A couple of weeks ago a young ventriloquist from Wimbledon competed in the finals of ‘America’s Got Talent’ - the most popular TV talent show in the world - and won. His name is Paul Zerdin and he picked up $1 million in prize money and a contract at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.
Paul took his first step towards stardom with the help of two producers who had once worked on the children’s programme ‘Magpie” made by Thames TV in Teddington. One of them, Sam Hanson, had even helped create the now legendary characters Zippy and George for “Rainbow.”
In 1993 the two producers were commissioned by GMTV and Disney to create a new early morning children’s TV show. They first developed a format and a programme title - ‘Rise and Shine’ - and then set about finding presenters with the confidence to handle what was to be a long and ‘as-live’ programme. The first person chosen was a singer and aspiring TV host Kate Weston, a bright and articulate young woman from the West Country with a ‘sensible’ approach to life. She would set a reassuring role-model for the young viewers but she needed a foil, someone that the children could relate to and she could bounce off. After trolling through the usual suspects - ‘zany’ 20 year olds clad in ‘wacky’ dungarees and pretending to be 10 - the two producers drew a blank. Then a VHS tape arrived.
Shot in what looked like a back bedroom the tape introduced a 16 year old ventriloquist, Paul Zerdin, and his homemade puppet Gus. At the time Paul may not have been world’s most polished vent but he was funny and better still, he had a convincing relationship with Gus. They argued with each other like two brothers and when placed against Kate, an older and level-headed ‘sister’ there was clear dramatic tension. We had a team. The only problem was Gus. He looked too much like a Muppet…
bw. “My first puppet was Gus… Then you said you wanted a puppet less muppety and I went away and built one myself from blocks of foam and my mum and dad’s electric carving knife and some towelling from Elys in Wimbledon. You all agreed you liked him so we decided to get a pro puppet builder to build 2 more…”
PAUL ZERDIN - September 2015
The new dummy needed a new name
so ‘Gus’ was replaced by ‘Sam’ who made his first TV appearance on 2nd January 1993. ‘Rise and Shine’ ran for two years, Sam’s character developing with each new script cheeky but loving, curious and impulsive - just like the young viewers at home. In 1995 the programme ended and Kate and Paul moved on - Kate to present TV programmes on subjects as diverse as Antiques, Drag Racing, and Computer Games. Today she is a leading light on Wave 105 FM, the largest regional radio station in the UK and is co-director of a performing arts academy for young people. And Paul?
In 1996, one year after the demise of ‘Rise and Shine’, Paul was the first outright winner by over 100,000 votes of LWT’s ‘The Big Big Talent Show’, hosted by Jonathan Ross. Encouraged by his success Paul went on appear on the ‘Prince’s Gala Trust Show’, ‘The Royal Variety Performance’, ‘Tonight at the London Palladium’ and the ‘Edinburgh Festival’. He even headlined at the Bear Cat Comedy Club at the Turk’s Head where it became clear that Sam, once the pick of the pre-schoolers, was growing up… “Sam is about to become a teenager”, said Paul, “and he has a thing for the ladies. He knows naughty words too.” He was also beginning to attract the attention of the press…
“Yes, ventriloquists can be funny too. Zerdin’s puppets are sharp - tongued, malicious little b–tards. Avoid the front row, especially if you’re ugly”
“If you think the words ‘brilliant’ and ‘ventriloquist’ have no place in the same sentence, go and see Paul Zerdin for some brutal re-education”
Paul Zerdin and his ginger nut sidekick Sam didn’t so much steal the show as pull off the Light Entertainment equivalent of the Brink’s - Mat raid” THE SUN
Paul did think of trying for “Britain’s Got Talent” but eventually decided to try his luck in America on its U.S. cousin…
“I never thought it would be like this. I just thought I’d nip over to America, have a go at this talent show, and if it didn’t work out then I could come home back to the UK and no one would be any the wiser.”
And so Paul took part in ‘America’s Got Talent’ with Sam. In the quarter finals he walked off stage leaving Sam the puppet to get on with it by himself, so Sam did!
In the semi finals he left Sam at home and went on stage alone and unaccompanied.
And for the Finals he brought on all his puppets - Albert the grandfather, Baby and the irrepressible Sam. They won - just as two former TV producers, one living in Hampton and the other in St Margarets expected. Some people have success thrust upon them. Others go out and win it… and some carve it from a block of foam with their Mum’s electric carving knife. Go Sam!
Also working on ‘Rise and Shine’ 22 years ago was an 18 year old runner and prop maker from Hampton called Tabitha Hanson-Obtulowicz. By some strange synchronicity Tabitha is now one of the producers on “America’s Got Talent”.
– from Martyn Day