Violet Philpott: Puppeteer who brought Zippy to life in 'Rainbow'

 

Zippy, the yellowish-brown glove puppet who was loud and sought to be the centre of attention in Rainbow, gained a cult status that went beyond the pre-school children's programme's 25-year history.

A deliberately indeterminate creature, Zippy was made and originally operated by the puppeteer Violet Philpott, who gave him an oval head, only one arm and a zip for a mouth – which was handy when he became too hyperactive and George, a pink hippopotamus, and Bungle, a furry bear, wanted to shut him up. (Both of these life-size puppets, with actors inside, were introduced in the second series.)

Philpott and John Thirtle made all the original Rainbow puppets, which also included Sunshine and Moony when the programme began in 1972. For the second run, Peter Hawkins was succeeded as the voice of Zippy by Roy Skelton, who later said he developed it as a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Ian Paisley.

The puppet character, created by Samantha Hansen, was initially seen through a window whose design required Philpott to half-lie on the floor to operate it. This led to a back injury and she had to leave the programme after the second series. In 1992, Rainbow ended when Thames Television, the production company, lost its ITV franchise. However, the award-winning show was twice revived between 1994 and 1997.

Zippy's fame lived on and he continued to be seen until Skelton's death two years ago, in programmes such as a Weakest Link puppet special (2007) and a Marmite television commercial (2002), as well as singing on the No 1 hit single "The Official BBC Children in Need Medley" (2009). Zippy and George are on display at the Museum of the Moving Image in London.

Philpott was born Violet Yeomans in north London. When she was seven, her parents divorced and she lived with her father, Robert, a pub entertainer, before moving in with her mother, Lilian, whose maiden name, Phelan, she adopted.

With an interest in photography, she studied at St Martin's School of Art, where AR (Alexis) Philpott – known professionally as Pantopuck the Puppet Man – taught her the craft of puppet-making. She later lived with him until they finally married in 1962, following his divorce.

She made puppets from junk materials and entertained children at Punch and Judy festivals in St Paul's, the actors' church in Covent Garden. She also took workshops to schools and parks in Britain and abroad, and founded the Charivari Puppets and, in 1971, the Cap and Bells Puppet Theatre.

One of Philpott's most revered puppets was Bandicoot, a little lost child perhaps based on her own unsettled younger days. She also adapted The Ugly Duckling and other stories, and performed as Boo the Clown.

Credited as Violet Phelan – which was still then her professional name – she was one of those who created and operated the puppets in The Telegoons (1963-64), with scripts adapted from the radio comedy The Goon Show and voiced by its stars, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers. The programmes were particularly popular with nine- to 17-year-olds and represented the most successful attempt to transfer the trio's unique brand of comedy to television.

It was an ambitious production, by Grosvenor Films for the BBC. Half-lifesize rod puppets were used for close-up shots and third-lifesize string puppets for medium and wide shots. Philpott and her colleagues faced a particular challenge in lip-synching the rod puppets to the pre-recorded dialogue. "As soon as you heard the tape, it didn't tally with the script, because of the ad-libbing of the Goons," she explained. "You see, you can't tie them to a script – it's not their way."

In 1975, Philpott and Mary Jean McNeil produced The KnowHow Book of Puppets, a guide for children on making and operating puppets. The following year, her book Bandicoot and His Friends was published.

Philpott taught at the Rose Bruford drama college in Sidcup, on the outskirts of London, and was a council member of the Educational Puppetry Association, which her husband helped to found and she became part of the Puppet Centre Trust in 1978, the year of his death.

Anthony Hayward

Violet Yeomans, puppeteer: born London 28 April 1922; married 1962 Alexis Philpott (died 1978); died London 14 December 2012.

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