Stephen Novy – Pekko’s Puppeteer
Peter Charlton on the contribution of Pekko's Puppets founder Stephen Novy as he leaves puppetry behind for table tennis
On 14 August, just before the final performance at the Cheltenham Puppet Festival, Ted Beresford, in his capacity as Vice President of the British Puppet & Model Theatre Guild, presented the Guild’s ‘President’s Plate’ to Steve Novy. The Plate is presented annually to a Guild member who the president considers has made an outstanding contribution to British puppetry. In Steve’s case that contribution had gone on for a fair number of years.
Steve gave his first puppet show in 1973, made his debut as a full-time professional puppeteer in 1982, and in May 2010, much to my personal dismay, retired from puppetry. I live in the hope that he will soon miss the puppets and return to performing. His many skills will be much missed.
It all started in 1973 when, at a school in Acton, West London, Steve met Caz and Mike Frost; older puppeteers will remember Caz as an excellent Punch & Judy professor and Mike as the redoubtable ‘Major Mustard’. Thus inspired, Steve attended courses at The Puppet Centre, took over some puppets made by his stepmother, Pat Novy, and went into production. One of those puppets was a rod-puppet blackbird called Pekko. In 1982 he felt confident enough to give up his job as a teacher and become a professional puppeteer. Pekko’s Puppets was born.
The early repertoire included Red Riding Hood and Three Little Pigs, using a traditional stand-up booth taken from the design on the back of a Ladybird book. A few years later he made a twelve-foot wide staging with free-standing background for dramatic rod-puppet shows including The Sleeping Beauty and Jorinda and Joringel. Steve’s stepfather was an Irish sculptor, puppet-maker and author and his influence directed Steve towards the Irish folk tales of Finn MacCool, the giant of Giant’s Causeway fame.
Not one to sit still for too long, Steve was ever inventing new shows, trying out new kinds of booths, alternating between rod and glove puppets and even masks when it seemed appropriate. There was Down with Dracula, full of mad, scary things, the Scottish Mollie Whuppie, Gogol’s The Man who lost his nose and even Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar performed in Punch & Judy style, using glove puppets. Steve says it failed to interest schools but was 'popular with towns of Roman origin'.
In 1992 Steve devised a television show, Tea with Grandma, in which, if I remember rightly, he operated a Grandma who used to ‘interview’ children who had made some particular achievement. This was incredibly challenging as he was not just a puppeteer but also a TV interviewer, not an easy task. The BBC inflicted him with an impossible schedule – all nine programmes for the series were recorded in one weekend – and there was no second series.
As the 20th Century came to a close, Steve produced a show in which he not only worked the puppets but also played one of his heroes, Hans Christian Andersen, telling the story of The Ugly Duckling’s new Clothes! This show was revived in 2005 for Andersen’s 200th anniversary and was a great success.
Another experiment was in 2006 when he joined with magician Ian Saville for The Sultan’s Treasure from Arabian Nights; I remember seeing this at the Tricycle Theatre. It was a beautiful production. My last visit to a Pekko show was in May this year, again at the Tricycle; Anansi Tales was his first venture into tabletop puppetry and emphasised his great skill as a storyteller.
Some of Steve’s earliest bookings, back in the early 80s, were at Waterman’s in Brentford and the Tricycle in Kilburn. The fact that he was still packing these venues in 2010 is a clear indication of his long-lasting popularity due to his consistently high standards. As I said, he will be much missed.
I’ve a feeling this might read like an obituary. No, no, Steve Novy is very much alive and if you stop off at one of the Mayor of London’s Table Tennis tables, now dotted around the city, you’ll probably see him showing off another skill!