• Puppeteer's Lazytown life

    Written by Kenan
    Manchester Evening News. May 18, 2009

    When Julie Westwood isnít pottering in her garden she transforms into a figure well-known to children all over the world.

    Julie plays Bessie Busybody in the hit international childrenís TV series LazyTown Ė a bustling do-gooder whose voice and life-size puppet are immediately identifiable. Identifiable, that is, to children "and anyone with young children," she explains in between sorting out her Bolton garden. Julie, in her 50s, has to take advantage of her time at home because she spends a large part of each year in Iceland, where LazyTown is filmed.

    The series features an international cast and has become a cult hit with youngsters and their parents due to its healthy eating and positive lifestyle message among the music, action, comedy and fun. It has even spawned a live tour show which proved very popular at The Lowry last year and is back at the Salford Quays theatre next month. The programme combines computer-generated images with puppets and live characters.

    Bessie Busybody Ė great friend of Mayor Meanswell in the colourful make-believe town, rather nosy and a bit of a fashionista Ė is one of the near-lifesize puppets. Julie plays her with a mid-American drawl but also operates the heavy puppet Ė "and you need really strong arms," she laughs.

    Although her mother was a repertory actress at Bolton Hippodrome, Julie was quite shy. But when she married, went to live in the Lake District and got involved in folk singing she caught the performing bug. Folk singing then led to working with the Comedy Express improvisational group. She learned about puppetry when she auditioned, unsuccessfully, for The Muppets, and the new skill brought a series of job offers which took her into childrenís TV programmes. Her credits include being a talking box as Morag the Cow on Saturday morning programmes and as Tula in the popular series The Hoobs. Alongside this work, Julie has enjoyed a lengthy career as a more conventional actress. She appeared at Boltonís Octagon theatre and in various shows and pantos as well as on TV in Cracker, The Bill, Doctors and City Central. She was even the headmistress of a posh girlsí school in Emmerdale and has appeared in Coronation Street.

    In 2004 she auditioned in London for LazyTown, created by Icelander Magnus Scheving, who takes the role of Sportacus in the series. She got the job, and started a lengthy "commute" which takes her to Reykjavik for months at a time for filming. Voices are later dubbed into other languages and the programme has been spectacularly successful, nominated for a BAFTA Childrenís Award this year. "I love Iceland," Julie enthuses. "The people are great, there is so much space and the land is beautiful. Yes, itís cold but itís not damp like here and there are often clear blue skies. "Itís amazing just sitting in the hot tub with a freezing head and a warm body, watching the Northern Lights in the sky."

    Julie has also been involved in making LazyTown Extra Ė a spin-off series of short productions involving one of the puppet characters, Ziggy. She has been sharing the handling and voicing of Ziggy with another British puppeteer, meeting children all over the country. "The very tiny ones spot the people working Ziggy and are a bit worried, but the slightly older children just talk to Ziggy as if he was real. "Itís lovely to be so involved with children like this."

    Julie has two grown-up sons of her own and her eldest, Tom, now lives in Iceland. "He loves the life there and it has a great music scene," she adds. When sheís not busy with Ziggy, she has been organising the opening of her own art gallery in the centre of Bolton and meeting artists. "The north west has an amazing wealth of artistic talent and Iím still discovering it," she says. The shop is called SíArt, which Julie said came to her one night Ė "síart, innit," she explains, laughing, and suddenly prim Bessie Busybody is a long way away.

    LazyTown Live! The Pirate Adventure is at The Lowry from Wednesday, April 8 to Sunday, April 12
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