mark mander interview

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. [Oscar Wilde]

In Biology, mimicry is the similarity in appearance an organism takes on from another that affords it concealment and protection. This is only modestly applicable in the case of Mark Mander and Clementine, his Living Fashion Doll creation. Mark transports us into a world where the fabulous sets, costumes and makeup captivate using wit and bedazzling acting skills in a whole new hybrid concept of performance. An entertainer with a brilliant platform to express glaring critiques, acute observations and tart pronouncements we love.

PP. I suppose we have to start by introducing the fabulous Clementine. Where does she come from?

MM. Clementine came to life when an old American satellite crashed into the sinister toy factory where she was being manufactured and brought her magically to life. But I first became involved with her when I was asked to create a Punch and Judy style show for a gay pub in Norwich.

The owners of the pub asked me to create a puppet show caricaturing some local personalities on the ‘scene’. I thought this was too cruel a thing to do – puppets can be very vicious and its one thing to lampoon a politician or public figure but quite another to make fun of a private individual – so I came up with the idea of doing a musical review with a ‘Living Barbie Doll’… and Clementine was born!

PP. How does one decide to become a puppeteer?

MM. Musicians often describe their career choice as a calling. I would say the same about puppetry.

When I was about six I saw the Muppet Show on TV and was given a Pollocks Toy Theatre, a kit which allows one to build a miniature theatre and put on wonderful plays, all made from paper and cardboard. I was hooked and started creating my own puppets and shows, some of which lasted for hours and must have been an endurance test for my poor audience.

When I was very young my family moved to Norwich, which just so happens to have one of only two permanent puppet theatres in England. After Arts School I went to work at Norwich Puppet Theatre, where I stayed for a couple of years, then the opportunity of work came up at the other permanent puppet venue – the Little Angel Puppet Theatre in London.

I performed in several productions there, operating marionettes (string puppets), which are really the most complicated and delicate of all the puppet forms. I liken their operation to playing a violin, as they are just as subtle and unforgiving. I then started working in TV for the BBC, ITV, mainly performing in children’s programmes. For over 8 years I have been the new ‘George’ the pink hippo from the children’s programme ‘Rainbow’ which was immensely popular in the 1970’s and is now being revived in various forms. Playing ‘George’ has led to some amazing experiences, performing in front of twenty-five thousand people at Party in the Park, performing our record on one of the last episodes of ‘Top of the Pops’, presenting our own programme and lots of live TV.

Puppetry is a challenging career as one never knows what one will be called on to bring to life. It could be a much loved childhood icon or in the case of an advert – I have lined up in two days time – a cheese sandwich.

I once consulted a fortuneteller on the street in Brighton one lazy summer’s afternoon. She took one look at my palm and said: “I don’t understand you. You are the centre of attention yet you are hidden.” I have always thought that sums up a puppeteer’s desire.

PP. But why did you play with puppets when you were a child?

MM. I was rather a social outcast as a child and had very few friends. In fact I hardly integrated at all and would go for weeks without talking to another child at school. I think loneliness can be a useful tool for an artist of any discipline. It allows the artist to observe the main warm, happy, connected group of people from the outside. Perhaps see things that those within the group cannot – from a slightly distant vantage point – and ultimately try to find a way to communicate with the group. And the communication of ideas must surely be the basis of any artistic endeavour, be it fine art or a comedy sketch. But although it might shape an artistic perceptive, loneliness can be rather bleak for a child so television and films became my preferred reality. Worlds, which were full of colour and hope… and everyone had great teeth.

PP. Is there any film in particular?

MM. Oh yes. It was a film made in the early 60’s in Germany I think, which was serialised on children’s TV. It was called the Singing Ringing Tree, a story reminiscent of a Grimm’s fairytale, with a spoilt princess, terrifying dwarf and a prince turning into bear. It was filmed in searing Technicolor and full of rather low-tech effects and crude almost carnival costumes, which all added to the unsettling, eerie and downright weird feel of the production.

I researched it a couple of years ago when I wanted to use it as the basis of a stage show for Clementine. I went to the British Film Institute, specialist film web sites and all sorts of places, but at that time the film was unavailable. What I did discover however was that nearly everyone who saw it as a child has similar emotional response to the film, that it was dark, eerie and powerfully etched into the memory.

I obtained a copy of the film recently as its now easily available. It certainly triggers memories… but my aim would be to try to create the same sense of delightful unease to a fresh audience.

PP. Do you remember the first puppet that you created?

MM. Yes. I made the full cast of the Muppet show, with Miss Piggy first of course. I always had an eye for a Diva. Then plays like Cinderella or those based on the TV sci-fi show Doctor Who. They are all still in the attic.

Puppetry has a technical side beyond performance, and many puppeteers start by constructing their own puppets. Then of course a stage has to be constructed, lighting, costume, sound… all dealt with. A good all round knowledge of stagecraft and show business in general can be learnt through puppetry, in a way that an actor may not need to encounter.

PP. So lets talk about the fabulously multi talented Clementine. She is a living fashion doll. How much of her is actually you?

MM. Um… I want to call my lawyer in case I incriminate myself!

Clementine is not ME but my alter ego. An alternate reality version of me freed from my history I guess. An alter ego is a wonderfully liberating thing to have and to speak as an American instead of an English person brings another set of freedoms. Clementine has no fear of her own desires and has no compunction in demanding exactly what she wants now! After all, today is the first day of the rest of her life and she is a very special person!

PP. Do people think of Clementine as a drag act? What makes her different from any other doll?

MM. I used to have steaming debates with people over this question. I could write a whole essay about this, but let me put it this way. As I understand it, drag is a man playing a woman. Clementine is a man playing a doll. Does the doll have culturally defined female traits? Yes. Does this make a female looking doll a woman? No.

