Those of us who were very small in the 1970s, wallowing in the gentle hinterland between nursery and “big school”, frequently found the stillness of a weekday lunchtime shattered by a ramshackle flashmob of threadbare, bickering beasties. There was a waspish, self–centred hare called Hartley; a prissy, theatrical French ostrich called Octavia; a permanently-famished Black Country Pig; a resolutely glass-half-empty Tortoise; and a Cockney monkey called Topov who always found something to be…
…well, on top of.
These were the mainstays of Pipkins, a wonderfully strange small screen cocktail of slapstick, gentle singalongs and unexpectedly profound life lessons, produced by ATV and broadcast on the ITV network between 1973 and 1981. Hartley Hare, voiced and operated by young actor/puppeteer Nigel Plaskitt, became the show’s abiding icon… a rodent tyrant with a heart of gold beating deep beneath his tatty pelt.
When I discovered that, in 2020, four of the original Pipkins team – Plaskitt, fellow actor/puppeteer Heather Tobias and writers Susan Pleat and Gail Renard – had reunited to produce a brand new show for CBeebies, I was predictably intrigued. And not remotely surprised to discover that Monty & Co, now nearing the end of its first series and available on the BBC iPlayer, is just as funny and charming as its 1970s predecessor, with which it shares many similarities: not least the idea of a loveable, raggle-taggle menagerie living and working in surely the world’s least financially viable shop.
I was delighted when Nigel Plaskitt agreed to talk about Monty & Co… and, indeed, about the legacy of Pipkins. And, as an added bonus, his memories of Tom Baker being bitten on the lip by a dog belonging to the Graff Vynda-K.
Here’s how the conversation went:
Bob: Congratulations on Monty & Co – it’s a lovely series, and reminds me so much of watching Pipkins when I was very small. How did it all come about?
Nigel: Monty & Co came about when Susan Pleat, Gail Renard and I got together, and we started talking about Pipkins, and getting it re-commissioned. We wanted to investigate that! And over a period of time, we joined up with Paul Jomain, who is a puppet maker, and Robert Taylor who is a rights lawyer, and started talking to ITV about that possibility. Because we assumed that ITV owned the rights.
However, although the ATV catalogue – ATV being the original company – was purchased by ITV, in the intervening 30-odd years various bits of the ATV catalogue have been sold off. So we weren’t absolutely sure who owns the rights. And we decided, after a year, that we couldn’t wait any longer and we knocked it on the head by mutual agreement, really. And at that point we decided that we would do something completely new – inspired by what we’d been doing in the 1970s, but a new project with new characters and a new situation.
So that’s kind of where it came from. Monty & Co is a re-imagining of the guts of the idea more than anything else… it’s not really the same programme at all, but it has similarities. Naturally, given that we were so successful with Pipkins in the 1970s, we wanted to create something along those lines… and that’s kind of what we’ve done, but it’s a 2020 take on it.
It’s fascinating to hear that you came so close to an actual reboot of Pipkins…
Yeah, that was our intention. But we couldn’t do that, so what you see now on CBeebies just uses it as the inspiration. We’re really happy with it… it’s got some good new stuff, and it looks totally different. Production methods and techniques have advanced so much, and we’ve been able to utilise that.
Let’s talk through the characters a bit. Monty, who runs a repair shop, is a wallaby… and a bit of a know-it-all, but he kind of binds everybody else together! They all revolve around him…
Yeah, he’s the lynchpin of it all. He’s fairly histrionic… but he’s probably everyman. There’s a little bit of Monty in all of us, and we tried to make it so he represents everybody. He’s joined by Eddie the Elephant, Lulu the teddy bear, and Gabriella – who is a flamingo. All of them are very different characters. Eddie is very pedantic and down-to-earth: he’s the inventor character. And Lulu is a feisty young girl: we wanted to have a very strong female character in there, because we felt that when we did Pipkins, we didn’t have that. And Gabriella is South American… she’s the artistic one in the group.
The character I was really taken with was Charlie Pickle the Welsh Terrier, who is very shy and a bit of a worrier. He’s adorable.
He’s a great character, and he’s been very popular – even though he doesn’t appear in many episodes. He was a bit of late addition to the whole project, so some of the scripts had already been written by the time he was added. But Charlie is actually a real dog… in fact, he’s my dog.
We have a Welsh terrier, and he’s absolutely based on him. He looks remarkably like him – Paul has done a great job! And he’s a great character, and if we get to make more Monty & Co then we’ll certainly be increasing his presence in the series. He’s been very popular on social media…
So is the real-life Charlie rather shy and nervous as well, then?
