Meet the Wigan puppet master behind Hacker T Dog
Adored by millions of youngsters '“ and quite a few adults too '“ Hacker T Dog is a furry star worthy of mention alongside other heroes of TV Puppetdom such as Sooty, Basil Brush and the Muppets.
And, unless you haven’t come across this feisty hound through channel zapping, children or grandchildren, you will also know that he is a very proud Wiganer who wastes no opportunity to inform the rest of the world of this fact.
But while Hacker – the T stands for “The” by the way – can now be seen rubbing shoulders with A-listers like Benedict Cumberbatch, Dwayne The Rock Johnson”, Jodie Whittaker, Andy Murray and Sue Barker – far less is known about the man behind him: Phil Fletcher.
So Wigantoday decided to track down this extremely talented, but reclusive, chap to discover how the telly phenomenon that is Hacker came about and find out more about his handler.
Phil is Hindley born and bred, and at 42 has in recent years seen a lifetime’s dedication to puppetry reap rich rewards, not least through a series of Bafta nominations and a packed diary of work for the small screen.
He lives with two (real) small dogs called Cozmo and Molly in a modest semi in his home town, not a stone’s throw from his mum’s house, and sees no reason why he should up sticks unless the job demands it. It certainly fell well on that score that BBC children’s television productions are now based at Media City in Salford.
The house is an Aladdin’s cave in terms of his craft. For not only is Phil an expert puppeteer, he is also a master at creating them.
Many of the spongy, outlandish characters who have appeared on Hacker’s shows have come from Phil’s own imagination and hands.
Perhaps even more impressive are his stunningly exact replicas – if that is the word – of other famous puppets, which he has simply put together by watching them on screen and on pictures.
And so it is that Muppets Fozzie, Gonzo, Miss Piggy and Kermit all crowd into his lounge alongside Basil Brush. These are purely for his own recreation because he can’t use them for commercial gain as that would breach licensing laws. The Emu which stands guard by the lounge door is a genuine Rod Hull article, however, that Phil bought at auction.
But one of his neat sidelines is also creating puppets for TV’s Sooty Show. As we revealed earlier this year, Phil was given the honour of voicing Sweep (all scripted, if anyone thought he was just squeaking inanely) on the most recent series.
He has produced fresh new versions of Sooty sidekicks such as Butch the bulldog and Ramsbottom the snake in his domestic workshop.
That facility is a newly converted outbuilding where Phil spends hours cutting, carving and colouring reticulated foam sheeting into all kinds of wondrous creatures, some new, some familiar.
He also jokes that the only “cooking” he does in the kitchen is dyeing puppets on the hob.
Originals he sells or hires out. Some he just keeps for his own aesthetic delectation or for use on Hacker’s shows.
Ironically one of the few puppets he didn’t have a hand in creating, if you’ll pardon the pun, is Hacker himself, who was already a TV extra before they were united.
So how did it all begin? Phil takes up the story.
“I simply cannot think of a time when I wasn’t interested in puppets,” he said. “I was watching them on the TV from the earliest of ages, was making them out of card and paper too and putting on shows for anyone who cared to watch. The first public performance was a version of the Hare and the Tortoise at the local church. That would have been when I was at All Saints Primary.”
As a pupil of Mornington High School (now Hindley High) Phil’s interest in putting on shows and creating puppets only grew. “I was performing at children’s parties when I wasn’t much older than the kids themselves,” he said.
“In the summer holiday between leaving primary and starting secondary school I started doing shows with a whole cast of puppets I had created and I named the company Gluvets – which is still in existence today 30 years on.
“My first puppet created out of cloth and foam that same year of 1993 was a blue creature called Josh and I still have him to this day. I would be putting fliers up in shop windows to promote shows I was doing.
“It was a way of life. It’s madness but I have never had any interest in doing anything else. And I am stubborn. You set your mind on something and you’re never going to fail or not do it.”
On leaving school Phil went to Wigan and Leigh College to study design for a year, thinking it was the only subject that had anything remotely to do with his career trajectory, but he said it was of little value to him because it didn’t focus on puppet-making. If that sounds too niche, there are plenty of such courses around these days, but not then.
In any case, confident Phil already considered himself a semi-pro who had already learnt the basics of his craft and was making money from children’s parties.
That didn’t mean he didn’t require a day job though and for several years worked in “menial roles” on the production lines at Ingersoll Rand and Alphason Design.
Any money he earned though went towards his dream: building and promoting his work. He got more and more jobs, he acquired agents who then started finding him family cabaret summer seasons at Butlins, Pontins, Haven et al, dashing all over the country from day to day.
By 2002, with a full performance schedule, he ditched the day job.
