His red hair is now quite scraggy. The wool, glued on, was never going to last major wear and tear. He's missing one eye, the missing felt one a casualty of being thrown, dragged and hugged too much. I have no idea why he's wearing a yellow jumpsuit or where his original white and green striped shirt, jeans and boots are. He was my Bosco teddy and I've had him a long time. My sister had a matching one. We called them Biddy and Miley.
Fast forward some 24 years later and I'm sitting in Coffee Republic, hot chocolate in front of me waiting for the door to open and a lady I've wanted to meet for a long time to walk in. It started with twitter; I'd written a post about children's TV shows, someone had seen it and said the magic words "My mammy's Bosco" and now I'm waiting for Paula Lambert to join me for coffee.
Before I go further, for those not in the know, Bosco was an Irish children's television programme which ran during the late 1970s and 80s. Bosco, a small puppet of indeterminate gender (or so people thought) lived in a box, or his bosca, which was decorated with the number 5, because that's how old he was. You had to knock 5 times on the lid for Bosco.
Bosco's favourite colour was green (though Niamh says yellow), he was curious about everything. He was normally joined by two adults who would sing songs, read stories and make-and-do things with him. Songs included 'This is where I live', 'I'm painting', 'The Shadow song' and 'Poor old Michael Finnegan'. This was children's television back then - half two, just before Dempsey's Den - and we loved it.
There's a lot on the Irish web about Bosco. There are loads of unofficial Bosco Bebo pages, he pops up over on Boards.ie threads a lot and Donncha O'Caoimh's 2005 post on Bring back Bosco is up to over 80 comments. When researching the interview I felt I had to find out a few things. What gender is Bosco? Was he really kidnapped? Did Zig and Zag really throw him around? Where did he come from? Did the magic door really work? Come on, boys and girls of all ages, let's find out together!
Paula and Emily arrive. Coffee ordered, the first question I ask is the most obvious. "Yes," she says "I was in the box underneath for all of them". It was something I'd always wondered, once schoolyard conversations became old enough for someone to show their hand and say "What's this? Bosco naked!" - who was the person behind/underneath Bosco?
"Well Bosco was designed first as a doll, in the very early days. It relied on having the presenters work him which wasn't very practical so he became a puppet. I based the character on Emily, who was herself a red head, and quite bold and cheeky." Paula laughs while Emily goes a bit red, but seems used to it. "I think that's what Bosco is. Just an ordinary child. What gender is Bosco? I think of him as a boy but it's up to children what they decide themselves."
(Image from here)
Paula is from a - if not the - quintessential showbusiness family. Her father Eugene and mother Mai are behind the much loved Lambert Puppet Theatre and such TV shows as Wanderly Wagon and Murphy agus a Cairde.
"Dad was always making puppets" says Paula, "He started his ventriloquism act with Frankie, a predecessor to his famous Finnegan character. Him and mam moved to Dublin in 1950, when they were both 22. Mam entered him into a talent show, he won and that was the start of it." (There's a great interview with Eugene on Fústar's blog here)
"From there were the theatres, the musical halls, the tours and Jury's Cabaret. Dad was starring in the Olympia with people like Laurel and Hardy, Maureen Potter and Jimmy O' Dea. He then started with Telefís Éireann as it was at the time with Murphy agus a Cairde and then on to Wanderly Wagon. I played the squirrels on that show. I started with Bosco in 1980, and did around 360 programmes in all."
Why do Bosco?
"Well I suppose in those days I was just really grateful to have a job. The money was terrible but I've always loved children and found I could communicate well with them. A lot of people seem to use children's TV as a stepping stone, but it was where I wanted to be. I wanted to be a children's entertainer."
"The voice just came very naturally to me. I could always do it, and really don't remember not doing it. I did have a lot of input into who Bosco was - he was 5 because my daughter was 5. I was given free rein really, allowed to do what I wanted."
The magic door:
The magic door was Bosco outside - sometimes in a playground (Oh Mr Sun, Sun, Mr Golden Sun, please shine down on me...) and other times to a creamery or to the zoo, where, for me anyhow, it was my first look at a lot of the animals. I didn't get to visit Dublin zoo for the first time until I was about ten.
"Ah, we were treated like royalty when we went to the zoo. My children would come with me. We'd be allowed to handle the animals, to go into their cages and everything. I remember being put in with the tigers - the keeper standing with a sweeping brush saying "Ah you'll be grand". Another time, I got a big fright with a snow leopard who leapt pawing at its glass wall when a woman in a leopardskin coat walked by."
"Most embarrassingly was the time I introduced a bird in the Aviary as a fukken cockaburra, the keeper, Mr Stone, having told me that's what it was called and me not copping on. That didn't go out on air, I can tell you."
