By The Landlord
"I want my own show. You should be under a desk. Jim Henson knew his place." - Monkey, to ventriloquist Nina Conti
“I hate puppets so much.” – Trey Parker, creator of South Park
They are the comical, often cute, but also sometimes grotesque, cartoonish figures who seem to be able to get away with saying the words and expressing the views their creators don't want to say directly. And currently there are more strings being pulled, often in a terrible tangle, and manipulative hands up backsides in public life then ever before. In fact it is hard to tell puppets from real people.
But who is indeed pulling the strings? In the UK this week, there's a new prime minister, through via a big kink in the system, chosen not by the voting electorate, but by a small elite of self-interested Conservative party members, under 100,000 of them, supposedly to represent the interests of 66 million people.
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, a huffing puffing buffoon of self-interested ambition, keen intellect, racist elitism, utter indolence and double-crossing incompetence, a man who believes in nothing but himself, supporter of Brexit just by the toss of coin and as vehicle into power. He is apparently popular and a great man for the job simply because his counterpart across the pond says he's "Britain Trump". And the president, whose ignorance knows no bounds, reckons Nigel Farage should be the next American ambassador. Such a dizzying hall of mirrors of narcissism, a disaster of distorted truth and self-aggrandising branding. It would be hilarious if it wasn't real. If only they were all puppets who could be put down and thrown into a suitcase, never to speak or see the light of day again.
But whose hand is up whose arse in this omnishambles shit-show.? Dominic Cummings, appointed chief adviser to Johnson, now rewarded for running a corrupt, law-breaking Brexit campaign, deceiving the nation, the man found in contempt of parliament for refusing to appear and answer questions about it in front of MPs? Vladimir Putin? The ball is certainly in his hands. The big beasts of business, especially fossil fuels? Of course. And most likely of all, Steve Bannon, architect of the Trump project, the man who dreams of and plots a purely white America, and probably the world.
But this week our topic is about puppets and puppetry in all forms, not just in politics, but manipulation across any aspect of life, from relationships to work, or indeed just with puppets themselves, perhaps even performed by them, as a vehicle for enlightenment entertainment and narrative.
Puppetry has always been around since children created dolls from sticks and rags. Western culture for centuries has had fun with the Punch and Judy show of featuring brutal tale of wife-beating, revenge and and casual violence. It was always the voices that disturbed me most. Or is it just unsophisticated fun? Hit ‘im!
Although a more sophisticated and often rather beautiful form is shadow puppetry, as this film about the Chinese tradition explains:
Shadow play, just using hands, is the most basic form, and could be another source of real or metaphorical inspiration in song. By contrast to Punch and Judy, shadow puppetry is often rather delicate and accompanied by beautiful music. Here’s an example, telling the The Legend of Urashima Taro, taken from a 1902 source of mythological Japanese tales, here performed by Anthony Hosein and Stacey Loewen:
But many of our childhoods will have been shaped by puppeteers of the small screen, from the gentle pace and pedagogical Sesame Street to the wonderful work of Jim Henson’s The Muppets. There are so many songs from this long-running show, but here’s a more recent theme sample:
Prior to Jim Henson’s creation, of the most skilful of American mainstream artists was Shari Lewis with her ventriloquist act with Lamb Chop. The name seems a little insensitive, in retrospect (imagine calling one with a hound Dog’s Liver) but the cuteness of the puppet, and the charm of Lewis, a proper New Yorker, is undeniable:
Meanwhile in the UK, among many, children were brought up on characters of varying range and communicative skills such as Keith Harris and Orville (any song by him is banned here, I’m just saying that right now), Nookie the Bear, Spit the Dog and later Roland Rat, who latter helped saved an entire TV network. But before them, Basil Brush (Boom! Boom!) and most of all, the whistling Sooty and friends.
Rod Hull’s Emu meanwhile offered a brilliantly anarchic vehicle of menace, allowing his creator to attack anyone he liked without remorse, without appearing to have any control over the evil bird. He famously ran riot on the Parkinson Show in the 1970s, but with even greater skill he also completely gave Johnny Carson a going over:
A ventriloquist, says Angela Carter, in Wayward Girls and Wicked Women, ‘is the intermediary between us, his audience, the living, and they, the dolls, the undead, who cannot live at all and yet who mimic the living in every detail since, though they cannot speak or weep, still they project those signals of signification we instantly recognise as language.” But to express this in a more earthy way, the work of British performer Nina Conti with Monkey is indeed the work of a wickedly funny woman. Their dialogue seems so natural, as if she is genuinely surprised at what Monkey says, often outrageously clever and filthy. She also has a show in which she works inside a life-size monkey costume, and you can only imagine the jokes that generates. This clip with the smaller version is considerably cleaner than most of the material Monkey often expresses.
As Conti says: “My puppets are far more liberated than I am. Ventriloquism is a useful way of expressing myself. The way I talk to the puppets is real, and it's in the moment, and it's seeing what will happen. It's not something that is scripted.”
Puppetry is a fantastic form of TV satire. For this, the greatest and most cutting is perhaps Spitting Image, created by Peter Fluck, Roger Law and Martin Lambie-Nairn, caustically cut through the crap of all figures in public life in the 1980s and 90s. It has had a less successful revival, but surely today’s political figures are still more puppet- and parody-like than any of those.
More inspiration, in the world of film? There’s always the lonely goatherd in The Sound of Music, but more relevantly there is Being John Malkovich, a fiendishly clever parody of the entire puppetry and identity them directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman, making their feature film debuts. In this bizarre narrative, characters enter, through a portal, inside the mind and body of the actor, playing an extra absurd version of himself. In turn he is manipulated by his lover played by Catherine Keener, who also plays with the emotions of admirer and amateur puppeteer Craig played, by John Cusack. in this sequence Malkovich steals Craig’s idea and finds a new career:
But perhaps the greatest, and most disturbing of all puppeteers in film, in this case ventriloquist, is the narrative within narrative of 1945's Dead of Night, a fabulous set of tales within tales, in which Michael Redgrave is brilliant as the man, Maxwell whose personality is so entwined with his own, dummy, Hugo, he goes mad, attacks a rival performer, then is taunted by Hugo in his own cell. It doesn’t end well …
So who is pulling the strings? Who is the master of puppets with the playlists. from your nominations? Picking out every move is the skilfully playful pejepeine! Put your song suggestions in comments for deadline this Monday at 11pm UK time, for playlists published on Wednesday. Who said that? It wasn’t me, it was him …
New to comment? It is quick and easy. You just need to login to Disqus once. All is explained i in About/FAQs ...
Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address. Also please follow us social media: Song Bar Twitter, Song Bar Facebook. Song Bar YouTube. Subscribe, follow and share.