Transmission: 06/05/1993 - 08/07/1993
The Pig Attraction aired in 1993 on ITV during the CITV slot and is a difficult beast to define. Its main subject matter wasn't the lesser explored world of romance between man and pig, but, thankfully, puppets. The show centered upon the art of puppetry through a number of different sections. Billie the Pig fronted the show where he mostly interviewed TV puppets from the past. Billie was also involved in the backstage sections which recalled the chaotic nature of The Muppet Show. Billie was backed up by the puppeteer Simon Buckley - with a ridiculously long list of puppet credits - who would take to the road to visit puppet theaters and discuss their craft.
Featured puppets included: Nobby the Sheep, Earl E Bird, Nobby the Sheep, Roland Rat, the Pipkins gang (Hartley Hare eventually joined the show causing various trouble backstage). Peter Baldwin aka Derek Wilton from Coronation Street was one puppeteer featured talking about his love of Victorian puppet shows. Yes, this really did happen. Pinky and Perky also made their first regular appearance on television in decades by appearing each week where they would belt out a pop song with their helium vocals. A CD, vinyl, cassette tape and VHS of their performances wa released. For one reason or another... I didn't purchase these...
There was only one series produced by HTV consisting of ten episodes and no repeats ever aired. It was the epitome of a curious show and a brave move by ITV to aim something so niche at children. Another series would have been welcomed by myself, but I can't recall a huge buzz in the playground about the show. Other contemporary documentary programmes such as How 2 and It'll Never Work seemed to capture the interest of my sugar addled peers more.
An interesting note is that, perhaps more than anything, this show ignited my interest in TVs murky and alluring past. For the first time in my short life, I began to think back to TV shows that I could only remember fleeting fragments of. The Internet was still several years away from becoming a mainstream utility, so The Pig Attraction was a rare resource on the history of Children's TV.
Until a few years ago, there was no footage of the show online. Luckily, I had recorded an episode back in the day and uploaded it to YouTube in 2009. This allows you to relive the show in it's whole glory and see that the show is actually very well put together. A show featuring 'arranged' chaos suffers the potential to fall on it's face, but the more sober documentary sections manage to balance this. The episode can be found here - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJTQRY_t42E
I recently contacted Simon Buckley to see if he would be willing to answer a few questions about the show and he kindly accepted - Curious British Telly's first interview!
CBT: Hello, Simon! Many thanks for taking part in this interview for Curious British Telly. So, how the devil are you?
Simon: Hi, I’m well thanks - just been discussing the logistics for another batch of Churchill Insurance commercials which is one of my current on-going projects.
A quick glance at your website reveals that you've had a long career in the puppetry game and worked with some iconic British puppets. How exactly did your career start? Was it performing sock puppetry for family members or something more intriguing?
Haha! Not socks but gloves! Well, glove puppets. It all began with the gift of Sooty and Sweep glove puppets from my grandparents when I was about four, but things really got going when (after a nicely worded letter to Santa!) I got a string puppet wizard for Christmas at the age of eight. It was a ‘Pelham Puppet’ part of a large range of quite nicely made puppets that were sold in ‘posh’ toy shops in the 60’s and 70’s and I quickly saved up my pocket money to buy dozens of different characters over the following years. My parents and their friends patiently watched my latest ‘performance’ as I demonstrated each new puppet in some, probably tedious, show! I was asked by a girl in my class to do a show at her birthday party and so aged 9, and charging £1 my professional career began! In the year I turned 16 I did just over a hundred shows at birthday parties and the like, and was charging a bit more than £1!
I've always found The Pig Attraction very interesting as it was so varied and difficult to pigeonhole into one genre. It was part documentary, part chat show and part show within a show which kept it fresh - essential for keeping the attention of children. Could you tell us a bit more about the show's origins and how you came to be involved?
For six years I performed a character on Saturday morning ITV called Nobby the Sheep. Nobby’s first show was called Ghost Train and it toured around the country with a different episode each week being produced by a different TV region (we had lots of ITV companies in those days) In Bristol and Cardiff the shows were produced by HTV and HTV West where Peter Murphy was the producer. He had a passion for puppets and innovative TV and had produced the hugely successful Rolf’s Cartoon Club, in which the legendary Rolf-Tie-my-kangaroo-down-sport-Harris demonstrated the art of animation and cartooning in between clips of classic cartoons. Peter wanted to do something similar, but with puppets. About the same time, having met me through Nobby the Sheep, Peter engaged me to work a puppet pig for an environmental series with Bill Oddie called Ask Oddie, and so the idea evolved to make the format of the puppet series a chat show with Billie the Pig as it’s host and with my knowledge and experience at it’s heart.
On camera, you were visible as a presenter for The Pig Attraction and also hidden as one of the puppeteers. I believe that, off camera, you had a role as consultant for the show. What exactly did this entail?
The show’s format was developed entirely by Peter Murphy and Peter Curtis at HTV. But I believe it’s fair to say that about 90% of the content came from me. I was really keen to use this as a showcase for the vast range of puppetry styles and techniques many of which were not used on television and inspire children with this rich and wonderful artform. My exact title changed so many times, but basically I basically provided everything from many of the contacts with puppeteers and puppet companies, to an understanding of the subject in hand as well as the set dressing for the puppet workshop and devised the simple ‘make and do’ elements of the show. I had more pies to have fingers in than I actually had fingers!
Billie the Pig was the host of the show firing out wisecracks here and there as he tried to hold the show together. He's always reminded me of a porcine Bob Mills, but I wondered if you could explain the influences behind him.
Billie was more inspired by Ben Elton (as he was in the late 80’s) I think, than anyone else. Part Kermit - always stressing backstage about the acts that hadn’t turned up, and maybe part cheesy gameshow host, with his penchant for mock Versace glittery jackets!
How smoothly did the production of the show go? I know from experience of filming with humans that production can be a strenuos task. How does this differ when puppets are thrown into the mix?
Oh it all went a breeze darling and there were absolutely no hiccups or tantrums! Haha! There were a few, but not too many! It was great that most of the puppeteers were friends of mine so they were really keen to support me, but a few of them I didn’t know and their sole interest was to make their puppet appear to be the ‘best’ on the show. Particularly those who were not used to working as a team (as those of us who worked on say Spitting Image did) came with rather larger egos! The logistics for the set were tricky too, in the end it looked great but the variety of sizes of puppet and different operating methods did set a few unique challenges that you don’t face if you’re filming Eastenders! I also wore too many ‘hats’ in the show and so the filming days were some of the hardest I’ve experienced in my 27 years of TV.
Most episodes featured yourself travelling to meet various puppeteers and theatre groups to chat about the mechanics of puppetry. You always seemed genuinely enthused about discussing this art, so is it fair to say it was a dream job?
I was passionate about this show, and the show we started to make was a dream come true for me. It took a few turns that I didn’t really like (too many C list puppets plugging their own shows, rather than contributing anything really interesting or funny) and some of the original concept got lost, but even today people thank me for pieces that I filmed on the Puppet Barge or The Harlequin Puppet Theatre in North Wales (Britain’s First Permanent Puppet Theatre built in 1958) as they provide a really valuable and quite rare record of that kind of puppetry. I was also thrilled to get such a great series of interviews with Brian Henson, son of Jim, and I am sure that it was my genuine inside knowledge that enabled him to be very open with me and share so much with the audience, beyond what we had been told he would be prepared to do. Too often when someone interviews a puppeteer they ask the same overly simplistic questions like “do you get the strings tangled?”. Yaaaaaaawn!!! Thankfully the fact that I knew my subject helped to make up for the fact that I really wasn’t great on camera... I think I was more wooden than any of the puppets! And boy did I wear some shocking clothes.
There was only the one series of The Pig Attraction produced, but were plans for a second series ever mooted? Did the team feel as though they had accomplished everything they had set out to do or was there further ground to cover?
I can’t pretend the show was a massive hit with the viewers, who didn’t quite know what it was (going back to your earlier question really!). An Exec at the BBC said to me afterwards “I wish we’d made it, we would have refined the idea and got you a second series”. I think that’s true, but with ITV being more ratings conscious (because of the advertising) it was a case of if it’s not a clear hit, let’s ditch it and try something else. I did think there was more of the world of puppets to show, but we had almost exhausted the inter- puppet chat show format with Billie I think.
Finally, what are your fondest memories of working on the show?
Lots. I loved working with the beautiful Jan and Vlasta Dalibor, the elderly and original creators of Pinky and Perky - characters I had loved as a child. They were the most charming and delightful couple to work with. Filming at the Harlequin was a particular joy, as Eric Bramall the theatre’s founder had encouraged me so much as a teenage puppeteer, and it was great to be able to have him as a guest on my show, hopefully proving that his encouragement had paid off. But what was most striking was the way that the crew fell in love with so many puppet characters, or appreciated the skill involved in making and performing puppets. It was, and remains, the ability of these funny little characters to make us believe they’re alive- if only for a moment- that never ceases to make me smile.
Simon, it's been an absolute pleasure chatting to you and finding out a bit more about The Pig Attraction!
Further information on Simon and his work can be found on his website at www.simonbuckley.co.uk