Not, really no! [Laughs] Quite the opposite. But we needed that kind of character in the series, to represent those who are little less forthright than Monty & Co. So he’s filling that role, but it’s not a real character trait of… well, of many dogs, actually! [Laughs]
No, in my experience dogs aren’t noted for being shrinking violets! It’s nice that you felt you needed to represent that kind of character, because – just as Pipkins did – Monty & Co depicts the nature of human relationships really beautifully. And it shows how we have to try to and appreciate and make allowances for each other’s different personalities. The episode I saw with Charlie had him trying to overcome his shyness a little, but also learning that it’s actually alright to be a bit shy and nervous sometimes. Those sorts of lessons are important for kids, I think.
Yeah, we’ve tried to include that. Really our raison d’être is to demonstrate relationships and the fact that people are different. And that doesn’t make them bad… it just makes them different. We have to live with different people in the world, and get on with them. Although we shot the programme two years ago, the themes that we pick up on in the series are, I think, really relevant to the situation we find ourselves in today.
And relevant to adults as well as kids, I think. I watched an episode today where Eddie gets in a bit of a rut, and is very overworked and a bit depressed. And learns that you have to be gentle with yourself and take some time out… and try some new things from time to time. I’m only just learning this myself really, and I’m 47!
We’ve tried to make the series appealing to adults. Obviously our prime targets are kids, but the hope is that parents – or responsible adults – will sit down and watch with the children, and be able to get something from it. That doesn’t meant to say that it’s geared to adults… it’s not. But in the same way that something like Peppa Pig has got that slight adult appeal… we’ve tried to do that with Monty & Co.
As somebody who grew up with Pipkins, it’s such a delight to hear the voices of yourself and Heather Tobias bouncing off each other again. Is it fun to work with Heather?
Oh, it is. Heather and I go back an awful long way… we were at college together before Pipkins, and when they were looking for a female puppeteer, they asked me if I I knew anyone. And just at that moment, I was contacted by someone who was running a puppet company, and they said: “Oh, we’ve got someone working with us who says she knows you…” And that was Heather. At the time, she was straight out of college and looking to get her Equity card.
So it was fortuitous really, and we’ve stayed friends ever since – through the last 40-odd years. And now she lives down the road from me, so it’s really nice to be able to rekindle all that. We shot it close to where I live as well, so she was very pleased about the commute!
And she’s in Monty & Co in person too, playing a character called Mrs Rainey…
Yes! Those episodes have yet to hit the air, they’ll be coming sometime towards the end of October.
Do you make an appearance in human form yourself at any point? I know you popped up on camera sometimes in Pipkins…
I did a couple of times, but no – I’m not doing it in this! I’ve long since given up wanting to do that. When I did it in Pipkins, it was because I was getting frustrated at not appearing… I was in my twenties, and had a very different outlook on life. And Mike Jeans, the producer/director, gave me that to keep me quiet, I think!
So you’re happy to let Monty – or indeed Hartley – be the public face these days?
I am very happy for that! Through my twenties, I did a series of commercials for Vicks Sinex nasal spray – where I played Malcolm. And that pretty soon got wanting to be famous out of my system… [Laughs]
Oh, really? Did you get people saying “Course you can, Malcolm” to you every day?
Yeeeeah… everything. They still do! If I talk about it to someone, they’ll remember the commercial, and even some of the lines. Which is remarkable for a commercial that was last on air nearly 40 years ago.
I guess back in the days of three or four TV channels, everybody in the country would have seen that advert over and over again.
Absolutely, I was in their living rooms every night… in the winter months, anyway! Clearly they thought that’s who I was, and that I was their friend. Initially it was great fun and it opened doors, but there comes a point where you’re trying to have an intimate dinner for two, and someone comes over with a beermat and says: “Will you sign this?” [Laughs]
I have a friend, Sue Nicholls, of Coronation Street fame… we’ve been out together having dinner and she’s very gracious and copes with it all very well. But it wasn’t something that really appealed to me. I love doings like this, where I can talk about the work that I’ve done, but that thing of: “Will you have a selfie with me?” doesn’t appeal to me much.
I imagine, when you’re walking down a supermarket isle, it’s the last thing you need…
Yes… although my mother enjoyed it, she used to walk behind me so she could watch everyone’s faces!
You mentioned Susan Pleat and Gail Renard, the Pipkins writers, being on board for Monty & Co… both wonderful writers. I was actually watching Gail’s terrific TV adaptation of Come Back, Lucy last week. It must be great to be working with writers of that quality, is it?
