As part of our Mongrels Takeover week in November 2011, TVO talked to some of the team behind the award-winning cult smash.
TVO managed to bag an interview is with the gifted puppeteer Warrick Brownlow-Pike, who performs Marion’s physical form in the show, as well as a number of extra characters. A regular on CBBC, who has recently been working with Elmo, no less – he told us all about the new run, and his life as a jobbing puppeteer below!
Hi Warrick, welcome to The Velvet Onion! Now, what’s new for Series Two?
Me! I was in the first episode and second episodes once or twice! We’ve got 54 puppets this time around, with some new ones – a badger Doctor, two beagles, a goldfish. The main characters have all been rebuilt too – these are all new puppets. The sets have all changed too – we now have a sky, and houses behind. It looks amazing now.
This is the thing. When we shoot it, it’s out of sequence. Obviously, you keep reading the scripts, but you soon forget the storylines, because you’ve got eight episodes to film, and each one has two of three storylines. It’s hard to keep hold of it all – you just deal with individual scenes.
One thing I can say is that there’s a Hangover spoof coming up. Marion wakes up one morning and finds he has a wife… which is really funny.
How did you get involved with the show?
I was doing Ed & Oucho [7am daily on BBC2 fact-fans!] for CBBC, which involves a puppet cactus, and I was getting guest puppeteers to come in and be Oucho’s family members. Andy Heath, who performs Nelson, came in and performed Viva Voom, who was a Gok Wan style guest catcus, getting Oucho ready for his marriage…
Andy liked what I was doing with Oucho, because it’s quite a flat faced character and he was impressed with how much emoting I was getting out of it, so he gave me a dvd of the pilot episode of Mongrels, and said: “Watch this, you’ll love this.” I went home and watched it five times in a row, and knew I just had to be on it. I knew I would give up anything – I just had to be on the show.
I went in and auditioned with various puppets. At that point, Marion wasn’t finished, and had no ears so he looked like a gopher! I auditioned with the old Destiny puppet from the pilot, singing “Do You Know The Way To San Jose” by Dionne Warrick, and smashed it. I really wanted to be Destiny, but now I’m really thankfull I’ve got Marion, because everyone really likes him!
You usually voice your own puppets… is it strange to have one less job to do here?
I did think at first that we should do the voices, because I’d never done anything at that point where I hadn’t been the voice of my character. Now, actually, I’m quite glad, because Dan Tetsell is brilliant. He’s made that character really fantastic.
Dan and Adam [Miller, director/creator] spend an awful lot of time perfecting what Marion says, and how he says it, so I don’t have to worry about that at all. When I get in, we can perfect the movement and the lip-synch, and the character, I guess… it’s a marriage of talents.
It also looks like a really difficult show to make. Now the team know what everyone is capable of, have you all upped the ante this year?
I suppose so. There was a shot in the zombie episode where Nelson was stood by the road. It was a wide shot and all you could see was road, pavement, wall and Nelson stood there, and Andy had to wear a green-screen suit to film that, even though it was literally a few seconds long. There was no real need to do that, but they like to do it because it looks amazing, and brings Nelson to life. For that split second, he’s really REAL.
I wouldn’t change it. The only reason it’s difficult is because we make it difficult, but only because we’re all striving to make it the best it can possibly be. Which might mean your head is in someone’s crotch to get the shot, but a good puppeteer will do that – then moan about it all day long!
You do get to work with the guest stars of course. Have you any particular favourites?
Zoe Ball. She came to Childrens BBC, and recognised me of all people. Which was weird, because pupeteers are never really on tv. She didn’t realise where she recognised me from, but Toby Anstis was with her, who was in series one, so I went to greet him and ask if he enjoyed the show, and Zoe just went: “Ah, that’s it! I saw you in the Mongrels documentary!”
From that one minute and thirty seconds I was on tv, Zoe Ball recognised me! She’s a massive Mongrels fan, so I said I’d get her in the next series, hoping I could – and now there’s an episode based around her!
A similar thing happened with Russell Tovey, actually. They were filming Him & Her next door to us, and it was really hot. Every chance we got, everyone would go outside just to get away from the heat… and they would all come out too. So, softly softly, I planted the seed that he should be in our show – and there he was! Really close to the end, he came in and did that little bit. I was really glad Marion was in it, cos I’m a fan of Being Human…
A bit of an obvious question, perhaps, but how did you get into puppeteering?
From the age of about one or two, The Muppet Show was on repeats on BBC1, and it was a ritual growing up – I’d sit in my little deck chair, with my cup of tea and watch The Muppets. I’d record them, and watch the tape until it wore out. I’ve been totally obsessed since then.
