“I’d Certainly Be Happy to Bring Hartley Back”

Ian Jones interviews Nigel Plaskitt

First published May 2005

The recent DVD release of 10 episodes from the long-running 1970s children’s series Pipkins has given a generation reared on the polite gossiping of moth-eaten puppets a particularly potent rush of nostalgia. It’s now possible to enjoy the escapades of Octavia, Topov, Tortoise, Pig and, above all, Hartley Hare at generous length and, thanks to Network Video’s restoration, superb quality. OTT was privileged to speak with Nigel Plaskitt, the voice and the man – or rather, the arm – behind Hartley, and who’s also played a vital role in bringing the series to DVD. We also took the opportunity to quiz Nigel on his vast and varied career both in front and down below the camera, covering everything from Spitting Image to Vicks Sinex.

OTT: What were the origins of your involvement in Pipkins?

NIGEL PLASKITT: It really came about through a friend of mine, a puppet designer called Jane Eve. I’d known her for some years, chiefly because I’d happened to find myself doing a bit of work with her when I was at school, during my holidays. I hadn’t met her for about four or five years, and then in 1972 she suddenly called me up out of the blue. She was now making puppets for this new children’s programme from ATV. Would I be interested in taking part? It sounded interesting, so I went along to see Michael Jeans. He was the person who’d created what was initially called Inigo Pipkin, and who was also the show’s producer and director. He asked if I could do character voices. I said yes, and that was it.

OTT: Was he able to tell you much about what you’d precisely be doing on the programme?

NIGEL PLASKITT: From what I remember he knew exactly what he wanted and how it was to be done. In fact there’s an official programme outline document, which, I think, is one of the extras on the DVD, which dates from when the series was first being put together. It has a complete breakdown of everything that was to go into the show, and remarkably it’s almost precisely what did end up on screen. It runs to two or three pages, and was all Michael’s work. So the whole set up was very well mapped and thought out, and it was all based on Michael’s ideas. It probably developed a little over time, but Michael was and remained very much the driving force behind Pipkins. Across the entire run of the series, it always stayed very true to those origins. I actually found that document in my own archives and gave it to Network to put on the DVD. The funny thing is I don’t particularly remember seeing it at the time, but I’d obviously kept it. I’m glad I did!

OTT: Was there such a thing as a typical day working on the Pipkins set?

NIGEL PLASKITT: Looking back it was really quite luxurious, because we did two 15-minute episodes at a time, but we also had three days rehearsal. Imagine that nowadays! In total we worked either Monday to Thursday or Tuesday to Friday, which comprised three days rehearsal and then a day of recording, a whole day, shooting just two 15-minute episodes a time. It was quite intensive, I guess, because some of it was quite complicated. But unlike other children’s programmes of the day we had a lot of edit time. This was in contrast to something like Rainbow, for instance, which was done almost as live in the Thames studio and taped straight to video. In our case ATV were actually very generous.

OTT: Did this generosity extend to the actual content of each show as well?

NIGEL PLASKITT: Oh yes. As far as I know there was very little “hands on” behaviour from ATV. Michael ran the show, and his immediate boss was in the Education and Religion Department, because that was what we officially came under. That person was Michael’s immediate superior, and Michael used to report direct to him.

OTT: No visits from Lew Grade on one of his legendary tours of duty?

NIGEL PLASKITT: I don’t personally remember ever seeing Lew Grade on the set, I’m afraid. I did see him on site, of course, but never on the Pipkins set. I know he popped his head round the door during a writers’ meeting once, said, “good morning!” and that was it.

OTT: How quickly did you settle upon your preferred voice and characteristics for Hartley?

NIGEL PLASKITT: It probably took a couple of years. I looked at one of the very early episodes recently, and the voice is really quite different.

OTT: So some of the really early episodes still exist?

NIGEL PLASKITT: Most definitely. I think Network would like to release everything that still survives, but it really depends on the response to this first DVD. There are around 118 episodes in existence now, which is roughly a third of the total that were made. Most date from the second half of the series – the late 1970s – when Jonathan Kydd, who played Tom, was in the programme. I should say that all these come from our personal collections, from mine and from Jonathan’s; nothing has survived by way of an official archive. The original episodes were all on old two-inch tapes. The ones used for the DVD have come from Betamax copies that both Jonathan and I made at the time. Luckily Network have been able to clean them all up. But no, ATV didn’t keep any of them, or rather weren’t able to hold onto any of them. It’s all a bit of a jumble, as when ATV became Central TV all the episodes went to ITC, then to Polygram, then to Carlton, and things got lost along the way. I was told at one point there were a lot of boxes sitting on a shelf but they were all empty. I was also told that there are still a lot of un-catalogued programmes in boxes at Carlton. So who knows?

