Scott Brooker has created pantomime cows, an ogre and a dragon. Now he’s back with a 9ft gorilla. He talks to Nick Smurthwaite about cutting his teeth on Spitting Image and the importance of collaboration
Not many jobs involve making pantomime creatures in an attic, but for freelance puppet and model maker Scott Brooker it’s all in a day’s work. Brooker, whose workshop is indeed in his attic, is the go-to designer for pantomime cows, geese, pigs, assorted monsters and, for Hackney Empire’s Dick Whittington this year, Kong the Gorilla.
The mighty 9ft creature, which he made with costume designer Maggie Haden, is in attendance during our interview, along with its operator, Leon Sweeney, who has been working with Brooker on a whole menagerie of animatronic creatures for 12 years.
Despite its size, Kong has a cartoony face that is unlikely to scare younger children in the audience. “We’re not trying to make him realistic or scary,” says Brooker. “All my creatures have to blend in with the look and design of the show.”
He continues: “Once the puppet is built, I have to fine-tune it so that Leon is comfortable operating it. He needs to be able to dive into the costume and find everything quickly and easily. Then he can make the movements look slick on stage. Operating and animating these big puppets is a completely different language and skill set. Leon makes us look good by making them come alive.”
In the case of Kong, Brooker has designed custom 18in stilts to enable Sweeney the extra height needed to jump and move around the stage quickly.
“When you’re inside the costume you can see what’s around you but you can’t see straight in front of you,” says Sweeney, adding that he knows the stage of Hackney Empire so well that it never occurs to him he will take a wrong turn and finish up in the orchestra pit. “I have to focus on hitting the right spot.”
Because Brooker has designed and built so many panto creatures, he now recycles existing ones – a couple of pantomime cows, a goose for Mother Goose, an ogre for Puss in Boots and Sleeping Beauty, a 40ft dragon for Aladdin, mice for Cinderella and so on.
In the 1980s, Brooker studied 3D design at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, as he aspired to make Aardman-like stop-motion animation. It turned out to be a short-lived dream. “I didn’t have the patience for it,” he says. “I found that you could get faster results with puppets. I’d always loved The Muppet Show, so that was the benchmark for me.”
Aged 19, he left college just as one of the great satire puppet shows was in development for television: Peter Fluck and Roger Law were making the pilot programme for Spitting Image at their studio in Canary Wharf. Brooker had exactly the skills they were looking for and he worked on the show for the next 13 years, until the final episode in 1996.
Spitting Image was the best kind of training. I did Thatcher’s eyes and Roy Hattersley’s spit
“It was a very young crew, and we were very mischievous but we never missed a deadline,” he says. “It was the best kind of training any of us could have wished for. My job was to assemble the various component parts of the puppets, and sometimes to operate body parts. I did Thatcher’s eyes and Roy Hattersley’s spit.”
Fluck and Law’s team also made props and costumes and worked on TV commercials. While he was with them, Brooker designed and made creatures and costumes for the family show, Dragon, directed by Ultz, at the National Theatre in 1992.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working on Spitting Image.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Making a dummy of Nicholas Parsons for The Rocky Horror Show.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Nothing really. College prepared me for the outside world. I was happy to get out there and get on with it.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Ray Harryhausen, Mad Magazine, The Goodies, The Muppet Show, the illustrations of Luck and Flaw.
What’s your best advice for aspiring puppet makers?
Puppets are about suggestion, not imitation.
If you hadn’t been a puppet maker and designer, what would you have done?
He was at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop for eight years, working on, among other things, the stage show of Doctor Dolittle, which required a large number of animatronic creations, and the 2005 film of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The London-based Creature Shop closed down in the mid-2000s when CGI started to eclipse the need for animatronic technology.
I’ll be making Trump’s arsehole, which is a character in its own right
Now there are moves afoot to revive Spitting Image for the Brexit and Trump era, and Brooker has been brought back into the fold. He says: “Fluck and Law are currently showing an eight-minute taster to Avalon executives in LA, which is where the writer is based. My role will be similar to what I was doing before, assembling the puppets, with a few extra duties such as making glove puppets of the Democrats and the US president’s arsehole, which is a character in its own right.”
As a strange kind of homage to his mentor, Brooker modelled his Ogre for Puss in Boots on Law. He recalls a piece of advice from Law in his Spitting Image days: “Roger said there would always be jobs to do within any [creative] team that weren’t perhaps the best jobs in the world, but they had to be done. ‘We’ve all got to eat a bowl of poo at some point or other’ is how he actually said it, and that has always stayed with me.”
Other jobs included puppets for The Harry Hill Movie in 2013 – “the critics hated it but it was a complete blast to work on” – and creating and operating the character Rattus Rattus for CBBC’s Horrible Histories series.
Until recently he also worked extensively with the touring company Krazy Kat Theatre, which produces family-friendly shows, creating table-top puppets and masks, as well as Edmund the Learned Pig, the eponymous lead of the co-produced touring show. One of his most challenging theatre jobs was Jimpy the cockerel for the stage version of children’s classic The Silver Sword at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, in 2015. It was made entirely out of kitchen utensils.
So what kind of skill set is required for this singular vocation? Brooker says: “Skills need to cover everything from character design and fabrication through to on-set wrangling [like sorting out costume and prop changes]. I wear two hats – designer and maker – which gives you more chance of regular employment than specialising in one. Some jobs need a character or costume designed by someone else in which case I need to ensure all the information they need is available in a finished full-colour drawing.” Sometimes he is brought in to make puppets from an existing two-dimensional design, which Brooker then has to convert to three dimensions.
And far from being a solitary career, the process of designing and making through to the activation of the puppet or model is invariably a collaborative process.
“You must have an understanding and appreciation of all the work skills of your colleagues, even if they’re outside of your own comfort zone,” he says. “In my case, that’s always meant working across the board, from directors who can’t draw but know what they want, to modellers, moulders, costume makers, animatronic designers, puppeteers, set designers, performers, wig makers, painters, right through to assistant stage managers and floor managers.
“Everyone has some input into the finished thing, and it is paramount to listen to them all if you want things to run smoothly.”
Born: Wolverhampton, 1963
Training: 3D design at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, 1982-85
• Return to the Forbidden Planet, Cambridge Theatre, London (1989)
• Doctor Dolittle, Labatts Apollo (1997)
• Various pantomimes, Hackney Empire (2006-present)
• Spitting Image (1985-96)
• Horrible Histories (2009-present)
• The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
Dick Whittington and his Cat runs at Hackney Empire, London until January 5, 2020