TO Prolific television career means fame, right? In fact, the reality is often very different. Many great performances take place anonymously, whether in a recording booth or under a mountain of prosthetics. That can lead to a strange kind of celebrity status: rubbing shoulders with screen legends on the red carpet one minute, shopping at Tesco without even a selfie request the next. So who are these unrecognizable TV icons? How do you bring your beloved characters to life? And do fans want to scream?
‘I’m not sure how much more rubber I want in my life’
Doug Jones – plays Captain Saru, a Kelpien, in Star Trek: Discovery
When you say yes to touching something that doesn’t look human, you are saying yes to the whole process. I can’t yell, “Get this off me! It’s so hot and sticky. “I need the mindset of an artist, but also the stamina of an athlete, one that can take five or six hours of applying makeup and then get through a long day of filming.
Because of all the parts I’ve played, I often end up skipping the conventional casting process. People in creature effects just say, “He’s a tall, skinny alien, we need Doug Jones.” I was playing the amphibian in the Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water when Star Trek: Discovery approached me. In fact, I was thinking “I’m not sure how much more glue and glue I want in my life”, but there was no way I could turn it down. For Saru, I wear a four-piece prosthesis on my head that descends past my collarbones, with gloves to change my hands. Everything has been molded to my shape and prepainted, so gluing it together is only a two hour process. I wear a Starfleet uniform like everyone else, but I have special boots with helmets that add five inches to my height. That makes me about 6 feet 8 inches!
I just have to look in the mirror to know that I am not a romantic protagonist. For 35 years, my career has been about being funny or scary. When I was 20 years old, I was looking for fame. I would have loved to be on billboards and magazine covers, but I have come to enjoy working under the radar. It’s nice to be able to go to a coffee shop with a friend and nobody knows who I am. But then I can go to a red carpet event where they announce who you are and you can act like a celebrity, before going back to anonymity.
‘We knocked Westlife off the top of the charts’
Kate Harbor: voices Wendy and Dizzy in Bob the Builder
Bob the Builder was not just a show for us. We believed in the characters and their message to reduce, reuse, recycle. Bob was selling recycling years before he was cool! Wendy, his business partner and love interest, was one of the first strong female characters on children’s television. It’s nice to know that you’ve played a vital role in getting that message across to so many people.
We knew we had something exciting, but no one had any idea how massive it was going to be. We even have 2000 Christmas No 1 with Can We Fix It? – taking Westlife off the top of the charts. But the biggest time to pinch yourself came when we recorded an album on Abbey Road. It was out of this world to be invited to such an iconic venue for a show that, let’s face it, is about a builder hitting nails, a talking concrete mixer, and a cat saying “Meow.”
I was recently in a meeting with a group of playground moms and they were talking about the vital work they do as teachers, nurses, and social workers. I had a major wobble. I just thought, “What’s the point of me?” Strangely, shortly after, I received this lovely letter from a fan saying, “Your little characters bring me so much joy.” And I thought, “So that’s my purpose? That can’t be that bad. “
‘It was like being trapped inside a mailbox’
John Simmit: plays Dipsy in Teletubbies
I was a relatively experienced standup when I auditioned for Teletubbies. Back then it was called Teleteddies and it hadn’t even been commissioned. I was the only black person there and also the oldest. So I stood out, which is good. I was the first to be chosen and I remember taking the train to the studio to try on this prototype underwear suit that is best described as one of those joke sumo wrestler outfits. He weighed three kilos, had limited air, and had no peripheral vision. It was like being trapped inside a mailbox. Everything felt surreal.
Rehearsals began in late 1995. It was then that I met the other three teletubbies: Pui Fan Lee, an actor; Dave Thompson, a standup; Nikky Smedley, dancer. They gave us the names of our characters, but we were encouraged to “bring” ourselves into the roles. Pui Fan has Chinese heritage and spoke in Cantonese on the show. I brought reggae to the part with things like Dipsy saying “Papa come papa come to Po”, which is straight out of a classic reggae track called The whip. And I’d slip into Jamaican dance steps, a bogle here and a crappy there.
If you look at Dipsy’s face, it was actually darker, nothing on the show was accidental. We filmed for six years before ending in 2002. Five years later, the production company invited us to dinner and said, “Would you like to go to the United States?” I thought, “How many concerts will they pay me to spend a week in New York?” It was an incredible experience. We got the keys to the city – we went to morning shows in New York and took costumed photos outside the Statue of Liberty.