OTT: Do you remember receiving much in way of feedback from members of the public while you were making Pipkins?

NIGEL PLASKITT: Occasionally Michael would show us a letter he’d received, but I imagine he received a lot more. He kept most of them from us. I’m guessing he didn’t think, as performers, we should see them. I don’t know. But of course whenever we were out filming in public there was always a great kerfuffle. Particularly when all the characters were brought out ready for the camera.

OTT: And was there a particular frisson of excitement when Hartley emerged?

NIGEL PLASKITT: Oh yes. Well, it was like any sort of project when you’ve got famous people involved. Children always gathered round. However I don’t think I was that aware of children treating Hartley in any way different to the others in the show. I only really became aware of that in retrospect.

OTT: How did the series evolve over time?

NIGEL PLASKITT: I actually don’t think it developed that much. That was chiefly because it arrived on screen in such a finished state. When you read the original outline of the programme you’ll see that template was probably more or less stuck to right from the start. The main change came in terms of the real people, the actors, who were involved, because quite early on we were confronted by a significant challenge when George Woodbridge, the original Inigo Pipkins, died. It was only into a year or so of making the programme.

OTT: Yet George’s death actually paved the way for one of the most memorable moments in the show’s history.

NIGEL PLASKITT: That’s right. There was much discussion over whether we should just say he had gone somewhere else, or whether we should actually say he had died. In the end we went with the latter. I think ultimately it was Michael’s decision. But the subject of death had never been broached on a pre-school programme before. It had simply never been talked about. And the way we did it was, I think, a success. We only got one complaint, from a parent saying that we had upset their child. In reality it was probably the adult who had been upset, because I don’t think pre-school children really have a concept of death. Then Michael brought in another letter from one woman saying it had all provoked a really interesting conversation with her four-year old about death, and that she was really impressed how a children’s programme could do that. So it did work. And we tackled it again a few years later, with the death of a goldfish. The audience would have been different, and we wanted to revisit the issue, and again I think it was a success. It’s one of the most remembered things about Pipkins, yet in over 300 programmes we only tackled it twice. I guess it made a real impact. We always tried to do that sort of thing in a very original way.

OTT: Another element that made the programme quite distinct and authentic was its look – that somewhat musty, dirty, lived-in appearance of everything. Was that a happy accident or by design?

NIGEL PLASKITT: It was by design. All the puppets were supposed to have been made from second hand things. I think Hartley was supposed to be made from somebody’s old jumper. That was all down to Michael Jeans. He had very clear ideas about the look of the series, as much as its storylines and its concerns.

OTT: You wrote some episodes yourself, I believe.

NIGEL PLASKITT: I only did two. At the time I thought I would become a regular, but I realised pretty quickly that it wasn’t particularly practical. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, but having a writer in the rehearsal room was quite difficult for everyone else. Michael felt that every time he wanted to change a word or a piece of dialogue he’d have to include me in the discussion, and of course that took up time and so on. So it was just a question of practicality.

OTT: Why did Pipkins end?

NIGEL PLASKITT: It finished with the demise of ATV. I understand its replacement, Central TV, took on only the programmes they really had to, like Crossroads, and dumped everything else in order to start afresh.

OTT: What moments above all have stayed with you from your time on the series?

NIGEL PLASKITT: I must mention George again. He was a huge influence and a brilliant choice, a great raconteur and inspiration. He really helped give the show its identity in the early days. He was a really nice man and very excited by it all, very committed to the project, and really taken with the idea of this kind of children’s programme. Other than that, well, it’s difficult to pick, there are so many to choose from. I guess “watch the DVD” is the best answer to that question! I chose the episodes for the release, and tried to pick ones that were not only my favourites but also which would appeal to both adults and children.

OTT: Are you surprised by the amount of affection people hold for Pipkins?

NIGEL PLASKITT: Constantly! It’s astonishing. It’s a remarkable thing to encounter so many people remembering it. It’s really gratifying to know the way it affected so many. I do think it was a programme ahead of its time – there was nothing like it for children of pre-school age. It was a drama for pre-school children, and I’ve never really seen that sort of thing since.

