Not since Pingu has a penguin had such power over an audience. In Red Dwarf V's acclaimed Quarantine the most forceful critical praise was for the commanding presence of the old-hand flightless bird and his hex vision. Mr Flibble talks exclusively to, erm, himself.
26 January, 2001
So, Quarantine was way back in 1992, now you're back with an internet chat-show. Where have you been for the last eight years?
Well, obviously I haven't been idle. We have a saying in the theatre: 'Penguins never sleep,' and I'm glad to say that's pretty much been the case. It's all very well for these soap stars, taking a month off here, a fortnight there, but dammit the theatre is hard, darling. Damn hard. I've been treading the boards for years now...
How many years?
Let's just say I'm as old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth. If I had teeth. I sometimes feel as if I'm walking the boards bare-flippered, taking the splinters as I go. But the show must go on. I've been indulging my love of The Bard for a while - adding, as the critics concurred, 'new dimensions' to MacBeth's Second Witch. Hubbling and bubbling. I have a wing crossed at this point, of course - one is not supposed to mention the name of the Scottish Play so lightly.
Now often, when I've been speaking to members of the press, I've discussed my plans to play the Dane. I want to put this straight, because I've been awfully, awfully mis-quoted. Hamlet is the role of a lifetime for any thespian, and I haven't hidden my desire to assay the part on the sparkling silver screen. So while I applaud Kenneth Branagh's attempt to bring the full, unedited text to life, I can't - I won't - condone what he did to the part. Hamlet was not a blonde, not as Shakespeare envisaged. He was completely wrong.
But then, I'm sure Shakespeare hadn't wanted the Dane to be a flightless bird, either...
It's foolish comments like that which have dogged my career. Who says Hamlet wasn't intended to be a penguin? It's not in any of the stage directions! All that comment shows is how jaded, how unimaginative, the modern theatre has become.
Is that why you attempted to move into TV?
Well, obviously television is the poor man's theatre - but it's all about bums on seats at the end of the day. An episode of Red Dwarf gets around eight million viewers. That's eight million bums! Or, as I prefer to think of it, sixteen million buttocks.
Serious actors like myself won't usually have any truck with science fiction, of course. It's just such a phoney environment - firing ray-guns at the aliens of Squilookle 7, or whatever. It's very difficult to Method your way through it.
You're a Method actor?
Oh, indeed. When I was in The Caretaker - Harold Pinter, did you ever meet him? Darling man - I spent six weeks cleaning up a school in Budleigh Salterton. Should have read the play first, really. When I took a supporting role in that chocolate biscuit commercial, I was determined to be as authentic as possible. It was a real 'back to basics' performance, full of the raw, juvenile energy I had in my youth.
So I would have turned Red Dwarf down, had they not been such utter darlings. They offered me script approval, opportunities to improvise, everything. Oh yes, I was very well treated. I chose to become the character so utterly that you wouldn't know where he ended and I began. That's why I gave him my name. It's so much easier to improvise dialogue when you're being called by your own name rather than a character's.
Of course the hardest thing was the hex-vision. I had to train for months to become capable of that. A lot of staring exercises and deep breathing. In the end I understand it became too much for poor Chris [Barrie, who plays Rimmer] and he had to resort to special effects. [He] couldn't face the rigours of the training, you see; the discipline. So they drew his stuff on afterwards, in post [production].
Not that I'm casting nasturtiums - that's just a little joke - on Chris. He's a talented performer, despite not being a proper actor. I have enormous respect for them all, actually. Danny [John-Jules, the Cat] was the one who guided me through wardrobe - he was the one who spotted that magnificent tie I sported throughout. And Robert [Llewellyn]! What that poor man must endure in make-up astounds me. He even wrote a book about that - I believe the first volume is already available.
That said, Craig Charles and I have never really seen eye to eye. It's my own fault really. He'd been remarkably erudite all day, and we'd reached the scene where I blast away - hex-vision, you know. He'd been so kind all day, but at that point I heard him mutter something to one of the crew about 'the puppet'! I mean, can you imagine the cheek?! I have to say, I let my anger get the better of me. I let rip with the hex-vision during the scene, and - to my chagrin - got rather too close to singeing the poor man's behind. Never spoken since. But it made for an hilarious out-take.
Who else was there...? Oh, Ed, of course, Ed Bye. Darling cuddly of a man, but far too tall. Towering chap. And Rob and Doug were there, of course, the writers. Don't think I ever found out which was which to be honest with you. I don't think anyone ever told me - and I think I got them mixed up during a script meeting. But I skirted over the potential embarrassment by telling a very funny joke about halibut, so there was no harm done.
Moving onto more serious matters, your career in the lime-light has been dogged by rumours...
Let's get some stuff cleared up right now. The toupeé thing is a complete fabrication.
Indeed it is - I think I can see the join, it must be a cheap fabrication. Nylon?
Not funny. I can walk out if you like.
