"YOU have to be there,
because without you they don't have any life; and yet if you're too
present, you rob them of life." The Revd Simon Buckley is
describing his vocation as a puppeteer; but, not for the first
time, as he talks, you notice why people say it is like playing
God. At other times, you see a different overlap, between puppeteer
He can tell a successful
performance when, afterwards, someone says: "I completely forgot
you were there." But is he talking about being a puppeteer, or
about being a priest? The performative element in both his
vocations finds best expression when the performer disappears.
"I see huge parallels in
the way a priest must become transparent," he says: "simultaneously
use his God-given personality to engage, but become this invisible
presence, to enable people to connect with God."
After a successful career
in TV, theatre, and film, earlier this year Fr Buckley, now 50
years old, was licensed as the Priest-in-Charge of St Anne's, Soho,
in London. He had spent four years in the parish as a
non-stipendiary priest, from 2005, but, until this year, was always
the acclaimed puppeteer who sometimes moonlighted as the
For six years, Nobby the
talking sheep, a character in the ITV series Ghost Train,
"paid my mortgage". As of February this year, the vocations are
reversed. Now, Fr Buckley is the priest who moonlights as the
puppeteer, his primary calling to animate a small Christian
community in the heart of the West End.
He has moved into a smart
apartment above the small church, itself a collection of modest
rooms behind the tower of the original Wren building that was
destroyed in the Blitz. But climb another flight of stairs to the
vicarage spare bedroom, and you appreciate the extent of Fr
Buckley's professional heritage.
PUPPETS of all shapes and
sizes - some strange, some familiar - hang from closets and stare
from the walls. Signed celebrity photos catalogue his TV career,
while latex models of David Owen, Neil Kinnock, and Ronald Reagan
capture his Spitting Image antecedents.
"I started as one of the
corgis in the Palace, and Margaret Thatcher's right hand, and ended
up as the Queen, and the whole of Tony Blair," he says of ten years
working on the satirical news programme, from 1986. In those
distant, pre-internet, pre-multichannel days, the breathtaking,
sometimes vicious comedy of Spitting Image was Monday
morning's national conversation.
Although Fr Buckley makes
many of his own puppets, on Spitting Image he was moving
them, bringing them to life against pre-recorded audio. He often
played God - "the usual, genial, loving, bearded old man" - but
drew the line at a sketch satirising Jesus. "I felt it wasn't
mocking the practice of faith, but the faith itself, and I couldn't
be part of it."
Even with 1500
performances for children's theatre, and 2000 TV shows, Fr Buckley
was to find his most devoted audience as performer and voice of
Nobby the Sheep. It was not that Nobby earned him a place in the
book Legends of Children's Television, it was the letters
from young viewers.
"I would open an
envelope, and grass would fall on the floor, with a note saying
'Nobby, I've sent you some breakfast.' Or a child would write to
tell me they were being bullied at school.
"I'd thought I was going
to be interviewing Kylie Minogue, but, instead, I was touching
thousands of lives, in a way that was out of my control. There was
something going on, that I couldn't describe."
FR BUCKLEY can point to
his grandparents for setting him on the journey from a Merseyside
comprehensive to film sets of The Muppets, and
Labyrinth, with David Bowie. The gift of Sooty and Sweep
glove-puppets for his fifth birthday "captured my imagination. It
was about bringing things to life."
At the age of nine,
passing a shop in Chester with his parents, he was enthralled by
some string puppets in the window. He found them under the tree the
following Christmas. The mother of a girl at school asked him to
bring them to her daughter's party.
"They gave me a pound.
Next night, a stranger phoned up and said to my Dad: 'Hello I'd
like to speak to Simon Buckley, the children's party entertainer.'
My dad said: 'Well, you can, but he's only nine.' She said, 'That's
all right: he's only a pound.'"
Soon, the family were
roped in to making scenery, or recording soundtracks for the plays
that he was writing around a growing collection of characters. By
the age of 16, he was doing a Punch and Judy show, and had a
financial incentive for a solo performance: "I could keep the whole
He had also become
involved in the church in Birkenhead which his mother attended
every other Sunday - on the basis that any more often would suggest
that she was Roman Catholic. A friend at the youth club invited him
to join the choir. "I'd love to say I had a blinding moment of
revelation, but I really didn't. I just gradually heard stuff that
made sense; there was something inviting about the culture and
liturgy. . .
"I think I was the only
kid from a comprehensive school on Merseyside who was also singing
in a robed church choir, but I did manage to avoid getting my head
kicked in for it."
AS A teenage chorister,
delivering a reading from Isaiah 6, he suddenly felt the words
"Here I am, Lord, send me" jumping off the page. He realised that
he was making his personal response to a call to the
"My careers master
flicked through his big book of jobs, and said: "Puppeteer isn't in
here; so it will have to be priest." Not quite: there was a prior
Performing 100 shows in
his 16th year, the teenage puppeteer acquired a fame that led to a
training programme at a Birmingham children's theatre company, and
the distinction of being the first person to get an LEA grant to
study puppetry. "My grant form had me down as 'Puppetry Student
001'." An Equity card followed, and the rest is showbiz. "It all
goes back to Sooty and Sweep, when I was five."
professional career, Fr Buckley developed a parallel puppeteering
track in the Church. From the huge collection of figures in the
spare bedroom, he picks out some of the simple, half-wooden-rod
puppets he uses regularly.
