“‘Rainbow’s been a great success for twenty years, and you should be very proud of that,’ she told me. ‘But there’s more to Ronnie Le Drew than Zippy.'”
If someone were to namecheck the classic children’s TV programme Rainbow, your very first thought might perhaps be of an over-enthusiastic middle-aged man with rather loud and questionable dress sense. It may be of a very camp pink hippo, or a clumsy man-bear. It could even be about a singing trio who ended up divorcing, dating, and then remarrying all amongst themselves.
But chances are that it’ll probably relate to an odd creature with a growling voice and a zip for a mouth (as well as a dislike for Marmite, but that’s another story. Or ad campaign.). Roy Skelton – equally well known for voicing the Daleks in Doctor Who – has become synonymous with the naughty puppet; however, there was one other individual who was equally (if not moreso) important: the person who was actually behind (or, technically, beneath and inside) Zippy, and – quite literally – had a hand in his success. Step forward and take a well-deserved bow, dolly-waggler extraordinaire Ronnie Le Drew.
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You may not know his name, and chances are you wouldn’t recognise his face, but in all likelihood you’ll have seen his work in puppetry over nearly six decades of doing what he loves: even if you’ve not watched Rainbow, you may have seen Labyrinth, or The Muppet Christmas Carol, or even the advert for Drench Spring Water with a dancing Brains from Thunderbirds. If so, then you’ve most definitely seen Ronnie Le Drew in action. In Zippy And Me, we get to find out his fascinating life story, no strings attached.
Le Drew was a Canadian emigrant, whose parents brought him and his sister to the UK at an early age. While his father was a teacher, he wasn’t academically gifted nor particularly popular, but his deep abiding love for puppetry helped him get through a difficult childhood, with his mother and father separating, then reconciling, only for his father to then die while Le Drew was just 16. Being the man of the house at such a relatively young age would be hard enough, without having to try and make everyone see that his childhood dream of becoming a full-time puppeteer could be a properly paying job.
We cover his childhood and adolescence relatively swiftly, yet the book doesn’t in any way feel as though it skimps on detail, and we get an illuminating look into his early family life, plus his exposure to the world of puppeteering, with everyone we meet feeling distinctive and fully rounded as individuals, which is certainly no mean feat in such a short space. In fact, it moves along at such a lick that in a fraction over 50 pages (or about one-seventh of the way into the autobiography), we find ourselves already getting our very first mention of Rainbow.
There’s absolutely no shame in that. As an entertainer, Le Drew will certainly know all about giving the audience what they want, and it’s his association with Zippy that will be the big draw, so we naturally get the crowd-pleasing stuff in relatively quickly. However, it does seem an awful shame, because his early life is a very compelling story, and the book feels as though it could have easily sustained a chapter or two more of his pre-Rainbow days and be none the worse for it.
It also shows us his career trajectory, and you get to see that – much like the earlier quote – there’s most assuredly far more to Ronnie Le Drew than Zippy. We get a very good overview of his working life, from an early start with a professional puppet theatre, through to his involvement with Rainbow, by way of Muffin The Mule and Sooty, before becoming involved along the with Jim Henson and the Muppets on an occasional basis, and eventually rising to the pinnacle professionally, being given the equivalent of a puppeteering Oscar for his achievements.
Along the way, we get to see a whole cast of supporting characters popping up, all of whom weave in and out through the story, and we get to see the camaraderie of the puppeteering community, which is demonstrated particularly well when we occasionally see someone being lost along the way. Le Drew makes us care about all of them, so when we inevitably reach one of these sadder moments, we genuinely feel it along with him. It’s a testament to his storytelling abilities that he makes us care about these people the same way he would get us to care about the characters he portrays as a puppeteer.
Le Drew is an endearing individual, and comes across as very relatable, pulling no punches about his own insecurities and what he perceives to be his own failings. It just goes to show that you can have all manner of professional success as well as accolades, and yet still find yourself full of worry over where your next job’s coming from, or if you can make ends meet. He’s also quite candid about his lengthy bout of depression, following the cancellation of Rainbow for the second and seemingly final time.
However, you also cheer for Le Drew as his career then enters a purple patch, and he demonstrates he’s far more than just Zippy. Of course, the backbone of his story is Rainbow, and we get some wonderful anecdotes about his two decades doing the show, along with giving us a look at the real people behind all the smiles and the songs. One of the most eye-opening reveals we get relates to Geoffrey Hayes the serious actor, as opposed to Geoffrey the genial presenter we saw on screen. The book is insightful, without ever being salacious, yet doesn’t shy away from tales of scandal, but always treats them with a lightness of touch throughout.
Le Drew’s is an inspiring tale of following your dreams, and being brave enough to plough your own furrow. The book even gives us the answer to exactly what Zippy is – apparently, he’s a ‘unique’, and that’s a description which could apply equally to Ronnie Le Drew.
Zippy and Me will be available from 25th July from Unbound.