I should think so. My hair did start to grey a little at the temples a couple of years back, so I won't deny the use of a little colouring here and there, just so it matches. This is the business of show, and it's a young penguin's game. But that picture of me in the tabloids - grey from beak to flipper - was a doctored, airbrushed forgery. Absolute nonsense.
Actually I was referring to your time at the Keith Harris Institute...
The fish addiction thing. Yes. Not a great time of my life. But I'd been working so hard for so long that something just had to give. And, this being the business that it is, there's always a lot of fish about. You know, you get to a party, you have a couple of drinks, and pretty soon someone pulls out a sardine tin and a key and starts rolling up the lid. It's part of the industry - just like long waiting hours or working with Robson Green - it's something you put up with. But I learnt some valuable lessons while I was drying out.
Such as don't make apple-pie beds for any patient who's bigger than you. I was booked into the Institute for a fortnight - I only stayed two months because I was in traction.
Grievous bodily harm aside, there were life-lessons I picked up. It reminded me how important my children are to me - Baby Flibble and Flibble Junior. It showed me just how much I was loved - and not just by the public, either (although they do adore me), by my family.
When I got out, the first thing I did was kiss my wife and hug my two wonderful children. The second thing I did was throw my back out - it turns out that big hugs and recovery from back injury don't mix. Still, mustn't grumble.
Would you allow your children to follow you into the business?
I don't see why not. There's no business like it, none that I know of. Young Flibble Junior is a precocious talent already. Starred in his school play. Well, I mean, he was Third Shepherd - but you know what they say, 'No small parts, just small actors.' Besides, Joseph is a bugger of a part; all that 'pregnant wife' angst stuff has been done to death.
My wife's become oddly protective of the baby, though. 'Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington...' and all that. I think she wants at least one of them to stay away from the stage. I don't mind that - in a way she's right. Let me tell you, after twelve hours hanging around on the Casualty set waiting for the effects boys to get a character's head bleeding 'just-so', you do feel a little like jacking it all in. It's in those moments - with the AD [Assistant Director] calling, 'Ten more minutes people' with the kind of optimism only ADs have - that you say to yourself, 'No way are my kids getting into this.'
But then you get your take, and you shine. Or you take your bow on the stage and get a standing ovation from the crowd. There's nothing like that feeling - not even fish.
Finally, it was shortly after your recovery that you began your latest venture - Mr Flibble Talks To... The interview format is something of a departure for you, isn't it?
Well, you know, I've always been interested in people, characters; I love discovering what makes a person tick and tock. And in this business, you really do find some of the most fascinating individuals.
I've chosen to view the 'interviewer' Mr Flibble as a distinct and separate entity. A being one step removed from myself, as with any character. He's inquisitive, but not to the point of being nosey; he's famous, a celebrity, so he's on par with the people he meets, but he's still very much a real person, he can still communicate to the common man. All in all, he's quite an admirable chap.
Needless to say, all of that doesn't just magic itself out of thin air. I spent months putting his back-story together - stuff that never gets used on-screen (or on-line, I should say), but is vital to the characters essential depth - slowly piecing together a fully fleshed-out human being...
You mean penguin...
I mean penguin.
So who have you been talking to?
Oh, all sorts - and really I'm only just getting started. First up was Sylvain Despretz, a very talented American storyboard artist. He's worked with Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Tim Burton, all sorts. I believe he's done some artwork for the Red Dwarf site, too, which was good of him.
I've talked to a lot of effects boys - always boys, I'm not sure why that is. The urge to blow things up. Something to do with penises, no doubt - 'Would Mr Freud please report to reception.' (Laughs) Bill Pearson - he's been working on John Travolta's Battlefield Earth, and he did a lot of the model stuff for the original Alien. Chris Veale, who does those wonderful computer generated effects they're all talking about. Oh, and a charming man by the name of Mike Tucker. He blows up models for the BBC, used to put Dr Who in jeopardy a lot, as well as the Red Dwarf crew.
I wanted to get into some of the more 'technical-y' parts of the show, you know; show the tireless heroes behind the cameras. So I also had a quick word with Jem Whippey, the sound supervisor. Oh, and I talked to Ed Bye - very talented director. He just did the Kevin and Perry movie. Hilarious film, very funny. One for the masses.
Funnily enough, I did a few fairs, weekends and conventions a few years back and I got chatting to Bob Kane - the creator of Batman, now sadly no longer with us - and Ray Harryhausen. Luckily I had my tape recorder with me. So I thought it might be rather fun to include those as well. Fascinating gentlemen both.
And this is just the beginning, I imagine...
Absolutely. These interviews are just the beginning. I've got all manner of guests in mind for the future - from comedy, from science fiction, from all over. It's going to be amazing.
Mr Flibble can be seen in Mr Flibble Talks To... at www.reddwarf.co.uk. And if you don't tune in... Mr Flibble will be very cross!