OTT: Why do you think that is?

NIGEL PLASKITT: Michael Jeans made the programme what it was. Not only did he have a very distinctive sense of humour but also he cared very much about the programme and for everyone who worked on it. It wasn’t just a job for him. It’s not that somebody like him hasn’t come along again since, yet with something like Pipkins you can just take the same sorts of characters and situations and plonk them down in the 21st century.

OTT: Although if ever there was a time for a revival it would be now, with the DVD release.


OTT: Doctor Who‘s back …

NIGEL PLASKITT: And Basil Brush, of course. But at the same time ITV for instance is cutting back on their children’s programmes, so there’s the question of whether there’d even be an outlet for it.

OTT: While you were working on Pipkins you were also developing a career in front of the camera. Did you ever feel you should rather be concentrating on one over the other?

NIGEL PLASKITT: I was very happy to divide my time. Initially I didn’t really want to work with puppets because I wanted to be out there performing as myself. Being hidden away is tough when you’re only just starting out. For the first couple of years of Pipkins I sort of wrestled with my conscience over what I should be doing, but gradually I realised it was the right thing, and was where I should be.

OTT: So how did you feel about being the face of Vicks Sinex?

NIGEL PLASKITT: Well, that was my very first job in front of camera. At the time I’d never done anything like that before. I did it in Hampstead in September 1972, but immediately afterwards nothing happened. I hadn’t seen the advertisement after it was made, it didn’t go out, and I’d forgotten about it, then suddenly it began to be shown which I wasn’t prepared for, and people began to stare at me. It was a big shock because it was the first time I’d been on screen. I guess it was quite fun to start with, but I wasn’t prepared for the amount of exposure the advertisement received nor how popular it was going to be! I soon learned, though, that when you put yourself in the public eye that sort of thing would happen. And in many ways it got wanting to be famous out of my system.

OTT: But there were follow-up adverts, weren’t there?

NIGEL PLASKITT: There were six in total, over nine years through the 1970s. Then there was the one-off revival in the 1990s. I don’t really know what led to that. I think it was falling sales. They got in touch with me to see if I wanted to play the father of Malcolm, my original character, but it didn’t quite work I feel. In fact none of them ever really worked as well as the very first one. Which they eventually ended up showing again regardless, whenever their sales were falling! I asked them once why they kept bringing the same advertisement back and back, and they simply said whenever we put it out the sales went up.

OTT: Another project you did during the 1970s was Doctor Who.

NIGEL PLASKITT: Yes, “The Ribos Operation”. That was fantastic. Robert Holmes had written it, and it was a brilliant story and a brilliant experience. I was a character called Unstoffe. The director, George Spenton-Foster, knew me from the Vicks advertisements. I was working with Ian Cuthbertson, who played Garron, we were two con men selling planets we didn’t own. It was fun from start to finish.

OTT: Have you watched any of the new series?

NIGEL PLASKITT: I tuned in halfway through the first episode, then thought no, I want to watch this from the beginning. I’ve heard very good reports about it.

OTT: It seems to have exceeded everyone’s expectations.

NIGEL PLASKITT: Definitely. I’d like to do it again, oh yes.

OTT: When did you join Spitting Image?

NIGEL PLASKITT: It was just after the first series. I heard they were looking for new people to replace a couple who were leaving. John Lloyd, the producer, asked me to join because I think they were looking for someone with experience of that kind of work. But I was also interested because it was a similar production team to that which had worked on Pipkins. Central had re-employed a lot of the old ATV staff. So I went to see John and for the next 13 years that was that! It wasn’t an easy job by any means, there was a lot of stress and it could be quite manic trying to turn around the programmes. One of the very early episodes was on BBC4 a few weeks ago. Did you see it?

OTT: Yes. It did feel a bit inconsistent, a bit hit and miss.

NIGEL PLASKITT: It was from series two, shortly after I started. I think from probably towards the end of that series it started to find its feet. Then when Rob Grant and Doug Naylor came in as scriptwriters it hit its peak. I’d argue the show was very exciting and I think genuinely groundbreaking. Everybody, including the puppeteers, were always waiting for the next one to come along to see how far it would go. And plenty of the public were talking about it.

OTT: What eventually made it lose its edge: the passing of time, or just the changing nature of comedy?