The UCD kidnapping:
"Yes, Bosco was kidnapped from UCD. I was out there having finished a show and was loading the gear into the van afterwards. There's a lot of stuff in putting the shows together. I had just put the suitcase with Bosco down and it was whipped. They took the Bosco puppet and dumped the suitcase in the lake. That stuff was unfortunately ruined. I rang the police. The kidnappers brought Bosco on holidays to San Francisco, sent a photo to the Star newspaper.
It was big news at the time. We had reporters on the doorstep and Emily, only a young girl, dealing with them all. Because Bosco was gone, I was out of work, but there was rumours that I'd set the whole thing up! Coronation Street was running the Reg Holsworth gnome storyline at the same time and I think that might have been the inspiration. Anyway, they sent Bosco, fairly unharmed back to the Star offices.
Zig and Zag:
"Yes, I've heard the rumour and no, it's not true. Any professional puppeteer takes very good care of their puppets - after all, this is your livelihood. The guys behind Zig and Zag know this and would simply have more respect. So no, Zag was not throwing the Bosco puppet around."
Gift Grub and Dustin:
"Yes, that is Bosco with Bertie on Gift Grub. Quite simply Mario Rosenstock got in touch and asked me to do it. He also has appeared with Dustin - himself and the Turkey have a fraught but funny relationship, and they seem to like working together."
Growing up with Bosco:
"We were annihilated," says Emily. "We went to school in Cabinteely and my brother and me got it all the time. Don Conroy's son was in the same school and got hassle as well. I guess it just comes with the territory. Ronan used to be called Bosco. He dyed his hair black and they started calling him Sooty. There was no escape.
But we got to do loads of cool things, to hang around RTÉ, to see the shows being made and to meet loads of people. So the good far outweighed the bad."
"Well, he never really went away, you know." Paula admonishes me, "Just off the TV screens. Bosco had a record that beat U2 in the charts in 1983, you know. The first Bosco DVD came out around 3 years ago and has gone seven times platinum. We did an AIDS benefit cabaret in the Tivoli with Lily Savage and Phil Coulter, which was great fun. We did Electric Picnic in 2005 and the crowd reaction was amazing. All they wanted were to hear the old songs and phrases and sing along. Vodafone ran a Bring Bosco Back campaign a couple of years ago. He's been part of the seasons I did in the Gaiety and comes on tour. But it's more about entertaining children these days."
Paula runs The Paula Lambert Puppet Theatre, now widely recognised as the Premier Touring Puppet Theatre Company in Ireland. She presents a choice of four productions on tour: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel and Sleeping Beauty. Bosco travels with the show too, making the odd cameo appearance.
"Children now don't know that Bosco was on the telly, they don't know about the magic door or Seamus Spud or the plonksters or any of that. But they react to him almost exactly the same. We do shows in St Marks in Tallaght, a school with 400 junior infants. You'd imagine they'd be a tough audience but they love him."
"At one birthday party I put Bosco's legs and feet over the side of the box and one child shouted "Now mummy, I told you he was real!" At a school in Killiney where we were doing a show for GOAL, the principal made all the children sit and be quiet as they waited for Bosco to come back. "Don't let me down, children," she said to them when one little boy put up his hand and said "But miss, Bosco needs us to shout." Every reaction is magical and makes it worth it."
"I have a lot of puppets," says Paula, "but Bosco is my favourite. He's been with me now for almost 30 years. He is one of the family." "He even" Emily confides, "has his own little bed with covers and a hot water bottle."
"I suppose it's in the blood", says Paula when I ask her why she keeps doing it. "You can lose your inhibitions behind the puppets, no one can see you. I enjoy it. I consider myself very lucky to have a job that I love. So many people don't. I get to hear children laughing, singing and clapping. There's nothing glamorous about it, it's hard work. There's a lot of travelling, set-up and carrying gear, but that's part and parcel of what I do. I reckon Bosco goes to bed at night a very happy little boy altogether."
I wish there was a more apt word to describe her, but Paula herself is a lovely woman - genuinely warm, funny and easy to be around. Though shyer than I expected (hence no photos), her eyes positively glow when talking about Bosco, about the children's reactions and with the memories of the show and her experiences.
She seems a bit surprised by the reaction she still gets from adults - she'd been interviewed on i105-107 that morning, but takes it all in her stride. She's fiercely protective of Bosco - won't let a bad word be said, but has a great sense of humour that kept Niamh and me in stitches over the hour or so we had with them.
Emily is of course the person behind EmilyTully.com, a new Public Relations and online communications service for smaller budgets and start ups. You can find her blog here. There's also rumour that Bosco may be getting his own offical website soon...
A huge thanks to Paula and Emily for taking the time to indulge this big child. Of course I haven't met Bosco himself yet, but that's no reason not to leave you with this. It certainly brought back some memories for me.
"Time to go, goodbye, goodbye, put everything back in its box,
See you soon, goodbye goodbye,
And remember now, you're the tops!"