Nigel Plaskitt sniffed the sweet scent of fame and success and found he didn’t like the aroma. For a decade he sporadically appeared on TV as the long-suffering Malcolm in a certain cold cure advert but he hated the recognition and public’s well-meaning intrusion on his life.
He discovered that he much preferred the anonimity of being a voice artist and using his considerable skills to help create a menagerie of puppet characters for film, TV and stage.
Today he’s the puppetry coach for the sensational multi award-winning comedy musical Avenue Q which begins its latest UK tour at Colchester’s Mercury Theatre tomorrow night.
Newest cast member Sarah Harlington calls Nigel the puppet-master whose workshops teach the actors how to make their furry monster co-stars come alive for audiences.
During a break in rehearsals Nigel and Sarah talked to Stage Review about the show.
Said Nigel: “When Avenue Q first came over here there was a bit of misconception that it was another version of Sesame Street and we did have some young children in the audience in the early days!
“If you say it features puppets people tend to forget something like Spitting Image, which I did as well.
“There is a rider in most places that it’s 14-plus but it is at the parents’ discretion.
“When it first came here I couldn’t make rehearsals and didn’t reach it until it had moved into the theatre in the West End and the Americans were handing it over to us.
“I was taken through the script and I thought: ‘What the hell is going on here!?’
“It was a great learning experience. It was shocking but I laughed – and I still laugh at it even though I’ve probably seen it 250 times.
“Some of the characters are Sesame Street-ish. I think the whole idea is that some of them have left Sesame Street and moved into the adult world. “
Nigel is the expert in the puppet business. He worked as animation director for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and on the Muppets (including the latest The Muppets… Most Wanted) and on TV he has done Doctor Who, Pipkins, Spitting Image, The Secret Life of Toys, The Spooks of Bottle Bay, Fun Factory, Alice in Wonderland, Mopatops Shop & Combat Sheep.
He is also the voice of Captain Black and other characters in Gerry Anderson’s animated version of Captain Scarlett and has worked on a raft of films including Labrynth, Little Shop of Horrors, The Muppet Christmas Carol, The Muppet Treasure Island, Lost in Space and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
“I was an actor from childhood, working at a theatre in Islington in my school holidays.
“It was my aim to be a serious actor. I’d done rep and various tours and then found myself in a TV series called Pipkins and was asked if I could do a character voice and then could I do a puppet as well.
“At the same time I got the part of Malcolm in the Vicks Sinex advert and, over the next decade or so, that got rid of me wanting to be famous!
“Doing TV and film with puppets gave me an outlet for my performing skills but I personally didn’t get the exposure, which was super.
“I probably do hide behind them. I like the anonimity. I enjoy performing but don’t like all that goes with it. Initially the recognition had been fun but after about two years I hated people stopping me to ask if I was Malcolm off the commercial.
“I went back to the theatre with Doctor Doolittle, directing the animation for Jim Henson then Avenue Q first came to London. I had been working for Sesame Street internationally, setting up Sesame Street in Europe, and through that I got recommended for this.
“Working for Jim Henson was amazing. His imagination was outstanding. Doing Labrynth made me appreciate that. But he also has an incredible team around him. I saw that particularly when we were doing Muppets Christmas Carol, which was a joy to work on and fun to do”.
Nigel is now back in commercials but you wouldn’t recognise him as he’s the man behind the PG Tips Monkey.
Over a career lasting more than 40 years what has been his favourite characters?
“I’d have to say Pipkins where I played Hartley Hare but I loved working with Spitting Image. I did the John Major puppet. This is a strange profession. One day I’ll get a proper job!”
Sarah has a background in musical theatre (Fame and Sister Act UK tours) when she tried out for Avenue Q. Now she’s playing alongside schoolmarmish Kate Monster and vamping it up big time as stripper Lucy the Slut.
“This is such a challenge. It’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like this! The first time I had to work with a puppet I didn’t know if I’d be rubbish but Nigel is great at helping you through.
“It’s such a gift for me to play two such different characters in the one show but at one point Lucy and Kate are on together, having an argument – which took a while to get your head around! The two voices will both be mine plus one of the puppets but another puppet will be on the arm of another actor.
“I’m so glad to be in the show. I’d seen Avenue Q and thought that it was so cheeky, funny, and got a really good heart to it. There’s nothing else like it.
“I grew up with The Muppets and Sesame Street. I loved Elmo and Rizzo the rat. But this is more adult. It’s still a comedy but it deals with subjects that may be taboo like racism, porn on the internet. We have a character who finds it difficult to come out of the closet.
“By using the puppets it makes those subjects more accessible. They help get the humour across without causing offence.”