The show had a great impact. People still talk about it. If I was hit by a bus, I know the Teletubbies would be on the front line of my obituary. But being attached to such a phenomenon is not a bad thing.
‘They wanted a meerkat to be a Russian Alan Sugar’
Simon Greenall: Express Meerkats in Compare the Market Ads
I didn’t speak until I was six years old. Not a word. But when I started speaking, I was able to make different voices and accents. My father was a mechanic and he was very good with engine noises, so it is an inherited skill. However, I didn’t actually start acting until my late 20s, and I was 50 when I started giving meerkats a voice.
At first, they wanted Aleksandr to be menacing, a tough businessman like the Russian Alan Sugar, telling people, “Don’t go to this place, go to that place.” But I thought, “Well, it’s an animal, it’s small and fun.” I went up the pitch, but I took it very seriously and the effect is quite charming. That screech he makes at the end, I put it on the kids.
It’s a strange career, voice acting, but the voices don’t know how lucky they are! It’s a lot of fun, it’s well paid, and you can get really good at it very quickly. We are like computers: you just feed an idea like “a Russian-speaking meerkat” and we fire a voice that fits.
My fan base is now made up of different age groups. There are the meerkats, of course, but there are the octonauts, too. I play Captain Barnacles, the brave polar bear leader of these little underwater creatures. That show is educational and environmental. Ultimately, it’s about goodness and citizenship.
‘There I was on the set of The Phantom Menace’
Lewis MacLeod – voices Postman Pat and, in Spitting Image, Prince Charles, Matt Hancock and more
In addition to Postman Pat, I play two other characters: Alf the farmer and Ben Taylor, who runs the delivery office. I also sing the melody of the theme, which I love. I got to know Prince Charles and he said, “So you’re Postman Pat? How it sounds? “I replied,” Hello, Mrs. Goggins! ”
I’ve always been obsessed with audio and it has gotten me into big projects. Voicing the vicious pod racer Sebulba in The Phantom Menace was incredible. When I was a kid, I used to build Star Wars games out of Coca-Cola bottles and papier-mâché. And there I was on set taking notes from George Lucas.
When I got into satirical comedy on shows like Spitting Image, I found myself having to dominate politicians, from Alex Salmond to Nigel Farage. David Cameron was very difficult and I just couldn’t get Trump, until I saw an interview in which he notably softened his voice. My first impersonation was strangely reminiscent of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.
‘We pave the way for other question and answer programs’
Jon Briggs – best known for narrating The Weakest Link and voicing British Siri
When I was asked to be the voice of a question and answer program during the day of BBC Two, my initial reaction was: “OMG, another nail in the coffin of my career”. He had no idea that he would become this behemoth that paved the way for other game shows. The biggest one probably doesn’t make sense. They have ridden on our skirts ever since.
We started in 2000. One of the reasons it was successful was that it was the only thing that during the Olympics was not sport. People who can’t stand sport were desperate to see something else. I did it all 13 years. That’s 1,875 episodes. There were only two that I didn’t do: a Eurovision special where they got Terry Wogan, and an apprentice special that I have never understood to this day.
I have the performer gene. I like being on stage and I am happy to be the center of attention, but I soon realized that I was not good enough to be an actor. In the end, I got into the radio because I loved it. My A-level grades sucked because I spent every waking moment when I wasn’t in school on the local radio station. If you had told me that I would make money with my voice 40 years later, I would have told you that you were crazy.
‘Any career in entertainment is a roller coaster’
Peter Dickson: voice of The X Factor and the talent of Great Britain
I have never wanted fame, fortune, and recognition. I still don’t. I have been around many well-known stars and have witnessed how fame can destroy people. I never wanted that. Many people want to be famous without really having any skills – fame is the end product they want. I have never understood. I don’t regret working on The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent – they are entertainment shows and they really give people a chance to show off their talent. It is what happens next that may be the problem.
Any career in entertainment is a roller coaster ride. Look at Bruce Forsyth, who I worked with for many years on The Price Is Right. There was a period after The Generation Game where he couldn’t get booked for anything. It was largely forgotten until it was rediscovered by a new generation. I’ve done voice work on everything from elevators and garbage trucks to movie theater reservation systems, which is probably why people recognize my voice all the time, but you never know from where! It has been 43 years and I have loved every second.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism