Zippy and Me: The Remarkable Life in Puppets of Rainbow’s Ronnie Le Drew

By Ronnie Le Drew and Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi

The hilarious autobiography of Rainbow puppeteer Ronnie Le Drew

Islington, 1973

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.

'Of course.'

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.

I knelt down on the floor, so that my body was hidden behind the table, and tried working the puppet with both hands now, one in the head and one in the arm. John stepped around to the front of the table to get a better view.

'Does this look alright?' I asked him.

'You can see for yourself.' John stepped back behind the table, crouched down next to me and flipped a switch on a small monitor by my knees. 'Can you leave camera three on, please?' he shouted to a chap across the studio.

A tiny black-and-white image fizzled into life on the screen. There it was, plain as day: Zippy, behind the table – and I was operating him.

'It's reverse scan, which makes it easier,' John informed me. ‘Just imagine you’re doing it in front of a mirror.’

He peered at the monitor over my shoulder. 'Good work,' he said encouragingly. 'Now all you have to master is the lip-synch.'

A little affronted, I brought Zippy round to look John in the face. ‘I'm perfectly good at that, thank you very much!' the puppet rebuked him. Perhaps Zippy’s arrogance was already getting the better of me.

'Ah, but that's easy,' replied John. 'The trick is to do it when Roy's the one speaking, not you.'

‘Right,’ I said quietly, reverting to my normal voice.

‘So, any questions?’

‘Just one,’ I said, my knees creaking as I stood up and set Zippy down on the table. 'Did you never think of asking for a cushion?'

In the restaurant, John introduced me to the rest of the cast. Geoffrey, as I had already observed, was a quiet and reserved character in person. He said a polite ‘How do you do?’ and we left it at that. Roy, the voice man, couldn’t have been more different – I was aware of the vaguely smoky aroma of his cigar as he shook my hand, proclaiming: ‘Oh hello, darling.’ Roy was charming, and a true luvvie in every respect, from the fruity RADA voice to the endless name-dropping. ‘You know, Larry and I were very close,’ he told me, within minutes of us meeting.

Stanley Bates, the sweaty fellow who played Bungle, was a shortish guy in his early thirties. He was less overwhelming than Roy, but equally warm and welcoming. Then there were the musicians: Julian, Charmian (‘Charlie’) and Karl. Charlie was gorgeous – with long straight brown hair, she looked a bit like an American folk singer – and all three of them were very friendly.

Finally, in strode Pamela Lonsdale. She was the big cheese, the one I really had to make a good impression on. She had the demeanour of a posh, prim headmistress from the 1950s – kind but firm.

The ‘interview’ itself was a fairly relaxed affair, at least for everyone else – I was still pretty nervous at being grilled by a panel of TV celebrities.

Pamela asked what sort of work I had done previously, so I took her through the highlights of my career at the Little Angel, and told her about travelling to Czechoslovakia to perform with the EPA. ‘Ah, the life of the open road,’ Roy sighed nostalgically.

Then I remembered John Thirtle’s advice to me. ‘And I worked with the Muffin the Mule,’ I said hastily, hoping that the name-dropping didn’t sound too obvious. It evidently worked, because I saw an approving look pass across Pamela’s face.

In the whole interview, she never asked to see me operate a puppet, which I thought was rather odd. John and Valerie must have both vouched for me, but I suspect Muffin was the referee who really got me the job. At any rate, when the lunch plates were cleared away, Pamela took a quick glance around the table, lingering ever so slightly on Geoffrey, before turning back and extending her hand towards me.

‘Ronnie,’ she said, ‘I’d like you to start as soon as possible.’

‘Thank you!’ I replied, beaming. ‘I’d love to.’

‘Wonderful. How does tomorrow sound?’

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