For me, Clementine has more in common with Pinocchio than Lilly Savage.

I think that there will be inevitable comparisons between the two forms. What an audience sees is my face in heavy makeup and wigs and for many people that simply equates to drag. As long as they laugh in the right places I am happy.

But what I am trying to do is something with another layer of meaning. Drag is great. When it’s not being misogynistic it can be a warm, funny and subversive critique of gender roles, oppression and a great character study.

Puppetry is equally powerful and has a long history of political subversion.

You ask what makes Clementine different from any other doll? Well, she is a doll who has come to life, knows that she is a commodity, a ‘living brand’ – not so much brand awareness, but brand self awareness – and that there is a world of opportunity out there. All she has to do is buy the right outfit and she can be anything she wants. Clementine combines elements of drag and puppetry to create a third, original form, glamour puppetry!

PP. She certainly is a glamorous creature, which needs a lot of attention. Constant clothes changing, hair, makeup, lines to learn and sing. She loves stage and makes many films. How does she decide what to talk about? Does she have any special interests?

MM. I saw several agents to represent Clementine recently, all of whom said “Clementine will be huge, she can go into so many areas and talk about so many things.” I said I know!

The key to enjoying Clem appears once people accept that she is a living doll. The thing most people like about her is her sunny attitude and personality, willful, childish but positive. Clementine is Glamour Correspondent for Polari Magazine, an online publication aimed at the thinking LGBT community. For two years running she has made regular films for the BBC web site, and this year she is already being asked to star in a burlesque show, interview a big gay porn star (her lips are sealed… in the factory)… a sitcom pilot is being written for her by an independent production company, and she is talking to a producer about heading an international health campaign. As long as it’s a subject, which can be approached with a light dusting of glitter, Clementine can cover it.

PP. Does one need to have an alter ego with lipstick on in order to feel free to say anything? Why can’t we just say anything we wish?

MM. Well those are two huge questions. The short answer is I do.

I think most public speakers, be they actors, politicians, doctors… people who we are supposed to listen to, have some form of alter ego. A diploma can work as well as lipstick to hide behind or give one gravitas or permission to speak.

Ultimately, Clementine is a subversive character, combining rule breaking transvestism and the magical world of the inanimate becoming animate. She is a clown, a trickster and an empty-headed plastic dolly with a brain.

This means that people know she is not real. So she can say rather socially unacceptable things, point out uncomfortable truths and people will laugh (hopefully) rather than get offended, or start a fight, or sue.

It goes back to what I mentioned earlier, society would allow a number or artists or comics to be rule breakers social commentators pointing out the injustices or absurdities of daily life. And of course if everyone were as fabulous as Clementine then no one would stand out.

PP. She is timeless isn’t she?

MM. Well I am not sure. As the decades roll on, her face might become slightly less mobile. But style and grooming are timeless qualities.

PP. What would be a successful career for Clementine? How would you define success?

MM. I would love Clem to have her own TV show, whatever form it takes, be it a sitcom, a talk show, even an unnatural natural history program.

PP. Why?

MM. I grew up with the notion that to get ones own TV show was to make it! I now know that all of the big film stars like Judy Garland had their own TV shows in the 50’s and 60’s as film work collapsed. When I was a kid in the 70’s and 80’s we had big glittery personality led shows staring Donny and Marie Osmond, Shirley Bassey, Cilla Black, even Liberace.

Clementine would be perfect in such a show, but TV is collapsing fast so my dream may be out of date. Perhaps she will become an internet sensation. I would also like her to start paying for herself.

PP. You would like her to make money for you, you pimp.

MM. The thing I don’t have in common with fine artists is for my work to become more valuable once I’m dead honey! Have you seen the price of lipstick?

PP. Do you want to be famous?

MM. Me? No! I go back to the fortuneteller’s reading “You are hidden but are the centre of attention.”

I find getting recognised quite embarrassing. I never know what to say which is disappointing for both parties. I have worked with many famous people and I can honestly say I don’t want fame for myself, as it seems more constricting than liberating.

I do want Clementine to be famous though. How? Well my closest role model would be Barry Humphries and his alter ego Dame Edna Everage. Until recently he has stayed very much in the shadows and Dame Edna has bathed in the limelight. Clem and Edna are ego creations. They eat up praise. Let them have it!

PP. Clementine is a huge fan of Strictly Come Dancing show. Not only that but she has her own review slot on the BBC website. Isn’t that fabulous?

MM. Yes, Strictly Come Dancing is the BBC’s biggest entertainment brand which has been running for 7 years in its current form. It is a dance competition in which celebrities are pared with professional dancers and have to compete for survival in dance offs. The format has been sold worldwide and it’s known as Dancing With The Stars in America.

I love it as it represents a return to an appreciation of old school glamour. It has elegance and style and it’s also high camp. All for a mainstream audience.

The BBC asked Clementine if she would make a weekly review show for their website. She was delighted to, but quickly realised that she had more to say about the costumes than the technicalities of the dancing. This went down well with the audience as many people watch the show for its romantic vision of glamour, rather than for the dancing itself.

For fourteen weeks Clementine rated the costumes with the help of her Glam-O-Meter, she even went on location and met the designer behind all the creations, Vicky Barkess.

Vicky and her team at Dance-Sport International made Clementine an exquisite miniature ball gown encrusted with hundreds of hand applied crystals, made in exactly the same way as a full size gown. Though Vicky is used to dealing with tiny Divas as she has costumed the lovely Kylie Minogue.

I plan to make this dress the first in an entire collection of outfits designed for Clementine by top designers. A miniature fashion show will follow!

Clementine is used to dreaming big!

Text: © Predrag Pajdic, 2010

Images: © Mark Mander / Clementine The Living Fashion Doll

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