Will Adamsdale: Power-hungry puppets ate my comedy career

My reaction time is too slow to be a proper standup. It takes me about two weeks to come up with a decent riposte to a heckle. It turns out you can’t just email audience members what you should have said a fortnight after the event. Although sometimes at the fringe I probably could have – once I had eight people in. Or was it seven? It’s hard to tell in the dark.

How has it come to this? I was nearly a somebody 15 years ago. Was it the dwindling talent? The laziness? The ever creakier old boys’ network? The answer came to me one day as I was walking along the Royal Mile, which was thick with old flyers and memories. The street was brought to a standstill by a procession of puppets. Suddenly it clicked. It was all the puppets’ fault.

Could it really have been a coincidence that the year after my surprise capture of the 2004 Perrier award there was an explosion of puppets across popular culture? I can’t name names, but think insurance-peddling Russian(ish) meerkats, or a Plasticine Italian family who enjoy spaghetti. Their sudden proliferation was a power play. A coup. I didn’t realise that I was their intended victim until I got down to the last two for a lucrative TV ad, only for it to be given to a puppet.

Why me? What had I ever done to them?

It got worse. They had a taste for power and were mobilising for a mass puppet takeover. Think about it: can anyone remember seeing a puppet on stage until the mid-noughties? Now, increasingly, I find myself thinking: “Are there any actual people in this play?!” Wherever I look, there are War Horses. War Dogs. War Cats.

Twenty-five years ago you had Emu and Basil Brush, with whom I offered to broker a truce at this year’s fringe, where Basil has had two shows. Basil spurned me, too consumed by his own all-conquering success. I guess Punch and Judy are struggling on like old vaudevillians, but apart from that, puppets used to be hard to come by. Now they’re everywhere. Coming over here, taking our jobs …

Mobilising for a mass puppet takeover … Warhorse at the New London theatre in 2009. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

“But they’re so cute,” you’ll be saying. “Why is this guy dissing them? We love puppets.” Have you ever considered what a perfect front that is? The other defence you’ll hear is: “Puppetry is so amazing; they’re so lifelike”. There’s a reason for that: they are alive! And ruthless.

This isn’t just a showbiz thing. How long will it be before we start seeing puppets driving our trains? Puppets in parliament? In the Palace? We need only look at Reagan, at Arnie, at Trump, to know that showbiz is often just the start.

I began organising massive anti-puppet protest marches on the Royal Mile. But in the end it was just me and a 78-year-old American tourist who I think was just lost. Maybe he thought it was a show. I’d timed it to collide with a procession of Korean dragon puppets but they steamrolled us. I was left sitting on the Royal Mile at midnight in the pouring rain. I could hear carefree puppets laughing in bars in the distance. The Tattoo fireworks went off: the big attraction this year is a Puppet Pipe Band.

That Oscar Wilde quote captures it perfectly: “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Except the stars I was looking at were on one of my discarded flyers. And there were only two of them.

Maybe it was the rain, maybe my dwindling confidence, or maybe some dastardly puppet magic, but I suddenly noticed I was shrinking. In no time I’d been reduced to the size of a Star Wars figurine. I had to get away from the fringe before I disappeared completely. With the help of the American tourist, I made my flyer into an origami boat and floated off down the rainy Mile towards Portobello and the sea, a sailor of destiny.

Sailorwhy did that trigger something in my memory? Then it hit me: I had a history with puppets! I had asked for (and received) a sailor puppet for my eighth birthday: old school, with strings and all that, a rather quaint Victorian thing to want in the age of Atari. It didn’t last long in my affections. There are no photos of me with it. It just didn’t seem to do much.

That sailor must have spread the word of his rejection, and mobilised his vengeful comrades. One thing I can say for puppets is that they stick together (often literally, when they get their strings tied up).

“I’m sorry, Sailor!” I cried as I cleared the city limits. “Puppets everywhere! We must bury the hatchet!” Just before I hit the North Sea I got a text: I’d been given a four-star review from americantouristfringe.com.

I was back, baby! I steered over to a Scottish seagull eating some chips on the beach and asked for a lift back to the fringe. Tomorrow is another day; I might even break double figures.

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