Warrick Brownlow-Pike is a famous television cactus. He spent three years performing as Oucho on CBBC, a banana-loving, water-hating cactus who spoke his own language called Cactinian.
”My interview for that was in a pub. We were sat there with our drinks and they said, ’We’ve got this character: it’s a cactus. It can’t pick anything up, it can’t walk around because it’s in a pot, and it doesn’t speak any English.’ Where do you go from there? I didn’t know, so I just started gibbering on like a madman, going, ’Aw, di di di, aw, lossoli!’”
Oucho’s unique language developed a following. ”After doing it a few times, kids started deciphering it, realising that lossoli meant lovely and Flicki Herbet was David Beckham and nananadi meant banana. But once you’ve said it on children’s TV, you can’t change it the next day, because otherwise kids would write in. We had to keep a dictionary in the end.” Alongside human co-host Ed Petrie, the pair presented CBBC’s continuity links and travelled the world for their own show, Ed and Oucho’s Excellent Inventions. It was a lot in a short space of time, and when Warrick started dreaming in Cactinian, it was clear that Oucho needed a sabbatical. These days he performs Dodge T. Dog instead.
If you’re under the age of twelve, it’s likely that you’re familiar with Warrick’s work. One of Britain’s most prolific puppeteers, he has worked for everyone from Cbeebies to The Jim Henson Company. If his face was on television as much as his characters’, he’d be famous.
”That’s the brilliant thing about puppets,” he says, ”Nobody knows who you are. It’s the best of both worlds because you can go shopping and not be noticed, but then you put the puppet on and everyone goes, ’Oh, it’s you! Come in! Have cake!’” Warrick now works with performers he idolised as a child. ”Edd the Duck was our boss when Dodge started. She’s gone from performing that character to being in charge of the whole department.”
Every inch of Warrick’s workshop is covered with puppets, designs for puppets and books on puppetry. As he talks, he can’t help himself picking up puppets again and again to demonstrate his points. Even when he’s not holding one, Warrick uses his gift for mimicry to leap into the voices of the people he’s talking about, from co-workers to the Queen, whom he performed for privately last year.
Warrick was just two years old when he found his calling. ”It sounds bizarre, but it’s true. I was sat in front of a repeat of the Muppet Show. The curtains opened and all the Muppets came out, singing and dancing to the music, and I was in heaven. In that moment I thought, ’I don’t know what this is, but it’s what I need to do.’” His mother supported him to the hilt, winning competitions so he could go to the premieres of Muppet movies to meet the performers. ”Maybe you wouldn’t be too happy if your kid said, ’Oh, I’m going to play with puppets for the rest of my life,’” he muses. ”But she never did.”
Warrick’s mother instead used her genius for sewing and making things to help him make his first puppets. The first, finished when he was just seven, is still sitting here with the others. These days professional puppet-builders realise his intricate designs, but even at the heights of the industry, puppets are still made of felt and string and foam. Whenever Warrick picks one up, it’s hard not to notice their stands—homemade devices which are basically cup stands with the prongs removed and half a tennis ball stuck on top. ”That’s what I love about puppets,” Warrick explains. ”This little thing is just balls and fluff, but you can make a connection with it, between the puppet and the person.”
Puppetry is an extreme form of method acting, in its own quiet way. When Warrick’s under the CBBC desk performing, it’s as if he stops existing. ”The crew will say, ”Dodge can you step left, Dodge can you step right, Dodge do you want a cup of tea?” People just talk to the puppet and I talk to them through it. I stop being me and go into a weird state. I love to see him live there, in that world, and to see the relationships he can have with people.”
”I remember the first time I met Kermit the Frog,” Warrick says, suddenly giddy. ”It was only a few years ago. He smiled and I started blushing. ’Oh my God, Kermit’s smiling at me! What do I say to him?’ Then I thought to myself, ’Oh don’t be stupid, it’s just a puppet.’ But it wasn’t. It was Kermit. That’s me as an adult, flustered by the fact that a puppet was smiling at me, and I’m surrounded by them every day. Even knowing how it all works, I can still watch the Muppets and love it, because I believe them. I believe that they’re real.”
Warrick’s website is found at www.brownlow-pike.co.uk.