I never forget a face, but in the case of Roy Skelton I might be permitted to make an exception.
Voice of the Daleks / Cybermen / Krotons / you get the idea, Skelton managed to attain status as a TV legend without ever really appearing on it, at least not in person. That’s not to say he wasn’t famous. He was. But Skelton – whose death was reported five years ago today – achieved his household name status in casa del Baldock thanks to his appearance in hundreds of closing credits sequences (which I always watched, because these people have families). Skelton spent much of his life off the camera but never far from the boom – if he’d walked past you in the street, chances are you’d have been none the wiser, but if he’d said hello then you’d have pictured him sitting in a crowded studio surrounded by rubber monsters, trailing wires and harassed production assistants, or perhaps crouching beneath a table in a brightly coloured house.
For a generation of us, of course, Skelton was the voice of the most obnoxious character on children’s TV, the arrogant and cocksure Zippy – along with his wallflower companion at the table, the oft-persecuted George the hippo. Sharing a bed was Bungle the Bear – who would prance around the house naked for most of the day before putting on pyjamas in the evening – and overseeing the singing, role play and squabbling over toys was Geoffrey Hayes, assisted by a plethora of guests and storytellers. Music was provided by a steadily evolving trio of singers who eventually stabilised in the form of Rod, Jane and Freddy (still popular today, despite being the real culprits behind the celebrity superinjunction). There is, somewhere, a parallel universe where Jane Tucker auditioned for Doctor Who instead of Rainbow, and replaced Jo Grant, leading to a memorable confrontation with Davros that concluded with the words “Actually, we know a song about a big red button…”
The setup in the Rainbow house bothered me for a long time. They apparently had no issues with money, always seeming to have it to buy birthday cakes or new dolls, or even the contents of an entire larder the morning Zippy got particularly greedy, but Geoffrey (the sole breadwinner) didn’t seem to have any sort of job or obvious means of income. It took a while to figure out that he’s playing the role of foster father (presumably receiving some sort of allowance in the process) to troubled youngsters: that would certainly explain George and Zippy, and personally I’ve always had Bungle pegged as a serial arsonist. Go on – look into those steely black eyes and tell me I’m wrong.
It’s often said that Zippy and the Daleks have a lot in common – short tempers, a qualified mean streak and a superiority complex bordering on the megalomaniacal. The funny thing is that if you listen to Skelton do his Dalek voice sans filter, it really does sound uncannily like Zippy – the rasping, faintly obnoxious sneer that the man does so well. But to an extent, that’s par for the course. Chedaki, the sinister military leader in The Android Invasion, also sounds rather like Zippy. Even King Rokon, who bookends The Hand of Fear, sounds a little like Zippy. Perhaps that’s just my generation’s childhood coming back to haunt us. When you’ve grown up with decades of tuneless renderings of I’m A Little Teapot, certain things get stuck in the brain.
But Skelton was far from a one-trick pony. I mentioned spending your life off the camera, but the man was a fine actor when he was called to be – an abundance of small roles in Who and several episodes of The Bill pepper his CV along with all the theatrical work, or if you wanted something lighter, witness his various turns in Take a Chance, ITV’s short-lived children’s sitcom (although watching him with Stanley Bates really is like watching a scene between Bungle and George on uppers). Even on Rainbow, his ability to switch from one character to the other more or less on the fly (Skelton wrote about 150 episodes, and used to insert as many arguments between the two characters as he could) was renowned – not to mention the additional voice he used when he needed to voice both George and Zippy simultaneously.
Some of Skelton’s forays on camera were rather improvised, of course. His role in The Green Death came about thanks to the unfortunate departure of Tony Adams, who had been hospitalised and whose absence demanded emergency rewrites – on paper, the insertion of Mister James really shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. On another occasion during the filming of The Five Doctors, Skelton was asked to portray an increasingly frenzied Dalek, stretching his maniacal cry of “EXTERMINATE!!!” almost to breaking point because the director was on the phone and hadn’t told him to stop. Both stories are testament to Skelton’s professionalism and dedication to his work, but he didn’t suffer fools gladly, famously hanging up on Russell Brand in a 2007 radio interview when Brand asked for a description of Zippy’s genitals.
That’s not to call the man a prude. His participation in the infamous ‘Rude Rainbow’ sketch – a competition entry (and outright winner) for an ITV Christmas party that was never intended for public consumption until it was leaked – is proof enough. Indeed, the unleashed, post-watershed Zippy has a mouth like a U.S. drill sergeant. That might explain some of his popularity. Just as young children are both in fear of and fiercely empathetic towards the temper tantrums thrown by enraged Daleks, so Zippy speaks to the naughty toddler in all of us.
Skelton’s been gone for half a decade, and while the Daleks live on thanks to Nicholas ‘I’ll do everything, me’ Briggs, it’s a testament to his legacy in children’s TV that Zippy and George remain eerily (and, in Zippy’s case, uncharacteristically) silent. He expected Rainbow to last for six weeks: little could he have known that the show would manage twenty years, while its characters were still going strong long after the ink dried on the cancellation notice. Skelton wasn’t the sort of person to make the poster spreads, but he was an adept improviser, a talented actor and voice artist and, by all accounts, a brilliant raconteur – and when the news of his death broke it signalled, for many of us, the death of our childhood, or at least a part of it.
Of course, it was tempting just to say “BUGGER, WE’VE LOST HIM…”