Alexe Sayle

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The Independent Online
Recently, a revisionist history book has been published which asserts that life in the trenches during the First World War was actually rather a jolly affair - so jolly, in fact, that many of the men who survived the trench experience looked back on the time fondly as the highlight of their lives. I wonder what will be printed next - possibly a book saying that people were really upset when the bubonic plague finished because they missed the community spirit. I think we know that taking part in battles in war is a horrible experience and nowadays we also realise that the effects of being in combat can last for years. Post-traumatic stress syndrome is now recognised as being extremely prevalent in ex-servicemen.

However, as late as the end of the Second World War, there was no such recognition and returning soldiers who had been through the most appalling of experiences were expected to just pick up their lives where they had left off five or six years before without any kind of help or counselling. In Britain in the late Forties and early Fifties, this must have meant that a large proportion of the male population was deeply disturbed. This would go a long way to explaining some of the things happening then that, from our present day perspective, seem very bizarre: Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, for instance.

Imagine the pitch - some BBC children's producer, who has spent the last few years hiding in trees in the jungles of Burma while Japanese try to kill him, is explaining his idea to a head of department who was torpedoed four times in the South Atlantic, and spent 15 days circled by sharks while adrift in an open lifeboat containing the corpses of his best friends. The producer says, "It's about these two guys, right, who are made out of flowerpots, OK? And they live behind a weed - get it? And they only come out when the gardener goes for his lunch and the dialogue goes something like: 'Kerflabalob alobalob a logob kefogah alobalob'." And the head of department goes, "I love it! I absolutely love it! Go away and make 400 episodes." As the first guy leaves, the next one, who was in submarines during the war, comes in, "I'm working on a great idea - there's these two pigs, see, and they both have wooden heads. Nothing new there, I know, but the gimmick is they sing hit songs while dancing at the same time."

Of course, when I was a kid there was a huge number of puppet shows around. They were very much the vogue of the post-war period, and puppeteers themselves were the kings and queens of show business in the way that stand-up comics are now. The upstairs rooms above many public houses in the Fifties were converted into smoky puppet clubs and the empty plinth in one corner of Trafalgar Square was originally intended for a recumbent bronze statue of Muffin the Mule crafted by Henry Moore. But like everything fashionable, there came a time when it became unfashionable and the star of the puppeteer set. However, recently it has suddenly risen again in, of all places, Hollywood, a staunchly anti-marionette town if ever there was one - until now.

It happened like this. Now is the time to be an actor in Hollywood, for it is what they call over there "pilot season". Between mid-January and mid-February, upwards of 200 single one-hour dramas and half-hour comedies will be made. Of these "pilots", perhaps 40 will eventually be turned into series and of those very few last longer than one season. However, it is a time of furious activity in Hollywood - some actors can make up to three programmes in a weekend. But the cost of making these pilots has risen and risen and the producers have been trying to find cheaper ways to test whether a script is worth making into a series. A few years ago, the LA money men started to put on little plays, complete with sets, and an invited audience to try out sitcom ideas. For police and medical shows, they would stage dramatised readings. But as even these started to prove too costly, the idea of mounting puppet shows suddenly emerged.

Puppeteers who hadn't worked for 20 years were dusting off their black polo-necks and the unemployed marionettists of Eastern Europe began flocking to California in huge numbers. After puppets, it was only a matter of time before the even cheaper flea circuses were brought in to act out potential hit shows. The cast of the hospital drama ER, for example, were originally millimetre-sized parasites. However, warning bells have started to ring in the acting community because the producers have found that the public doesn't mind if the actors in a show are people, puppets or insects. And let's be frank about this, puppets and fleas aren't as choosy about their dressing rooms. I see difficult times ahead for my profession.