NIGEL PLASKITT: Both really. It ran for 13 years, which is a long time for any comedy show, especially one that cost so much money. I think the main reason it was cancelled because of the expense. When Central realised they could get an audience for a fraction of the same cost, the axe came down. But people kept watching to the end, and the ratings were always reasonable. Having said that, by the time it finished the show had kind of come to a natural conclusion. Still, I think it’s sad that there doesn’t seem to be any way of doing that kind of programme right now. It’s the perfect time for it to come back. One of those people reviewing it on BBC4 said “You could never do that today,” and I thought if John Lloyd had been watching that would’ve been like a red rag to a bull!

OTT: You’ve also had a long association with the Jim Henson Company. Did you get to meet the man himself?

NIGEL PLASKITT: Yes. I worked with Jim on two things: Labyrinth and The Tale of the Bunny Picnic. I didn’t have an awful lot of contact with him, but he seemed a very charming person. After the completion of the second film he had a party for everyone involved back at his own house, which was quite an unusual thing for the head of a production company to do! He was very, very generous. It was a wonderful company to work for, and always cared for its employees.

OTT: And you played a role in helping to set up Sesame Street in various foreign countries.

NIGEL PLASKITT: The programme was franchised around the world, but while all the sketches, Bert and Ernie and so on, were pre-recorded and simply re-dubbed, all the scenes in the Street were re-staged in the relevant country. It was my job to cast the puppeteers for those new segments, to train them up and then see them through the first few weeks of production. It was fascinating. I encountered quite a broad spectrum of ability. In Russia and Poland, for example, they’ve always had a great tradition for puppets and that kind of entertainment, and could quickly adapt to the Sesame Street style. But Palestine, by contrast, had no television of its own at the time. It was a co-production with Israel, which made it all a bit of a hot potato. It was difficult, but the principles behind it, getting children to think of themselves as living together, were groundbreaking. Whether it worked or not we won’t really know for another 20 years when that generation of viewers has grown up.

OTT: How did you come to be involved in the establishment of Brookside?

NIGEL PLASKITT: Phil Redmond’s always been a friend of mine, and at that time we were both trying to get into production. So we set up, together with four or five other people, a small company to experiment with ideas and shoot some pilots. None of those got produced, but at the same time Phil was developing what was then called “Meadowcroft”. And he and I went along to the famous symposium in London where Jeremy Isaacs unveiled his plans on how he wanted to launch Channel 4. Afterwards Phil collared him and asked him if he was interested in a soap, and Jeremy said something to the effect of drop something on my desk, and that’s what he did. I went up to Liverpool and worked on setting things up, keeping an eye on building progress and kitting out one of the houses that was to be used as a production base with furniture.

OTT: Was the ITV Digital monkey a curse or a blessing?

NIGEL PLASKITT: For me it was a blessing – I had great fun doing it. For Johnny Vegas, I suspect, it was less so. And of course people remember the monkey more than the channel. But off the back of it I got to do a pilot for a light entertainment series, hosted by the monkey. This was to be a big, big thing at Television Centre with a huge set. Dawn French was my guest, and Martin Kemp was involved, and lots of money was spent on it – but, sadly, it didn’t get commissioned. The idea wasn’t quite there. It was a family show, intended for 6pm on a Saturday evening. A one-hour spectacular, no less! But no. Didn’t happen.

OTT: And what you can reveal, if anything, about the new Hitch-Hiker‘s film?

NIGEL PLASKITT: I have to confess I’ve done very little, even though it looks like I’m in it a lot. I’ve done one scene. I play one of the Vogon Councillors. I didn’t get any dialogue either! But it was great fun, and film itself is wonderful.

OTT: What else have you got lined up by way of ongoing projects?

NIGEL PLASKITT: Well, you haven’t mentioned Captain Scarlet!

OTT: I’m sorry.

NIGEL PLASKITT: I’ve been doing it on and off for two years now, but it’s only just being aired. I had a ball doing it. Never mind what the voice artistes have done, what the animators have done – particularly on the budget – is amazing. It astonishes me the way Gerry Anderson keeps on going and making these fantastic things. His influence and energy is astounding! But I think the show needs a proper slot, and not, as it has been, within another show [ITV1's Ministry of Mayhem]. A proper slot would give it the profile it deserves.

OTT: I’m sure the Pipkins DVD will give Hartley the profile he deserves too.

NIGEL PLASKITT: Well, that would be very nice. And you never know what could happen. I’d certainly be happy to bring Hartley back. It’d be marvellous!