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String theory, by Soho priest

24 May 2013

Simon Buckley once operated puppets for Spitting Image, and made a name with his own TV character, Nobby, a talking sheep. Now, his charges play a slightly different role. He talks to Martin Wroe


Puppet master:above: the Revd Simon Buckley with a selection of his charges

Puppet master:above: the Revd Simon Buckley with a selection of his charges

"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 and priest.

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 priest.

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 pound."

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 priesthood.

"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 calling.

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."

Throughout his 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 way."

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 unanswered.

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.

His theatrical 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 anticipated."

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 element.

"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 Davies

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.



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