Zippy and Me: Puppeteer on his rise from The Little Angel Theatre to Rainbow and working with David Bowie
PUBLISHED: 10:28 26 July 2019 | UPDATED: 10:28 26 July 2019
The man behind – or rather inside – Zippy from Rainbow launched his autobiography last night at the Islington theatre that gave him his big break.
Ronnie Le Drew was back at the Little Angel Theatre in Dagmar Passage, off Upper Street, to discuss Zippy and Me. The tell all book covers his career on the hit TV show as well as his work with David Bowie on Jim Henson's cult film Labyrinth.
Ronnie got his break as an apprentice at the theatre aged 15 in 1963, two years after it opened.
"I was 15 and living in south London and I was fascinated with puppeteers," said Ronnie. "I loved Sooty and Sweep after seeing it on a flickering black and white TV and I loved Gerry Anderson's work.
"I discovered The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild, which was the oldest one in the world, and I went and saw puppeteers chatting away and showing off their puppets. That's where I heard about the Little Angel Theatre."
After visiting the theatre to watch its early show of The Little Mermaid, Ronnie realised that was where he wanted to be.
"I wrote to the founder John Wright and asked if he had apprentices. He told me to go along and have a chat.
"I started out sweeping the auditorium, serving coffee and showing people to their seats and I absolutely adored it."
The theatre didn't take off immediately. Upper Street was not as well known then as it is now in the theatre world. There was no King's Head and no Almeida, with Sadler's Wells the only other arts venue at the time.
"We started trying to get an audience, the six of us who worked there," continued Ronnie. "But we were tucked away. Taxi drivers didn't know where it was and we didn't have Time Out or the internet.
"We used to print our own brochures and post them ourselves in the posh squares, hoping families had money to come along."
After a few years Ronnie left to work with The Hogarth Puppets - creators of Muffin the Mule -before returning for a second spell. Then his life changed.
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"In 1973 I got a phone call from a friend Ian Allen who was working on Rainbow, which had started in 72. He was Zippy but he was leaving to do his own show Button Moon, and so I took over and stayed for 20 odd years.
"Rainbow was three days a week and at the weekends I'd go and perform at the Little Angel Theatre. I loved it.
"I had a great time on Rainbow and we all became great friends. It was like a family."
The team would often entertain the cameramen who were perhaps not as enthused about working on a children's show as they were working on The Morecambe and Wise Show and primetime dramas over in Studio 1 at ITV.
"The tabloids have gone a bit over the top with this but for example if Zippy and George were in bed together, during rehearsals Zipppy might lean over and give him a cuddle, or a bit more than a cuddle. It was just to make the cameramen laugh."
Presenter Geoffrey Hayes died in September, and Ronnie last saw him about three years ago at a reunion.
"He was exactly the same off screen as on it," he said. "He was a quiet person and a brilliant character actor. It's a shame he didn't go on and do more after Rainbow but I think he was just so recognisable."
Ronnie has also worked on Jim Henson's Muppets Christmas Carol, his childhood favourite show Sooty and other big hits during his career. But the one he's most proud of is perhaps Labyrinth.
"I was working with Jim Henson for the first time as an 'extra puppeteer'. He was a total genius. And then there was David Bowie. We didn't have much time talking to him as he was in almost every scene. But there was one time when all the extras were taking pictures on Jareth's throne on set. We were all standing talking and who should walk in but David Bowie.
"He just walked over to us and said: 'Hello how are you?'. I turned around and couldn't even speak. He was so lovely, he just chatted away, he was just wonderful."
Ronnie has always remained a part of the Little Angel Theatre, and is now on the board.
"I'm not in all the shows these days, and the money for the arts is hard to find now. But I am in a show this autumn called The Dong With a Luminous Nose, based on an Edward Lear poem."
Zippy and Me is available now. For more information about the theatre visit littleangeltheatre.com.
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