Laura Bacon is a puppeteer/performer based in London, who was thrown into the spotlight following her appearance on the hit TV show, ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. Josh Elwell caught up with her to find out how her sudden stardom affected her career and to find out what she’s been up to since.
Laura you achieved great success and charmed audiences on Britain’s Got Talent in 2014 and managed to get through to the semi final. Most people who take part in that competition are seen as themselves. What was it like as an (at that time) anonymous puppeteer to be taking part in such a high profile television show?
BGT was great fun. I was always very nervous about appearing as myself. I think I would feel very awkward talking as me, and it wouldn’t be terribly interesting! When we discussed the possibility of having Patsy May BE the contestant entirely, it just clicked for me. THAT was my act, being the character. So all the VTs I felt were my performance as well. It can be quite difficult to explain to people that I puppeteer for TV – I’m not a ventriloquist. We are always hidden and completely become the character. A lot of the crew were new to it, and didn’t realise the complexity involved with something that looks so seemingly simple. For example, the my positions and the importance of having a monitor! Seeing a monitor is essential for TV puppeteering. It would be like performing a play on a stage wearing a blind fold, or being a camera man without opening your eyes.
I really enjoyed being anonymous. Because heaven forbid, if I had been an utter fail, no one would’ve known! And I wouldn’t be recognised. One of the tabloids labelled me ‘the Banksy of the puppet world’, which I rather liked. I sometimes wonder if I should have revealed myself at the end, but I like to keep Patsy as a real person. My only little regret was that production pretty much took over all my ideas for the semi-final and made her into a Miss Piggy-like diva. That wasn’t really my idea. I wanted her to be more of a wannabe, struggling artist. Like the epitome of an average contestant. It made no sense to me to film her at lavish locations, leading a celeb lifestyle as she hadn’t ‘made it’ yet.
I requested that there was to be a joke at the end of VT where Patsy assumes all the luxuries are being paid for by ITV, then upon realising they aren’t, she scarpers with a screech of car tyres. This was filmed, but when they screened it live, I realised they hadn’t bothered including it.
As well as being a puppeteer you clearly have a real sense of comedy and a wonderful singing voice. How did you acquire your skills and talents? What was it that brought about the fusion of all of these things in Patsy May and why puppetry?
I’m not sure how I acquired it! Watching Sesame Street as a kid is one of my first television memories and I absolutely loved it. I’ve always seen everything from a comedic point of view and I find it quite hard to take anything seriously. I don’t really do written jokes and punchlines though, I guess my stuff is more observational with improvised reactions. I’ve never really thought of myself as a singer, more as a puppeteer who can sing! I used to be involved in AmDram years ago and was in a few musicals. But even then I was mostly cast as the comic relief character.
I started making puppets when I was in school. Then for four summers working at a US summer camp in upstate New York. When I actually performed them in shows, I had way more fun being hidden and bringing a character creation to life, than being myself.
I actually always wanted to be an animator or puppeteer. Both are quite similar, in the sense you are creating characters, moving for them, and deciding how they emote and behave. A lot of puppeteers start off as animators or have a big interest in animation. I still illustrate as well as puppeteer.
Since BGT you’ve been working on various other interesting projects. How has it been working on those after the glamour of a live Saturday Night show?
I had just been in a small North London production of Avenue Q right before BGT, so that was super fun. I’ve done various jobs since the show, including panto, live cabaret acts, jobs for companies including ITV, Lucasfilm, Henson and even some in the Netherlands and Germany. I also got to train at Sesame Workshop in New York and learn alongside veteran puppeteers, giving me the opportunity to really hone in and develop my puppeteering skills further.
It’s great to work with other established puppeteers on some incredible projects, but I think I prefer to develop my own material.
What particularly impressed me was that you recently staged your own 90-minute live theatre show called ‘An Evening with Patsy May’. How did it differ from other things that you have done? What did you discover by putting the show together? Who are your main sources of inspiration both as a puppeteer and as a comedian?
Yes, it was quite liberating to do exactly what I wanted with Patsy for that show, without rules or censors. She works best with adult comedy and it felt just right. It was quite a challenge from the very beginning, because the main issue is how to cope with holding your arm up for over an hour. Most TV and film puppeteers can manage around 5-10 minutes at a time. Again, it’s worth stressing that this is very different to ventriloquism, as your whole arm is raised above your head.
I had the idea of dividing the show up with short little 1-2 minutes videos of Patsy so that it would introduce the next scene smoothly and allow me to have a quick arm break. It also let me show how I enjoy making films with her on locations around the world. I had to recruit some other cast members because Patsy works so much better when reacting with another person. I had a couple of singers (some via a ‘Skype’ video link) a magician, a pianist and a special celebrity guest to interview. I tried to make each skit as varied as possible, so the audience wouldn’t get bored. It was quite a new challenge arranging everything myself, including editing all the videos and ‘Skype’ calls, creating the poster, marketing and advertising the show, sorting the tech cues, finding the right music, and writing the content. Most of the dialogue was improvised as I find it easier to keep it natural.
