involved, chances are Plaskitt wasn’t far away, whether voicing them, operating them or training others to do both.
Plaskitt himself began his life as an actor, appearing in Doctor Who, and as the ever sniffly Malcolm, in the cult 70s commercials for Vicks Sinex nasal spray.
More recently his puppetry skills have brought him back to ad-land, where he brings to life Johnny Vegas’ sidekick Monkey, in the PG Tips ads.
On stage his work has been seen in the UK tour of Doctor Dolittle, but right now his focus is on another smash hit musical. Avenue Q, which returns to the Capital, this week, for a run at the King’s Theatre. Plaskitt is the show’s puppet consultant, a role that sees him popping in throughout the tour to ensure that everything remains as it should. With venues of varying sizes, it is vital the puppets remain the focus of the piece - not the puppeteers.
“It’s a fairly complex show lighting-wise, so every time they go into a new theatre they have to re-space the show,” explains the 63-year-old.
“They go through all the characters’ entrances and the exits, and where they have to stand, just to make sure that they are hitting their marks. These change depending on the size of the stage.”
Unlike actors, who can feel when they are lit (stage lamps are so hot they can feel the heat on their faces) and adjust their positions accordingly, the puppeteers don’t have that advantage.
“Because of the technique used, the actor never looks at the puppet they operate, so it can be difficult for them to know if the puppet is not lit,” he adds.
Hence Plaskitt’s regular visits, during which he also removes any ‘improvements’ that may have been added by the performers.
“The kind of things we are looking for are, for example, repetitive moves. Quite early on in the run, while it was still on the West End, one of the characters started doing the same move over and over again. Every time they said a line, they did this move.
“Now he didn’t realise he was doing it, and I was able to correct that.”
Plaskitt continues, “Sometimes they will put stuff in that really probably shouldn’t be there and as it is a living piece, we don’t want to stop them being creative, but there has to be an eye kept on it.
“They have the freedom to give a performance and sometimes they will find things that we decide to keep in.
“That happened a lot in the early days, allowing the writers to rewrite bits of the script, which, the Broadway producers added to their scripts because they liked what had been done on the West End better.”
The attraction of puppets is simple insists Plaskitt.
“It’s a bit of fantasy. As a child, you can remember playing with toys and making them live. Those memories are still in there somewhere and when you see puppets in a show, it kind of takes you back to your childhood. Particularly with the Sesame Street aspect of this - it is a parody of Sesame Street, nothing to do with Sesame Street, but you can see the similarities.”
Unlike Sesame Street, Avenue Q is not a children’s show. Co-created by Robert Lopez, who also co-created The Book of Mormon and whose TV credits include Scrubs, The Simpsons and Southpark, it tells the story of Princeton, a bright-eyed graduate who comes to New York City with big dreams and a tiny bank account.
Soon discovering that the only neighbourhood in his price range is Avenue Q, he finds himself moving in with some truly quirky characters.
There’s Brian the out-of-work comedian and his therapist fiancée Christmas Eve; Nicky the good-hearted slacker and his closet gay Republican roommate Rod, an internet ‘sexpert’ called Trekkie Monster and a very cute kindergarten teacher named Kate Monster.
“It’s definitely not a children show,” affirms Plaskitt. “There’s some fairly graphic stuff in it, although it is not a barrage of obscenity. There are, however, some risqué moments.”
Those moments include a sex scene, which somehow seems worse because the instigators are puppets.
Laughing, Plaskitt, says, “I know. If you were watching actors doing it, chances are it wouldn’t bother you. In fact, I was sitting behind a famous footballer on one occasion and he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He kept turning around, saying, ‘This is not right’.
“I think it’s because, at that point, there’s a mix of your childhood memories with the adult understanding of what is happening, but no one really knows.
“The remarkable thing is that, although you can see the puppeteers playing the roles alongside the puppets, it just works. I don’t why. It just does.”
And Plaskitt has exciting news for puppet fans of a certain age.
“The next big puppet breakthrough for me is actually going backwards in some ways, to the beginning of my puppet career - we are talking to ITV about reproducing Pipkins.”
So might we see him back in front of the camera as the new Mr Pipkin?
“No. I shall stay strictly out of range of the camera, and recreate Hartley Hare,” he laughs.
Avenue Q, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, tonight-Saturday, 7.30pm (matinee 2.30pm), £15-£29.50, 0131-529 6000