Last week Emu, once the famous feathered sidekick of the late Rod Hull, sold for nearly £10,000 at an auction. A perfect excuse for ATV Today to take a look at some of our favourite TV puppets.

Emu with Rod Hull in the mid-1980s on Central Television’s Pink Windmill Show.

Emu made his television debut over on Australian Television before heading to the UK with actor Rod Hull in the early 1970s. The temperamental puppet became notorious on the chat show circuit for attacking the interviewee with Russell Harty, Larry Grayson and, famously, Michael Parkinson all being goosed by the stroppy bird.

Despite his violent streak Emu would become a regular on UK television. His peak in the 80s and 90s when he was the star of his own children’s programmes for both the BBC and ITV. Last week the puppet pulled in £9,000 – well over the £1,000 expected figure – when puppeteer Phil Fletcher placed the winning bid on the famous bird. Phil, best known as the man behind CBBC’s Hacker ‘T Dog, has added Emu to a collection of former television puppet personalities including pink hippo George from Thames Television’s Rainbow, Orville the duck who was the companion of the late Keith Harris and naughty duo of bear Sooty and dog Sweep from Thames Television’s Sooty Show which starred Matthew Corbett.

The Emu puppet sold was created for an Emu revival series – without Rod Hull who died in 1999 – in the early 2000s and cost £10,000 to make. While Emu now will rest easy, and be hopefully a little less violent, at Phil’s Wigan home, ATV Today takes look at some of UK television’s other famous puppet personalities.

On children’s TV Emu put his energies into battling the naughty witch Grotbags, rather than attack television personalities.

Tinga and Tucker

Two of the most popular puppet characters on British television ever have somewhat – mainly thanks to the majority of their programmes being wiped and therefore unrepeated – become forgotten puppet stars. Aussies Tingha and Tucker, the Koalas, had the biggest fan club at one point for any children’s programme – in fact, it grew so large production company ATV Midlands had to close the club to new members.

The series became the first programme to have a television theme written for it by future Emmerdale theme tune composer Tony Hatch. The song was called Over the Rickety Bridge. Tingha and Tucker was a mix of studio and location footage bringing to young viewers illustrated stories, competitions, a pet corner and the adventures of the duo as they visited various places such as Dudley Zoo, Blackpool beach and London for a ride on a Bus. The popularity of the series saw a more religious Sunday version launched.

The show was presented for the majority of episodes by ‘Aunty’ Jean Morton with other co-hosts including ATV continuity announcer Pat Astley.

Tinga and Tucker had the biggest fan club for a children’s series in the 1960s.

Sooty and Sweep

Naughty yellow and black bear Soooty first appeared with Harry Corbett on television in 1952. The puppet had been purchased from a stall on Blackpool’s North Pier for Harry’s son Matthew – who in the 80s and 90s would also appear on television alongside the bear. Sooty is one of the longest-running television programmes for children having regularly been on-screen since the 1950s on both the BBC and ITV.

Matthew Corbett retired in 1998 bequeathing Sooty to his co-star Richard Cadell (Pictured below). Over the years other puppets were added to The Sooty Show including naughty dog Sweep in 1957 and later sensible female panda Soo in 1964. Sooty and Sweep do not speak; although Sooty can whisper to his human co-star to communicate. Soo is the only puppet to speak humanly.

Over the years the Sooty Show has had several name adaptions and location changes. From the action set in a family home, to a hotel, a shop and most recently a holiday camp.

Richard Cadell now owns the rights and puppets, carrying on the Sooty experience into the 2010’s.

Orville The Duck

He wished he could fly, right up to the sky, but he couldn’t. It didn’t stop him reaching the dizzy heights of television ratings though in the 70s and 80s. The late Keith Harris unleashed Orville – a green duck wearing a nappy on theatre audiences in the 1970s – notably co-starring with Larry Grayson and Noele Gordon at the London Palladium in 1974’s Grayson’s Scandal’s variety show. He would make numerous television guest appearances across the 1970s.

It was however 1982 when the BBC gave Keith, and Orville, a prime-time entertainment series that would run into the 1990s. There would also be forays into children’s television across the 80s and 90s too. As well as the duck Keith introduced the naughty Cuddles the Monkey. The popularity of the prime time series saw Harris and Orville release the single Orville’s Song, reaching number 4 in the UK Singles Chart in January 1983 and selling over 400,000 copies. The duo performed the song on Top of the Pops at the peak of its popularity.

Orville the Duck and the late Keith Harris.

The Muppets

Jim Henson brought his Muppet creations to the UK for their first TV series in 1976 after all the American networks refused to back his idea. Produced by ATV London at their Elstree Studios the series became a massive hit for the ITV network running until 1981. After that, the Muppets hit the big screen with several movies and occasional television series.

Lead by Kermit the Frog, the original show saw the Muppet characters putting on a weekly theatre variety show with a star celebrity guest. The programme mixed the theatre performances with the backroom dramas. Everyone from Elton John, Roger Moore and Julie Andrews graced the Muppet Theatre to take part in songs and sketches. Memorable co-stars included lusty pig Miss Piggy, terrible comedian Fozzie Bear and disastrous magician The Great Gonzo – the ambiguity of his species is something the series never addressed.