I think every puppeteer is inspired by Jim Henson. There was a lovely tribute to him at the end of the show. For me in particular, Frank Oz is probably my favourite puppeteer. I love the way he can portray emotion with such small movements, but also be brilliantly funny without trying too hard. Sometimes when people try too hard with comedy it feels very forced, and it loses its charm. But comedy wise I am also hugely influenced by classic episodes of The Simpsons. In fact, Patsy’s true character is close to Krusty the Clown – demanding, cynical, living to excess and slightly rough around the edges. But with the addition of having female allure and charm. Though most people tend to assume she’s a Miss Piggy-like diva, which often frustrates me!
The character of Patsy May is a real wannabe star and prima donna who clearly loves the celebrity world. As we all know this world can be fickle and cut throat. You yourself experienced the darker side of the business when a German TV show ripped of your act word for word and then invited you onto the show for further humiliation. Tell us a little bit about that experience and how it left you feeling as a performer.
Hahaaa yes, Germany.. Now ‘Die Puppenstars’ was a BGT style show where puppeteers from around the world were invited to showcase their work and subsequently judged. I was alerted in early 2016 about a German TV show that had completely ripped off my entire act from BGT. A blue girl puppet, (similar to Patsy) singing ‘All That Jazz’ with dancers, steps that swivelled, a costume change, and even spoke the exact same ad libs that I had said live on the night. Obviously I was confused and upset. It turns out that apparently, within the German TV laws, it was legal to copy, and it would have cost me thousands to even attempt to sue so I decided to contact the TV company myself. They were apologetic, offered me a small pay off and invited me to be on the show. I agreed. I had great fun filming Patsy in Berlin for the show VTs and I had to learn quite a bit of German for some lines. They wanted me to do the same thing that I did on my first BGT audition with Ant and Dec but with the guys on their panel. I was reluctant to do the same thing but they changed the song and I eventually agreed. They also insisted on me pre-recording the song, which I don’t really like doing. After Berlin I went back a month later to the studio in Cologne.
I met the ‘fake’ Patsy who was very nice to me (she was just doing her job, being cast as this character) and we filmed a few backstage things. When it came to performing my actual act, after the song, the judges told me that they did not like my act and buzzed me out of the show, because they believed I had copied THEM and their ‘Miss Izzy’ character! Keeping in character (though rather enraged) I swiftly made an exit. After all I had been through, from discovering them copying me in the first place, back and forth with lawyers and producers, I felt humiliated and deflated. The crew and everyone I worked with were lovely, and up until the last moment I had enjoyed it, but the show in general seemed quite badly produced. When I saw the final footage, it was weird to see that they had dubbed over Patsy’s English speaking segments with a gruff, German man’s voice. It was weird, but an experience and bit of a learning curve!
As well as the star struck side of Patsy, she is also feisty and intelligent with a longing for love. As actors, performers or even puppeteers we often draw on our own personal experience. How much of Patsy is you? Are you from upstate New York with British roots and longing for love?
Well, I’m not from upstate New York, but I made the first Patsy puppet in Long Lake NY, so that was a little tribute to her origin. I only claimed that she was born in the UK so people wouldn’t assume I was American and demand that the contestants can only be British. But then it turned out that, despite being interviewed in person, The Daily Mail did an article featuring Patsy as a ‘foreign’ contestant who shouldn’t be allowed to partake in the show! I’m 100% British but I have friends and family in the US and Canada. Sometimes I say that Patsy is me after a few beers – she can get away with saying a lot more than I can though! I also have a character called Mavis Mayes, who is an elderly lady fox puppet with a strong Suffolk accent. I have used her for a few online videos and features occasionally on BBC Radio Suffolk. A complete opposite character to Patsy, she is based on many people from around my hometown, including my late grandmother. So she is definitely a part of me somehow.
Can you see yourself getting into more live talent TV show scrapes? Has Patsy been burnt by the darker side of celebrity or does she still have a desire for fame and fortune? What lies ahead for both you as a puppeteer and for Patsy May?
Maybe! It depends on what kind of context. But iI think I would want full control of what I want to do. I need to always go with my gut instinct nowadays! Not sure about Patsy, you’d have to do a separate interview for her! But she’s definitely got what it takes now to feature in an adult comedy show on TV. I don’t think that five years ago I was confident enough and I remember being a little thrown when I appeared on ‘This Morning’ as it was all new to me, but now after all the work and live comedy I have done, I’d be so ready for it! I’d definitely like to do some more live shows, and I’m tempted to take it to the US. I’ve recently tried to join Spotlight for more potential work. But they currently won’t accept people who are primarily puppeteers, despite puppetry being listed as a skill that any actor can put down. Which is very frustrating but that’s a whoooole other kettle of fish!
Interview with Josh Elwell