Over the course of almost half a century, puppeteer Ronnie Le Drew has worked with the greats - from David Bowie in Labyrinth to Michael Caine in A Muppet Christmas Carol. But the role that really defined his career was Zippy in Rainbow, a puppet which he operated for more than two decades.
During the show's heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, its stars found themselves catapulted into an exciting showbiz world - popular not just with the pre-school audience they were performing for, but with a generation of parents as well. They scooped a Bafta, appeared on late-night chat shows, and even performed for the Queen.
This book represents the first time a Rainbow insider has told the true story of what went on under the counter and inside the suits: the petty squabbles between performers, wrangling with TV executives, and scandals – such as the 'love triangle' between musicians Rod, Jane and Freddy and the now infamous x-rated episode shot for an ITV Christmas party, which subsequently found its way to the Sun newspaper.
In an accessible, humorous style, Ronnie dishes the dirt on what really went on behind the scenes at Rainbow. But this book is more than just a funny showbiz memoir. There is a strong emotional journey too: the story of a young lad from a South London council estate who defied his parents' protests that 'dolly-waggling' was not a viable career, and became one of the most respected puppeteers in the country.
By this point I was living on my own, in a tiny room above a restaurant called The Tasty Palate on Essex Road, just around the corner from the Little Angel puppet theatre. The rent was extremely cheap, but it turned out there were a couple of catches. The first was that I was expected to sweep the floor of the restaurant every night. The second was that I was repeatedly asked to attend meetings held by the building’s owners, who were a pair of committed spiritualists. Terrified that they might offer to put my dead father on the line, I always made my excuses, and did my best to avoid bumping into them on the stairs.
One day, I was sweeping the floor of the restaurant when I heard the phone ringing in my room. I threw my broom down and rushed up the stairs, hoping I wouldn’t run into my landlords.
‘Hello?’ I panted.
‘Hi, Ronnie, it’s John Thirtle,’ my old flatmate said. ‘Are you alright to talk?’
‘Yes of course John,’ I replied. ‘What’s up?’
‘Well, you know this programme Rainbow that I’ve been doing...’
‘Oh, yes?’ I tried my best to sound nonchalant, as if my friend’s newfound TV stardom had barely made an impression.
‘Well the thing is I’ve been offered some other work that clashes.’
‘Oh right,’ I said. ‘Congratulations.’ Some people seemed to have all the luck!
John continued: ‘They asked if I could recommend anyone to take over.’
There was a pause while the cogs in my brain turned, ever so slowly, taking in what I thought John was saying.
‘I put your name down. I hope that’s alright.’
I was speechless: from nowhere, right out of the blue, I had landed my own telly gig, and on a programme that was already a roaring success. And best of all, John said I didn’t even need to audition – just turn up on Thursday to meet everyone. ‘Don’t worry, I’ve vouched for you,’ he told me. ‘Just make sure when you meet our producer, Pamela, you name-drop Muffin the Mule – that’ll impress her.’
As soon as I hung up the phone, a terrifying thought struck me and I began to panic. I grabbed the receiver again and swiftly dialled John’s number. Mercifully, he answered right away.
‘John,’ I said, urgently, ‘what do I wear?’
‘Don’t worry, Ronnie,’ John laughed. ‘They couldn’t care less about that. Just be yourself, and I promise you’ll be fine.’
For the next few days, I tuned in religiously at noon to catch the latest episode of Rainbow, studying John’s operation of Zippy like an obsessive fan and committing his every move to memory. By the time Thursday rolled around the show had assumed an iconic status in my mind, and the thought of meeting these new TV idols made me feel like a star-struck teenager.
When Thursday came I boarded the train to Teddington, sitting nervously amongst the suited commuters who were no doubt on their way to ‘proper’ jobs. From the station I walked the half mile to Teddington Studios, a rather nondescript modern building complex with a little white portico out front, and made my way straight to reception. Above the desk was a board displaying the shooting schedule for the day: ‘Studio One: The Tommy Cooper Hour, Studio Two: The Tomorrow People’, and there, in big bold letters, ‘Studio Three: Rainbow’.
I told the lady behind the desk that I was here to see Pamela Lonsdale and before long a researcher was dispatched to fetch me. She brought me along a seemingly endless corridor, past an imposing pair of double doors labelled Studio Three with a red Do Not Enter light above them, and into a kind of antechamber with a large glass panel in the wall which looked directly into the studio’s control room. Inside there was a wall of TV screens and an array of people sitting at desks in front of them, pointing and conferring with each other. I spotted a perfectly coiffured short blonde hairdo and recognised Pamela, the lady who had visited the Little Angel all those months ago. She turned round and mimed at me through the glass: ‘Good to see you – we’ll speak later’.
On the screens I could see what was happening inside the studio. Recording had not yet started, and everyone was bustling around setting things up. I caught a glimpse of John Thirtle with the Zippy puppet draped over his arm, and of stage hands shifting scenery and laughing as they passed out of one screen and into another.
At the very edge of one of the screens, I could see a man in his early forties sitting in a little booth with a microphone, puffing away on a cigar. I guessed that this must be Roy Skelton, who did the voices for Zippy and George. Then the camera moved slightly and he was gone.
On another screen, Geoffrey Hayes was chatting to a floor manager – only it wasn’t quite Geoffrey as I’d seen him on TV. This was the real man behind the TV persona, looking serious and thoughtful as he carefully walked through his movements for the scene. Then someone shouted ‘Action!’ and it was as if a switch had flicked in Geoffrey’s head: there was the charming, energetic guy I had seen at home, interacting with Bungle, while Zippy and George popped up from behind the table.