"These are two of my
Jesuses, and a Mary Magdalene. I work them on a table top, or out
of a very large book which opens up; so I act as narrator to the
audience, and speak for characters. My job is to get out of the
He slips easily between
characters, borrowing comic accents from Alan Bennett to Hyacinth
Bucket. He is a funny man, and a natural entertainer - but also an
educator. In parts of the Church, notably North America, puppet-
eering has boomed, albeit sometimes as a form of crude propaganda
in "children's ministry".
Soft sculpture puppets
with moving mouths - a style influenced by the Muppets - is the
dominant form; but, however powerful it is visually, it is often
executed with little nuance, making sure that no question is left
IN FACT, the medium has a
distinguished Christian heritage. Fr Buckley describes the arrival
of Mr Punch in Covent Garden, just a few streets away from his
vicarage in 1662 - a string puppet handled by Italian puppeteers
who were telling biblical stories.
The Church has lost sight
of the power of the puppet, Fr Buckley says. It has forgotten its
ability to "see things from an oblique angle". Irreverent, or even
outrageous suggestions from a puppet can seem charming, naïve, and
honest. "A puppet can ask questions in a way that isn't as
disrespectful, but is often more truthful than if the question was
coming from a human being."
While he is being careful
not to overplay his hand as the new parish priest in Soho - no
puppets peer over the pulpit during sermons - like all puppeteers,
he thinks visually. A class from the nearby Soho Parish School
visits the church each Wednesday, and, at one recent assembly, Fr
Buckley slowly and dramatically unrolled a ten-foot-tall hand-drawn
poster of Goliath.
perspective is always being harnessed, and sometimes, he says, "I
bring the best toys out of the box."
Given the density of
weekday population, like other city-centre churches the challenge
is how few churchgoing people live in the parish - and how deserted
the parish can be on Sundays. But Soho, he says, is a village that
needs its school, its pub, and its church.
"I was out walking the
dog a couple of weeks after I arrived, and a lady said to me: 'I'm
not religious; I'm never going to come to church; but I'm so glad
we've got our own Vicar again.'"
IF ST ANNE's does not
have an elegant building (or much left of one) or famous choir, it
has something just as powerful - a reputation for offering a safe
space, where people can be honest about their lives.
"There's a lack of
pretence about this church," he says. "A lot of churches have a
sign saying 'All welcome', but you suspect there is a caveat. St
Anne's has historically been true to that offer."
A website that makes it
clear that the church is "gay-friendly" can be read in more than
one way. Someone travelled a great distance one week, only to be
disappointed that "we were more ordinary than he'd
On the other hand, a
group of transsexuals meets regularly for evensong. "It was
interesting to see the raised eyebrows, even in Soho, as five
transsexuals and a vicar head off in search of a restaurant."
But even if the new Vicar
is keen not to be branded as the puppeteering priest", his two
vocations will inevitably enrich life in an unusual parish. And
they offer unusual theological insights.
He is not the type to
talk to his puppets, but, when he was packing Nobby away, after the
final Saturday morning show, it was hard, "like saying goodbye to a
good friend". There is something "strongly parental" about making,
voicing, and performing puppets.
"It helps me understand a
little about being made in the image of God, because no matter how
abstract the character I'm involved in, there's always the imprint
of the creator within it."
And sometimes, something
just a little mysterious and magical takes place: "There is
something other that happens when you're performing a puppet
character, that comes from another place. I know what the puppet
gives, I know what my skills bring, but there is this other
"And sometimes I can't
put through the puppet all that I want to; it's as if the puppet
itself is presenting some barriers. Maybe that's a feeling familiar
to God, too."
St Anne's, Soho, has an
honourable history of creative mission, writes Madeleine
IN HIS readiness to "raise a
few eyebrows" in Soho, the current Vicar of St Anne's is continuing
something of a tradition. In 1955, the magazinePicture Postshadowed
a young curate at the church, the Revd Tony Reid, in his efforts to
take the Christian message to what the reporter regarded as "one of
the most notorious districts in London".
Interviewed in a club, in
his cassock, "his beer half drunk, his cigarette pointing to the
bar", Fr Reid said that "the Church must come to the people",
prompting the reporter to wonder "Can you take a Church mission
into a nightclub; a public house; a tenement with bedraggled
washing on the area landing, haunted by hungry cats?"
Fr Reid and his team were in
for a "hard shock", the magazine reported. Twenty minutes of
evangelisation on a doorstep, followed by the slamming of the door
by an "abusive drunk", was chalked up as a "victory".
Nevertheless, the mission
impressed the reporter, who concluded that "firm and intelligent
faith is needed to beat the cynicism, the mockery, the downright
insults in the shades of Soho."
Fr Reid was assistant to the
Rector of St Anne's, the Revd Patrick McLaughlin. Chided by the
Lord Chamberlain's office for staging plays at St Thomas's, Regent
Street, Fr McLaughlin brought his love of the arts to his Soho
parish. An obituary inThe Timesreported that he had asked
permission from the Bishop of London "to use the St Anne's clergy
house as a kind of mission centre for thinking pagans".
Between 1942 and 1958, he
ran the Society of St Anne's, promoting links between the Church
and the world of literature. Members included Dorothy L. Sayers
(whose ashes are buried in the Tower), and Rose Macaulay, both of
whom were churchwardens. Meetings were attended by writers
including T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Agatha Christie, John Betjeman,
and Iris Murdoch.