Puppeteers of the Labyrinth

“Well my name’s on the film’s credits…….they can’t take that away from me” I cry, as I’m dragged away to the Home for Confused Puppeteers.

“I touched Jennifer Connelly whilst wearing rubber gloves….I did, I did!”  It was in a scene where she falls, down a hole, Alice in Wonderland fashion, and is helped by 30 or 40 hands which materialise form the sides of the pit and support her.  The hands convulse into various human-like faces and talk to her. Two of those hands were mine, and I still have them, attached to my arms, and they are available for hire.

More than that, I was just a few feet from David Bowie on several occasions as he waited to be called for his performance as King Jareth in Henson’s “Labyrinth”. Hard to know whether to strike up conversation in this situation, and if so, what to say.  On relating this dilemma to a friend awhile ago, he immediately suggested the entree “I liked that album Hunky Dory.  Have you done anything since? ”

I worked for seven weeks on the film which was back in 1985. At that time, it was unusual to be a puppeteer in England and not be employed on the film. That’s because it needed plenty of hands free to operate the background crowd scenes of Goblins. This was the time when CGI was in it’s infancy, and special effects were mostly still animated by human effort. (that’s called puppetry !). Green screen for film was just about achievable, and the sequence with the characters called Fireys was a case in point. Cutting-edge technology in those days.


I had hair in those days

I was full of admiration for the design of the characters and sets. This was done by Brian Froud, with whom I and Michael McCormick memorably shared a bottle of wine on the morning of my audition.. This happened when I went over from the audition room to the workshop ( the Creature Shop) where everything was constructed. McCormick’s work and attitude influenced me more than he knows.It was there I was introduced to a young sculptor and puppeteer from New Zealand called Ron Muick, who has gone on to become a world-renowned artist. I’m sure the beginnings of his technique of super-realistic skin texture can be traced to this time.

Ron Mueck’s “Big Boy”

This was a time of “what ifs”. There was possibility that Su could have been employed in the workshop while I worked on the performance side of things. There was the possibility of the short-term contracts being renewed almost indefinitely if I’d wished, and then on to other similar films. I think if we’d been living in London at the time that’s a direction we would have chosen, but it was all a bit too complicated. This was compounded by Su and me having just established a regular pitch on Broadstairs sands.  Now, compared with the world of film, this might not sound like much.  But we knew that the big bucks of the industry might be illusory and it was very important to us to have some control over our way of life, however small. I wasn’t particularly enamoured of the film world, at least not as a small cog in the machinery. I would need to be the director to feel satisfied, and my ambition didn’t stretch that far. The wasting of time waiting for a few minutes of action was painful, as was the waste of money in sets and puppets that ended up not being used.

The pivotal moment was when I was operating the left ear of the dog knight Sir Didymus. The movement was achieved by operating a joystick,  and the rotation of the stick matched that of the ear. More name-dropping now. As I was rehearsing this character with Dave Goeltz, Sergei Obratsov, the great Russian puppeteer and theatre director was being shown around the studio, and he watched a bit of our efforts.  Anyhow, after a bit of filming of this character, Brian Henson offered me the chance of continuing with this role for another six weeks. I took a moment to consider, knowing that the summer season was about to begin. So- six weeks operating an ear for lots of money, or six weeks operating an entire repertory company of characters live, with laughter and feedback, but hardly any money? I asked the advice of seasoned TV performer Francis Wright, who said “take the money and run”.  But I weighed the money against the freedom of the beach, and decided to be my own boss with my own show, trading in a joystick for the laugher of children and total control of a comedy puppet show in the open air.  So although on “Labyrinth” I was being paid as much in a day as I was likely to earn in a week busking, I left the film set, and with my partner Su Eaton headed for the seaside. Foolish? What if…..?

It turned out to be a wet summer, but we did shows when we could, and we both love the excitement of live performance in the open air. In September I was offered another few days on the film, and fit and tanned I bounced into the studio, to find the bulk of the puppeteers to be slumped , world-weary in their chairs. This, together with the often-heard declaration from the TV career puppeteers that “one day I’ll do a show of my own”, I knew I’d made a reasonable decision .

Labyrinth continues to have something of a cult following, and I was amazed by the response a few years back when I offered my threadbare sweatshirt with the Labyrinth logo on Ebay.  It sold for £125 to a collector in the USA. Blimey! I guess I ought to treat the movie poster with more respect. I have one signed by Jim Henson which say “Thank you Martin.” It’s been rolled up in a tube in my shed for 25 years…………  Being a tiny part of the film was great experience with plenty of happy memories.  Thank you Jim!

 Jim and Jennifer

Here’s some backstage photos I turned up the other day.  Time for the world to share!


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