‘They wanted my meerkat to sound like a Russian Alan Sugar’ – meet TV’s secret superstars

A prolific career in TV means fame, 右? 実は, the reality is often very different. Many great performances are delivered anonymously, either in a recording booth or under a mountain of prosthetics. That can lead to a strange sort of celebrity status: rubbing shoulders with screen legends on the red carpet one minute, shopping in Tesco without so much as a selfie request the next. So who are these unrecognisable TV icons? How do they bring their much-loved characters to life? And do they long for screaming fans?

Doug Jones: plays Captain Saru, a Kelpien, in Star Trek: Discovery

When you say yes to playing something that doesn’t look human, you’re saying yes to the entire process. I don’t get to shout: “Get this off me! It’s so hot and sticky.” I need the mindset of a performer, but also the endurance of an athlete, one who can take five or six hours of makeup application, then get through a long day of shooting.

Because of all the parts I’ve played, I often end up skipping the conventional casting process. People in creature effects just say: “It’s a tall skinny alien – we need Doug Jones.” I was playing the amphibian in the Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water いつ Star Trek: Discovery approached me. I was actually thinking “I’m not sure how much more rubber and glue I want in my life,” but there was no way I could turn it down. For Saru, I wear a four-piece prosthetic over my head that comes down past my collarbones, with gloves to change my hands. It’s all been moulded to my shape and pre-painted so getting it all glued on is only a two-hour process. I wear a Starfleet uniform like everybody else, but I do have special hoofed boots that add five inches to my height. That makes me about 6ft 8ins!

I just have to look in a mirror to know I’m not a romantic lead. にとって 35 年, my career has been about being either funny or scary. In my 20s, I was seeking fame. I would have loved to be on billboards and magazine covers, but I’ve grown to enjoy working under the radar. It’s nice to be able to go to a coffee shop with a friend and nobody knows who I am. But then I can go to a red carpet event where they announce who you are and you can act like a celebrity, before going back to anonymity.

Kate Harbour: voices Wendy and Dizzy in Bob the Builder

Bob the Builder wasn’t just a show to us. We believed in the characters and their message of reduce, reuse, recycle. Bob was selling recycling years before it was cool! Wendy, his business partner and love interest, was one of the first strong female characters in kids’ TV. It’s nice to know you’ve played a vital part in getting that message to so many people.

We knew we had something exciting, but no one had any idea how massive it was going to be. We even got the 2000 Christmas No 1 with Can We Fix It? – knocking Westlife off the top of the charts. But the biggest pinch-yourself moment came when we recorded an album at Abbey Road. It was out of this world to be invited to such an iconic place for a show that, それに直面しよう, is about a builder banging nails in, a cement-mixer that talks, and a cat that goes “Miaow”.

I was at a gathering recently with a group of mums from the playground and they were talking about the vital work they do as teachers, nurses and social workers. I had a major wobble. I just thought: “What’s the point of me?” Weirdly, shortly after, I got this lovely fan letter that said: “Your little characters bring me so much joy.” And I thought: “That’s my purpose then? That can’t be half bad.”

John Simmit: plays Dipsy in Teletubbies

I was a relatively experienced standup when I auditioned for Teletubbies. It was called Teleteddies back then and hadn’t even been commissioned. I was the only black person there and the oldest, あまりにも. So I stood out, which is a good thing. I was the first to be cast and I remember getting the train to the studio to try on this prototype suit innard that’s best described as one of those joke sumo-wrestler outfits. It weighed three stone, had limited air and no peripheral vision. It was like being stuck inside a letterbox. The whole thing felt surreal.

Rehearsals began at the end of 1995. That’s when I met the other three teletubbies: Pui Fan Lee, an actor; Dave Thompson, a standup; Nikky Smedley, a dancer. We were given our character names, but we were encouraged to “bring ourselves” to the roles. Pui Fan has Chinese heritage and spoke in Cantonese on the show. I brought reggae to the part with things like Dipsy saying “Papa come papa come to Po,” which is ripped straight from a classic reggae track called The Whip. And I’d slip in Jamaican dance moves, a bogle here and a tatty there.

If you look at Dipsy’s face it was actually darker – nothing on the show was accidental. We filmed for six years before finishing in 2002. Five years later, the production company invited us out to dinner and said: “Would you like to go to America?” I thought: “How many gigs will pay me to spend a week in New York?” It was an amazing experience. We got the keys to the city: we went on the morning shows in New York and took pictures in costume outside the Statue of Liberty.

