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The story behind Rubbery Figures

In 1984, an imaginative ABC current affairs producer, Ian Carroll, had the idea of a weekly puppet satire about Australian politics.

Ian Carroll

Ian Carroll had seen my exhibitions of caricature sculptures and he commissioned me to sculpt and make moulds for about twenty rubber puppets. Paul Murphy did the voices – he was a good mimic as well as a great TV journo. The segments were videod at the ABC studios in Sydney and worked OK but after a year the program itself, an experimental hour- long news and current affairs program, folded.

The ABC didn’t want to use the puppets again. I owned the copyright in the puppet moulds, and I got a small Film Commission grant to make a pilot. To do this I set up a makeshift film studio in my sculpture studio in North Melbourne. It was ridiculously overcrowded.

That’s me doing hand signals to the puppeteers and Matthew McCaughey on the cable Bolex

My brother Michael (left) did brilliantly intuitive cut-out animations

I designed a unique cable drive using an old 16mm tape recorder to play the sound at 18 frames per second and drive the16mm Bolex at the same speed. Peter Watts, a genius with anything mechanical, put it together.

My brother Michael (left) did brilliantly intuitive cut-out animations
This produced a slightly jerky pixillated effect in the film. My brother Michael’s clever snappy animations using cut-up photos of the puppets fitted neatly with the jerky studio movie shots.

Kris Noble

Kris Noble I got the brush-off from ABC Current Affairs. However the director of Light Entertainment at the Victorian ABC was Kris Noble, a brilliant producer/director who made D-Generation and Australia You’re Standing In It for the ABC and later Big Brother Australia for Channel 10. I pitched the idea to him, calling it Rubbery Figures. The ABC needed five minute filler programs every half hour, because they didn’t run ads. Kris Noble took a gamble on me and suggested some match-winning talent: Paul Jennings (astonishing voice mimic), Andrew Knight, John Alsop and Paul McDonald (scriptwriters), and Tony Martin (sound and energy), who had all come to Kris looking for work.

Tony Martin directs Bob Hawke Rubbery figures

Puppeteer Cassie Serpell operating Paul Keating

We were given a miniscule production budget, and 600 feet of reversal film each week, in 100 ft rolls for the Bolex. I recruited a bunch of Swinburne film-school youngsters who were willing to work for almost nothing. The full list of the brilliant, rowdy, fun-loving Rubbery talent is below. Most of the film, sound, art direction puppeteering crew were under 21. We were all crammed into my sculpture studio.

And we were away, in February 1987, with a series of 13 weekly filler programs of 5 min 30 seconds duration after Rumpole of the Bailey every Monday. Almost immediately we got high ratings.

Puppet wrangler Cynthia Mann with John Elliott and Esther Haskell on Bob Hawke

Our problem was that the ABC had a policy forbidding external productions ….. like Rubbery Figures. We had to stay underground and no-one except Kris knew where the program came from. We were hidden in some budget under “Miscellaneous”.

When Kris Noble left the ABC, we were orphans. Rubbery Figures was stuck on late-at-night after Four Corners. At the end of 1988 we were dropped, and told the ABC had no interest in future programs. I was about to close my studio and disband the brilliant crew of under-paid filmies and slightly crazed puppeteers. At that very moment, Steve Vizard put together the Fast Forward program for Channel 7. Vizard agreed to take four minutes of Rubbery Figures segments each week. On board he had the doyen of comedy directors, Ted Emery. Emery used the Rubbery Figures segments with great flair, cutting in short grabs of Rubbery highlights. The most famous was John Elliott saying “Pigs Arse”, in a script by Brendan Luno.

The Recession We Had to Have
One day in 1991, the advertising jobs that kept my studio afloat dried up. The first thing to be cut in a recession is the advertising budget. My studio broke even on our eight TV Rubbery series, and made a profit only when we did TV ads and commercial videos.

For most of the time I was supporting myself and my family through my other life as a cartoonist for The Age. It was an exhausting period for me, trying to do management, film production, puppet making, sculpture and cartoons. One day our Business Manager found me sitting on the bluestone cobbles in the lane outside my North Melbourne Queensberry Street studio. I couldn’t face opening the door and going in to work. I should have taken a month’s holiday, but instead I closed the film-making side of my studio, forever.

Rubbery Figures Credits
The gifted Melbourne voice mimic Paul Jennings did virtually all the voices for Rubbery Figures in the studio’s tiny recording booth. He would do the voices one after the other, changing voice (and facial expressions) at lightning speed.

The people who worked on Rubbery Figures at different times over six years were:
Scripts: Tony Martin, Andrew Knight, John Alsop, Paul McDonald, Brendan Luno, David Marshall, Gordon Badham, Steve Vizard, Patrick Cook, Michael Nicholson, Rod Quantok, Alan Pentland, Gary McAffery, John Glade-Wright, Kaz Cooke.

Voices: Paul Jennings 

Extra Voices: Tony Martin

Script Editing, Voice Direction, Direction: Peter Nicholson 

Direction: Peter Nicholson, Leigh Tilson, Matthew Lovering, Matthew McCaughey, 

Animation: Michael Nicholson

Art Direction: Cynthia Mann, Jodi Borland, Marion Rennie

Sound: Tony Martin, Piers Douglas, Ray Boseley, Peter Frost, Vince Agostino

Production Manager: Piers Douglas, Esther Haskell, Jan Lucas

Puppeteers: Jenny Sherlock, Esther Haskell, Jenny Ishmakovitch, Michelle Spooner, Cassie Serpell, Astrid Judge, Maeve Vella, Kath Gordon, Rebecca McLean, Cathy Shehata.

Business Manager, Art Direction, Puppet Making, Puppet Wrangling, Unit Producer: Cynthia Mann

Costumes: Trish Simmonds

Costume making and art director: Marion Rennie

Camera: Michael Nicholson, Matthew McCaughey, Leigh Tilson, Gary Richards

Editing: Tony Patterson, Clayton Jacobson, Leigh Tilson , Aleksi Vellis, Catherine Birmingham, Virginia Murray.

Caricature Sculpture: Peter Nicholson

Sculpture and Moulds: Smiley Williams

Sculpture Assistance: Peter Degaris, Lisa Caldwell, Jeffrey Smart.

Equipment: Peter Watt, Tim Robinson, Paul Myers.

Producer: Peter Nicholson