After their UK stint stateside shows in the 90s and 00s involved the muppets running a television station and a cartoon version for young children in The Muppet Babies. In 2015 The Muppets returned to TV once more for the ABC/Sky One self-titled series which was a mockumentary style format following the on-screen and behind the scenes events of Miss Piggy’s chat show. Despite its similarity to the ATV series of the 70s it failed to last more than one season.

The ATV era Muppet Show of 1976-81.

Thunderbirds

The Thunderbirds characters were just one of many created by husband and wife team Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. Others included Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet. Thunderbirds – their most famous creation we suspect -followed the adventures of ‘International Rescue’ operated by the Tracy family on Tracy Island. The most famous characters from the series, however, were agent Lady Penelope and her right-hand-man Parker.

The original ITV run was produced by AP Films/ATV from 1965 to 1966. In total two series were made with 32 hour-long episodes created. Two feature-length film sequels to ThunderbirdsThunderbirds Are Go and Thunderbird 6 – were released in 1966 and 1968. A less successful Japanese anime series entitled Thunderbirds 2086 was produced in 1982. CITV revived the series in 2015.

Thunderbirds are Go! in the sixties.

Basil Brush

Boom Boom! The catchphrase of the suave fox who burst onto television screens in 1962. Originally voiced by the late Ivan Owen the character has been part of various ITV and BBC productions over the years, including several of his own series.

Basil’s ‘ding dong’ attitude is based on the actor Leslie Phillips; as is the fox’s voice. The puppet has had a number of human sidekicks over the years including magician David Nixon and actors Rodney Bewes and Derek Fowlds. He later became a co-host on long-running BBC children’s series Crackerjack and in more recent years has been the host of a revived CBBC Swap Shop series.

Earlier this year Basil was back on BBC prime time with a regular slot on the relaunched Mel and Sue fronted Generation Game. Since Ivan Owen’s death in 2000 the voice of Basil has been provided by Michael Winston.

Basil Brush had a weekly slot on the 2018 series of The Generation Game.

Continuity Puppets

There’s been many, many puppets used across the ITV regions and networked Children’s BBC and Children’s ITV links over the years. So many we can’t really single out one; but we’ll mention some of the ones that stand out in many viewers memories including Gus Honeybun from Westward Television, CBBC’s Gordon ‘T Gopher, Edd the Duck , Hacker ‘T Dog and Otis the Aardvark as well as Oscar Puffin – the longest-serving regional puppet who is still the mascot of ITV Channel in Jersey.

Gordon ‘T Gopher proved so popular he was given his own spin-off sitcom for CBBC and was also a weekly co-star on Saturday morning magazine series Going Live! That nicely brings us into other Saturday magazine show puppets including Crow on BBC One’s Saturday Superstore, Knobby The Sheep on Tyne Tees’ Gimme Five! and strange lifeform Gilbert the Alien from Get Fresh also from Tyne Tees for ITV. There was also the digitally produced cat Ratz and Irish leprechauns Mr Sage and Mr Onion on CBBC’s Live and Kicking.

Some of the CBBC puppets celebrate the 30th anniversary of Children’s BBC in 2015.

Spit the Dog

A dog that went from chaos on Saturday mornings to teary reunions on Sunday evenings.

Spit, the flem spewing mutt was just one of three puppets Carolgees used in his stand-up act – the lesser remembered Charlie the Monkey and Cough the Cat were also part of his routine with all making their way, in 1979, onto ATV children’s series Tiswas. Having impressed bosses at ITV and Tiswas host Chris Tarrant Bob became a regular on the live Saturday morning series and its saucier late night grown up version OTT.

From the anarchy of ATV’s Tiswas Bob and Spit moved to London weekends where he became one of the co-hosts of Cilla Black’s Surprise Surprise series. The show was a mix of music, “Cilla Grams”, making dreams come true and family reunions. Bob’s role on the LWT production was to help Cilla surprise unsuspecting viewers mostly out on location.

Bob and the puppet would also appear on several other series while also making a return to Tiswas for its one-off revival a decade with Tiswas Reunited on ITV.

Bob Carolgees with Spit the Dog on Tiswas Reunited for ITV.

BBC Watch With Mother & ITV Lunchtimes

In the fifties and sixties the BBC offered Watch With Mother a daily children’s strand with different programmes. Popular puppets featured included Muffin the Mule – who later caused controversy when he was lured to ATV from the BBC, Andy Pandy, The Woodentops and Bill and Ben The Flowerpot Men.

Such was the enduring affection for the latter Bill and Ben were revived for new audiences in 2001 for CBBC.

For years ITV also offered a brief lunchtime offering of puppet characters including the gang of Rainbow including alien Zippy, pink hippo George and nudist bear Bungle. Their human Geoffery Hughes attempted to keep them in order for nearly twenty years. There was also the adventures of Mr Spoon on Button Moon and even when the slot was moved to join the main late afternoon CITV schedules puppets continued with ragdolls Rosie and Jim and the various magical characters of Wizadora.

Jim Henson also brought puppets back to Children’s ITV screens twice in the 80s and 90s. First with Fraggle Rock via TVS and later The Ghost of Faffner Hall with Tyne Tees TV.

A well behaved Emu with Barbara Windsor and Rod Hull on EMU TV in 1989.
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