Absolutely, it is. It’s been great to work with them again. Susan was in at the beginning of Pipkins, she was the co-creator with Michael Jeans – and, I suppose, with myself and Heather. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, but usually just Christmas cards and the occasional phone call. So it was great to be able to get back together again. And I suppose, it’s on a different level…
I was going to ask if the dynamic in the group has changed at all since the 1970s…?
It’s different, because we’re in a different position now. They were writers and I was the actor, but now I’m the producer and so are they – as well as us still writing and performing. The fact that I have more control over the production than I did in the 1970s does change the dynamic slightly, but of course I still respect their great professionalism and, of course, much of the stuff that you see onscreen is exactly what they wrote. Except when Monty changes bits because he can’t remember his lines! [Laughs]
That’s not your responsibility Nigel, that’s Monty’s fault.
Absolutely, nothing to do with me!
When I watched the TV version of Come Back, Lucy I was tickled by the fact that Lucy’s adoptive family are really politically active, and are constantly dashing off to left-wing meetings. None of which is in the book at all! I was assuming Gail must have added those bits…
[Laughs] Yes, that would probably be Gail! You’ve only got to look at her Facebook page to see that…
Both Pipkins and Monty & Co are – in a very gentle way – so honest and upfront with kids about some very “big” subjects. George Woodbridge was the original Pipkins presenter in 1973, and after he died you could so easily have glossed over his absence. But Wayne Layrea gave a lovely, understated piece to camera where he explicitly stated that Mr Pipkin had died. It was so beautifully done. Were there lots of debates at the time as to how you should handle it?
Oh yes, there were. There was much discussion about it – not that I was involved, but I know for a fact that Mike Jeans had some soul-searching to do. In actual fact, George died halfway through the shooting of the second series, but because we were shooting out of order we’d already shot some of the later episodes. So very often Mr Pipkin was fishing, or he’d gone to the shops… and then he’d appear again the next day. It was very difficult.
But in the gap between the second and third series, it was decided that we would tackle the subject head on. And that hadn’t been done before, as far as I know, for pre-school children’s TV. And in fact, it wasn’t done by anyone else for ten years afterwards… when I think Sesame Street did it, when one of their main characters died. When we did it with George, Michael came to us and said we’d had some letters, and there was only one that reacted badly to it: “How dare we do this, it had upset her, it had upset her child…” And I think it was more that the person themselves was upset, because children of that age don’t really have a huge understanding of death, and what death is.
And on the other hand, there was a woman that wrote in and said that it had stimulated a big conversation with her child about the whole subject, and about what had happened to their grandparents. So I think it was a positive move… in, fact such a positive move that – three or four years later – we did ‘Death of a Goldfish’. And treated the same subject in that way. It’s not something that you’d want to do every day, but it was a positive move on our part, I think.
I remember seeing ‘Death of a Goldfish’ at the age of four, and we’d just lost our family dog around that time. It’s all mixed together in my fuzzy memories of the era, and I remember that episode being reassuring. Because you don’t quite understand how death actually works at that age… it’s a difficult concept to get your head around. But the conversation between Wayne and Topov at the end of that episode, where Wayne gently explains that everyone has to die – “but hopefully not for a very long time” – is just extraordinary. It’s beautifully done.
Yes, and of course it is a subject that parents don’t really want to talk to their children about. But when you see it in a programme like Pipkins, the job is done for you in a way. If that discussion is had, it can stimulate a discussion that your child wants to have with you. It was good in that respect, I think.
This is kind of pet subject of mine, but for me 1970s TV has a unique aesthetic to it – especially children’s TV. There’s a kind of rustic, hand-cranked feel to it all, and everything feels home-made… I mean, I wouldn’t say this to Hartley’s face, but the puppets in Pipkins looked wonderfully tatty! Which I loved, because my own toys were tatty as well…
You’ve hit the nail on the head – it was designed that way! They were intentionally made to look tatty, because that’s what happens to children’s toys. So it wasn’t an accident, and it wasn’t “Oh we found this old puppet, let’s use it.” The tattiness was designed into them, because we wanted them to feel like they were much-loved toys.
Nobody has ever really asked me that before! They usually tell me what you’ve just said, but they never ask me if I was aware of it. So here’s an opportunity for me to say: Yes, that was designed into the show and obviously I think that it worked… because children’s toys never look pristine.
We’ve gone a little bit the other way with Monty & Co, but still… it’s not like animation, where everything is drawn perfectly. In my view, one of the advantages that live action has over animation is that things are real, and they look like you could touch them.
Is that helpful for you as a performer as well? Does being the live action puppeteer as well providing the voice allow you to find the characters more easily?
