Zippy and Me

Ronnie Le Drew (with Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi)


I once met Zippy - sort of, anyway. It was about 1987 or 1988 and Rainbow was touring theatres with their Rainbow Roadshow, a kind of simple pantomime for the young kids who were their normal audience on the telly. As wacky students, we thought it would be highly amusing to attend when it came to Manchester. We did things properly: we booked a box for the three of us, dressed up in black tie for the occasion and had a couple of drinks in the theatre bar before the afternoon performance.

We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, participating noisily during the sections that invited it - enough at one stage to warrant Geoffrey to ask the audience something like "Where are the sweets, boys and girls?" and then immediately point to us and say "Not you!" I hope we were just enthusiastic and boisterous rather than boorish: we weren't trying to spoil the show, we genuinely loved Rainbow as we had been kids ourselves during its 70s heyday.

Naturally, after the show we raced straight round to the stage door to wait for our heroes to sign our programme. Of course Geoffrey Hayes recognised us and gave us a signature, although declined our offer of a pint later ("Sorry boys, had a bit of a late one last night"). Bungle also appeared, without his costume of course - probably Malcolm Lord, as far as I can tell. And then a man came out and signed for both Zippy and George, and we were very impressed that the same man did both. Of course, we didn't realise at the time that he only did the voices, and the puppets were operated separately by other people. Based on what the book says, this must have been Roy Skelton, who did the original Zippy voice for years and years.

So sadly, I can't say I met Ronnie Le Drew, who says he refused to have anything to do with the roadshow but otherwise is known for operating Zippy for decades, it turns out. What I can say is that we were ahead of our time, as Ronnie says in the book that it wasn't until almost a decade later that the Rainbow characters starting taking advantage of their retro popularity and appearing on adult shows and touring universities and the like.

A puppeteer, however well-known in the industry he may be - and Ronnie Le Drew is obviously one of the legends - is always going to be pretty anonymous and I had never heard of him before I read this book. However, his autobiography is entertaining and engaging and worth a read. Operating puppets is clearly a vocation for him. It's never going to make you rich (well, unless your surname is Henson) and Le Drew has had his ups and downs like anyone, but he seems happy to have been able to make his passion his work too, and that comes across very well. He's self-effacing and amusing about his brushes with fame - getting star-struck  and tongue-tied when coming across David Bowie on the set of Labyrinth for example - and interesting enough for me to want to know about his life.

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