Phil said: “The diary was rammed, chocka. I have never been so busy. I was doing a gig most days. I remember doing one every day for 40 days without a break.”
He was also turning out puppets, many of whom were given airings – along with Phil’s own talents – during YouTube’s early days. Which is where Hacker came in, although he was the last thing on Phil’s mind at first and he nearly turned him down.
“Out of the blue I was contacted by the BBC asking if I would like to audition to operate Hacker The Dog. I didn’t want to do it: I was so busy and it was only for four months, but they persuaded me to give it a try, I attended the audition and got the job.
“Hacker had already been on telly in a children’s series called Scoop with (former Eastenders actor) Shaun Williamson. They wanted to bring him onto CBBC and make more of a character of him, because up until that time he had only growled and barked.
“Within a week I was on the TV with Iain Stirling, who went on to be the voice of Love Island, doing the links between programmes and within four months we had been nominated for a Bafta.”
And so Hacker’s career as a continuity announcer sidekick began, following in the footsteps of Edd the Duck and Gordon the Gopher. Even then though he was mainly barking with the odd word thrown in.
Gradually Phil began to inject more and more dialogue into the act. He said: “I wanted him to become more interesting and so I began incorporating more language, including a Wigan accent, until, in essence he became me.”
So successful was the hound that he was then given his own programme – Hacker Time – a children’s sketch comedy talk show which ran for 63 episodes and was Bafta-nominated no fewer than eight times. Phil says that that would never have happened if he hadn’t given full voice to his border terrier.
In some ways, puppet and master are these days interchangeable.
“Hacker’s birthday is my birthday,” says Phil. “When I had my appendix out so did he. If I have a sore throat, he has to have one too although that’s for practical reasons too.
“Of course he is not a real person, but there is now a continuity of memory, a Hacker history, so he could go on a chat show and I guess it’s too personal now for anyone else to be able to take over. I am not acting anymore – he is just me. Which is a lot easier!”
Hacker is still on CBBC from Monday to Friday and also has his Saturday Mash-u,p which is the BBC’s first Saturday morning live children’s TV show in 12 years. He has met some of TV and film’s biggest stars and pops up on our screens in other places too.
Breakfast television (particularly with weather forecaster Carol Kirkwood), News 24 with Simon McCoy and Today at Wimbledon (with his beloved Sue Barker) have all benefited from
Hacker’s wit and wisdom and he also came second on an edition of Celebrity Mastermind.
The last of these appearances prompted a question to Phil about how tricky and uncomfortable it can be to operate Hacker, even though he’s never wanted to branch out into ventriloquism.
He said: “Most of the time I am on a puppet trolley, which is a bit like one of those trolleys mechanics have for doing your MOT, so it is quite comfortable. There are occasions when that just doesn’t work. I remember being stuck in a hollowed-out couch for one show which was pretty cramped and contorted. The things you do for your art!
“As far as Mastermind was concerned I was on my trolley, but I was also watching a TV monitor of Hacker so I could see his face while I operated him, trying to be amusing and trying to get the answers right at the same time. I reckon I should have been given a handicap for that.
“They wanted me to do Sue Barker as my specialist subject but, in all honesty I don’t know much about her really. I said I wanted Hacker to have a proper go at the quiz and one of the few things I do know about is The Pet Shop Boys, so they let me do that, partly because of the pet dog connection.”
Phil – and Hacker for that matter – seem contented with their lots in life and could be in Wigan and on our screens for many years to come.
“I am Wigan born and bred. I love the place; and my stuff’s here,” said Phil. “I’ve lived here all my life apart from a couple of years sharing a flat in London with Iain Stirling when we both started out.
“After that all of children’s telly moved up to Salford, which suited me just fine.
“The Hacker schedule is crazy and they send me here, there and everywhere, sometimes at short notice, but I love it. It’s the best job in the world and I think Hacker be around for a while yet, which is good for the mortgage lender.”
Asked if he gets recognised, Phil said: “Not really although once I was in the Trafford Centre and was haranguing an assistant in a mobile phone shop. The louder and more animated I got the more I sound like Hacker. Eventually a guy came up to me and asked me if I did his voice!”
A few celebrity appearances aside – such as Wigan’s Christmas lights switch-on – Phil and Hacker rarely do live gigs anymore although they did make an exception for a Keith Harris and Orville tribute show which also featured Christopher Biggins, Duncan Norvelle, The Grumbleweeds and The Krankies.
In what little spare time Phil has away from operating and making puppets (often to order, sometimes with detailed briefs, sometimes with the vaguest outlines and to use his imagination), he is also half of a tribute band called the Pound Shop Boys, which record cover versions of old children’s television programmes and novelty chart hits. They have a new CD out called Nostalgia.