The show made a huge impact. People still talk about it. If I was hit by a bus, I know Teletubbies would be in the first line of my obituary. But being attached to such a phenomenon is no bad thing.

Simon Greenall: voices the meerkats in the Compare the Market adverts

I didn’t speak until I was about six. Not a word. But when I started to speak, I could do different voices and accents. My dad was a garageman and was very good at engine noises, so it’s an inherited skill. I didn’t actually start acting until my late 20s, でも, and was in my 50s when I began voicing the meerkats.

In the beginning, they wanted Aleksandr to be threatening, a tough-guy businessman like a Russian Alan Sugar, telling people: “Don’t go to this site, go to that site.” But I thought: "上手, he’s an animal, he’s little and funny.” I took the pitch right up, but played it deadly serious and the effect is quite charming. That squeak he does at the end – I put that in for kids.

It’s a strange career, voice acting, but voices don’t know how lucky they are! It’s good fun, well paid and you can become very good at it very quickly. We’re like computers: you just feed in an idea like “a meerkat talking Russian” and we fire out a voice that fits.

My fanbase is made up of different age groups now. There’s the meerkats, もちろん, but there’s the Octonauts, あまりにも. I play Captain Barnacles, the brave polar bear leader of these little creatures who go underwater. That show is educational and environmental. It’s ultimately about kindness and citizenship.

Lewis MacLeod: voices Postman Pat and, on Spitting Image, チャールズ皇太子, Matt Hancock and more

As well as Postman Pat, I play two other characters: Alf the farmer and Ben Taylor, who runs the delivery office. I also sing the theme tune, which I’m chuffed about. I got to meet Prince Charles and he said: “So you’re Postman Pat? What does he sound like?” I replied: “Hello, Mrs Goggins!」

I’ve always been obsessed with audio and it’s got me on some huge projects. Voicing the vicious podracer Sebulba in The Phantom Menace was amazing. As a kid, I would build Star Wars sets out of Coke bottles and papier-mache. And there I was on set taking notes from George Lucas.

As I got into satirical comedy on shows like Spitting Image, I found myself having to master politicians, from Alex Salmond to Nigel Farage. David Cameron was very difficult and I just couldn’t get Trump – until I saw an interview where he noticeably softened his voice. My early impersonation was oddly reminiscent of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Jon Briggs: best known for narrating The Weakest Link and voicing British Siri

When I was asked to be the voice of a BBC Two daytime quiz show, my initial reaction was: “Oh God, another nail in the coffin of my career.” I had no idea it would turn into this behemoth that paved the way for other quiz shows. The biggest one is probably Pointless. They’ve ridden on our coat-tails ever since.

We started in 2000. One of the reasons it was successful was that it was the only thing on during the Olympics that wasn’t sport. People who can’t stand sport were desperate for something else to watch. I did all 13 年. That’s 1,875 episodes. There were only two I didn’t do: a Eurovision special where they got Terry Wogan, and an Apprentice special which I’ve never understood to this day.

I have the performer gene. I like being on stage and I’m happy being the centre of attention, but I soon realised I was nowhere near good enough to be an actor. 最終的には, I went into radio because I absolutely loved it. My A-level grades were crap because I spent every waking moment when I wasn’t in school down at the local radio station. If you told me that I’d be making money from my voice 40 数年後, I would have said you were barmy.

Peter Dickson: voice of The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent

I have never wanted fame, fortune and recognition. I still don’t. I’ve been close to many well-known stars and witnessed how fame can destroy people. I’ve never wanted that. A lot of people want to be famous without actually having any skills: fame is the end product they desire. I’ve never understood that. I have no regrets about working on The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent: they’re entertainment shows and genuinely give people an opportunity to showcase their talent. It’s what goes on afterwards that can be the problem.

Any career in entertainment is a rollercoaster. Look at Bruce Forsyth, who I worked with for many years on The Price Is Right. There was a period after The Generation Game where he couldn’t get booked for anything. He was largely forgotten until being rediscovered by a new generation. I’ve done voice work on everything from lifts and bin lorries to cinema booking systems, which is probably why people recognise my voice all the time but never know where from! It’s been 43 years and I’ve loved every second.