I was always talking about and playing with puppets growing up, so I decided if I had that much energy for puppets, I might as well look for jobs. Somehow, I found out about the CBBC audition for Space Pirates, and got a job as an assistant on that. Dave Chapman, who is a British puppeteer, was working on that, and I’d spoken to him when I was a kid, cos he did Otis The Aardvark in the 90s. He put me up for the Oucho job, and it’s gone on from there.
You’ve been working with Elmo, too, recently…
Yeah, for the last two years, I’ve been an assistant for Elmo when he’s in the UK. That’s on Milkshake – Channel Five’s live kids hour. I adore The Muppet Show – that’s the reason I’m doing this… and Fraggle Rock, which I think is the best children’s show in the world, ever. It’s good to be part of the Elmo stuff. If I could have a job where I was performing all the time, it would be on Seseme Street.
Do you think people will look back on Dodge, Oucho etc in the same way adults today look back at Ed the Duck or Otis the Aardvark?
I hope so. I’ve already started to see that with Oucho. He’s not really on much anymore, but older kids remember him. I get the odd tweet from time to time asking if he can be brought back… so it might happen from there.
As a big Henson fan, I have to ask: The Dark Cystal, or Labyrinth.
I had this debate the other day with Chris [Johnson, presenter on CBBC]… I said it would be The Dark Crystal for the art of it, but Labyrinth for the entertainment, which I think is a fair answer. You can’t watch The Dark Crystal a million times, because you’d get bored, but watch it for the puppeteering, and it’s amazing.
The puppet industry seemed to be in decline in recent years. Do you think Mongrels is part of a resurgence?
I think now, there will be a massive increase in puppet stuff, especially with The Muppet Movie out soon, which is just going to blow everything out of the water. And Mongrels is such a high end product. There’s loads of money spent on it, and even if you don’t think it’s funny, you can’t say it doesn’t look good. Loads of people have said to me they think its the best puppet show since The Muppet Show, and I wouldn’t disagree.
The problem is that there isn’t a lot of money in tv. There’s more in adult tv than there is in kids tv at the moment, and puppets are more likely to be in the latter. It’s the same battle that Jim Henson had for all those years – he wanted The Muppet Show to be an adult show, and now it’s just seen as a kids programme.
You’re working with the cream of the industry over here, too…
They’re all brilliant puppeteers. Andy Heath and Iestyn Evans are incredible, and Richard Coombes, who has done just about everything you can ever imagine. He was the Honey Monster, and he was CITV’s Scally the Dog… and there’s Sue Beatie, who’s done Moppatop’s Shop and things like that. And when we get extra puppeteers in, they’ve all done loads of stuff too…
We had Mak Wilson in, who was part of Hoggle in Labyrinth – he helped operate Hoggle’s face… and he was in The Dark Crystal as a mystic too.
Do you get starstruck for puppeteers?
I love it! They all roll their eyes at me, cos I’m the biggest puppet fan going! It’s a dream come true for me, cos I’m the youngest one, I think, and I’ve been watching them for years. It’s amazing to be amongst those people. I showed Mongrels to the Seseme Street people, when I went over there last year, and they couldn’t get enough of it. They absolutely loved it. They’ve got nothing like that over there. They loved the fact that it looked expensive, the puppets were amazing and they weren’t JUST swearing. I met Frank Oz, once, and just went crazy… he’s incredible.
Would you be up for a Mongrels live tour?
Yes! Yes, yes, yes. I wanna be in the body suit of Marion. When I play him, I imagine it’s one of those big fat Disney characters. If you look at him next time, you’ll see his belly shake with his arms really stiff. I think the Mongrels could do it!
What’s next for you?
I’m doing the CBBC stuff with Dodge for the forseeable future. I’ve got some things that I can’t talk about… which is a shame. I’ve got something really exciting coming up, that I wish I could talk about, cos it’s amazing… but you’ll see it soon enough!
Ultimately, why are you a puppeteer?
I purely do it, because I love to see these weird things living. That’s the best way to develop a character I think… turn the camera on, and wait and see what the puppet does, in it’s own time.
Finally, as you’re a huge fan of puppets in general – what would you make of Mongrels as a viewer?
I’d be the biggest fan of this show. I’m glad I’m part of it, because otherwise I’d be really obsessed.
The zombie episode was amazing. That was like a movie, to me. We should do a Mongrels movie. I’d love to do it!
Warrick Brownlow-Pike: thank you!