After each shot, the two puppets would drop back down behind the table and Bungle would whisk off his bear head to reveal a short, dark-haired fellow, Stanley Bates, who looked exhausted and was dripping with sweat. When the director was ready to go again he would reluctantly don the cumbersome head, and suddenly Bungle would be back.
An hour or so after I arrived, the first episode of the day was in the can and the cast were told they could break for lunch. Zippy and George disappeared, and from behind the table up popped John, alongside the gorgeous Valerie Heberden, who I had worked with years a few years before at the Little Angel.
I made my way down into the corridor and waited for them to emerge from the door marked ‘Green room’. John appeared first, followed by Valerie. ‘Hi Ronnie, we’re all going for lunch in the restaurant,’ he said. ‘I think Pamela must be doing it in your honour, because normally we only eat in the canteen.’
Valerie could see I was nervous, so she whispered to me: ‘Don’t worry, they’re all very nice.’
John grabbed my arm. 'Let me introduce you to someone first though,' he said. He led me through the Green room, waving briefly to Geoffrey and Stanley, who were getting changed, and onto the studio floor. It was smaller than I had imagined, but that did nothing to dampen my excitement. I could see the various cameras on their dolly tracks, the rack of lights up above, and the Rainbow house set, which took up about half the floor space, with a giant cyclorama behind it cutting across the middle of the studio – on the other side of this was where the musicians would record their performances.
John led me behind the table. 'Ronnie, meet Zippy,' he said, picking up the hollow bundle of towelling with its incongruous rugby-ball head.
'May I?' I asked, taking the puppet from John's hands.
Zippy was lighter than I had expected. I reached my arm inside and took hold of the lip-synch mechanism. 'Hello, John,' I said, in my best imitation of Roy's voice work.
'That's good,' John told me. 'But make sure you keep your wrist at a right angle. It's a pain after a while, but it looks much better on camera.'
I adjusted my wrist, looking across to the puppet as I did so. He was right – if I let my wrist relax and straighten even slightly, Zippy seemed to look up at the ceiling.
John produced another bit of orange towelling from beneath the table. 'And this,' he said proudly, 'is the arm.'
Watching the show I had always assumed that the arm was just part of the main puppet, but it turned out to be a separate piece entirely. 'You need to make sure you don't stretch too far or he'll end up looking like an octopus,' John advised me.
Hello everyone, It's been some time since I wrote and updated you with news etc. I have been and am still busy performing at The Little Angel Theatre The home of British Puppetry. When the show finishes I shall be going to a conference on puppets on Television which takes place in Sheffield. Zippy and George will make an appearance. Which should be fun. Also I will be going to Skipton in North Yorkshire…
Today I have just finished reading the unedited version of the book, and I cannot Thank my co authors enough, for making it such an enjoyable read.
Now for the difficult bit, the editing and choosing the pictures.
I really hope by the end of the year, we will have a book ready for you all to read.
Ronnie Le Drew.
My life is busy as always, mostly at The Little Angel Theatre, but had a good time at the Royal Academy of Music, Plus 3 days with Curious School of Puppetry. Teaching my craft to enthusiastic students is such a pleasure. I am soon to be performing again at The Little Angel Theatre, Shows Starting on the 22 April going on till July16th. all details can be found on this web sight www…
Hello, A Happy New Year to you all !
Hopefully you had a wonderful Christmas, and now back to work, I have talks booked at The Little Angel Theatre, and in April another season of Dog's don't do Ballet. A puppet show for young children. The show continues at the Little Angel, until July. It would be nice to see you after the show. Just tell the box office when you book your tickets. So I know…
Hello all !
November has been busy, I have had 2 radio interviews with Fubar Radio, and a fun one with Whipps Cross Hospital Radio.
I have been enjoying teaching puppetry at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Two more classes to go before Christmas.
Zippy had a an appearance on Children in Need live at around 11:30pm. He had a wonderful Cheer from the audience. Which delighted…
I still can't get over the fact that my book is fully funded, which means hopefully by the end of next year, It will be on your shelf's.
My authors, are at present finishing of there latest book, so as soon as that is finished. It will be go ahead with mine.
I have had a thought, maybe you would like to order another copy for friends and relations ?
Just to let you know,…
Thank you all for helping us get 100% funded ! Now for the editing, publishing, and printing of the book. And then the fun part, the launch, and all of you receiving your copy of the book.
you have made myself and my wonderful authors very happy !
Ronnie Le Drew.
Hello and Thanks to all my pledger's ! 66% funded now, so over half way there, perhaps you could ask your family and friends to pledge for a copy, there friends I am sure would enjoy the read.
I had a wonderful time last month celebrating Muffin the Mule's 70th Birthday. This puppet was the first British television icon. Way back in 1946 he appeared on BBC Television with Annette Mills playing…
Hello All !
It is certainly time for an update. So here it is, first Thank you so much to my pledgers, as you know without your support the book will not be published. I had a really nice time on the radio 4 programme Mid Week with Libby Purvis. I brought puppets to the studio, and those of you who heard the programme will remember noises from Muffin the Mule a few choice comments from Zippy and…
It's Duncan here, one of Ronnie's authors working with him on the book.
First of all, I wanted to say thanks so much to everyone who has already pledged. We are over a third of the way there after just one month. That means if everyone who has already pledged can get two friends to do the same, we should be on the way to publication very soon. (Nudge, nudge...)
I am really happy that 25% of the book cost is funded ! Thank you all !
I had a really nice time on the radio 4's Mid Week with Libby Purvis, if you missed it here is the link to the programme http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07bc0wd you have to the end of the month to listen to it, or better still listen now ! I have been asked to go on the Radio 4's The Today programme, so do…
These people are helping to fund Zippy and Me: The Remarkable Life in Puppets of Rainbow’s Ronnie Le Drew.