Definitely. Because you’re playing scenes properly… I mean I’ve done some voice work for animations as well, but that’s a very different beast. This is much more hands on, much more physical, and a whole different thing, really.
Which comes first? Does the voice come first, or the character’s movements? Or do you get the puppet first and foremost, and work from there?
Well with Pipkins, I was given a breakdown of the character, which I think might be on one of the DVDs – it was a big character description. I don’t think I saw the puppet… in my head, the initial meeting with Mike Jeans was: “This is the job, can you do it? Are you free? OK, we’ll see you in two weeks…” And that was about it! [Laughs]. Well maybe not quite as simple as that, but I don’t remember having to read anything. He just wanted to know if I could do it. And so I took the character, and then… what I was trying to do was look for different ranges of voice so that Hartley would be a million miles from Tortoise. And then the narrator, in the middle, was me as well: so I tried to make the voices as different as possible, so you wouldn’t 100% realise that it was me doing all three characters.
But initially – and not many people know this, and I’m not sure any recordings still exist – Heather Tobias was going to be the tortoise! The only reason that I remember this is because I’ve got a song on tape somewhere, with her playing the part. But I think it was probably before we started recording that we decided to make the change, and it was more to do with setting up the characters: it wasn’t so easy to play two characters in the same scene in those days. Today, you’re shooting very much like a film – but in those days, we’d record the full scene as a whole.
So you’d be switching back and forth between voices incredibly quickly?
Yeah, and that becomes complicated, so we avoided it. And I think it was more to do with that, that we wanted me to take over the tortoise. With Heather still doing Octavia and Pig. That happened very early on – maybe even while we were still rehearsing.
[At this point, an extraordinary thing happens. Nigel appears to vanish, and the familiar voice of a rather disgruntled hare appears on the line…]
Hartley: Excuse me! Excuse me! How dare you. How very dare you. How can you say that to me? Me? Like Kenneth Williams? I’m not like Kenneth Williams. No!
Honestly Bob, I’ve been sitting listening to this, and it’s a load of… [Sigh]
Oh, how can you say that…
I’m so sorry if I’ve offended you in any way.
Nigel: [Laughs] It’s alright Bob, he’s gone now…
So did you have anybody in mind at all when you came up with the voice?
No, nobody at all. And many people have conjectured over the years as to whether he was camp, all this stuff… but that wasn’t in my head at all. What I was doing… occasionally, he puts on this very posh voice, like his telephone voice. And that can sound a bit camp, I suppose. I think we used to have fun in rehearsals with it, and it gradually developed over the years. He became a bit posher! But all that stuff is sort of in people’s minds, I think… probably as adults, rather than the young audience that was watching it.
I have to say, it’s been very interesting talking to people like yourself who remember watching the series. Because we had no feedback at all in those days. Occasionally we might get a letter, and sometimes they would even pass the letter onto us, but otherwise we really didn’t know how the audience felt… other than people who told us they’d been watching it when we met them.
It must be incredibly heartwarming to know that something you did 45 years ago still holds such a place in people’s affections.
Oh, it is. Definitely. And having had that experience – even though I probably won’t be around to experience the same thing with Monty – gives me a great deal of hope that we’re doing these shows now, for a whole new audience, who in forty years time will be looking back and thinking the same. That would be great, and that’s something that I really appreciate about working for a pre-school audience.
We should also mention Andrew Linnie, who plays Sam, the human character, in Monty & Co. And he joins a proud lineage… I was lucky enough, earlier this year, to interview Jonathan Kydd for the radio. In the late 1970s, he was very much my Pipkins man! Is it important to have that grounded human figure to keep all these unruly animals in check?
Yeah, we felt it was really quite important to have a human element… as the “big brother”. I don’t mean that in the sinister sense, I mean an elder brother! That’s kind of what we were thinking.
And this hasn’t really developed as much in the series as we’d like, but if we get the chance to do more than I think we’ll aim to bring this out: we wanted music in the series, and Andrew is a musician as well as an actor.
I saw that he had a background in musical theatre.
Yeah, and he plays instruments as well. He’s a proper musician! And he does play occasionally in the series, but not as often as we’d like – so that will probably be increased.
I can’t resist asking as well: I’m a bit of a retro technology geek, and I know the Pipkins DVDs were comprised largely of off-air video recordings that you made when the episodes were first broadcast. What kind of set-up did you have? You must have been one of about six people who actually had a video recorder in Britain in the 1970s!
You are right! I was, and am still, the original techno geek who wants to have every latest gadget. Initially I had a Philips recorder, probably around about 1975 when they first came out. I don’t have any of the recordings that I made on that… they were quite expensive! But I was working for a TV company, so I got it through the guys there. They got me a deal.
Then I bought a huge Sony U-Matic. I was still living at home at the time, and my mother was delighted to have that thing in the living room! It took up half of one wall. That was a bit more of an industrial machine, but when the Sony Betamaxes came out I decided to go down that route, and I recorded everything on Betamax. Which I was delighted to do, because the quality was better than VHS – and they’ve lasted, and stood the test of time.
Funnily enough, Jonathan Kydd also had Betamaxes, and I borrowed some tapes from him when we did the DVD release… and he’s just been after them, he’s coming up to pick them up! I’ve only had them 15 years…
Oh, I’ve had other people’s stuff in my house for a lot longer than 15 years…
I know! I was embarrassed actually. I had to find them, they were in the back of a cupboard somewhere, tucked safely away…
Have you got quite a video library, then? I’m thinking a Bob Monkhouse-style archive here…
Not quite as big as Bob’s, no! I’ve got quite a few Betamaxes, but I did get rid of all the VHS tapes that I eventually moved onto. And I’ve got the DVD box set now, like you have… so that’s nice to have. It has a few of my own recordings, a few of Jonathan’s and a few from Video Arts as well.
And when they came to do the first release, nobody had a Betamax machine, so I had to take my old Betamax down to Technicolor, who were doing the transfer, and plug it into their mainframe system! [Laughs].
And although we’re here to talk about Monty & Co and Pipkins, I can’t resist asking… I’m a huge Doctor Who fan, and I’d love to hear your memories of working on ‘The Ribos Operation’. It was the opening story of the ‘Key to Time’ series from 1978, it had a wonderful script by Robert Holmes, and you got to work with one of my favourite actors: Timothy Bateson.
It was fabulous, I had such a ball doing that. Can you imagine: I used to watch it as a kid, and there I was – in it! A great thing to work on. There were minimal special effects and funny creatures, it was all about the script… and I was working with two great actors: Timothy Bateson, and Iain Cuthbertson of course, who was just a joy to work with. We were a kind of double act. And the great Tom Baker, of course – who was quite as mad as he still is [Laughs]. But in a lovely way. And the beautiful Mary Tamm, who is sadly no longer with us. It was a great experience for me – a bit like playing Cowboys and Indians, but in your twenties.
I think we had about eight weeks on it, in rehearsal and in the studio. It was a great experience, and I can’t say how much I enjoyed it. And of course, that was shot out of sequence, too… because Tom had an incident…
Yes! Was he bitten by a dog?
Yes, he was. He remembers it totally differently to me, but I was there! We used to rehearse at the “Acton Hilton” rehearsal rooms, and next door there was a pub – it’s actually still there, I looked the other day. And occasionally we’d go there for lunch, just for a bit of variety from the BBC canteen. On this occasion, Paul Seed – who was playing the Graff Vynda-K – had taken his dog. He brought his dog in every day, and kept it in the car while we were rehearsing… under the shelter, so it wasn’t ever going to get hot. And then he brought the dog into the pub at lunchtime.
And at some point, we were joined by Tom. Now Paul had said to us: “Whatever you do, don’t say hello to the dog. He doesn’t like it.”
So OK… none of us said hello to the dog. And he told this to Tom too, when Tom came to join us. And Tom, being a bit of a devil, said “Helloooooo…”
And the dog went “Grrrrr….”
And everybody laughed a bit, so he got a bit closer. “Hellloooooo…”
And the dog went “Grrrrr…” again…
And then on the third “Helloooooo” the dog jumped up and bit him on the lip! So Tom had this chunk taken out of his lip, it was pouring blood, and he wasn’t able to regenerate. [Laughs]. I remember taking him to the Middlesex Hospital, which was nearby in Park Royal… so I ended up standing in A&E with Doctor Who, pouring blood! You couldn’t mistake him. That was a very strange experience.
But the problem was, we’d shot it all out of sequence. So this mark on his lip appears and disappears throughout the whole thing. You can tell which scenes we shot first, because he’s intact! Whereas in later scenes… he has this mark on his lip which I think, with the make-up, was becoming infected. [Laughs]. I felt very sorry for him, and they tried to shoot everything from one side…
Yes, I think there’s a lot of Tom’s right-hand side in that story!
If you watch it, you’ll see that – yes! He’ll tell you a different story, of course… but that’s as I remember it.
Nigel, thanks so much for your time: it’s been lovely.
An absolute pleasure… thankyou! I’ve enjoyed it.
Series 1 of Monty & Co is available on the BBC iplayer here:
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